North Americans tend to see Mexico as a land of poverty -- and a land of oil. But there is another side to Mexico where life does improve in gradual, unsensational ways; places where the system actually works. And it has little to do with the country's new-found oil.
Malinalco, an administrative village (the equivalent of a US county seat) located 60 miles southwest of Mexico City, is such a place. I know because I stayed here for much of a summer, as a student on vacation, 18 years ago.
I remember it as a place of poverty, with crumbling adobe houses lying behind stone walls. An isolated town with little in the way of electricity, running water, or paved roads. Visiting it this year I found a new Malinalco.
Today, on its main street, store fronts and houses gleam with white paint. Its 8,000 citizens walk or drive over newly paved streets and roads. Many of the town's homes have electricity and running water.
To put the change in perspective, it's worth looking even further back at some of the turmoil the town has endured.
One of its oldest citizens, Dona Felix de Apango, can remember the outbreak of the Mexican revolution some 70 years ago, a time when one of the famous revolutionaries, Emiliano Zapata, visited Malinalco on a number of occasions.
She recalls having to cook four buckets of corn every day for the Zapatistas, the men of Zapata's revolutionary army, who were stationed in Malinalco. The rich of the town had fled. One of her brothers was a Zapata colonel.
President Venustiano Carranza's troops, fighting on the other side, killed many of the townsmen and took their women away, she remembers. And during the "Cristero" uprising, ex-Zapatistas rallying under the banner of a more just Christian order were left hanging in the trees of Malinalco.
Then came the time of the "caciques," or local political chieftains. The leader in control didn't hesitate to meet resistance with violence. The powerful took the best land for themselves and justice was slow in coming. The undisputed boss, when I first visited Malinalco 18 years ago, was a man named Arnulfo Figueroa, a short former sergeant in the cavalry with a single-minded interest in power.
With the growth of communications and the lifting of Malinalco's isolation, power was now shifted to a great degree to the state capital at Toluca and the village began to see improvements. The old system with its all-powerful local political bosses came to an end.
Now the federal and state governments have built a health center and a secondary school in Malinalco. The state government has also provided the town's many farmers with agricultural extension programs and a supply of fertilizer at low, controlled prices. A small new hospital is being built.
Of course, most of Malinalco's citizens judge these changes in terms of how their own families have been affected. Juana Evarista, 22 years old, speaks first, for example, of the way her family home has changed. It had a roof of thatch and open windows 18 years ago. Today it has a roof of tile and glass in the windows.
She had only four years of primary schooling -- a year longer than most women her age. Today most of Malinalco's girls go on to secondary school, the equivalent of junior high school in the United States. Some even reach the 40 -mile-distant senior high school in the state capital. The old one- room primary school has gone, replaced by a whole complex of buildings.
The 16th-century Roman Catholic church and convent have been renovated. A few years ago, the original wall paintings in the convent were rediscovered. A road now provides access to the Aztec ruins 500 feet above the town. Tourists, many of them West Germans on "unknown Mexico" tours, have begun visiting the town for the first time.
Obviously, the state and federal governments have had a lot to do with Malinalco's improvements. But no single explanation will do. Private individuals and associations have also contributed. Malinalco citizens who have done well in the cities have reinvested in their hometown. The Malinalco Progressive Association, a group of Malinalco natives living in Mexico City, raised funds to build bridges and a wall around the convent. TIt has private land and property but also land and property held in common. It is representative of many rural areas in the variety of its products. Situated at 6,600 feet, its northern- most barrio of San Simon produces wheat and cactus products. At 2,400 feet, southernmost San Andres produces tropical fruits.
But Malinalco is more fortunate than most Mexican villages. For one thing, it belongs to one of this country's wealthiest states, the state of Mexico. For another, it has its own tourist attractions -- a convent with its wall paintings and the newly accessible Aztec ruins -- and Chalma, the site of religious pilgrimages, lies nearby. And since the state of Mexico is more highly developed industrially than most of Mexico's 22 states, more capital is available for improvement.
Malinalco has yet another advantage over nearby towns, where migration to the United States has become a tradition: few of its men have felt obliged to seek work far from home.
But Malinalco is still far from perfect. The improvements are only beginning and there is another side to the picture.
To start with, many of its citizens are underemployed, if not unemployed, and many of its children are undernourished.
As much as anything, malnutrition seems to be due to a lack of health education. But even if the people here all understood the nutritional value of milk, many families wouldn't be able to afford it.
Soya products might be the answer, but again a more effective health education program would be needed.
Health services in the town are more abundant than they once were, but are badly coordinated.
According to the local physician, Noel Sanchez, alcoholism is still a serious problem among adult males.
From interviews with a dozen Malinalco residents, it is obvious that the town needs better drainage, a new marketplace, a public auditorium, more street lighting, more health workers, and more education and coordination in the field of agriculture.
Although it no longer benefits just a few families, corruption is still a serious problem, as it is in much of Mexico. It can take many forms.
In the mid-1970s, for instance, a well-known Mexican leftist writer and critic wrote a flattering profile of the then-state governor. The author was rewarded with a fortress-like residence complete with swimming pool on the edge of Malinalco. He used a state-owned helicopter to survey the construction site.
But when the writer's privileges seemed to include the right to tap the community-constructed drinking water system and drain off a highly disproportionate amount of water, his neighbors rose in protest. Ironically, this was a writer known for his championship of the peasants, the very people who were opposing him. When even the threat of intervention by the state authorities could not melt his neighbors' resistance, the writer had to settle for less water.