Blood streaked the faces of the scores of young men dragging heavy wooden crosses up a hill in Iztapalapa, a suburb of Mexico City, on Good Friday. Looking on at this annual re-enactment of the crucifixion were tearful crowds of blue-veiled “town virgins”—and on a billboard in the background, a giant, nearly-nude model, advertising condoms with a wink. Religiosity and militant secularism have long rubbed along together in Mexico City and in the country as a whole. But the gap in attitudes between the freewheeling capital and deepest Mexico is widening, stoking culture wars of the sort more familiar north of the Rio Grande.
Since 2006 the Federal District, encompassing much of Mexico City, has been governed by a left-of-centre socially liberal mayor, Marcelo Ebrard. In March his officials performed 88 gay marriages, the first in Latin America. Paperwork is in train for the first adoptions by gay couples. Mr Ebrard’s administration has also simplified divorce and allowed the terminally ill to refuse treatment. Most polarising of all, in 2007 it approved a law granting women the right to abort in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy—something previously unheard of in Latin America outside Cuba. More is to come: a bill to legalise prostitution is pencilled in for next year, and discussions are under way to extend drinking hours to 5am.
As Mexico City liberalises, much of the rest of the country is moving in the opposite direction. Since the 2007 abortion reform, more than half of the country’s 31 other states have preventively amended their constitutions to define life as beginning at conception. Last year four states went further, introducing laws that double the penalty for abortion if it is found that the woman is of “ill repute”. Prison sentences can be lengthy: some states treat abortion as murder. And even when abortion is permitted, such as in cases of rape, the cumbersome authorisation required often makes it impossible.
Some wonder if a similar backlash may be looming with respect to gay rights. The Supreme Court, which gave the green light to Mexico City’s abortion law, is mulling whether its gay weddings infringe the constitution. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, hopes that the court will issue a ruling broad enough to establish a constitutional right for gay couples to marry across the country.
Paradoxically, one reason for the rude health of social conservatism is the spread of political liberalism. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ran Mexico for seven decades until 1990, persecuted the church with varying vigour and imposed secularism. Divorce was notoriously free and easy (Marilyn Monroe was one satisfied customer). It is an irony that “the dismantling of an authoritarian regime has led to the emergence of intolerance” regarding homosexuality, reproductive rights and religious minorities, notes Soledad Loaeza, a political scientist at the Colegio de México, a graduate school.
Conservatives are limbering up for a battle to lift the longstanding ban on religious education in public schools. But the tide may yet turn again. Mexico is not immune from the paedophilia scandals that are enveloping the Catholic church. Marcial Maciel, a Mexican priest who founded the Legionaries of Christ, an ultra-conservative Catholic movement, was a serial abuser. The conservative National Action Party, which has held the presidency since 2000, is flagging in the opinion polls, and its younger members are restless. Some state institutions are loosening up: the National Commission for Human Rights, an official body, which opposed Mexico City’s abortion law, has a new director and is not against gay marriage.
Migration is helping to spread liberal attitudes. North of the border Hispanic voters are often seen as conservatives. But Mexican politics is being influenced by migrants returning from the United States with liberal ideas they have picked up there. Less cheerily, the travails of migration all too often pose a challenge to the traditional family. Mexican wedding services have been known to include prayers for the couple to stay together should one of them move to the United States.