The Mexico portrayed by Carlos Fuentes in his 1985 novel The Old Gringo is that of the early 20th Century, primarily the northern regions bordering the United States – including those territories formerly the possession of Mexico – which was a time of uncharacteristic political stability under the reign of President Porfirio Diaz, but which experienced increasing social instability as the corruption and wealth concentrated in Mexico City left behind enormous economic destitution in areas like Cuidad Juarez and Chihuahua, two of the settings of Fuentes’ novel. That social instability born of frustration with Diaz’s corrupt rule and failure to address the needs of the northern region created the perfect breeding ground for political dissension and rising anti-government militancy. It is into that realm that Fuentes’ “old gringo,” a character based on the real-life Civil War veteran and journalist Ambrose Bierce, wanders in his efforts at ending at his life in a far more colorful fashion than would otherwise have been the case. As Fuentes describes the scene, as seen through the old man’s eyes:
“Rebellion and suppression, plague and famine – the old man knew he was entering the restless lands of Chihuahua and the Rio Grande, leaving behind the refuge of El Paso, founded with a hundred and thirty settlers and seven thousand head of cattle.”
Contrast this with the image Fuentes provides of the U.S. town of El Paso, the level of development of which catches the old man off-guard:
“He walked a few blocks through the border town; he’d imagined it drearier and duller and older than it actually was, and sick, as well, of the Revolution, of the rage from across the river.”
The El Paso of the 1910s was a thriving metropolis compared to everything one could see for thousands of miles south. The United States was progressing through a new century while Mexico remained mired in ancient cultures and conflicts, with the social and economic problems that contribute to revolutionary fervor very much a part of that culture.
Continued anger at the United States’ success in claiming and settling Texas, combined with dissatisfaction directed against a geographically and emotionally distant government in Mexico City, created an environment in which there was no shortage of violence. The culture prevalent in The Old Gringo is one of poverty and neglect against a backdrop of open rebellion. The Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 was fought by the government on one side and the insurgent revolutionary armies of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa on the other side. Villa’s raids across northern Mexico and into the southern United States would become well-known across North America and precipitate armed reactions by the government of the United States in the person of General John “Black Jack” Pershing and his unsuccessful efforts at capturing Villa. The pro-revolution sentiments prevalent across northern Mexico, evident in the support Zapata and Villa enjoyed among the peasantry and, increasingly, among the middle-class, is the atmosphere in which Fuentes’ story takes place.