Mexico and the World
Vol. 10, No 2 (Spring 2005)
http://profmex.org/mexicoandtheworld/volume10/2spring05/Tributo a James Wilkie.html
The Many Roles of James Wilkie in Mexico
Tribute, María Isabel Sharaton, Mexico City, April 6, 2005
Alot has been said today about the important contributions of Jim and Edie Wilkie to the oral history of Mexico. In reference to their fourth volume of a series of interviews with leading figures from the era known as the Mexican Revolution, speakers have rightly emphasized the dedication—across four decades—of these two students of contemporary Mexican history.
Listening to the comments by panelists made me proud, both of the Wilkies and of their achievement of having scaled a very high intellectual trade barrier in Mexico that, with few exceptions, excludes foreigners. I experienced what I can only describe as a pride in having the same U.S. origin and nationality as Jim. It’s not an experience that I can recall having had in Mexico before today.
My professional involvement with Mexico goes back to the mid-sixties when, as a graduate student, I studied the archival record of the U.S. military occupation of Mexico City in 1847-48. Since then I have personally met only a few other foreigners besides Jim and Edie who have passed this difficult test of intellectual relevance in Mexico: John Tate Lanning, Stanley Ross, Woodrow Borah, Stanley Ross, Jonathan Brown—all of these historians. Archeologists Matthew Wallrath, Swiss, and Hugh Harleston, Jr., an American, also passed this test in their respective fields of specialization (and speculation, in Hugh’s case). Clint Smith, an ex-diplomat, belongs in a category of his own, as does Clark Reynolds, an economist. Although I have not met Fredrick Katz and Jacques Soustelle their publications lead me to believe that they have passed this test.
But despite having known Professor Wilkie professionally for some fifteen years, only in the past month have I begun to know him as an historian. Recently we have gone together to the Pemex historical archives at the ex-Refineria de Azcapotzalco and the periodicals room of the Biblioteca Central at the Pemex headquarters on Marina Nacional. We have looked at microfilm collections and a unique collection of periodical clippings in search of insights about the corporate strategy of oil companies in the months that led up to their expropriation on March 18, 1938. In the process, we have shared the emotion—perhaps unique to the several time-series disciplines (as they might be called) that include not only history but astronomy, archeology, paleontology and geology—of intellectual discovery using what historians call “primary sources.”
Prior to these recent “adventures,” as Edmundo Jacobo aptly characterized professional activities for which Jim has provided leadership, my time with Jim has been in activities in two areas: academic institution-building in Mexico and the U.S. and public policy analysis.
In the years in the late 80s and early 90s, in which I was actively involved in the academic consortium known as PROFMEX, I participated in the planning of three or four academic conferences on public policy issues in Mexico. I recall vividly the first planning meeting that I attended, at the ex-Hacienda de Cocoyoc, in 1987. Academic relations between the two countries were so stiff that the presence of the diplomats from the Mexican Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department were needed to watch over binational protocol.
Over the years, the perpetually guayabera-clad Wilkie has brought about a relaxation of tensions in U.S.-Mexico academic relations, so the presence of diplomats is only the distant memory of a few, such as ANUIES leader Juan Casillas García de León,
There was another, unadvertised function of PROFMEX: the breaking down of the high intellectual barriers between Mexican “institutions of higher education” (to borrow from the language of ANUIES). Thanks to Jim’s drive and spirit--ecumenical and entrepreneurial in equal parts—Mexican scholars in the social sciences came to have new venues and opportunities for collaboration. The ancient tensions—between UNAM, COLMEX and UAM, for example—began to relax in response to the cheerful insistence of Dr. Wilkie.
One secret of Jim’s magic in this area was to choose venues for planning meetings and conferences that many Mexican scholars had never visited: two cases in point stand out, a conference in San Cristobal in 1990, and a planning meeting in Divisadero, on the Chihuahua-Topolobampo railroad line that passes by Copper Canyon. (A hike into the canyon by PROFMEX and ANUIES staffers was marred only by the group’s getting lost on the way up and with very little water.)
My own career has been influenced by Dr. Wilkie in several ways. In the late 70’s and early ‘80s I began a new search for relevance (and income) in Mexico as a management consultant—never having had so much as one business or economics course under my belt. One of my first assignments was from Grupo Industrial Alfa who, in 1979, was worried that President Lopez Portillo would enter into GATT (which he didn’t). Alfa wanted information about a possible joint venture in Mexico with a leading U.S. semiconductor company. I lived at that time in the San Francisco Bay Area, and, though a thread of the thinnest probability, was hired with a “real” management consultant, John D. Schick, formerly of Arthur D. Little, to advise Alfa. Our focus was on business options, not on public policy issues.
A second early management consulting assignment was with ARCO, whose management in 1979 had cancelled its crude oil supply contract with Pemex months prior to the fall of the Shah of Iran—and the suspension of 200,000 b/d to its refinery system. An ARCO manager called me—we had met at a management conference sponsored by the American Management Association—and asked if I could help. What I learned from that assignment was that the oil industry is interested in numbers—quantitative data—and that I was good at providing the kind of information that was wanted at the time. I say “good,” but it was not really good enough. ARCO wanted its contract renewed, but PEMEX people said there was no crude oil available. What everyone suspected—but no one said aloud—is that someone, somehow, needed to be paid. I cannot say that I learned if there was oil available or not. Again, the focus was on business issues, with layers of politics and culture on top.
Professor Wilkie’s approach to Mexico was that of a public policy entrepreneur. I had never met anyone with this intellectual worldview before, and it probably took me a while to fully register what I was learning. Jim asked questions like the following: How can the U.S.-Mexico relationship be made more efficient? Can bilateral conventions be devised to allow for reciprocal tax treatments for contributions to non-profit organizations? Can Mexican universities from the public and private sectors come together on common research projects? Can the original vision of PROMEX as a U.S.-based organization of border-studies programs be internationalized?
Today, my contribution to academic and business discussions in Mexico fundamentally is in relation to public policy questions involving energy. By way of example, this Friday I am scheduled to fly to Monterrey to give a half-day seminar to the Mexican press on options in natural gas pricing. Where, twenty years ago, I would have been interested in the recent history of Pemex prices and volumes, today I am interested mainly in alternative institutional and policy options that would shape prices and supply. One of the topics that I will comment on in Monterrey is the range of options for pricing the natural gas produced by Pemex. I suppose that this shift in my thinking and professional orientation in large measure is the result of Dr. Wilkie’s influence.
So I too am grateful to Dr. Wilkie’s perseverance, scholarship and drive, but for reasons perhaps quite distinct from those of others in this room. I look forward to getting to know him as an historian in the months and years ahead.