Many Americans have never been to Mexico. In fact, many Americans have never even been out of the country. But, I won’t get into that in this piece. Instead I’d like to just talk about my minor experiences in Mexico. I say minor, because I never lived there and of course living in a place helps one to understand the place better than just a few visits. But, the point is that travel always opens your eyes.
More than twenty years ago I had the crazy notion that I would travel from Texas to California to visit a friend whom had moved there. I decided that I’d simply drive the 22 hours from College Station, TX to San Diego, CA over my spring break from graduate school. I loaded up my 1966 Ford Mustang with a cooler, some snacks and a week’s worth of clothes and took off on the highway. I pointed my car west and started to drive.
It took me nearly eight hours before I actually found a freeway, instead of the Texas Farm to Market roads that litter the state. The Farm to Market roads aren’t so bad, as long as you are certain to slow down below the speed limit when they pass through a small town. The city law enforcement likes to bust out-of-towners for a sure source of revenue. Out-of-towners aren’t likely to argue a ticket, they’d just as soon pay the ticket and be out of town as quickly as possible. However, once I was on the Interstate there was no looking back, “California here I come.”
It wasn’t my first trip to California, and my friend wanted to show me a good time. So, after driving 22 hours, without out any time out for sleep I found my self in the back seat of someone’s car with a load of kids heading for Tijuana. We drove to the boarder, parked the car and walked across the boarder. We walked past the little kids selling Chicklets on the street. We walked past the vendors and panhandlers and we found the taxi stand. My host had been here before, and they knew exactly where they wanted to go. We piled into the taxi and I soon found myself, in a groggy state entering a Mexican Bar by the name of “el Tunnel.” Or, the English translation “The Tunnel.” The gimmick was that everyone needed to walk over a suspension bridge through a dark tunnel to get into the bar, hence the name.
One might wonder why these college students wanted to go to a foreign country just to go to a bar. After all, my friend and I were over 21 by that time, although I don’t know the ages of my other hosts. Many college kids from San Diego had flocked to Tijuana to go drinking, because of the lower drinking age. Of course this was twenty years ago, so I don’t know what the laws are today. But, besides the drinking age issue, there were certainly many cultural reasons to go to Tijuana, or Mexico in general. However, Tijuana might not be the best place to witness Mexican culture.
In fact border towns are based on the tourist industry. The people who run the businesses in the border towns will concentrate on what they can “sell” to tourists. And, when the people come across the border to buy the things that they can’t get in the United States, then that is what you are most likely to find in the border town. Currently seniors go across the border to get prescription drugs that happen to be much cheaper than those sold in the United States. Law enforcement is present, but they certainly look the other way if it is in their interest to do so. For example, it might be easier to purchase illicit drugs, or even automatic weapons if that is what you are looking for. And, for this reason it might be a tad bit easier to get yourself into trouble in a border town as well.
But Mexico isn’t just a collection of border towns. Mexico certainly has its tourist spots, but it also has its charm and culture. A few years after this visit to Mexico I had taken a series of trips Leon, Mexico. This huge city of more than a million people, is dead center in the middle of Mexico. Its major industry is not tourism, but leather among other things. My reason for visiting this city in the middle of Mexico was a scientific collaboration with a group of physicists from the Universidad de Guanajuato.
Leon, Mexico has an airport and at the time they had fights from Houston in and out of Leon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you wanted to come or go on another day you would be required to create another itinerary. Sometimes we could fly into Mexico City and drive up to Leon. On other trips we could fly into Guadalajara and drive down to Leon. I certainly preferred to fly into Guadalajara and drive down, because there was much less traffic than driving out of Mexico City, even though the trip was about the same length of time. And, driving around the countryside offered an interesting opportunity to stop at places out in the middle of nowhere and see how the people are trying to earn a living, or just trying to survive.
The flavor of Mexico comes through in its contrast to what you would expect to see in America. For example, on my first flight into Leon I flew from Houston to Monterrey Mexico and then from Monterrey to Leon. Of course when we landed in Monterrey some passengers got off the plane and others bordered. I noticed as they were loading and unloading the cargo that four crates of roosters were being loaded onto the plane. The crates were large barred crates with plenty of room for these roosters to walk around. I saw the guy pick up his roosters when we got to Leon and wheel them out to the taxi stand. I thought this was a bit unexpected, but I promptly forgot about it. We had flown in on a Thursday for the long weekend, and we would return the following Tuesday. The interesting thing was that the same guy was back on Tuesday for the return trip. He had his four crates, but only one rooster. I am guessing that he flew into Leon for a weekend of cock fighting and only one of his four roosters had been successful.
On another trip we flew into Guadalajara, rented a car and drove to Leon. This might have been my second trip to Leon. I remembered approximately where I was trying to go, but I had only been driven around the city on my previous trip. This time I was trying to remember landmarks and navigate a relatively unfamiliar city. At one juncture I recognized a landmark and quickly decided to turn at the last moment in the belief that I should need to turn down the street. Unfortunately I quickly realized that I was going the wrong way down a one way street. (I really hate when that happens. I am sure the other drivers on the street don’t like it either.) As quickly as I could I did a U-turn in order to be heading in the correct direction, but it was too late. The flashing lights were the first clue. Of course the police had to tell me what I already knew, I was heading the wrong direction on a one way street. Of course they did this in Spanish and I did my best to apologize. But, I used the opportunity to attempt to ask directions. I asked, “Donde esta Universidad de Guanajuato?”
I didn’t explain before that the Universidad de Guanajuato is a major university in Guanajuato, a town about 20 miles from Leon. But, being such a large university they also had groups and institutes through out the Mexican state of Guanajuato, the state in which Leon is located. There was an institute of physics and an institute of psychology that shared a building in central Leon, and there was also a major research center that the institute of physics was building at the time just outside of the city of Leon. I was looking for the Physics institute in the center of the city, but the policeman had no idea that this place even existed so he answered with the logical answer, “la Universidad de Guanajuato esta en Guanajuato,” or whatever the proper Spanish equivalent is. I got the point, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough at the time to go into the details. In the end we just got a warning and we decided to find the hotel instead, and then we could use the phone to get directions. This was before the cell phone age.
I told this story, because I remember it whenever I meet someone who doesn’t speak English as well as I would like. I remember when I was on the other side of the language divide trying to communicate. Even the simplest things are difficult to do even if you know a bit of the language. The policeman most likely thought that we knew nothing at all, we weren’t even in the right city. He was probably thinking to himself, “idiot tourists, don’t even speak the language, don’t even know where they are, sheesh,” or whatever the equivalent Spanish is.
The area of central Mexico is so nice. You could believe that you were plucked down in the middle of Europe or even some American city, if you didn’t try to read the Spanish signs. The climate every time that I have been there was virtually perfect, dry room temperature during the daytime, slightly cooler at night. The people are nice as well. Everyone I met was friendly. I met people from the physics and psychology institutes and also people who were not from the institutes. The entire atmosphere differed greatly from the tourist areas of Mexico’s borders, or beaches.
We also went to visit other towns and cities in the area. We went to the city of Guanajuato, which is a very unusual city built in a crater. I assume the volcano is dormant, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were to come to life one day causing all of the inhabitants to evacuate the very beautiful and unusual city. And, this city also has a very unusual “Museum of the dead.” This “museum” has a collection of dead bodies that have been petrified in some nearby cemetery. The bodies are not extremely old, there clothing seems to be from the 1800s, although I could certainly be wrong. When I first visited the “museum” the bodies were propped up against the walls with a velvet rope separating them from the viewers. The last time I visited it the bodies were contained in Plexiglas boxes reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty. The entire experience is so surreal and so contrary to American culture that on every visit I had to take other Americans to experience this weird “museum.”
Many Americans who have never been to Mexico, or maybe have only been to the tourist areas of Mexico have created a vision of Mexico in their minds. This vision of this nation is not always flattering to the country, and they lead to preconceived ideas. Some preconceived ideas are based on some reality, such as the violence or illegal activity in the border towns. But these views are not the reality in all of Mexico. But, so many people are still motivated to cross the border into the United States. Does that mean that these people are attracted to the American lifestyle, or are they just attracted to American jobs?
Even with Mexico being a much better place than what many Americans imagine, there are still many poor jobless Mexicans. Many of these Mexicans come from groups that are considered lower class than the rest of Mexico. These people might be from the large native population, or just the lower class poor, or even the rural areas of the country. The point is that not every Mexican finds themselves wanted to move to America to make money harvesting crops or working as a nanny. Many Mexicans are happy living and working where they work. The problem is that number of poor and unemployed in Mexico seek to make a living and they can’t find work in Mexico. And, if we don’t want these people to do our menial labor, then the obvious solution is to help Mexico create jobs in Mexico. The methodology is irrelevant for this discussion, but since we have this perceived problem, the problem with the poor in Mexico is our problem as well, because it effects us.
Don't forget what Stephen Colbert said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."
Cross Posted @ Bring It On