This country would easily win first prize in a competition of the most misunderstood countries in the world. If you opened any US newspaper on any random day in the last 10 years most likely you found a glaring headline about the 10 million illegal immigrants, one or another tropical dis-ease trying to piggyback across the border, and the 80,000 people killed during the real drug war taking place south of the border. Coming from the north into Mexico it’s difficult not to think of the country as a heavily industrialized/militarized front yard to the Promised Land with everyone, including the trucks themselves, trying in vain to cross the border by the millions to reach all that sunny California goodness. Drugs, narco killings, disease ridden illiterate emigrants - a place with those kinds of exports has got to be the front yard to hell, not to the Promised Land. Which explains the horrified faces people made when I told them that I will ride bike through Mexico for a few months. “But it’s so dangerous”! “ Did you get your shots”? “Did you pack your iodine”? “How about that GPS Tracker”?
My personal truth about Mexico: It’s pinche awesome! It has a growing middle class, everybody wants to get more educated and the commerce happening everywhere is astounding. Yes, the income gap is still huge, but the USA better watch out. When the corruption problem is under control, it’s probably on. The Distrito Federal (Mexico City) is a superchingon (super cool) global metropolis and Mazunte in Oaxaca a black hole – plan more days for the Oaxaca coast than you think. And drink more Mescal! We have heard much about the hospitality of Mexico and you will be hard pressed to find a friendlier people. The further south from the border you go, the nicer everything becomes. Even though I would like to, I don’t think I can easily blame that on the USA. It doesn’t just get greener the more south you go, it’s also more developed, cleaner and often with a rich community and civil life thriving around beautiful town centers.
For over 3000 years the central high plateau that contains Mexico City has been the center of empires. One of the first high cultures in the world developed here, and since I am just a little blogger and can sometimes give less of a shit about source validation than the Catholic Church I am just going to say that only the pyramids in Egypt equal Tenochtitlan. Angkor Watt is of course magnificent, but the Khmer were not as focused on scientific advances. An incredibly wealthy and resource-rich society supported the mega projects on which the next three millennia of Mexico were to be built. Including today’s Mexico whose cities are built right on top of the old indigena towns. When the Spaniards were still Moslems (and learning math) the Aztec’s were making perfect celestial calendars predicting planet and star movements thousands of years in advance and into the past. We just don’t understand any of the gorgeous frescos they left us because we haven’t found a convenient dictionary á la Rosetta Stone (the actual rock, not the software).
On some level, gringos understand that there was cultural development here before Cortez and cohorts set hoof and metal clad foot on land in the Caribbean. But most of us probably think that similar to North America the Spaniards were met by hybrid hunter gatherers living a semi-nomadic life with little wealth to be stolen. Instead what he found were several highly developed city states. The fabled Fountain of Youth seemed just around the corner. Since about 400 A.D. these Aztec city states flowered on the ruins of Olmec Tenochtitlan. It would be like the Romans disappearing and the Greeks taking over the place, and then the Spaniards, and so on. Always copying and learning from the culture before.
Apart from thinking that Cortez was a god (proving again that religion is just never good for ya) the Aztecs lacked some crucial inventions and many disease vectors. Lethal disadvantages in global colonial politics. Very quickly the Old World concentrated on parts south of the Rio Grande to achieve worldly and heavenly glory. Spain and Portugal continued the largest genocide in human history in Latin America with a vengeance. Logically, they must have thought that there is more plunder in the grand cities of Central America compared to the roving bands of the North. The thievery of humans, gold and other unique materials (rubber, sugar) was awkwardly justified with a completely fucking ludicrous idea that the savages were actually profiting from all this. Mostly by gaining entrance to heaven, posthumously, you understand. The biggest and best brains in the just about enlightened world left us with marvels such as this one from Voltaire “Latin America is inhabited by lazy and stupid Indians who live side by side with pigs with navels on their backs and bald and cowardly lions.” Want more? Bacon, Hume and Montesquieu declined to recognize the “degraded men” of the new world as human beings. Father Gregorio Garcia managed to proof Semitic blood in the native population in the 17th century. Even for the Jewish diaspora this is quite an accomplishment. Maybe the Holocaust should not have come as a surprise.
So one day the heathen-killing, dis-ease ridden, illiterate white man arrives on the shores of this paradise. Takes your women (in your own house), makes your children his slaves for his death trap mines, sends your sugar to Europe and shows you that your gods suck by killing you if you don’t agree. Unfortunately, that was par for course when superior and inferior powers met during colonial times. 500 years later we witness the results. A nation slowly climbing out of the depths of poverty, crossing themselves every time they walk past a church. Symbols of absolute might built with the riches from the bellies of the Guanajuatos and Zacatecas of the new world. Gilden Cathedrals erected on the backs of enslaved indigenas. The argument that the industrial revolutions of the world, enabling today’s high western standard of living, were financed with the wealth stolen from the Open Veins of Latin America does not seem completely silly.
When a gringo tourist walks through a pleasant Mexican Zocalo today the church on one side of the square is the only edifice remaining from colonial times that is available for public use. If I were a local I’d throw eggs when I see what is left of my country’s heritage and wealth instead of crossing myself. Since the new Latin American (!) pope seems so focused on asking his colleagues in world leadership to create a more egalitarian global economic order maybe he could go to the next meeting in Davos and invest some of the billions that the church stole from Mexico in the last 500 years in education for Mexico’s poorest. So that those 10 million illiterate emigrants have a chance to succeed in their own country instead of having to cross a deadly desert into the pope’s apparently cold capitalist world.
Now let me ask you a question. If a country has had continuous civilizational development for thousands of years, creating marvels of science along the way, what does that make it? That’s right, China. The country that brought you noodles, paper and porcelain. Illustrious company for Mexico, you would think? As countries go, just a tad cooler than the sweetheart up north who gave you The Little Big Boy. And yet, we still stick to our arrogance, like our colonial forefathers, thinking that Central America is a dangerous yet pitiable place. This sentiment is couched in concern now, rather than racial superiority.
After 500 years of slavery, pillage and, finally, Herr Kissinger’s “Real Politik” a strong indigena element remains. In many of the small towns we rode through on our bicycles people present a different appearance than in the next one. Different skin shades, different facial bone structure, taller, shorter, fatter, skinnier, different clothes and different dialects. This genetic and cultural strength after centuries is extraordinary in a western world of mongrelizing mix and match. I for one am happy to be greeted by Mayan and Aztec faces, even though it twists my tongue into knots to call them by name.
Although this painful history has lasting impacts deep into Mexico’s present understanding of itself it seems that the country is moving in a good direction. I am sure to some this sounds like a naïve statement. I’ll defend it by saying I spent four months riding my bicycle through Mexico, meeting locals everywhere we went. Sleeping at the Red Cross, the Fire and Police Stations, Municipal Halls, Municipal Gyms, Restaurants, Hotels, Mescal Makers on roofs of Paleterias (ice cream shop) between the two borders. Countless Capoeiristas in towns all over shared their stories, ideas and thoughts.
Development, democrazy and civil society take time. Many countries in the world did not take these steps easily, gently or quickly. Being neighbor to the world’s single super power is one of the most difficult positions to be in because interests will often conflict. And what then? Pinche Gringos.
So Mexico, please be patient with yourself. Rome was not built in a day. Especially considering your oft brutal history. Austria fought a slow fusion civil war for twenty years between the two World Wars. Cut yourself some slack. The USA’s bloodiest war was its own civil war. Life seems to be, like riding your bicycle, a marathon.
And stop warning my about the dangers to the south of you, for example Guatemala. It makes you sound like a Gringo.