Note: This entry was written on April 3 and published with a backdate.
I’m writing this blog entry from the back of a bus, staring out the window at Mexico, on a 4.5 hour ride from the city of Guanajuato to Mexico City. The bus is a first class bus, with hardwood floors, individual TVs, two bathrooms, wifi, and lunch. Looking out the window, I see distant mountains, cactus, and dry scrub. Five minutes later I’m seeing large farmed fields. You could have plopped me on this bus and told me I was somewhere in the US and I would believe you. As I listen to a podcast about the construction of border walls, I can’t help but be reflective. But I’m not writing to tell you about my bus.
We arrived in Mexico 8 weeks ago today. We’ve traveled to a few different parts of the country, staying in hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts, and apartments traveling via plane, bus, metro, and Uber. As our time in Mexico comes to a close, I’m struggling to succinctly record my reflections but I want to be able to say something, something meaningful and impactful.
The relationship between Mexico and the United States is undoubtedly complicated. American-owned businesses use lower costing labor, Americans flock to Cancun for the beaches and a low-costing vacation, Mexicans move to the US for new opportunities. When we told people about our trip before we left, we got a lot of comments about how Mexico wasn’t safe – we’d be shot, robbed, taken advantage of, etc. The US news does not paint a pretty picture of the country – all you hear about is corruption and terrible drug cartel violence. The president of the United States has publicly gone on about Mexicans being “bad hombres” and sometimes I feel hesitant to even use the term Mexican because it has come to almost feel derogatory when used in the United States. Certainly there are drug wars and people dying daily and a flow of drugs and people between Mexico and the US. I don’t know if I can find the right words to tell our readers that Mexico is so, so, so much more than this.
I have been wanting to write about what I’ve learned about the history of Mexico while here, but that would take too many blog entries, likely bore all of you, and take a lot more research and learning on my part. My very short version is that the history of Mexico and it’s people is incredibly long and complicated. We talk about Mexico and Mexicans as if they are one people with one national heritage. Mexico is composed of many indigenous groups, some of who have been there for around 4,000 years with very advanced civilizations. It’s not like these group don’t exist anymore or are on reservations. They are modern day Mexicans. The Mayans did not disappear with/before the Spanish – they are still very much alive, eating Mayan food and speaking their own language; same with the Aztecs. In short, a bit similar to America, there are Mexicans of varying heritage, skin color, and language.
In our time here, we only visited 4 states: Mexico, Yucatan, Oaxaca, and Guanajuato (though we may have bused through one or two other states). We have felt safe everywhere we have been (and have even managed to not really get the expected “Montezuma’s Revenge” ). In the United States, Mexicans are sometimes portrayed as poor, lazy, or even less than human (why are our race relations and understandings of each other so bizarre?). How can I tell you about the people we’ve met and their characteristics? First, many people have been very friendly and kind. More than once we had ordinary people approach us when we looked confused in a bus station or when we were trying to figure out how to get into a restaurant to help us navigate and make sure we were taken care of. They weren’t looking for money – they were just good people looking to help other people.
I’ve also been struck by the work ethic and entrepreneurship of people here. There are people everywhere who are trying to get by with what they have and making a business out of it – from making grasshopper figurines out of palm branches and hawking them to families who cook a bunch of food in various pots, load them up on a big cargo bike, and set up shop on busy streets to those coming by. They may not be “registered businesses” but they are doing what they can to try to make ends meet. Some places here are hot and sunny and there are people out working hard in the fields. The last word I would use to describe these people is lazy.
David and I have talked about how Mexicans are an overall cheery and joking bunch. For examples, while most of us sat in a boat in the sand on the beach and a group of men (including David) worked to push the boat into the water, the people on the boat good naturedly taunted them about being strong. At a baseball game, a guy in the stands missed catching a foul ball and got so much shit from all the fans nearby. It’s hard to describe and explain, but there’s a general sense of laidback, good-natured, friendly fun in public and among strangers that we just don’t have at home (likely exacerbated by New England’s personality of keeping to ourselves). This characteristic of the country has made it a fun place to travel.
Several times on our trip, when we told a Mexican that we were loving Mexico they would say “thank you for visiting my country. I’m so happy that you like it!” When was the last time you enthusiastically thanked someone for visiting America?
We done a lot of chatting with our tour guides and taxi drivers, which has been great for practicing our Spanish. To our delight, we have gotten many compliments on our Spanish (which I don’t think is that good, but perhaps better than many Americans). While chatting, I’ve come to see a real fluidity between Mexico and the US, much like I previously felt with the US and Canada. A lot of Americans have been to Canada – right? No big deal. This is also the case with many Mexicans and the US. A lot of people we spoke to have visited, or lived and worked in the US for some amount of time. The big ones are usually New York and California, but we also met people who did construction in Tennessee and raised a family in the Chicago. These conversations also sometimes felt very difficult and emotional (for me at least). We met a kid who was in the US on DACA. He moved there from Mexico when he was 6 and is now 23 – he grew up in the US and to me, is an American (but what is an American? That’s a whole other blog post..). However, he didn’t see a light at the end of the DACA tunnel and left the US to visit his older brother who has been deported 13 years earlier. He can’t go back to the US but doesn’t consider Mexico home..he just plans to travel until he finds somewhere to live. I found myself fighting back tears as we chatted with our Uber driver on the way to the airport as he told us about how his wife and kids were in Chicago but he couldn’t go there. I can’t imagine. I don’t have the answers for the border or immigration issues but do know it is so complicated.
Going back to the general perception in the US that Mexico isn’t safe and Americans shouldn’t /don’t go there: I will tell you right now that there are A LOT of Americans that don’t believe that and are traveling and living all over Mexico. There are large pockets of ex-pats and people traveling on and off the beaten path.
In conclusion, don’t bag an entire country or group of people into one category, and don’t make any assumptions about a place you’ve never been. Know that the news paints a very incomplete picture of a place. Take every opportunity you can to travel – and not just vacation, but to really get to see and understand a place.
This was a very difficult blog entry to write. I am sure the facts are not all correct and have tried to just give some reflections and thoughts on our time here. I apologize for any errors or biased assumptions.