BY FREED REED
Now that some criminally ignorant yankees, full of exceptionalist hubris, are again floating the notion of invading Mexico, understanding our complex neighbor to the South becomes a necessity for those who retain their sanity.
The Plan Revealed
"It helps to have some freaking idea of who you are dealing with, especially if they are Latin Americans."--Sun Tzu
It is odd that Americans know less of the world to the south of them, with which they share a border, than they do of Europe, with which they don't, though they know very little of Europe either. For a country still of large importance in the world, the United States lives in peculiar cultural isolation. Americans are inward-looking and profoundly local, traveling little, lacking curiosity about other countries, and virtually never learning languages. Their sense of superiority to all them fern places leaves them little reason to look around. What could there possibly be to learn? And so their ideas of Mexico, of Latin America in general, go beyond the bliss said to be concomitant to ignorance and plunge headlong into the absurd.
For them Mexico is a land of lazy and shiftless people, dirty, disease-ridden, keeping burros in their living rooms, probably criminal, fit only to be maids and gardeners and prostitutes and, well, just not civilized. All of Latin America is indistinguishable from Mexico.
One looks at this vast ignorance in stupefaction.
|Certain differences separate the Protestant, North European civilization of the United States from the Catholic, Southern European societies of Latin America. It takes a trained eye to notice them, though.|
Actually a sprawling complex civilization lies below the Rio Bravo, a world unknown to Yanquis, stretching from Nuevo Laredo to Tierra del Fuego. The countries differ sharply—Mexico is not Argentina is not Bolivia, or even close—but they are all Latin. Being Latin implies things many of which make gringos uneasy: The music is so…you know, strident or sassy, and sometimes has horns in it, and just doesn’t sound like Top Forty. The food has too much spice, and so does the whole damned civilization. The churches are gaudy instead of being insipid little boxes with a pointed thing on them as God intended. Latins are brown and they dance. Everything is wrong with them.
In the little literary missiles that follow I hope to give one man’s view of the world in which he now lives, warts and all (and there are plenty of warts). It will be personal and idiosyncratic as well as sporadic, as I am not going to attempt surveys or hurl statistics. I hope they will be of use to any who wonder about the lands to the south.
Glimpse the First
We Up Periscope
It ain't Kansas any more, Dorothy. Not even close. Mexico is the polar opposite of Denmark or Massachusetts, looser, less regimented and less homogenized than the lands to the north, burning at a higher emotional temperature. Colors are sharper here, or at least more prevalent. The past lives in buildings from the sixteenth century, still used. The mass culture of the United States with its conformism and homogeneity, the inability to tell one place from another because all places are the same, the frantic consumerism that has become the American national purpose—these are not yet here.
Things are different, at first physically and then, as you begin to understand the place, profoundly. In any town you find a plaza, unlike any other plaza in any other town, and a church, unlike any other church. Both will be old. The local hotel will be locally owned, alive with color, idiosyncratic. Mexico was not designed at corporate. Nor was it designed by people whose interests were only money, efficiency, and the economy born of uniformity. Imperfect? Oh yes. Those in power have been frequently cruel, eaten by greed, viciously dictatorial, and every bit as bad as the slave drivers of the American South or the good New Yorkers who worked children of six to death or the Christians who exterminated the Indians. I do not romanticize the hidalgos and hacendados. Yet, like the patricians of ancient Rome, they combined the usual barbarity of humanity with an esthetic eye.
And so, as you enter towns and small cities, you do not see awful deserts of Holiday Inn, Days Inn, Ramada Inn, Hyatt, Sheraton, Arby’s, Wendy’s, McDonalds, Hooters, Burger King, the Gap, and Circuit City, in mall after identical mall after bleak indistinguishable suburb laced by roaring concrete highways. These things are coming, but slowly.
The taste of life differs. Towns have recently been overrun by automobiles, and Mexico begins to follow the American pattern of satellite “developments”—a curious word for sterile hamster plains of quietly unhappy sheep—dependent on cars. Today the rule remains: shops and restaurants that can be walked to, large stores on the plaza or close by and tienditas, small mom-and-pop joints every few blocks. Here you go for milk and dog food, tortillas and bolillos, which are bread not designed at corporate. Of a morning you can go to the plaza for espresso at the sidewalk coffee shop and supervise the beginning of the day. Italians in New York, now aged, would recognize their ancestral towns. It is not the American way. We value efficiency, money, return on investment, the bottom line.
Paradise it isn’t, but nowhere is. Hunger is rare, but many live with little. While literacy is at ninety percent if the CIA may be believed—always a doubtful proposition—too many are too little schooled. This also changes: with the bad comes the good. Ambition in the driving desperate American sense is rare. Mexicans seldom work eighteen hours a day to make partner by the age of thirty. They tend to be content with a wife, children, and enough; so much for the entrepreneurial. But I for one feel at home here, which I do not in the devouring gray wastes of office blocks and concrete that so much of America has become.
Fred's site can be found at http://www.fredoneverything.net/
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