The weather was fine this morning in Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos, Mexico. There’s plenty of sun, it’s nice and warm, and walking back to mi casa after enjoying a cup in a local café, I passed a turtle sunning itself in the street. It’s the end of January. Life is good.
Despite the fact that it’s Saturday, I ran an errand to the Universidad Internacional to use the computer lab to get some correspondence taken care of. On my way back home for lunch, I had a nice conversation with my taxi driver. My accent is becoming decent enough that he was surprised when I told him I study Spanish at the school. He complemented me on my accomplishment and fell silent for a moment as he negotiated some traffic.
At one point we rolled alongside another taxi with a mustached driver lacking a fare. My driver leaned across and called, “¡El francés!”
The other driver looked over and grinned. “Hola, amigo. ¿Vas a pasar?”
The other cabbie waved us on, and we slowly changed lanes in front of him. The traffic moved along at a brisk walking pace as things bottlenecked a little at the mouth of a bridge over one of the many ravines that transect Cuernavaca. The tropical sunlight filtered through the leaves of the overhead trees and illuminated the bougainvillea growing in cascades over the walls along the side of the road. In a white, old school VW bug, to the left and slightly ahead of us, a man in the passenger seat cheerfully sang along with the radio.
“Shake, shake, shake . . . shake, shake, shake . . . shake your booty.”
The first thing that most people in the United States thought of when I mentioned that I would be spending the semester in Mexico was the “violence of epic proportions” that I would encounter. Indeed, the negative press against Mexico has reached such a fever pitch in the U.S. that I feel obliged to mention it in this blog. The land that is now Mexico has had a heck of a time, pretty much continuously, and a lot more so since the year 1519, when Cortés’ boots landed on the moist sand on the beach in Veracruz. The Conquest of the “New” World began in that moment, and it has really never stopped. The present conflict with los narcos is just one more link in a now more than five hundred year long chain, a constant struggle to have in a land of extreme haves and have-nots. Some of the poorest people in the world live in Mexico. On the other end of the spectrum, the richest man in the world is also a Mexican.
There are problems in Mexico. And violence. We have both things in adequate supply north of the border as well. Which stories sell in the media marketplace go a long way to emphasize certain developments around the world. In La Jornada, the independent newspaper of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), I recently read a story about the rich upper class in the northern border states fleeing the country in panic to take up residence in places such as Houston and San Antonio. The story pointed out that all things considered, including the fighting with the narco, these families were moving to areas with higher homicide rates (La Jornada Domingo 26 de diciembre de 2010).
If you have anything to do with drugs, if you’re a user, buyer, seller, or “mule,” it’s hard to imagine a more dangerous place for you than present-day Mexico. If you’re anyone else, Mexico can be as safe as or safer than many other places in the world (shootings in Tucson, riots in London). Mexico is safe for both street-smart tourists and students alike. I say street smart because if you act foolishly or irresponsibly, no matter where you are on the planet, chances are in favor of something bad happening to you. You can’t blame a country for that, or even a city. It’s a question of taking responsibility.
The general attitude in the U.S. concerning the narcotics problem is one of the more frustrating things to think about while being down here. When I talk to people in the States, the general sentiment is that “things are bad down there in Mexico” or “Mexico has a lot of problems” or “Mexico is a bad country to be in” or “stay safe until you can get back to America, where we don’t have that problem.” What people rarely seem to think about or acknowledge is that the narcotics problem is not a Mexican problem. It’s a United States/Mexican problem. There would be no narcotics trafficking in Mexico if the people of the United States weren’t eager to buy. All of the shootouts on the southern side of the border have been financed with American dollars and supplied with American guns and bullets. Narcotics-trafficking is our problem as much as it is theirs. We retreat into our enormous fortress on the other side of the patrolled fence and put our feet up with our recreational drugs at our side and say, “how fortunate we are to not be over there” as we blame Mexico for its problems. This is what it means to shirk responsibility and ignore the facts.
The Mexico I know is a wonderful place to be. There’s optimism and a spirit here that’s hard to find elsewhere. The people are open, hardworking, and cheerful, and they make you truly one of the family. I certainly hope more tourists and students begin returning to this amazing country. By not coming, they miss out on enriching their own lives, and the good, honest, regular people of Mexico feel the economic burden.
I hope the situation begins to improve shortly. As a friend of mine down here used to tell me – in accented English – “Don’t worry. Be happy.” It’s good advice.