We woke up again today to news of Mexico’s raging drug war. Kidnappings, murders, cartels. Some 40,000 troops deployed to the US-Mexico border. International worries about Mexico as a narco-state. Or worse: A failed state. It’s pretty terrifying to listen even to the measured NPR commentary–what is unraveling just south of our border?!
It’s pretty terrifying, except for this: That’s not actually the truth about Mexico.
Don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a drug war raging in the northern cities of Mexico. But Mexico is so much more than that. I know. I just got back. (And I’m not alone in saying so…US mayors and Mexican thinkers have been speaking out against the mass American hysteria regarding Mexico.)
Fresh and I spent our spring break visiting friends who live in Mexico. We traveled around central Mexico, staying in Puebla and Queretaro, and venturing afield to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Cholula, and Pena de Bernal. We were not kidnapped. We were not swindled. We were not sold drugs. We were not murdered. All we got was a little Montezuma’s revenge. (And let me tell you: That Montezuma is one vengeful Aztec.)
Before we left, all we heard were horror stories. Assaults at the currency exchanges inside Mexico City’s Benito Juarez Airport. Friends of friends of friends who had been kidnapped and ransomed so that the drug lords could make a few extra bucks. Brigades of bazooka-wielding soldiers on every corner. When we told friends that we were headed south of the border, eyes bugged out. “Are you sure? You do know what’s going on down there, don’t you? Aren’t you scared for your lives? I really hope you guys make it out alive.” Fresh and I are pretty fearless travelers, but all this worry was enough to make even us hesitate for a moment. But we’d spent a month backpacking around Mexico a few years ago (including around the notorious Mexico City, which even then was known for its rampant kidnappings), and our good friends were living there, and we’d be staying with Mexican families, and well, we went. And boy, are we sure glad that we did. Not only did we come out alive, much to the relief of our nearest and dearest, but we fell in love with Mexico all over again.
The cities and states around Mexico City are colorful, colonial, silver-mining gems. Queretaro, for example, is dotted with tree-lined plazas, pedestrian alleyways, and resplendent cathedrals. Puebla and Cholula battle it out for most impressive and important poblano hub: Cholula boasts its pyramid (the largest in the ancient world), atop which sits a Spanish church–not to mention its 364 other churches; Puebla laughs back with its vivacious and shady zocalo, its azulejo covered buildings, and its nightime churrerias. San Miguel de Allende–if you can get past all the gringos–is a desert oasis of artisan shops, pastel-colored facades, and dizzyingly steep colonnaded streets. Pena de Bernal, the world’s third-largest monolith, was kicking off its hippy-inspired celebration of the spring equinox. And Guanajuato–ah, Guanajuato. It dazzled us with its hilltop neighborhoods, roving mariachi bands, and picturesque alleyways (including Callejon del Beso, the Kissing Alley, where the balconies are so close you can kiss your secret lover who lives across the alley from your window).
For a week straight, we gorged ourselves on street-side tacos, endless supplies of flan and cremitas, margaritas and Bohemia beers, heaps of 10,000-spice moles, and whatever other deliciousness we could stuff into our bellies. We wiled away evenings chatting with R’s generous extended family, who opened their homes and kitchens to our boisterous Harbor family of gringos and took us on local tours of hidden churches and secret shady spots. We bumbled through un-touristed towns on my broken Spanish–and yet again, I was blown away by most Mexicans’ linguistic graciousness, speaking slowly for my benefit and struggling themselves to make sense out of the one verb conjugation I know. We made warm conversation with strangers–cab drivers, shop owners, tour guides, former techno DJs, even street kids–and we exchanged pleasantries with passersby. We got razzed by the local street meat vendor when we had difficulty ordering our chorizo tacos, we got conned into trying New Mix (a bottle of Squirt pre-mixed with tequila) at the local tienda, and we even got laughed at when stopping every two feet to take pictures (when Fresh stopped in the middle of a busy San Miguel street, R’s mom smiled and said, “He’s gonna get killed. Oh well. One less gringo in the world”). We watched a dress rehearsal of a ballet folklorico dance performance–and the young dancers smiled and waved at us as we marveled from the back of the theatre. We made it to the last half of the local soccer team’s game–and we even learned the Queretaro fight song from the rowdy crowd around us. We we invited into the back of a shop to see local artisans’ wool looms at work–and the family proprietors joked with us when their parrot and dog took too much of a liking to me. We indulged schoolkids’ English lessons in the streets, we shared beers with Irish expats and Mexican wanderers, we were adopted during a street fair by a local surgeon, and we were helped along in our journeys and adventures by countless police officers, security guards, military personnel, and traffic regulators. And best of all (okay, second best after R’s family’s Sunday night family dinner), we spent night after night on our rooftop deck, sipping cool beverages, watching the final monarch migrants flit around us, and marveling at the warm, welcoming, and contented world we’d stepped into for a week.
Dangerous and deadly narco-state? I think not.
The thing is, most Americans only know three Mexicos: The Cancun-style, debaucherous beach resort, where Senor Frog serves you cheap tequila shots to keep you away from where the real Mexicans live. The deadly narco-state of the news, where every warm-blooded creature is libel to be ransomed off for drug money. And the immigrant Mexico, where everyone is a poor, illiterate farm-hand scheming how to sneak into America and mooch off our wealth and democratic benevolence. Most Americans only know these three Mexicos, and man, are they missing out. Sure, there might be shards of truth in each of these, but these are not really Mexico. Just like any other country–including our own–Mexico is a multifaceted and complex country. And after this, my third trip south, I can say this with certainty: I feel safer and more welcome in more parts of Mexico than I do in much of the United States. I feel more connected to family, to leisure, to life, and to community in a random Mexican city than I do in my own hometown. And don’t get me started on the economy: While ours descends into oblivion–with the pot-holed, developing-world-style highways of Michigan standing as testament to just how far we’ve fallen–Mexico is building an entirely new infrastructure system, creating jobs and revenue in the process. Who’s the failed state now?
R’s family laughed when they heard what everyone back home had been saying–the kidnappings, the drugs, the water (although that last one really is no laughing matter, I assure you, as I still suffer the ramifications a week later). Those paranoid gringos, they said. They blow things out of proportion, they said. Mexico is nothing like your news, they said. And then, with all seriousness, their faces fell, their voices dropped to a hush, their eyes opened wide, and they warned, “But it’s bad in the US, too, no? We’ve been hearing about your murders and your crime. So dangerous in Chicago and Detroit, yes? It must be scary there. We don’t think we’ll visit this year.”
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
Like what you see? That's mostly Ross Freshwater. Check out my talented partner-in-life's photo gallery.