Our frightening neighbor

The other evening I listened to conversation about Mexico and how frightening it’s become. One of the participants had just returned from an artists’ confab at an Arizona ranch close to the border. The fear was so palpable there that they didn’t dare go across. How sad is that.


I haven’t been in Mexico for years, and I don’t claim any special knowledge of the country, but my visits there were fascinating and studded with stories and odd-lot lives. On my first trip, just after college graduation, I stayed with a bunch of people who planned to visit Cuba. That was when the revolution was fresh and new and Castro had only recently become “a bad guy.” We never got there, but we did have a fascinating stay in Mexico in a village on Lake Chapala.


Then, Mexico was a refuge for all sorts of people. For example, two Germans, a brother and sister who had fled there in the years before World War II. He had died sometime earlier, but she still rode through the village on horseback in a great green raincoat. She was Dona Luisa. She had a long braid down her back and she looked startlingly like she belonged, like she had Spanish blood or Indian or both. It was said, but I never saw it, that she had kept her brother’s room exactly as it had been when he died. His grave dominated a dusty burial ground that was mostly made up of nearly illegible rocks, crude wooden crosses and plastic flowers. The stone was engraved: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” and four Lombardy poplars, one on each corner, had long ago lost their symmetry. Pretension, yes, maybe. By the bravado was touching:


There were other ex-pats: an American named Richindollar who actually packed a gun, and a burly, blond middle aged East European—I don’t remember the country, he hadn’t been there for a long time since he was paid a monthly stipend to stay away. My favorite story about this miscreant was about his trip by prison wagon across Spain. Handcuffed to another n’ere do well who was epileptic, he’d learned to roll with his mate’s daily seizures.


Many days a week we’d climb up the hill where a stream tumbled down to the village—past the stones where the women scrubbed their clothes, again past a waterfall, up to a bat cave and back down to the waterfall where we’d shower and eat freshly made tortillas and bananas. Nearly every afternoon there was a thunderstorm. The lake would turn dark and white-capped and the purple water lilies a Japanese ex-pat had planted decades before and left to spread across the shiny surface, would toss and turn like exotic bridal bouquets let loose by the rain.


Our landladies in their store next door where we bought skinny cigarillos for a dime a pack gossiped the day away and we wondered what they said since none of us could quite follow their Spanish. In the evenings, on the plaza people walked arm and arm, especially young girls who always seemed excited and young men who always seemed to be making plans; mariachis played; and politicians made long pointless speeches in front of the cathedral, pointless because then there was only one party and everyone already knew who to vote for.


Mexico was corrupt then too—I suppose it must always have been. A group of us were threatened and led through the cobbled streets at gunpoint by some fellows pretending—or not, to be lawmen. If we paid up, they wouldn’t turn us in for possessing pot. We didn’t; they didn’t.


The son of my dearest friend, a boy of sixteen, decided to hitchhike by himself back to Vancouver at the end of the summer. He was picked up for no particular reason and jailed for a few weeks until the gendarmes figured out that no one of his relatives had the money to pay to get him out. So he was released and sent on his way.


I  learned that summer that the Mexican people are in love with beauty—in their parks, their villages, their cathedrals, their great paintings and delicate crafts, their symphonies and dances, their literature. And there’s a softness there. I doubt it’s gone away since I discovered it, no matter the murderous rout by the drug cartels. Maybe it’s partly in the wonderful round tones of the language, but I remember the passion of an old woman praying in a cathedral, the shyness of a boy who passed a rose to me on a dark bus, the two men who waited patiently for a friend and me to get up from a couch they had set down by a bookstore in a Mexico City plaza. They were moving it from one place to another, and were too polite to ask us to get up and leave.

Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Russ Bowling, 2008. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Too many Americans only know the big cities and the seaside resort towns, and maybe a pyramid or two. They know it’s a poor country, especially because the border towns are so horrifically poor. I’m sure it’s poorer than ever since NAFTA , the drug cartels, the maquiladoras. While it’s too easy to simply blame the U.S. for Mexico’s problems, we should have done so much better by the country, back then when I knew it, and now. How sad it is that we’re their chief suppliers of guns. How sad it is that we’re the drug cartels’ market for drugs. How sad it is that we have to be afraid of our neighbor.