I’m going to draw an analogy between Morton Salt’s good ol’ tagline and the steady stream of just-when-you-think-it-couldn’t-get-any-worse-oh-look-it-just-got-worse headlines coming out of my lovely host country. I think it is an especially fitting analogy as we enter rainy season here in Mexico.
Where to begin…
In case you’ve missed the headlines for the past, um, year, Mexico’s in the throes of a somewhat major drug war. The army patrols streets in border towns. Journalists are murdered. Cartel members shoot at each other in supermarkets and shopping malls. Folks get kidnapped. I can tell you from first-hand experience that in some cities it’s impossible to go out for dinner without getting a gun pointed in your direction. It’s kind of ugly up near the frontera.
There’s also the issue of this pesky recession. Yup, la crisis has officially arrived here in Mexico. The peso is steadily sinking. Prices are steadily rising. A peso here, a peso there. That’s a lot of pesos when you’re only making 100 of them a day, like many folks do here in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. In my case, an hour of peso-salaried work here in Mexico currently converts to approximately enough dollars to buy a one-way bus fare in Chicago. Nice.
You might have also heard about this swine flu. Death tolls change hourly, depending on who you’re asking or what you’re reading, but Oaxaca has the dubious honor of being home to the first documented swine-related death. Mexico City shut down last week. And as of noon today, Huajuapan de León has followed suit. My classes have officially been cancelled through May 6. Students have already vacated campus in search of face masks and vitamin C supplements. From tomorrow, I’ll be on a vacation of sorts, a kind of vacation where you’re not supposed to leave your house or breathe or talk or hug or kiss anyone.
And, just today…more good news. A 6.0 earthquake near Mexico City. We felt it here in Oaxaca. You know, just in case things weren’t interesting enough.
If you relied on headlines alone, you’d think that the situation was pretty darn depressing down here. Pistols, pesos, pigs, and…darnit, I can’t think of an earthquake-related word that begins with “p.”
But, truth is, things ain’t so bad.
Or at least things aren’t as bad as the US media is making them out to be. Not everyone who visits Mexico gets kidnapped by a drug cartel — or the swine flu from riding the Mexico City metro. I promise.
But, in my humble opinion, the glue that’s holding this country together is the people. Mexicans, if nothing else, are survivors. They’re resilient. The past couple of hundred years of Mexican history have seen a disproportionate number of awful events: wars, foreign invasions, natural disasters, financial crashes and political scandals. Folks here are used to these things. The mentality is that if today sucks, mañana will be better.
Life goes on here in Mexico. Cartel violence, economic woes, world health emergencies and natural disasters will not affect Mexico’s core, the things that make Mexico an amazing place to live, the things that keep me here this country, even through its rough patch. Crisis will not stop people from greeting strangers in the street with a heartfelt “buenas tardes” (even if it is muffled by a sanitary mask). Crisis will not stop people from making time for friends and family (even if the government has discouraged handshakes and kisses). Crisis will not stop people from having a laugh over a beer (even if the bars are closed).
Crisis will not stop people from smiling.
This afternoon, I happened to be up near the front gate of our university as scores of blue face mask-clad students filed off campus. Some looked a bit worried, some were laughing with friends (no classes for a week and a half is a pretty sweet deal to any 19-year-old, even if a world health crisis is the reason behind it). But I caught a glimpse of one student, walking alone.
He’d drawn a big, goofy smile on his mask, just where his mouth would’ve been below.
It will get better mañana. I promise.
I cannot watch the news. It only takes minimal exposure before I want to curl up in a ball on the floor. For instance, I keep hearing that Mexico is on the Verge of Collapse, and also that it is a Failed State. This is scary stuff. I’m not sure what happens when a country that has survived for a thousand years collapses. What is left behind?
I admit that it makes me anxious, and more so since I recently watched a harrowing special about the Dust Bowl on the History Channel. Was I to understand that having the earth denuded of it’s topsoil, drought, livestock keeling over dead, a historic depression, 25% unemployment, and plagues of freaking millipedes had not put America on the Verge-of-Collapse, but Mexico is permanently perched there? This means that somehow the country that I’ve chosen to live in has to be a third world hell worse off than Dust Bowl Oklahoma. My anxiety has turned to skepticism.
It turns out that The Fund for Peace has a grading system called the Index of Failed States. When a state is failing, it doesn’t mean that there will be some kind of supernova as it collapses in on itself, as I vaguely thought. It’s less like a star burning out and more like failing math in your sophomore year. Instead of A-F, it goes from Green (sustainable) to Red (Alert). In between are Cream (Moderate) and Yellow (Warning), and believe me, the whole world lives somewhere in the cream and yellow zone, including America and Mexico. It’s clear that you can’t be rock and roll and be in the Green…only countries like Luxembourg and Sweden are green. And Canada.
It didn’t require much of a time investment before I began to feel like I’d been had by the the Talking Heads and their catastrophe rhetoric. Again. If you don’t straighten up, says the Fund for Peace, you’re going to fail. Just like my parents used to say! But in the hands of newcasters with hour after hour to fill, it becomes something very different.
Believe me when I tell you that I’m content to leave politics to the people that give a damn. If it doesn’t involve rhinestone appliques or reality television, I’m not interested. When I am forced to listen to the news, I usually feel only a vague sense of horror, like a teenager hopelessly eavesdropping while grown-ups ruin her life. So I didn’t set out to become an expert on this kind of stuff, and in fact, I haven’t.
But I can report that the Verge of Collapse turns out to be a very wide place, a regular esplanade, if you will. I have learned that the standards for being a Failed State are low, and almost any accounting error or severe storm will qualify you. A government only has to come up short in one of many varied criteria, and economy is one of those, so to my surprise, the USA is in fact sharing the Verge of Collapse with her neighbor to the South! Also crowded onto the Verge are Argentina, Venezuela and Israel, and of course, Russia and China.
Thanks to the Internet, God bless it, even if the Fund for Peace gives you a passing grade, it’s pretty easy to find someone who thinks you’re a Failed State. As an example, I thought that England would be safe, serenely hunkered down somewhere with a gin rickey watching the sun set on those of us who were roosted on The VOC, but nope, Britain is in danger of bankruptcy, which certainly gets you an F. New England, too, because the Atlantic Codfish is, you guessed it, on the Verge of Collapse.
The exception is Canada. I mentioned my findings to the ladies who lunch, noting that Canada seemed to be safe from the VOC. “Oh, we’ve been bankrupt for years.” our Canadian bff drawled. “The healthcare system, you know.” I can’t find anything to substantiate her position though, and she’s the same woman that thinks W was an excellent king.
I’m pleased to report that Mexico can be a Failed State and on the Verge of Collapse and still be a damn fine place to live. Drug wars are bad and so is flu, but this sunny nation has never been free of violence or illness or poverty or even millipedes, and people have always fallen in love and settled in Mexico in spite of it. I don’t know what drives the relentless barrage of media that addresses only one aspect of this country of contrasts. It seems like bullying, petty and mean. The fact is, bad in Mexico exists, and it can be pretty bad… but, what the hell, Mexico’s good is so much better.
Not the Whole Story
The U.S. media and federal government have stirred up a toxic cauldron media blitz that has been force-feeding U.S. citizenry only partial truths and irresponsible generalizations about the violence plaguing Mexico. If to be believed, the entire country of Mexico, some 109 million people, would be cowering in their homes fearful of venturing too far out lest they be caught up in random drug violence or kidnappings.
Mexico is the 14th largest independent nation in the world with crime per capita (based on 2006 statistics) of 12 per 1,000 people, ranking 39 in a survey of 60 countries. If one took the time to do a bit of research instead of believing the selective, if not deceptive reporting and scare tactics that have become the norm in U.S. mainstream media, and of which few of us ever question, we might be surprised to learn that based on statistics of non-violent crimes and violent crimes such as homicide, the U.S., at times, ranks neck in neck based on demographics and location, and in some categories, surpasses Mexico.
Random Acts Versus Non-Random Acts of Violence
If you look at the recent State Department warnings, including warnings specifically aimed at college students traveling to the Gulf Coast of Mexico, you will note that many of the warnings listed are not about drug violence or kidnappings, but the strong ocean undertow, potentially dangerous aquatic life, advantageous “petty” crime often perpetrated on inebriated tourists or those not exercising common sense as one needs to whenever traveling abroad – or for that matter – to any U.S. city where crime is more prevalent.
When one compares statistics and types of crimes worldwide, Random Acts of Violence are perhaps the most threatening and leave us feeling the most vulnerable. In the U.S., random violence is something to which we have either become accustomed or numb – whether mass murders on a college campus, an elementary school playground, neighborhood mall, or children being snatched from their beds and sexually abused and worse.
According to recent statistics, the homicide rate in Mexico is approximately 13 for every 100,000 individuals. FBI numbers list the murder rate for Baltimore as 43.3 to 100,000, Washington D.C. 29.1 to 100,000, and Detroit as 47.3 for every 100,000 citizens. Naturally, the handful of Mexican border towns, which are the areas experiencing the brunt of the wanton violence born of the illegal drug trade, have homicide rates that are not reflective of the country as a whole, but mirror the inflated numbers seen in the most violent U.S. cities and metropolitan areas.
We are told and indoctrinated to be “afraid of other” – to be fearful of the perceived unknown – Mexico, when in fact, we are far more likely to experience or witness a criminal act or be a victim of such in our own country.
Living or Vacationing in Mexico: The Ripple Effect
Mexico is a country with a staggering poverty rate that is only worsening due to the impact of a flailing U.S. economy coupled with irresponsible media fear mongering. In a country where much of the economy is sustained by the tourist trade, Mexicans are hurting as are expat business owners.
According to Wesley Gleason of Agave Real Estate, which was recently voted as the top real estate agency in the tourist town of San Miguel de Allende, business has been floundering. Naturally, this is a reflection of the housing and stock market decline in the U.S., coupled with the perception that Mexico is no longer “safe,” and fewer and fewer U.S. citizens are purchasing homes in the area. The real estate market here has been hard hit, some transactions in progress have bottomed out due to potential home buyers worrying about the continued decline of the economy, safety issues, or banks pulling out of loan negotiations or bypassing on loans all together. Katharine Hibberts of Premier House Rentals of San Miguel has seen the same decline. People, once only concerned about the economy are now twice as worried due to the U.S. media blitz about the “rife drug violence.” Unfortunately, they are not paying attention to where this violence is indeed widespread, and where it is not – and regardless if you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away from the thick of it, Mexico is now perceived as a lawless and dangerous land.
I’ve talked with many business owners in San Miguel, proprietors of small restaurants to tiny tiendas and shops selling goods from local producers to those from Oaxaca and other areas. They are all seeing the downturn, the lack of tourists, and the lack of revenue filtering in. Many of these business owners rely heavily on tourist dollars to make ends meet, provide food and shelter for their families.
In a city that prides itself on tourism and of which is kept afloat by these dollars, San Miguel is feeling the backlash. That said other tourist destinations throughout Mexico have been even harder hit – some coastal cities and towns once overrun by U.S. and Canadian snowbirds or college students on spring break – were and are nearly empty during the height of the tourist season.
It seems unfair, if not criminal, to “punish” an entire society or unjustly “label” a country based on generalizations and fear-mongering triggered by isolated incidents of violence primarily due to the illegal drug trade which is playing out along the U.S., Mexico border towns. Certainly not all, but most of the violent crime due to the escalating drug violence in Mexico is Non-Random – and this is something that U.S. citizens must understand and research.
As we were reminded when young, “don’t believe everything you’re told.” As concerned, insightful, intelligent human beings, it is up to us to further research and investigate anything that we are “told” or “warned” about – whether a doctor’s diagnosis, the foods we eat, the prescription drugs we take, or where we choose to live and travel.
The last couple of years, I have been living half of my life in Mexico; a choice born both of pleasure and economic hardship. Thankfully, with my computer in tow, I can work from most anywhere, and the cost of living is far less than in my hometown in Maine. In Mexico, I don’t drive a car and for six months of the year, I am “gasoline” free. I do not need to heat my rental apartment and what I pay in rent is nearly comparable to what I would pay to heat my home with oil during the winter and spring months in Maine. Food in my Mexican city runs approximately half of what I’d pay back home, a doctor or dentists’ visit, a fraction of the cost of what one would owe in the States.
I can walk to my local grocery store or produce market and come home with bags laden with mangoes and broccoli, papayas and fresh strawberries, whole grain breads, homemade yogurts and cheeses, nuts and dark Mexican chocolate and have spent pennies on the dollar when in comparison to shopping in Maine. The other day a huge, emerald green head of broccoli just trucked in from the campo cost me 30 cents, a bag of 13 eggs with yolks the color of sunflowers, cost 65 cents.
I can walk. I can walk most anywhere, day or night, unafraid. I feel even safer living here than I did when living in San Francisco, CA. I walk to shops, galleries, restaurants, live music in the jardin. I walk from one end of Centro to the other, often solo, at times with friends. If late at night and I feel it is questionable to walk alone, I’ll grab a taxi. I use the same rationale as I would when in any U.S. city or town, during any of my travels abroad.
I feel safe here.
No place is perfect. I am not delusional nor do I bury my head in the sand. Violence can happen anywhere. The strength and power is in being informed. Do your homework. Do not fall victim or prey to misinformation or half-truths, or news that is meant to propagate fear or paranoia.
Living fully and freely is often based on getting the facts – not relying on others to tell you how or where to travel or live – but taking responsibility for your own life by educating yourself, and only then, can you make a decision that is best for you, based on all the facts.
I love Mexico. I love the people, the culture, and the beauty of the land and the plethora of gifts it has to offer. I love the sense of family and community. The warmth and colors that pale the sun are simply icing on the cake.
I try to live my life with a healthy balance of common sense, education and information whether when living in San Francisco, Maine, or Mexico, traveling anywhere within the U.S., or the world. And hopefully, with that balance in tow I am able to live the life I choose – and live it well.
Note: This article originally appeared here, and is reprinted with permission.
Years ago when I lived in New York City I received a phone call one night from my mother, who sounded very upset.
“Are you OK? Is your house on fire? Are you safe?”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was totally fine. It turned out mom was watching the nightly news on TV.
Yes, there were riots going on in Brooklyn. Yes, buildings were on fire. Yes, people were killed and others hurt. It was all happening miles away from where I lived. I knew nothing about it. But my mother had the impression that all of New York City was at war.
That phone call taught me two important lessons I’ve never forgotten. First, the news has the power to amplify and distort reality. Second, most people accept as fact anything they read in a newspaper or see on television.
Recent reports of drug “wars” in Mexico are not necessarily untrue, but they look at a small part of the canvas and make people think they are seeing the whole picture. As a full-time resident of Mexico since 1997 I would like to suggest to my readers that they are being misinformed.
Frank Koughan’s excellent report and data analysis previously posted on this site already provides the facts of the matter, so I’ll simply tell you what my life is like here in Mexico City in terms of safety.
I’ve been asking all my friends here if they’re afraid of the drug violence they see in the news (it’s reported here, too, not just in the U.S.). So far I’ve not had an affirmative answer. Neither I nor anyone I know wears bullet-proof clothing. I get up early three mornings a week and stroll across the park to attend a yoga class–dodging joggers and unleashed dogs is my biggest danger. I walk to work, take the subway, ride the buses and taxis, all without fear—ever. People in my local supermarket seem more troubled about whether they should put their groceries in a paper bag or a plastic bag than by any more menacing concerns. Diners at my local taco stand fret over the eternal dilemma: red salsa or green salsa? When I head out at night my biggest worry is whether I will need a jacket or not.
In other words, life goes on in Mexico City much as it does elsewhere in the world.
Know the facts. Most of the violence in Mexico is targeted toward a very specific group of people connected to the drug trade. Most of it occurs in border towns. As a tourist, your chance of being hurt or killed by drug-related violence is about as great as having a piano fall on your head.
Read newspapers with a critical eye. I recently began writing for a national newspaper here, and I can see how easy it would be for any writer to choose a word or a phrase than could alter, slant or color a reporting of ‘facts’. I’ve noted often in The New York Times the use of quotations from one person to indicate the feelings of a nation.
Violence sells. A report about decapitated bodies makes a much flashier headline than one about a trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacán. The former Mexico correspondent for a major U.S. paper is a friend of mine. I knew he loved Mexico and felt safe and happy here, but he wrote many stories about drug violence and corruption. When I asked him about it he said, “That’s what the editor back home wants.”
After eight years of truth-bending news, Americans seem to be living in a country where fear is a common tool for controlling ideas and behavior. Beware! There is something dangerous out there and it’s trying to steal your mind. It’s called the news.
So when people ask me “Is Mexico safe to visit?”, I say yes, come on down. With the current peso devaluation, it’s a real bargain now, and it’s not crowded–all those scaredy cats who believe what they see on the news are staying home.
Mexico is once again splattered all over the news. “DON’T GO,” scream all the headlines. It’s so dangerous, people are being slaughtered. Tourists are prime targets. You’d be downright crazy to cross that border.
All that smack is coming out of every media outlet and as I sit here in my sunny LA kitchen, I just remember the smiles. The big, white, toothy smiles of every Mexican I came across in all my travels around that lovely country. In fact, I just got back from Mexico in February. 2 weeks of happy, pure bliss.
Last year, I traveled SOLO for months around the country with a solar trailer strapped to the back of my truck. I cruised down extremely dusty back roads, took precarious routes along the Sierra Madre’s, and swam along lonesome stretches of sandy beaches. Never did I fear for my life. Not once did I think I was gonna catch some trouble cause I was alone. If anything, it made me travel deeper, happier…
Oh yeah, there are those dozen times I’ve done all of Baja alone too. Up and down the Sea of Cortez, sleeping in my truck, cruising along tar black, two lane roads at midnight, and then coming upon a security checkpoint in the middle of the cold, star-filled desert. Only to skid to a stop, get out of my truck while they searched it…and laugh it up with the guards wielding machine guns. Again, HUGE smiles. Pretty smiles. Curious smiles. And, most of all, friendly smiles.
These aren’t trips that were decades ago. These are trips that happen 4-5 times a year for me. Stay away from Mexico? As if. You’d be crazy if you did.
Since I have traveled in Mexico for many years – and now live in Mexico – I thought that instead of discussing all the negative press Mexico has been getting lately, I would tell you why I love it here.
The Spirit of the People – This is usually the first thing that people notice about Mexico. There is an almost indescribable sparkle that you notice around the eyes. Smiles come easily. Kisses at greeting. Kisses when parting. You seldom hear a child cry and never hear a parent speak in anger to a child. Family is everything, and every evening, generations walk arm in arm in the plazas. People don’t get upset easily. Loud party? (So what, they are having fun tonight.) Litter on the sidewalk? (Sweep it up and enjoy a little chat with the people who pass by.) Barking dog? (Put on some music.) I love the phrase “ni modo” which means “oh well, what can you do?” and is the perfect answer to minor aggravations in life. Ni modo.
Generosity – There are many organizations in Mexico to help those who are less fortunate. But when I comment on generosity I mean all the small generosities I see daily. People know how to give with a grace that I can only hope to learn. One time in Mexico City, we went out to buy soup to take home. While we waited, a little street boy who was familiar to everyone in the neighborhood ran up with a coin and asked for a taco. The owner sent him to the cashier (his wife) to pay, and prepared a generous taco for the boy to take away. As he started to leave, the cashier pressed a handful of money in the boy’s hand as “change.” He ran off. A few minutes later his sister arrived, and the same interaction ensued. It was obvious that the couple happily made sure these kids had a little good food every day and were happy to give it. They would be surprised that I even think their actions were noteworthy. It’s just what they do, and how they relate to the world around them.
Ability to Make Do – I have a soft spot for people who can figure out a work-around when they need something. Not very much goes to waste here. And if you are done with something, just put it out on the curb and it will find a new home.
What is Fun? – You don’t need a money to have fun in Mexico. Of course, there’s the ocean, the best playground of all. Sunday is family day, and the beach is full of large family groups – from Grandma to the smallest baby. They may bring their own food, or buy mangoes and donuts from vendors walking by. But even in places away from the beach, people head to the plazas and parks to relax and talk and usually share a meal together. Balloon vendors stroll. Outdoor dances are common. People love to buy a song or two from the strolling musical groups. Mexico is a social country, when they have free time they usually head outside to get together with friends. Even late at night the streets are busy with people laughing and having fun. And I guess I shouldn’t forget that parades and fireworks can surprise you anytime, day or night.
Acceptance and Friendliness – We have a regular route when walking our dogs in the morning, and we greet and are greeted by many people every day. I thought for a while that they only greeted me because I said hello to them first – but you know – that’s not true. We are part of the fabric of the city and we are accepted – tattoos and imperfect Spanish and all.
Hard Working – The old stereotype of the sleepy Mexican under a sombrero couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people work very hard, and long hours, too. Five long days and a half day on Saturday. And wages are so low that once they are done working they have to work hard to do everything else. Many people have the simplest homes, with just the basics and wash clothes and dishes by hand. They either bicycle to and from work or have long bus rides. You’ll notice, though, that all school kids have gleaming white shirts and polished shoes. I have no idea how they do it all.
Efficient and Accommodating – We live in Mexico as retirees on an FM-3 visa. This visa is renewable for a year. We visit Immigration once a year with a bank statement showing we have adequate income (so that we are not a drain on their economy) and payment of a small fee in exchange for a new one year visa. When doing this I wonder what the same transaction would be like for a Mexican in the US, unfortunately I think I know the answer. Many of you also may not know that Mexico also has a national health insurance program. And guess what? They also make it available to foreigners. We are in the process of applying for the insurance and our experience has been efficient and way easier than a trip to the DMV in the US. Wouldn’t it be nice if the US had national health insurance available to all?
Living in Mexico has changed me for the better, too. I am more tolerant, smile more, am more relaxed and generous, and I actually like myself better. These are just a few of the things I can put into words about why I love it here. You really should come and see for yourself.