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.
Cathedral, Tepic. Whatever else it is, it ain't boring. Not real Puritan either.
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.
Probably not Mexico.
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.