I feel like I’ve been in Mexico long enough now to offer an opinion on the country and its people, and the fact that Mexico has just suffered two huge earthquakes in as many weeks has given me plenty of food for thought.
4 months spent in this land of zesty colour and cacophonous sound has been a timely re-education in the importance of not judging by appearances, and that the best way to break down intercultural barriers is simply to sit down and chat with people.
My first few weeks in the beach town of Sayulita introduced me to all the wonderful Mexican clichés you’d expect to see in holiday brochures and Instagram photos; coconut palm trees lining a sandy beach full of parasols and sun-drenched tourists, cobbled streets with a sea of colourful decorations fluttering overhead, artisans selling handmade jewelry and effigies of native sea turtles, lizards, geckos and eagles. And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ticking these stereotypes off my mental list to begin with, the longer I’ve stayed the more I’ve tried to consciously dig a little deeper. Who are the Mexican people? What defines their culture? What makes them tick?
Before I left the UK in May this year I made a concerted effort to do my homework and try to get a handle on where I was going and what the history of the place was; but I’m not talking about flicking through a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide here. In his scholarly classic ‘Open Veins of Latin America’, Eduardo Galeano describes in harrowing detail how Europe and the United States have viciously plundered this area of the world for the best part of five centuries; from Spanish conquistadors to British colonialists and faceless US corporations, the sheer scale of exploitation is truly staggering. The facts are all there in black and white and I’d strongly encourage you to read it if you’re planning to spend any length of time travelling in this part of the world. All of this is expertly summarised by a question my best friend asked me recently on Skype, “so how’s that colonial guilt treating you?” Well yeah, some days it’s pretty strong actually.
And so, it’s this historical framework that has helped lend perspective to the sights and sounds I’ve encountered thus far.
Moving around Mexico:
Moving from the metropolitan, gringo-heavy tourist town of Sayulita to the more indigenous, authentically Mexican city of Tapachula was my first major eye-opener. People stared at me in the street, I was a minority, and as much I as tried to blend in the colour of my skin made that relatively impossible. If I’d have let it, this first wave of the acculturation process could have sent me packing, but as I said earlier, the best way to overcome these perceived cultural barriers is to jump in and just start chatting with people.
I’m happy to report that in the vast majority of cases my efforts were met with overwhelming reciprocation and interest; “where are you from?” quickly followed by a rather inquisitively phrased, “what are you doing in Tapachula?” (as if to say, why on earth would an Englishman want to visit Tapachula of all places when Mexico has so many stunningly beautiful cities and beaches?) These positive experiences were of course intermingled with a few negative ones, like when I purchased some basic supplies from a local shop and the lady just glared at me the entire time, as if I was something that had just crawled out of a toilet. It just goes to prove that every country has its fair share of ignorant xenophobes and that no culture is exempt from this ancient human predisposition to fear outsiders.
The strange experience of living in a very low-income area like Tapachula was made all the more pertinent when I left and slowly made my way north along the pacific coast and up to Mexico City. Passing through Salina Cruz and westwards to the holiday hotspot of Huatulco made it painfully obvious that tourist dollars = investment in infrastructure. Huatulco is where the Mexicans go for their holidays so as a gringo you’re still firmly in the minority, but it’s a far cry from the broken pavements and trash-littered streets of Tapachula. Moving further west to the famous surf town of Puerto Escondido was another step along this path, more gringos = more tourist dollars = greater investment in infrastructure.
A few days in Mexico City served as my second major eye-opener and an insight into the stratification of modern Mexican culture. Capital cities are generally more metropolitan, liberal and open-minded to different lifestyles, and Mexico City is no different despite the strong, traditional catholic undertones that permeate the country as a whole. What struck me most prominently however was that the city has a much larger percentage of what I can only describe as ‘white Mexicans’; some literally blonde-haired and blue-eyed yet born and raised in Mexico. Whilst this in itself is not much to write home about, the crux of the matter is that the more affluent the area, the lighter the skin colour; a very real example of ‘white privilege’ in action.
Back to where it all began:
I’ve been back in Sayulita for nearly 3 weeks now and it feels like a good point to reflect on what I’ve experienced so far. So, have my recent travels around Mexico changed my perspective in any way? In a word, yes. When I left Sayulita in June the busy tourist season was just winding down in preparation for the quiet rainy season. I’ve come back in September to find a storm-battered town in need of its next cash injection, amongst other things, to ensure that the wholly inadequate sewage infrastructure is ready for the next gringo invasion; and therein lies the paradox.
The locals didn’t ask for their small fishing village to be transformed into the next tourist/surf mecca, for rich Americans, Canadians and Europeans to buy up large swathes of land and build hotels and restaurants. Yet undoubtedly many local Mexicans have benefitted enormously from this boom, official figures suggesting that from 2015 to 2016 tourism increased by a whopping 123%. So, it’s during this quiet before the next tourist storm that I think I’ve gained some small insight into what it must feel like, to have foreign strangers come to your town, buy all the land, pollute the water and make everything more expensive. I’d be pissed if it happened in my home town!
Yet this has happened in London too, whether it be foreign royalty, sheikhs or oligarchs, the 1% of the 1% strike again. A sad sign of the times some might say.
Over the last two weeks Mexico has suffered two huge earthquakes, one of them being the biggest it’s population has endured in a century. It is reassuring then to see other nations offer much needed aid; Ecuador sent firefighters, Chile and Japan sent disaster relief teams and El Salvador sent police officers to name just a few.
Here in Sayulita there have been rallies in the central plaza to collect donations and supplies which have been taken to Mexico City by local volunteers. Social media too is full of similar humanitarian efforts that have sprung up across the country in response to the disasters; and thus it is truly inspiring to witness firsthand the visceral sense of communitas as the Mexican people rally together in a time of shared crisis.
The people have suffered a punishing last few months in addition to centuries of exploitation, yet the indomitable Mexican spirit endures.