Friday, April 2, 2010

Changing views of Mexico

After living for four months in Mexico our feelings about it have changed somewhat. When we first visited Mexico over 25 years ago we were enchanted by the tropical ambience, the Spanish architecture, the crafts and traditional clothing, the delicious food and of course the different language and culture. The people we met were warm and friendly, the weather was great—and it was all so cheap compared to Canadian prices. 
For us, these charming things overshadowed some of the other aspects of the country (like the garbage, the graft and the poverty) especially on our shorter visits.  But this year after spending four months in Mexico we’re finding that the things we overlooked are becoming more obvious, and even the things we used to find charming are now becoming irritants.
And example of this is the response you get if you ask for directions of someone on the street.  A Mexican man will never admit he doesn’t know the answer to your question, so he’ll give you some vague instructions that could be sending you in the completely wrong direction. Then he’ll shake your hand courteously as you leave. 
As we learned more of the language and culture this year, we kept coming up against more of these kinds of wrinkles.  We studied Spanish fairly seriously and made some progress—actually moving out of the present tense.  But it become clear that many years of study would be needed before we’d be able to carry on any kind of relaxed sharing of ideas with Mexican people.  We had to carry on all of the day-to-day business of life in fractured Spanish that rife with misunderstandings.  Even a simple encounter in a store could leave us feeling like idiots.
We’ve now been out of Mexico and back in an English-speaking environment for a few days now and we’re both feeling so much more relaxed.  We’re enjoying the easier driving and the ability to read the signs and understand what people around us are saying.  But what I find most relaxing is being in a familiar culture.  I think that stress builds over the time that I’m in a place where I’m not familiar with unspoken expectations and can’t read the subtle cues that let me know things are going smoothly.  Too often encounters in Mexico feel choppy and unsettled.
All of this is to say that we are not sure if we want to spend another winter there.  Mexico is such a different country than Canada or the USA.  There’s a huge poverty gap and very few social services, the government is corrupt, the police routinely take bribes, and there’s a pervasive macho attitude that demeans women.  Of course we knew all this before we came to Mexico—and we were prepared to live with it.  But the increasing violence taking place in Mazatlan and other nearby areas since January has taken a toll of our equanimity.

It seems there is a battle going on between the government and one or more drug cartels.  The narcos are terrorizing their opponents with machine guns and grenades.  Since the beginning of the year there have been more than 40 murders in and around Mazatlan.  One was the tourism minister for Sinaloa and his bodyguard. Several murders were of policeman, some of whom were beheaded!  And other attacks have resulted in innocent bystanders being killed.  As well there are groups of bandits who may or may not be part of things, but who stop cars on back roads with guns and take the vehicles.  Just recently a group Mexicans on a main road refused to stop for these thugs and six were killed, including children as young as eight.
Residents of Mazatlan are terrified.  Rumours abound about what terrible thing will happen next, and those who can are making plans to leave.  Our Spanish teacher is worried that her teenaged sons will stumble onto something when they’re out and about  with their friends.  Her family is considering leaving Mexico altogether.
 Mexico is no longer a nice place to live.  Nobody likes the situation but violence appears to be unstoppable and, in fact, escalating.  As more police are killed, many officers are resigning, leaving things even less secure.  The police who remain are terrified and often wear masks for fear of retaliations to their family. More and more soldiers are coming into town and it had begun to feel like a war zone with trucks driving around carrying uniformed men with machine guns at the ready
For us the tipping point came with the shooting of the two police officers in our little neighbourhood.  We were so relieved to get safely out of the country.  It’s a very sad thing for Mexico.  So many good people there are innocent victims of this drug war and there doesn’t seem to be an easy fix.
We’re now uncomfortable being tourists in this country in crisis.  Mexico relies heavily on tourism dollars and many are suffering already from the economic downturn and few people have the resources to leave like my Spanish teacher.  This country is in a sad, sad situation.  But we don’t want to spend time in such a dysfunctional country.  Maybe things will settle down over the next year or so.  We’ll wait and see.  
 I'll update you on our trip soon.  We've been discovering some interesting areas of Arizona and tonight we're in Las Vegas.  I've never been here so we'll head out to see what's on the strip.


  1. Hi Joanna

    I guess it is natural for some of the gloss to wear off an intriguing place once you actually settle there and see the life under the tourist facade, but what you are talking of goes far deeper and is an issue of safety and good sense. Maybe you will find somewhere else for next winter to escape the cold... there is always Hawaii...

    Happy days

  2. Hi Delwyn, thanks for your comment. You're right that this goes beyond disillusionment. We're thinking about maybe trying the desert in Arizona. We've enjoyed traveling through here in the last few days. Have a lovely day.

  3. Sad, but true: in our zeal to discover everything, we find it. The people and places that I've met through your blog have been caring and beautiful.
    It's dreadful that there doesn't seem to be a way to end this problem with the drug wars. It must be very frightening to live there and know you can't get away from it.

  4. What a sobering blog. I had no idea that the violence had extended so far. My heart goes out to Peggi, your Spanish teacher, and any ex-pats who are experiencing your anxieties. Happy Easter, and have a wonderful, safe journey home. You are always welcome. Jan

  5. I am very sorry to hear that your time here ended on such a poor note, Joanna, but I think it is only fair to say that many, many ex-pats in Mazatlán are very happy to be here. I am not terrified and my friends here are not terrified!!! We are worried about the situation and we are cautious about where we go . . . but no more so than we would be in any other big city. In my opinion, you have made some rather sweeping, negative generalizations. I feel that I am in no more danger from the drug cartel war here in Mazatlán than from being hit by a bus in any city I visit. Just my opinion.

  6. Hi Trish, thanks for your note. I don't mean to make sweeping generalizations. I'm just expressing our feelings at this point. We were quite nervous about driving north to the border, although the trip was uneventful.

    It seemed to us that things heated up in Mazatlan in February and perhaps it's just a blip. I expect it is. I hope so as I know that Mazatlan is a lovely place to live. And it's true that statistically it's just as safe as many cities--but we were starting to be a bit spooked. It kind of all depends on who you talk to.

  7. Hey Trish, I just thought I'd say that I did have one sweeping generalization that I shouldn't have put in my post. I said that Mexico is no longer a very nice place to live--and I know that it is actually a lovely place to live. We spent four beautiful months there and enjoyed it very much. I think if we were living in old town we would have liked it even more. It's a shame the shootings on Sabalo were so close to us. It was a shock that we're still reeling from. Take care.

  8. Thanks for your responses, Joanna! I appreciate that you were very close to the shootings in Sabalo and you undoubtedly were more traumatized than I. But I believe that saying "Residents of Mazatlan are terrified" is a sweeping generalization. In my opinion, the only people in Mazatlan that are terrified (and they should be) are the people involved in the drug cartels. I do not know a single person who is terrified. I know a lot of people who are concerned and worried about the future of their beautiful city. Also, in my opinion, your comment "trucks driving around carrying uniformed men with machine guns at the ready" sounds like fear mongering, as this has always been the normal mode of transportation for soldiers in the city. This is how they got around when I arrived three years ago and my friends tell me it has always been like this. This is your blog, Joanna, so you can say anything you want . . . but I just wanted your readers to hear a different viewpoint.

  9. Hey Trish, you're right, that was a sweeping generalization. I should have said that people are concerned and some of them even spooked by what's been happening. We really loved our time in Mazatlan and are as you said worried about its future. Let's just hope things settle down soon.


I really appreciate your comments.