I never meant to spend six weeks in Mexico this winter, but when two Chicagoan friends invited us to stay in their winter bolt-hole in San Miguel de Allende my son said “Let’s go”, so we did. As I planned the trip a dreadful song by the late Long John Baldry came back to me: “Mexico, take it from me you’re gonna see the greatest show, underneath the sun in Mexico.” I still can’t get it out of my mind and I certainly did experience a lot during my six week stay, but I’m not sure that show is the right word.
I had been there before, twenty years ago, studying Spanish in Cuernavaca, and I decided to sign up for another course, but where? I had read Paul Theroux’s brilliant book On the Plain of Snakes and he brushed up his Spanish in Oaxaca, so I decided to go there after a spending two weeks in Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende.
Mexico and the USA
Mexico is not a comfortable country to visit. There is always the sense that it is the dysfunctional neighbour of the dysfunctional country to the north. In the nineteenth century the gringos stole much of its territory and there has always been a strained economic and political relationship. The USA exploits Mexican workers both in Mexico and in the USA. It cannot do without Mexican labour but many Americans resent the fact – or rather they are encouraged to resent the fact – and blame Mexicans for the drug epidemic that besets their country and the crime it causes, and low wages and much else.
The notion that Mexico is responsible for inequality and crime in the USA is as absurd as the belief that many Mexicans have that the USA is the root of all evil and the source of their all their woes, which is what the present Mexican president would like his voters to believe. Not true of course. Corruption and inequality are the order of the day and organised crime enfeebles and terrorises the country. An American acquaintance had driven down in a van with South Dakota Plates and he was pulled over somewhere in Oaxaca by cartel members dressed as cops (or so he later discovered) who were checking him out. They let him go but some careless Americans were shot on the border a few weeks ago. Check out the State Department’s travel advice: it makes for depressing reading. This is a country in which over 100,000 people are listed as ‘disappeared’.
Mexico City feels infinite – it has a larger population than many Latin American countries. Beyond a relatively small centre containing some beautiful districts lie endless treeless suburbs of two storey breeze block houses with water tanks on the flat roofs. Traffic is appalling and cable cars are used to cross some of the valleys in the outskirts. The toll highway, the autopista takes you out of town and is the safest way of travelling if you cannot afford a plane – passengers trains no longer exist.
But you still see a lot from the autopista. In the south campesinos (farmers) were tending small fields, many using a mule to pull the plough. It seemed to get poorer as we approached Oaxaca and it is from such regions that most of the emigration to the USA takes place. Mexico City and the central highlands are more prosperous and salaries, though very low by our standards, are higher.
Wage disparity and immigration
A stall in the market of Guanajuato was recruiting prison guards for about $1,200 per month which is a good salary there, way way above the minimum wage of $11.50 per day – almost $290 a month. In the zone south of the US border, where many factories have been built, the minimum wage is higher at $17.38 per day, but the minimum wage in California is $15 per hour. Is it no surprise that two countries with such a vast difference in pay cannot easily co-exist? Of course the cost of living is much higher in the USA, but it is easy to understand why my cab driver in San Miguel de Allende was pleased to have acquired a temporary visa to work in Colorado, where the minimum wage is $13.65 per hour. He is renting a house with seven other Mexicans and, even after he has paid his rent and food will be making good money as a landscape gardener. Biden is issuing visas – it is best to keep things legal, and anyway, as in the UK, there just aren’t enough locals to pick the fruit and wash the dishes.
It is surely in the interests of the USA to allow this emigration to take place, for the work needs to be done and it helps Mexico as well. It is good for USA that Mexico gets richer, for prosperity is the one factor that will weaken the cartels that feed on poverty and richer Mexicans will buy more stuff from the US.
Of course the cab driver is an ideal immigrant, honest, hard-working, literate and with a driving licence. He won’t cost the US a penny and he’ll pay his taxes and spend money. An illegal immigrant – and he is more likely to come from the poorer South – costs a lot more for he pays no taxes and funds organised crime. Though he doesn’t shout it out loud, I think Joe gets that. I liked the cab driver. I had negotiated the fare down from 700 to 600 pesos for a lengthy ride out of town and a pick up. I felt bad and gave him 700 (about £30) – it took up all of his morning. How far does £30 get you in a taxi in the UK?
Oaxaca – the indigenous heart of Mexico
Having spent two weeks in Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende (more of which later if I am allowed!), I headed south. After 7 hours at a steady 50 mph I arrived in Oaxaca, a world away from the sophistication of Mexico City. It was here that the writer Paul Theroux had preceded me to Instituto Cultural; before him D.H. Lawrence had lived nearby with Frieda. Foreigners are drawn to this city, still inhabited by many people for whom Spanish is a second language and tourism is becoming the main economic activity, though no large hotels are allowed within the city; neither is there a branch of McDonalds, for the locals just won’t have it. Sadly this desire to preserve the colonial heart of the city totally intact – and it is quite beautiful – does not make for prosperity.
Textile production and agriculture remain staples in the countryside, and many campesinos make mezcal, a tequila style drink that is distilled from the maguey cactus. Unlike tequila this is not a product that can be produced on an industrial scale, and indeed its very value derives from the fact that there isn’t a lot of it. But the problem is that it is not the distillers but the distributors and retailers who are making the money. Many campesinos have no sense of business, though this is changing. Though good tequila does exist – avoid the cheap stuff in Tesco – mezcal tends to be a better product, and you don’t need to drink it with lime and salt. That is to hide the taste.
Àngel, a Mexican family friend, took me to see how mezcal used to be made at a distillery outside town. There were two sections; the old time section and the more modern, but still unsophisticated side. The maguey is first roasted in a pit; then it is shredded – theses days by a shredder but in the past this was done with a donkey and a grinder – and dumped into tubs where is ferments. The fermented liquid is then distilled twice and bottled. Of course the terroir and the type of maguey used are significant and flavours vary enormously. The less expensive mezcals tend to have a smokey flavour whilst the dearer ones are complex and beguiling, and it tastes nothing like tequila. Àngel deals in mezcal and other beverages and is trying to educate restaurants and bars to be aware of the enormous variety of flavours. His firm endeavours to give producers a good deal, but it isn’t easy for not all competitors are as committed to helping the campesinos.
Before going to the mezcal distillery Àngel takes me to the ‘diner’ featured on Netflix ‘Street Food South America’ and ‘Somebody Feed Phil’. Doña Vale is something of an Oaxaca legend having fought her way out of poverty creating her very successful food stand in a market outside the centre serving memelas, freshly made thick corn tortillas cooked on a griddle and served with a variety of toppings but all featuring her amazing mole, or sauce. This truly was spectacular street food. Elsewhere in the town excellent food is available in the street and I never fell ill – Covid has made the Mexicans very careful and you can still be asked to wear a mask. The fact that life is so tough for many seems to make the Mexicans more rather than less caring.
Out in the country there are villages where Spanish is a second language, Mixtec and Zapotec being the main languages. About a million Oaxaqueños, 35% of the state population, speak a native language. Their culture, of which they are proud and defensive, is very different from the mainstream Mexican way of life. A Swiss photographer showed me a brilliant photo he had taken of a campesino proudly holding up an enormous – and clearly very successful – fighting cock. Mexico is not for the squeamish, not even when it comes to leisure activities. Politics is omnipresent in the city of Oaxaca, with frequent demonstrations, but there is no national politics in these villages – government is by village councils, some of which seek to improve life and help the indigenous campesinos make more money, but they remain the disadvantaged and marginalised Mexicans. About 33% are illiterate.
Back to the capital and reflection
And then I was back in a reclining seat on a luxury Platino bus headed for Mexico City and an art deco apartment in Condesa, one of Mexico City’s most beautiful districts. I ate dinner in a Oaxaqueño restaurant. I had black corn tortillas and duck with ‘Mole’ cerveza artesanal (craft beer)and mezcal and then walked along the tree-lined streets past expensive cars and shops. The poverty here is not as severe or as evident in rural Oaxaca, but it is always there, from the trash collectors to the omnipresent street vendors and musicians and the waiters who never fail to ask for a tip. And those endless suburbs.
The largely failed example of the conviviencia (coexistence) between Mexico (or indeed the rest of Central and South America) and the USA is an abject lesson in the challenges of globalisation and migration, something which we in the UK have yet to talk about honestly. Will we ever?
Ed: Check out Jim’s earlier “Letter from America” – from Argentina.