For most Americans, Mexico is a vacation playground. We jet into Acapulco or Cancun, where we are pampered in Holiday Inns, get a great return on our dollar, and are effectively walled off from the “other” Acapulco or Cancun. Poverty is always extreme and ugly in native sectors of resort cities.
To experience the “real” Mexico, one has to leave the tourist traps behind, get on a bus and head for the interior. Away from extreme polarization, one begins to see that poverty is not always ugly—far from it—although, in this gilded age, one needs to retrain one’s eyes to see it so.
For example, I have a friend who has been studying in Mexico for three years now. She is amazed how well a Mexican girl dresses with just a couple of skirts and blouses and a few colorful scarfs; or a Mexican boy with a pair of nice jeans and two or three shirts. The Mexicans have style, she says, tenderly. They make a little do a lot.
But the beauty of modest poverty goes much deeper than style. Poverty lives close to the earth, close to the sweat of hard work, close to death. How easily the rich forget their mortality, as if their possessions, their savings, insurance policies, positions in the firms, etc. were a protection even against dying. But when you walk with the Mexican people, you are right away aware that life is more fragile than you remembered.
For example, my American friend (who initially intended to stay in Mexico only six months) was recently walking in Mexico City, when a little girl was hit by a car and terribly injured. To my friend the strange thing was that the Mexicans, when they saw how deeply she was hurt, seemed to consider the girl already dead. There was no urgency to get an ambulance; no medevac helicopter was flown in. Not that the people weren’t brokenhearted and sobbing; simply, they knew her life was over.
In a rich country, we would spend millions to save this one life, even if she were to live as a vegetable, so frightened we are of death, and so often we disguise this fear as compassion. But a poor country has no resources for such heroic delusions. People hurt beyond healing are tenderly let to die. Wheelchairs, old folks homes, orphanages, etc., are rare in Mexico. People have to “make it” within their own means. Death is always closer.
But isn’t the old saying true: the more aware of death one is, the more aware of life, thus the more alive. Mexicans make a lot out of the individual day, because that day is life. Savings (i.e. saving up for tomorrow) are a luxury of rich people; and the Mexican, without savings, albeit less secure, is not trapped in the illusion that tomorrow will be better. Or that tomorrow will necessarily come.
This summer, in Guanajuato, where my friend lives, I was relaxing in the town square, observing an American family eating dinner in an outdoor restaurant. Before the meal was finished, the husband got up from his table to read the menu at the entrance of the next restaurant over. The wife looked bored; the kids were poking each other and complaining about missing their TV programs. In contrast, the Mexican family at a nearby table was animated in conversation and laughter, obviously enjoying a special night out. And the Mexican children playing in the park were in fine accord with the simplicity of the evening.
The moment made me realize that of all my delights in Mexico, the children are the greatest. Even in rags, they play so joyfully. I have never once seen a Mexican child bullying someone smaller; perhaps because neither have I ever seen Mexican parents berating or swatting or yanking around their children. If correction is needed, they give it from bended knees, and with a little humor to take the edge off.
It would seem to make sense that the child with the higher standard of living would be the happy child; but Mexico dramatically teaches me this is untrue.
One morning my friend and I were walking in the mountains around Guanajuato. In a high valley, we found a waterfall and were sitting on the rocks above it when we heard a score of Mexican children surfacing over a distant ridge and descending. When they reached the pool under the falls, they excitedly stripped down to underwear and began splashing in the water.
One little girl with crossed eyes wouldn’t go in the water because she didn’t have a bathing suit and felt too old to go in her underwear. My friend, now at the pool’s edge, was trying to convince her, finally stripping down to her own skivies and plunging in the water. The children squealed to see such a sight; and as I watched from above I realized that my friend would never come home to live again.