4 Things I Learned After 3 Months in Mexico

It’s been 3 months since we landed in Mexico. During this time, from a complete unknown Mexico became a place whose faces, sights and smells we now recognize. We are only beginning to discover the rich cultural tapestry of this vast nation, the biggest Spanish-speaking country in the world. But some insights are already ripe enough to share. Vamos!

Mexico is not Divided by Race (Unless You Count Poverty)

Unlike the US, Mexico is not divided by race. While about 20% of Mexicans self-identify as indigenous people, most have both European and indigenous roots. “Bronze race” and “Cosmic race”, historical terms used in Mexico since the 19th century reflect a national psyche based on an ethnic and cultural mix of the European and indigenous elements. While interracial marriage was frowned upon in the West up until recently, in Mexico mixing of races and cultures gained a status of national idea already in the beginning of the 20th century.

Syncretism in Mexico: a figurine of a local venerated virgin in mounted on a vehicle and taken on a ride across the town in Valladolid, Yucatan.

 

But this isn’t to say that economic gaps are unrelated to descent. The poorest people you see here – women begging at churches doors with their babies in their hands, girls selling clothes and dolls on the streets, they are all visibly indigenous people. People from the middle-class – those that rent you apartments, that sit with laptops in coffee shops, are always unmistakably European-looking. Centuries of discrimination and exploitation are not easily erased.

An older lady and her granddaughter selling street food in Tequila, Jalisco
A female student on the stairs of Guanajuato university

Mexico is North America

Not only geographically. It surprised me that despite a history shared with other Latin American nations, in many important ways Mexico is closer to the US and Canada than to its Central and South American neighbours. Simply put, Mexicans are oriented north. Many Mexicans I talked with have relatives in the US. Many visited Canada, either for an English language course or student exchange program. Many have worked for either Canadian or American-owned companies, which have operations in Mexico.

Fidel Castro used to complain that Mexicans turned away from their Latin-American brothers in their quest to enter the club of rich and wealthy nations. He was critical of the NAFTA free trade agreement that Mexico signed with the US and Canada in 1994. Since than Mexico has become the 15th economy in the world, a member of OECD and G20, with 90% of its exports going north. While Mexico is still far from being rich, it certainly is not looking south.

But it’s not only economy. While football is still the main sport in Mexico, I was surprised to discover that Mexicans love watching American football. Taking a walk in the Chapultepec Avenue in Guadalajara, I would see this strange american phenomenon pouring from TV screens of every sports bar, accompanied by emotional Spanish commentary. In fact, it’s so popular that this year there will be a regular season NFL games played in Mexico City in front of a local crowd.

Joints like this on Chapultepec avenue in Guadalajara get loud and busy during evenings, broadcasting American football and serving, you guessed right, wings.

 

Tourism is another area where Mexico is firmly a North-American and Transatlantic nation. When planning a vacation abroad, Mexicans tend to think about two general directions: US and Europe. I’ve seen countless ads in Mexico of cheap flights to Miami, Madrid or Paris, but I haven’t seen even one to Buenos Aires or Santiago. I’ve met Mexicans that were excited about their travel plans to Europe, New York or Toronto, but I can hardly recall anyone talking about Guatemala, Costa Rica or Colombia. Of course Mexicans do travel south, but it seems they are just less excited about it.

 

Mexicans are Open, Warm, Humble and Romantic

Talking about national traits is always risky, given how hard it is to draw meaningful insights from meeting 40 people, and casting your first impressions of them on an entire nation. And yet, here it goes.

Mexicans speak openly about themselves. One man, whose boy was playing in a playground together with our 3-year-old, told me how hard it is for his son without his mother, who passed away recently, and how he himself misses her companionship. Another told me how hard it was for his wife to get pregnant. One driver told me at length about a car accident that left him handicapped and with loans he is now trying to pay back. That wasn’t an emotional plea for a tip. He was simply pouring out his heart.

A street food vendor is happy to feed a shivering girl, Zapopan

 

People we met here are respectful and polite. Vendors on the street are never pushy, and saying “no” once is enough. Despite high levels of violent crime, the level of aggression in public spaces is actually very low. During our 3 months here, no one has ever been rude to us. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen anyone being rude to anyone. We have been in 4 states across the country, and everywhere we went, the atmosphere was warm and friendly. We never felt that we were treated unfairly or taken advantage of, on the account of being foreigners. The only reason we kept our guard, was locals that were constantly reminding us to stay safe. “Don’t let your boy run away like that” said to me one woman in Guadalajara supermarket on the outskirts of the city. “Seguridad” (safety) is on everyone’s lips.

Mexicans have no illusions. They talk unequivocally about corruption and their distrust of country’s institutions. “Do you have any hopes that something would change in the future?” I asked one day a Mexican friend I met in Guadalajara. “No, not really” he answered laughingly. “This is Mexico, this is how things are here”. In recent poll, 94% of Mexicans said that they think the country is moving in the wrong direction, making them the most disillusioned nation in the world. But this isn’t translated into anger or melancholia. It’s just a fact of life that people accept and live with, out of healthy pragmatism and humility rather than apathy or passivity.

Another thing that surprised me was seeing so many middle-aged couples being affectionate with each other. On a train to Tequila we sat in front of a middle-aged couple from Guanajuato, that were holding hands the whole ride. I also can’t forget an older couple in San Miguel de Allende that were kissing passionately, while their teenage children were looking at their smartphones nearby. Older couples dancing together in squares and parks on Sunday evenings is a usual spectacle here.

An older couple in Tlaquepaque

Mexicans Distrust Their Institutions

The people in Mexico absolutely distrust their government institutions. The police, the army, the courts – no one expects anything good from them.

In Merida, the Uber driver that was supposed to take us to the airport on the morning of our departure from the city, told us he can’t go there. “They will take my car, and I will never see it again. They already have my license plate”. “They” are the police who work together with the local taxi drivers in the city. They intimidate Uber drivers, confiscate their cars and can even jail them for a week.

“They are afraid”. A newspaper in Mérida highlights the troubles Uber drivers face in the city

 

I asked several Mexicans whether they can recall a president whom they liked. I didn’t get any names. “They are all corrupt” was the usual answer. Of course politicians are disliked everywhere. But here in Mexico a president is also often regarded as a powerless figure, unable or unwilling to fix the biggest problem in the country: the prevalent corruption.

Somewhat surprisingly at first, a career in law seems to carry a lot of prestige in Mexico. When I asked one taxi driver in Guadalajara why his daughter decided to study law, he answered (I suspect only half-laughingly) that lawyers can make lots of money defending narco-barons.

***

After traveling from Guadalajara to Merida and back to San Miguel de Allende, we’ll finally arrive to Mexico City in a week. We were too timid to start our Mexican journey with this urban and cultural giant, but now I think we are ready. More to come!

24 Replies

  • As always Mike, your observations are acute and interesting! I think you and your family are simply wonderful travelers—- open-minded, open-hearted, observant, patient and alert. Thank you for sharing your experiences so generously. When do we next see you in Vancouver ?

    • Thank you dear Gordon for your kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
      Our deadline is May 2018, this is when we have to return to Canada keep our residence. I hope we can see as much as possible until then 🙂

  • What an inspiring post – love every second!!! Cannot wait to read the next one -hehehe 😉

    • Hi David,
      Thank you for the kind words 🙂

      So I gather your experience was similar. How long have you been here?

      • Hello Mike I am subscribed to your interesting blog .20 years here with some breaks in Paris and back and forth to Montreal ( Canada)
        I just extended a comment here.. hope to have more exchanges..

  • How true I arrived in 2010, with no expectations, I teach. Came for two years, maybe ! . Yet I fell in love first with the amazing children I taught, and then with a Mexican man. This place, these people I call home.

    • Hi Sharon,
      There is something about Mexico and its people that touches you. I am glad you found here not only friendships but also love and home. Where in Mexico do you live now?

  • Hey Mike, this article is spot on and we loved it coming from The Baja Pig Rosarito. We’d love to be able to post your work on our website, we could even shout you out so people could know that it’s your work. Get back to us when you’re able to, my name is Joel. Really hope to hear from you soon.

    9092067004
    [email protected]
    personal IG @joelnevarez_

  • Having spent over 6 years living in Mexico, Central and South America it was hard for me to even get the first observation that racism does not exist in Mexico. You need more time there I suspect. Any chance you are fluent in Spanish? If not, this probably explains a lot.

    • Hi Stephen,
      I didn’t mean to say that there is no racism in Mexico. From what I read and heard, there is plenty. I just meant to say that Mexico isn’t clearly divided by race into whites, blacks and native americans, as is the case in the US.

    • hello Stephen..

      Racism in Mexico exist and it is a reality and part of the Mexicans, I know you are asking how come if they are all dark skin ? if they looks so nice to me? well once in Montreal I was watching something on TV about Haiti.. and then they were talking about the racism.. and it works in this way.. light brown skins discriminates the darker skins.. Holy Moly how is this possible ? well Mexico society is composed in the followed way.

      Another example there is a Mexican film about the Jewish in Mexico, and in some parts they talk about their community divided by those from Easter Europe (Yiddish ) the “Marranos” the Sefardites and those whom immigrate from the Ottoman empire, well if you hang out with Mexican Jewish you will notice they dont get along or they referred to each other in a pejorative ( discrimination ?? )way.

      10% of the population is white either European or Spaniards
      70% of the population is “mestizo”
      20% of the population is ” indigena”

      watch this video that explain by itself ..
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuHgD3fXiyE

      add to the this the economical position. if you are wealthy white or light skin and with a renowned family last name you will be on the top of the pyramid.

  • Great post and totally agree. Before moving here my wife and I read The Mexican Mind by Boyé Lafayette De Mente. Not trying to hawk a book but it really opened our minds to how different cultures experience life. Thanks!

    • Hi Dave,
      Thank you for your comment. Actually I was just looking for a good about Mexican society and identity, and settled down on The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. But The Mexican Mind looks interesting as well, thank you for pointing it out to me.

  • Hello Mike… Talking about Mexico and and Mexican and little further trying to understand it/ them is a quit complex task, even for Mexicans. as an Observer / empirical sociologist and a business owner I always tried to define and put a label searching for an explanation about the behavior and their way of act, the reasons of their poverty / sub development/ corruption and many of their burdens and some other social issues.

    Randomly I will pick your 4 subjects and will make some extended comments when spare time.

    1.- Mexicans Distrust their institutions: Oh mon Dieu we say in French.. this is a very complex issue, and according to my point of view the Mother of the Mother of all their problems.
    I consider the problem is deeper than just distrust on their institutions. according to my observations during more than 20 years, the problem lies in a lack of confidence on themselves ! Have you ever notice that Mexicans barely say NO. ? or if they say it they do it in a very shy way ? They do not compromise. in an opposite side they always say SI even if they know they wont show up or they will compromise for a meeting / hang out or whatever.

    When a person lacks on confidence on himself and further when a group of individuals then called society lacks on confidence on themselves with justified reasons they will distrust on their institutions and whatever is related to their lives.
    Instead of having the confidence of the knowledge or the control of some factor we can control, they put this decision on the hand of Good or the destiny. if they look for a job instead of trusting on their skills their response will be “Dios dira”.. they plan their vacations last minute because their are afraid of the future. True we can not control the future but some variables yes.
    So when a society lack on trust on themselves and they do not compromise, what you can expect of their institutions ?
    They consider “INSTITUTIONS” as something like a black hole in the infinite, or a UFO something totally strange to them..so for that reason they blame on their politicians, institutions and so on.

    I always have some discussions with friends that complain about corruption, politicians and institutions, my answer is always the same.. do you compromise to supervise them ? so you get involved ? so how do you want clear numbers of you taxes if you just do not supervise or get involved ? Politicians around the globe are corrupted in a certain level either a prime minister from Iceland, or the Spanish royal family , a congressman from USA or a president from an African banana republic. the difference from each society is the level of supervision as individuals / community we put into our politicians / institutions.

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