Who are these Mexicans who disturb the tranquility of the USA enough to necessitate a wall to separate the two North American peoples? Who are literally “dying” to get into fortress USA? What is their country like that they so readily abandon in order to work in Yankee supermarkets and California orchards, on New York skyscrapers and in households of the Atlantic seaboard? How is it possible that these two neighboring peoples are so dramatically different one from the other? In this essay I offer some personal answers. Image: General Villa, Commander of the División del Norte, meets with General Pershing.
GAITHER STEWART [print_link] PART ONE | READ PART TWO
THE FIFTEEN MONTHS I SPENT IN MEXICO deepened and consolidated a fundamental transformation long underway in me. The Italian writer Ignazio Silone was right: I had to step backwards from what I once was and where I was before in order to see myself and the world. Or maybe it was simply the altitude of Mesoamerica … and the winds … and also new inclinations toward unrestraint. Or maybe what happened to me in Mexico was simply because it is not necessary to live south of the border very long in order to begin to see American imperialism at work, contributing to the existing economic disparity between north and south. It is a mystery why things are the way they are. Still, it became clear that powerful evil forces combine to compel millions of Mexicans to sneak into the United States and live a dog’s life just to eat. Though it is true that because of the missing social idea America’s poor are poorer than Europe’s poor, Mexico’s poor are still worse off. Their poverty makes them seem to grovel for sustenance. Most certainly Mexicans don’t work on the skyscrapers of Dallas and New York City and wash dishes in cafeterias in Atlanta and in Charlotte and pick fruit in California because they are enamored with Yankee life. They prefer Mexico. They are north of the formidable Rio Grande border with its growing wall for the simple reason that though man does not live by bread alone, he must eat. For anyone with eyes to see it is clear that something is startlingly and tragically out of whack in North America.
Contrary to what some smug bien-pensants pseudo-sociologists and self-righteous capitalists pontificate, Mexicans do not choose to be poor. Otherwise why the perilous nocturnal crossings over the Rio Grande, risking drowning, betrayals by the same bandits who organize their passage, beatings and arrest by the Texas Rangers, and being shot down by military reservists along America’s Berlin style Wall—a Wall to keep Mexicans out, they say, but soon, who can say for sure? maybe also to keep Americans in.
The old saying about Mexico’s ills still holds: “Pobre Mexico tan lejos de dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.” Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near the United States. (The aphorism has been credited to Porfirio Diaz, but some historians argue it was Simon Bolivar who coined the witticism, with all of “Latin America” as the victim instead of just Mexico.) For there is no better place than Mexico to see first-hand the negative results of the pact between American capitalism and the tiny “have” class of Mexican society that has exploited the country’s hard working people for one hundred and fifty years. John Mason Hart’s monumental Empire and Revolution that I once reviewed answers the question many Americans are asking today: “Why do they hate us so much?” At the outset Professor Hart, University of Houston, quotes a passage from Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’ masterpiece, The Death of Artemio Cruz, the gist of which is that one cannot commit what North Americans (and the Mexican elite) have committed against Mexico and expect to be loved. Hart sees the historical attitudes of the United States toward its southern neighbor as the model for America’s drive for world hegemony today. It was in Mexico that the historic compulsion of American elites toward external wealth and global power was first expressed.
“From the beginnings of the nineteenth century until the present era, the citizens of the United States attempted to export their unique ‘American dream’ to Mexico. Their vision incorporated social mobility, Protestant values, a capitalist free market, a consumer culture, and a democracy of elected representation….The evolving pattern of American behavior in Mexico has reflected and usually anticipated the interactions of U.S. citizens in other Latin American and Third World societies.” Hart traces from its origins the role of America’s economic-financial elite in Mexico, for whom annexation has been the traditional goal. Many Americans have favored outright political annexation of parts or of all of Mexico. Many have considered it a question of time. If one is amazed by the number of Mexicans immigrating to the United States today, Professor Hart reminds us of the mass immigrations of Americans to Mexico. In the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries Americans purchased large tracts of land in Mexico and then immigrated there in increasing numbers. The idea was to buy Mexico! By 1910, 40,000 Americans had swarmed into the new frontier territories—12,000 in Mexico City itself—where rich Americans settled in the plush Las Lomas quarter of the capital. Foreigners came to own thirty-five per cent of Mexico. Many opened bars and nightclubs, dance halls, bordellos and casinos—as later in Cuba—rather than investing in agriculture and industry. Thus many became early on exploiters of the common people. Hart documents how privatization and foreign investment policies of the regime of Porfirio Diaz in Mexico City from the latter part of the Nineteenth century up to the Revolution in 1910 enriched the oligarchy but left little for the people. The Mexican elite and the North American capitalists took all. Foreigners had the benefits and the power.
At the same time American financiers and industrialists in Mexico were gaining influence in Central America and the Caribbean, and participated with their British partners in expansion into South America, Africa and Asia. (A fine old tradition, British and American cooperation: one people, one empire!) Thus, when the Mexican Revolution exploded the people’s ire was directed against both the Diaz regime and foreign capitalists—chiefly Americans. Shouts of “Long Live Mexico” and “Death to the Yankees” are echoed today in similar protests ringing out from Afghanistan to Africa to the Middle East. Mexican rioters then attacked American targets as do Islamic terrorists today. When the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata proclaimed that the rich of Mexico City treated their horses better than the people, he attracted poor peasants from all over Mexico. No wonder the Mexican government has never ceased to fear the Zapatistas, as the movement for “tierra y libertad” (land and freedom) is still called today, and who periodically march on the capital to demand their rights.
Empire and Revolution shows how American-Mexican relations anticipated the issue of globalization that emerged in the 1990s. Now globalization, the division of wealth and the economic disparity between the United States and the Third World are sharpening the conflictual relationship between the rich and the poor worlds in general.
Before we moved to Mexico, Milena and I flew there to look around for a place to live. Since I had benefits with KLM Airlines as a Dutch journalist, we traveled a mysterious but revealing route of Rome-Amsterdam-Detroit-Mexico City. The approach from the north to the geographic triangle of Mexico was a peculiar physical-metaphysical happening. After overflying the Rio Grande and the Tropic of Cancer, the earthen mass below surged upwards to us hovering motionless in the air. Suddenly the whole world was in movement. Change was underway. Five, six, seven, ten ridges, spreading, swelling, narrowing toward the south, rolled toward us from western skies like huge oceanic waves, a lonely image of abandonment among the elements; the black mountains clamped us in their grasp; the past skipped away across spinning gossamer clouds; in contrast to everyday life on earth the planet moved while the plane hung over the earth like a giant prehistoric bird; invisible worlds zoomed around us; white vapor trails crisscrossed the blue southern skies; Mexico narrowed and the sky retreated heavenwards; transient white clouds cast menacing dark shadows on the undulating green and brown fields below, spaced by narrow rivers winding toward the Gulf; billowing chains of darkness approaching from the west collided with the east, and together rolled southwards, and then, again climbing toward the sky, combined to form the great plateau that is Mesoamerica, the heart of Mexico.
Bluish-black mountains filled the triangular plateau to form a gigantic pyramid surrounded by the seas. It was the top of the world, the center, where time stands still. In the vacuum you feel a sensation of enormous power. Finally, under the last layer of smog and mist, the sun was hazy and matted. A buoyant voice concealing a note of irony announced that we might see the pyramids as we flew over the city.
No such luck. No signs of pyramids. Only smog.
And, on the ground, the long dreamlike black and yellow airport corridors leading into the New-Old World generated simultaneous sensations of challenge and hesitation.
I must have been looking for the comfortable old city I had visited decades earlier. It was nothing of the sort. Though Mexico City seemed familiar, it was another world from what I remembered. The rhythm had changed—the traffic, the noises, the masses on the streets, the way people moved, the park of the Alamos, the arcades, the sudden vistas, the Italian style palazzos. Still, though it was the Old World located in the New World, there was something there I didn’t feel before. The city had something universal about it absent in ephemeral Detroit, something it would never occur to any sane person to search for in the city of the automobile.
Benito Juárez García (March 21, 1806 – July 18, 1872) was a Zapotec Amerindian who served five terms as president of Mexico: 1858–1861 as interim, 1861–1865, 1865–1867, 1867–1871 and 1871–1872. Benito Juárez was the first Mexican leader who did not have a military background, and also the first full-blooded indigenous national to serve as President of Mexico and to lead a country in the Western Hemisphere in over 300 years. For resisting the French occupation, overthrowing the Empire, and restoring the Republic, as well as for his efforts to modernize the country, Juárez is often regarded as one of Mexico’s greatest and most beloved leaders. >>>
For despite their poverty, Mexicans, in my experience, are the first to say: “Not by bread alone.” Earthly bread is necessary but not enough for a man. Universality resides in the Mexican people. Everything changes, south of the Rio Grande. I had just read a sociologist who labels the Mexican a historical chameleon who changes his skin according to circumstances. Mexico’s Nobel writer, Octavio Paz stresses that the Mexican is more Indio than Spanish, which must have something to do with his strangeness and adaptability and also his universality … with his venerable 30,000 years of age.
Paz, as most Mexican artists, was obsessed with the differences between Mexicans and their North American neighbors: “Mexicans lie out of fantasy, desperation, or to conquer the squalor of their lives; North Americans don’t lie about the true truth that is always unpleasant but about social truth. North Americans want to understand; we to contemplate. Americans are credulous; we believers. We, as their forefathers did, believe that sin and death constitute the foundation of human nature.”
Since we both felt immediately at home, Milena and I quickly concluded that the Mexican is nonetheless more European. On the other hand, the Mexican nature also makes one wonder if it is positive to be so universal that you can accept anything philosophically? For universality has not brought great fortune to Mexico, no more than has its proximity to the USA. It seems only ancient peoples like perhaps Sicilians or Sardinians are capable of being simply men. Men who don’t strive for perfection. It came to seem to me that men who just lead good lives are perhaps universal without realizing it. It makes them free, but at the same time vulnerable to the claws of the hawks.
After a week, the initial resemblances with Italy began fading. Then, suddenly, they were gone. The light changed. Eyes burned. Beggars besieged the entrances to marvelous museums; the dirt and grime from the earthquake zone sullied the white walls of Palacio de Bellas Artes; the revolutionary murals of Siquieros, Rivera and Orozco didn’t make the public water drinkable; the daintiness of Sanborn’s eatery seemed precarious and anachronistic; the spring temperatures didn’t freshen smog-filled throats; the white-capped volcanoes, gigantic and invisible, were only legend; the blasé rich in Zona Rosa restaurants ignored the withered women on the streets rationing tortillas to tiny children. One day, after visiting the Frida Kahlo Museum, we sat at a café on the plaza of Coyoacan watching flashy people sauntering in and out. In the village atmosphere the air seemed purer than it was. One could even smell cotton candy. On the opposite sidewalk under a row of trees an old man in a cowboy shirt with two small children licking red ices was begging. We decided we didn’t want to get used to the beggars, the eternal problem of living in places of widespread poverty.
Most of all I wanted to know who these Mexicans are who make this another world from the rest of North America. In his El Laberinto de la Soledad, Octavio Paz explains that just as behind the Greeks stood the Egyptians or behind the Romans stood the Etruscans or behind the Russians, the Varangians and Mongols, behind the Aztecs and the Spanish conquerors who formed today’s Mexicans there stand millennia of peoples in a long and crazy past. In the end I came to see Mexico as a tragic country. It has do with its ancient origins. Or its solitude on its highlands and in its jungles. Rich in an ancient culture and, as you see on Mexico City’s eighty-kilometer long Avenida Insurgentes, at the vanguard of modernity, Mexico is a political caveman. A modern dictatorship based on corruption and retention of power. But somehow—my hope is that some of the reasons become clear in this writing—it is not decadent as were the Aztecs by the time the Spanish arrived. I see Mexico as a viable society, on its way up. While the United States has passed its zenith, Mexico can still rise again.
Most everything that reflects Mexico happens in its capital city of between twenty-two and thirty million people—no one knows how many since its uncounted people in its uncounted shantytowns extend the limits of the city each day. Still, as New York is not America and Paris is not France, Mexico City is not Mexico either.
Milena and I decided to investigate a town a French-Italian woman artist who lived there part of the year had told us about: San Miguel de Allende, a tourist town four hours north of Mexico City. Before the reader scoffs at our choice, read further. We boarded a first-class, darkened, air-conditioned Flecha Amarilla bus headed north. The town looked right—church steeples and towers, red tile roofs, white and pastel-colored houses, green parks and gardens. A lake shimmered in the distance. Blue mountains lay to the west and canyons to the east. A block from the main square we found the kind of colonial hotel I had imagined. Since this was off-season, there was a wide choice of rooms and we finally took an apartment on the hotel roof overlooking the town. When evenings the sun fell toward the ridge of the mountains and dropped in a burst of flames before disappearing into nothingness I understood why the Indios worshipped it.
In those first days of discovery I liked to sit at the jardín, the park in the town center, and watch people and events. Toward evening when the Gringos stood up from the benches and began discussing restaurants for the evening, the Mexicans, as if according to a preordained plan, moved in unison from the shade of the trees in the park to places in the cooling sun. Two worlds occupy San Miguel, one Mexican, one gringo—two worlds apart, coexisting so peacefully in the same time and space that it made me feel guilty for the subterfuge and duplicity it conceals. Under the arches around the main plaza Mariachi bands hang around waiting for evening engagements. The men stand along the walls, divided in groups according to the colors of their suits, some smoking long cigars. So elegant. So mysterious. The sad-serious expressions on their faces seem like the masks of old Mexico. Milena loved the hundreds of buttons on the tight jackets and pants and the serapes thrown so casually over their shoulders against the cool nights. I think there is nothing more Mexican, nothing more lonely, than a serape.
A few months later, Milena and I moved, we thought definitively, to Mexico. I was bored of Italy, my romance with the Bel Paese was over. I was no longer deceived by it; the façade of Italy had fallen in shreds at its feet and the peninsula seemed nude and barren. My newspaper had anyway begun dismantling its network of foreign correspondents. It was just as well. I was tired of reporting on the repetitiveness of Italy’s changing governments. My views on the country were no longer fresh and the newspaper devoted little space to Italy once terrorism finished and the so-called Second Republic was born.
Revolutionary leaders Gens. Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata (r), representing the northern and southern peasant armies. Treason would ambush both. Their greatness, despite continued efforts at tarnishment, grows with the passing of time.
Still, it was not only disillusionment with Italy. The time had arrived to escape from Europe itself. Time to abandon my beloved Europe. I wanted to go beyond Europe. I imagined that going to Mexico was like going to war used to be for young men—escape from the dead-end-you of home when your hopes and possibilities begin to decline and your dreams fade and you have to do something, anything, to survive. My boyhood dream of Mexico became reality. The Mexican Revolution and Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa had fascinated me as a boy in Asheville. Besides, I had begun writing my first novel, part of which was to be set in Mexico. It was not our intention to just visit Mexico. We rented out our house in Rome with the plan of settling in Mexico where also our meager retirement would suffice, as it did not in Europe. I believe I thought of Mexico as another exile. Exile has an aura about it; it projects a kind of halo over the exiled one. There is something romantic and gratifying to one’s vanity in it. You seem to stand on a kind of pedestal over the heads of others, free and unfettered. Free from involvement in local issues. Throughout history the exile has been a literary archetype, a character of Greek myth and Bible stories. My rare critics have noted that nearly every character in my fiction is an exile in one way or another, concerned with departure and the impossibility of return. For that reason the exile dwells more on the past than the present or the future. The danger arises from the stamp of nostalgia (the yearning to return) and the resulting melancholy that hangs over the past and the exile’s longing for something indefinite that never existed in reality and is enormously, gigantically absent in the present. What the exile says of the present, as of the past, is somewhat off-base, out of tune with real reality. His is also a different view, seen from another angle, another slant. He works with quarter notes. He works from memory, though a fading memory, misapprehended memory, frustrating, elusive and deceptive. His attempt to grasp his often unreal and artificial present creates in his mind chaos. So I hang onto my exile characters standing at the intersection between their own vague history and an eternal embryonic present and who in their struggles seem to have lost the power of choice.
At the same time my move to the old part of the New World reflected also my own search for myself. Something was missing and I hoped to find it in the ancient mystery of Mexico. I was searching for a new exile where I would become a new person. But to do that I had to discover that person or thing I felt in me. The mysterious thing dangling just out of reach, the thing whose presence I think everyone must feel but never recognize. It must have to do with who we are and where we come from, and also my conviction that we are more than Shakespeare’s “Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole and keep the wind away.”
THE DRIVE TO MEXICO IS A PIECE OF CAKE. Straight southwest to Dallas, then turn left south toward San Antonio and Laredo. For me crossing the border by car was precisely the perplexing sensation I had imagined: you drive across the International Bridge over the narrow Rio Grande and magically step into another world. Once past Monterrey, each new curve of the climb onto the plateau called Mesoamerica presents a new vista, grayish colored hills, mesquite trees and narrow ravines transformed into hillsides of giant agaves and majestic organos. Twisting upwards, the road winds through the raw passes of the Sierra Madre. As if from nowhere dark people appear along the highway with animal skins on sale or they lead laden donkeys along dusty paths. They are not primitive; they have been doing the same things forever; they have held fast to what was theirs; nothing has ever happened to change it. Not distance or trains running on time count here, but the passing of centuries and volcanic eruptions and migrations of peoples. Purity must live here, I thought.
At mid-day, the old town of San Miguel de Allende stands exposed as if at the summit of an Aztec temple. Father Sun is insidious. Beguilingly yellow, soft and warm, the sun hovers low for a few hours in the crisp morning before at noon its concentrated rays explode, violent, burning white. The fulgor of the tropical noonday sun is ambiguous. It burns black. For hours then the town lies helpless as if under a giant magnifying glass. Then after the damage has been done the sun slides toward the West, gradually at first, serenely, almost innocently, before in an instant plummeting behind the Sierra Madre in orange splendor leaving the Bajío Region in darkness.
Some people blame the sun for the generalized folly infecting San Miguelians—perhaps many Mexicans. The high sky over the great plateau of Mexico exudes stillness. Yet the repose of the heavens never descends to the dusty noisy earth to soothe people’s hearts. The dust of Mexico! The fearsome noises imprisoned within the town’s stone walls—gaseous cars and buses and bellowing motorcycles, construction echoes, barking dogs, fiesta music, fireworks, winds and rains—unite to crush mind and spirit. Old gods seem to have infused secret purposes in the hearts of its self-ostracized peoples. Playful and deadly Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the Here and Now, who places children in the womb of Mexican women, willed to them an atmosphere that slays thought and withers impulses of reaction to oppression.
Bogart, Huston and Tim Holt in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Written by a mysterious German emigré, B. Traven, and with a cast of Mexican and American stars, the story mirrors the way many foreigners have looked at Mexico: a land in which the law is often fragile and anything goes.
Afternoons, all kinds of people of San Miguel sit on the iron benches under the trees of the central plaza. The Gringos sit in the front row along the street facing the church towers—Texans, Yankees, Canadians and a few stray Europeans, engaged in looking at one another. Right over there is one with a long gray beard and hair bound in a pigtail wearing an off-shoulder Mexican shirt. And sitting on a low wall is a red-faced fat lady in a straw hat eating a huge cone of ice cream, sensually licking around the edges. And there are the predictable young blond tourists in jeans artificially torn at the knees, playing guitars and singing folk songs, largely ignored by the Mexicans sitting on the Town Hall side of the plaza and in the center under the trees around the bandstand. They too are watching one another—whites, various shades of mestizos and white, negro and white, negro and indigenous, migrants from Mexico City and Monterrey, from Guadalajara and Chihuahua, grandfathers and grandchildren, school girls in blue and white uniforms, street vendors, cowboys in white sombreros, policemen, and, at evening hours, the Mariachi. Each of the two distinct worlds lives against the background of the other, forever present, yet ignoring each other as if each were invisible to the other’s eyes. Purposeless peoples, exiled peoples, hounded and chased in search of asylum, and yet united by the shadow of past discontent, mistakes, misunderstandings, abuses, crimes, and now by the pigeons and stray dogs wandering indiscriminately under the feet of all, searching for a morsel of food here, or there, a careless caress.
Maria Felix, of Yaqui indian and Spanish descent, was the stuff that not only Mexican dreams are made of. For several decades she was rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful and distinctive actresses in the world. In 1946 she married the great Mexican composer Agustin Lara. Felix said of him that although he was not a handsome man, she was totally in love with him. She told her sister his music entranced her. During their one-year marriage, he composed some of his most beautiful songs, most of them inspired by her.
The town of San Miguel de Allende is five hundred years old. But the territory was long inhabited by peoples descended from the men who 30,000 years ago crossed the Bering Straits from Asia and filtered to the South. Men with Mongoloid features discovered today’s Mexico 21,000 years before Columbus by chance reached America. When the Genoese navigator arrived the peoples were not “Indians.” Instead, Otomí, then Nahoas, then Chichimecs—the latter name allegedly means “uncivil dirty dogs”—and Guachichils or “red-painted faces,” lived around today’s San Miguel de Allende. According to Spanish priests, “going naked, eating rats and snakes, worshipping pagan gods, and scalping the whites” who were pushing through their lands in search of gold and silver.
After time slowed, ironclad armies on horses and priests armed with the cross combined to discover the silver and, with boiling lead, to wash their civilizing religion down the throats of the indigenous peoples. The pax catholicus took root and the natives added Jesus Christ to their pantheon of gods. The Franciscan Juan de San Miguel founded the town of San Miguel in homage to his Patron Saint and dedicated his life to exhorting the native peoples to cooperation with their bloody conquerors: baptism was synonymous with civilization. The Friar wandered over the countryside singing the Franciscan canticle for the pleasure and edification of the “naked, pagan, rat-eating, Christian-scalping, uncivil dirty dogs of Chichimecs:”
Highest, Omnipotent, good Lord,
Praises, glory and honor and every blessing are Yours.
Praise be to You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
Especially to Lord brother Sun,
Who is the day, which illuminates us.
Praise be to You, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars:
You created them bright, precious and beautiful in the heavens.
And so on and so on goes the canticle, for brother wind, for the air, the clouds, the sky, and all the weather, which sustains His creatures. For water, fire, the earth. At the end of the canticle come the bleakness and blackness new to the pagans:
Praise be to You, my Lord, for our sister, corporal death from which no mortal creature can escape.
Ay! for those who die in mortal sin!
Fortunate those who will be in Your Holy Will.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, iconic figures in Mexico’s art heritage. Their dramatically intertwined lives, art and politics (both active communists) left a powerful mark on the 20th century. Rivera’s murals remain matchless for their sweeping scope, artistic merit, and fearless topicality.
For the people the history of San Miguel was implacable. As the Spanish swarmed over the country more land went to the conquerors and less remained for the natives, until finally Spanish exploitation led to the uprising of future Mexicans. Mexico’s War of Independence was forged in the rich silver and agricultural territory around San Miguel. In 1810, the Grito, the Cry for Independence, resounded through New Spain from the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo, and San Miguel de Allende became the cradle of the struggle.
Still, independence never resolved the ills of racism, exploitation, corruption, the system of latifundio whereby a few rich landlords owned vast rural properties, and the tradition of foreign intervention. In the turbulent Nineteenth century, French, American and “Allied” forces intervened repeatedly in Mexico but San Miguel remained silent and apart. So that finally, in 1910, with predictable unforeseenness in the Mexico that was already Third World, the explosion of the Great Revolution shook the country, seven years earlier than in Russia. The revolution rode on waves of revolt against the Old and dreams of the New as depicted in the murals of Diego Rivera, David Siquieros and Clemente Orozco.
But the long wide sweep of Mexico’s tragic history proved to be more powerful than its Great Revolution. The revolutionaries became tyrants and the revolution degenerated into a new tyranny. Old ills returned to haunt its heirs. Soon Mexico again languished under the rule of another oligarchy, described so vividly in Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz. The Great Revolution was put away in a museum and institutionalized in 1929 under corrupt one-party rule supported by police and military power and above all by its rapacious neighbor, the United States of America.
At the beginning of the new millennium reformists again sparked hopes for renewal for this country demographically the size of Italy and France together. If nothing of the Great Revolution remains, something is going on under the surface of social fabric that may reemerge as in recent years in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela, something enormous, something as gigantic and unstoppable as the winds sweeping down the Bajío.
Yet San Miguel de Allende is once again distant from change. History has passed it by. It is a long way to Mexico City from this conservative backwater territory still living in the shadow of its past of silver mines and water sparkling from natural springs. Of rich landlords and barefoot Indians scratching a living from barren earth. Of conservatives and imperialists who want Mexico to remain static and of poor illiterate half-castes and Indios who have no concept of changing times.
For logistical reasons Milena and I, unfortunately, changed our original plan to live in the nearby beautiful and placid state capital of Guanajuato and opted for tourism-oriented San Miguel de Allende, today a town of 60,000 people, a sort of Mexican Santa Fe. It was intended to be a short-term stay in order to get a feel for the country and learn Spanish better before moving southwards to Chiapas. Meanwhile North American residents in San Miguel had changed its former sleepy atmosphere: over two thousand Gringos live there year round and many more winter there. Their presence in turn attracts also rich Mexicans. San Miguel’s attractions are its year round temperate climate of warm winters and cool summers, its colonial architecture, and its quaint stores and art galleries. Since a majority of the Gringos are retirees, many live there because of the low cost of living and cheap household help. People, who are just ordinary in Des Moines where they barely get by on their pensions, in Mexico feel rich and extraordinary; many like to believe that in Mexico they are living on the outer edge of existence. If for most people San Miguel is not a place for action, it is the locale for dreams of heroism and momentous deeds and imaginary achievements, which make people drunker and crazier than they once were, somewhere else. Therefore there is little serenity in San Miguel de Allende. Its peoples are never content. Neither rich Gringos who find no fulfillment once their new houses in the hills or in the historic center are finished, nor retirees who want the houses of the rich, nor middle class Mexicans who, in their love-hate relationship with the Gringos, imitate their tormentors.
The only apparently normal ones are the poor Mexicans who serve the rich. Not only do the poor Mexicans live their lives against the background of the rich, amused and influenced by their follies, but each class depends on the other: Gringos and rich Mexicans simultaneously depend on the cheap labor and are the source of the livelihood of the poor. Though these peoples share the same sun and thin air and the winds and the rains and the pollution and the dust and the noise, in reality they are as different from one another as are the planets glittering above them.
World traveller and witness GAITHER STEWART is Cyrano’s Journal Online’s European Correspondent, as well as Senior Editor with the Greanville Post. His latest novel is THE TROJAN SPY (Callio Press, 2010).