u2018What's Mexico Really Like, Fred?'

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I get a lot of email asking me, “What’s it really like in Mexico, Fred?” A book would be needed to give a good answer. Since people seem interested, I’ll take a few random shots at the topic. Don’t expect literature or organization.

The quick answer is that it isn’t nearly as bad as many Americans think. Not even close. Sure, it’s a screwed up country. (Name one that isn’t. Switzerland, maybe?) It has all manner of problems and defects: jobs going to China, corruption, poverty in places, crumbling sidewalks, loud music, poor services, pollution, etc. No paradise here.

But…but….

Mexico is a democracy, as much as the United States. The government is not repressive. Mexico is not a police state. It is not particularly criminal: Guadalajara is certainly less dangerous than Washington. It is not disease-ridden. I eat in all sorts of restaurants here with no problem. It is not over-regulated and controlled. It is not primitive. It is not a backwater. Mexican big-box stores are indistinguishable from Wal-Mart. The telephones work, cell phones work, broadband is widely available (in my town of 18,000, for example). Guadalajara abounds in book stores and music stores. (Books in Spanish, yes, but everything you’ve ever heard of, and what do you expect in Mexico? Linear B?)

I think that the Mexico of today is confused with the Mexico of fifty years ago. For example, a clear gradient exists in health between the old and the young. Men of fifty or more often look as if they had spent their lives carrying anvils across the desert with nothing to eat. They are arthritic. They walk painfully. They are just plain wore out, as we say in Alabama. They make for picturesque postcards, but bear little resemblance to today’s Mexicans.

The young appear as lithe and healthy as those of their age anywhere, and show no signs of wearing out beyond the normal effects of age. I don’t know the average quality or quantity of dental care, but they seem to have their teeth, which appear healthy. (I say “seem to” and “appear” because I don’t carry dental picks and a mirror, but when all visible teeth are white and where they ought to be, things can’t be but so bad.)

In my experience Mexicans are both hard-working and competent. Recently I wanted a railing put around the (flat, cement) roof of my house. We went to an ordinary shop dealing in such things, in my almost-entirely Mexican town. The resultant railing, made from scratch, was firmly anchored, nicely welded and, to my eye, perfect. When we needed a new water pump, the fellow showed up with it, plumbed it, wired it, installed the level-sensors in the rooftop tanks, perfectly and in a few hours. And he was agreeable. This is par.

Now, you ask with good reason, if this is so, why is Mexico a comparatively poor country? The usual answers are corruption, lack of ambition, and poor schooling.

The corruption is there, and may indeed be the cause. The difference in degree of corruption between Mexico and the US may be somewhat less than is usually thought: American corruption is to an extent institutionalized in such forms as campaign contributions, positions on boards of directors, and affirmative action, all of which are payoffs. But it is a way of life here.

Lack of ambition…perhaps. Mexicans (yes, I’m generalizing) seem to want enough, and to stop there. The focus is on family, friends, and a quiet life. Thus an intelligent and competent mechanic, say, will make a comfortable living from his garage, but will not try to start a chain of garages. Americans are much more driven, and much more materialistic. These qualities pay off economically.

I’m not sure about lack of schooling. Certainly there are schools everywhere I’ve been, and swarms of kids charging out of them with backpacks full of books, and the books are not bad. I have never knowingly encountered an illiterate Mexican (though there certainly are some, especially among the old). Yet it is not a nation pathologically addicted to study. They don’t seem much to care about books. And, as Violeta tells me, even people who graduate from universities often cannot find jobs.

However, I cannot see that they are baffled by technology. When we call TelMex about some technical problem with broadband (configuration of this or that, DNS stuff, POP3, the usual) the techs on the help desk are invariably good and quickly get the job done. The people we have dealt with in computer stores have always known what they were doing. Yet in small towns it can take over a year to get a new telephone line put it. It isn’t technical ignorance: TelMex knows perfectly well how to install a line. Somehow it just doesn’t get done.

Medical care is interesting. My dentist, Hector Haro, (he’s on the web) went through dental school at the University of Guadalajara and did graduate work at U. Maryland. His partner is a young woman, Patty, who also went to U. Guad. Their equipment is every bit as modern as any I’ve seen in the US. I’ve never heard a complaint about their work.

They are high end. If you can pay for good care, you can get it. There are urology clinics in Guad that do things like prostate exams. They have good ultrasound gear, for example, and know it as well as do Americans. (Being an obligate techno-weeny, I always grill them.)

But most Mexicans can’t afford $400 for a crown. They tend not to see doctors until they have to, and then to use the (free) public health hospitals. These are not as bad as you might think. When my stepdaughter fell through a glass door at a friend’s house and severed the tendons in her wrist, a passing taxi took her to a public ER, which sewed her together, and now everything works. But these places do not have the best equipment, nor expensive medicines, nor pricey specialists, and they are badly overworked. How things are in the remote countryside, I don’t know, but I can guess. Not great.

Other topic: Mexicans tend to be self-reliant in the sense that Americans were fifty years ago, assuredly including the women. An American friend told me of watching his wife go out to drive somewhere. The car didn’t start. She opened the hood and investigated. Then she pulled the stereo out of the dashboard, removed a length of wire, dived back under the hood, put it where she thought it belonged, started the car, and drove away. This is not unusual. Violeta regularly does similar things. Them as can’t pay plumbers becomes plumbers. And electricians. And….

Again, I don’t mean to idealize the place. It ain’t idealizable. Too many things wrong with it. But it isn’t as bad as gringos think, and it has many compensating advantages that other places don’t. Them’s my thoughts.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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