There's nothing like the rest of Latin America to cure you of any interest in Mexico. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with an accordion that a BB pistol can't solve. So I decided to go. I hadn't seen the Pacific Ocean in years, and Mazatlán is just a full day's bus ride from me.

This cannot be a really useful examination of Mexico, because I was not in the country very long and had never been in the country very long. (The profoundest visitation: February 1981, from Texas to Guatemala by train, then back to Texas from Belize by train and bus. The most recent interior visitation: May 1990, Nogales to Guaymas, down by train, back by bus.) And it's got to be long, because you have to hang around a foreign country for quite some time before you can confidently assert what that country doesn't do. For example: it took me two decades of Brazil-watching to realize that Brazilian politicians not only don't get their names in the paper, they aren't supposed to.1 A Brazilian politician is not supposed to have ideas, much less debate them. His job is to spend public money; he does this; and no Brazilian that I ever met or heard of questions this. In short, what Brazilian politicians have long understood their office to solely entail, U.S. politicians in the 21st century have frankly decided their office will solely entail.

Well, whatever Mexican politicians are up to, I didn't ride the bus straight through to Mazatlán. I stopped in Laredo. At the first inn I visited, the lady insisted she did not speak English. I was unsympathetic. In Spanish2 I said loudly, "You don't speak English in this country?" No, she said, with that same dopey look - it's even lower than satisfaction - I'd seen in Montreal. Strangely, there is no law compelling us all to speak the same language - strange because think of all the money that could be spent enforcing it. A law like that will be enacted before a law preventing me from looking for another hotel. This I did, successfully, and all Laredans I encountered then and later knew where they were, both culture-wise and country-wise. At least until I ate Burger King's idea of a breakfast taco.


Mexico itself would be better, because it - because all Latin America - makes no linguistic concessions. The idiocy doesn't even get started. There, you have to know the language. And the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. The learning curve doesn't start steep and then bend flat. It's a straight diagonal line. There's no plateau. This is why I prefer Latin America. Islamification, demographic decline, official minorities, the belief that crazy people can be tamed by giving them more poker chips, all that miserable stuff: Latin America, so eager to imitate "advanced" countries, has done a good job skipping directly to the good parts.

All the same, coming to Mexico has always been a jump into cold water. You never get used to it. You fly right into Ecuador, or Uruguay, or even the Dominican Republic, it still looks like someplace you know, only the people are talking a different language. Again, a Latin American, or at least a Latin American-minus-Mexican achievement. Mexico, and the Moslem countries, are immediately alarming. Right away, you know something's wrong with these places.

(You might say the same about ex-Soviet places, but nah - that's just the Cyrillic alphabet. The only place I've been to that got alarming only after a few days' consideration was South Africa. It took that long for the place to remind me of crummy little convenience stores in rural Alabama, establishments seemingly run by the one by-skin-color-and-not-much-else qualified guy available. Near-monopolies bring a breathing deadness to town. It's really quite striking, but only after you think about it a while.)

But back to Mexico, with difficulty. It's difficult because today's run from Laredo to Torreón was so relaxing. (Even when I learned I'd overshot Torreón and ended up in Gómez Palacio.) There were only three of us crossing the border. Nuevo Laredo looked actually hospitable. The highway to Monterrey was both pretty and in fine condition. The dense-fuzzed desert hills that methodically crowded it were atypical to a Texan eye, but after Monterrey, the look was just like the long trot to Big Bend, on whose longitude nightfall found me.

Monterrey itself was somewhat dispiriting, its new elevated commuter railway notwithstanding, but hey, this is urban Mexico, you're not supposed to get intimate with it, for heaven's sake, ask about schools or property taxes or anything. I did do the right thing, which was to recall when I was here with a friend in 1982. We were between trains, and wandering, and in this grim concrete wilderness found a small crowd starting a long-distance footrace. My friend's Spanish being very good, and he having the personality I should have but don't, he talked up one of the runners, who was very intense. I hope the guy did well. I remember him. I don't remember the guy who won the 1982 Nobel Prize in Economics.

But I'm sorry I missed Torreón, ugly as it too was. Back in school in San Antonio, I'd lived in a backwoodsy area well out of town, doing those long bicycle commutes, and one of my neighbors was a man who'd been born in El Paso, raised in Mexico, then at the age of 18 and in the year of 1954, bicycled all the way from Torreón back to his birthplace. When I knew him he was a plumber and a very successful one, the kind who isn't even in the phonebook because he's always busy. I believe mine is the only biochemistry dissertation ever to mention such a person in the Acknowledgments. As I put it, he set the example of professionalism, something I myself never showed at all. But I had the sense then to be, and today still am, in awe of the guy. Once, there were the sons of Mexico, and now, I wish to hail them.


That's the way. You should do these things only occasionally, rather than issue praise rapidly and by the shovelful. Mexico itself appears to show such reserve. Austin may be full of Mexican flags - with a loss of civilizational confidence there is a gain in absurd fashion - what's next, blue helmets? - but except outside some official buildings on the border and in front of some expensive hotels, I couldn't recall seeing the colors flying anywhere in Mexico itself.

Another thing I hadn't yet come across was a reference to la Raza. Again, a mostly3 north-of-the-border affectation. In Houston there's a radio station whose slogan is actually "¡Aquí manda la Raza!" which as far as I'm concerned is competitive with "¡Aquí manda Lester Maddox!" I may be rushing things already here, but certainly Mexico is saying this fewer times per day than that radio station.4 I do know the Mexican constitution mentions "race" just once. I can't remember, but I'm pretty sure the words "purity," "cleansing," and "Gypsy menace" appear nowhere near it.

I would like at this point to speak more about Mexico and less about its considerable amateur and semi-professional extraterritorial booster apparatus, but I probably won't because (1) the ride from Torreón to Durango looks exactly like west Texas, and (2) you can't quite ignore the connection between down here and back home. In both countries you see signs for Envíos de Dinero but it's plain, from all the space U.S. immigration policy gets in Mexican news, and all the signs I'd seen so far saying "Welcome Home Countryman!" (as if they'd been out of this country), that here are the people recibiendo those Envíos. Well, they appear to have spent the money pretty well. You still can't drink the water (the mysteries of chlorine remaining a gringo secret) but Durango at least looked big and neat and prosperous.

But I wonder how Uruguayans manage to do all this more discreetly. Some time ago there was that poll which reported 40% of Mexicans would emigrate if they could. Yeah, well, maybe - I never could dig this up, and who knows if the question was "Would you like to emigrate or would you like a punch in the mouth?" Anyway, the last I heard, 40% of Uruguayans actually do live outside of Uruguay, and who would ever guess from looking on that pleasant land? I suppose it helps that there are so few Uruguayans, plus they seem to be all white and have Italian surnames. What hobbyist will champion them?

Mexico, at any rate, is getting, or getting back, that up-and-running look. The only books I've read where Mexico seemed like a real country, by which I mean one capable of producing intelligent patriots, are the Travis McGee novels5, the ones written in the 1960's especially. And does anybody remember the 1968 Summer Olympics? Back then, it did not seem strange at all to have such a great event in Mexico City. Contrast that with all the cautious but magnanimously conceded optimism over the 2008 Olympics, the maybe-NOW-they'll-stop-throwing-tantrums-and-grow-up implication of all that patronizing debate. Maybe now they will. But I don't think anybody in 1968 was saying Mexicans weren't grown up enough already.


After Durango, the trip at once became Latin American. I mean old-timey Latin-American. How? The short answer is that it was eight hours on mountain roads in a bus with no bathroom. The long answer begins right after lunch (a burrito, the first I'd ever eaten south of the border), when I looked at Wanted posters in the bus station. The aliases were, I am completely certain, apt: one fugitive called himself, in English, Crazy, and another was Shayboy, which I expect was pronounced "Shy Boy." I wonder what you have to do - wait a minute, what am I saying, I can perfectly well guess what you have to do - to earn a handle like that in a Mexican prison. And another yegg had a range of tattoos including - and I had to think about this a while - one of a clown. A clown? Who the heck gets a clown tattoo? Now we know.

This may not sound particularly Latin American, but believe me, you aren't going to find the likes of this in Turkey or Slovenia. But on to the bus. I recommend the Durango-Mazatlán passage to anyone on a bus, or on anything else. It is very scenic, and you will take it all in with great patience. The driver will see to that: he may be gutsy but he's not loony, and he takes the scores or hundreds of sharp turns with the caution they demand. And while he's at it, he's picking up and discharging passengers, issuing tickets and making change. (And fiddling with a cellphone, but that happened just once, so I believe we're still in "late antiquity" here.) Oh, and don't forget the nonstop music. I won't. It was so loud I can't. At least it was strong on trumpets and baritone saxes. A man can live with those.

You can too, and also with the villages, which appeared unenriched by emigrants. (I expect some parts of Mexico output many more effective fortune-seekers than do other parts. "Undocumented" folks being undocumented, who can really answer the questions of who, where, whence, or how many, but it's never a bad idea to remember there are such things as legal immigrants, and there must be figures on them.) The villages, low smoky conurbations made of cement and graffiti, made me wonder if They ain't goin' anywhere!, the thing you say of objects whose inertia is reliable and welcome, might just as well be applied here. Now there's a precious old Latin-Americanism, poverty = dignity. I don't think it'll ever make a comeback, certainly not in Mexico, but if it does, it'll be inflicted on places just like these.

One of these, for starters. There were so many to choose from. And somewhere between two of them, a roadsign uniquely in decay. All the other signs had been clean and legible, but this one was missing a lot of letters, and I could make out only "cancer." It took a few minutes, but I pieced it all back together. We had crossed the Tropic of Cancer. Perfect.

At Mazatlán itself, 2009 came back. Not right away: the essential absence of the Pacific Ocean, I mean its failure to give this town any sound or smell, seemed pretty Latin American, and then some. Unless a nation has a naval history, its sea is merely a fenceline, so in point of fact most countries in all hemispheres feel non-nautical. But what really told me my old memories of Latin America were not so pertinent here was something very simple: Mazatlán was expensive.

It has been so long that I have nearly forgotten what got me interested in Latin America in the first place. Three things, in this order: (1) when I went to India in 1980 on my first-ever overseas trip, my mother went to the library to get me The Great Railway Bazaar but she brought back The Old Patagonian Express by mistake, (2) Spanish looked easy, and (3) these places were all cheap. Number 3 sustained me for a decisive decade. I certainly would not otherwise have traveled so intensively and extensively in Brazil, nor returned to live there at my own expense.

Ah, the old days, when a hotel room cost $1.25, or maybe $2 in Amazonia - $3 if you wanted a fan. I'm glad I had a lot of those days, and I'm glad neither I nor Latin America is having very many of them now. Things are more expensive here because things are better here.

After three days of buses to Mazatlán I spent three hours walking around Mazatlán. It wasn't pretty at all, but one sight pleased me. This was a set of tourism posters put up by Mexico City at Mazatlán bus shelters. Just a few years earlier I'd seen a TV ad in Brazil urging viewers to tour...Brazil. It had lots of great scenery, much of which I recognized because I myself had seen it, and I felt a vicarious pride. I hope Brazilians felt a real one, and here, I hope the same for Mexicans.

© 2009 J.A.Hutter


1 Not long ago I saw a story about a Manaus politician caught at a cockfight. I didn't even know Portuguese had a word for "cockfighting arena." And there was the story about a Recife cacique dying of complications from dengue at the age of 88. Comfortable in world journalism's new role as Banal Electronic Pop-Propaganda Arm, Brazilian journalism felt it had to throw in the observation that this man had been smoking since he was 16. All I could think was, And that's how come he's lived so long?

2 My Spanish isn't great - I still mix a lot of Portuguese in with it, though over the days the frequency of this sort of mistake dropped. I can barely claim to speak Spanish. But I will confidently claim I know Spanish. In express lanes at supermarkets, certainly I am the only person who knows that Spanish has a word for "eleven."

3 Mexico City's subway has a stop named La Raza: hard to pretend that ain't there. Other indicators, ones whose meaning can only be assessed by long-term observers: it did strike me there were quite a lot of businesses named El Güero or Los Güeros, "the blonds," as if blondness were exotic in a useful way, kind of like "German engineering"; and I did get the idea that where Brazilians would speak of Brazil, Mexicans always spoke of Mexicans, as if tribe mattered more than nation.

Another thing I saw in the subway that I admit is inconsistent with the tenor of this piece is a reference to global warming. There was a science exhibit in La Raza, a series of satellite photos and electron micrographs, as well as a crawl telling us that riding the subway somehow counteracted the greenhouse effect. About global warming it can be said Not even Moslems believe it: what does that tell you? I don't think Third-Worlders in general give it any thought, especially if they are getting to the point where car ownership is normal, but Third-World opinion-makers in particular may feel it is a fashionable preoccupation. Always a bit behind, they still go with "global warming" and not the more hip and more coy "climate change," though I cannot prove that. Just an impression.

4 Another thing said more here than there is "Hispanic." I'm not even sure what the native Spanish word for it is. Certainly I never saw it in, oh, a Venezuelan newspaper, or a Chilean one. In the U.S. it is officially a race, one which Federal employees might choose when they are compelled to state which one they think they belong to. Of course it means "Mexican." I wonder what would happen if a Spaniard said he was Hispanic.

5 "'Ted, you now own the biggest ugliest anchor in Mexico.'" "I wandered away, genuinely surprised. A rude Mexican is a great rarity." "Mexico is full of magic buildings. You never see anyone hard at work, and yet the buildings go up." McGee, by whom I mean of course his creator John D. MacDonald, kept his enthusiasm and his insight down about this level, and his familiarity too: he treated Mexico as the foreign country it was, and scarcely tried to do what he clearly couldn't do, which was analyze the place. That's a good modest approach to any alien land, but it works especially well with Latin American lands. Or to put it another way, the opposite approach gets tedious as hell. Next time you pick up a history of any Latin American country, you should say, "Hmm. This is more than 1 page long. I fear the worst."

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