Sunday, August 7. 2011
One of the biggest obstacles to "selling" Mexico is that Americans don't know the Mexican people. I am ashamed to say it, but many Americans think most everyone in Mexico is involved in drugs, a wannabe illegal alien, or shiftless. Even among those who come to visit, many tourists pack their stereotypes with their swimsuits.
My view, after 30 years travel writing and working in the tourism industry is that if we change the misperceptions of Americans, tourism will increase substantially. If people have a negative impression of the country, it matters not how beautiful the attractions are or how much we tout them. We are preaching to the choir. Sure, statistics show that tourism is increasing somewhat. How could it not, considering where it was a few years ago? But who are we gaining? Some people who had been to Mexico before are coming back. A minority of Americans have been to Mexico's interior. How can we attract them? My clarion cry is, "Educate them. Introduce them to the real Mexican people."
I met no Mexicans who slept against cacti wearing big sombreros or huaraches with tire tread soles while interviewing about 100 people for my book, Modern Mexico Through the Eyes of Modern Mexicans, yet, those are the stereotypes that many Americans even today have of Mexicans. Some Americans will be surprised that the life goal of most Mexican citizens in not to come to the USA and wash dishes.
A better writer than I once said that there are many Mexicos. I can only add that there are many Mexicans that make each of those Mexicos blend into one country. There is no more an "average" Mexican than there is an "average" American, Canadian, German, Englishman or Frenchman. Not all the people you will meet in this book are successful or have the lives they want. That would not be realistic; it would not be the big picture. Not all Americans or Canadians are successful or have the lives they want. But we are all part of the great collage of our cultures.
Mexico's Greatest Tourist Asset Is Her People
While Mexico has lots of interesting and beautiful spots to visit, so do a lot of other countries. The reason I (and most of my fans who write me) keep coming back to Mexico is her people. Yet, most of us travel writers write about the glories of places, not the people. Perhaps that is because it is easier to take a picture of a waterfall, cenote, mountain or a quaint village than of a soul. Sure we can take a picture of a smiling artisan, waiter , old woman at a market stall etc., but the image is an abstraction of the person. A beach is a beach. It may have somewhat different "moods" depending on the time of day, but a picture tells the story. No so with people's inner selves.
We take hurried press trips, have assignments from editors and in general "focus" on destinations. Be sure to put in some local color, is a timeworn admonition. Local color is seldom in-depth. That is not what editors want. People understand where Cancun or Pto. Vallarta are. They can go visit it. We can say for sure that they could go jet-skiing on beach A. We can't say that they will meet person B and discuss life. Most tourists observe Mexicans through a veil. A few of us hear a little from a talkative taxi driver or bus boy or shop keeper and think we understand something of life in Mexico. We know only the superficial.
If you want to know more in-depth about what Mexicans think and feel, you might enjoy meeting a few people from my book.
As an average tourist:
We are unlikely to discuss with an artist what she thinks about caring for her aging parents - and what she thinks about the American way of caring for the elderly.
We might not talk to a businessman about the government, about the changing of society because of the trans-national corporations.
We might not hear over and over again why many mothers feel their children are much safer in a Mexican school than in an American one.
We probably won't talk to a university professor about why she thinks American kids are so spoiled and ill-mannered compared to Mexican kids. Nor will we understand why so many Mexicans with advanced degrees are migrating to Canada.
Nor will we talk to a tour guide who will tell us that Mexican kids today are losing their traditional values and manners. Or why he wants tourists to be interested in the majority of Mexicans, not the minority that live like they did a hundred years ago.
If we visit a doctor in Mexico, we are unlikely to discuss why Mexican physicians are more likely to listen to their patients, make a diagnosis on the symptoms they see and intuit, then order tests to confirm their opinion. American doctors do this the opposite way and spend almost no time with their patients.
We might miss the opportunity to discuss with a tour guide/philanthropist Nahuatl Indian why natives people walk down the mountains for hours in the dark to see a doctor at the IMSS hospital and are pushed out of line by the better-off citizens of town. Nor will we hear about his simple project to improve the lives of his people by giving them inexpensive smokeless wood stoves. Nor will we understand the hope that springs eternal amidst the darkest reality.
We might see advertisements for employment in shop windows with the phrase, buen presentacion but not know it is code for non-Indian-looking.
We might have a superficial conversation with an insurance salesman about how everything is more expensive today, but not get into why imports from China and a flagging NAFTA are part of the problem. We might not learn from him that the Mexican attitude towards the future is changing which is why he is able to sell more insurance policies than in years past. That insurance companies today are more likely to actually pay the benfits helps too.
Nor will we have a conversation with a 70 year-old miner, rancher and philosopher who will tell us that his opinion is that Mexico's current drug problem was decades in the making and that all people bear some responsibility for the way things are now.
Nor will we talk to teachers who see similar pressures on kids today as on kids in the USA.
Nor will we talk to musicians and find out what they think about Americans performing in Mexico. Nor will be learn how musicians manage to eke out their livings with their art.
Nor will we talk to women who have diametrically opposed ideas about the macho mentality. One woman hated that aspect of the culture and divorced her husband because he thought it was acceptable to have a girlfriend and for his wife to work. If I gave him a hundred pesos, he gave half to her, she said. Then he asked for another hundred.
Another woman quit her career as a bone marrow transplant surgeon because her husband wanted her to stay home. She told a moving story of how, because of her husband's macho attitude she knows that he will always take care of her and is devoted to her. She devotes herself to animal rescue now. Both woman are "right" because both are happy with how their lives are today.
Nah, we will wonder about such things, but we won't have any way to find them out.
The Forgotten Mexicans
So I wrote a book about what the Mexican people think about life in general. There are books about rich Mexicans, poor Mexicans, criminal Mexicans, Mexican immigrants and other media-friendly segments of society. This is about the "forgotten" Mexicans - the average middle-class Mexicans. Modern Mexico Through the Eyes of Modern Mexicans is a forum where 30 average Mexican citizens explain what they think about a variety of subjects. One thing that was driven home to me was that in Mexico, middle-class as much a matter of attitude as economics.
Overall, the picture drawn by the people telling their stories here about what it's like to be a Mexican is positive. I didn't engineer it that way. But I think that differs from most people's impressions of life in Mexico - and that given by those Mexicans who live in the United States.
But we like things to be quantified, so here is a rough guideline to the definition of middle-class used in this book and more or less echoed by most people interviewed. The middle-class is loosely defined as a family of four making at least ten thousand to twenty thousand pesos a month. It is the working people and the professional people who keep the country running and growing. These are the people who populate this book. Yep, some make much more and a few who make less. And, yes, some of the people I interviewed worked as illegal aliens in the USA, but chose to come home (or were deported) to Mexico.
I will publish excerpts from the stories of many of the people in this book on this blog. If you cannot wait for an installment, you are welcome to go to my web site and see what reviewers have said about it, and perhaps even order one for your home library. Just a thought.
Why I Could Write This Book
I'm not an economist, am no longer an expat and am a recovering travel writer. I'm a gringo who has made friends and enemies (never trust a man who doesn't make enemies - it just means he doesn't understand people) throughout the vast country, I've been asking questions and listening to Mexicans in all walks of life for forty years. Most of the specifics of what I leaned in the sixties (19, not 18) has little bearing on Mexico in the twenty-first century. Yet, the bigger picture, now a faded sepia print, has value because I've seen the country grow and change, while much of the essence has remained the same. The cultures change with the times: the culture adapts glacially.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that, like many idealists of the sixties and seventies, I tried to make a living importing artisanias (typical Mexican handicrafts). The only things I ever made money on were leather whips and velvet paintings, especially velvet Elvis's. For a time I was the Whip King of New Orleans (for selling them, that is). I say this to let you know that I did not always have the same high standards of integrity that I have today. Or maybe I was not as uptight. Mexicans thought it was hilarious to see a gringo with a Pancho Villa moustache drive out of town in a '66 Ford Mustang loaded to the roof with velvet paintings, whips and pinatas stuffed against the windows. Always leave 'em laughing was my motto.
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