If you watch or read the news, no doubt you’ve seen headlines featuring our southern neighbor. The August 2 issue of USA Today read, “Violent Crime in Mexico Vacation Spots.” On December 13 of last year, the New York Times published “Mexico Grapples With a Surge in Violence.” And of course, we all remember then-candidate Trump and his characterization of Mexican undocumented immigrants. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.”
If you watch or read the news, you probably think Mexico is populated solely by drug cartels, fighting it out in the streets. I don’t blame you for thinking such things. Even my family and friends, when I told them I was going to be taking this trip, asked me if I was worried for my safety.
Well, I watch and read the news, and I went to Mexico because I wanted to understand the real story. Here is what I found.
In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain. When the Spanish left, they took with them all the gold and silver they had found, all their soldiers, and all their weapons. What had been a wealthy and powerful colony was now a poor and weak nation. Leaders emerged, seeking to use that situation for their own benefit. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Emperor Maximilian, President Profirio Diaz, three different titles for one role: dictator. These men cared nothing for the people of Mexico, enriching themselves at the expense of their country.
In 1846, the United States, with a growing population and in need of new territory, turned a border dispute into a reason for war, and invaded Mexico. The war was lopsided, and ended in 1848 with General Winfield Scott occupying Mexico City. Mexico was forced to cede the territories of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico to the US, what is now the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.
With a succession of dictators and a loss of nearly half of their territory at the hands of the United States, is it any wonder Mexican democracy did not develop as quickly or seamlessly as did American?
When I landed in Mexico City, I was greeted by a warm people, a deep culture, and a history that makes ours look positively modern in comparison. Civilization has thrived in Mexico since before Rome built its empire, with cities that dwarfed European capitals during the age of exploration. Teotihuacan was a city of 200,000 by the year 250.
Modern Mexico is a mixing pot of Spanish and native cultures, and carries the pride associated with both. This is a people who are proud of where they come from, and with good reason. For instance, the Mayan peoples of the Yucatán invented the mathematical concept of zero centuries before Europeans learned it from Arab traders.
I felt both safe and at home during my stay in Mexico City. Walking around the different neighborhoods, I was greeted with smiles. I was not mugged, kidnapped for ransom, or shot at. I was offered tacos from various incredible street stalls, not drugs from representatives of the cartels. My taxi drivers used their iPhones to translate so we could converse and never once tried to take advantage of a foreigner.
Perhaps for them, Mexico is a reminder of the path we could have gone down, if not for luck or the grace of God. Perhaps Mexico, and its struggle to find a successful democracy, is like holding a mirror to the problems here at home. Rather than address those, it is easier to say, “At least we don’t have drug cartels.” Painting Mexico in an honest light, as an emerging nation on the cusp of being an economic power, with a proud and friendly people, hurts that narrative. America is only “better” if others are shown to be worse.
Sure, there are problems in Mexico. There are problems everywhere. Utopia is a concept existing only in fiction. But let’s judge a place looking at the whole, rather than just one small negative part. After all, we wouldn’t want America to be judged solely based on violence by police against African-Americans, with foreign news outlets warning people to stay away.
I came to Mexico because I wanted to see what nobody would tell me, and the journey opened my eyes. I found friendship, I found pride, I found culture, and I found hospitality. Most importantly, I found Mexico, the real Mexico. It is an amazing place with an incredible people, home to awe-inspiring ancient cultures, fantastic arts, and dilectable food.
So the next time you read one of these headlines, please remember that they don’t tell the whole story. Mexico is so much more!