Conor Friedersdorf joined the US press crowd by putting up a "look how violent Mexico is" post on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog in The Atlantic. He titles it, hysterically, Anarchy Beneath the Border. Just what we need. He cites an LA Times article as his source. Richard Grabman writes a lot of good reposts on the drug war nonsense on his blog, Mex Files. I emailed Conor Friedersdorf, not that I expect him or Sullivan to pay attention. Only the issue of gay marriage in Mexico gets any friendly coverage from them, and that only briefly. Trying to get people in the US to see beyond the drug violence and the border stuff and the immigration stuff is like spitting in the wind.
However, all was not lost since Friedersdorf did at least see the importance of paying attention to our neighbor to the south. Anyway, here is what I wrote to him, corrected and dolled up a bit here.
My husband and I have lived in Mexico for four and a half years. We live in a colonia, a small village that was established originally maybe 80 or so years ago for people who had lost their land up in the mountains around here during the colonial period. The village was moved some years later and today is across a small river from its original location. It is about four shortish blocks by four blocks. It's surrounded by what is called ejido, land set aside for people who had been deprived of their communal property by the Spanish. We are the only Americans in the colonia. There is one other non-Mexican, a German married to a local woman. We live between the towns of Xico and Coatepec, off the main highway about a mile. The main highway is a two lane road, at the moment badly marred by potholes which multiply in the rainy season.
IT is incredibly beautiful and lush area here in the mountains. We are in what is called El Bosque de Niebla, or cloud forest. Xico and Coatepec are old towns. Coatepec is a coffee town and Xico more a farming town where you can buy delicious moles and other locally produced treats. The towns attract mostly Mexican tourists who come because it is lovely and interesting, with rich history. We are about eleven miles from the Xalapa, the capital of the state we live in, Veracruz. It is a city alive with people of all sorts, and a million tiendas: local stores selling everything from art supplies to sex toys, and art galleries and artists and music schools and symphony orchestras and jazz festivals and universities. There are practically daily political demonstrations in front of the Cathedral which also abuts the City Hall and other government buildings. By the way, demonstrations in Mexico cannot be broken up or stopped so on the one hand they tend at least in our area not to get violent, but on the other hand, traffic can get tied up for some time. Balloon sellers and musicians and food vendors and lovers and kids and their parents and sad old men and shoe shine stands fill Benito Juarez park, across from the city hall. Xalapa is a wonderful scruffy, jumbly place, crowded place.
The violence of the border towns is terrible, but it is as far from us as it is from, maybe, Dallas. I don't want to minimize the drug violence nor the violence against journalists. It is the subject of much concern among Mexicans, obviously. But not because there is drug violence throughout the country. We have crime here: robberies, thefts, occasional murders, extortion, pick-pocketing. Less than many areas of the US, but nothing to sneeze at. However, it does not make the area frightening, any more than living say in suburban Boston would be frightening (and I don't mean in the rough suburbs). Mexico is a poor country, and just as in the US people comment on the spending on wars and the military and how it makes it so difficult to make repairs to infrastructure, create jobs, improve schools, people here criticize the cost of Calderón's (the President's) drug war for taking money from other needs. They also point out that Calderon's anti-drug militarization has increased violence in the states where the drug gangs predominate: now not only narcos die, but as Friedersdorf noted, reporters die and soldiers die and politicians die. Mexicans criticize US policy because it does not recognize that among other things, the drug business is big business in the states it flourishes in, not only because of the drug lords themselves, but because of the large numbers of ordinary people involved in growing and producing them for the US market. Growing drug crops (pretty much exclusively marijuana -- cocaine only travels through Mexico) pays a lot better than a lot of other jobs, so poor people feel that it's so much better a way to make a living than trying to make a go of farming corn which no longer makes a profit because of US corn dumping just as in the US poor kids feel they can make more money in the drug trade than at McDonald's. Famously it's been said that if you have a choice between a lot of money and death, you'll take the money. These states of the north and west mainly have a long history of drug business. Just like some suburbs of Washington DC or parts of St. Louis have a long history of being involved in the drug business. It isn't new and just like in DC and in the St. Louis area, it isn't everywhere.
My description is too simple. But the web of problems caused by Nafta and trade policy and the US attitudes toward Mexico and Mexicans and US actions on the border and concerning drugs and guns are really deforming efforts to make life better for ordinary Mexicans. Not only does the US not help, but the little crowd of extraordinarily wealthy Mexicans doesn't either. Mexico is not a failed state, and it is hard to imagine it becoming one. However, the narco obsession means that many of its problems, really those of a poorish country being exploited by wealthy foreigners and locals, are not being addressed. Here in our area, we don't have a lot of people heavily involved in the drug trade. We're not on the routes or in the territory, as far as I know. There are drug mafia around, but they don't dominate by any means. Mexicans, by the way, are not big drug users. In fact, Mexican drug use is much lower than US drug use.
Here in our area people sometimes try to escape their poverty by going to the US. Or they did until it got so tough. I wish ordinary Americans could meet the ordinary Mexicans who feel pressured to head north. Americans might be surprised to learn that most of them actually don't want to stay permanently or to become citizens. Most of them feel strong attachments to family and home here. But there is no easy way to travel back and forth for work. As I've pointed out before, US migration laws make it incredibly difficult for employer and employee to arrange legal border crossings. Here for ordinary workers there is no safety net for the unemployed. Big employers in our area, such as Coca Cola cannot hire and fire at will, it's true, when workers are members of unions, though even as union members, they are paid much less than their US counterparts and they work six day weeks, long shifts. Their shifts can be changed without regard to their wishes. People are glad for the jobs. But Coke outsources a lot of work to get around the unions. They can hire and fire people hired in this way at will and without any notice or severance pay or unemployment insurance. What is our neighbor across the street supposed to do now that he has been laid off?
I have to point out that people's lives don't seem miserable for the most part, though without a doubt more money and better work conditions would help in many ways. But people here are resourceful. This is a working class area with tight family ties and social connections. People watch over their kids (who play in the streets and up at the small park in the center of town) and make sure they go to school and do their homework. I love living here. We know some of our neighbors well. We celebrate with them, we help each other out. There are small stores and a vegetable markets; you can get hardware and haircuts. The church in the community and the small chapels are all important as are all kinds of local festivals: for the Virgin of Guadalupe, for Las Posadas, for Easter, for Christo Rey, for Independence Day (this year a BIG celebration as it is Mexico's bicentennial), etc. etc.
So Mr. Friederhof, when you write, "There is a case to be made for putting a lot more of our foreign policy resources into this hemisphere, and dedicating a lot less treasure and attention to matters overseas. I'd also like to see changes in drug policy so that our failed yet ongoing efforts at prohibition stop empowering paramilitary drug armies from growing ever more powerful," I am grateful because it is a beginning to the task of understanding the need to understand Mexico. Mexico is not about to be a failed state as you suggested, but it needs American policy makers to spend some time learning about Mexico, visiting it for extended periods of time, learning Spanish, and asking, asking, asking all over the country what the US should do. Mexico has about 106 million people, a hefty population. It has the 13th or 14th biggest economy in the world depending on who is doing the ranking. It has an incredibly rich history, an intellectual class that puts the US to shame, great art, great literature, great traditions, great celebrations, great food, great music. It has archaeological treasures that are thrilling remnants of powerful and complex civilizations that rival those of almost anyplace in the world.
Of course Mexico is not by any stretch all glory. Traveling through the countryside you come to understand what it means to have had your livelihood rendered almost without gain by giant food production facilities. And you also can stop and talk to kids who are still goatherds and shepherds, following their flocks from sunrise to sunset. You can watch rickety trucks top-heavy with sugar cane moving to refineries where the processing of the sugar will send black flecks floating down on the surrounding countryside like some kind of strange rain. You can see men and women and children coming down from the coffee-covered hillsides carrying huge bags of beans for which they get paid by the kilo, averaging maybe 90 pesos or $7.00 a day. You can see old women and young boys with loads of firewood bending their backs into upside down letter-Ls. These are WORKERS, very hard workers, not gangsters, not thugs, not drug mafia, not criminals. So please, come learn about Mexico. Then advocate for it in a really informed way.
****** I take back my snarky remarks about Conor Friedersdorf and the coverage of the Daily Dish.
This is what Friedersdorf wrote today in citing my blog:
In response to my post about drug violence in Mexico, an expat American argues that I've given an unduly dire portrait of our southern neighbor. The item is enjoyably evocative of life in a part of the country that isn't wracked by violence. It's a useful read for anyone trying to form an accurate picture of Mexican affairs, and you can read it here.