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Mexico – image and reality

(eTN) – Mexico has hit the headlines in recent weeks in the UK after the presenters of the popular BBC television show, Top Gear, made comments about Mexicans that were deemed racist by some and just

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(eTN) – Mexico has hit the headlines in recent weeks in the UK after the presenters of the popular BBC television show, Top Gear, made comments about Mexicans that were deemed racist by some and just a bit of fun by others. So what did the presenters actually say that caused such a stir? The row began after Mexicans were described by the presenters as “lazy, feckless, flatulent” and their food described as “refried sick.” The Mexican ambassador complained, the BBC apologized, but the row has divided opinion in the UK. A well-known British comedian, Alan Partridge, waded in to denounce the presenters as “three rich, middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans.”

The dispute has highlighted the image problem Mexico has suffered for decades. My impressions of the country had been shaped by cowboy movies and American cartoons, which I watched avidly as a child. In my mind Mexico was a dry and dusty country and Mexicans were the bad guys – short, stocky, sporting moustaches and sombreros who were mowed down in large numbers by the hero, usually played by a taciturn actor like Clint Eastwood.

More recently, of course, one has come to associate Mexico with grisly drug-related murders. A journalist friend, Kate, summed it up perfectly:
“Say Mexico to most people, and it conjures up one of two images – tacky resorts like Cancun, with its once Caribbean beaches infested with high-rise apartment blocks and hotels and cheesy bars, or the Mexico of news reports – drugs gangs and mass-scale kidnappings and murders. While both these extremes are true, there’s a real Mexico hidden somewhere in the middle. The geography of the country is hugely varied – as well as the beaches of Cancun; you’ll find desert, mountains, rainforest, and, of course, the sprawling metropolis that is the capital.”

Our preconceptions were blown away from the moment we landed in Mexico. Our hotel in Mexico City was cheap, clean, but not grand, located in the historical center just a five-minute walk from the Zocalo (Central Square). Our daughter and her boyfriend were our guides. They had intended to spend just a few weeks there before traveling on to other countries in Central and South America but fell in love with Mexico City and the people and ended up living there for six months.

We could well understand why they decided to stay on. There is so much to see in Mexico City one cannot expect to do it justice in just a few days. It was a Sunday when we made our first visit to the Zocalo. It was packed with jugglers, vendors, musicians, indigenous Indian dancers in native dress; traditional healers waving incense ritually cleansed people queuing patiently to be blessed.

Here one finds the Cathedral and Templo Mayor – the remnants of the Aztec Temple that the colonialists simply built over when they arrived. The original city was made up of three islands in the middle of a lake surrounded by mountains.

At one end of the square lies the Palacio Nacional with its vast murals by Diego Rivera, depicting various stages of Mexico’s bloody history. Just outside the city center in the upmarket suburb of Coyoacán is the former house of Diego Rivera and his equally famous artist wife, Frida Kahlo. The couple were very much at the center of a vibrant social and cultural life at the time. They were close friends with the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, who lived nearby and was murdered in 1940 by a Stalinist agent. It was chilling walking around his house knowing that the killer was able to get to him despite elaborate security measures. Trotsky’s clothes and shoes still displayed in his wardrobe somehow highlighted his vulnerability.

There is plenty more to see in Coyoacan, which with its trendy shops, bars, and restaurants is a popular place to visit on weekends.

Kate recalls the high points of her time in Mexico City: “By night you can go for a true Mexican experience listening to mariachi bands and sipping tequila in the central Plaza Garibaldi, or a more low-key night hanging out and eating tacos in one of the many bars and restaurants of Condesa or Colonia Roma, residential areas known for their Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture.” Many books have been written about Mexican food and drink. Possibly the most distinctive national dish is mole. This comes in a range of colors made from hand-pounded chocolate, usually served with chicken and rice. Other delicacies for the more courageous tourist include fried grasshoppers and crisp-dried maggot worms, ground with chilies as seasoning.

The drinks most commonly associated with Mexico are, of course, Tequila and Mezcal, distilled from different species of the ubiquitous agave plant. Mexico offers a wide variety of other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, though tourists are advised to avoid buying these from street markets and bars of dubious cleanliness. Pulque is another (mild) alcoholic drink, also derived from the agave plant; with a thick, syrupy texture, often flavored with fruit, it can be something of an acquired taste.

When it comes to sightseeing, not to be missed is the Museo Nacional de Antropología or National Museum of Anthropology, brimming with archaeological and anthropological artifacts from the pre-Columbian heritage of Mexico. The museum is set in Chapultepec Park, which is a riot of sound and color and bustling activity, especially on weekends and national holidays. Food markets offer a bewildering array of Mexican specialities, tortillas, tacos, salads, and sauces with every imaginable combination of chilies, onions, tomatoes, citrus fruits, avocados, and other exotic fruits and vegetables.

Another landmark is Basilica Guadalupe, one of the central places of worship in Mexico and renowned for the much-revered image of the Virgin Mary draped in a blue mantle. The church is built on a site where the Virgin is believed to have appeared before a poor Indian peasant. Crowds of devotees flock to the church and surrounding shops, which are crammed with religious artifacts – crosses, rosaries, statuettes, paintings, key rings, and innumerable other objects.

One does not have to go far to find historical sites such as the Tlatelolo pyramids, a complex of structures one layer built over another by succeeding dynasties. A large stone memorial in front of the church was dedicated to students, many of whom were shot dead, while demonstrating against government corruption and policies in 1968.

About 40 kilometers northeast of Mexico City lies Teotihuacan, which contains some of the largest pyramidal structures in the pre-Columbian Americas. The site includes large residential complexes, the Avenue of the Dead, numerous and well-preserved murals, and distinctive orange pottery – a style that spread through Meso-America. At one period Teotihuacan was among the largest cities of the world and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The backdrop of mountains reflecting the shape of the pyramids accentuates the timeless quality of the setting.

From Mexico City, we traveled by coach to Puebla. Founded in 1531, Puebla has preserved its rich heritage of colonial architecture. It has its share of cathedrals, museums, and historical sites, but one can just as easily while away hours sipping coffee or drinking wine at one of the many restaurants and bars in the Zocalo, while the city whirls around you. Women with careworn faces, old men, and young children vie with each other to sell handmade wooden letter openers, spoons, colorful scarves, shawls, embroidered tablecloths, bags, jewelery, and other souvenirs. Music is everywhere – one evening, despite a heavy downpour, couples of all ages danced under a tent in the main square to the strains of popular tunes performed by a local live band.

Our next stop was the city of Oaxaca, located in a fertile valley 1,500 meters up in the mountains. Now a major commercial and industrial center, Oaxaca is ranked as the most charming of all Mexico’s colonial cities. Plaza de Armas is a great place to relax and watch the city go by.

Among the most impressive tourist attractions is Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Begun in 1572, it was completed 200 years later at a total cost of over 12 million pesos in gold. Behind the deceptively simple façade hides an interior, which dazzles with gilded plaster and stucco. There are many museums, hotels, and restaurants in the area to keep tourists occupied.

Several historical places are dotted around Oaxaca. Cholula was described by Cortes as the most beautiful city outside Spain. It’s now home to 365 churches, each with its own distinctive style. Monte Alban, spectacularly located on a mountain over Oaxaca Valley, is the greatest of the Zapotec cities. After its decline, it was adopted by the Mixtecs primarily as the site for some magnificent gold-laden burials. Yagul was first inhabited by the Zapotecs in about 500 BC. Dramatically set on and around a rocky outcrop, the city had a good defensive position with sweeping views of the surrounding landscape.

Mitla grew in importance after the decline of Monte Alban. Many of the temples were destroyed by the Spanish when they invaded, and the stonework was used to build the Catholic church, which dominates the site.

But our most memorable experience was back in the city of Oaxaca, made all the more enthralling because it was totally unexpected. We were about to return to our hotel after dinner when we stumbled on a religious procession and decided to join it. The procession was led by a man carrying a huge lit paper lantern. Behind him were three dancers in brightly-colored national dress with swirling full skirts; balanced precariously on their heads were brightly-decorated baskets filled with flowers. The dancers were accompanied by a band of musicians, while devotees followed behind carrying torches. The procession stopped at fixed points along the road where generous homeowners emerged through the darkness laden with trays of steaming coffee and snacks; the dancers and musicians were able to snatch a few minutes’ rest from their exertions. It was well past midnight when we decided to peel away to grab some sleep, while the procession continued on its way into the early hours of the morning.

Since time was limited, we were unable to explore more of Mexico, but our journalist friend, Kate, describes her experience of traveling further afield:

“Stories of severed heads being rolled across dance floors of discotheques mean most people shy away from the northern part of the country – but away from cities like Ciudad Juarez, it’s not drug gangs you’ll encounter (unless you’re very unlucky) but delights such as the Copper Canyon (bigger and deeper than the Grand Canyon apparently), which you can view from the train, which winds its way from the coast, up through the canyon and out the other side to Chihuahua. It’s home to an indigenous community called the Tarahumara, who are famous for running up and down the cliffs in homemade sandals that barely look fit for walking in. And once you’ve left the canyon, if you stop off in what at first sight appears a rather ugly industrial town, Cuauhtemoc, among the Mexican cowboys, you’ll spot the odd Germanic-looking blonde. They belong to a large community of Mennonites who’ve been there for about a century and are now an integral part of the area’s agricultural industries.

“And even in a tourist resort like Cancun, if you make the effort to venture away from the package holidaymakers to explore the rest of the Yucatan peninsula, you’ll find Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza and Tulum, unspoilt beaches, and delightful colonial towns such as Merida.”

Perturbed by the negative press reports on Mexico, I approached the country’s Director of Tourism in London, Manuel Diaz Cebrian, for advice before deciding whether it was safe to travel there. He acknowledged that security could be an issue but pointed out that this affected mainly the north of the country and that the violence was mostly directed at families or associates of drugs gangs, and tourists were normally unaffected. He had a few simple tips:

“Be responsible, don’t dress ostentatiously in crowded places, don’t be flashy when you go touring. After 10:00 pm, try not to attract attention to yourself. Take official taxis and don’t drive on isolated roads at night.”

While no one can deny that Mexico has more than its fair share of problems, glib and sweeping generalizations by people like the Top Gear presenters are unfair and insulting to the majority of Mexicans who are helpful, hardworking, generous, and justifiably proud of a rich culture and history dating back thousands of years.

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