Two articles have come to my attention this week, one an op-ed in the Washington Post by Edith R. Wilson, a former advisor to the World Bank, and a post by CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg, the “Contrarian Traveler.” The gist of each was this: each author has spent significant time in Mexico and found the mood here to be quite different from the reports one hears in the U.S.
Wilson writes: “I just spent a month wandering [Merida’s] clean, civilized streets, often by myself, and I’ve never felt safer or met nicer people. This is the Mexico rich in social capital, tradition and culture that we should cherish and defend, and that is almost blotted out amid news of drug violence….What’s dangerous in Merida, residents know and the tourists who come here learn, is eating too many habanero peppers or other good food.”
And Greenberg, however contrary, concurs: “I read [the Texas Department of Public Safety’s] press release while I was in Mexico! I was walking down the streets of Oaxaca without incident. The day before, I was in Guerrero Negrol then I was in Chihuahua, and Mexico City, and over the last three weeks in many other Mexican states. I bumped into many American business travelers, too. All of us traveled without a safety issue. Without a problem.”
Of course, the commentariat takes each writer to task: Mexico may feel safe to those of us “on the ground,” but it is an explosive conversation piece. And speaking for myself, the commentariat does hit a nerve. Sure, those of us in Mexico have our finger on a pulse, so to say, that does not feel erratic or panicky. But what if we’re wrong? What if there’s something we are missing, some vibe to which we’re not attuned, just the way there are so many nuances of culture that we miss?
I say this because I feel safe living in and traveling around central Mexico, even with small kids in tow. Well, let me clarify. Driving from Mexico City to Michoacán two weeks ago I got caught up in gridlock because of a—get this—double pile-up on the highway; the first, consisting of at least a dozen cars, had caused the other a mile or so back. And a few months ago, on the coastal highway outside Acapulco, we were caught up for hours for another accident, one between a flatbed loaded with cement and an SUV; the impact had set the vehicles and the adjacent fields on fire. So I don’t always feel safe. What I mean to say is that I do not feel as though I’m living in a war-zone.
And when my gut is not enough, I can find support in numbers: while there were 15,273 drug-related killings in Mexico in 2010, according to The Economist’s website, fully 70% of those killings took place in only 3% of Mexico’s 2,438 municipalities, a concentration of the violence since 2007, although, admittedly, the total numbers are rising.
Morelia has seen some of Mexico’s violence, but it lies soundly in the other 97%. And even us foreigners have experienced some of this, obliquely. Twice since we moved to Morelia there have been “narcobloqueos”—roadblocks set up by Michoacán’s mafia, La Familia—which cut off the city from the outside world, once while my husband was on the other side (an earlier post). Usually, however, we’re oblivious to the events that we know of only from the papers. For example, just a few weeks ago, as I was waxing poetic about how beautiful and safe a city Morelia is, and pontificating about how interesting it was that the international news hadn’t picked up on the alleged disbandment of La Familia, my visiting father (who reads the news much earlier in the day than I) piped up that there had been four murders in Morelia the previous evening.
Yet I still feel safe. And who wouldn’t in a city that strolls each evening? In a city that holds enormous outdoor public dances in an ancient plaza every Thursday? In a city that shuts down its primary thoroughfare every Saturday night for live music, for couples of all ages dancing to boleros in the street, for children blowing bubbles and licking ice cream, for fireworks sparkling down as the cathedral’s lights come on?
It is precisely this sense of community health that Edith Wilson is referring to in her work on Merida, a city that is, unlike Morelia, generally removed from the drug war: “Merida, though, embodies the research of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam about how social capital bridges different groups. Residents and the local government understand that they have something valuable to nurture and defend here – a city where people feel that the streets are theirs; where the community, rich and poor, gathers in public; and where pride in local culture feeds adherence to values that serve the needs of all.” Morelia has had its moments under the international limelight shining on Mexico’s violence, but the city continues to cultivate its social capital, and even an outsider feels included in the warmth of this tightly bonded community.
People who dance in the streets every Saturday night are not afraid. And their dancing makes me feel not afraid. Strangely enough, in Mexico, my feeling counts for something:
“We already put off one trip there because of violence in the news, and our Mexican friends keep telling us to avoid the whole state,” a colleague based in neighboring Guanajuato wrote, requesting a heat-read on Michoacán since the flare up between federales and La Familia in December. “What’s the real story?”
Even within the country, bad news gets press and good news travels word-of-mouth.
“Come,” I replied. “Morelia feels as tranquilo as when you were here last.”
But it is easier to say that to someone who is already in this country, to someone who has already run his own risk assessment for his family and deemed Mexico reasonable. It is harder to say this, for example, to travelers who might otherwise go elsewhere. I read the news, after all. I read the stories about the Texas missionary storming the US border in the wrong lane while his wife died slowly from a gunshot wound; the families picked off one by one in retribution for opposing the powers-that-be in border towns; about people caught in the crossfire.
I read the news, and then I get up from my computer and step into clear sunlight to pick up my son from school and eat taquitos under the old aqueduct and stroll over cobblestones with other families. It is the weekend. There will be music and fireworks and dancing in this old Mexican city. And, speaking for myself, I am glad that I have come.
School kids on a dramatized tour of Morelia’s history (in costume)
Quinceañera girls pose for portraits by Morelia landmarks
People out to watch (yet another) parade in Morelia