Here’s a quiz for you:
I ask you those questions not to make you feel bad, but to make all of us Americans feel bad. Had you asked me those same questions a few years ago, I would not have done very well myself.
I have come to believe that the future of Mexico is at least as important as any other country to the future of the United States. It’s much more important than most.
By comparison, we have been inundated with news, books, and movies about Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East. These places are important: that’s why I wrote a very long post about that part of the world (http://hooversworld.com/archives/2695).
Every business magazine and news magazine runs cover stories about China and India. As the world’s most populous nations, and rapidly growing economies, they are important to us.
But right next door to us, we have the world’s 11th most populous nation, with over 100 million residents. That number will continue to grow – faster than the US or Canada. With over 14% of the US population classified as “Hispanic,” our cultural and linguistic connection is large and will only get larger over time. While Mexico may seem poor to us, it has according to some the highest per capita GDP in Latin America, just ahead of Argentina and Chile at about $14,000 (adjusted for purchasing power). Mexico will increasingly be a source of imports into the US, and a purchaser of our exports. It is already our third largest trading partner after Canada and China, ahead of Japan and Germany.
These reasons alone are enough to want to know more about Mexico.
In the 2000 elections, Vicente Fox was elected President, the first leader not from the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party) in 71 years. Today Felipe Calderon of the same PAN party leads the nation, which consists of 31 states and one Federal District for the Capital (much like our District of Columbia).
The excellent website www.demographia.com lists Mexico City as the world’s 8th most populous urban area, at over 18 million people. Some lists, differently defined, place the city among the top 5 or even higher. Well down the list are the other two big metropolitan areas of Mexico, Monterrey and Guadalajara, each below 5 million.
Many Americans view Mexico as one of three places: border towns, beach and resort towns, or Mexico City. But most of the Mexican people live in none of those places (although about 15% of the nation does live in the Mexico City area). Colonial cities and state capitals like Queretaro, Morelia, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guanajuato are vibrant, amazing, often historic cities. I know this from my practice of spending about a week every year in Mexico, each time visiting a new city or state.
For example, if Guanajuato were in Italy, most every well travelled and educated American would have visited it, or at least know about it. It is one of the most photogenic cities on earth. But the hotels are about 1/5 the price of those in Italy and the flight is a fraction as long. Guanajuato, for decades the leading source of silver in the world, is filled with convents, cathedrals, a classical theater (Teatro), beautiful squares, pedestrian streets, colorful houses, and stunning views. Most of the major roads are buried deep underground, in this amazing city, the birthplace of the famous muralist Diego Rivera.
Nearby Queretaro has a historic center that has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. I stayed in a former palace, the fanciest place in town, for about $140 a night, a lot more than I usually spend. I cannot imagine feeling safer in any city in the US. The city was spotless, with perpetual cleaning by street sweepers. There were virtually no American tourists.
Between these two is the scenic village of San Miguel de Allende, popular with American retirees.
Morelia is perhaps the “most Spanish” of the Colonial cities, with one of Mexico’s most spectacular cathedrals. (That’s saying a lot.) Capital of the avocado-growing state of Michoacán, I thought Morelia had the best food outside Mexico City. This state is spectacularly beautiful, and slopes down to the Pacific. I was reminded of Hawaii.
In the same state, the lake and village of Patzcuaro are centers for the famous “Day of the Dead” festivities, although my off-season visit was equally remarkable. Like many places in Mexico, there are stunning Pre-Columbian ruins nearby.
My most recent visit was to Oaxaca (“Wah-ha-ka”), the capital of Oaxaca State in southern Mexico. This is one of the most important art, music, dining (think moles), and culture centers of the nation. The extensive ruins of the ancient city of Monte Alban are only about 15 minutes from the heart of the city. This fine town makes many “world’s favorite cities” lists, as compiled by editors of the major travel magazines. It exceeded my very high expectations.
My observation is that Mexico is saturated with culture and the arts. Every city has one or more impressive museums containing art from the pre-Columbian era to the most modern works. Brilliant murals are everywhere. Affordable or free concerts take place almost daily in many of these cities. And the town squares fill up with dancers and street performers and food sellers 7 nights a week. As in Mediterranean Europe, it seems like the whole town comes down to the central plaza each evening.
Guadalajara’s art, architecture, plazas, and food require a separate post, as would those of Mexico City.
Topping all of this is some of the best weather in the Western Hemisphere. At any time of the year, go to your favorite weather site and check out the weather in Queretaro or Oaxaca – the high altitudes of the central plateaus of Mexico provide cool summers while the southerly latitudes insure moderate winters for much of the country.
The above paragraphs give you just a taste of the Mexico that I know. This is a very different Mexico from the one we hear about in the media – violent, dangerous, corrupt, drug-embattled, and poor.
There is no question that Mexico has serious challenges ahead. But what country has not had its share of challenges? Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia have lifted themselves up from dire poverty. Even Japan was a near-basket case at the close of World War II. In 1865, the US was not exactly a model of peace and prosperity.
Mexico is gradually developing a civil, democratic society with a diversity of viewpoints. I have been travelling there for over 20 years, and see improvements every time I visit. One of my main measures – the quantity and quality of bookstores – has improved dramatically.
While not receiving as much publicity, there are some promising reports coming out of Mexico (and the rest of Latin America). One of the best is this January 2009 report from Stephen Haber for the Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123336272714535407.html. Another was Business Week’s April 2009 cover story about why big business was not fleeing Mexico: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_16/b4127034232864.htm.
In his recent book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, international strategic thinker George Friedman speaks extensively about the rising role of Mexico in world affairs.
All of this leads me to believe it’s critically important for all Americans who care about the future of our country and our continent to:
Of course the place to start is with reading, study, and travel. I have sometimes found it harder to learn about Mexico than, say, Iran. While there are plenty of academic studies of Mexico, there is not much for the general reader. Data books on Mexico are published in Spanish and not even available on Amazon or other online booksellers. Neither are the best maps and road atlases. Nevertheless, here are some starter ideas:
The best English language atlas of Mexico is the annual Mexico Tourist Road Atlas, published by Guia Roji (“Red Guide”). Since Amazon does not carry new copies of this book, either find a good map store or wait until you get to Mexico to buy it. In the column to the right, I have shown the Amazon link to an old edition.
As you know from my post on Iran (http://hooversworld.com/archives/2970), I often find travel guides the best way to understand a nation. Start with the Lonely Planet and Eyewitness guides, noted at right. If you are interested in history and colonial architecture, like me, also get Colonial Mexico from Avalon Travel.
I got one of the best understandings of Mexican history from Mexico: Biography of Power, by Enrique Krauze (Harper, 1997). That book tells the colorful stories of the most famous participants in the evolution of the Mexican nation. Bringing things up to date is Mexico since 1980 by Stephen Haber and others (Cambridge University Press, 2008). I found the Soul of Latin America: The Cultural and Political Tradition by Howard J. Wiarda (Yale University Press, 2001) very thought provoking, introducing me to wholly new ideas and philosophies. A good one-volume history is Brian Hamnett’s A Concise History of Mexico (Cambridge, 1999).
My favorite guide to daily Mexican culture is When in Mexico, Do as the Mexicans Do: the Clued-In Guide to Mexican Life, Language, and Culture by Herb Kernecker (McGraw Hill, 2005).
The only book which gives me the numbers I wanted to see, hard data, was El Almanaque Mexicano, which as you can guess is in Spanish. While I do not speak (much) Spanish, it’s pretty easy to figure out data tables and maps. I find this book invaluable but difficult to find. Here is one website which carries the new 2009 edition, for a price of under $30 US: http://www.libreriasdelfondo.com/LF_Detalle.asp?ctit=9789705804724. Here is another site which appears to carry the book: http://www.gandhi.com.mx/index.cfm/id/Producto/dept/libros/pid/366358. Note that the prices on those websites are in pesos, and that you will be able to navigate those sites faster if you can read Spanish or have a friend who does. (Between Google’s translating tools and a good Spanish English dictionary, I can figure out most any book I buy if I want to badly enough.)
That’s a start. You can find a lot more books about Mexico and its people, history, and culture. You can find plenty of music. And if you go visit Mexico, you will find some of the best material, especially art books, down there.
But no matter how you approach it, I urge you to start studying Mexico if you have not already done so. Go visit some of those wonderful cities. Go beyond the beaches and stay away from the border towns. Rent a car and tool around some backroads. Not only is the future of Mexico critically important to us Americans; it is a beautiful, diverse, huge country full of great people, great food, and a very deep, fascinating culture.