I was in Mexico for two weeks. I was not deep in the sierras or on some remote island as I more or less suggested earlier in an immature attempt to toy with some of your impressionable minds. I was in Puerto Vallarta, that most civilized of towns. Two sets of spontaneous and superficial and probably frivolous observations.
First, a clear impression of Mexico today.
It’s easy. The country, seen through Puerto Vallarta, reminds me strongly of the US in the early sixties. The coffee is bad everywhere and there is nothing good to eat. (They don’t even do Mexican food there well.) Three generations go on vacation together. Older children take care of their younger siblings and cousins in the pool without protest. Adults drink alcohol all day, as if the Surgeon General had not come around with several warnings. (I guess those were our Surgeons General, not theirs.) And yet, no one acts rowdy. In stark contradistinction with my part of America (see my essay: “Liberal Authoritarianism: Independence Day, the Sequel, posted on July 17th) there are few law enforcements types to be seen anywhere aside from traffic police.
Of course, there might be mass denial involved there. The grisly, grotesque narco-traficantes assassinations that make the front page of American papers are put on page six or seven by the national-level Mexican press. Overall, although the city is several times larger, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco feels safer than Santa Cruz, California. This is just a feeling; it would take but one reasonably good study to persuade me that I should not have felt that way.
I realize that a famous resort town is not the best sample for a look at national poverty. With this sampling limitation, Mexican Puerto Vallarta does not feel poor and it does not look poor. Again, what I saw was the superficial evidence of prosperity in decent housing including in the least maintained back streets. Prosperity is also made evident there by the very healthy-looking children everywhere.
The desperate immigrants who cross our border to come and make $7/hour here either come from much more backward, and probably rural areas or else, they are ambitious young guys who want to amass the down payment for a house in record time. The main difference between Americans then, in the sixties, and Mexicans today is that Mexicans like cupolas a lot more than Americans ever did. I saw a brand-new, smallish house with three of them, each richly and individually tiled. Common buildings often boast of at least one cupola.
Mostly, the Mexico I saw this time reminds me of the US in the early sixties through the friendliness, the utter amiability of everyone there, except more so. The average Mexican seems to spend his daily life on the look-out for someone to give him an opportunity to laugh or smile. The spontaneous graciousness of people of all kinds there is practically faultless.
A few years ago, I published an article in a good journal with fellow-immigrant Sergei Nikiforov developing two simple and connected ideas:
1 The border between the US and Mexico should be fully open to traffic and limitless stay for citizens of both countries.
2 This free cross-border traffic should entail no automatic access to citizenship.
One of the supporting structures of our argumentation is that many older Americans would find it attractive to live in Mexico and to obtain some medical care there. I come back more convinced than ever that the idea is sound. As often happens to me, I must admit. I am even more right than I thought!
There is a live link to this article (published in the libertarian Independent Review) on the front page of this blog: “If Mexicans and Americans Could….”
Second set of observations:
After all those years of alleged effort, after millions of teacher-hours, after more millions of dollars of college tuition, after thousands of undeserved A grades, gringos still don’t know Spanish worth cacá!
How would spending two weeks in a Mexican resort town reveal or confirm anything along these lines? Here is how it goes: Locals in P.R. complimented me several times a day on the quality of my Spanish. One, finally came to the point and told me that he was awed because I used verbs correctly! Deuh, deuh! Verbs are the motors of any language. To use a language even a little, you have to be very familiar with its verbs. That includes irregular verbs which, viciously, also happen to be the most used verbs in Spanish.
What’s my point? The embarrassingly admiring compliments in casual Mexican encounters on this visit, confirm something I already vaguely knew from spending time in my California flea-market (where everyone is someone else): Native Spanish speakers are used to people who look like me operating in Spanish at the level of a not-so-advanced two-year old, if that.
Why, why, why? But I had better stop. Collective American delusions about foreign languages are the topic of the big thick book I will never write. Those delusions prove that every nation has its own form of craziness, the US not excepted: The French tend to think they are important although they have produced nothing of note, culturally, since 1955. The mainland Chinese think they are exquisitely civilized when they try someone for three hours and take him out the back door and shoot him in the head in time for the seven o’clock news. The opinion is widespread among Argentineans that it’s the Yanquis‘ fault that they, Argentineans, three different times in a century ate up and threw away the easy gains they had made supplying belligerents in world wars.
The Yanquis themselves tend to think that if you speak to your babies in five languages, they will easily grow up quintilingual. It matters not that their actual children are mostly semi-lingual. Oh, and don’t even start me about the dozens of monolinguals native-born Americans who are completely sure that they personally know people who are fluent in six languages although I, personally, have never met any such animal.
Let me finish with an anecdote, one for the teachable among the ignorant. Once, at a banquet, another immigrant, a man in his fifties asked to be seated next to me. He is a man who advertises himself as being “fluent in six languages” precisely. One of the languages is French, as seems expectable. In the course of dinner, I said a few words to him in French. The guy knew no French, zero!
And, speaking of American insanity: It’s America’s long lost an still losing “war on drugs” that is responsible for routine decapitations by Mexican gangsters. Ordinary Mexicans have the graciousness to not hold this against us much. They are good people. (See also my previous essay on this blog, “Hermanos.”)