A Kodachrome slide of a country too tired
for another attempt at reform.
Somewhere in my parents' home is a faded, cracked Kodachrome slide taken in Mexico before I was born. A pair of grinning Mexican boys smiled with rascally intent beside the road for my mom and dad, who were exploring their country and were charmed by the kids. Nearly 50 years later, whenever my dad goes through these old slides, he chuckles at the memory of these two budding banditos. "A few minutes after we took this photo, and we'd driven away, I realized they stole my wallet," he remembers. This perfectly illustrates the charms of Old Mexico, and the nature of the nation.
Mexico represents something anarchistic, an intoxicating blend of mescal-flavored danger and historical simplicity that compels civilized Protestant men to abandon their rigid pomposity and wear silly hats. There is no other country in North America where you can still drive a Lincoln Towncar full of hookers and a trunk full of liquor at 120 mph with a reasonable expectation of success. Practically next door to us, it's our eclectic old uncle with a twinkle in his eye, the one that can never hold down a job or any quantity of money, but always has a good time. Your mother would not approve. Luckily, my mother and father did.
As a kid, my parents would drag a decrepit pop-up camper across the border so we could camp on the beaches of Rocky Point. Before the condominiums and chain restaurants showed up, you could buy fresh shrimp right off the boat from the pescadores, dig a hole in the sand, build a fire and live like a bum. We would buy handmade huaraches, leather sandals with old rubber tire treads for the sole, from peddlers on the beach. The locals were friendly and gracious, and would smile a lot.
We went to a wedding in Ciudad Chihuahua once, and the groom's family treated us like visiting dignitaries. My grandfather took me to Décor in Juarez, a multi-level store filled with curios and the smells of tar-varnished pine furniture and leather tannins, and I could watch the Mexican glass blowers make drinking glasses from blobs of molten glass. My uncle would buy over-the-counter penicillin from an extremely helpful pharmacist in Palomas, and I once ate a plate of fried shrimp bigger than my head in San Carlos; the mesero insisted that I possessed the appetite of a "mutanto radioactivo."
The trill of a mariachi's guitar. The intermingled smells of cooking meat and dust and trash fires. The fluid melody of Spanish, always punctuated by laughter. The sun-cracked deserts, cacophonous border towns, the placid beaches and roiling jungles in the south. The inherent happiness of a fatalistic people who value family, food and happiness above all. Mexico is a nation on permanent vacation, seemingly celebrating Friday every day of the week. That's what makes it such a wonderful destination and such a crappy place to live.
Some nations are forged by popular uprisings, some evolve through designs of empire, and others are simply created by a lapse in judgment. Mexico left the front door unlocked and went to bed, and when they woke up, the house was filled with gypsies. Five centuries of Spanish urban renewal, French corruption and American exploitation have given Mexico something that no other nation in the northern hemisphere has: third-world living conditions and orgiastic corruption.
Writer Cormac McCarthy once observed that the sands of Mexico are steeped in the blood of revolutionaries, bandits and lovers. That was before the contributions from the new breed of narco traficantes. Sadly, that is why I have kept my tire treads on this side of the border for the past six years. The element of danger that had always made Mexico more exciting is far less theoretical these days thanks to the wide =spread violence courtesy of the Mexican drug cartels. In 2011, Mexico had a murder rate of 22.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. The United States murder rate that year was 4.2. I've never been much of a gambling man, but the odds of waking up tomorrow seem to be better on this side of the border. Which is a damned shame, because I still love Mexico.
The people of Mexico are tired. They have already fought two revolutions, and frankly don't appear to have the energy for another. Corrupt, ineffective government is a so ingrained in the fabric of Mexican society that any attempt at reform would be quixotic at best and suicidal at worst.
I hope Mexico can get its act together soon, if not for the people who live there then at least for the gringos who loved to spend money there. As spring begins to warm the desert, my mind drifts back to Bahia Kino, the isolated little fishing village we used to visit each spring. We would grill fresh-caught fish until we were in danger of decorating our huaraches with marine-grade vomit. We could walk in the surf in the morning, picking up shells and planning the day before going back to the rented beachfront condo and drinking strong Mexican coffee. Of course, we'd return to discover our ice chest was missing from the patio, but that's part of the charm. ¡Viva Mexico!
Henry Lightcap now keeps his ice chest safely in Las Cruces.