|EDINBURG, May 5 - On this Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, we remember the Mexicans defeating French imperialist forces. Today, more recent events dominate our thoughts. President Barack Obama finally journeyed to Mexico.
Yes, finally. That is good news. The President was there. But for only one day. Big deal; how do you see, how do you know Mexico in one day?
Yet, the president was trying to do his part for macro-economics. Meanwhile, there is something we can do, about tourism, about south Texas and northern Mexico. Mexico is so very important to the U.S. (second largest trading partner, etc.). We could and should get involved by taking a Mexican journey, if only for a weekend. I just travelled to Nuestra Señora de Monterrey. Only about three hours away. You should try it again, or for the first time.
Friends and family warned me not to go. “You’ll be assaulted. You’ll be kidnapped.” Then, with sick humor: “We can’t (or won’t?) pay any ransom.” No colleague or student would go with me. Why? Of course, due to all we have heard (some fact, some fiction) over the last few years. I had not been in six years. But I did go. I did return safely. I was glad for both.
It is better not to drive. You can take the Pan American (how appropriate) Express bus direct to Monterrey from McAllen—only about $58 U.S., round-trip. It was safe and comfortable. Many of my other students now come and go frequently, as well as professionals, business people and workers. We left via the Anzalduas Bridge, south of Mission. It was my first time to take that route. I was impressed by the clean, efficient inmigración/aduana station. However, I was the only Gringo tourist there, requesting a visa.
Passing the western outskirts of Reynosa, I was stunned by the sheer extent of maquiladoras and by the number of compact houses for workers. Once in and around Monterrey there is a great deal of noticeable progress, lots of new construction. One arrives at the old, not-so-inspiring, downtown station. But hope returns as you see the new, state-of-the-art, steel and glass bus station, near the metro or subway system, awaiting completion.
The Hotels and the Food:
In the restaurants you will find familiar fare, delicious, traditional cabrito, etc. They sit alongside many of U.S. fast-food chains you desire. But why go for those when there is Sanborn’s? Or the fabulous buffet at the Gran Hotel Ancira (with 1890’s mahogany bar and gaslights intact)? Or the new, incongruous “Mrs. White’s,” with its continental offerings?
Add Starbucks to the list of U.S.-based chain stores. Also add Chili’s as an agringado, fast-food footnote to globalization. However, even Chili’s featured on its menu the very Mexican elote (corn)-on-a-stick and an improbable cappuccino to finish. Maybe Mexico is co-opting globalization, as the Aztecs did Spanish culture and religion? Free breakfast bar at the Sheraton offers almost anything.(No, I don’t get a kick-back for any of these promos.) Make your own waffles, choose yogurts from all flavors. But also try nopalitos, or roasted cactus, and other very campesino food, such as machacado (dried beef jerky) with egg.
Some things have changed, of course. It’s very sad to see the slightly deteriorated downtown area around the old placita. La Luisian Restaurant has been gone a long time. Librería Cosmos and especially the venerable Librería Porrúa have closed. Previously, before travel was halted, when I went frequently, one could always buy hard-to-find books at Porrúa.
But, there are hopeful signs. Down the street from the Ancira, there survives Carápan, the incredible (and incredibly expensive) folk art store. It still features the best of copper from Michoacán, the best of black pottery from Oaxaca, the best of Talavera pottery from Puebla. One enters through a wrought-iron, ornamental door, locked until one rings the bell. Regiomontanos are happier during these safer times, but still remain alert and practical.
Dangers still exist, however. There was at least one important murder, a lawyer, the night I arrived. But street philosophers did not seem to count it in the regular murder rate. The man was recently released from prison. He had served time for his support of owners of a casino consumed in a terrible blaze. Over 50 died, due to irresponsible safety inspections, due to corruption. It was speculated the hit was ordered by cartel capos, fearful he might reveal more damaging information; or it was carried out by grieving relatives of those who perished.
Monterrey, founded in 1596, boasts ornate government buildings, patriotic monuments, and splendid fountains from its 400 years-plus heritage. But it also is home to the creative MARCO, Museum of Modern Art. Currently turning heads is a retrospective exhibit of architecture and design by the famous Brazilian brothers, Fernando and Humberto Campana.
Marvel at their award-winning, environmentally-friendly chairs of recycled cardboard and wire. Know that you are in a very avant-garde space designed by the visionary Mexican architects, the Legorettos, father and son. This established museum may seem new, especially to provincial visitors not used to its often puzzling, provocative art.
Travel up the long esplanade, the Macro Plaza, past the laser light show obelisk, to the newer, well-curated Museum of History. A current exhibit displays colonial paintings of devils and their “Tentaciones”—Temptations. Large oils depict grim warnings and heavenly redemption offered (or forced upon) indigenous peoples by the Inquisition. Cross the bridge over the Santa Lucia, a San Antonio-like river walk, to the brand new Museum of the Northeast.
That museum currently offers a unique exhibition extolling Lucha Libre. Costumes of famous wrestlers such as the Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras are surrounded by the sights and sounds of raucous wrestling, recorded in films from the 1950s and 1960s. An explanation of the economic side of the history of Mexican wrestling gives credit to its U.S. origins from the early 1900s. A scholarly analysis of this pop/folk cultural phenomenon by social critic Carlos Monsiváis (sadly, recently deceased) satisfies one’s intellectual, even philosophical curiosity.
The Global Ambiente:
In Monterrey you find Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, and Subway. OK, I get it; globalization seems here to stay. But why, oh why “Miller Lite” when, in Monterrey itself, are brewed (for me, at least) the superior brands of Dos and Tres Exquis, Corona, and, of course, Superiór? There are ubiquitous HEBs and Costco’s. One hopes they do note drive out of business the Mexican chains themselves. They might, for the same stores are cheaper on this side, even basic foodstuffs. Hence, they come, if and when they can, to this side.
Yet, in Monterrey, shoppers abound at colorful, stylish malls; e.g., La Galería at Four Points connected to the Sheraton by a private but government-built bridge across the street. All major brands are available. All are expensive. Outside, on busy Insurgentes Avenue, there are no longer fire eaters. Their dangerous profession took too much of a toll. But there are some very talented twirlers entertaining the evening traffic, hurling fiery batons high in the air, while drivers wait for the light. Opinions differ on this, but I always give those adventurous entrepreneurs some pesos. Tradition tenuously, often incongruously, co-exists with modernity.
Sanborn’s was full, day and night. Have your siete sabores or molletes brought by the waitresses in starched bibs and colorfully striped, long dresses. The mole poblano is still superb. I felt like a king, enjoying this dish made with chocolate once reserved only for Aztec royalty. I finished with a cappuccino and exquisite flan, while reading a new Monterrey newspaper, El Horizonte. Really? A brand new newspaper? In the midst of declining readership? With reporters and photographers being harassed, some even murdered by cartels? Go figure. Indefatigable, the Mexican spirit. It was of good quality. It specialized in stories of allegations of corruption among mayors of some of the small townships inside or near the metropolitan area.
As you can see, I missed Mexico. I have friends and family and research awaiting there. I enjoyed my return. I have flown over the violence to Mexico City in the last few years but not traveled by land.(One must know Mexico City to truly appreciate Mexico.) Right now, I would not advise driving to, say, Ciudad Victoria or Tampico or Veracruz. Drug cartels are real.
One must be realistic, take precautions, not be out late at night, etc. However, I have journalistic friends who live in Reynosa and have many students who cross the border frequently. Commerce and education and family duties do call; people do respond. But Monterrey’s relative safety has been restored. This trip of mine was a cultural journey, but also allows me to reflect, analyze and even criticize, not only Mexico, but the U.S. and the world-wide globalization of capitalism.
Monterrey is a close, vivid example of globalization. It is bounding back but poverty is still quite visible and quite harsh. There is an uneasy (for me) only partial integration of the “upstairs/downstairs” aspects of social classes. The gap between the very rich and the poor is great. Negative consequences of NAFTA have exacerbated problems.
The masses, especially rural residents, continue to live in want of basics. For the small middle classes, for the tourist, there are some interesting anomalies in the economy. For example, despite globalization, it might come as a shock for North Americans that many in Monterrey don’t accept dollars, not even at the high rise, modern Sheraton. There is a NAFTA, but no European Union attitude or common currency.
It is a shame more of our citizens do not learn more about Mexico, or do not travel there when there is a choice. It is close in distance and culture. Our economies—north Mexico, south Texas—are intertwined. But, Mexico is back! At least parts of it. And it is right here beside us. We’re married, for life. No divorce possible. Either social partner can choose to ignore the other, but at a risk for both. Or, we could agree to disagree, like mature adults (about cartels, the border, immigration, water rights) and begin anew to work on what we have in common.
Despite my love and hopes for Mexico, one thought hit me head on upon my return. Namely, any predictions you or I may have had of a future for European socialism in Mexico seem dim. They have been dispelled by the dug-in (literally) foothold global capitalism has upon our neighbors, as well as upon us. If you are a conservative, chuckle, sleep well. If you are more progressive, sorry, try a future epoch or another planet? The current zeitgeist may improve with time, at least advancing pay and conditions for the masses as much as possible.
I remain optimistic on one level. The trip helped. A colleague who teases me about my obsession for Mexico says I have been “re-Mexicanized.” But, observing the poverty that remains, I often lapse into pessimism. I lost it completely at one point on this trip; I broke into tears on seeing a blind beggar in heavy traffic, proffering his cup, accepting small change on the backed-up bridge from Reynosa. My euphoria came to a crashing halt. Could it be the whole globalization thing is simply imperialism with a more human face? Substitute the U.S. and global capitalism for French troops and Emperor?
But, mostly I am saying—is it loud enough?—yes, it is not only safe to go back to Monterrey, but beneficial for you, for Mexico, for south Texas. Mexicans of all classes come here and spend. Cannot we reciprocate? Should we not go, and share some of our expendable income there? It’s a win-win situation; that is, the economy of the entire region is buoyed. You and I enhance our appreciation of the many layers of Mexican culture.
Tourism is the third leading source of income for Mexico. It is the “friendship industry.” It has enormous benefit for us. Mexican shoppers come to south Texas in droves, to spend and spend. Our shops and tax receipts would wither without them. Dr. Victor Huerta, business professor, University of Texas—Pan American, researches and counts the multiple millions of dollars pouring into Hidalgo County from Mexico. He notes “Valley proceeds are higher even than those of San Antonio.” Point being: we need them and they need us.
So, please return to Mexico soon. Orale! Come on! At least one, quick renewal, a relatively short, relatively inexpensive visit to Monterrey--later, maybe, to Mexico City? (It boasts more museums than any city in the world.) Either or both trips will change your life, or at least might change some previous stereotypes. Try it and see.
Let us here, locally, along with our President--nationally and internationally--continue to see the wisdom of increasing amicable, respectful, fair relations between the peoples of our two sister republics. We already are ahead of the curve here in south Texas with our complementary, intertwined economies and cultures. We are family. So, Viva Cinco de Mayo, the beginning of Mexican nationalism. May Mexico keep alive the hope of independence, integrity and uniqueness in the face of relentless globalization. Viva Monterrey! Viva Mexico!
Dr. Gary Mounce is political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. His columns appear regularly in the Rio Grande Guardian.