I am back from my vacation in Mexico, ladies and gentlemen, or will be by the time you read this, and can report that my wife, who accompanied me, and I are still alive. We did not get beheaded, kidnapped, tortured or shot.
I mention this little detail because before we went any number of people asked me, “Aren’t you afraid?” and I felt obliged to answer, “Just a little bit,” based on the news stories we all read of the atrocities committed by drug gangs.
I should have known better, but I made that concession to sociability. I’ve traveled before in Mexico and know that one is no more likely to walk into a shoot-out there than anywhere else. The drug gangs fight mostly with each other and with the police (who are sometimes the same people), not with innocent wayfarers. Or at least the odds are greatly against it.
This time we traveled from Mexico City to Oaxaca to Chiapas, as far as the Guatemalan border, with a side trip to visit friends in Tlaxcala, logging 49 hours by bus, 12 hours by van, and an hour and a half by motorboat — it got so long I kept track of it — not to mention many miles on the Mexico City subway and by foot everywhere — and the closest we came to being afraid was on our visit to the shrine of Santa Muerte in the most squalid neighborhood of Mexico City when two policemen told us in hushed voices to get the hell out of there, that it was way too dangerous, even though we felt no threat and no one molested us in any way.
Everywhere else we were as comfortable as on our own front porch, even when we went through a military checkpoint entering territory nominally controlled by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the over-named rebel group in Chiapas.
We felt no danger ourselves, and we were not aware of other people feeling danger. Everywhere we went, people were going about their business as they always do and were as friendly and polite as they always are. Police and military presence was minimal.
Our first night in Oaxaca we strolled around the zocalo, or central plaza, soaking up the same atmosphere that we remembered from our last visit there 25 years ago. A brass band played somewhat raucously in the gazebo; middle-aged couples somberly danced the danzon; teenagers smooched in the shadows and sometimes not in the shadows; children scampered around playing tag or whatever they played; vendors hawked their wares; and all in all it was as pleasing and peaceful a scene as one could imagine.
If Mexico had a Norman Rockwell, it’s what he would have painted. “Are you afraid?” I asked my wife, and we both had a hearty laugh, thinking of the popular conception of Mexico as a land of decapitations and massacres.
Not that the drug wars are not real, of course. It’s just that the ordinary citizen rarely if ever experiences them, just as the ordinary citizen in Schenectady or Albany rarely experiences the shootings in those cities that you read about in the papers.
I got so carried away at one point, sitting at a sidewalk table with a bottle of beer and a saucer of fried grasshoppers, I commented that the whole world should be like Oaxaca.
It’s hard to put your finger on, but there is not in Mexico the sense of violence waiting to erupt that there often is in our own cities. There are no bad dudes posturing in the street, there is no chest-out assertion of territoriality.
Stand at an intersection that has plenty of traffic but no stop sign or traffic light, as I did in San Cristobal de Las Casas, and watch the taxi drivers and truck drivers politely cede the right of way, with never an angry gesture.
As I watched these things and reflected on them, I wondered where the grotesque violence of the gang wars comes from.
In our own urban culture there’s enough antisocial attitude visible right on the surface that it’s easy to see where the occasional outburst of violence originates. Not so in Mexico.
As for Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, I will get back to her another time. She is what’s known as a folk saint, that is, one who is invented by the people rather than by the church, and she seems to be getting bigger in Mexico all the time, especially in Mexico City, despite the church’s condemnation. (Serves the church right, I say.)
I was extremely pleased to visit her only public shrine and to meet, if not the woman who set it up, then her husband, and to buy from him a 20-page set of prayers, which he graciously autographed for me.
I also acquired, separately, at a market that specializes in such things, a bar of Santa Muerte soap as well as other bars endorsed by or dedicated to San Judas Tadeo (a popular saint among the rougher classes of Mexico City), Jesus Malverde (a folk saint of northern drug traffickers), and, of course, the Virgin of Guadalupe. I regard these as collector’s items and trust they will appreciate in value as time goes by.
This is not to mention the Virgin of Guadalupe room spray that I purchased at the Mexico City Cathedral.
I’ll try to work these things in the next time I go on a religion rip, and I’ll also try to work in the ancient Mixtec gods, of whom I made a brief study in the gift shop at the Monte Alban archaeological site.