Saturday, November 22, 2014

Across the Border

(I first wrote this essay back in the late 1980s when my father was still alive and I was courting by mail a young woman who lives in my father's hometown. I have since revised it a bit and brushed up the grammar, but I have not changed any of the actual details concerning the things I had observed during my last two trips to Mexico. Nor did I make up any of the things that my Mexican friend told me in her letters -- although I would probably sleep better if I could pretend otherwise.)

The traveler who goes across the International Bridge at Laredo inevitably finds himself not just in another country; he finds himself in another world. There are beggars in the streets, hordes of outdated cars upon the highway, and gangs of youthful panhandlers swarming around each and every gas station. The road to San Luis Potosí will reveal in December a line of people by the roadside which initially seems to be part of some religious pilgrimage. Then a closer look reveals that the majority of these hardy travelers are women and children who are begging for food. Some may have goats, turkeys or even snakeskins for sale, offerings designed to sway the passing tourists into stopping. Once stopped, the tourists can expect to be surrounded by anxious faces, displaying a desperation more often associated with places like India or Ethiopia.

I must confess these images have a personal meaning to me. My paternal grandfather was a migrant worker from the state of Guanajuato who brought his family to the States while my father was still a young boy. When I was a child, I used to hear many stories about how rough it had been to live in Mexico back then. Life in the Detroit slums had not been easy for my family, but at least it beat starving to death back home in San Francisco del Rincón. I still remember one story my father told me about how he had awoken one morning while his father was still working in the United States and his sister Ofelia had had to tell him that there would be nothing to eat that day because there was no money for food. Stories like this add a perspective to the immigrant saga that can't be captured by a Neil Diamond song.

I used to regularly correspond with a friend who lived in my father's home town. Through her, I learned much more about Mexican society than I could from my brief trips to Mexico. For example, she once described an incident wherein the bus on which she was traveling was pulled over by custom officials. The passengers' luggage was confiscated and some of their contents were never returned. My friend was angry because she lost a valuable set of china that she had purchased on the way back from Mexicali; however, despite an emotional scene at the customs office, she was never able to recover it.

There are worse aspects than this to Mexican society. For example, I never realized how sheltered I had been back in the States until I was stopped by a small group of soldiers on the road between Leon and San Francisco del Rincón. It was Election Day, and the government was wary of any excessive activity. I was let go as soon as they noticed the “Turista” sticker on my car, but it was still an unsettling experience. Ironically, the soldiers were still there two days later during my trip to San Francisco del Rincón. They were no longer waiting by the roadside, but they were stationed in a side street by the main plaza, and indeed, the sight of five of them marching through the plaza itself seemed to attract little attention aside from a child's exclamation of “el militario.” I don't pretend to be able to draw any serious conclusions about Mexican politics from these incidents, but I can't help thinking that if American soldiers had turned up outside the local precincts of most American cities on Election Day, it would have made front-page news. However, in San Francisco del Rincón, it did not even cause any major comment.

One might be tempted to interpret these comments to mean that I am anti-Mexican. I am not. I love my father's homeland with a great deal more affection now than I did when it was just a mythical presence in my childhood. Many of its traditions -- the serenata, the nacimientos, the Día de los Tres Reyes -- cannot be improved upon by American society. So what if many of its traditions are borrowed from Spanish and Arabic forebears. Are we here in America not expert borrowers ourselves? And have we not borrowed from Mexico in such areas as ranching and architecture?

I am quite Americanized by Mexican-American standards, and yet for many years I had an idealized picture of my father's homeland that was quite different than the image of Mexico I got from American movies and TV shows. Only recently did I have an opportunity to reconcile that image with reality. I don't lack any less affection for Mexico because of this new viewpoint, any more than an Irish-American lacks affection for the land of his ancestors just because he has heard of the latest trouble in Belfast. But I understand it better. And although I will probably always experience more of a culture shock crossing the International Bridge at Laredo than I do the International Bridge at Detroit, I do remember one moment in Mexico whose counterpart I had never experienced in Canada. I was sitting with my father in a bar in Salinas de Hidalgo. It was late at night, the streets outside were filled with recorded mariachi music, and I was far from home. Yet, for some strange reason, I felt that I was home. The world around me seemed much more familiar than the world I had seen in Canada during any of the brief trips I had made to Windsor. I have never been able to explain this. Perhaps I should not even try.

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