All photos taken with an iPhone 5s
So, yeah, escapism. I’m not actually sitting in a bar in Guadalajara, but after 30 days of home detention, doesn’t that sound pretty good?
Nights are sometimes still in the 20’s, here in Milwaukee, but in my mind…it’s a warm, sunny day. A little table in front of a old, ocher-colored cantina, with a smiling waiter bringing some botanas to snack on, maybe a few pastes (kind of like Cornish pasties, but with mole sauce).
Needless to say, I’d be sipping a Tecate, or Negra Modelo, or even a Dos Equis – – pretty much anything but a Corona.
The title is a line from a Kirsty MacColl song, about twenty years ago, “In These Shoes?”
You know it? It’s great!
(MacColl knocked out some great pop tunes, and every New Year’s, I listen to her singing “Fairytale of New York” with the Pogues. She died way too young, in Mexico, as it happens.)
But this post isn’t about pop music, it’s about my first visit to Mexico, just before the pandemic shut down travel. Just for a few days, in the country’s illustrious and often-overlooked second city, Guadalajara.
It’s the capital of Jalisco, a state in the middle of the country, and bordering the Pacific, but the city is inland, a couple hundred miles east of Puerto Vallarta.
Guadalajara is known for being a hub of traditions we all associate as “Mexican” – – in many ways quintessentially Mexican, friendly and funny — perhaps less cosmopolitan than Mexico City, but not prone to the violence and brutality of some of the unfortunate states surrounding it. Tequila comes from there, as does Mariachi.
While I had no problem avoiding the tequila, I was unable to avoid the mariachi. One of those bands (guitars, violins, trumpets) camped out under my hotel window. I can now attest, mariachi is both prevalent and just as monotonous-sounding in Mexico (at least to my uncouth ear) as it is in the states.
Apart from the mariachi, Guadalajara is pretty great.
I’m not claiming any major insights from a six-day visit, but I did learn a couple things, maybe one minor revelation, when we tried enchiladas tapatíos, and pozole, a kind of soup, a bit like hominy, but better.One of the things that struck me was how very little about Guadalajara I knew. Or really, Mexico in general.
I’ve read that even when we’re shown facts that counter a narrative that we’ve accepted, we tend to not believe them, preferring our own internalized misinformation.
I knew from reading up a bit beforehand, that Guadalajara was traditional, colonial, and sprawling. Driving to and from the airport, this urban sprawl is evident. It’s often described as a smaller version of L.A., (and the same number of places selling tacos). It’s low-rise, mostly flat, with some mountains on its outskirts. Oil refineries and manufacturing ring the outer areas, but soon you come to the beautiful colonial core.
One thing I hadn’t expected were the blocks of modernity. I knew there’d be the always-present American companies-McDonalds, 7-11, Ford, Coca-Cola, and Walmart. I was more surprised to see Starbucks (many Mexicans still drink Nescafe), and even more to see skyscrapers.
It’s less of a Big City feel, despite the skyscrapers, but still a place with a super-modern (actually quite attractive) shopping mall, and a bike share program. The city has invested heavily in these bikes, hoping to promote environmentally-friendly commuting, and has built miles of bike lanes.
I was also surprised by the beauty. I knew they had a large central cathedral as most Latino cities do, but the miles of colonial architecture were a pleasant surprise. And not too far away is Guanajuato, the silver city of colonial architecture, also a gem worth visiting.
I was not surprised by the hipster area. I knew that there was a famous area full of cafes and bars, but even that was more pleasant than I expected, in many ways reminding me of the more stately La Starria neighborhood of Santiago, Chile than anything else.
In Mexico, there were things that were still exactly what I expected.
First, the locals are very friendly. And very funny.
I personally hold the firm belief that Mexicans are the funniest and friendliest people in the world. There are close runners-up, but Mexicans really seem to excel.
That doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the problems in Mexico. When I was there, in honor of Women’s Day, a large-scale protest was held to remind us of the femicides. The central Fountain of Athena was dyed red to symbolize this.
I’m from upstate New York, and grew up surrounded by hunters and competitive shooters. But in the US, at least where I’ve lived, guns are less constantly and openly present. In Rochester or Milwaukee, for instance, most random storefronts don’t generally post two men in front, with flak jackets and Uzis. The central joyeria (jewelry store) had no less than ten men, dressed as if for combat — helmets, bulletproof vests, automatic weapons or heavy-duty large-caliber pistols. Crime in Mexico is still extreme.
While I only saw it once, it was fairly jarring to see a truck-mounted machine gun and Mexican Marines driving by the central square, just a routine patrol. That was a bit of a reminder of what Mexico is facing.
And despite this, perhaps because of this, there’s a sense of kindness. When life may be short, better to be remembered for your niceness than for the bad.
One other thing I noticed, the Chinese restaurants! I counted no less than 20 in the central area. Our portrayal of Mexico tends to be heavily focused on the influx from there to the U.S.. We often overlook, that for at least ten years, more Mexicans have returned to Mexico than gone to the U.S.. And of course, some of the people coming in from Mexico, aren’t Mexican (some aren’t even Latino – – Nigerians, and increasingly Indians, are making that trek). Because we view them as a diaspora population, we forget that many people are moving to Mexico (including the nearly 500,000-1 million Americans living there full or part time!) While I only saw three Chinese people in Mexico, there is a large Asian population, including Koreans. And due to the rising IT industry, increasingly Indians are moving there, too. I’d read this, but seeing it for myself really seemed to blow my mind.
(Even the name of this place, if you think about it, has a hint of diversity. Just as every time a Spanish-speaker says ““Ojalá” (Hopefully) they’re echoing an Arabic expression “If Allah wills it,” and these place names from Spain, beginning “Guadal…” also go back to the centuries that Spain was a Moorish kingdom. Their term for a valley, “wadi”, as in “Valley of Stones” or “Wādī l-ḥijāra” -> Guadalajara.)
Chinese-Mexicans have been around a long time as it turns out, since the 1600s, showing just how little I know. Also present was DiDi, the Chinese delivery service that has made inroads across the globe. Chinese economic imperialism is starting to rival ours, and in Latin America I can understand why. For centuries our relationship has been largely one-sided and our rhetoric is bellicose. Why wouldn’t they want to let our rival in, as leverage?
I heard some interesting stories about Mexican history. Some were dubious, lacking credible evidence. But often interesting – like the explanations for the hole in the face of a central clock, in the city plaza – caused by an assassin’s bullet from an attempt on the life of Zapata. Though others say it was Pancho Villa.
Just before I left, I got some first-hand knowledge of middle-class life. I was in Zapopan (Guadalajara, like L.A. or NYC, is made up of several distinct cities that are all conglomerated now), in some ways, a cushier city than Guadalajara, with many middle class families and some real wealth on display. BMW’s, Mercedes, a Tesla, Range Rovers, and the ubiquitous old-school Mexican VW Beetles were all over.
Zapopan has its own central cathedral, and on its outer edges, there’s an enormous urban forest, full of fragrant pines and juniper. It felt miles from the city, and yet a few minutes out of the main gate, there are skyscrapers in the distance and streets full of cars and people.
The outer edge of Zapopan is more working class, but the folks I visited, live in an apartment building there, a very nice home, belonging to a middle-class Mexican family. While the US and some parts of Europe are seeing their middle classes shrink, Mexico’s has been steadily growing for years. Many Mexicans travel abroad, buy houses, cars, TV’s. It was good to see how nice much of Guadalajara was. Even the working-class areas, while not as shiny, and feeling like I had to be more cautious, seemed to be friendly, safe, and decent. There were no slums that I saw, though I know there’s some all around the edges of Mexico City.
Like my flying trip around India, I only got a brief window into the lives and scenes of a country. Mexico is vast, with many different regions, with their own unique identities and culture. Landscapes range from desert to rainforest. It’s simply too much to claim that I “understand” Mexico, from going to one city for six days. But, I do feel I have a better understanding of what’s happening there now that I went. The news so often only portrays the bad. There is a lot of that. But it often ignores the little stories, like the emergent middle class, or the increasing pressure by women on society to improve the sexism that haunts them. Stories about green pathways don’t sell clicks, the way that bodies hanging from bridges in the border cities do. But I look forward to learning more and seeing more of Mexico in the near future.