Opinion

Hybrid City

By Grant Cogswell August 30, 2010

I wrote last week about the radically different histories of the U.S. and Mexico: The latter has, since independence, defined itself as neither European nor Native, but a third thing, a distinct and new hybrid of the two. At Tlatelolco, a huge marble plaque reads: "Here on August 13, 1521, the last of the Aztecs under Cuauhtémoc fell to the forces of Hernan Cortes. This was neither a defeat nor a victory, but the sad and bloody birth of the people who are Mexico."

In frontier America, there was nothing worse than being a half-breed, and this evil distaste floats under the language surrounding immigration even now. As an Irish/Polish gringo living in Mexico, I've noticed that Americans here continually feel safe expressing to me the most egregious prejudices about Mexicans—ideas about uncleanliness, bad food, intestinal distress, and fecundity that are not only untrue myths (en contrario— Mexican cities don't smell like piss in the heat, because they have public bathrooms), but seem to come straight from a 19th century boomtown editorial about the habits of the natives then being exterminated.

Mexico is deeply troubled: the very tragic sensibility that makes being there so refreshing—an honest attitude about death and the savagery of power dynamics—is what makes it so corruptible. Wounded in its poorest places by NAFTA and considered a dangerous by most Americans, the country is undeniably in the midst of a most profound struggle for its soul. Even in this collapse, Mexicans still want to send (relatively) strong dollars home. Lacking a guest worker program, most pollos fear getting caught crossing back and forth and so end up staying. Almost nobody wants to.

A saying everybody knows goes: "The U.S. is for making money; Mexico is for living."  But huge sectors of the U.S. economy profit from importing workers with Third World vulnerabilities, so right-wing demagogues take advantage of Americans' understandable fear of traficante violence and the erosion of familiar ways to blame and persecute the most vulnerable people in North America. Instead of confronting our domestic profiteers (and paying a living wage for fruit and vegetables, wine, groundskeeping and meals out), we cut straight to slashing health clinics and the big roundup.

It is a shame Americans can't look to their own distinctive problems—an addicted society in anomie (which gets its drugs from the cartels); an unsustainable infrastructure of empty and alienating spaces; broken families and victims of affluence, pumping their kids full of meds, and having more children made autistic or entering puberty at eight because of the thousands of untested chemicals loosed into the environment—and see that their neighbors to the south actually live in an intact hybrid culture. It's a culture that's challenged materially and politically, but is solid at its core—honorable, and perhaps even imitable, drawing on the best of two worlds.
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