About eight weeks ago, newspaper headlines scared the crap out of Americans–or fueled their pre-existing fears–that Mexico was a dangerous place, putting five of Mexico’s states on the same warning level as Yemen, Syria and Iraq. A U.S. State Department travel advisory, issued January 10, begins like this: “Exercise increased caution in Mexico due to crime. Some areas have increased risk. Read the entire Travel Advisory. Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread.”
Mexico, overall, has a Level 2 warning, as do popular areas such as Cabo San Lucas, which is a New York Times “must-see” for 2018, and Cancun . Level 2, according to the U.S. State Department, means “Exercise increased caution” and in Mexico’s case, it’s “due to crime.” Well, I could also say the same about certain parts of 8th Avenue at certain hours of the day. Also, you know who else is a Level 2 destination? Our Anglophile cousins in the U.K., France, Spain, Germany, Belgium (Belgium!!!) and Denmark are all Level 2s due to terrorism. Level 1 destinations where you are as safe as you’ll ever be since leaving your mother’s womb are Canada (no surprises there) and Japan, where it’s not only safe but the streets of Tokyo blind you with their cleanliness, especially if you’re coming from Newark Liberty Airport, like me.
Journalism credit where credit is due; newspapers including The Miami Herald eventually brought some nuance to the discussion—nuance sorely lacking in most national discussions these days—to remind readers “Hey, folks, not all of Mexico is scary. Go ahead with your spring break to Isla Mujeres.” (Which is beautiful, by the way.)
I’d like to know where are the domestic warnings about visiting Chicago, which, in 2016, accounted for more than 20 percent of the nationwide murder increase? Or the warning about going to a concert in Las Vegas? Or a warning about simply going to school in America? Instead, we get headlines about arming our teachers and keeping our eyes open while lounging on a beach in Mexico. What are other governments telling people who want to travel to the U.S.? Arrive armed with an AR-15 just in case???
These headlines matter because I’ve encountered these perceptions right here in my neighborhood, a blue-ribbon school district that’s supposedly educating our future to be open-minded. You know how many people make decisions about places they’ve never been to based solely on what they see on TV? Everyone. Most recently, I had lunch with some Australian tourism folks who came to New York, and one said “It’s not like ‘Sex and the City’ at all. No one dresses up here.'”
Many don’t even realize how influenced they are by mainstream media. I’ve had people who have graduated from schools far more expensive and fancier than mine make disparaging comments about Mexico. In 2015, at a dinner, I mentioned I was heading to Cancun, a woman asked if that was safe “because you’re blonde.” At a holiday party two months after that trip to Cancun, another woman asked me “If that was safe, because you know, the drugs.” The drugs??? Suburbs are pumped with benzodiazepenes, pot, and heroin, to name just a few. Vincente Fox frequently comments that the U.S. is Mexico’s biggest customer. More than a decade ago, my mother-in-law, who taught Spanish to children, commented on “dirty Mexicans.” There is a misguided perception here in the suburban Northeast which no one wants to own: Mexicans are people who clean our houses and make our tacos. Folks struggle to see beyond that.
There are always exceptions. A family around the corner from us—we’ve been friends for 12 years—go to Mexico every year. They’ve explored the country top to bottom, from sampling different moles in Oaxaca to strolling Mexico City to scuba diving off Cozumel. They haven’t roamed Colima, one of the five states on the State Department’s recent naughty list, but they’re not shying away from visiting Mexico either or ascribing to affluenza notions. Also, Colima is about 150 miles south of Guadalajara, which is where Guillermo del Toro is from. You might have heard of him after last night: his movie, The Shape of Water won Best Picture. He wrote the screenplay and won Best Director. Here he is talking about being an immigrant and finding success.
Clearly, I’m a del Toro fan girl though I still haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth because I already have trouble sleeping and had a feeling this movie would stick a little too much, though that was a few years ago. I might be able to swing it now. When I saw The Shape of Water in a movie theater on a rainy January day, it was me and three elderly people there for an 11:45 a.m. showing. The weather had sent my seasonal affective disorder into a spin and I decided to cocoon inside a theater and escape not really knowing what I had signed up for when I bought my ticket. An hour and a half in, I nearly stood up and applauded when The Creature and Eliza break out into a black and white dance sequence. I have to thank del Toro for that; an artist known for darkness brought sunshine into a dark room on a dark day.
Del Toro isn’t the first Mexican filmmaker to win this honor. Three years ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman won Best Picture and Iñárritu became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director (Birdman was wonderful and imaginative, but I really liked The Revenant, my idea of a girls’ night out). Change happens slowly, but it’s happening.
After the disappointing 2016 election, I talked with several people who pined for Canada. The running joke was that there would be a beeline to the Canadian border, and while I’m a six-hour drive from the Canadian border, I’ve often said I’d rather go to Mexico. A longer drive, yes, but Mexico is more me. Not just for the sunshine and palm trees, which I seem to be biochemically dependent on, but because everything about me and Mexico clicks: the people, the bright colors, the architecture, the music, the dancing, the fascination with ghosts and the dead, and the abundance of gluten-free food. Last week, I had lunch at Cosme, a restaurant on East 21st Street that serves what’s dubbed as “high-end Mexican food” because in America, we assume that Mexican food means Taco Bell. The restaurant was founded by Enrique Olvera, a pioneer in the haute cuisine scene, and is run by Chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who won a James Beard award at age 25, and who moved to the United States from Mexico at the age of 12. Her corn husk meringue, inspired by her mother’s corn soup, is worth your time and money.
Mexico is America’s neighbor, yet America hasn’t been acting very neighborly these last 14 months. Someday, I’d like to go a neighborhood gathering or a dinner out and not defend my willingness to go to Mexico, which I have done more than once, or explain my love for Mexico, which is only based on three trips to the Quintana Roo region and several visits to Los Angeles’ Olvera Street. I’ve got a lot to learn and much more Mexico ahead of me: San Miguel de Allende, Isla Holbox, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Nayarit, where some of my Christmas ornaments were made. So don’t trash-talk Mexico and then tell me about your upcoming weekend to Las Vegas. I don’t want to hear it. Racism and Otherism is both explicit and implicit, and it’s the subtle, insidious comments, like the ones said to me or U.S. newspaper headlines, that build up and misguide. Our options for nuanced discourse may be disappearing, but our thoughts are still ours, and we get to choose what to think and to not buy into misinformed hyperbole.