December 6, 2019
Our introductory conversation was a tense one. She was worried about a friend, an Argentine like herself, who’d run afoul of the Mexican immigration authorities, and was now a prisoner in a Mexico City jail. A very nasty jail, she said, where food wasn’t provided, and there was a lot of violence.
When the US government began pressuring Mexico to block caravans of refugees heading through the country to the American border, Mexico launched a crackdown. I was myself checked by immigration police on the bus a couple of months ago. At the time, I had no ID at all on me, but I didn’t fit the profile they had, and they let me go. They were looking for younger people and poor people, and I was older, and respectably dressed by local standards.
But on the advice of seasoned adviser Don K, I now always carry a photocopy of my passport’s face-page along with a copy of my visa, just in case.
Travel insurance – my Canadian passport, and accompanying visa. I carry a copy of these at all times.
My new friend admitted she was scared for herself. Her parents were from Argentina, but she was born when her father was working in Venezuela, before Hugo Chavez began installing the military dictatorship that’s wrecked the country. To renew her passport, she’d needed a copy of her birth certificate, and had waited two months in Caracas until a cold-faced army officer had told her he’d let her have it. She left for Mexico, where she’d grown up, right afterwards. Here, she has a residency permit, but the experience had marked her.
And she’s scared. She doesn’t have wrinkles on her face like me, and she speaks Spanish with a non-Mexican accent, so she doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt that aging gringos do. The immigration police, under Manuel Lopez-Obrador’s strict new rules, aren’t necessarily friendly people.
“Stay safe,” people often say to me about living here, to my irritation. Yet on my last visit to Toronto, in October, I was nearly run down (for the third time) by a driver texting on a cellphone, and there was a shooting a hundred yards from my former apartment in the city’s east end. That area still feels the hurt of the murderous rampage on Danforth Avenue that happened one night in July last year, when two people died, a couple were paralysed, and a dozen others were wounded. The bullet-hole in one restaurant door, at a place I visited frequently, was only filled in weeks after, and I still see the scar in the wood when I go there.
And Toronto is still one of the safest cities in North America. Yet by comparison, Tepoztlan is a quiet park for strolling.
So, is Mexico dangerous? Of course – everywhere is. There are parts of Mexico City where I’d be daft to go, even if I love to wander other neighbourhoods on a sunny afternoon. And some northern cities are too risky to visit.
But hazards for non-Mexicans are more complex than outsiders understand. Many Mexicans are genuinely concerned about people coming in from violence-torn parts of Nicaragua, Honduras or, especially, El Salvador. Lopez-Obrador’s policies, while following Washington’s lead, aren’t opposed across the board. People worry about conserving the kindness and humanity that is central to the Mexican character and history, but they also fear importing more violence.
That kindness, that decency, is what attracts many people from elsewhere. There are Chileans and Argentines who fled their countries during the dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, and never went back. There are Venezuelans like my new friend, and many people who had their reasons for saying adios to places where they were born, or began their working lives. Maybe they ran from kidnapping threats, or because they’re gay, or because someone in their family was murdered by a gang.
Yes, the US is their most favoured destination, and Canada the secondary one; but here, they don’t need to learn a new language from scratch, and there’ve always been opportunities for the educated. But things are wilder now than they were a decade ago.
Once, people emigrated to new countries to find prosperity, or perhaps adventure. Now, it’s often done for safety. And that safety is eroding as the norms break down internationally. The young Argentine in jail is the third person I’ve heard about in recent months who’s had similar trouble.
I personally still feel very safe here. I know the risks, and discuss them with friends. And maybe one day, I’ll have to move on. But respect for older people, and the fact that retired people commit few crimes, keeps me secure from the authorities, and the local culture keeps me safe from theft and violent crime.
But I can’t help but feel concern for people caught up in the new push for tighter security and tighter rules. Mostly, they’re doing nothing very harmful, and every shift that erodes Mexico’s traditional spirit of hospitality only reduces its self-respect and social cohesion.
My new friend left me to go and visit her imprisoned compatriot, and to see if he could be let out. I just have to hope she succeeds.