Mexico by Toula Drimonis

Beyond Mexico’s single story

“Travel done right, with a genuine interest in the local culture, different ways of life, different choices made, can help you re-examine your implicit biases and blind spots, your assumptions, your singular stories. Travel done right expands your world.”

Back in March, when I announced during dim sum with friends that I would soon be travelling to Mexico on my own, their reactions were fundamentally ones of concern. 

“What, are you hankering to get murdered?” was pretty much a summary of my friends’ combined arguments.  

Despite my precautions (staying in a small fishing village in a part of the country considered safe), there was still a small part of me that wondered whether travelling alone to a destination often plagued by travel advisories with nothing but my practically non-existent, Duolingo-acquired Spanish was a good idea. I put aside my nagging doubts and off I went. I’m so glad that I did.

I quickly realized that Mexico is so much more than the violent incidents that often make headlines around the world. Mexico is a warm and inviting country with a rich culture, incredible cuisine and centuries-old Aztec and Mayan culture that I joyfully discovered as the weeks went by.

The dangers of the incomplete story

Mexico. Photos by Toula Drimonis

Recent news of a Canadian killed in Mexico, and the often-repeated online comments that followed about what a “dangerous, crime-ridden country” it is, reminded me of the dangers of the incomplete story. 

Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie devotes an entire TED talk to this subject. In fact, I used excerpts from her talk to illustrate unconscious majority bias in my book, We, the Others. Adichie describes how, when she went to the U.S. for university, her American roommate was shocked.

“She asked where I had learned to speak English so well and was confused when I explained that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal’ music and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me, her default position towards me as an African was a kind of patronizing well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa — a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being like her in any way.”

She goes on to explain that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” They make one story become the only story.

Mexico’s often-reported violence is one story

Adichie, too, would visit Mexico, and find that she herself had fallen victim to the single story. 

“I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara,” she says, “watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then, I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind: the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans, and I could not have been more ashamed of myself. So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” 

It’s, of course, a lesson that applies to many different scenarios beyond travel. Power structures —political, colonial, economical — often control who gets to tell that one main story about a people, a country, a minority and how. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” she warns. 

The danger of the single story is something to remind ourselves of every time we hear a prevailing (often, negative) narrative about others – countries or people. North American and European exceptionalism (in many ways a by-product of colonialism) routinely deceives us into assuming our countries do everything better than every other country. Conscious travel will often quickly disabuse us of that belief.

Violence is but one of Mexico’s many stories

If all you know of Mexico is Netflix’s Narcos or the occasional newspaper headline talking about another bloody cartel-related murder, then it’s perhaps understandable that you’d think the country is nothing but an unsafe, violence-ridden destination with nothing to offer. 

To be fair, Mexico has issues with violence, and I don’t wish to downplay them. There have been over 47,000 drug-related murders in the past five years alone. Even if the overwhelming percentage of that violence is in certain regions of Mexico and very much drug-related, I somehow doubt that fact would be any comfort to someone finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught in the crossfire. 

Of course, everything in life is relative. New Orleans, one of my favourite American cities, routinely named the top U.S. travel destination, has 10 times the U.S. homicide rate, close to triple Mexico’s national rate. Mexico doesn’t even crack the Top 10 list of countries with the 10 highest crime rates. Venezuela, Papua New Guinea and South Africa are in the top three, and Jamaica came in at number 10. Yet somehow my group of friends, four of whom were travelling to Jamaica soon after my trip to Mexico, were worried about me, possibly oblivious to Jamaica’s own violence problem. 

Solely focusing on the single story, the only story some people get to hear, means that you miss out on all the rest. Is “all the rest” worth discovering? Claro que sí!

Mexico is also three generations of one family joyfully celebrating Easter on their front lawn who loudly called me over to have a shot of tequila with them. Mexicans are warm, welcoming, and very social. It’s the colectivo vans transporting us all over town– everyone sitting snugly together—scooting over at each stop to make room for just one more. Every person entering the van saying hola and buenos dias and buenos tardes and — miraculously — everyone in the van responding. Sadly, in North America, we’ve mastered the art of entering an elevator and pretending we don’t see each other.

Mexico is the thousands upon thousands of hard-working Mexicans who wake up every morning to go to work. The day labourers gathering at unpretentious breakfast taco stands early in the morning, sitting on nothing but plastic buckets for chairs, yet the music is loud, and the smiles come easy. Mexico is Daniel, Me Estás Matando and their melancholic, mellow Mexican tracks.

Mexico is its people. My 77-year-old landlady who told me how, at the age of 70, and much to the surprise of her kids, she packed up her entire life and left Mexico City to move to the seaside town of Puerto Morelos. A retired small business consultant, she continues to help local women start their own commercial ventures in the area. She proudly pointed out that both the mayor of Puerto Morelos and the governor of Quintana Roo were women, while also making it clear the current Mexican president and his brand of authoritarian populism irritate her. “He thinks he’s Ramses II,” she told me dismissively, when I asked about the Tren Maya, the Yucatan train project many worry will destroy Indigenous land. 

Mexico is also choices that favour social ties and safety. I was amazed at how the public infrastructure and the seating in parks is often designed to encourage social interaction, not isolation. School zones and pedestrian crossings have an incredible number of speed bumps (known as topes in Mexico and referred to as “suspension-killing wonders” by the New York Times) that tend to be far larger than ours and can inflict far more damage to cars. Predictably, drivers don’t like them, but it’s logistically impossible to speed while driving over them, making them incredibly effective. We could use more Reductors de Velocidad over here if you ask me.

Mexico is simple pleasures. You can find paletas, tamales, corn tortillas, pan dulches and salty-sweet grilled corn (elote) at almost every street corner, and a million different flavours of aguas frescas to quench your thirst with. 

I’m not romanticizing the country or pretending it doesn’t have its own litany of social issues and problems to tackle, but when I think of Mexico now, I’ll think of the way people come out at night when it cools down to play in neighbourhood basketball courts, while families take their after-dinner strolls or line up for marquesitas and churros.

All that is Mexico, too. But none of that makes the news. 

Travel done right, with a genuine interest in the local culture, different ways of life, different choices made, can help you re-examine your implicit biases and blind spots, your assumptions, your singular stories. 

Travel done right expands your world. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.