Darby's Story - "Reflection on a Mexico Visit"
By Darby Brown
It has been a struggle to come up with a single visit that made the most impact on me. There were so much to see and learn that I had ten days of sensory overload. My only wish is that I had more time to explore some visits in more depth. In particular, I would have liked to explore with greater detail the INIFAP research center where the corn breeding experiments were happening and I would like to learn more about Mexican plant and food production systems; not only the large industrial scale farms but the smaller subsistence and local producers. I was really impressed with the tomato growing operations that we visited near El Grullo and Autlan; but I would have liked to see some native tomato relatives and learn more about their management practices (pesticide use, crop rotations, number of harvests a year). Sure, it’s easy enough to look this information up on some internet database, but when you see it first hand through the lens of the Mexican producers, there’s a special appreciation that you develop for their hard work and culture.
What I noticed in nearly all our visits was that the people never seemed pessimistic or angry, even when things didn’t go as planned. It is true, Mexican people, as a whole are not as obsessed with being on time, they drive like maniacs, and they let their dogs roam around all over the place, but it works. It is functional. While I know I’m making large generalizations, it is still the case that life occurs at a different pace than it does here in the States. People are patient, respectful, hard working, and they have a strong attachment to their communities. But what makes Mexico so different? Religion, warm weather all year long, a genetic predisposition for bad driving, a poorly run government that forces people to wrok together if they want to bring about change?
Before visiting Mexico, I knew that they were a Catholic country. But I didn’t know what that meant in practice. Religion penetrates every aspect of their lives. It is not just something they do on Sundays. It is something that they are – all the time. When we would pass a church, the Mexican students we traveled with paid homage by crossing themselves in front of the whole group. This would not occur in the US without sideways glances and perhaps a little teasing from others in the group, but in Mexico, it’s important to respect the church.
One of my visits, a home-stay with Aldo (a professor of water management at CUALTOS), I met three very lovely girls, ages 12, 14 and 19. The girls were so well behaved and I was struck by how they sat at the table with us and were a part of the visit. One of the girls, Maggie, who is 14, was out when I arrived, but when she came home, she sat at the table with her Spanish-English dictionary looking up words so she could chat with me. She even fixed me a sandwich and gave me her room to sleep in even though the next day was the first day of school. She insisted I use her bed while she slept on the couch. I tried to protest, but I learned that Mexicans are very stubborn about their generosity to guests staying in their homes.
In the morning, before we left for CUALTOS, Aldo had to drop Maggie and her younger sister Tatiana at school. Both girls went to a private Catholic school. While we were driving in the car, Aldo instructed the girls in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. First in Spanish and then in English. Afterwards, they also offered a personal prayer and included me in their prayers for the day. This was a very touching experience for me. I was impressed with the respect of the children, their religious upbringing and the kindness that was extended to me as their guest.
I also witnessed another kind of religious, or spiritual, side to Mexico. One of our hosts, Jesus and his wife were studying the ancient spiritual teachings of the Toltec religion through reading the works of anthropologist Carlos Castenada. I have read these books, back in college, when it was a cool thing to do to explore my identity and independence from my parents. But for Jesus and his wife, this was a serious undertaking. They were planning a trip to perform a peyote ritual in which they hoped to have visions of their totem animal – a very important part of growing in the Toltec practice. Jesus, it turns out, is Mestizo and so he has an ancestral link to the native Mexicans and their pre-colonial beliefs.
When I think about Jesus and his spiritual goals, I am reminded that before Spain occupied Mexico -- some 500 years ago – there existed a people who relied upon the land to survive. With this reliance came a respect for the natural living world and understanding that we as humans were an integral part of that. Today, there are some remnants of this life with small populations of indigenous people who still live with the land, and who still practice some of the traditional spiritual rituals. These people rely on an oral tradition of sharing knowledge about the origin of the universe, the native medicinal plants and foods to use, etc. And yet, as we travelled through Mexico, we saw the beginnings of “western modernization”. We saw the land used for non-essential commodities like agave and sugar cane, we saw water that was scarce, polluted, and channeled off into canals, we saw Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Home Depot. We saw dead cows laying alongside the road. All these things seemed to me like evidence of a culture losing touch with the natural environment. In the United States, we are out of touch with the natural environment --we avoid the wildness of nature in favor of well-manicured landscapes, we turn a blind eye to the pollution of our common resources, we encourage the same in other countries so long as we are the beneficiaries of cheap and abundant stuff.
In Mexico, it seems, that their culture is endangered along with their land. They look to their “affluent” northern neighbors as a model for the good life. But I would have to argue that while we may have cleaner bathrooms, safer drinking water and an infatuation with being on-time our good life lacks the richness of a community held together by a common religious thread, unstable governmental programs, two to three corn-growing seasons, and the remnants of an ancient culture that understood our place in the natural rhythm of the biosphere.