For my final Mexico City post, I have to come back to the real source of the country's warmth: it's not the sun, but the people. Everywhere we went, we were generously and warmly welcomed. Sometimes people simply came up to us, wanting to say hello, try out their English, ask us some questions about our impressions, and in every case we were glad to meet them and happy to have had these interactions. I know Mexico has gotten a bad rap because of crime, both petty and major, and I don't mean to downplay the fact that there are dangerous places and violent people there, just as there are in the U.S. or other countries. But it seems to us that a careful and savvy visitor can do a great deal to avoid unpleasantness, and gain a huge amount by engaging with this beautiful country and its people.
Of course, I was fascinated by the artisans. This woman, for instance, was crocheting so fast her hands were a blur. Absolutely beautiful handcrafts are available, usually made by the Indians, at very low prices. However, a close observation of this economy, which caters to tourists, brings up many less-comfortable questions. Near the Zocalo, vendors who spread their goods on blankets on the pavement are routinely harrassed by the authorities, and periodically driven from the central locations to less-desirable places further away.
The prices for some handmade goods seem simply too cheap, and I wondered how much the makers were actually receiving: for instance, I bought a beautiful handmade blouse, covered with intricate embroidery, for about $30. A textile expert I met online told me that this is the last generation of native women who are wearing and making these traditional textiles, so not only are they receiving very little for their handwork, the craft itself is endangered. The tourist economy helps to assure both livelihood and continuation of the crafts, but the situation is far more complex that I was able to ascertain. The Indians are the lowest on the socal ladder, with the least chance of mobility, the greatest poverty, the lowest level of education. The darker your skin, the more prejudice there will be against you, the more doors that are closed, the more menial the labor, the worse your health care.
In tourist areas like San Angel, site of one of the best handicraft markets, open only on Saturdays, the light-skinned tourists enjoy excellent food and drinks in lovely open-air restaurants, while native people sell their goods or provide musical serenades outside the restaurant enclosures, which are guarded by restaurant bouncers. Restaurant hosts and hostesses tend to be lighter-skinned and fluent in English, while the racial hierarchy extends down through the waiters, the busboys and girls, the kitchen staff. This woman stood outside the fence for several hours while we ate our lunch, and the man below hawked his handfuls of artichokes, while I grew increasingly uncomfortable and she grew visbily more and more fatigued.
More affluent vendors are able to rent stalls in the market itself, pooerer ones sell from a blanket or wander the streets, sending their children -- with a handful of textiles or toys -- after tourists as well. I finally gave this little girl some pesos, after she came up to me the third time trying to sell a shawl.
The poorest of the poor simply sit on the streets with an outstretched hands, plaintively crying as you go by, while a few steps away, better-off people are buying and selling, or all dressed up for a wedding or a party.
If Mexico City can be condensed at all, perhaps it can simply be called a city of great contrasts. Wealth exists -- often behind lock, key, barbed wire and armed guards -- and luxuries like these beaded gowns are openly available...
...while third-world poverty is equally apparent.
In such a context, we can bring our first-world values and judgments with us, and exist within a bubble where we can visit comfortably. Or we can allow ourselve to be unsettled. Part of that latter experience, for me, is not only seeing desperate poverty, disability, and illness at close range, and allowing it to be painful and disturbing, but also being reminded that happiness does not always depend on money, and the acquisition of more. Happiness also depends on our ability to be in each moment and to enjoy simple things, rather than following out each anxiety and attempting to control our fate because we are terrified of death. Other people in the world know more about actually living than many of us do.
And so I remember the exuberant colors of Mexican textiles, the spiciness of the food, the joyful music, the warmth of families -- and finally come back to the two women we met on our first day, at the Guadalupe market, and their love-cakes. I know I have a lot to learn.