I first came to Mexico in the early seventies. Straining at the confines of the small midwestern liberal arts college where I was in my second year, I responded decisively to a small ad in a progressive magazine, advertising a free university in Cuernavaca, Morelos. The founder of this project, Ivan Illych, had been gaining some notoriety for his concept of “De-schooling America,” and his institute, CIDOC, featured an array of radical thinksters of the post-flower power era.--most notably, Paul Goodman and John Holt.
I finished up my semester, bade farewell to Iowa, and took off for Mexico. I was nineteen.
CIDOC was perched on a hill overlooking one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico. I quickly found a room in a house –no, a mansion, whose ten bedrooms were rented out to a mish-mosh of Americans and Canadians, in Cuernavaca for varying periods of time to attend CIDOC or CALE, an intensive Spanish language training institute. A self professed Weatherman, on the lam from the law, also lived in the mansion, which had a smaller two story house (for the maid and gardener) as well as a large swimming pool in the overgrown and labyrinthine backyard. It was the height of radical chic.
Every day, I would walk to the busstop to take the ride up the hill, usually accompanied by my housemate Debbie, a drop out from Reed College, in Portland. Every day, we would walk by a construction zone, where the workers were busy erecting a new office building. Every day, we would be subjected to catcalls and hoots. Gringas in Mexico, I learned, were reputed to be “putas” and were fair game for the most outrageous propositions and insults.
CIDOC was predominantly occasioned by gringos. Up on the hill, the culture that I was accustomed to reasserted itself and women were treated according to the general standards of America in the seventies.
Every evening, I would ride back down the hill into a world which treated Norteamericanas as exquisitely scorned whores.
When I left Cuernavaca a few months later and took off on the road, the questionable status of a gringa travelling alone became even more salient. On more than one occasion, I would check into a small hotel, to find the concierge following me up the stairs and propositioning me as I slammed the door on him, locking myself in.
Why was this, I wondered. I began to examine my appearance. I wore jeans, t-shirts and sometimes short skirts. Mexican women, on the other hand, appeared far more demure. Were the clothes then a flag, an invitation?
American movies were beginning to be widely distributed in Mexico. The sexual revolution was in full swing in the States, and the big screen showed women picking up and enjoying men, at will. Did the Mexicans then get their perception of American women through the media?
After several months travelling through Mexico, I returned to college. My horizons had expanded and I chose to transfer to U.C. Berkeley.
While I returned to Mexico on a number of short excursions, it was not until I returned in 2010 that I began to appreciate the degree to which American culture had continued to impact Mexico. Gone are the days of the catcalls and the loudly hooted invitations. Mexican women now adopt the same streetwear persona as American women—tight tank tops with black bra straps clearly visible, skin tight jeans with rips riding high on the thighs, pierced nostrils and tattoos. Other cultural indicators also support the perception that morality, ala Americana, has deeply infiltrated the Mexican psyche. The local paper here, PESO, features a centerfold of scantily clad young women, while the personal ads clearly advertise those offering sex for money. Some are underage.
At the local hangout for gringos in this Yucatan beachtown, “Jellyfish Bill”
( so known for the tattoo he sports on his forearm) is now known to have two young Mayan mistresses living with him. Bill, a former high roller in the time- share industry, is in his early seventies and is reputed to have lost millions in the peso crash. He now lives off his social security check and regularly runs a tab waiting for that monthly check to be deposited in the bank. The two beautiful young girls now hanging on his arm, I am told (by those attempting to mitigate my concern that he may be preying on their innocence), are having a far better life than they would if they were only dependent on their incomes as shop clerks. “They are the smart ones,” I am told. “They know how to get the butter for their bread.”
Other economic issues appear to have subtly altered, as well. I remember well the friendly bartering that accompanied purchases where a fixed price was not clearly marked. Now, I have to guard constantly against waiters returning the wrong change as the bill is negotiated. On one occasion, as I was paying for groceries in the check-out line, the young clerk grabbed significantly more out of my palm than the bill called for, and glared angrily and defiantly at me as I tried to explain to her that she needed to return some of the coins. I reflected ruefully on the behavior of stateside “professionals”--attorneys and trustees—padding their expenses and using their clients' monies as their own. The scale may be different but the mind set -is the same--”You got it, but if I can get a hold of it --it's mine!”
The globalization of the economy has resulted in the spread of the values which piggyback on an ethic of financial gain, at all costs. The secrets of the Mayans have all but disappeared. The Mayan prophecies, focussing on the apocalyptic date of 2012, are nearly all that have survived. Written in the Mayan book Chilam Bilam is the warning from the fifth prophecy: “There will be general loss of prestige of politics, politicians, political parties, and religious leaders; ineffectiveness and inefficiency in the administration of public and private resources of the State and of the companies, institutions, and national and world governments; as well as at the family and community level; product of the greed and ambition, generating corruption.” Side by side with this warning of overriding corruption and self-interest resides the undeniable reality that the world-as-they-knew-it has disappeared. In the place of the mysteries of time and dimensional travel, is the face of Mexico today-- sexy, money-driven –and a host for the American meme.