By Arvind Srinivasan
What would you do if you saw 11 teenage Mexicans in your neighborhood at midnight? Chances are, it’s not what Mexicans do when they see 11 American boys in their neighborhood at midnight. I traveled to Guaymas, in the mainland of Mexico near San Carlos, on an immersion trip from my high school this February, and if I were asked the same question before and after the trip, I would surely have two different answers. It was truly a life changing trip.
At Nogales, at the US Mexico border in Arizona, it was interesting to see the infusion of Mexican and American culture, like the Burger King orders in both English and Spanish, but there were still stark differences from one side of the border to the other. On the American side, it was a barren wasteland. Although a few bilingual stores littered the town, it was painfully obvious that the large wall, which I will never again call a border “fence,” was the centerpiece of the area, keeping out some foreign entity that was not welcome in the pristine United States. As soon as we crossed the border though, through minimal security and past a gigantic Mexican flag, or a tricolor grande, I realized why there are 1st world countries and 3rd world countries, but not 2nd world countries. Even at noon on a Saturday, when their American counterparts were most likely in their homes, watching TV, or at a party with their friends, hundreds of people walked on dusty roads, talking, singing, laughing, and acting like a community. Buses honked, drivers yelled, and people ran across the road in front of cars. Think Mumbai, with less pollution and less people (neither of which are hard criteria to beat).
Topes. A seemingly innocuous Spanish word that struck fear into our hearts. It would not be accurate to say that topes are speed bumps, just because they have their own unique quality, as in, they are on the highway, they aren’t marked by yellow lines, and they simply aren’t as nice as speed bumps. As we found out, topes had the power to make our heads hit the ceiling of the minivan, make the bottom of the car scrape on the road, and almost throw us out of the back of a pickup truck. However, topes weren’t the only new thing we experienced on the 6 hr drive down from Guaymas. Firstly, the stereotypes of Mexico being crowded and polluted are simply generalizations. The half of Mexico that we drove through was poor, but more in a sense of rural poverty, with cows and dogs roaming the streets. When we entered Guaymas, finally, it was around 9 PM, and we were all exhausted. We went to our house, in the middle of the barrio, or neighborhood, and unpacked our things.
Although it was late, we were pushed together with the locals in a chance of fate, because one of the group was accidentally locked outside and a few of the locals started talking to him. Over the course of the next week, despite having to work closer to the city for much of the day, we always came back to these locals, played fútbol with them, and on occasion, were challenged to a “sumo” match with them. It was interesting to see how they interacted, because there was an obvious hierarchy, with age determining a lot of it, but all the kids, some as young as age 4, were thrown into the same group, which was extremely physical and at times, violent. One image I can recall vividly was when, on the last day, I was playing soccer with a 3 or 4 year old boy, who was about as tall as half my leg, and another kid, possibly 12 or 13, stole the ball from the little kid and pushed him over.
I was left with mixed feelings about this group, because even though they accepted us as their own, they did not know how to show it. For example, when we went inside the house after hours of playing with them, they often shut off our electricity and water, and banged on our doors.
Fortunately, there is still progress in the community, both in the barrio, and outside. One of the people I connected most with on the trip was a 16 year old named Hugo Sanchez, who was the only kid in the barrio that was going to prépa, or the Mexican equivalent of a junior college. He wanted to work on his English so that he could go to the US some day, and we often spent our time together translating different words from Spanish to English, and vice versa, so both of us could learn. He was also the one often breaking up fights, and never started them. Another inspiring person was Jerry, who ran a daycare-ish organization called Jerry’s Club. We played with the kids everyday at his club, from around 4:00 to 6:00, and Jerry explained that he was buying equipment for the kids, with the only criteria for entrance being following the rules. His philosophy was that if the kids had some structure in their life through the rules at the club, they would implement it in their own home lives, and not resort to the physicality of the groups in the barrios. This seems like an idealistic solution, and if I was looking at it from a distance, I would see it in a cynical light as well, but it is hard to express how marked the difference was between the kids in the club and the kids in the barrio.
The trip wasn’t all about kids, though. My school is Catholic, and so we did a lot of service with the Franciscan community in Guaymas, repainting their office, serving food at the soup kitchen, called the meson de Jesus, and going to church and interacting with the Franciscan brothers. To tell the truth, I dreaded this before the trip, as I am not Catholic, and I thought it would be uncomfortable if everyone had some knowledge that I didn’t, or faith was pushed on me. I was proved entirely wrong. For example, I never thought I had the capacity to enjoy church. Yes, I have the patience for it, but having fun in church is a completely different matter. However, after two lines of “if you’re happy and you know it” in Spanish, I realized that Guaymas has the best church ever. I found more depth in the Franciscan community than I would have imagined. I talked to one of the Franciscans novitiates, Adolfo, extensively, and he was far from the uptight, super-evangelical Christian I would have imagined him to be. He had lived in Oakland for a few years by himself on a work visa, and he wanted to bring greater prosperity to his community. He was unsure about the path to take, but despite the restrictions involving the Franciscan order, he thought he would bear it to take part in a movement he believed in. His desire to do work for his community inspired me especially because he was so young, and had the capacity to do so much more for himself.
I may have partially come on the trip for answers, about poverty, Mexico, and even myself, but I think I left with more questions. How, if historically, California and Mexico were owned by the same Spaniards, is Mexico so much poorer? Why do they have such a strong sense of community, as opposed to us? Why are they so accepting of us, the rich gringos, while we desperately try to make the border fence longer and taller? Why did we get to stay in the nicest house in the barrio? Why in the world were the kids in the barrio so obsessed with piggyback rides? Why do I still have the blaring “Tortillas, Tortillas, Tortillas Calientitas” from the tortilla vendor stuck in my head? But most of all, what would I do if I saw 11 teenage Mexicans in my neighborhood at midnight. I wouldn’t accept them as willingly as the Mexicans accepted us, but I think I can try.
Like the famous Yali’s question in Guns Germs and Steel – “Why does the white man have more cargo ..”, there may be intuitive and accepted answers to your questions. I’d like to understand why I’d be scared to have 11 teens in my ‘hood in the night. Enjoyed the article.
Ajay – I *loved* this essay. You’ve always been clever with words, but this one really reaches out to me with the strong imagery, and you have done a wonderful job of communicating the impact it had on you.
Oops, I meant to say Arvind, not Ajay! Now thats impactful 🙂
I totally agree with you, there is only a first world and a third. I have crossed the “border” both at Tijuana and at Ciudad Juarez and was struck both times by the sharp contrast.A funny incident, on rentering the border at Ciudad Juarez, the people in line for stamping visas started collecting at something like 4 am. We joined them at 5.30 am, and realized that a nearby “chaiwalla” was adding his worth by providing free tea for all since 4 am!! Interesting camaraderie.
Sounds like you had a great trip. Good write up.