MP News Staff
This delightful story was sent in by Karen Kressin, a seasoned Mexico traveler, and friend of Mexico Premiere.
Immigration and Politics:
Taxi Drivers and other Philosophers Talk to the Undercover Tourist
There is something about going places – whether bouncing on a city bus or rocking in a boat – that opens up your eyes and ears to the world around you.
In the summer of 2006, I was in Guadalajara facilitating a 4-week study abroad experience for 6 young people: my kids and 4 friends. I told everyone that the friends were my sobrinos, nieces and a nephew, as an easy explanation of our relationship. The program was Intensive Spanish at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara (UAG). The locals call it “Los Tecos,” short for its mascot the tecolote, from the Nahuatl language, in contrast to standard Spanish buho, for “owl.” Cool, huh?
All the students who accompanied me stayed in Mexican homes near the university, but I preferred to stay at my favorite Posada San Pablo, a family-style hotel downtown. Consequently, I spent a lot of time in transit between the two places, keeping tabs on the youngest girls, Juliet and Rosemary, who were only 14 and 15.
Sometimes rush hour buses are so full they don’t stop at regular bus stops. Savvy (and desperate) locals often board through the back door if an overloaded bus stops to drop off passengers, but the driver refuses to open the front door.
One lucky morning, I made it onto a crowded bus at the front and we traveled several blocks with my skirt caught in the door. A dozen more passengers boarded after me before I managed to climb the steps and squeeze into position standing in the aisle behind the driver. I was in full “surfing” mode – balancing, clutching, and excusing myself for toppling onto other standing passengers. I had been on the bus for 14 minutes (yes, I was keeping track) when I finally scored a seat.
There are a few rules of bus etiquette. To request a stop, you shout either “la próxima, por favor” or “baja, por favor.” It is not uncommon for a person to remain sitting on the aisle and let you crawl across to the window seat. Women in particular prefer not to get trapped in a window seat by a stranger. But the atmosphere in the buses is convivial and polite. More than once I watched a 20 peso bill for a 4 peso fare being passed forward to the driver through the crush of standing passengers, then the change and the tissue paper ticket being passed back. The driver’s change sits in an open wooden tray with grooves carved out for the various sized coins to be stacked on edge.
On one bus, I was seated in the back corner where I was in danger of sliding under the handrail onto the exit steps every time the driver applied the brakes. Buses never ease into a stop, it seems. And don’t be surprised if your driver blows through your stop when his green light is about to change. He’ll let you off on the other side, no problem. Faced with challenges like those on the bus, I made frequent use of Guadalajara’s abundant and reasonably priced taxis. That resulted in a double benefit because most of the drivers struck up conversations with me. Many of them volunteered that they had spent time as illegals in the States – “al otro lado,” or simply “allá,” over there, and they tended to reminisce fondly. One worked in California, Denver, and Salt Lake City for 5 years. He started out washing cars and dishes, then eventually rose to manager of a chain restaurant, in charge of cleaning and ordering food and supplies. He told me he never felt comfortable because he had to be so careful, when driving for example, afraid of being discovered without documents.
Now, he said, back home in Guadalajara life is good. Driving a taxi doesn’t seem like work – he just drives around all day listening to his music CDs. What he misses about the States is live music concerts. He said the big groups never come to play in Mexico.
Another one of my drivers said he has brothers who are still living in the U.S. They’d like for him to return, but he believes it’s too risky now. If you have a family and a decent job – you might need two, he said – it’s better to stay in Guadalajara than to risk going to “the other side.”
We visited Puerto Vallarta for a few days before the Spanish program started. On the beach one afternoon, I met a Mexican-American man from southern California. He told me he started out as an illegal 30 years ago and ended up with citizenship through the amnesty program of the late ’90s. Now he owns an office furniture factory. I asked him what he thinks about the immigration controversy in the U. S. He said he didn’t know exactly what to say. He employs Hispanics. They show credentials, but he isn’t required to verify authenticity. He said many Mexican immigrants come to work hard, but some – maybe as many as 50 percent, he speculated – as soon as they hear that if you have a baby you can get welfare, they get busy and stay.
We arrived on election day, and the presidential outcome was still unresolved when we left 5 weeks later. Guadalajara, particularly the northwest suburbs known as Zapopan, where UAG is located, is something of a Mexican “Celtic Tiger” right now. There is vigorous economic growth, evidenced by many foreign corporate offices and luxury car dealerships. I saw a Jaguar parked on the street in a neighborhood near the university. To a man, my Guadalajara taxi drivers expressed support for Felipe Calderon and the conservative PAN party. One driver likened the PAN to U.S. Republicans. He was correct in general terms: PAN supporters tend to be pro-business and religiously conservative.
We didn’t encounter any massive post-election demonstrations, as described in the U.S. press at the time. Late one Sunday afternoon, however, I hurried the two younger girls, who had spent the weekend with me, over to the Plaza de Armas to catch the band concert. When we arrived, there was no sign of a band, but there was some sort of protest. A big poster spread on the ground urged a presidential vote recount, with the unstated objective of ultimately declaring the leftist Lopez Obrador the winner. I asked a man standing nearby with a large permanent marker in his hand about the band concert. He said he didn’t know, but he asked us to sign the poster. I said we weren’t citizens of Mexico. He said “No problem, we are all citizens of the world.” I smiled. A lot of people were watching and had seen him gesture and heard his words. What could we do? We all signed the poster. We went over to the adjacent government palace and asked the bored-looking guards standing in the doorway about the concert. They said not tonight because of the demonstration.
Later that night I escorted the girls back to their house in a taxi. Most drivers were curious about what I was doing there with young people. This one, like all the others I told our story to, was pleased to know that North American students were being exposed to everyday Mexican life. After we left the girls’ house, I couldn’t hide my frustration when I realized I forgot to give the girls their box of cereal, which I had been holding in my lap.
On the way back to the posada the driver asked me if I was following Mexican politics. He told me that in his opinion, if Lopez Obrador were to be made president through a recount, all the foreign investment in Mexico would pack up and go elsewhere. I began to feel bad about signing the poster.
Something new happened to me this time, which was approximately my 15th visit to Mexico – I got in trouble with la migra, Immigration. It arose out of the discretionary power of a clerk at the Puerto Vallarta airport to give me only 5 days on my tourist card. The same clerk gave my son 80 days.
Surely that squiggle means 15 or even 50 days, I thought. But by the time I checked into it, I had already been an illegal alien for about a week. I ended up meeting the bureaucracy “up close and personal” and learning how to pay a fine directly to the government’s account at a bank.
One stressful Friday afternoon after standing in line forever at the bank, I was short of time to meet a one o’clock deadline regarding the immigration problem. Out on the street near the posada I asked a taxi driver if he thought he could get me there in less than 15 minutes. He offered to try, and I got in.
I couldn’t stifle my tears when we kept getting stuck in gridlock on nearly every block. He asked me “Tiene problema, Señora?” in a compassionate tone of voice. Occasionally, he would give his horn a little tap in a traffic jam, basically to urge the drivers ahead not to stop for pedestrians. I found myself wishing he would honk more. We pulled up at the office at one o’clock exactly. I handed over the bills I had ready for him (with a generous tip) and popped my door to get out. Just at that moment, an ambulance screamed by and I was delayed yet again. Dang that Guadalajara traffic!
A few days later one of my drivers told me he experienced culture shock when he got back from his years in the States. He was the only person he knew who consistently used seat belts. And he wasn’t used to all the honking.
The side trip to Michoacán I took with the two young girls was a welcome respite from the urban jungle, but I couldn’t help but notice that our boat on Lake Pátzcuaro drove like a bus. The operator sat in the middle of the deck in front of a big horizontal steering wheel with his right hand on a tall shift lever.
Swarming around him were vendors who boarded the boat and sold various kinds of dulces: candied sweet potato, blocks of shredded coconut with a bright pink edge, portions of caramel called cajeta. Peanuts, habas (broad beans), and little toasted fish with Valentina sauce were offered in small plastic glasses. The same kind of glasses held nieves (sherbets) colored green, orange, and dark red. There were plump, shiny prunes (ciruelas pasas) in a big blue bucket. A multi-layered glass and metal box was used to display cups of Jell-O, called gelatinas. White egrets stood on floating water plants, and after the demonstration of the famous hoop nets, one of the fishermen paddled up to the side of our boat to collect tips.
We went on horseback to visit the church covered in lava from the volcano Paricutín, which erupted in a cornfield in 1943. The horses were lazy and slow, so we were assisted by an old man and a boy who prodded and flicked them with long sticks to keep them moving. Rosemary’s horse got even slower on the way back after the boy got tired of walking and hopped on board to ride behind her.
The man and boy spoke the indigenous language to each other, but the old man chatted with me in Spanish. He told me about his granddaughters and how pleased he is that none of his family members ever had to leave home and seek work north of the border.
One day I was invited to mid-day dinner at the house of my sobrino Nick. His mamacita (that’s term the students called their home stay hostesses) grew up as the youngest child of a prosperous Jalisco rancher. She told me she knows how to ride a horse both regular and sidesaddle.
After our dinner of hearty pozole, she drove me back to the university. I expressed frustration with the war in Iraq and what the U.S. government could possibly hope to accomplish. She simply said it is obvious to everyone that it’s all about oil.
During our last week in town, I hailed a taxi around the corner from the posada. When I got in, he asked me, “A los Tecos?” So he was a driver I had before. But which one? After a bit, he asked me about my hija and sobrina studying. That narrowed it down a little, but I was still basically clueless. Then he mentioned los cornflaques and I remembered him well.
Sometimes it’s not only the tourist who is short on clues. One of my drivers was a jolly, chubby fellow wearing a bright yellow print shirt and a bright yellow baseball cap. He spoke to me in English. He told me he loves English. He was reading a book in English, he said, and he showed me what it was: Sex and Money. The blurb on the cover said “How to take advantage of the bull market of the ’80s.”
At my destination, I bade him a hearty goodbye, wishing the best of luck to him and to all of my chatty taxistas.