Mexico revisited

BAS editor William Chislett

Late last year I travelled to Mexico to meet my granddaughter of 16 months.  It was our first encounter, and indeed the first time that I had seen my son for 27 months.  Such are the travel restrictions and health hazards in the crazy world of Covid.

The pungent smell of petrol from the exhausts of cars and buses, as my son drove us from Oaxaca’s airport towards its colonial centre, threw me back to the time (1978-84) when I lived in Mexico City as the Financial Times correspondent.

The Mexico I found on my return is very different to the one I left.  The population then was 74 million; now it’s 129 million.  The country was grappling with a major foreign debt crisis, having squandered its considerable oil wealth, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had held uninterrupted power since 1929. What’s more, 1985 brought a huge earthquake, destroying, among other things, an office block opposite our apartment.

Oil from the state-owned Pemex is still a major source of revenue, but the reserves are dwindling. A litre of milk no longer costs four times less than a litre of petrol as it absurdly did in my day, because the petrol price is based more on production and other costs since the gasolinazo in 2017.  Today, they cost about one euro each.

The PRI stopped being the world’s longest-governing party in 2000 when the centre-right National Action Party (PAN) was allowed to win the presidential election, and the country became more democratic. The PRI returned to power in 2012 and in 2018 the leftist National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) won.

Photo: William Chislett

What follows are some impressions of my month in Oaxaca, a city whose colonial past is magnificently displayed in gorgeous churches, such as Santo Domingo (closed because of the pandemic) near the Zócalo and in street names like Calle de la Noche Triste, recalling the night of 30 June to 1 July 1520, when Hernán Cortés and his army of conquistadors and native allies were driven out of the Aztec capital in what is today the historic centre of Mexico City.

I had forgotten the constant howling of abandoned street dogs. Mexico is said to have the largest number of strays in Latin America: the National Institute of Statistics and Geography estimated in 2019 that 70% of the country’s 18 million dogs were living on the street.

The flat we rented in the outskirts of the city came with a cacophony of howling dogs, myna birds, and occasionally, in the distance, braying donkeys. Added to this, the rubbish and butane gas lorries and the bread van all have their own particular ways of announcing their presence – respectively, the tingling of a bell, the mooing of a cow and a song.  Spain, where I live, no longer seemed one of the world’s noisiest countries, despite being ranked as such by the World Health Organisation.

Oaxaca’s wealthy continue to live in mansions behind high walls topped with broken glass or electrified wire. In some cases very tall cactuses act as a deterrent. The inequality for anyone coming from a developed country is as stark as it was 40 years ago, and basic services are still inadequate. It is still not advisable to drink tap water, which might be purified at source but can become contaminated en route to the tap. Those who can afford it buy large bottles of water or fill up cisterns from water delivery lorries.

When I lived in Mexico refuse workers, or indeed any worker, would not have got away with blocking the main streets of Oaxaca.  Yet they did so with impunity during the four days before Christmas, in protest at the local government’s failure to pay their salaries and aguinaldo (bonus). The result was chaos, but the police did not intervene, perhaps out of fear of stoking violence. Blocking streets has become a favourite tactic in Oaxaca for any group with a grievance since 2006, when teachers protested. One morning we were travelling to the city centre when suddenly traffic began to back up because six taxis decided to stage a protest, thankfully not for long. Oaxacans stoically put up with the inconvenience.

During my visit rumours circulated that the local government could not pay the refuse workers because the mayor had fled to Texas with the money.  The real reason, apparently, though never officially confirmed, was more straightforward: the city’s MORENA mayor, fond of alcohol and holed up somewhere, had not signed the orders for the payments.  The multi-party city council was reluctant to meet and replace him. In the end, the PRI governor of the state of Oaxaca stepped in and found a way to make the payments.

Photo: Sonia Chislett

This was not the only protest. Families of people who had ‘disappeared’ or been killed in disputes over illegal logging and denunciations of corruption in municipal governments, their names on crosses, demonstrated peacefully each day in front of the cathedral. According to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearance, which made its first visit to Mexico last November, more than 95,000 people have been officially registered as disappeared in the country.

Photo: William Chislett

On a brighter note, Oaxaca has strengthened its reputation as one of Mexico’s most culturally vibrant and colourful cities (buildings are rarely higher than a few floors because of the frequency of earthquakes, and are often painted red, blue or orange). The same has happened with its renowned cuisine, which includes seven types of mole sauces (they generally contain fruits, nuts, chili peppers and spices like black pepper, cinnamon or cumin), the speciality of chapulines (deep-fried grasshoppers – see photo) and mescal, the local alcohol. The influx of US citizens, either as tourists or residents, is said to have led to the creation of fish tacos, much more delicious than the crunchy, rather tasteless bugs (in my view) which were not my favourite food. Oaxaca city, like Madrid, is not on the coast, but, like the Spanish capital, it is well supplied by fresh fish. The Pacific coast is only 250km away, but it takes six hours to reach Puerto Escondido because of poor roads.

Photo: William Chislett

Our temperature was taken on entering almost every restaurant and our clothes sprayed. Virtually everyone wore masks in the street, although this was not obligatory. We felt safe.

The Oaxacan handicraft industry, highly specialised by community, is flourishing. It ranges from the black clay pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec and the green glazed pottery of Santa María Atzompa to the wool textiles of Teotitlán del Valle and the alebrijes (animal figures carved from wood – see photo below) made in San Martín Tilcajete.

Photo: William Chislett

The philanthropist Alfredo Harp Helú has done much to restore old buildings and create museums in Oaxaca.  Harp made his fortune from acquiring Banamex in 1991, when the bank was privatized (I reported on its nationalisation in 1982), and then selling it to Citibank in 2001. In 1994 he was kidnapped in Mexico City and held prisoner for 106 days.  His family reportedly paid a ransom of $30 million, and after he was freed he moved to the relatively safer Oaxaca. Among his museums is the largest one for stamps in Latin America.  Oaxaca was the last place where I expected to see a rare Penny Black. 

Mexico is full of surprises. We hope to return, but next time without having to wear a mask during the 17-hour journey.