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Return to Michoacán

In 1986, I studied Spanish in Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, Mexico. The 1982 debt crisis was still full blown, with inflation running into the hundreds of percent afflicting the middle class, and a new round of government belt-tightening in the offing, as oil prices collapsed. The country also had recently been rocked by the September, 1985, earthquake in Mexico City, leaving it queasy, tense and demoralized.

But what did I find specifically in Morelia? Notwithstanding the larger context, I encountered the most glorious place I’d ever seen: Open, energetic people; pinkish-yellow baroque architecture; and constant sun. Over the years I would romanticize the place, thinking of it always as the potential antidote to whatever ailed my life in the USA. Regardless of what was going on around me, things must be all right down in Morelia, I’d assure myself.

Except that rather suddenly, nothing seemed to be right in Morelia or Michoacán. In 2006, five heads had been rolled onto the floor of a discotheque in Uruapan, the center of a rich avocado-growing region just over an hour from the capital. Warfare between drug gangs had broken out, and the state descended into years of rampant, chaotic, and frequently gruesome violence. (Nationwide, over 100,000 Mexicans have died in a sort of narco-based civil war.) What for me personally was the most difficult to fathom were the September 15 bombings of 2008 – carried out in Morelia’s lovely main square as Independence Day celebrations commenced – that left at least eight dead and a hundred injured. Morelia had gone from idyllic in my mind to nightmarish in reality. I had lost a kind of personal Garden of Eden, and it was sad and painful.

As the drug war became more surreal, with this or that faction appearing, getting the upper hand, and then fading, the citizenry of Michoacán organized vigilante groups to fight back. It was hard to know who was on whose side anymore, or where this drugs-fueled conflict might eventually lead. Amid concerns that the authority of the state was slipping away, President Enrique Peña Nieto in mid-2013 put large swaths of Michoacán under military control.

And that really was the last of what I’d heard about Michoacán, until last week when I returned. I was in Mexico on business, and the signs on the freeway I’d see pointing the way to Morelia became too tantalizing to resist. I had to go and see the city again! It turns out that my warm memories of Morelia from 1986 held much stronger sway than the city’s troubles of recent years. Despite my trepidations, I couldn’t stay away.

What I noticed in the historic downtown of Morelia almost thirty years later is how little things have changed. The colonial architecture is breathtaking. The taxis still have the same insignia on them: A sloping red and yellow section of aqueduct in the shape of an ”M.” (The massive stone, Roman-style aqueduct is one of Morelia’s distinctive pieces of architecture.) The people are gracious and relaxed, with impeccable manners. The dozens of cafes still overflow with people in the fresh afternoon or evening air. There is still a middle class, who do things like throng to the theater.

I stopped by the language institute where I had studied, centered in a colonial-era structure a mere block from where the grenade blasts had caused so much carnage six years earlier. A teacher there invited me to address about a half dozen English classes regarding my impressions of Mexico and the USA. The kids were wonderful, and it was good to have those interactions. It’s helpful and heartening to see parts of Mexico that are decent and functional.

On the outskirts of town, I saw a disconcerting billboard that declared, “Kidnappers now receive a life prison sentence.” But I discovered that the narco violence and other criminal activity have subsided in Michoacán and virtually disappeared in Morelia, although they have left a sagging economy in their wake. Nobody I talked to thought the economic situation was perky. One gentleman told me that even the 1980′s days of hyper-inflation were better, because, according to him, at least everyone had a job.

Unfortunately, I could only spend a couple of days in Morelia. I tried to visit a branch of the family that hosted me during my studies in 1986 (the street address was etched in my brain) but when I called nobody was around. As I prepared to drive out of town, whole city blocks were being sealed off to traffic as a safety measure ahead of this year’s Independence Day celebrations. It occurred to me that downtown Morelia would feel even more tranquil if traffic were never permitted there at all.

As usual, Mexico’s superhighways were fantastic: fast, solid, clean, and well-engineered. They put most US freeways to shame. Moreover, for miles at a stretch, I was the only car on the road. Driving at high speeds through the alternating clouds, rain and sun  I felt ecstatic: one sees massive lakes, old, worn-down volcanoes, lush vegetation and productive ranches. If you could see Michoacán only from the road, you would think it was paradise.

Christopher C. Schons lives in Arlington, Virginia. He can be reached at christopher_schons@yahoo.com.

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Christopher C. Schons holds an A.B. degree, received magna cum laude, from Dartmouth College. He can be reached at christopher_schons@yahoo.com.

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