An Ugly American in the Mirror

Awakening once again to songs of mourning doves and the clanging of numerous church bells, I’m counting my last few precious days here in the heart of Mexico.  Ornately painted calacas (skulls), elegantly clad skeletal Catrinas, ten foot tall mojigangas (giant puppets), fireworks and parades of Dia de Los Muertos are finished.  Now it’s back to life as usual in the streets of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

My wife and I love this beautiful little city.  What’s not to love?  Eternal spring weather, picturesque countryside.  A World Heritage Site with some of the most painstakingly preserved Spanish Colonial architecture anywhere.  And even if you’re like me and speak very little Spanish, there’s a large expat community here, hailing mostly from the U.S. and Canada.  Those of us who tend to be tall, blue-eyed, and pink-skinned are certainly a minority, but an obvious and ever growing presence.  Around 15% of the population by most estimates.  Those who wait on us hand and foot in restaurants and shops tend to be at least partially fluent in English, and I’m trying my darndest to speak the native tongue here whenever possible.  Communication is no problemo. 

We’ve rented a charming casita from a British Columbian couple, and are secure here behind a double-locked iron gate and a locally hand-carved wooden door.  A plain but elegant facade hides the opulence of our courtyard, tropical plantings, and plunge pool.  Our second trip to San Miguel, we’re here to shop for real estate in Centro (the historic district).  Haven’t lived outside the U.S.A. before, and we’re not getting any younger.  Now or never, as they say.  Permanent resident status and Mexican home ownership is a breeze for Americans with a steady income and enough money in the bank to pass scrutiny.  Like the United States, they’re very careful about keeping the riff raff out.  Sorry, did I say riff raff?  I meant the poor.

Lying here in bed, listening to the muffled, bustling sounds of a city coming to life, I’m thinking about another Dia de Los Muertos which was brought to my attention by poet-email-pen-pal Mankh.  In Tucson, Arizona for the last 15 years, they’ve commemorated the Day of the Dead by marching eight miles from St. John’s Church to San Xavier Mission, displaying the names of Mexican and Central American migrants who lost their lives in the Sonoran Desert after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ruined their chances of providing for their families in countries of origin.   At least 10,000 hungry “illegal” aspiring workers, excluding untold numbers of desconocidos (unknowns), have met their makers, more often than not dying of thirst under the brutal desert sun.

A new U.S. Government scheme now in effect and started last year under President Obama’s watchful eye, called the Southern Border Program, funnels the huddled, hungry masses into the most brutal areas of the Arizona Sonoran Desert in an effort to “discourage” (kill) them in even greater numbers.  And all I can think of is one of ugly America’s favorite chants;  “What part of illegal don’t they understand?”

More church bells ringing in harmonic stereo from various parts of San Miguel and my better half fails to stir.  I’ll await her awakening before I get out of bed and start the coffee.  My thoughts turn to the social structure of this city.  Multitudes of poor indigenous scions of the original inhabitants.  Wealthy descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors.  Pink (Caucasian) hordes of occupiers from the north, which would include my wife and me if we take the final step of buying a house and becoming bona fide Mexicans.  And how does all of this tie in with the flow of refugees from a caustic neoliberal Mexican economy dying in the Arizona Sonoran Desert?

Most of my best thinking and nearly all of my epiphanies happen as I lie in bed.  Images of San Miguel’s sidewalk beggars race through my mind.  We see dozens on any given day.  I have trouble telling them apart.  Nearly all old women.  Small, brown, wrinkled, dressed in tattered shawls, sitting on steps or sidewalks, cupped palms held out, sometimes moaning, crying, poor, desperate.  I keep a cache of cash in my pocket.  Mostly ten peso coins.  Sometimes more if my heartstrings get tugged hard enough.  They give me a “gracias senor” and I return a “de nada”. 

Upon initial contemplation, our presence here seems like a win-win.  If we find an acceptable and affordable home, we’ll be living cheaply by U.S. standards.  Low property taxes, low utilities, no property insurance since homes are made of concrete, brick, mortar, tile, and ribar, with little or no wood.  Food and booze are cheap.  Cabs and buses are inexpensive so no car ownership required.  Plus we’ll be contributing to the local economy by our mere presence.  Right?  Right?  Maybe not.  The whole thing is starting to stink to the high heavens of tickle-down economics.

Because I slept through high school economics class, and was doing too many drugs by the time I hit college to even think about enrolling in a course, I won’t get technical here.  I’m not by any stretch of the imagination qualified to discuss economic theory.  But this really isn’t very complicated.  Before the pink invasion from the north, everything in San Miguel de Allende was cheaper.  Much cheaper.  These days, even a small run-down shell of a historic house can run into several hundred thousand dollars.  Why?  Because the gringos are buying them up as quickly as they hit the market.  Groceries are more expensive than they used to be, thanks to something I remember hearing about relating to supply and demand.  The locals have been priced out of the market, and that’s why Grandma has to sit on the sidewalk begging for a few pesos.  I don’t know whether she’s homeless or not, but her situation looks like something created by economic chaos.  The pink invasion is why working stiffs are forced to commute from multi-generational housing in surrounding villages to their jobs in San Miguel, so they can cook and serve our food, clean our houses, take out our garbage, tend our gardens, and wipe our asses, all for wages any American would consider an insult.  Even in these dark days.

And the desperate sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters of the street beggars are dying in the Sonoran Desert while I innocently wreck even more havoc to their local economy.  Dying while all the Trumps, Arpaios, and minions of their fellow American miscreants cry out for higher walls, more heavily armed border guards, and even more brutal laws criminalizing and endangering the lives of poor folks who are just searching for a way to feed their children.  People like my wife and me may not be the root of the whole problem, but I can see now that we are on the verge of contributing to it.

She must be overcome by the  6500 foot elevation, and is sleeping so soundly, I’m beginning to wonder whether she’ll sleep the day through.  I’ve got to use the bathroom so I ease out of bed and make my way to the bano.  We need to get our act moving soon because we have a ten o’clock appointment with Manolo, a local realtor.

Morning light filters through branches of the pecan tree looming overhead in the courtyard.  I’m gazing into an ornately hand-crafted pewter mirror at my aging, tall, blue-eyed, gray-haired, pink-skinned reflection.  I try to be a good person.  Marched against The Vietnam War.  Refused induction into the U.S. Army twice…possibly a record.  Demonstrated against the Arizona State Legislature’s anti-immigrant SB1070 bill.  Participated in Occupy Wall Street.  Even carried anti-Monsanto signs at Hawaiian events designed to deport toxic chemicals and frankenfoods.

I claim to be a progressive, an internationalist, a socialist, a revolutionary in waiting.  In my mind I’m a damned saint, but the guy in the mirror is someone entirely different.  He’s throwing a few pesos at the downtrodden Mexicans in San Miguel de Allende while he contemplates stealing their homes and making their lives even harder.  He aspires to join an occupying army of northern squatters who are remaking a Mexican city in their own image.  He dreams of leaving Empire behind and living among these beautiful, gentle people, but like most Americans, in the end he’ll destroy the thing he loves most.  The guy in the mirror is an ugly American.

It isn’t enough that the U.S.A. stole the entire northern half of this beautiful country during the American Invasion of Mexico about 180 years ago.  Not enough that, since that time, we’ve treated the country like an ugly stepchild.  Exploiting its labor force at our whim, manipulating its elections to the advantage of American business interests.  Forcing U.S. taxpayer-subsidized crops into their marketplace and throwing hundreds of thousands of farmers off their farms and into poverty.  But now we ugly Americans are taking over their crown jewel cities.  Not just San Miguel de Allende, but all the beautiful coastal resorts.  Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Acupulco, Zihuatanejo, Huatulco, Cozumel, Maztlan, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, and the list goes on.  All of them overrun with wealthy pink invaders.  Ugly Americans.

It is now time for this ugly American to have reconstructive surgery.  A facelift, liposuction, and a complete makeover.  Time to accept the hand I was dealt, and deal with life in the U.S.A.  Time to cancel my appointment with Manolo, abandon the real estate search, and return to my day job as a bleeding ulcer on the belly of the beast.  When it comes down to it, I rather enjoy impossible quests.  Somebody has to do it.



John R. Hall is a writer living in Hawai’i.