In late December Mexico’s new President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, took a big step in trying to stop the illegal acquisition and sale by organized gangs of petroleum from Mexico’s national company Pemex. AMLO shut down pipelines and instead started hauling fuel to outlets by truck — with heavily armed military escorts. This closed down gas stations and by mid January ultimately created massive gas shortages in 9 different Mexican states.
This gas shortage left my tourist-laden town with little to no gas for more than two weeks. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you have to commute to work or perhaps your job is in transportation, or you just really need to drive somewhere, it is indeed a very long time. And no one knew just when the shortage would end.
I became extremely nervous about the situation, mostly because my come from was the US. In the US I imagined a shortage like this would make people desperate, crazy, capitalistic and entirely self-centered. What I experienced in Mexico was something different. Maybe it is the deep hope people hold for their new president and the herculean task he has ahead of him in his quest to combat corruption. Maybe it’s simply that Mexicans are more patient, and frankly for many of them, so used to living full lives with far fewer resources than friends in the north (here’s a fun fact: The Spanish word esperar means both ‘to wait’ and ‘to hope’). Day after day, cars lined the streets outside gas stations, snaking for blocks and blocks, sometimes before the daylight hours. Some would wait for hours only to find that the car in front of them had taken the last of the gas. They would have to wait for the next gas truck to arrive.
One friend waited in line SEVEN hours, such was the desperation as the days wore on. But even at the height of the shortage, no taxi raised his prices. I repeat: no inflated prices. No gas station charged black market prices. As cars ran out of gas in line, as often happened, fellow commuters would jump out and help push a stranger’s car forward. One viral video showed a group of young men with gas cans waiting in line breaking into song and dancing in a circle. Another showed a mariachi band entertaining the cars as they waited on line.
The gas shortage wasn’t convenient for anyone, but nor did it become a full-fledged crisis. And still, the calm and the kindness that I witnessed during this stretch stayed with me. Would there be the same calm if the shortage had extended months and not only weeks? I don’t know. But I do know that we learn so much from people when they are pushed and their resources strained. What I witnessed during this gas crisis made me so grateful to be here, and only intensified my willingness to jump in the bunker anytime with Mexicans.
I had a few other thoughts about US Mexican differences and similarities after my drive to Texas this past weekend:
Violence: I won’t romanticize too much (especially after my medical adventures of late. See past blog posts). The truth is I live in one of the most deadly states in Mexico and robberies are frequent. This isn’t too surprising in a country with such vast disparities between rich and poor, and especially in towns crawling with wealthy American retirees. The reality is that cartel warfare also exists outside our doors; it just doesn’t usually involve Americans or other foreigners unless we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Same could be said for school shootings in the US, I suppose. Or shootings anywhere… There are certainly areas in the US known for being dangerous; but it seems increasingly the whole country wants to live its life locked and loaded and you just hope you’re not in the wrong movie theatre (or mall or school yard or music concert…) at the wrong time.
Road Rage: On my recent drive to Texas I noticed my anxiety as we drove through the spaghetti maze of freeways toward San Antonio. I felt myself tense if we came too close to another vehicle or somehow cut someone off on the road. These people have guns, tendencies toward aggressive behavior, and a system that not only allows, but somehow encourages, poor impulse control and ego-driven violence. I didn’t want to make anyone mad. This is not a feeling I’ve had in Mexico. I certainly want to be respectful and would never want to anger anyone, but that sentiment usually comes from respect and not out of fear.
Land of the strip mall: I was also struck by how so many of our American towns are simply sprawling shopping marts. The three Cs as one friend labeled it: Cars, concrete and consumerism. Store after store, highway overpass after overpass. Are all towns like this, I found myself asking? It seemed new to me, as if I had hardly noticed this before, except that time I drove through Phoenix and then LA and then…
In Mexico, it feels different. There are forever stretches of half-finished concrete houses with rebar stretching in every direction; strings of poorly placed electrical wires and piles of garbage as prevalent as lawn decorations.
But I also see the beauty there, with kids, dogs and chickens running outside, two old guys playing cards and a few others hunched over a broken down car in the driveway. The communities feel more tight-knit, as if they existed together and not merely side by side. As for shopping, there are malls for sure, and shopping centers in larger metropolitan areas. But the mom and pop still exists everywhere, not only for economic realities, but for community adhesion. Call it a blessing of no zoning: these small outlets are where you buy necessities, but you also check in with your neighbors, see how the butcher’s son is doing, or ask what this weekend’s celebration is all about. It’s where you talk about the weather, ask about what the town has to offer, or enjoy simply sitting in the central plaza like so many families out for a weekend stroll. It doesn’t feel like I’m being pushed to purchase anything, save an occasional taco, despite the presence of shopping options. Is it just me?
Just like Santa Fe: In some increasingly gentrifying towns like San Miguel, is does mean that local people are being pushed out, certainly from the center of town, if not outside the town entirely. They can no longer afford the housing prices or rents, or even the costs of many of the new tourist-oriented restaurants and grocery stores. There are dual pricing structures, but in a place growing as fast as San Miguel, upscale businesses increasingly cater to new arrivals. I am part of this problem. But it’s also why I left Santa Fe, pushed out of an increasingly expensive town with no real employment opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong: I had a great time in the US this weekend, packing my shopping cart with chocolate peanut butter cups and gluten-free ginger crisps at Trader Joe’s; buying an absurd china-made leprechaun suit for Aiden at Target; and finding a great bra at none other than Costco. But none of it was really necessary. It was indulgent, gourmand, even silly. My one day in America was spent shopping furiously and I’ve never felt so, well, American. I was happy to head back south, to feel the warm sun and hear Spanish once again. I’ll shop here, too, likely tomorrow once I recover from the long drive. I’ll get a roasted chicken then head to the vegetable market for my avocados. I’ll likely grab an ice cream on the plaza and watch the families walking by, generations together, serenaded by mariachis, enjoying the close of day.
End Note: OK, so the one thing that no Mexican restaurant can ever offer is this Green chile covered breakfast burrito — and there’s a chance this is the one thing that would truly call me back to the US. Just sayin…