September 22, 2019

Where are the Mexican rapists?

After two weeks of traveling through Mexico, I feel a duty to report that I did not encounter a single rapist. 

Potential Zika? Maybe. By my second day on the coast of Tulum, I counted 75 bug bites — despite the Deet and mosquito nets. But rapists? Not one. The elephant absent from the circus.

According to what we hear about Mexico, it would be reasonable to worry that American sisters traveling unescorted through the country might be placing themselves in peril. But let the record show that my sister and I were so utterly ignored by the country’s infamous rapists that my sister remarked early in our journey, “Nobody’s even hitting on us!” 

I will allow, of course, for the possibility that we have an inflated sense of our own attractiveness — but still: We were two flesh-and-blood-females traveling alone and wearing lipstick and we didn’t even get so much as a whistle. Frankly, I did better in Burma.   

What is most disorienting about Mexico is how contrary the experience of being there is to the perception many Americans (including one presidential candidate) have of it. There is persistent hysteria about Mexico’s dark underbelly — a place of lawlessness, corruption, organized crime, drug trafficking and dangerous cartels. And while it’s true that some of these issues present real challenges to Mexico’s striving democratic republic, the country also deserves a reputation more expansive than that it consists of marauding wannabe immigrants, on the one hand, and spring breakers drinking in Cancun, on the other. 

I’ve traveled to Mexico twice in recent years — first in 2013, with the international development organization American Jewish World Service (AJWS), and again as a tourist this summer. This does not qualify me as an expert on Mexican society, but my visits have given me an authentic and meaningful glimpse into Mexico’s history, treasures, struggles and dreams. I visited Mayan ruins, walked the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende, washed dishes with an indigenous community in the Sierra Madre, swam in a fresh-water lagoon, dined in Michelin-worthy restaurants and slept in a bedbug-infested cabana on the beach. So I’ll let you in on an open secret: Mexico is awesome. It is cosmopolitan, diverse, culturally rich, gastronomically inspired and breathtakingly beautiful. The people — and sometimes, especially the men — are kind and thoughtful and helpful in ways that would shock me to experience in the U.S. 

My sister began our recent trip with moderate concern. After I phoned her, ecstatic that The New York Times’ top destination for 2016 would be the best choice for our annual trip together, the first thing she did was visit the U.S. State Department website to search for travel advisories. There was nothing very alarming, though: Mexico, according to the State Department site, is mostly safe, except for some rural areas it suggests Americans avoid. Still, colleagues and friends warned my sister of kidnappings and violent crime. I tried to comfort her with the fact that we are neither important enough nor rich enough to be worthy victims.

What we found, instead of menace, were signs of a growing, world-class economy. During our first dinner in Mexico City, in the hip, bourgeois neighborhood of Roma Norte, we found ourselves engrossed in conversation with two worldly locals at the adjacent table: the Argentine-born head of Google Mexico and a French-born executive at Nestlé. They presented a portrait of Mexico fast on the rise, a place of golden opportunity. 

Others agree: Last April’s Milken Global Conference included the panel “Mexico as a Global Powerhouse,” one of a very few Michael Milken chose to moderate. And yet, those are not the stories of Mexico that make headlines.

None of this is to say that Mexico is a flawless country. About half its population lives below Mexico’s national poverty line (about $158 per month in cities, less in rural areas) and one man, Carlos Slim, among the world’s richest people, possesses personal wealth equivalent to about 6 percent of Mexico’s GDP. Like all countries run by human beings, Mexico has a long way to go before it realizes a truly just, equal and free society. 

On the AJWS trip in 2013, I met with communities and NGOs on the hopeful side of this struggle: Naaxwiin, for example, is a collective devoted to women’s health, reproductive and political rights; Ser Mixe is an indigenous community committed to sustainable living; ProDESC, a legal defense organization, takes on great risk in order to represent underserved communities in the fight to protect their social, cultural and political rights — especially in the face of growing multinational mining interests. But this is the good news! Instead of fleeing to the United States, plenty of hardworking, talented Mexicans are staying put to help build their country into something better.

Mexico is so appealing, I met more than a few Israelis who have decamped to the dreamy Yucatan Peninsula, with its turquoise sea and silken powder sand, in order to build hotels, condos and beach resorts. 

But the most memorable moments of my travels came in quiet acts of kindness: like when Marvin, a cab driver, waited for over two hours (at no additional cost) while I dealt with flight delays and other mishegoss; or when a nameless boy and his 5-year-old sister stopped in the sweltering heat to help me untangle my jacket from my bike chain. 

To some, peril. To others, paradise. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.