Tag Archives: Mexico

Smoggy Mourning in Mexico City

That’s not a misspelling in my title; it’s on purpose. The play on words: morning because Mexico City is usually smoggiest in the mornings; and mourning because it used to be such a great place to live, and isn’t at all anymore.  Sure, everything changes, but Mexico City has gone from being a delightful place to live, in the early 1970s —  safe, manageable, full of trees and music and good food and friendly people — to being very dirty and downright dangerous.

It’s a night-and-day change. Who would believe it, but  when I first moved there as a young man in 1971, Mexico City was safer than any major U.S. city. It was almost like Tokyo in that respect.

My wife and I used to go out for dinner and a movie on a Friday night and take the freeway (periferico) 15 miles in 15 minutes to get to a movie theater in the north of the city. We’d watch the movie, go to dinner in the downtown area, 10 or so miles and another 10 or so minutes away, and then get home (another five or so miles) in 10-15 minutes.

We were always safe taking a walk after dinner. There were some rumored neighborhoods where that might not have been true, but just about anywhere in the main areas of the city were safe. We never worried.

Often, at night as I drifted off to sleep, I would hear the distant wistful sound of a camote vendor who used a distinctive whistle to attract customers to his rolling baked sweet potato cart. And on weekends we might find a rolling corn on the cob (elote) vendor, with a different whistle, selling boiled corn on the cob served bathed in lemon, salt, and powdered chile. Those are great memories.

When I first arrived in Mexico City there was no word in the vernacular for smog. They had some on particularly bad days, but it was nothing like, say, Los Angeles.

Boy, has that all changed. Today, that Friday night itinerary would be about three hours’ driving time. People are very careful about where they choose to take an evening walk. Most of the trees are gone. Restaurants are still spectacularly good in Mexico City, but they’re a lot harder to get to. And the smog and traffic are terrible.

Not long ago, Forbes.com published a list of the 25 dirtiest cities in the world. Mexico City placed fifth in that category.

And this is not just idle criticism of somewhere far away. I earned the right to say this. I lived in Mexico City for 10 years. It’s my city-in-law, in a sense, because my wife was born and raised there. We have three children who were born there.

And for anybody out there who thinks this is the natural result of some sort of social inferiority, forget that please. It’s not just corruption, although that’s a factor. And it’s not just the drug cartels, although they too are a serious factor. No, it’s a combination of disadvantaged economic development for centuries, an unlevel playing field, plus corruption and drugs. And don’t forget what causes the drug problem: the people who create the market by buying and using the drugs. The providers wouldn’t be there if the market weren’t there.

About Words I Won’t Put in the Title of This Piece Despite the Temptation

"Tim," Matt said, beer in hand, in a bar in Mexico City, "you have to learn about 50 words that will almost guarantee you play in the papers." He swallowed. He looked at me and frowned. "But you’re so young," he said, shaking his head, "you’re probably not going to like it."

He swallowed again, then started listing the words: "naked, violent, brutal, cruel, vicious, rape, clash, showdown, face-off, fists, bare, nude, stripped, fight … " I can’t remember them all.

This was in 1974.  Matt Kenny, 50-something, gray hair, glasses, and quick to smile, was day editor for United Press International in Mexico City.  I was night editor. Matt had been with UPI longer than I’d been alive. That’s me in the picture, taken in 1974, in the UPI bureau in Mexico City.

I was unhappy because he had rewritten my lead about a Kon-Tiki-like raft trip arriving on Mexico’s Caribbean coast in 1974. I covered the story live, Matt handled it on the desk. It was a scientific expedition, a social science experiment, or so said the adventurous organizer. Matt rewrote the lead to emphasize "suntanned bikini-clad" women and the co-ed journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft.

Ironic, 33 years later, he was right: I was very young.

United Press International, alias UPI, was a wire service with generations of history as the "other wire service," the competition to Associated Press, AP, which still lives today. Mexico City was an outpost. We filed stories from Mexico City to the New York editors using a 1940s teletype system (the clackety clackety of old movies and old newsrooms) until my last year there, in 1974, when they got one of the first word processing systems, which we called, with fear and dread, "the computer." (For you computer historians, it was an early Atex system).

What’s most interesting about that whole system, and strangely relevant in the blog world of today, was that the system gave the editors in New York our first sentence only, as they scanned new stories coming in from the boonies (and another rambling historical note, BTW, was that Mexico City was considered the boonies to UPI New York editors in 1974, although it was already one of the largest cities in the world).

Repeat, for emphasis: they saw the first sentence only, and from that decided whether or not they wanted to see the first paragraph. Bloggers, consider that for writing pressure.

Matt Kenny was not unhappy or bitter or cynical or even hard-boiled. He was a pro. He did his job well. Matt’s 50 words don’t tell us that much about him — I liked him a lot, was proud to work with him — but they tell us a lot about us, the news business, and readership.

(Image: that’s me in the picture, in 1972, in the UPI Mexico City Bureau, photo by David Navarro)

Visiting Mexico, My Country in Law

I just finished a week off with some of my family on the beach in Mexico, specifically at Villas del Sol in Zihuatenejo.

Mexico is my country in law. My wife of 37 years is Mexican, born and raised in Mexico City. We lived in Mexico City from 1971 to 1979. Three of our five kids were born there. and again for several months in 1981.

I was once a "Mexico expert." I was with UPI in Mexico City for three years, and with McGraw-Hill World News in Mexico City for six years. I accurately predicted the 1976 currency devaluation, in Business Week, months before it happened. That was the first peso devaluation in 28 years. I covered the Mexico oil discoveries of the middle 1970s. I was a consultant with McKinsey Management Consulting in Mexico City in 1981. During the 1980s I consulted with Apple on it’s ill-fated Apple de Mexico venture. I still speak fluent Spanish. I can still give a two-day business plan seminar in Spanish, which I’ve done twice in the last three years.

Expertise, however, doesn’t last. The Mexico I knew no longer exists.

Loyalty, on the other hand, does last. Mexico was very good to me as a young man just starting a career and a family. I was writing for UPI at the age of 23, and for Business Week when I was 26.  Strangers were generally easy to deal with, accepting of a young American. And for that I feel like I owe Mexico the respect of reminding you, gentle reader, what it used to be.

When I first lived in Mexico City in 1971 it was a city full of trees and music. I drove my car from the Hotel de Mexico area to the downtown newspaper district every day in about 15 minutes, and, miracle of miracles, parked it on the street in front of the office. Today the drive would take 45 minutes and parking on the street would be impossible. We used to go to the Satelite area for a movie on a Friday night, a 10-minute drive on the Periferico; the same drive today would take an hour or two each day.

An interesting fact: a few years ago my wife’s nephew, who lives in Mexico City, swore he dropped his girlfriend because she lived in one of the northern city neighborhoods and he lived in the south of the city. Just as well, I suppose, because now he’s happily married to somebody else, and they have a daughter.

And perhaps the most disappointing change is the safety. My in-laws worry about me when I visit: "Tim, it’s not like it used to be, it’s not safe anymore. Be very careful." I’m not supposed to get into the wrong taxis.  I’m not supposed to walk around the streets. When we lived there, Mexico was a very safe city, much more so than any US city. It was almost like Tokyo. We could walk in the evening anywhere, and feel safe. No longer.

Ah, but then there is also the bright side of it, the fact that natural beauty like the bays of Zihuatenejo doesn’t fade nearly as fast as expertise. It was a village back then, it’s a city now, and I hate cities; but it’s still beautiful because it sits on the warm Pacific ocean surrounded by hills. Villages grow into towns,  but some manage to keep some of their charm. Aside from the beaches you have some beautiful colonial towns and cities in the interior, like San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato, both of which I’ve visited in this millennium and are still beautiful. 

Mexico City is one of the three largest cities in the world. It’s Anthropological Museum is amazing. It’s full of great restaurants. People there like foreigners. But like all large cities, the traffic is miserable, and the smog depressing. Living there is very hard, but it’s worth a visit. Stay in the main places and you’ll really enjoy it. 

And Mexico still loves its tourists, treats them well, and respects them, more so than most of the countries I’ve visited lately.

My ending thought, another amazing fact: when I first lived in Mexico City there was no one-word Spanish equivalent for the word "smog."