Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Idealism is Dead

I’ve had a strange feeling swirling in the pit of my stomach lately. And I don’t think it’s the street-food induced amoebas that have been swimming there since yesterday.

No, this feeling has stuck around for a while. I think it began in Guatemala, in April, when I was there to “vacation” (and, by “vacation,” I mean “get ripped off left and right by the rats that run the Guatemalan tourism industry”) and it seems to have come to fruition in Mexico City, last week, when I was attending a United Nations conference (with my clean suit in tow, thank you Rocco brothers).

The strange feeling seems to be emptiness. There’s an emptiness in my stomach, deep down in my guts, a void that this lovely notion called “idealism” used to occupy. This may seem strange coming from a girl who has just come back from a three-day United Nations conference, but...

My idealism is dead.

I’m tempted to add an “at least for now” loophole to that last sentence, but that would seem a bit, well, idealistic, don’t you think? (My idealism may be gone, but apparently my sarcasm is alive and well.)

This “idealism is dead” declaration will come as a surprise to those who know me best. I’m the girl who, in 1998, upon graduating from high school, wrote that she wanted to be “working in the jungles of Guatemala” by the time her 10-year reunion rolled around. And I’m the girl who, just one year ago, found herself standing in the middle of a bar in Mexico City, on the verge of tears, apologizing on behalf of her US government, to the applause of the entire drunken crowd, for all the wrongs the gringos had done to our Latin American neighbors.

Now, I’m not working in the jungles of Guatemala, but I am working in the mountains of southern Mexico. Close enough. Regardless of geography, I’m living in a place where I am constantly being made to feel like I have to apologize for my US citizenship. And that has gotten really, really, REALLY old.

I’m going to just come out and say it: Mexico’s problems are not my fault. Nor are they (entirely) the fault of the United States government. And as long as the collective blame-directing fingers of my host nation keep pointing north (or toward me), Mexico’s problems will continue.

(The picture I’ve chosen to illustrate this passage provides a case-in-point. These Obama-mask-clad Mexican farmers took the streets in downtown Mexico City last Tuesday, brandishing a sign that read: “If the politicians treated us like they treated Obama, this country would be different.” The farmers had been denied a meeting with the secretary-of-something-important, and this same secretary had met with Obama when he was in Mexico this summer. I understand the farmers' frustrations, but seriously, what does Obama have to do with it? He, after all, didn’t elect Mexico’s corrupt politicians. And neither did I.)

There. That felt good.

Now before you go thinking that I've abandoned my liberal world views or have gone all -- gasp --Ugly American on you, know that I do think Mexico (and most of Latin America) has gotten the raw end of the (big) stick that is US foreign policy. It’s absolutely ridiculous that many of the world’s poorest nations share the same hemisphere with the world’s richest.

I (still) believe, idealistically or not, that this disparity needs to change. That’s why I’ve spent the last year of my life teaching in the proverbial trenches (those of you familiar with Huajuapan de León might agree with this analogy) to try to level that playing field a bit. But when I leave the warm, fuzzy cocoon that is my classroom and venture out into the streets, reality chips away at my idealism.

Before I left for Guatemala in April, a Mexican friend told me to watch out for the ratas de dos patas (that’s “two-legged rats,” e.g, thieves) that he believed plagued the lands of his neighbor to the south. Turns out, that friend was right. Those “two-legged rats” managed to milk me for my every last quetzal during my time in that country.

I should have better heeded my friend’s advice. But regardless, I’d argue that the ratas de dos patas aren’t limited to Guatemala. There seems to be quite a lot of them in Mexico, with an especially large concentration right here in my home state of Oaxaca, a state which also happens to be, arguably, the poorest in the country. These rats, thinly veiled as politicians, subsist on tax revenues and drug money (occasionally laundering it through the construction of a hospital, to be staffed by their best cronies upon completion), while the communities in their charge literally wither and die (there’s no money for water, after all).

I met a man who works for the Mexican Secretary of Education in a hotel bar in Mexico City last week. My increasingly-strong feelings of disillusionment, lubricated by the beer I was drinking, slipped right out of my mouth and into what was supposed to be a friendly conversation. He’d told me that his mother is from Oaxaca, from a small town in the marginalized region of the state where I live and work. The mention of his mom’s roots prompted the wrath of my blame-directing finger, which I pointed squarely at him, asking why he didn’t personally make sure that Oaxacan schools had more resources.

He politely replied that -- actually you silly gringa -- Oaxaca receives one of the biggest slices of the federal education budget of all the 31 states in this country. The problem, he explained, seems to be making sure that the cash actually gets to the schools, seeing as how Oaxaca’s famously-corrupt government takes it upon itself to “distribute” the funds.

With that being said, I stuck my blame-pointing finger in my pocket, and then shoved my proverbial foot inside my already-open mouth.

This Mexican government staffer is no more at fault for all of Oaxaca’s problems than I am as a U.S. citizen. But it’s human nature to want to place blame. So the Ugly American in me is tempted to shift that blame back on my Oaxacan hosts themselves for their complacency, for condoning such corruption.

I’d say that Oaxacans need to get out in the streets and protest the corruption in their government, but many are doing that already, in the form of infamous “teacher strikes” that actually have nothing to do with teachers and are hurting the fragile tourism industry here. I’d say they need to get out and vote for a new administration, but many are unable to do so, given that polling places mysteriously become “unavailable” in certain communities on election day.

So we’re back where we started: The easiest solution seems to be to blame the big, rich, neighbor to the north. I used to do this with mucho gusto, until I became its scapegoat and realized that this whole finger-pointing thing is really quite counter-productive.

While we’re all pointing fingers, the corruption continues. Ain’t nothin' gonna change, amigos.

An acquaintance recently asked me why I didn’t just throw in the towel, move back to Chicago, and marry a rich banker. (She was asking the question rhetorically, as she’s as much of a bleeding heart as I am.) The thought is tempting: Why do I stay here, making $38 USD a day and beating my head against the wall, planning English lessons in an under-resourced university for students who will eventually graduate and become a part of the society that blames me and my government for all of their problems?

Perhaps the loss of idealism, much like the network of fine lines that creeps across my once-fresh face every day, is an inevitable part of getting older. But the longer I spend underneath the oppressive Oaxacan sun, the more accelerated both processes seem to become.

To all of this, on the eve of Mexican Independence Day, I must add a very cynical but equally sincere "¡Viva México!"


leese said...

Very well written, Sara...I'm so very proud of you & the work you are doing!

Quinto Sol said...

A que mi gringa culiche... I could have saved you so much pain and misery... and time; but really, you would not have listened to me. Mexico's biggest problem is (and will remain to be) CORRUPTION... I have a cousin who proudly boasts that he does not show up to work, except to pick up his check... where does he work, you may ask? For the local PRI chapter... sad, but true.

Hang in there GC. Hang in there.

Sara Mac said...

Thanks, QS. The American in me needs to blame SOMEONE for the mess that Mexico is in (and has been in). Any suggestions? Mind if I use your cousin?

Quinto Sol said...

Absolutely! I never really liked him anyway :-)

AND I bet that the politico from Oaxaca was acting the part; after all that is what politicians are about. So don't feel bad for blaming "him" or others. It gets so d@mn frustrating when people just care about themselves and not the collective whole.

It saddens me so much when I visit Mexico and see what "IT" could be if the monies would go to where they are supposed to go. I dream that one day it will have infrastructure that will rival "first-world" countries...

I just wish I had the guts to do what you're doing... to leave the comforts that I have and help make a difference somehow, somewhere.