In Mexico and Spain, going native
By Gerry Hadden
The opinions expressed are his own.
Last week a Mexican congressman from the southern state of Guerrero was found murdered, his body dumped in a river. The story has been front-page news across Mexico, and made many headlines elsewhere. It’s a tragedy and, still, a mystery.
For me it’s also a reminder of a time when for some reason such events in Mexico went less noticed. Even by me.
On a morning in 2003, while posted to Mexico City for National Public Radio, I came across a similar story. A Mexican senator from Guerrero had been kidnapped, his whereabouts unknown. The article was on page 17, below the fold. Granted, he wasn’t confirmed dead, but still, I didn’t think much about it until the next day, when I happened upon a follow-up piece in a U.S. paper. The American story focused not on the kidnapping itself, but on the Mexican article: You know things are bad, observed the U.S. reporter, when one of your country’s senators is kidnapped and it only makes page 17.
Page 17. How could I not have noticed the odd, fatalistic, almost cynical placement? Page 17 usually means after Sports and Lifestyle. I rubbed my eyes. Pull it together, I remember thinking to myself. You start going native and your editors are gonna yank you.
I say going native because at the time page 17 was a perfectly adequate slot for the paper’s editors. Mexicans were suffering through a spike in kidnappings that seemed to threaten anyone with more than 10 pesos in his or her pockets. And page 17 had struck me as normal too. Now, shaken out of my stupor, I asked myself, on what page of the New York Times or Washington Post would an article about a kidnapped U.S. Senator appear? Page 1, of course. Above the fold.
That’s when I finally understood why foreign desk editors tend to pull correspondents out of a region after a two- or three-year stint. Stay longer, and you begin to lose your critical eye. You start to acclimatize, as it were. That missed story was a wake-up call, and ever since I’ve tried hard to stay on my toes. Even now, living in Spain, working for PRI’s The World.
A few days ago I opened a Spanish paper and read an article about a Michelin 3-star restaurant in northern Spain that’d been robbed for the third time in two years, allegedly by a gang of gourmet bandits. The thieves stole computers, silverware – even the chef’s prized knives, which is the culinary equivalent of a kick in the apron. And yet here’s the gist of how the renowned chef responded: You gotta stay positive. You can’t take such things too seriously, he said later on TV, otherwise you’ll get really upset.
I nearly moved on. But then the alarm bells went off. This was a distinctly Spanish reaction. And, perhaps more importantly for the journalist in me, a distinctly un-American one. Like the Mexican kidnapping article, it spoke to something larger about the society in which I currently live, something worth ruminating on: The Spanish tend to laugh things into perspective in a way that Americans don’t. It’s a small part of the answer I’ve given to my editors when they’ve asked in recent months, “Given Spain’s 20 percent unemployment rate – 45% for young people – why aren’t we seeing a revolution?”
The Spanish are upset by the economic situation. Many people are suffering. And rising crime and trouble in the streets is an unwelcome possibility if the job market doesn’t improve. But in Spain it’s also true that the well-sharpened joke, the barbed if fatalistic witticism, often coupled with a frustrated shrug, serves to blow off a lot of steam. Maybe not all of it, but a lot of it. And it helps explain how a world famous chef can have his world famous restaurant ransacked for the third time since this economic crisis began, and can just smile instead of going ballistic and suing everyone from the cops to his alarm system provider. He can joke, shrug and go back to work.
To be sure, there are other, more important factors holding Spanish society together during these tough times. For example, the country’s long-standing family tradition of having children living at home with their parents – sometimes into their 30’s or 40’s.
That’s another story I’ve done, by the way – despite the fact that, after seven years in Spain, living at home until middle age is starting to strike me as perfectly normal. But, I remind myself, it isn’t normal in America.
I rub my eyes, restore the freshness.