In Mexico and Spain, going native

September 26, 2011

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.


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I enjoyed your story Gerry. And I do like your writing style. You seem to me to be from the ‘old school’ of journalists and reporters. I’ve only read this one article by you as I recall,but it is refreshing for a reporter to report.
I’ve become quite accustomed to media in any form,existing to promote agendas not simply to do their very best to report facts without bias.

Please keep up the good work and help to bring up a new generation of journalists with integrity.

Carl J. Humphreys Sr.
North-West Florida

Posted by carlh1958 | Report as abusive

Very much so: When to wear your different hats, and how to keep remembering which one you are wearing, or that you are wearing one at all.
Also now in Europe, I find it easier to recover the Mexican mindset — which I need to do for my writing — when the skies are blue above … I need triggers, visual, auditory, climate (if only!), virtual community to go, or keep “native”. (And yes, I bet that is one of the reasons why foreign correspondents need to be rotated, they lose that slightly hysterical edge of culture-shock which makes “good copy” back at home, in the sense of “look at these weird people; they do it this way; fancy that!”)
And what about having our cake and eating it? I also have to be neither fish nor fowl and inhabit the limbo lands between my “magical” country – the one that is my muse — and the US or British (often quite different from each other too, as you underline when you introduce that there is a US and also a Spanish way of living, that are not the same at all) mindsets to remind me why what happens in Guerrero (normal to everyone there) is remarkable, and yet, is not completely mad, sick or inhuman. Do we exoticise the pathological, or pathologise the exotic?
The “cynical placement” that you mention seems key – wry self-awareness. Which I find, especially in hindsight (as close-up I tend to become too sucked in and believe everything I see and hear), Mexicans have by the bucket-load. Final reflection is the role of gallows humour in bonding and self-protection shouldn’t be underestimated, but I don’t find it easy to communicate this in a non-fictionalised form. I see from my notes that by 2006 I had become Guerrerense enough to joke with the locals that if I didn’t hurry the decapitated head would be the icon of the resort instead of the cliff divers, but how do I slip that into my book?

Posted by BKASTELEIN | Report as abusive

Thank you Mr. Humphreys for your message. I’m not sure if I’m old school or not, but I do try to keep politics out of my observations, both in my radio work and in essays. I would invite you to visit my website to see more of my writing (under “in the news”) and to learn more about my new memoir from my years covering Latin America for NPR. Thanks again. All the best to you, gkh

Posted by ghadden | Report as abusive

The world need a greater black influence.

Posted by babyalgebratoys | Report as abusive