I’ve taken four trips to Mexico in the last 18 months, which is the most travel I’ve ever done in Mexico.
That being said, I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to exploring the country. I’ve been to every US state, all but one Canadian province and until recently I couldn’t even tell you how many Mexican states there were, let alone how many I’ve been to.
Like most Americans, I haven’t given Mexico the same degree of thought or attention as I had to other parts of the world. Due to differences in culture and language, many people in the US have serious misconceptions about Mexico even though we are next door neighbors (or perhaps because we are).
Here are four things Americans consistently get wrong about Mexico:
Mexico is Poor
It is true that Mexico isn’t as developed as the US, but in the greater family of nations Mexico would be considered a solid middle class country. Mexico ranks 59th in per capita GDP and is ranked only slightly below the top Latin American countries: Chile and Argentina. It rankes even higher in terms of life expectancy, even outranking many rich Gulf States.
Even by the standards of developed nations, Mexico has a growing middle class.
Much of the American perception of Mexico comes from the fact that so many illegal immigrants come to the US from Mexico looking for work. These tend to be some of the poorest Mexicans, yet they are the only Mexicans most American actually see.
The migration trend has been reversing the last several years. 2011 marked the first time since the Great Depression that net Mexican migration to the US actually was negative. Raw numbers are now at their lowest level since the 1950s. This is a combination of the weak US economy combined with rising living standards in Mexico.
A recent Mexican census found 3 million more Mexicans than was predicted, mostly due to migrants returning to Mexico from the US.
Mexicans Are A Race
I was watching a street performer in Venice Beach last year and while he was talking to the crowd he asked for people of all races to clap their hands: “White people. Black people. Asian people. Mexicans. Everybody clap your hands!”
Leaving aside the issue of lumping all Asians together, the street performer was wrong to think that “Mexicans” were a race of people.
What most Americans think of as “Mexicans” are actually indigenous peoples. One of the biggest demographic differences between British and Spanish colonies in North America is that the Spanish didn’t kill as many of the aboriginal inhabitants. Approximately 10% of the population of Mexico is of aboriginal ancestry vs. 1.2% in the United States.
Mexico is a multiethnic country. I’ve personally met Mexicans with ancestry from Germany, Spain, Hungary, and Russia. There are Chinese and Indians in Mexico too.
Just to give you can idea how wrong our ideas can be about who is and who isn’t Mexican, check out this video of comedians George Lopez and Louis CK. Jump to the 5:30 mark where they are both on the couch talking.
I kid you not.
Mexico is Dangerous
There has been a lot in the news recently about drug violence in Mexico. Indeed some of the stories are absolutely horrifying and they usually involve severed heads.
I’m not going to tell you that every part of Mexico is safe. However, that same logic also applies to the United States. There are parts of the US I wouldn’t encourage people to visit.
Mexico is a pretty big country and as I indicated above it is a very diverse country.
One of the problems I have discussed earlier about traveling to dangerous places is that we tend to lump together every place we are not familiar with. If you don’t know anything about Mexico, then when you hear about something bad happening in “Mexico” your mind will lump everything in Mexico together.
The problem is, all of Mexico isn’t dangerous. Most of the violence from drug gangs has occurred in only 5 Mexican states. There are many places in Mexico, especially in the south, which are very safe.
Comparing crime rates in Nuevo Loredo and Playa del Carmen is like comparing crime in Detroit and Des Moines.
They might be in the same country, but they are totally different places.
Mexicans are Taking Over the United States
This is the same charge which has been leveled against the Irish, Italians and other groups which have immigrated to the US. Mexicans are really no different and are following a similar pattern: the first generation are not fluent in English. The second generation are usually bilingual but more culturally American. The third generation usually has a hard time speaking to grandma and grandpa.
For the most part, Mexicans who have stayed in the US have actually followed the same script as previous ethnic groups. The only difference is that because Mexico borders the US, there is a large groups of people who go back and aren’t seeking permanent residence.
Unlike the early immigrants who came to the US with a one-way boat ticket, many Mexican laborers can go home once or twice a year in a car.
Also, as I noted above, immigration to the US is actually turning around and net migration is now actually negative.
American get freaked out over ATM machines offering Spanish as an option, and think that everyone in the US is going to be speaking Spanish in 20 years. However, they totally ignore the much larger influence which the US has on Mexico. There is a much higher percentage of Mexicans who speak English than there are American who speak Spanish, especially if you don’t consider 1st or 2nd generation Americans of Mexican heritage.
Given how quickly English is spreading around the world, the idea that the US will be come a Spanish speaking country is ludicrous.
Mexico is America’s neighbor. It always has been and always will be.
It would behoove most Americans to try and understand our neighbor to the south rather than to fear or misunderstand it.
…and by the way, there are 31 states in Mexico and I’ve been to 5. I intend to significantly increase that number over the next few years.