It’s interesting living in Mexico. They still make Coca-Cola with cane sugar, not the corn syrup they now use in the U.S., so Cokes here taste the way they did when I was nine years old and got them out of the box in my Uncle Cage’s store in Chalkville.
Dogs run loose here, just like they used to where I grew up and you see them wandering through bars and restaurants. No need for dog parks and uptight dog parents. The dogs work it out. Nobody seems to mind.
Here in Mexico, there are a lot of rules, just like in the U.S. But a lot of those rules, like stop signs, only seem a suggestion. And while food truck ordinances can become a big issue in Birmingham, it seems as if nobody much cares down here if someone sets up a grill beside the road and starts making carne asada.
It all can make for a world that is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like Bizarro World in Superman, a place where everything is the same, but different.
But while we norteamericanos like to think we live in Metropolis, more and more the perspective from Mexico is that the big country just north of the Rio Grande is the one taking on the aspects of Bizarro World.
I grew up in Birmingham. Well, actually in Chalkville, back when no one had ever heard of a “bedroom community.” I tell people there was one traffic light in Chalkville when I was growing up and it wasn’t needed. My great-uncle, Cage Jennings, owned the general store there. He was also postmaster, chief mechanic and fire chief. My father, Jimmie, worked at the post office downtown and his parents owned a gritty little store in north Birmingham where they sold “loosies,” cigarettes they took out of the pack and sold for a nickel each to their perpetually cash-strapped neighbors.
Birmingham was a hard-scrabble, blue collar place, and when you walked down 20th Street, ash from the furnaces would land on your white shirt, leaving faint traces like little grey footprints. Coming into town on the “viaduct” on First Avenue, the clouds of smoke from the Sloss Furnaces would sometimes be so thick drivers would have to turn on their headlights in broad daylight.
But, like the rest of the U.S. after World War II, Birmingham was an aspirational place. People felt like they were doing better than their parents and that their kids would do better than them.
And government? Well, government didn’t feel as far away as it had before Franklin Roosevelt became president, talking to folks on the radio and calming their fears.
And when S.V. Tucker, my grandfather and a carpenter who had fought in the trenches in World War I, retired, didn’t that Social Security check show up every month, just like FDR had promised? And when my father, who fought in the South Pacific, died in 1960, a young man of 34, didn’t my mother get survivor’s benefits, money she would protect and that I, years later, would use to pay for a college education?
It seemed then that, if you followed the rules, did your part, then government, however far away, was ready to lend a hand. And everybody seemed to know, and for the most part, play by the same rules.
The other day, the U. S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, said that when it comes to elections, some people — the ones with the money — are more equal than the rest of us. I know you’ve probably seen other interpretations and you can choose to help Chief Justice John Roberts split hairs if you like. But the bottom line is the Supreme Court put federal elections in the United States on the auction block.
This on the heels of an earlier ruling that money is speech and corporations are individuals. This on the heels of a Congress doing its damnedest to perpetuate the funneling of as much money as possible to those who already have most of it.
Bizzaro World indeed. But where-oh-where does Mexico fit in to all this?
I’ll tell you.
Mexico is corrupt. Almost every official is at some level on the take. Here, they call it mordida. The literal meaning is “to take a bite.” Everyone knows about it.
When a cop pulls you over for speeding, despite the fact cars have been zipping by you like you are standing still, the easiest out is to have 100 pesos, about eight bucks, ready. Tell him you’re late, hand him the pesos and thank him for paying your ticket for you. When your new restaurant is ready to open but your liquor license is being delayed, you might have to “bite someone” to speed things along.
Nothing is written down, but everyone knows the rules. It’s the way things are and in a way, it’s equal opportunity corruption. Everyone gets to participate.
Nobody in Mexico goes around with the fantasy, common north of the border, that the government is somehow looking out for them. And no one would be the least surprised to find their lawmakers in a swank casino somewhere sucking up to a mega-rich, right-wing nut case with millions to bestow on whatever candidate is willing to do his bidding.
Of course they would be there; that’s what politicians do.
It seems to me, it is the poor naïve folks up north who have this thing all messed up. They’re the ones who work all day, who are maybe single parents struggling to make ends meet, and who then go out and vote against their and their child’s economic self-interest because the candidate has told them they will put the Ten Commandments in the classroom or close a woman’s health clinic.
And meanwhile, in another, swankier part of town, the pols are sucking up to Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers or whoever else has the money to buy their allegiance.
At least in Mexico, everyone knows the rules and, at least on some level, everyone gets an honest chance to play in a corrupt game.
Raad Cawthon is a retired journalist currently living along Mexico’s Sonoran Coast. For more than a quarter of a century, he toiled in the salt mines of newspaper journalism, passing through both The Anniston Star and, for the proverbial cup of coffee, The Birmingham News.