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Ask an old gringo: Copper Canyon, poverty, and becoming a Mexican citizen

Marvin West

Praise be unto readers who keep asking questions as if the old gringo actually knows something.

Question: I am 62, enjoying early retirement in Mexico and considering dual citizenship. What generally happens when an American man becomes a Mexican?

Answer: I've never done this so my information is second-hand. I hear the process is simple, that changes are minor. The new Mexican is immediately more macho. He stops shaving his upper lip. If he hopes to get in step with middle-aged Mexican males, he gathers a few girlfriends, as many as he can afford without his wife noticing budgetary infringements.

If he's going to blend in smoothly, he needs a bright red pickup truck with extra-large mirrors, chrome bumper guards and a very loud sound system. He must drive with the NASCAR touch, even when he isn't going anywhere.

Other adjustments are really trivial: Boots and big belt buckle. Learn to walk with a swagger. Eat more hearty grub, no more dumb carrots, squash and broccoli. Take a bold step or two up in strong drink. In some bars, real Mexican men drain the bottle and chew up the worm.

Question: I keep hearing that Mexico is a very poor country. Are all Mexicans poor?

Answer: You are joking, aren't you? Corn farmers may be going hungry but the Mexican rich are very rich and the middle class is supposedly mushrooming. Visiting gringos may not notice because they can't afford big-city shopping malls where affluent Mexicans buy without bargaining.

Question: What the heck is happening in Mexico? I've been watching the country thrash around on television without knowing whether to laugh or cry. What is your professional analysis of the presidential election, of paying teachers to strike in Oaxaca and the fuss and fallout over the U.S. fence to slow illegal immigration? Do migratory Mexicans actually expect welcome stations, free refreshments and better maps?

Answer: Being of medium IQ and relatively sound mind, I absolutely refuse to comment about political strife or self-appointed leaders, especially those who create a severe crisis for Mexican democracy. There'll be no wit or wisdom from me. Mexican politics, good, bad and ugly, are Mexico's business and I will not get involved.

Likewise, I refuse to be drawn into any discussion of the annual Oaxaca teachers' strike, obviously a way of life. I know all about the difference of opinion between labor and management but this conflict runs much deeper. Civil disobedience that deteriorates into bus-burning lawlessness and inflicts economic if not physical damage on innocents is not my chosen text for this sermon. Pay while on strike? Slow government intervention? My response is no response. No comment. None. Zero. Zilch.

Illegal immigration? Not for me, not today. If I were going to comment, I might say that more and better jobs in Mexico would be a start toward stopping the mass exodus but it's best if I leave that problem to the Mexican congress, the new Prez and Carlos Slim -- who has enough spare pesos in his hip pocket to built two big manufacturing plants in each village and hamlet.

Question: Is Mexico's Copper Canyon really bigger than the Grand Canyon?

Answer: So I hear. Never measured either. Copper Canyon, in the Sierra Madre Occidental range in the state of Chihuahua, is actually a series of canyons. In addition to spectacular scenery, there are 400 somewhat incredible miles of train tracks that sometimes hug mountainsides, sometimes cut through tunnels, sometimes drop into deep ravines, sometimes cross over on one of 39 bridges. Go. See. Enjoy. Best part of the train ride is between Creel and El Fuerte.

Question: Are baby-boom American retirees affecting real estate prices in Mexico?

Answer: Probably. And more to come. Already there are extreme examples. An oceanview lot in San Felipe, four or five hours south of San Diego, offers a nice look at the Sea of Cortez -- if you can afford it. This little scoop of sand has recently escalated in value to 2,100,000 pesos. That's for one lot. The house comes extra.

Question: Any truth to the report that home break-ins are down in Mexico City?

Answer: Police officials made that announcement just the other day. They didn't mention the reason. Bad guys are now busy following women drivers home from shopping trips, taking what they bought and stealing their cars.

You didn't ask but smog is also down. Honestly. The improvement may not be immediately noticeable but Pemex, national gas company, has found a way to reduce sulphur content in fuel sold in the really big city. Guadalajara has launched an auto tuneup campaign so less bad stuff comes out the exhaust. Alas, buses in both bigs still blow black smoke and run over pedestrians.

Question: Did somebody actually return a stolen painting to Mexico?

Answer: Good news travels slowly. An 18th century painting taken from a Mexican church and later sold to the San Diego Museum of Art was returned a few months ago. It may have been a miracle. Most Mexican treasures are not properly cataloged, making it tougher to follow the trail.

A couple of years ago, Mexico recovered a 17th-century wooden altarpiece stolen from a convent in Puebla. Doesn't happen often but cheers for the good guys in those two cases.

Published or Updated on: November 1, 2006 by Marvin West © 2006
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is

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