I love to see how every time a foreigner comes to Mexico, especially American or European, he or she becomes amused and even shocked when visiting our country for the first time. This happens because after they get off the plane at Mexico City, they expect us to be dressed up like Pancho Villa, inhabiting adobe houses in the middle of the desert. This is why I am compiling a small list with the most common misconceptions foreigners have about us when they visit Mexico:
• Mexico is a desert where it is always over 40°C (104°F)
The truth: Mexico is one of the most diverse countries in the world in terms of biomes and climates. Yes, we have the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts in northern Mexico, but only on the extreme north. The rest of the country varies considerably according to altitude and latitude. We have tropical rainforests on the Yucatan Peninsula; plains and grasslands along the Gulf of Mexico; oak and pine forests in the Mexican Central Plateau, and there are even some villages and regions along the Sierra Madre mountain ranges with seasonal snowfalls. For instance, Monterreal in the northern state of Coahuila is the first ski center in Mexico.
• Mexico is small and lightly populated
The truth: Mexico is the 15th largest country in the world, with the size of Spain, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany combined. Compared against American states, Mexico has three times the size of Texas or almost the size of Alaska. Regarding population figures, Mexico is the 11th most populated country in the world, with approximately 114 million inhabitants (2012), or slightly more than a third of the population of the United States.
• All Mexicans are look-alikes of Speedy Gonzales
The truth: most of us are mestizos – the result of interracial marriages between Native American people and Spanish conquistadors who conquered and settled these lands during the 16th century. Some of us are lighter; some of us are darker. So, we have every shade of the spectrum, with güeros like Inés Sainz and ‘Arab’ Mexicans who are descendants of Middle East immigrants, especially from Lebanon and Israel like Jaime Camil; we also have ‘Afromexicans’, like the soccer player Giovani dos Santos or our second president, Vicente Guerrero. There are even people from Chinese, Filipino and Korean descent making up 1% of our population – comparatively speaking, it is the same proportion of Native Americans, Alaskan and Hawaiian people in the United States. On the other hand, besides national celebrations and soccer matches, I’ve never seen a Mexican wearing a ‘sombrero‘. What I’ve explained to many of our visitors, is that at the beginning of the 20th century, during our Mexican Revolution (1910-1921) several revolutionaries were photographed wearing such clothing, which nowadays is as fashion to us as the top hat – like the one worn by Abraham Lincoln – is to modern-day Americans.
• Mexico is pitifully poor…
The truth: Mexico is a “middle class” country. This means we don’t belong to the industrialized world, but we are not part of the “exclusive” group of countries with periodic famine, war – about our narco violence we will talk in a moment – or constant humanitarian missions from the United Nations. According to a study from the Brookings Institution, 60.1% of the Mexican population has a middle-class income level with approximately $10 to $100 US dollars per capita in terms of Purchase Power Parity (PPP). This figure puts Mexican median income above the BRIC block (Brazil, Russia, India, China), who have much lower middle-class populations (Brazil = 33.75%, Russia = 48.1%, India = 15.8%, China = 28.1%) and more on par to countries like Argentina (52.9%), Uruguay (55.84%) and Costa Rica (51.81%).
• …And technologically speaking, we have no more than burritos and adobe houses
The first thing many people ask about Mexico when coming for the first time is: Do you have electricity? How about TV sets? Do you use horses or donkeys as mode of transportation? The reality is Mexico is no longer the backward country from the beginning of the 20th century: nowadays we have electricity – part of it generated by nuclear power – as well as LCD TVs, computers and even electric vehicles; we have cell phone technologies (GPRS/CDMA) and Internet; although expensive, we have schools and hospitals on par to their counterparts in the first world. Our science and technology have been restricted for several years to the maquiladora industry, so knowledge of our own has a long way to go, but certainly we are not in the Middle Ages.
• On Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) we celebrate our independence
The truth: Cinco de Mayo is held to celebrate the Battle of Puebla, where 4,700 Mexican soldiers crushingly defeated 6,480 French soldiers during the Second Franco-Mexican War (1862-1867). It is important because at the time, France was considered the most powerful world power. Due to the Good Neighbor Policy implemented by American president Theodore Roosevelt just before World War II, Cinco de Mayo became a “Mexican-American pride day” in the United States, although it has degenerated into “one of the days everybody gets drunk” at the other side of the border.
• Mexico is like the Wild West
The truth: Mexico has several challenges to overcome, and among them we can count the hasty maneuver performed by our former president Felipe Calderon (term: 2006-2012) with his “War on Drugs”. This has resulted in certain regions and cities in the country with a terrible violence. However, although Mexico has deficient and corruptible law institutions, it still has them. For example, the murder rate per 100,000 people in Mexico is 13.3, which puts the country as a safer place than more developed nations like Argentina (16.8) and Chile (19.6). Even if we compare Mexico against cities in the United States, it is much safer than let’s say, Dallas (15.8), Cincinnati (19.2), Washington DC (46.3) or New Orleans (53.1). We should not forget however, that Ciudad Juarez, right at the US-Mexico border, is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with 229 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
• Mexican food can be summarized into tacos, tortas and tamales
The truth: Mexican cuisine is now considered an intangible cultural heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. From the Nuevo Leon arrachera, the Sonoran tortilla sobaquera, the mole poblano and chiles en nogada from Puebla, the Yucatec cochinita pibil or the Oaxacan tlayudas con asiento, Mexican cuisine is one of the most extensive in the world with a huge variety of ingredients and flavors. Even though tacos, tortas and tamales are quite popular, they have nothing to do with the so-called “Mexican food” outside our borders. One instance is the “chili con carne“, which isn’t Mexican at all (it is Texan, by the way).
• And regarding drinks, all we have is tequila and Corona beer
This false belief is equivalent to the wrong assumption that all Americans drink nothing but Sam Adams or all Europeans keep sipping Heinekens. The truth is, there is a wide array of drinks done and consumed in Mexico. Mezcal, aguardiente, white, pink and red wines; whiskeys, rum and brandy are quite popular; Corona beer could have an impressive marketing campaign outside of Mexico, but here the most popular include Indio and Victoria. And for those who don’t appreciate alcohol, you can find thousands of aguas frescas with many flavors, like horchata, jamaica and tamarindo.
This stereotyping thing is not limited to the way you look, dress or act; it also involves deeper issues such as type of society and economy. It is weird that the existing image of Mexico abroad is no longer prevalent since almost a century ago, while our country is identified with drugs and sombrero-wearing revolutionaries. Well, according to predictions, by 2030 the percentage of middle-class population in Mexico will be around 70 to 85%: something relatively close to a developed country. I cannot imagine the surprise of many when that messed up country south of the American border suddenly becomes the 10th largest economy in the global ranking. Will Mexico become a world power? Of course not, but at least a comfortable place among the “not so poor” countries such as Portugal or South Korea sounds good. It is worth mentioning however, that any further success stories from Mexico are despite the clumsy governments we have had for the last 40 years. But that is another story.