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Immersion Experience – Mexico: En memoria de mi primo

The hills beckoned on the last morning of the Mexico IXP. Our Crowne Plaza hotel overlooked the city’s central river, beyond which low hills rose to the Sierra Madre.

We had been in Monterrey three days but I had not had time to jog through the city (a habit of mine when traveling). Just across the river atop the nearest foothill was an intriguing building. I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but given the colonial heritage of the country I thought it was likely to be an old monastery or a military outpost. There was only one way to find out, get my daily exercise.

I figured the run would take about one hour and set out across the footbridge that crossed the highway paralleling the river. From this distance I could see neighborhoods reaching some two thirds up the hill with what appeared to be easily navigable roads leading to the scrub brush covering the final ascent.

In the United States wealthier people usually occupy the homes higher up on a city’s outlying hills. I therefore assumed that as I climbed higher I would see larger estates. I began phrasing polite Spanish sentences in my head in the event I inadvertently trespassed on some rich family’s back yard near the top of the hill.

My assumptions were grossly in error. As I neared the top of the hill the roads turned from pavement to stone to dirt. Motor vehicles vanished and gave way to hordes of mongrel dogs peering at me from behind open piles of garbage.

I could no longer see the presumed monastery but the scrub brush was still in view. After weaving my way through houses made of aluminum panels lashed to wooden posts I came across an old man.

“Tratando subir esta montana para ver el edificio. Va este camino del pie alli?” (I asked in my broken Spanish if the path led up the hill; I was trying to see the building). He told me that the path did lead that way.

The next fifteen minutes were challenging. I had to avoid cactus and thorn brush as well as countless piles of refuse. At last I reached the building on top, but it was no monastery; no tribute to the past. It was nothing. Absolutely nothing. A large wall lined with broken glass and sharp metal pins was what I had mistaken for the side of a great building. Behind this wall was a large concrete shed filled with reeking trash; extending from this mirage was a short paved road leading to a turn circle, suggesting a planned neighborhood that was never completed.

This forty minute ascent into poverty burst great expectations. I had landed on the downside of globalization. After a week in Mexico visiting a range of wealth from indigenous Zapotec villages to millionaire CEO boardrooms I was now confronted with urban poverty, a segment of the population served by Base of the Pyramid industries such as the microfinance institutions that we met with during the IXP.

I could not return the way I came because a filthy, angry mutt blocked the path. I found an alternate way down and walked through another impoverished neighborhood. I was struck by how little space these families had. The ramshackle dwellings were crowded together impossibly tight, separated only by narrow crumbling staircases.

A mountainside of families burned garbage and the cloud of acrid smoke made me cough and irritated my eyes. A dog darted from behind a post and relieved himself in the center of the only common path through this row of huts. Litter was everywhere along with the stench of defecation and rotting trash.

And then I came across the vision I had been seeking. A bit further down the hill, in a slightly more prosperous section, I stumbled upon a cement home with its entire front wall painted as a tribute to a young boy. A mural perhaps 14×12 feet depicted the Virgin Mary behind a teenager. The boy was seated and dressed fashionably by the standards of youth: denim jeans, athletic shoes and a numbered jersey. The mural’s inscription said: “En memoria de mi primo. Con mucho carino.” “In memory of my cousin, with much affection.” The only other writing on the mural was the acronym “U.S.A.” in plain view on the jersey.

Why would this beautiful piece of art, dedicated to a young boy’s memory, say USA? I thought of three reasons: The mural was true to detail and the boy wore jerseys with the logo USA.They boy had died in or while migrating to the USA.The addition of the USA was meant to signify hope. Dreams of a better life. A posthumous gift of the American Dream to a loved one.

What is the American Dream? What is the Mexican Dream? The Mexico IXP exposed its 50 participants to the spectrum of wealth and development in an emerging market. Many millions of Mexicans live below the poverty line and lack access to potable water, plumbing, adequate housing and garbage collection services. In Oaxaca State it is estimated that one third of the income of many villages comes from remittances received from family members working in the United States. Many of these migrant workers have left behind loving families to do jobs that Americans aren’t willing to do, for substandard wages. During better economic times this was a de facto acceptable status quo to all parties. Now, in the midst of the US’s financial crisis we will see that greed and excess will affect more than just the bank accounts of our wealthy.

There is interconnectedness not only between Wall Street and Main Street but between the USA and its closest neighbors. Many villagers that we spoke with on the IXP are seeing fewer job opportunities in the United States, disrupting their already tenuous way of life. It is true that government corruption in Mexico contributes to the plight of the poor, but for profit social enterprise opportunities abound. On the IXP we visited private companies that provide legitimate hope and services to the poor (while making handsome profits, a win-win scenario). It is not only the charge of government, but of responsible leaders from private industry to help break the cycle of poverty. Corporate America can follow the lead of examples seen in emerging markets and do the same for its own citizens. Coupled with a functioning democracy and well established infrastructure already in place, we have a bright future ahead and a way out of our own crisis. This will benefit not only us, but also our neighbors.

January 26, 2009
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