Looking at Mexico beyond the stereotypes and politics

After a trip to Argentina and Chile a few years ago, I half-jokingly told friends that if I had known what the “Southern Cone” was like 40 years ago, I would have learned Spanish; the reason I didn’t was Mexico. That’s unfair, of course, and an experience I had earlier this year did a great deal to advance my appreciation of our complex neighbor.

I was attending a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association in Puebla, about two hours east of Mexico City. It’s not often that a single evening can change one’s appreciation of an entire country, and that is not exactly what happened. But gringos clamoring for a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico should experience what I did that night.

I’ve been to Mexico a number of times, including more than a few trips as a teenager. It seems unthinkable now, but in those days, kids in Southern California routinely went to Mexico with nothing more than a notarized note from a parent.

The results were predictable. The one time in my life I got thrown out of a bar was in San Felipe in Baja California when I was about 16. (How was I supposed to know that guy was the girl’s father?) Other trips involved encounters with the Border Patrol, calls to parents and dark talk of Mexican prisons. None of these episodes were criminal, just stupid, but they left me with a jaundiced view of Mexico.

Puebla was something else. The old colonial city is pretty, with ancient ruins, great food and friendly people.

The meeting itself was also a reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. We heard from Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, and were picketed by Castro supporters – a tribe unknown in this country. Demonstrators decrying recent Mexican education reforms sang their complaint to the tune of “Frère Jacques” – and jarringly included a coarse phrase ending with “tu madre.”

The high point was a banquet put on by our host, Mexican businessman and newspaper owner Armando Prida Huerta. It was held in the grassy courtyard of La Constancia, an “industrial heritage site” built in 1835 as a textile factory. The evening included a seven-course meal, a dance troupe, excellent music (think mariachis as interpreted by contemporary urban hipsters) and a fireworks display.

But anybody can put on a great banquet. All that takes is money.

Where Prida’s taste and judgment came through was in the musical program that preceded the banquet. That was something to remember, and to celebrate. It was beautiful and thought provoking.

The performance consisted of an orchestra and choir, made up of musicians aged 4 to 21 with, I think, most of them early to middle teens. They played and sang “Russian Easter,” “Carresse sur L’Ocean” from the film “Les Choristes,” “The Conquest of Paradise” from the film “1492” and “Toreador” from the opera “Carmen.” And they were great!

Esperanza Azteca Orchestra targets children from low-income families. No previous musical experience is required. Once accepted, kids are provided with a musical instrument and enrolled in group classes. In Puebla, they go to La Constancia from 4 to 8 p.m. every weekday for practice – 20 hours per week – on top of school and chores.

A product of good fortune, good will and good intentions, Esperanza Azteca Orchestra sprang from something its conductor, a prominent violinist from Puebla named Julio Saldaña, began with a small group of children. A series of fortuitous meetings connected Saldaña to Benjamin Sander, then conductor of the Boston Symphony, a woman named Lenis Mastretta, now president of the orchestra, and Ricardo Salinas Pliego, the owner of Televisión Azteca, one of Mexico’s two television networks. Mastretta told Salinas about a similar music program in Venezuela and, she says, he responded by saying, “Let’s do it! ... But all over Mexico.”

With help from state funding, and people like Prida and Salinas, there are now 53 such orchestras across Mexico and one in El Salvador. The goal is to enroll 500,000 kids in 10 years.

The young musicians now wear their orchestra uniforms on weekends – out of pride. They have become the people other kids want to emulate.

It was impossible to enjoy all this and not be touched. But two thoughts kept interrupting: drug wars and immigration.

Seen through the lens of U.S. media, all that happens in Mexico is horrific violence. What’s worse, I think, is that reflects not just “if it bleeds, it leads,” but simple negligence. As a nation, we don’t pay attention to Latin America. And that is not just irresponsible, it’s foolish.

More immediately, though, I kept wondering which of these kids we need to keep out of our country – the girls with the angelic voices, the beautiful young cellists, the frenetic first violinist with the mop of black hair?

In fact, we would be lucky to have any of them. But because we ignore most of this hemisphere, we’re missing half the truth. These kids may be from poor families in an often troubled country, but their aspiration is not to clean our pools, and they are not going to pick our tomatoes. They’re aiming higher, perhaps higher than we are.

It might behoove us to notice that, as well.

Bill Roberts is the Herald’s editorial page editor. Reach him at 375-4560 or by email at wgr@durangoherald.com

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