January 2010

We’ve already talked a little about how often we run into people we know here in San Miguel, but I have to write just a bit more about this phenomena.  We’ve been back two weeks, and we just keep running into people we know, and the pace of these random meetings is just getting faster and faster.  There are three people I met for the first time Wednesday but have run into three times since.  That’s right, including Wednesday I’ve seen these people four out of the last five days, and none of them were planned meetings.

It began on Wednesday when Amy and I went for the first time out to San Miguel Viejo, a small rancho (community) on the outskirts of town.  We were there to volunteer for Elsmarie, a lovely woman who moved out there and has begun an afterschool arts program for kids.  The program, called Ojalá (God willing), attracts as many as 70 kids each week.  We weren’t the only new volunteers that day, and we met more than a dozen people that day, including our three new friends.

Yesterday we bumped into them at an annual chili cookoff, which was a great event, and between visits to the chilli booths we talked with nine people we’d met before – there were at least 8 of us from this last Wednesday at Ojalá alone.  We also were introduced to or chatted with three new people, and saw but didn’t have a chance to talk to several other people we knew by name.

It’s actually an odd event now to go out and not run into someone we know.


We got back to San Miguel on Monday and called home to tell our families we had arrived safely, although I’m not sure that safe is the word they’d use.  It’s clear to us that there are many, many people back in the United States who think of Mexico as simply a place to get swine flu or be murdered by a drug cartel.  In Spanish class today, our teacher mentioned that in the many months he’s been here he’s had one visitor from the United States, his mother.  Most of the class had had no one visit them, despite having been in Mexico for many months or even years.  A classmate who has lived here for 13 years said everyone in the U.S. thinks we’re all crazy for being down here, and the whole class agreed – not with the idea that we’re crazy but with the certainty that Americans back home think we are.

Americans have a strong streak of paranoia, and we couldn’t help but notice it when we were back home.  Amy and I were relaxing at the coast, watching TV, when a Brinks Security commercial came on showing a man breaking into a home, prompting the woman and young daughter to hit an alarm and call the security company.  Next came a commercial showing the risks of identity theft and the difficulty of protecting yourself without buying an expensive service.  Finally, there was a commercial describing the dangers pets face from ticks and other bugs.  Our lives, identities, and even our dogs are in peril!

We haven’t watched that much television in other countries but we did see enough to know this kind of “Oh my God, we’re in terrible danger” paranoia seems strongest in the U.S.  Unfortunately, this attitude spills over into public policy, so now America can’t possibly extend American legal rights to those arrested as terrorists (even when the government admits some have no ties to terrorism), or even keep them in a prison on American soil but must house them overseas and torture them to try to get information.

It used to be that Americans would have opposed such measures but our fear has trumped our commitment to American civil liberties.  Some columnists on both the left and the right have recently pointed out how un-American our current attitude toward security versus freedoms is.  The columnists point out the Founding Fathers adopted a Bill of Rights that protected citizens against unlawful search and seizure, for example, knowing full well this was a choice of freedom over security.  But they did it anyway.

I suggest to other Americans that the world isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be and it’s a fun place to see.  You should try it some time.