Farewell, not Good-bye to Mexico…

By Tom Chapman and Donna Breslin
Washington, DC
Peace Corps Volunteers in Mexico, 2005-2007
published on our site: June 25, 2008

Classmates, don’t forget to post any comments after you read this.

Just me on the range
Just me on the range

Since we returned from Mexico, I have often found it difficult in conversation as well as in writing to capture the true flavor of our experience there. Of course, issues of immigration, trade policy, etc., are tied closely to our relations with Mexico. Strange to say, those issues hardly ever came up in discussions with our Mexican friends. That was probably due to their excessive politeness. Also, we were dealing primarily with educated upper-middle class professionals, mostly relatively conservative, rather than desperate peasants who need to find work by crossing the border.

Queretaro is an old colonial city, almost 500 years old, which was a center for the Catholic missionaries and the site of important historical events, including the execution of Maximilian, the nurturing of the independence movement, the 1918 constitutional convention, and the signing of the treaty that gave the Southwest to the US. The historic center is well preserved, but the city has grown to more than 1 million in population, with modern factories and big-box stores on the periphery. It has good restaurants and a rich cultural life, including a symphony orchestra.

Donna and I were assigned to two government research laboratories. Mine was about 20 miles out of town. After stopping by an espresso shop at 7:30 am, I boarded a shuttle bus that took 45 minutes to arrive. On the bus I read the local paper and perhaps chatted a bit with colleagues, although most slept through the bus ride. The ride home at 5:30pm was livelier because the students (MS and PhD candidates) were awake by then. After eating lunch at the cafeteria , I would usually take a walk in the countryside, sharing the path with goats, sheep, cows, and local cowboys. Although this was in agricultural land, bordered by rugged hills, it was desert most of the year. The rains came from July to October; then the country turned green with an array of wildflowers. The altitude was about 7000 ft. As a result, the sun is hot, but the temperature and humidity are generally quite comfortable.

After the first three months, during which we lived with a local family and attended a language school, Donna and I had to find our own apartment. We were very fortunate to find a lovely spot: a third-floor flat with a roof-top terrace and French doors that opened onto a fantastic vista of one of the many old churches of the town. It was an excellent spot for entertaining and located only five blocks from the central plazas. Buying furniture and arranging our lease and our utilities were adventures. In the winter it got cold at night. We had no central heating, of course, but we had a fireplace and a space heater. That was about the extent of our hardship as we had hot water (usually) plus cable TV and internet. We enjoyed getting to know the neighborhood, including the shopkeepers down on the plaza, the shoe-shine man, and the two old ladies down the street who sold tamales out of their kitchen on week-ends.

As indicated above, my role there was essentially that of a visiting professor. I gave lectures and advised graduate students. Collaborating with the staff researchers, most of whom had PhDs from Europe rather than the US, I helped to edit conference presentations and papers for publication in English. The center, which specializes in electrochemical technology and environmental engineering, is fairly academic, but they also undertake projects for industry and local governments. Although they are supported by the national science agency, they are under pressure to conduct socially and economically relevant research and to raise a larger portion of their budget from contracts. This is a challenge, especially for their younger, less experienced staff.

birthday party
A birthday party for Tom’s PhD student, Erica (in green), with other CIDETEQ students

Back in DC, I continue to collaborate with my colleagues in Queretaro, working on research problems and editing work that they send me by e-mail. We plan to go down again for a couple of weeks soon. Perhaps we can extend that trip to visit some of the many places that we have not yet seen: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Taxco, Puebla…

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Tom and PC colleague Walter Meyer at CIDETEQ

So much for daily life in Queretaro. The question is, what did I really learn about Mexico and Mexicans? Although I do not like to make generalizations, here we go:

  • Mexicans are as intelligent and hard-working as anyone. There are many reasons, I suppose, that they have not prospered over the centuries, in spite of rich resources. I believe that the major obstacles have been their faulty political system and the tendency for those in power to exploit the country. First, it was the Spanish. Then there is a long history of corrupt politicians. I am inclined to think that the current administration is serious about reform, but it is still an uphill fight.
  • Their constitution poses serious problems. It dictates that resources such as oil and water are the heritage of the people and thus must be owned by the people, through the government. One manifestation of the problem is the inefficient state-owned oil company, Pemex. For years the government has milked Pemex for cash and has not reinvested in the company’s infrastructure. As a result, oil production, mainly from off-shore in the Gulf of Mexico, is projected to fall precipitously in the coming years. Still, the populist branch of the legislature balks at allowing foreign investment to help with oil-field development.
  • The legal system has been a nightmare. Until now Mexico has operated under a Napoleonic legal system. Cases are submitted to judges in writing with no oral argument, and judges can take as long as they like to render judgments. Furthermore, there is no explanation of the rationale for a ruling. Thus, the potential for arbitrary treatment and corruption is great. Only recently did the government agree to institute oral argument in court. It will be interesting to see how that develops.
  • Mexicans are full of contradictions. On the one hand they are very friendly and generous. On the other hand, they may not honor commitments. As in the Orient, it is probably the case that it is better to let things slide in the future than to say no immediately. This must be their way of being polite. Also, the outwardly friendly and easy manner is contradicted by a tendency to be secretive. We saw this in the workplace. Perhaps it is the fallout from past economic crises, but workers, including professionals, are insecure and competitive in unproductive ways.
  • Economic inequality is great. There is a gap between the north and the south, and rural indigenous people are neglected. The education system is a shambles, especially for the poor. The wealthy attend expensive private schools. The poverty, both in the cities and in the country, has the usual consequences: crime, corruption, and drug trafficking. Illegal logging is having a negative environmental impact. In certain regions of the country there are drug wars going on, and the police are in some cases complicit. Fortunately, we were insulated from these situations by being based in the relatively wealthy and conservative city of Queretaro.

Well, these are a few of my general observations. What are the lessons for the US? I do not think that we can afford to have an unstable and increasingly poorer neighbor on our southern doorstep. It is in our own interest to help Mexico to develop economically and to assist with efforts to reform their legal system. Otherwise, we could have even more serious challenges in the future. In the last presidential election, the populist candidate, Lopez Obrador, nearly won. He is still claiming fraud and that he is the legitimate president of Mexico. I do not know if he would have been as bad as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but there is a chance that he could be worse in terms of fomenting anti-American feelings. I am not sure what the correct policy should be for us, but clearly the US government should be paying more attention to Latin America and especially Mexico and its problems.

I should say a few final words about Peace Corps. Clearly, our experience in Mexico was unique. The program there is a new model, working in high-tech areas. There were only 13 volunteers placed in our year, but the program is growing. After entering initially through an agreement with CONACYT, the national science agency, Peace Corps-Mexico is now working also with SEMERNAT, the ministry for environment and natural resources. Currently, there are about 70 PC volunteers in Mexico, with the growth coming in the environmental area, involving more traditional Peace Corps activities.

Monarch butterflies in their winter home in central Mexico
Monarch butterflies in their winter home in central Mexico

We felt that we were very well supported by the organization. The training was valuable, the financial support was adequate, and medical care was excellent. Peace Corps is eager to recruit more seniors to the program, and they are actively promoting the opportunities. The greatest problem is that Peace Corps, in spite of its relative independence, is still a government bureaucracy. With 7000 volunteers around the world, mostly in their 20s, the organization imposes a uniform set of rules, one rule for every bad thing that may have happened somewhere over the past 45 years. For older volunteers, this can be hard to take. First, the medical screening is a challenge. Then, on assignment we can not have a car, we must get permission to leave town overnight, we must wear a helmet if bicycling, etc. Well, it wasn’t all that bad, and in the end it was certainly worth accepting it.

Written by Donna in November 2007…

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Donna doing her “PC-Cabaret” gig

Before we left Queretaro, I had to take one more opportunity to make a fool of myself… At our final Close-of-Service ceremony I presented a song about all the Peace Corps rules (and about our PC colleagues) – saying that I worked in a nightclub to make ends meet, but everyone should beware: “Don’t tell Byron”, the Country Director! (This was a take-off from a song in the show Cabaret, “Don’t Tell Mama”.)

Postscript

Well, the 27 months is over! Looking back, it seems like it went quickly. However, there were times when that was not so. Dealing with Mexican bureaucracies wasn’t any easier than dealing with those in DC. Going to work every morning was hard on our systems. Communicating well in Spanish continued to be a challenge for us, but we really developed a taste for chilies and tequila!

Most important, we feel our work made a positive impact:

  • Tom’s research center published more than 30 papers, with at least 20 bearing his name as a co-author . Previously, they had been producing about 5 or 6 articles per year.
  • Donna’s final project was to introduce a new “Wikipedia” in her center to collect and disseminate project-related knowledge heretofore not collected nor documented.
  • One of Tom’s PhD students won the prize for the best thesis in Science and Engineering of Materials.
  • Donna leaves behind two public murals: One is in the dining room of a residence for severely disabled people in Queretaro; the other is in a school in the small town of San Ildefonso, about one hour from Queretaro. (see photos below)

More photos (Donna’s murals):
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Mural in the dining room of Casa Hogar de San Paulo, painted June ’07

We had some losses during this time:

  • We lost some friends in DC, in Madison, and in Australia as well as 3 members of our extended family, and other friends and family have had health problems.
  • We missed many celebrations: various DC events, weddings, births, and the burning and rebirth of Eastern Market.
  • We had to have our huge, 100+ year-old tree in our front yard cut down.
  • On the other hand, there were lots of gains:

    • We have a new grandson, Grant Ryan Phillips, now almost 2 years old.
    • We do speak and understand Spanish much better than before (tho’ we realize we will never be fluent…).
    • We have lived in a charming apartment with views of the most agreeable city in Mexico, a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site with almost five hundred years of history.
    • We enjoyed visits from family and friends in which we could share our experience.
    • We made wonderful friends, including our Mexican counterparts and the dedicated PC-Mexico staff, and some like-minded Americans.
    • We developed a much better appreciation for the history, music, art, dance, economy, politics, and environment of Mexico and especially the people themselves.
    • We were able to explore many incredible and beautiful places in Mexico and now look forward to sharing our discoveries of the Hidden Mexico (i.e, hidden from most Norteamericanos…).
    • We now consider Mexico as a second home and plan to return frequently. (Tom’s Center has budgeted to bring him back three times next year!)

    And there was a final breakfast of the 8 survivors of our GenerationII Peace Corps group:
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    Joining the Peace Corps was something we both had wanted to do for a long time. We are glad that we finally did it!

    And, our commitment is not completely over. We accepted three goals as Peace Corps volunteers:

    1. To provide technical assistance and expertise to our host country;
    2. To be ambassadors for the US in our host country; and
    3. To share our knowledge of Mexico and its people when we return home.

    And a final view from our apartment:
    a final view of our apartment

    We are now ready to pursue our third goal. If you know anyone who would be interested in learning more about Mexico and the Peace Corps for the 50+ (60+?)-set, please let us know.

    (Tom’s email address is chapman_tom@yahoo.com.)

    Comments
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    • John Hatch June 27, 2008 at 4:47 pm

      Welcome to the Class of ’62 RPCVs! and welcome back to WDC area. I think there were at least six of us in ’62 who were accepted into Peace Corps at graduation; and Yale use to lead the country in the 60s in number of PCVs/# graduates. It was interesting to hear of your impressions of Peace Corps service and compare them with mine of 45 years ago. Except for the kind of work (and access to internet and phones!) the fundamentals seems to be the same. Congratulations on following through on your dreams—I hope others from ’62 will do so and/or have done so.

    • Tom Chapman June 26, 2008 at 12:22 pm

      Thanks, Al, and to Mike for your interest and support.

      One correction: The final photo was not “of” our apartment, but “from” our apartment! (Would have been nice.)

      To answer Al’s question, yes, I am concerned that they could be on a downhill slide. A weak economy and diminished oil revenues could bring in a (more) disfunctional government and social unrest. As I wrote above, I believe that the US has a large stake here, and we should be paying more attention and providing more support.

      Tom

    • Al Chambers June 25, 2008 at 9:35 pm

      What a delight to read Tom and Donna’s detailed and personal summary report of their Peace Corps tour and see some of their photos. We had followed bits and pieces of their time in Queretaro because Tom was such a solid contributor to the web site while they were there. My question, Tom and Donna, is whether you are concerned that the combination of the government battle against the drug lords and the rapidly declining oil production from the Cantarell field threaten to make a Mexico “a failed state,” as some believe?

      Al