My first visit to Mexico was anything but auspicious. It was 1949 and I was a graduate student and teaching fellow at the University of Texas in Austin. As Christmas approached, I realized that I would not be able to afford the long train trip back to Michigan to spend the holidays with my parents. So, after apprising them of my financial situation, I decided to use my two weeks free from classes for a sortie into Mexico -- launching my first incursion into a region whose geography, history, anthropology, languages, and culture had been the focus of most of my undergraduate university training at the University of Michigan. Indeed, with three years of Spanish and one year of Portuguese behind me, at graduation I had been offered a position as a 'junior executive' in what we would nowadays term a "multinational" corporation, replete with such fringe benefits as a villa of my own (with swimming pool, of course) and a company car. The corporation, which shall remain nameless, had carved out an empire of its own in a large part of western South America and was viewed as one of the dominant "Yankee" presences in that part of the world. Naturally, I was both flattered and tempted by this job offer -- tempted, that is, until I found out by doing some research of my own that the company in question paid its Peruvian workers eighteen cents a day! Then, the position suddenly lost all of its appeal, because I couldn't see myself driving my car into a gated villa compound each evening when I knew that I was surrounded by crushing poverty on all sides. I told the recruiter that "if I was as attractive to him as I seemed to be with a bachelor's degree, then maybe I'd be even more attractive to him with a master's, because I had decided to go on to graduate school", and in that manner I effectively put an end to my brush with the corporate world.
The bus ride from Austin to Laredo was long in itself -- after all, Texas is big! -- and after what seemed an interminable customs inspection at the border, the Mexican bus started out of Nuevo Laredo sometime after midnight. It was crowded, as Mexican buses always are, and a couple of seats behind me two peons in big sombreros chatted amiably with each other all night long. From the few snatches of conversation with I managed to pick up, it seemed as though they were discussing how best to kill someone, and I sincerely hoped it wasn't me that they had in mind. As the first rosy glimmers of daylight began to show themselves on the eastern horizon, the bus was beginning its arduous climb up the Mameluque Pass, and I took heart in seeing that the landscape had changed from one of monotonous flatness to one of intriguing and rugged beauty. Just before six in the morning the bus arrived at the terminal in Monterrey and the various passengers scattered to their respective destinations -- some to make connections with other buses, some to be met by relatives and friends, others -- like the two peons -- no doubt off to carry out the nefarious deed they had hashed over at such length during the night.
Tired, red-eyed, hungry, and cold (at 600 meters elevation, Monterrey can be very chilly on a December morning), I wandered into the bus-station restaurant to see if I could order some breakfast -- getting my first chance to practice Spanish in a real-world situation. I sat down at a small table after brushing way what seemed to be five hundred flies and tried to signal a waiter for some attention. As I waited, I watched a man at the counter ordering a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. It was duly served but hardly had he received it when a loud speaker blared that his bus was leaving for Durango, so he gulped down his coffee, slapped some money on the counter, and dashed off. The man behind the counter calmly cleared away the coffee cup and the money and then proceeded to place the half-eaten roll back in the glass case on the wall back of him. Having witnessed that -- and with the flies still swarming around me in great clouds -- I decided that it might be prudent to look elsewhere for my breakfast.
My guide book told me about one of the finest restaurants in Monterrey, so, after orienting myself with the schematic map it contained, I set out to try to locate it, little suspecting that it would take me an hour and a half of walking to find it. In 1949 most of the streets of Monterrey were unpaved -- at least those I ended up walking along -- and by the time I reached what I anticipated would be 'my oasis in the desert' I had run almost the full gamut of confrontations that can befall a neophyte gringo -- and experienced some of my most profound "culture shock" in the process. Emaciated, wrinkled women looking far older than they probably were in fact, wrapped in serapes against the bitter cold, crouched along the street cradling small babies in their arms, held out their hands for whatever centavos or pesos a passerby might give them. Nearby, a pink Cadillac with obscene tail fins stood in the patio of an equally obscene pink stucco villa, surrounded by an elaborate wrought iron fence. (I immediately envisioned myself in my company house in Peru, and shuddered.) Tacked to a telephone pole out in front of the house was a tattered poster adorned with a hammer and sickle. Along one of the streets a good-looking, dark-eyed boy about 12 stepped out of a doorway and asked if I would like to buy the services of his teen-age sister. When I replied that I wasn't interested, he smiled broadly and said, "Maybe you like me better?" I shook my head and walked on. As I neared the main plaza, an older man motioned me to one side and asked if I'd like to buy some "Spanish fly to make my girl friend more eager". Again, I had to confess that I wasn't interested, and finally seeing my goal, I ducked inside the restaurant and found myself a booth.
The waiter promptly brought me a menu and then returned with a glass of water and some cutlery wrapped in a paper napkin. The water was so cloudy that it looked as though a half-hearted attempt had been made to rinse out a glass of milk, and when I unfolded the napkin I was appalled to see that the tines of the fork were caked with the remains of some one else's meal. If this was Monterrey's finest restaurant, I wondered how long I could expect to survive this questionable escapade into the unknown. Doing my best to think positive thoughts as I downed a cup of hot chocolate and ate a plate of huevos rancheros, I quickly came to the conclusion that I'd either starve to death before reaching Mexico City or maybe something worse. So, by the time I started my long walk back to the bus station, my mind was pretty well made up: instead of continuing what promised to be a journey of ever-mounting problems, I decided that I'd better turn around while I was still able to do so. And, as I retraced my steps through the dusty back-streets, I slowly but surely emptied my pockets of all the Mexican money I had by distributing it to the shivering women and babies huddled in the weak morning sunshine, hoping that somehow their Christmas might be a tiny bit better than it would have been had I not reached Monterrey. Then I hopped the first bus back to Austin that I could.
The trauma of that introduction to Mexico had earth-shaking consequences as far as I was concerned. Much to the displeasure of my graduate advisors, I decided to give up my program of Latin American studies and turn my attention to Europe instead. Awarded a Fulbright grant to Norway in May of 1950, during the next two years I completed my work on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Oslo, married a lovely Norwegian girl, and for the next twenty-odd years taught and did research in the Scandinavian area. Not until 1973, when I was teaching a geography field course at Middlebury College (Vermont), did I venture into Mexico again, this time with much careful logistical planning in advance. As luck would have it, it was during this extensive field trip that I stumbled onto what seemed to be the solution to a problem that had puzzled more than a generation of archaeologists -- the origin of the strange 260-day Mayan calendar -- and for the next twenty years my research focused on searching for the roots of Mesoamerican civilization. In the process, my love affair with Mexico only deepened with each passing year, at least as long as I immersed myself in the "unreality" of its distant past. But, each time I am awakened to the growing trauma of modern Mexico I do so with terrible ambivalence -- with affection and admiration for the Mexican people, their indomitable spirit, their warmth, and their resilience, but with deep sadness and increased misgivings as I view the un-addressed problems of racism, corruption, and injustice that continue to surround them. Unfortunately, the present volume is bound to reflect some of that disquiet and concern.
To truly understand the contemporary Mexican scene, it is first necessary to comprehend the striking physical diversity of this fascinating land, for it has been upon this multifaceted stage that many stirring chapters of the human drama have played themselves out. Because Mexico was the very cradle of civilization on the North American continent, it is only fitting that we begin our account of mankind's occupance of this stage by taking an in-depth look at the country's rich prehistory. The traumatic arrival of the Europeans in the early decades of the 16th century and their impact on the indigenous peoples and their cultures initiated a collision of two worlds whose reverberations continue to this day, as witnessed, among other places, by the on-going struggle for justice and human rights in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas. The legacies of a medieval economic, social, and political system based on racism and religious fanaticism have survived both a war of independence and a revolution and still haunt a nation striving to achieve a more democratic way of life. Confronted both by the challenges of a demanding environment and a turbulent history, Mexico enters the new millennium with a very mixed prognosis; how well or how poorly it can solve the dilemmas it faces promise to impact not only the country itself but ours in the bargain.