Letter From Mazatlan

The gusting rain of the thunderstorm was falling so hard on the corrugated-metal roof of Tortas Kuwait—the best neighborhood sandwich spot in Mazatlan—that they had to turn up the volume on the always-blaring TV to hear the reports of disaster and rescue from New Orleans. That measured local interest in the consequences of Hurricane Katrina better than anything else.

Normally, people here unplug everything during storms to protect their appliances from the power surges that rage through the primitive electrical system. Normally, people here head home during downpours because drainage is so bad that it takes only minutes for the streets to become impassable rivers that often overflow their high curbs and gush into houses.

People here know this isn't normal everywhere. They get American TV. They get the expression on my American face, which still so often shows incredulity despite having lived in Mexico for nearly three years. They don't like the inconvenience of living this way. They lament the expense. Ultimately, however, they're apt to sum it up with a smilingly delivered truth: Asi es la vida aqui en El Tercero Mundo. That's life here in the Third World.

But there was nothing normal about the images of destruction, suffering and death being relayed to Mazatlan from the First World. Nor about the account of a rescue mission—an overland army convoy, a navy ship—that was dispatched from Mexico to the United States. Through lightning and thunder and roaring rain, the TV stayed on at Tortas Kuwait, and so did the people watching it.

Nobody was shaking their heads in disbelief at the scenes unfolding before them. If what they were seeing on the screen was unimaginable to them, it was only because most of them didn't have to use their imaginations to conjure pictures of the devastating combination of natural disaster with government incompetence or indifference. This is hurricane country too. The people used their memories, and nodded their heads in solemn recognition.

Nobody was very surprised at President Bush's slow and largely ceremonial response to the disaster—Bush isn't very popular here, nor considered very competent. But they seemed quite surprised that the American people were surprised. Public opinion polls here invariably reveal that Mexicans see through the posturing of elected officials and recognize that most are in office for themselves. Mexicans are fascinated by Americans' determination to fool themselves about this.

Everybody was struck by the significance of the Mexican rescue mission. Nobody was gloating, although some people did have to work through their indignation when Bush first rejected offers of assistance from nations ranging from Canada, Japan and France to Honduras, Jamaica, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Venezuela and Mexico.

"Bush Dobla La Mano" sassed the headline in the street-talking daily paper La Primera Hora—translated, "Bush Folds His Hand," an expression used to describe the all-bluster losers of card games and arm-wrestling matches—when the magnitude of the Katrina disaster forced the U.S. president to swallow his pride and accept assistance.

Mostly, however, people were cognizant of the historic irony of a Mexican rescue mission to the U.S. and seemed proud that they could overcome the powerful forces of some pretty delicate feelings to be of service to people in need.

They beamed at video of a 47-vehicle, 195-person Mexican military convoy crossing the border at Laredo, Texas, loaded with military engineers, doctors, nurses, water-treatment equipment and portable kitchens capable of feeding 7,000 people a day. Likewise at the clips of the navy vessel Papaloapan anchoring off the Gulf Coast with a mobile ambulance, two helicopters, potable water and other supplies.

"That is Mexico!" shouted Mexican President Vicente Fox, a todo pulmon (with all his lungs) in a nationally broadcast ceremony. "It is solidarity, it is love, it is caring, it is power to defeat adversity."

It was a little hyperbolic, but it evoked applause at Tortas Kuwait . . . until gradually attention turned from the television and conversation turned to the last time the Mexican army had been on American soil. It was 159 years ago—so long ago that there was some dispute over whose soil it really was. That dispute, the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, ended with Mexico losing half of its country to the U.S.

Nobody applauded that. The only sound was the rain, pounding away on that corrugated-metal roof. Asi es la vida aqui en El Tercer Mundo.


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