The good thing is, Mexicans always find a way to survive. If the hotel where you worked as a tour guide lays you off after the flu panic, you wash cars in the supermarket parking lot. If you lose your job as a waiter after the American banking crisis, you sell ice cream on the street. If your back gives out after 40 years of laying block, you bag groceries for tips. All Mexicans work.
I took the beach road into San José and stopped along a stretch of white sand and turquoise-colored water to drink a Pacifico in honor of Marilyn Z. Though she wasn’t a fisherman, she was the first to tell me about a beautiful and bizarre-looking beast called a roosterfish that favors this coast. It has a huge silvery dorsal fin like an Aztecan headdress and an attitude like a guard dog. It attacks a feathered lure with ferocity totally inappropriate for such a tranquil place, and it fights to the death. A surfer friend of mine who likes to troll for fish from his paddleboard, trailing a lure from a line strapped to his ankle, was nearly pulled from his board and dragged underwater by a roosterfish before the 40-pound test line snapped.
A person could live in the American suburbs, quiet as a casket, and never know such a remarkable creature existed.
At La Choya, I stopped for a minute to watch a crew of Mexican block-layers at work. Marilyn told me once, “Stop at any job site in Mexico and breathe the air. It smells of fabric softener.” And she’s right. The smell is like a gift of love from the workers’ wives, who would never let their men, no matter how humble, go to work in dirty clothes.
Laying block is one of the hardest, most tedious jobs imaginable. But all of Mexico is built of block, and somebody has to do the work. People everywhere who work in crews enjoy a camaraderie that makes the difficult labor more tolerable, and it warms my heart to see how these workers laugh and joke with each other to pass the time. At one point in my life, I worked as hard as they do. I don’t miss that work because I know what it does to your body, and I have the surgery scars to prove it, but I do miss the camaraderie.
All over Mexico you can see older men who have spent a lifetime doing block work. Many of them drag one foot — what neurosurgeons call “foot drop” — as a result of permanent damage to the sciatic nerve. In the U.S., a worker lucky enough to have medical insurance would have surgery to relieve the pain and pressure on the nerve, which results from a herniated spinal disc. In Mexico, the workers often wait until the pain goes away on its own, a sign the sensory nerve has died. But it’s also a sign the motor nerve has died as well, and the muscle will soon atrophy.
Sometimes, when it’s hot and the afternoon is long, at these job sites you can hear the maestro singing to his young workers, teaching them how it’s possible to make the day pass a little easier. Mexicans have a relationship with work you don’t see much in the U.S. anymore. Just watching is an antidote for the anger and pessimism Americans suffer from these days. All the good qualities of character that Americans pride themselves on — honesty, hard work, love of family — can be found in the Mexican people. Mexicans are the kind of people many Americans think they are themselves but haven’t truly been for a long time.
My Mexican friend Francisco told me, “When I was growing up, Americans who came here were happy, fun-loving people. I thought I wanted to be like Americans. Now they are angry and afraid. What happened?”
I couldn’t really answer him. But I could as easily have asked why Mexico has to export 10 percent of its population to another country in order for them to earn a living. Mexico has its problems, too.
I started the truck and started to pull out onto the rutted road, when I heard a rooster crow. I slammed on the brakes, thinking the rooster was in front of me, where I couldn’t see it. Then I realized it was the ringtone on my Mexican cell phone. It was my mother, back in the U.S. After two years, she’s finally accepted the notion that I live in another country, and that if she wants to call me, she has to enter the correct international code. Now she calls me all the time.
Today, she was concerned about the quality of food here. “Do they have good beef?” she wanted to know. Once again, I explained that everything Americans know about raising cattle west of the Mississippi they learned from the Mexicans. Even the word cowboy comes from vaquero. The Mexicans taught us that in a desert you don’t raise cattle the way they do in England, on 40 acres of irrigated pastureland, but on 4000 acres of near wasteland. The American cowboy may be the very image of Americans, but everything about him, from his hat to his chaps and saddle, came from Mexico. Without Mexicans, the American cowboy on a horse would look and act more like Prince Charles than John Wayne. And yes, Mexico has very good beef.
“But do they know how to butcher it?” my mother asked.
After a while, I parked outside the municipal office, in front of the fire station, where the firemen were selling T-shirts and empanadas to help pay for the cost of fighting fires. Then I took my place in line at the municipal office. It wasn’t a long line.
The municipal government in Los Cabos knows it needs to collect more property taxes in order to provide the basic services its citizens expect, like garbage collection, street repair, and a fireworks display every time Mexico wins a futbol match at the world cup. But Mexicans see that in California, where property taxes are one hundred times as high as they are here, the government still can’t balance its budget. When things get that bad, not even a movie-star governor can help you. So what would be the point of raising taxes?