Merida beyond the drug violence

Many Merida residents have read this article by Edith Wilson. Published in the Washington Post on Wednesday March 2nd, it paints a picture of “another” Mexico… the one we know in Merida. I applaud Ms. Wilson and wish I’d had the pleasure of meeting her while she visited our fair city

Mexico beyond the drug violence
By Edith R. Wilson Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 8:00 PM

When President Obama sits down Thursday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, they might want to take heart about a part of Mexico that won’t be on their agenda. A vibrant, peaceful area in southeastern Mexico underscores why America’s southern neighbor has to win its fight against drug traffickers and why Mexican society may be strong enough to do just that.
One million people live in Merida, the capital of Yucatan state, set between the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uzmal. I just spent a month wandering its clean, civilized streets, often by myself, and I’ve never felt safer or met nicer people. This is the Mexico rich in social capital, tradition and culture that we should cherish and defend, and that is almost blotted out amid news of drug violence and economic woes.
Like any city, Merida has issues: Public schools are crowded. The aquifiers need attention. In recent weeks, a policeman was bitten by a renegade snake. Taxi drivers went on strike over gas prices. Residents protested fare hikes for public transportation. City officials have struggled to collect property taxes, and preservation of historic buildings and spaces is driving up housing prices. As to controversy, well, some criticized the cost of bringing in the handsome young Colombian rock star Juanes for an outdoor concert to end January’s cultural festival. Cynics carped that the choice was a platform for the reigning “chicas politicas,” as the governor and mayor are women. All I know is that my sister and I enjoyed the show, along with thousands of other people in the streets – families, grandmothers, young couples. No traces of marijuana hung in the air; there were no kids brandishing beer. We wandered home at midnight without incident. There has been little concern about the drug trade, guns or other violence.
Merida – slogan: “city of peace” – is not one of the main routes for drug trafficking. Residents can’t take credit for that, but they take pride in their urban culture and the low rate of violent crime. Meridians are deeply proud of their tradition of civility and “tranquilidad.” What’s dangerous in Merida, residents know and the tourists who come here learn, is eating too many habanero peppers or other good food.
Young people here use Twitter and Facebook, and there’s free WiFi in the parks. There are Wal-Mart locations and malls at the edge of town with other “big box” stores. But there is also a deep love of local culture. People aren’t addicted to television; they prefer to go out.
Merida has so many dance and music events – many of which are free and outdoors – that it’s hard to choose. Boys and girls go to dance academies to learn steps and compete to
perform in the central plaza. These gatherings are filled with families, all of whom seem to know the lyrics to songs written by local troubadours decades ago.
Ernesto, the boyfriend of my 20-something Spanish teacher, Teresa, repairs air-conditioning systems by day but plays in a band at night. He serenades her with “Adoro,” a 1967 international hit by Armando Manzanero, after whom the town’s restored Art Deco concert hall is named. Many who grow up here never leave. Others, including American and Canadian retirees, move here.
Yucatan has many problems, especially in rural areas, where public services are hard-pressed to meet the needs of the poor, many of them aging. I am sure that the state police are watching the border areas and worry about the violence that is plaguing other parts of Mexico. Merida, though, embodies the research of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam about how social capital bridges different groups. Residents and the local government understand that they have something valuable to nurture and defend here – a city where people feel that the streets are theirs; where the community, rich and poor, gathers in public; and where pride in local culture feeds adherence to values that serve the needs of all.
With public support, the government invests not just in transportation, health care, education and social services but also in art, historic preservation, public music and dance events, and in various clubs and institutions. This is the other Mexico: the one that should inspire us to fight fiercely to return civility and tranquility to families living in border communities too.
The writer is a former adviser on innovation at the World Bank. She blogs at



Filed under Vida Latina, Writing

13 responses to “Merida beyond the drug violence

  1. Mexican Michael

    For the record guys, my comment starts out generously acknowledging Edith’s article and that goes on to address an experience of being disappointed by a specific passage.

    Its your comments being critical of mine (this is a Comments section, no?…where people share their own experience of the piece, yes??) that suggest an “either/or” rather than “both/and” mentality.

    No need to defend the general value of the article as if that’s an important bit of balancing my comment failed to do; in fact i led with that.

    No need to call my calling attention to a specific passage “picky” as I was actually treating the piece and writer with respect by bring to her attention (should Edith happen to follow reader feedback to re-postings of her writing) the reader experience.

    If the meaning of a piece has overall value, in this case as a welcome bit of news from a peaceful part of Mexico, why can its elements – for those for whom it touched as such – be also explored our questioned for relative accuracy, intent, or effect?

    I felt the passage that I found a bit insidious was not worthy of comment or question because it was poor word choice, but rather because it showed the sign of being consciously word-smithed by the author for specific effect; all the more a fair invitation – given also the content of its meaning – for reader questioning.

    Fair enough?

    I totally respect her right to her opinion as well as her right as a writer-artist to craft that opinion any way she feels to, but since so much of the piece is framed as a ‘here’ show it is in this city’ tour, this section just stood out as an odd bit sophmoric critical moralizing. My opinion. Which i shared.

    Can Edith’s writing be questioned here?

    Is she strong enough as a person not to need people jumping to her defense and attempting to marginalize readers raising questions and providing her feedback?

    Thanks for thinking it over again and look at where your criticisms of my comment were coming from in you.


  2. Bud Wiser

    I was guilty of brandishing the occasional beer during my wilder days. I even tried marijuana once, but I didn’t inhale!

    • Gee… someone else once said that, didn’t they?
      I don’t think the writer of the article I reprinted was making a moral assessment. She wanted to point out differences between this culture and others.

  3. Mexican Michael

    Dear Joanna VDG,

    Nice article, mostly.

    The general sensitivity your tone and dissection of these nuanced issues showed was thoroughly betrayed by this lowbrow and sophomoric passage:

    “No traces of marijuana hung in the air; there were no kids brandishing beer. We wandered home at midnight without incident. There has been little concern about the drug trade, guns or other violence.”

    As if you could present to the readers here any evidence that the smell of marijuana in the air is tantamount to the “…. guns or other violence” you so neatly (insidiously) juxtaposed. For the record, as I’m sure you only know all too well, one does not “brandish” beer. One brandishes weapons. But when one sentence that starts out with such a false (read: strategic) word pairing is shortly followed by another that suggests the capacity to “wander…till midnight without incident” is dependent on your two weak social ills scapegoats (the smoking of grass or the drinking of beer), well what are we make of the rest of your writing?

    I’d suggest you wake up and smell the coffee, but perhaps that will be the next in line when you take up the Victorian pen and start cluing us in.



    • “Sigh” is right… the world is full of picky, picky people… I thought Edie’s article was great and that’s whay I re-printed it.

      • Amen, Joanna! I’m trying to write a constructive response to MM, but so far…. Let me just say, I can be “picky” myself, but I’ve learned that it’s probably not worth the effort–especially if the original piece succeeded. There is a proper place for “pickiness”, such as with a writer’s editor.

        I suspect the day will soon arrive when many people my age will even understand the lingo of text-messaging. I myself see it as an abrogation of the language, but….IF the message gets through, I guess I’ll have to “get with it.”

        BUT I’m going to be “picky” myself! SO! One of the comments to the Washington Post mentioned the writer’s use of the term “American” (because “America” is a continent, not the real name of the USA, etc.) That is also one of my own pet peeves; yet I’ve seen that even my favorite politicos from the USA do occasionally use the term, as does my favorite TV commentator. So I’m back to the idea that–getting the message across is more important than being perfect in all the word choices.

        Thanks so much for posting the editorial.

      • You’re right, we can all be picky at times, can’t we? I’ve debated the “American” term with many folks on both sides of the issue. (Once I had a student from “America” who objected to a Campeche hotel calling itself “Hotel America” – he felt using the name was the exclusive right of the Strong & the Free) O-Kay-ay-ay!

  4. mcm

    The Diario de Yucatan also reprinted this piece, in Spanish, in today’s paper, on the editorial page.

  5. Nice to see some positive, yet realistic views of Mexico, neither inaccurate safety concerns nor overly positive advertisements for tourists. I read the comments following the Washington Post article where the positive views were slightly out numbering the negative.
    If all of us who know our Mexico were to comment maybe a few more would see our reality.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I saw it and posted the link to my FB. We bloggers should be sharing this type of information to re-establish some balance in public perceptions about Mexico.

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