David Cogswell | August 15, 2016 12:55 PM ET
Mexico City: Rethinking American Exceptionalism
I suppose in every country people grow up being told that their country is the greatest in the world. Perhaps not, but I certainly know it was true in my case growing up in America.
The version of history and world politics I received, whether at school, on TV or in the newspapers and magazines, always incorporated the underlying assumption that the United States was by far the greatest country in the world, hands down, and there were no competitors, not even any meaningful comparisons.
We were the best. No contest. Nothing out there, folks. We had it all. There was nothing out there worth even thinking about.
It was us and all the rest. All the other countries were pale imitations, wannabes, chasing behind us, trying hopelessly to catch up. Everyone wanted to be us: U.S.
In post-World War II America, we were riding high. The country was on the winning side of the war. We considered ourselves the sole winner of the war, or the only significant one. We were certainly the principal, indispensable member of the winning coalition. America had beaten down the dreaded Nazis, pushed back Japanese fascism and imperialism, and was perhaps the only country participating in the war that escaped damage to the homeland.
While Europe was struggling to build itself back out of the rubble of bombings, we in the States were experiencing a Golden Age. We were economically more prosperous than ever before. The economic activity from waging a world war had generated a degree of prosperity never previously seen in the world. With the strongest middle class in history and the benefits of many new technologies that transformed human life, Americans were living in a kind of utopia.
Still today it is repeated by politicians in the halls of Congress virtually every day that America is the greatest country in the history of the world. It’s stated so often that it is considered self-evident.
As to “south of the border,” the descriptions we heard, whenever anyone bothered to even acknowledge the existence of a world beyond our southern border, always embodied an implicit disdain. “Down there” it was just primitive banana republics, barely civilized, constantly embroiled in political turmoil and unrest.
I guess the image I had gathered had come from a range of sources, such as western movies, TV shows, cartoons and magazines. I had absorbed all these images and ideas unconsciously without exercising any critical thinking to test whether the premises incorporated in them were true or not.
When I got older and did some international travel I outgrew those initial limited conceptions of the world, at least partly. I realized that the world out there was much more interesting than I had previously known, or even could have imagined. At that point I assumed I had left those limited perceptions and prejudices behind.
But what I have found is that those prejudices from youth run very deep, and you don’t rout them with one international trip. Rising above the prejudices absorbed throughout your lifetime is a constant process of educating yourself and expanding your knowledge.
Mexico City Revealed
I recently made it down to Mexico City for the first time. I had previously seen a lot of the fringes of Mexico, starting with the U.S. border towns when I was 15. I experienced the resort areas around Cancun and Los Cabos. I even made it to Chichen Itza once on a short excursion from the Cancun resort area and saw the mind-blowing pyramids there.
That alone destroyed my preconceptions of Mexico as a backward, desolate country that I had gathered from my limited experiences of the border towns in the dusty northern part of the country. It was the site of an empire whose magnificence had previously evaded my awareness.
But even then I had never yet made it to Mexico City. What I had heard about Mexico City in no way prepared me for what I experienced when I actually went there. Most of the descriptions I had heard were shallow impressions from people who embodied many of the same prejudices I had grown up with. Most of them didn’t really know the city or care to learn more about it. And even when I talked to people who knew it and loved it, I somehow didn’t really get it.
I knew the city was one of the largest population centers in the world. Nothing I had heard had fully dispelled the misconceived image I had received of it as a vast, squalid third world slum. I had seen the dusty, barren northern part of the country and I assumed Mexico City would be something like that, only hotter because it was farther south, and crowded with millions of people and all the problems of big cities.
I had learned something about the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The image of Mexico City I gathered from those stories expanded my understanding somewhat and prepared me to see more than I would have imagined in my early days when all I had heard about Mexico was from Americans who didn’t really know or appreciate it and were, frankly, prejudiced.
Nothing predicted the real thing. It’s just not possible to fully imagine something you have never experienced. In the case of Mexico City, the difference between the imagined and the real was even more pronounced than usual because the prevailing image of Mexico in the States is so distorted.
The real Mexico City I encountered bore little resemblance to the parts of northern Mexico that I had seen. It was not hot or dusty. In spite of being so far south, even farther than toasty Cancun, the city is on a plateau 7,000 feet high and the altitude moderates the weather effect of the latitude. The weather was practically perfect for human habitation. Never too hot or too cold.
The civilization that opened to me in Mexico City was of unfathomable richness. In a few days I got a quick overview of what is there to be appreciated. It is said that it has more museums than any other city, and whether or not that is precisely accurate is a detail. The city is full to bursting with fascinating art, culture, architecture, history and cuisine.
Though it is a city of the New World, its history goes back 500 years, and is extremely rich, including many diverse native cultures, as well as deep influences of European cultures and the presence of Mexicans of as many different immigrant backgrounds as we have in the U.S.
As I delved into its history, I found myself believing that I had had things upside down. Mexico was not trailing behind the U.S. historically and culturally. I began to feel that Mexico City was actually more advanced than its North American neighbor at most times historically and in most ways culturally. Call it a toss up. In any case, Mexico City was far from what my pre-conceptions had prepared me for.
Whew! That dealt a real blow to my world view.
My explanation for how I came to this conviction would take more than the space available here and now. Suffice it to say, my previous conception of American superiority has been pummeled probably beyond recovery.
After gathering my wits from the confusion of having my world view dashed, I don’t mind. It’s a sustainable casualty.
And as with any place, the living culture that you experience on the streets, in your day-to-day encounters with people, is far and away the best thing about it. The Mexican people are kind, warm and friendly, and the colorful, artistic flair of the country is built into every one of them.
Maybe we don’t need to consider ourselves superior to feel good about ourselves. Maybe that whole exercise is unnecessary.
Meanwhile, I want to go back as soon as possible to continue the studies I began to undertake in and of Mexico City. My initial encounter, earth shattering as it may have been for me, was only a cursory glance. There is virtually unlimited cultural richness to explore.
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