I was having a moment walking through the bustling downtown Mérida streets after the bus ride from Izamal (aka the Yellow Town). The temperature had reached 109 degrees on my last day before leaving Mexico and I was grateful to be off the bus and out of the sun, welcoming the relatively cooler evening air and slight breeze. The streets were busy with Saturday night shoppers, people heading home from work, others resting on park benches and one man grasping a Bible and preaching to anyone passing by. Music blared from each store front, a very Mexican thing. One block was full of colorful piñatas and party supply stores, another with fabric and shoe stores, and so on.
I thought I would check out the stores for an elusive octopus stuffed animal that my grandson requested (never to be found) before heading to an evening show of an ancient Mayan ritual in the main plaza. Walking down the middle of the pedestrian street, not having seen a foreigner for blocks, I felt immersed in Mexico at the moment and not quite ready to leave. Just then, a woman walking by me turned and while looking at me directly in the eye said, “Felicidades!” (Congratulations)
Somehow I knew what she meant even before she started explaining herself. “Tomorrow is Father’s Day and I hope you have a wonderful day and get to be with your children.” I explained that I would spend the day traveling back to my country after six weeks in Mexico, and I thanked her for her greeting. We chatted for another minute or so and at one point she said, “We are kind people,” referring to Mexicans. “I know, I know. I’ve met kind people all over the country during my travels.” She said she hoped I would be hugging my children and grandchildren soon, and then we went our separate ways.
I continued down the street, smiling and filled with the kindness and warmth this random stranger conveyed to me. I even felt my eyes get a little moist!
The kindness I experienced in Mexico came in many forms – brief interactions like the one above, the hosts who welcomed me into their homes, the chef who brought a free dessert to my table after an amazing meal in San Cristóbal, the many strangers who offered to take my picture before I could even ask, the long conversations with Uber drivers or fellow colectivo passengers, the helpful directions and tips received from so many locals, the fellow travelers I met from all over the world, the warm greetings and smiles everywhere, and the many people I’ve written about in previous posts.
Even the immigration officer who escorted me off my bus one night was extremely polite. Having never been asked for my identification during four trips to Mexico, I had been in the habit of keeping my passport safely tucked away deep in my backpack. In Chiapas, however, document checks were frequent on long-distance bus rides, but I had still never been personally asked for my passport until that night. I told the officer I had a copy of it on me, but that the passport was down below. Now under the gaze of bleary-eyed passengers, he stepped aside to make room for me to climb over my seat mate while politely saying I would have to get off the bus and retrieve it.
The bus was silent as the passengers tried to get back to sleep for the seven-hour journey, but I could only imagine that everyone must have been annoyed with the gringo who was now making the trip even longer. As I walked down the dark aisle, I tried to clear my mind enough to remember just which compartment my passport was hidden in. I also silently fretted over how I would get my now-stuffed backpack closed again. The officer helped me open the luggage door below the bus, and once I located my backpack I put it on the ground to begin searching. When it was obvious I would not easily find my document, he suggested that I bring my bag to the table set up by the side of the road so I could look more easily. Once I finally found it and was cleared, he kindly told me to keep it on me as there would be more checkpoints along our route. He then helped me close my bag, return it to the luggage compartment, close the heavy door, and left me to face the rightfully annoyed bus driver and be on my way.
Writing this, I am wondering if the many Mexicans working in the United States experience the same level of kindness. Are they greeted by strangers, or are they feared? Are they recipients of kindness or resentment? How are they treated when they are found to be without their documents? Are they even seen?
Even twelve-year-old Javier from Tuxtla Gutierrez understood that I could travel freely in Mexico but that he would not be allowed to enter the US. The kindness I have received in Mexico goes above and beyond what one might expect or even deserve.
I wouldn’t call my knowledge of Mexican history even surface level, but from the little bit I was exposed to during my travels themes of exploitation, struggle, and resistance were evident. Mexico’s first Black president, Vicente Guerrero, abolished slavery in 1829, but I learned of some areas of Mexico where the news was kept hidden for years so hacienda owners could continue to enslave Black and indigenous people (Mexico’s Juneteenth). Guerrero was later executed by the opposition, at the age of 39.
In Chiapas, I saw firsthand the effects of centuries of exploitation of indigenous cultures. In the Yucatan, I heard the story of the 50-year Caste War, another struggle against oppression.
A tour guide in Mérida spoke of never having learned in school of the great indigenous and Black heroes of the past who rose up against racism. He thought that maybe it was because he grew up in a different region of Mexico, but later learned that the stories of these marginalized groups are not told in the national curriculum. Whose history is taught is not just a controversial topic in the US.
How appropriate that I visited the Korean Immigration Museum in Mérida on my last day before heading home. Although it appeared to be closed when I arrived, I called a number I found online to see if it would open. The woman who answered said she would be there in 30 minutes.
Dolores welcomed me into the small museum and proceeded to tell me the fascinating story of the 1400 Koreans who arrived in Mérida on a cargo ship in 1905. They had answered a call for workers in the henequen plantations. Though they expected to return to Korea after their four years of indentured servitude, they were left without that option after the Japanese occupation of their homeland. These men, women, and children were now without a country and had to find a way to make a life here in Mexico.
Today, descendants of these Koreans, many who are part Mexican and part Korean, live in various parts of the country. Dolores’s grandfather was one of the original Koreans to arrive here. There is so much more to this story. See the photos for some of what I learned.
A few days after arriving home from Mexico, I will leave for Korea on the Discover Korea Research Trip for educators, the result of a postponed grant from 2020. I am looking forward to learning more about Korea and sharing the story of the Korean immigrants to Mexico with my fellow travelers. Stay tuned for more from Korea.
Thanks to all for following my Mexican adventures. Here are a few more shots from recently visited places: Bacalar Lagoon, Uxmal ruins, cenotes, around Mérida.