There’s a letter I tend to get from Monocle’s listeners and readers whenever we run a story that mentions kidnaps, murders or drugs in Mexico. The writers are always Mexican. And I can summarise the gist of what they have to say in two words – “please stop.”
It’s not that the readers think the stories are untrue or that we have muddied the facts. They just think that these reports, repeated daily across every news outlet around the globe, create a warped view of their nation, one where outsiders imagine a country under siege, where residents have to dodge a bullet every time they go for a taco and are lucky to get home from the office with their head still on their shoulders. They think it puts people off holidaying and doing business in their country. And they are absolutely right.
Last week I went to Mexico City for the first time and had my prejudices truly tested. If you have never been, here are some scenes that may not fit in with your expectations either: the economy is booming and so there’s no talk of austerity or double-dips (unless it’s into the guacamole). International brands are queueing up to enter the market because they are fed up with fragile sales in the US. Great galleries and design stores are selling world class work by talented Mexicans to sophisticated Mexicans. On a Sunday morning in Condesa the parks are full of chic joggers, people walking their Mexican hairless dogs and fluffed-up poodles. The drinkers at the bars in the Roma neighbourhood spill out onto the streets at 01.00 looking amazing and drinking mescal. Despite the epic size of the city – over 20 million people – it works and you spy less security than in Rio. Oh, and people do wander around with smart watches on and somehow don’t get slain.
Or how about this: despite the number of Mexicans crossing the border into the US, the real story is in the south of the country where tens of thousands of migrants from central and South America sneak across the border because they want to get to the wealth and opportunities in Mexico.
Now let’s not be naïve: Mexico has a very real drug gang problem and gringos shouldn’t wander around looking like cash machines in Louboutins. But what’s happened is that some very good journalism and truly terrifying stories have produced an image of Mexico that’s not quite right and it’s one I think is going to be hard to shake. I know that I slipped off my watch as soon as my plane touched down in Mexico. The stickiness of a bad national brand is notorious. Just ask the Lebanese.
I have been to Lebanon with my jaunty Monocle hat on over several visits and each time someone has warned me before I set off not to get kidnapped or asked me with a petrified grin, “but is it safe?”. Well, four trips in, nothing untoward has happened to me unless you count a few taxi drivers who seemed to have no real love of staying unmangled. It was in 1985 that Terry Anderson was kidnapped and 1987 that Terry Waite was seized in Beirut but those events still inform too many people’s perceptions of what it must be like in Lebanon. These days you might be smothered with hospitality but not a blanket. And if you get bundled into the back of a Mercedes it will be for a night on the town.
For Mexicans the one-dimensional take on their country must be frustrating and I am sure we like other media outlets will continue to cover the grim tales that emanate from their country. But I acknowledge a responsibility and a need to make sure modern, thriving Mexico is part of Monocle’s narrative too.