Poor Mexico - so close to the United States, so far from God,’ runs a popular Mexican saying. While the distance to God is debatable, there is no denying the proximity to the US. Indeed the Mexican-US border is the only place in the world where a developing country meets the industrialised north head-on.
While Mexican workers wade the Rio Grande looking for work in the US, rich Americans cross the other way. Businessmen, students, travellers, but above all tourists - five million of them in the last year alone.
Day trippers venture no further than the border towns in search of cheap liquor, prostitutes and mock handicrafts. Others head further south for the ruins of old civilizations, the colonial grandeur of Mexico City or the sun of Acapulco.
In these places ‘gringos’ are seen everywhere. Crisp new peso notes flow from foreign pockets in exchange for Mexican souvenirs and services. Bold T-shirts thrust out their crude English messages and shorts expose white legs, standing out among the conventional Mexican dress.
Everywhere Mexico faces the assault. Snippets of American English - ‘Gee ain’t that a hell of a sight!’ - zoom in and out of Spanish conversation like cameras focusing on yet another monument. From Burger Boy to Michael Jackson, US culture is all-pervasive - challenging traditional Mexico.
Most tourists come to Mexico City, where a teeming urban sprawl goes some way to absorbing the impact. But while gringos are seldom found in the outer slums they throng the affluent and central Zona Rosa or ‘pink zone’. The upmarket shopping and office area is as wealthy as any European capital and a good deal more stylish than many.
Elegant shops display the latest Paris fashions and ornate restaurants offer the best in Mexican cuisine. Only the beggars and shoe-shine boys betray the reality of Mexican poverty.
Off one street, a Mexican handicraft and clothes market caters for tourists. There the talk is of money and prices. Most stall-holders confirm that tourist sales are down. Renaldo Vasquez has been selling handicrafts for nine years. ‘Before, tourists didn’t care about the prices and paid what I asked for. Now they offer half of what I quote. They’ve wisened up?
Maria Ruiz has a leather-work stall. ‘Sometimes the gringos want to pay less than we did for our goods. They’re very tight-fisted even though prices are the same as seven years ago.
For the Mexicans bargaining is a serious business. But North Americans often treat it as a game - and flout the rules. ‘Sometimes I quote a price and they say it’s too expensive,’ said Raul Gonzales. ‘They make a lower offer, I accept, and then they say they’ll have a look around and maybe come back. When they don’t keep their word it annoys me.
Another stall holder, Juanita Benitez, had a further complaint. ‘Gringos can be arrogant. They offer me dollars as though they’re doing me a favour, but I tell them, "Here we use pesos." Dollars aren’t important to me.’
Very near the Zona Rosa lies a small park where on Sundays artists gather to exhibit their work; on the grass around them cross-legged Indians spread out their more humble handicrafts. ‘El jardin’ draws many tourists, sometimes to buy, more often to look and take photographs.
Jaime Suarez has brought his paintings to the park for 20 years. ‘The North Americans are overwhelmed with Mexico)’ he says. ‘They are innocent - almost child-like in their interest in all our little novelties.’ But he could understand them. ‘Mexico is a country of great cultural richness and diversity,’ he said, adding with a wry smile, ‘but also a little "loco". They are fine people - though their government is another thing.’
At the heart of Mexico City, and any foreign tour, lies the historic main square or Zocalo. As the tourists wander absorbing history, modern life crowds in on them - street vendors pressing their wares, beggars stretching out hands, and street actors, each vying for attention.
Between the cathedral and Aztec ruins, two groups were performing: one was acting old Aztec ceremonial dances, the other was blaring out modern rock and drowning the ‘Aztec’ drums with their electronic amplification.
‘We’re here to show you your own culture,’ shouted the leader of the Aztec troupe. ‘This stuff they’re playing,’ he cried, pointing bitterly to his oblivious competitors, ‘this stuff doesn’t belong to us. It’s all rubbish.’ One tourist took out her camera. ‘No!’, he rounded on the woman, ‘You may watch but don’t take pictures.’ After the show he explained, ‘The Americans who come down here don’t really want to understand our culture. This is just a show to them. They take photographs of us like they take photographs of monuments - that’s why we don’t like it. They have no interest in what we’re trying to say.’
The charge of cultural voyeurism is hardly applicable in the holiday town of Acapulco where little more than lip service is paid to the Mexican way of life. After the capital, Acapulco ranks as the most visited place in Mexico.
In the 1950s Acapulco hit gold. The revolution in Cuba and the opening of Acapulco’s international airport made the resort the most sought after by rich Americans - ‘the chance for Americans to get away to a foreign country and enjoy nice weather, sun and beaches.’
Situated in Mexico’s poorest state of Guerrerro, Acapulco’s money drew poor Mexicans in their thousands. The original population grew fifty times, nearly all to service the tourist trade.
Mexicans, arriving to take up jobs as bellboys, chamber maids, waiters and taxi drivers, found nowhere to live. Many joined the shanty towns of the hillside. They had no plumbing or electricity. Tens of thousands lived in miserable conditions while looking down on opulence and splendour.
More important to Acapulco’s planners, every time it rained, rivers of mud and human waste flooded down on to the streets below and out into the increasingly polluted bay.
In 1980 the authorities moved 200,000 people to out-of-sight accommodation behind the hill. From the new town, optimistically renamed ‘Renaissance’, a constant stream of buses make the half-hour journey to the resort.
Juan Lopez sells his handicrafts on the beach. ‘I find the gringos very odd and unpredictable,’ he said.’ They say they’ve come to see Mexico, but they’re blind to the real Mexico. They annoy me. They spend all their time in discos, eat hamburgers and never bother to get to know us. It’s like me going to New York and asking for tacos.
With such wealth and poverty around, crime is inevitably a problem. Leave your belongings unattended on the beach while swimming and the chances are they’ll be gone when you come back. ‘The gringos are always complaining how taxi-drivers over-charge them and how they get robbed on the beach,’ reported two policewomen. ‘We do what we can but it’s hard to stop. I’m sure it happens everywhere.’
Antonio Gutierrez Ramirez, Marketing Director at Tourist Promotion Department, is determined to make Acapulco cleaner and safer for tourists. ‘So we’ve started a programme of "conscientization" for workers in the service industry. We give taxi-drivers and beach sellers courses in human relations and use clowns, theatre and comedians so they don’t get bored.’
The general population of Acapulco is targeted through radio and television commercials. ‘We tell them to treat the tourist well, treat him as if he was your friend and’ make him come back. We know that it is the tourist who brings in our bread. If he doesn’t return we don’t eat,’ said Alejandro de Ia Serda of the Acapulco Tourism Board.
‘The only problem we’ve really had is with the overwhelming number of US discos and restaurants. We have Mexicans here who can speak English but can’t write Spanish. We are trying to keep up our traditions.’
Such attempts are not helped by the attitude of some North Americans. One visitor, frustrated by his attempts to communicate with a waiter was overheard saying to his wife, ‘They should speak English. After all they’re in America.’
Gerry Tissier and Pushpinder Khaneka are journalists with the Mexico City News.