Hasta luego, Mexico: The Monitor's Latin America bureau chief signs off

Our correspondent recalls the good, the bad, and the surprising from her nearly seven years covering the region.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Latin America correspondent Sara Miller Llana does an interview on the street, September 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Editor's note: The Monitor's Sara Miller Llana finds that a farewell letter is the best tribute to the one constant in her years of reporting from Mexico.

April 8, 2013

Dear doorman, newspaper vendor, and valet; dear taxi driver, security guard, shop owner, and upholsterer:

Most of you don’t know my name, nor I yours, but we know each other nonetheless. We’ve smiled and said hello every day for nearly seven years, while I was based in Mexico City as the Christian Science Monitor’s Latin America bureau chief.

In these years, I’ve traveled all across Mexico and to over a dozen other countries in the region, bearing witness to the drug violence that has terrified this nation, to the earthquake that ravaged Haiti, to the myriad electoral victories of Venezuela’s late divisive president, to Brazil’s rise, and ongoing political transformation in Cuba, Bolivia, and beyond. I was often out of town, but saying hello to you, on my way to the gym or market or interviews, has always kept me grounded. It is you who I think of when I reflect on my time living and reporting on Latin America, as I leave to take up the post of The Monitor's bureau chief in Europe

I might live in one of the world’s biggest cities, but I say hello to more neighbors in a three-block radius from my house on any given day than I did the entire three years I lived in Boston. Back then, I didn’t even know the neighbors who shared a wall with me.

In Mexico City, you’ve never hesitated to help me any time I’ve needed it, struggling with groceries or helping me strap a resistant two-year-old into a stroller. You never let her pass without a piece of bread or a cracker or a lollipop (this to my chagrin). You might not know my name but you all know hers. She is held, and petted, and waved at all afternoon.

It was through you that I first learned about the kindness and warmth of Latin Americans – and later through the citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua. I’ve met so many people like you who’ve just, for no personal gain whatsoever, taken off an afternoon to help me navigate a new town or story, or invited me for a home-cooked meal.

I remember one time, in the middle of an interview at a home in Caracas, when rain started pouring and the city quickly flooded. There was no public transport operating, and not a single taxi. I had no idea where I was, except to know I was nowhere close to my hotel. So you, source, cooked some dinner, gave me a pair of pajamas, and allowed me to write my story that I had to file the next morning (about you) on your computer. Forget about all the political polarization in Venezuela over the past decade, the palpable animosity between those who supported President Hugo Chávez and those who loathed him. This was simply Latin American hospitality at its finest.

Yet, some relief about leaving

I can’t pretend to really know how my two-year-old feels about living here, but I sense that she thrives in the warmth of this society. And I worry about taking her away from it. And yet, as a new mother, no longer simply soaking up a fantastic and fascinating city but caring deeply about its services and security, I do also feel a sense of profound relief that we are leaving.

We live and work in a neighborhood that looks and feels like the first world, with its fancy gyms, expensive Japanese and Italian restaurants, and trendy coffee shops. Everywhere, it seems, Mexico City is under construction, with luxury high rises, office spaces, and malls going up each week as Mexico retakes its place as the darling economy of Latin America. With nearly 4 percent GDP growth last year, some are wondering if it’s the new China. (The Christian Science Monitor asked this very question in 2008).

But I know through you, neighbors, that all of this is just one slice of your lives. Like you, nanny, in the park. When your young son was hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street one afternoon, instead of being left to deal with the pain of losing a son you had to also fight (with no luck) the injustice of seeing the driver pay his way out of jail and your dead teenage son labeled a thief. I know that you, for instance, don’t feel like you live in a functioning democracy. I know you are even more concerned that the long-ruling authoritarian party of the past, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is now back in office – though with a new President Enrique Peña Nieto, who promises a modern era for Mexico.

Neither does my friend’s ex-boyfriend feel he is part of a modern society. When he fell down the stairs and showed up at the hospital here with a bloody face, a doctor refused to treat him because he said the injured man was a gang member. Only when his white girlfriend showed up did he receive the stitches he needed.

You neighbors have never hesitated to explain an everyday perspective to me on the goings-on in Mexican politics, offering your views of the deadly war on drugs here, about whether the state oil company should be privatized, or whether the political class truly wants reform. When an explosion took more than 30 lives recently in the headquarters of the national oil company PEMEX, your reaction underlined to me how little faith Mexicans have in their government. Few of you believe the official explanation that it was a gas leak. Many of you think it was a bomb.

I quickly learned you can’t always trust the information you hear. One of my first reporting trips was to Acapulco, where I showed up at the municipal police station. They allowed me to enter, and showed me photo after photo of the violence playing out, including the notorious image of a human head that had washed ashore next to sunning tourists. They laughed at my increasingly paling face. I only realized later that some of the police may have been the perpetrators behind these, or equally heinous, crimes.

Once when I went to the US-Mexico border to look at "spillover" violence, I talked to officials on both sides who assured me that all claims of drug violence were overblown. Months later the mayor on the Mexican side was shot dead. Months after that the officials on the US side were arrested in a gun-smuggling ring

Like you, neighbors, if there is a problem here I wouldn’t call the police because, rightly or wrongly, I don’t trust them. If not ideal, it's a tolerable scenario, until you become a parent and the new vulnerability that anything could happen to your child at any time becomes part of your very existence. I won’t miss that feeling of being alone and unprotected at all. Mexico may have the warmest people on earth, but between warmth and safety, I choose the latter. Of course I realize most don't have the choice.

You, taxi drivers, have been key to my life in Mexico: I trusted you to pick me up from the hospital with my three-day-old. You’ve taken documents and keys to my husband at work when he’s forgotten them (which is too often). You’ve taken me everywhere, sat in hours of traffic with me, let me rant after being stood up for an interview (which has also happened too often). But our relationship has not always been easy.

At the beginning, you scared me with your excessive speed or a refusal to use a blinker, let alone a seatbelt. I’ve been with taxis that have broken down in the middle of Bolivia, another that tried to climb a glacier, also in Bolivia. We found out later, as we slipped down the mountain, that there was no traction. I remember once asking an older driver in Mexico City to please slow down, and instead he kept turning around to tell me he’d never been in a crash before, all the while speeding up. It was then that I realized this was one unfortunate part of Latin American urban life that I could not control.

There were other concerns that overshadowed car accidents, too: express kidnapping. This is the practice of kidnapping someone for a typically short period of time and shuttling them to different ATMs or stores around town to drain their bank account. It doesn't just happen to the clueless. A Mexican friend of mine, hailing a taxi off the street (never a good idea), was taken around Mexico City for 24 hours, forced to empty his bank account and purchase luxury goods with his credit card. It was the second time it happened to him. Even when calling an authorized taxi, you must stay alert. A friend of mine, dreary-eyed, unwittingly got into the wrong cab early one morning, only to get beaten and robbed two blocks later.

Taxi drivers also often act as “halcones,” or lookouts, in drug-war zones. So when I visited those places, I lied. I was an academic, or a student. I was never a journalist. The same was true in Havana, when I had to enter Cuba without the proper journalist visa. There you have no idea who is who under the control of the Castro government. Better to keep all information to yourself.

Mexico gets a somewhat unfair reputation for outsize violence, when many nations across Latin America, notably in Central America, have much higher national homicide rates. While I never had a problem in Mexico – although I do live cautiously – I was mugged at gunpoint at a beach in northeastern Brazil, by three children who looked no older than 10.

In general, the violence that afflicts Latin America didn’t scare me off, at home in Mexico or beyond. I lived life here as I do journalism: believing that while things happen, hundreds, thousands, millions of good people live their normal lives every day. When I’d go to the favelas (slums) in Rio de Janeiro or the tough neighborhoods of Caracas or dicey border towns in Mexico, where drugs are dealt and clashes with police are common, I’d always seek out the mothers with small kids. It would reassure me that danger, despite media coverage, is not necessarily imminent. I always left seeing these places not as dangerous no-go zones but as communities with problems.

Covering Latin America can be heartbreaking. The one time we didn’t say hello, neighbors, was during the strong earthquake of April 2012, when I ran home worrying if my family were safe. After it subsided and I knew we were all fine, I couldn’t get the images of the Haiti earthquake of January 2010 out of my mind: the smell of death, the memory of those trapped in the rubble after days (the far majority who would not survive), the homelessness, and the hunger. I know these are the same images from Mexico's 1985 earthquake that you haven't been able to forget, either.

Vast parts of this region are also stunningly beautiful. Like the mountain town in Guanajuato where migrants are returning from the US, and where you’ll find no better tortillas. Or the patch of beach on the Caribbean coast, where a Mexican man refused to sell his land to resorts. He invited us to a fish feast that I will never forget. I feel blessed to have visited the Galapagos Islands, the Brazilian Amazon, Lake Nicaragua, Lake Titicaca, and Chilean Patagonia. My best memory? Probably the baroque music festival in the middle of the Bolivian jungle, combining my love for classical music and getting off the beaten track in one amazing journey.

Now I'm off to Paris, where I’ll be covering Europe for the Monitor. I’m sure that new delicious food, spectacular scenery, and stories of triumph and heartbreak, of corruption and bravery, await. I hope I am able to take with me the lessons I’ve learned here – about slowing down, living life, just taking the time to say hello. And I’m sure I will learn and appreciate things that France has that Mexicans can currently only dream of, like accountability as a norm. I doubt, however, that I will have the same kind of neighbors. I hope I’m wrong.


Sara Miller Llana

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.