By late July 2014, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had been living in Mexico for almost eight years with Washington, D.C. license plates on my car.
If I wanted to apply for permanent resident status in Mexico, which I did, I would have to drive up to Customs at the border and “nationalize” my car, i.e. get Mexican plates. Frankly, I have never cared what passport I was carrying, or what license plates I had, as long as I could move around freely. As I had no intention of returning to the United States, except to visit, it seemed that the time was ripe for sorting things out with Mexico. The plates would enable me to become a permanent resident, or so my immigration adviser told me.
A little background info here: when I moved to Mexico in 2006, I was quickly “adopted” by a family in the town where I set up shop. It has been a very close relationship. I drop in on them at least once a week, and they would, and have, give(n) me their left arm if I needed it. I have already described, in A Question of Values, how they showed up in full force at the hospital, an hour away, where I had surgery in 2009. They literally slept in my room to make sure the nurses were taking good care of me. Now, in the case of the placas (license plates), my “hermana” Raquel (no real names are used) had a niece in the border town where the nearest Customs was located, whom — Raquel said — knew everyone and would be able to help me with the whole nationalization process. So, off I went.
Before continuing with this story, I need to say that just “coincidentally,” I was at the time reading a book by Dean Ornish called Love and Survival. It’s an intriguing study, arguing that there is much evidence to show that being immersed in a network of loving relationships significantly prolongs one’s life, strengthens one’s immune system, counteracts illness and so on. It was first published in 1988. In the intervening years, I doubt Ornish’s data managed to impact the American medical profession in any serious way. As Ornish makes clear, this is not the way the profession thinks. But let me review some of his stats and examples, in any case.
The Roseto Study
This is an examination of an Eastern Pennsylvanian Italian-American town. When compared with two nearby towns, it was found to have a very low mortality rate … at least for the first 30 years it was studied. Citizens of all three towns smoked, ingested cholesterol and generally exhibited the same physical behaviors that would be expected to impinge on human health, at roughly the same rates. Roseto had what that the other towns didn’t, including close family ties and very cohesive community relations, including a host of traditional values and practices (religion included). However, in the late 60s and early 70s, all of this broke down. Roseto saw a loosening of family ties and a fragmentation of community relations. Concomitant with this was a substantial increase in death due to heart disease. The mortality rate rose to the same level as that of the two neighboring towns.
The Ni-Hon-San Study
This was an examination of 11,900 Japanese individuals who lived in Japan, as compared to those Japanese who had immigrated to Honolulu and San Francisco. Scientists found that the incidence of heart disease was lowest for those in Japan, intermediate for those in Hawaii and highest for those in California. The closer they came to the American mainland, in other words, the sicker they became. None of this was strongly related to differences in diet, blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol levels and so on. The crucial factor was the degree to which each group retained a traditional Japanese culture. The Japanese-Americans who maintained family ties and community had a rate of heart disease as low as those living in Japan, whereas the most Westernized group had a three-to-fivefold increase.
Ornish recounts several other studies with similar results, all indicating that beyond any physical factors, social and emotional factors — love, in a word — were No. 1 in promoting health and longevity. As an aside, I should mention a study conducted by William Vega of U.C. Berkeley, which found that Mexicans living in the United States had twice the rate of mental illness as Mexicans living in Mexico: it really comes down to the way we live.
This brings me back to my adventure with the license plates. I expected it to take two days; I wound up staying with the family of Raquel’s niece, Brenda, for nearly a week. The Mexican bureaucracy is something to behold, possibly more hectic than that of India. Just when you think you’ve got all your ducks in a row, one more obstacle pops up for you to deal with. Clearly, this was not going to be a two-day operation.
But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I don’t think I was quite prepared for what I was about to experience. Despite the fact that the family had Raquel’s word that I was a fabulous guy, I was a total stranger to these folks. We had never met. Yet from the moment I arrived at the front door, I was folded into the warmth of Brenda and her family as though I had been living next door to them for 20 years. It kind of took my breath away. The love that permeated this family was both dense and palpable, and I was suddenly part of it. They were literally kissing and hugging each other (and me) almost constantly. The small children related to me in the same way, not at all afraid of a strange adult, as is usually the case with U.S. children. There was a coffee mug in the house that had the word “Family” printed on it (in English), with slogans like “celebrates together,” “eats together,” “laughs together,” “stays together” — a gigantic cliché, except that this family was living that cliché. If this were a U.S. sitcom, it would be regarded as a joke, a kind of satire. But this was no fantasy of some nonexistent loving community in New York City, along the line of Friends. No, this was the real enchilada. In fact, I suspect shows like Friends are popular because they depict what Americans badly want, but cannot have.
It also turned out that family connections extended to the local bureaucracy. Without this, I could have wound up spending a month or more with Brenda’s family (which would have been fine with them). But because business relations and official relations are not contained in sharply different categories from family relations, Brenda was able to finesse the bureaucracy and get the job done. Within a week I had the plates, even though on the official level the obstacles were formidable. Once again, I was amazed at how the family went all out for me, ignoring their own schedules, schlepping me from one government office to another and translating the bureaucratese into normal Spanish for me. Since they didn’t expect a peso for their efforts, I was beginning to wonder how I would ever repay them. But they weren’t thinking in those terms, in any case.
A few vignettes may help illustrate the point.
Three doors down from Brenda was a neighbor, Elena, who lost her daughter-in-law in a car crash 14 months before I visited, and who (since her son was working full-time) took the two surviving grandchildren in, to raise by herself. Several months later, her husband of 41 years died and she was left alone with the two kids. Brenda’s family then swung into action, basically taking Elena and the children into their house. Elena came over several times a day, and often slept over with her grandchildren. I wish to emphasize that there was no blood relation between Elena and Brenda or her family. She was “merely” a neighbor. In the U.S., people typically don’t even know the names of the people living next door to them.
While I was there, Brenda’s brother-in-law and his wife, who were currently living and working in China, were back in Mexico for a month’s holiday. After they came over, and after the usual flurry of hugging and kissing, Emilio gave each of Brenda’s kids 200 pesos. The next day, Brenda told me that Ricky, her seven-year-old, had wanted to give her the 200 pesos. “I don’t need it, Mami,” he said to her, “and I know you have to struggle a lot.” Brenda told me it was all she could do to keep from crying. I tried to imagine a U.S. child doing something similar, but I couldn’t. The data on the sharp decrease in empathy in America during the past three decades are well-established. Half an hour ago, while I was sitting in the living room writing this essay, Ricky came through, went to the kitchen, fetched himself a popsicle (bolis) out of the fridge and then asked me if I wanted him to get me one. This to a foreigner 63 years older than himself, whom he knew for all of three days.
Emilio, his wife and I had a long and interesting discussion about life in China. They were extremely intelligent and articulate; it was the kind of discussion that is generally hard to have in the United States anymore. Americans are, by and large, not very articulate, not particularly interested in other nations and prone to thinking in slogans. On another occasion, Brenda’s husband, Jorge, said to me: “I mean no disrespect, but can you tell me why the United States always has to go to war with someone? And why it supports Israel, which is massacring women and children in Gaza?” Why indeed. Should I have replied, “Because we are a collection of ignorant, and quite violent, people who are suffering for lack of the kind of family life you and Brenda have and thus need to hurt other human beings as a result?” But of course, I respected his honest questions, and we had a good discussion of issues that most Americans don’t give a damn about.
Brenda told me that every time she goes to the U.S., she has the impression that Americans believe that Mexicans sit around under trees wearing sombreros and drinking cerveza all the time. But that’s only part of the stereotype; overall, it’s that Mexicans are backward, inferior, living a million miles from the “progress” exhibited by the go-go capitalism of their northern neighbors. And yet, what is the family and social life of that “superior” civilization? A divorce rate of nearly 50 percent. Kids who are abandoned, both emotionally and literally. The highest number of single-person dwellings of any country in the world. The greatest amount of antidepressant use of any country in the world. And — as many studies have by now affirmed — a large population living lives of quiet desperation. In the occasional “world happiness studies” that appear from time to time, Mexico often outranks the U.S. despite their gap in G.D.P.
All of this is not to suggest that life in Mexico is perfect. The recent horrific events in the state of Guerrero, which are by no means isolated, make that quite clear. An annoying bureaucracy is a minor issue compared to the poverty, corruption and racial bias that are depressingly rampant in Mexican society. But on the interpersonal level, the country has got things right. It does celebrate family, as that coffee mug says; its priorities are not ones of hustling, trying to make huge amounts of money, being “important” or getting “ahead.” I have a saying I like to repeat, from time to time, that in Mexico nothing works and everything works out, whereas in the United States, everything works and nothing works out. That’s been my experience after eight years of living here.
So yes, dear reader, I got my plates. But that was the least of what I got. Gracias, Brenda; voy a regresar.