So close yet so far away

During two recent outings, one a shopping trip a couple of weeks ago to the nearby city of Querétaro  and the other a one-day photo safari last Wednesday led by a professional photographer now retired in San Miguel, Stew and I were again slapped on the face with the realities of poverty and economic inequality in Mexico.

Querétaro greets motorists coming in from San Miguel with a new and extravagant ten- or twelve-lane boulevard landscaped with ground covers, twisty jacaranda saplings, oleander bushes and other greenery still being fussed over by ground crews. Subdivisions of new houses painted mostly a blinding shade of white blanket the hills on each side of the road. A new shopping center, rumored to become the largest one in the country when it is finished, also is going up next to the boulevard, with about five or six gangly cranes swinging buckets of concrete overhead.

Fall landscape we found outside of San Miguel during
our Wednesday photo safari.

The state of Querétaro’s ebullient prosperity is not compartmentalized, like so much of the wealth in Mexico City, for instance, where a five-dollar, thirty-minute cab ride will take you from Gucci and Ferragamo boutiques in Polanco to rickety taco stands and tire vulcanizing shops in some slum choked with traffic and fumes.

A year ago we drove quite far into the state of Queretáro’s countryside and were dazzled by the reach of its good fortune. Newly paved and striped roads with shiny signage; Mercedes Benz minibuses with   kids headed to new public schools; signs for coming-soon sewage treatment plants, soccer fields or roofed and lit basketball courts flanked with bleachers.

But trip from Querétaro back to the state of Guanajuato is a jarring riches-to-rags slideshow even though the two are adjacent.  Twelve lanes wither down to four, then two and if you head for the countryside, you’ll soon be on winding dirt roads with craters, puddles and rocks menacing to anything other than pickups or horses, while brown dust, typical during the dry season, swirls around wherever you go.

Our guide, former National Geographic photographer Robert DeGast, drove his pontoon-like 2000 Chrysler Concorde LX, which he referred to as a “pimp mobile,” quite capably, nudging it along through the obstacles with a mix of gentleness and exasperated cursing.

The day-long tour led us to a series of chapels, some brightly re-painted by misguided government historic restoration crews. Others were just ruins in waist-high weeds, with dark and foreboding interiors decorated with barely visible murals of arrows, chalices, birds, crowns of thorns and other enigmatic biblical symbolism that even a former Roman Catholic priest in our group could not quite decipher.

An abandoned chapel. 

One of the last stops took us to the settlement of Ciénaga, population a couple of hundred people if that, where we stopped to see what was left of a chapel atop a small hill. By now my feet were bothering me so I let Stew and the others in the group do the reconnoitering.

On his return Stew was noticeably shaken by what he saw: Women trudging along with buckets of water because the above-ground steel water pipes had long ago rusted and come apart; ten-year-olds, who should have been in school, coaxing small herds of goats with sticks; a man yanking a struggling burro loaded with dried corn stalks. And above all, the silence of a place where not much ever happens except the occasional bleating of a donkey or the whoosh of a gust of wind.

Once again Stew muttered that during our travels some months ago through Cuba, a country besieged during the past fifty-four years by endless economic calamities, both natural and man-made, we never encountered the poverty–make that the grinding poverty–that we often have run into in parts of Mexico.

There’s plenty of poverty in other areas of Mexico alright, in places like the southern state of Chiapas. But there it’s partly camouflaged by the verdant landscape and the bright outfits of the natives, their exotic languages and beautiful handicrafts, which make the penury of their lives somehow seem a bit quaint and less shocking to visitors.  

In our state of Guanajuato the pockets of poverty are unvarnished and Honduras-like. I’m sure state  government economists would vehemently dispute such comparisons, citing hopeful statistics and pointing to charts with zigzagging lines trending ever upward.

It just doesn’t seem that way, however, when you butt head-on into some of the poverty we found during our Wednesday safari.

Or when you talk with our gardener Félix as I did the next day, when I presented him with a small electronic calculator. As I explained the buttons, I gradually realized he’d  never learned multiplication or division, let alone the concept of percentages. Stew, far smarter than me at math, will have to teach Félix some basic arithmetic. Short of winning a lottery, what sort of life prospects does Félix and his family have?

Yet forty-minutes or an hour away, in one of Querétaro’s dozen or so industrial parks, right next to the city’s brand-new international airport, young Mexicans are assembling components for jets for the Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier.

Why there and not here? A better educational system? More honest and efficient state government? Fate? As far as I know, Querétaro doesn’t have any rare natural resources, like oil or uranium. In fact its rocky landscape closely resembles that of Guanajuato.

And thus far Queretaro’s runaway prosperity doesn’t seem to spreading our way, though a few auto assembly plants have set up shop on the other side of the state of Guanajuato, near León and Irapuato.

I’m sure there are rational economic explanations for these gross inequities though with my mathematically addled brain I doubt I’ll ever understand them much less be able to pass them along. For the time being, my stories and pictures is all I can offer.


9 thoughts on “So close yet so far away

  1. I have often asked the same question about wealth creation. Mexico's middle class has had explosive growth during the last twenty years. But they amount to only about 40% of the population — leaving about 60% in poverty. Once an area starts growing, it will continue to generate growth. Leon for an example. Communities that discourage the expansion of business (oh, say, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato)do not have spin off wealth to create jobs for surrounding communities.But that still does not fully explain the pockets. Or why Haiti is an economic car wreck even though it shares an island with the Dominican Republic — a country that is moving itself out of third world nation status.I doubt we will ever find the answer on Felix's calculator.


  2. Anonymous

    The poverty can be quite shocking. Even in Mexico City, there are some pretty amazingly poor places. Recently, it occurred to me to take a look via Google Street view. The places to look are the informal settlements on the mountainsides. Amazingly enough, there are Street View pictures there for all the world to see of people living in piles of sheet metal, random boards, and duct tape. Once on the way to a friend's house in the south of Mexico City, a taxi took us through such a neighborhood. It was shocking and sad to see how badly the residents lived. Mexico's schools are failing its population. How can anyone with no concept of percentages do a useful job in industry? Reminds me of once trying to hire someone for a financial analysis position in Baltimore. It was VERY tough to find anyone who could even do the mechanics of the job, never mind meet all the other requirements.Mexico needs to take a hard look at the recent histories of South Korea, Ireland, Singapore, China and other countries that moved out of poverty. Education was at the core of all of their successes. Saludos,Kim GBoston, MAWhere at least the public school system is pretty good.


  3. Lovely photos – especially the fall one at the beginning. I would love, when we have time, around a nice table to talk about the industrialization of Queretaro versus Guanajuato. Although Leon is the leading leather manufacturer in all of the Americas and Silao has huge industrialization.One of the reasons is the closer proximity to Mexico City and Hwy 57 directly to the USA as it relates to NAFTA. It's an interesting topic.


  4. Anonymous

    Yes Al, it’s very sad. Inequality has been one of the main problems for Mexicans. Calderon brags about the economic growth in the country during his administration but that’s bull… for millions of Mexicans who don’t get anything of that prosperity.


  5. Beautifully articulated, Al, as always. Because I have worked so long with the NGO Mujeres en Cambio, which provides scholarships only to ranch girls living in rural communities, I have seen this kind of poverty often. When I read their stories, I blink back tears even as I burst with pride for them that they are struggling so hard for an education. We now have almost 50 in university, which makes me deeply happy. Most of their parents have either primary or no education whatsoever. Little glimmers of hope…


  6. Or why Argentina which is a relatively lightly populated country, rich in resources, with a strong European immigrant influx, goes from one economic/political debacle to another, while tiny Costa Rica remains a democracy and keeps purring along (compared to its neighbor Nicaragua). If you come up with an answer, don't be afraid to call. I've heard that Queretaro, governed by the PAN party has had a very strong pro-business economic development policy. al


  7. I don't quite understand Mexico's educational system but I've heard that education is free up until the equivalent of junior high school but after that, the “preparatory school” which leads to college is quite expensive which leaves out a lot of the poor kids. al


  8. That's an amazing record of success for Mujeres, particularly since it's particularly difficult for girls to get an education. I once asked Felix what he dreamed for his daughter and finding a husband and having a family was about all he could come with. Ouch. al


  9. Education and its quality might be the difference. My wife traveled from Ohio to study in Queretaro for more than a few summers, never the Guanajuato State area. The grad classes were held in a school building that normally was used for industrial education courses. Great post by the way: Cultural Geography at its best.


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