A couple of nights ago, I went to a house party where a drunken "friend of a friend" gave me his loud, somewhat misguided perspective on Mexico. His monologues about Mexico were based on Denzel Washington's film Man on Fire ("If Denzel couldn't survive Mexico City, no way a white boy like me could!"), several documentaries about illegal immigration to El Norte, and a trip to Cancun that left him with the unpleasant impression of a corrupt and out-of-control military and police force. He seemed genuinely taken aback when I informed him that Mexico was home to a thriving middle class, of which my ex-boyfriend and his family are an example. He was also surprised when I said that the National Autonomous University of Mexico was the oldest university in North America, older than Harvard even, and was much more enlightened than many Canadian and American universities because its admission policy is purely merit-based: Once students pass the rigorous entrance exam, they have free tuition at a world-class university, thus making a quality university education more accessible to students from poor backgrounds.
Sadly, I suspect this guy's opinion of Mexico is not out of the ordinary compared to the opinions of most North Americans. It is amazing that a country that comprises the third largest state in North America should be so "othered" by its northern counterparts. In an age where we like to think we're past colonialist prejudices, in reality we've just shifted them to a neighbour closer to home. Don't get me wrong. Mexico has many problems compared to other states, of which poverty, inequality, air and water pollution, state corruption, and conflicts with its indigenous peoples are just a few. Also, I acknowledge that I'm speaking from a fairly privileged perspective in that I know a middle-class family in Mexico City that took me in as a traveller, acted as the most informed and protective of tour guides, and showed me the most gracious hospitality ever. Not everybody's experience of Mexico is that positive.
However, the tendency of popular media to depict Mexico as an impoverished, monolithic, dangerous other striving to get into El Norte and stealing the jobs of white Americans and Canadians is problematic, to say the least. It ignores the diversity of class and culture that exists within Mexico. The media's negative focus on murdered Canadian tourists downplays the reasons why millions of Canadians and Americans flock to Mexico in the first place: a cheap vacation, amazing beaches, and a rich cultural tradition that comprises indigenous civilizations, Spanish colonization, and impressive archaeological artifacts. It also overlooks the fact that many tourists return home with only positive impressions of their stay in Mexico.
As for this guy's assertion that even Cancun, whitewashed and touristic as it was, felt unsafe, I can only say that few places in the world often feel "safe" according to the standards of sheltered Canadians. Indeed, I often think that people who go on resort vacations endanger themselves to some extent by thinking that they are protected from outside danger and not doing enough real research about their destination. When tourists book an all-inclusive resort package in Puerto Vallarta, they think about the beaches and partying and shopping, and sadly enough, often do not consider that they are entering a foreign country with its own culture and own way of doing things. An all-inclusive vacation at a resort is not a bubble enclave and a fail-safe promise of safety. Any country can be unsafe if you go without knowing enough about it.