Last summer, I spent a two-week vacation studying Spanish in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I thought that the readers of Freedom Daily might find some of my experiences to be of interest.
San Miguel de Allende is located in the heart of Mexico, about three hours north of Mexico City. This is the area of Mexico where the fight for independence from Spanish rule began in 1810. On September 16 of that year, a date now celebrated as Mexican Independence Day, a Mexican priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang the church bells in Dolores, which is located about 30 miles from San Miguel de Allende. When the peasants responded to the sound of the bells, Hidalgo delivered his famous call for independence — “El Grito de Dolores.”
Hidalgo and about 400 followers began marching toward Guanajuato, about 100 miles away, a city famous for its silver mines, which were helping fund the Spanish Empire. By the time they arrived in Guanajuato, Hidalgo’s army had grown to an estimated 50,000.
In the middle of Guanajuato was a fortress called the Alhóndiga de Granaditas. Inside were gold and silver, food, and arms — and not more than a few hundred Spanish soldiers. Hidalgo asked the commander of the garrison to surrender. The request was denied.
Hidalgo’s forces attacked but were repelled with heavy losses. Finally, one of the rebels had a large, heavy stone tied to his back to deflect rifle shots and, with oil and torch, slowly crawled to the front door of the Alhóndiga, which he ignited. The door burned and collapsed. The rebels entered and killed the Spanish soldiers. Today, there is a huge statue of “El Pípila,” the man who ignited the door, overlooking the city of Guanajuato.
A short time later, however, Hidalgo’s forces faced the full brunt of the well-armed, well-trained Spanish army. The campesinos were no match for the Spanish troops. The rebels were soundly defeated.
Hidalgo and other leaders of the revolution were soon captured. The Spanish authorities did not treat them kindly. In 1811, the four leaders of the movement for independence, Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende (San Miguel de Allende bears his name), Juan de Aldama, and José Mariano Jiminez were executed and beheaded. The heads of the four revolutionaries were hung in cages on the four outside corners of the Alhóndiga and they hung there until independence was won ten years later in 1821!
Today, one can still see the iron poles from which the cages hung jutting out from the Alhóndiga. On each corner of the building, the Mexicans have placed a plaque that contains the name of the revolutionary leader whose head was hung there.
From 1811 to 1821, some mothers, fearing for the lives of their sons, would direct the attention of their young boys to the corners of the Alhóndiga and say, “This is what happens to people who resist the authorities.” But the reaction of most Mexicans was anger and outrage. Continuing to resist Spanish tyranny, the Mexican people finally won their independence.
Today, San Miguel de Allende has a population of about 50,000. As part of the Spanish school I attended, I lived with a local family and interacted mostly with Mexican people. However, owing to its reputation as a city for arts and crafts, San Miguel has attracted a large number of wealthy American residents — an estimated 5,000 of them. My Spanish instructor — Jorge, a secondary school teacher at a public school outside San Miguel — told me that one of the complaints that the Mexicans have is that the Americans in San Miguel rarely learn Spanish or socialize with the locals. That was borne out by two Americans whom I met. They had spent a four-day vacation in San Miguel in a beautiful home of an American friend. They told me that they had attended several parties but that the only Mexicans they had spoken to were waiters.
I couldn’t help but be amused by this situation because I kept thinking about all those Americans who become so outraged over Mexicans who come to the United States and fail to learn English. I wondered whether they would be equally outraged if they knew about the Americans living in San Miguel de Allende who haven’t bothered to learn Spanish. (To the credit of the Americans in San Miguel, they have donated a beautiful library to the community, which is privately run and which has been a tremendous benefit to the people of San Miguel.)
Jorge and I had several conversations about the illegal-alien situation in the United States. He said that in the last few years, he has been struck by an unusual observation in the small pueblos that he visits around San Miguel. The areas are filled with young women, but there is a dearth of young men there. The men have gone north in search of well-paying American jobs. They return to Mexico for visits, marry, and usually leave a pregnant wife behind. But they are usually very devoted husbands and fathers, sending most of their earnings home or bringing them with them during periodic visits with their family.
Contrary to what many Americans believe, not all Mexicans wish to go to the United States. The father of my host family told me that he would never leave his family, even if it meant a big increase in pay. Moreover, he and his wife made it very clear that they, like most of their friends, love Mexico and have no great love for the United States. They also told me that there is tremendous resentment at the arrogant treatment that poorer Mexicans receive at the hands of U.S. officials when seeking tourist visas.
One evening, a friend of mine and I encountered two friendly students on the bus to Guanajuato. The city was overflowing with thousands of people and we had no hotel reservations. The two students went out of their way to guide us through the city and help us find a hotel. That night, we had supper with them as well as a friend of theirs. The three of them told us that their dream was to start a yogurt business and to have as little as possible to do with Mexican government officials.
We began discussing the illegal-alien situation in the United States and I shared with them my convictions. I said that what our government had done for decades to the Mexican people was absolutely horrible — that the people who go north to sustain or improve their lives with labor are not criminals. The real criminals, I told them, are the U.S. federal judges, prosecutors, and immigration officials who jail the Mexican people — as well as the lawmakers who enact our immigration laws.
The three students looked at me in stunned silence. All of a sudden, one of the two girls started crying. Her boyfriend explained to me, “We hate how your country has treated our people. And we have never heard an American talk like you.” He asked, “Are there others like you?” I suggested that he do a word search on the Internet for “libertarianism.”
One cannot help but be struck by the widespread poverty throughout Mexico. Unfortunately, however, the Mexican people are unable to confront the cause of their poverty: massive governmental involvement in their lives and fortunes along with the enormous taxes needed to fund it all. The average Mexican would rather continue to believe that the poverty under which Mexico has long suffered is due to such things as “globalization”; foreign investment in Mexico; foreign currency collapses; domestic political corruption; lack of democracy; and the “wrong” people in public office.
For example, one man told me that public schooling was finally going to succeed in educating the poor in the state of Guanajuato because the new governor was finally permitting parents to get involved in the public-school process. Another person told me that while everyone knew that the state-owned petroleum industry — Pemex — was a corrupt, inefficient, bribe-ridden monopoly, he still considered it a great moment of national pride when the Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry in 1938.
Everyone talks about the political corruption — the infamous “mordidas” and the governmental involvement in drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder. Some people openly discuss the possibility of a violent revolution. Many place their hopes in members of the “new” political party, the PAN, replacing those of the old, well-entrenched political party, the PRI.
But there is actually only one solution to poverty in Mexico (and the rest of Latin America): prohibit government from combating poverty; that is, end all governmental involvement in education, Social Security, health care, and the economy, along with all the taxes, inflation, and regulations that come with them. It is very difficult for the average Mexican to accept such a drastic remedy (just as it is very difficult for the average American to accept it for the United States). The Mexican people have a long tradition of authoritarian control over their lives and fortunes, stretching beyond Spanish rule all the way back to the Aztec Empire. By and large, the society has always been governed in a mercantilistic, paternalistic, welfare-state mode.
When you suggest that the state’s powers should be limited to protecting people from murderers, thieves, and other violent people and to providing a judiciary by which people can resolve their disputes and should not extend to providing education, health care, Social Security, economic regulations, money, licensure, protectionism, public works, and the like, the immediate response is similar to that of American Democrats and Republicans: “Why, that would be anarchy!”
Those at the bottom of the economic ladder in Mexico suffer the most from Mexico’s paternalistic, regulatory system because they lack the influence and power to benefit from the political privileges. The resulting poverty causes family and cultural disruptions among the poor when young fathers go north in search of work. Those who stay are themselves unable to fulfill their full potential. For example, one man I met had given up his career as a civil engineer to become an independent contractor plowing fields with his own tractor. Why? Because by driving a tractor he was now able to conceal his income and no longer pay income taxes, and so keep more of the money he makes.
Ironically, the people of the United States are benefiting from the economic chaos. Our country continues to attract some of the finest young men and women of Mexico. These are people who are willing to leave families and friends and risk their very lives in the hope of improving their lot in life and that of their families. They have all the attributes that a nation should relish: they are hard working, entrepreneurial, thrifty, family-oriented, religious, and humble. Mexico’s loss is clearly our gain.
Despite the poverty and suffering, one cannot help but notice the widespread feeling of inner happiness among the Mexican people. Every night, people would crowd into the plazas in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Querétaro, and elsewhere to be entertained by mariachi bands. And the highlight of our visit to Guanajuato was the nightly “callejoneada” — where we, along with hundreds of other people, wine mugs in hand, wound our way through Guanajuato’s narrow streets, led by singing minstrels. One can only imagine how much more exciting and enjoyable life would be if the Mexican people could throw off the shackles of state control over their lives and fortunes.