Battling Bagels and Xenophobia in My Home Country

How I Almost Had a 'Spanish-Only' Moment

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Laura Martinez Laura Martinez
I hate to start 2008 on a sour note, but I have no choice. My annual pilgrimage to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to renew my work permit turned out to be a real nightmare. Not only because the whole process ended up costing me over $800 and about 10 days filled with anxiety, but because it painted a grim picture of the ever-tense relationship between Americans and their southern neighbors. To top it all off, it managed to bring out a little xenophobia I had no idea lived within me.

Let me explain. Unlike Americans willing to take a vacation in Mexico (they only need a valid passport), Mexicans who aspire to visit the U.S. as tourists have to undergo a long, painful and costly process that often ends up in a plain -- and rude -- rejection on the part of the consular officer in charge. The sight of dozens of people lining up in the freezing cold at 5:00 a.m. after having paid over $150 in application fees and then being rejected is always too sad and disturbing. More often than not, I leave the Embassy in tears (even if my process goes smoothly.)

This time around was no different. An indigenous old couple in front of me was turned down immediately, simply because they could not be trusted to return to Mexico after their visit. "Do you have a bank account? Credit cards? High-paying jobs? Cars? Own a property?" the consular officer asked them. It was apparent that they didn't. All they wanted, they said, was to visit a relative in Chicago. "You don't have enough to prove to us you will come back... Next!" the woman simply yelled while returning their passports unopened. Most of us waiting in line felt their pain, but also knew we had to keep our mouths shut, or bust our own chances at getting a visa. Mexican tourist visa applicants, it was clear, are considered potential illegal immigrants until proven wealthy.

The brush with my northern neighbors only got worse a few days later, when I took a trip to Puerto Vallarta, that gorgeous port town that was the set of John Huston's "The Night of the Iguana." The town has since been taken over by American and Canadian retirees, who live an easy-going life without even having to learn the language. English-language signs abound, pitching everything from boat rentals and real estate, to a lifetime of affordable happiness in Paradise. A local bookstore proudly boasts: "We sell books in Spanish."

It hadn't happened to me before, but this time I felt like a foreigner in my own country.

The last straw came one morning at a local food joint. Hoping to get my favorite Mexican breakfast of molletes or huevos rancheros, I was told by a young attendant that breakfast consisted only of bagels. That did it. "Bagels? What the hell are bagels?" I found myself asking in a very loud voice. "I don't know what a bagel is," I told him with a straight face. "We are in Mexico. I am Mexican. I want a Mexican breakfast!"

As soon as these words came out of my mouth I realized how stupid I must have sounded. It was pretty clear I looked like a silly, arrogant and ignorant (let alone crazy) person. But it was almost as if the words came out involuntarily, a knee-jerk type of reaction resulting from days of built in frustration and what I thought was a very unfair treatment of people.

I guess my feelings were not very different from those of many Americans in places such as Texas, Florida or New York, who keep complaining about the increasing number of Spanish-language signs or non-American food.

Regardless of my reasons, I could not help but wonder if a small incident, or series of incidents like these, can quickly morph into full-blown cases of xenophobia, turning people into mean machines and making the world even less tolerant. Is it OK to feel rage against foreign retirees in Mexico simply because the U.S. government has a tough immigration policy and its Embassy personnel treat people in a rude manner?

Quite frankly, I'm still trying to figure that out. (Oh... and for the record: I do know what bagels are.)

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Read more from Laura daily at Mi Blog Es Tu Blog.
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