I don’t like Americans – Anwar said the day after I arrived. – I only like their money

Anwar lives in Cancún, the tourist Mecca of Mexico. It was built from scratch in the 70s. A group of bankers, having noticed the tourist potential Mexico had, decided to create competition for Acapulco, then the most popular destination in the country, and build another holiday paradise. They considered a few different locations but eventually chose the tiny fisher’s village in a long forgotten area of the Caribbean.

The decision was determined by the presence of a 23 kilometre-long strip of land separating Nichupté lagoon from the sea. It is this strip of land which later became the Hotel Zone, or Zona Hotelera, the enclave of American tourists. Another town was built back on the mainland to house tens of thousands of employees of the entertainment empire. Mainland Cancún and seaside Cancún don’t have very much in common. It is about those two different towns that I’ll tell you today. 

Holiday paradise

-Hey, guapa, those white legs could use some sun! – Zona Hotelera welcomed me with some very elaborate catcalling performed by a group of tour vendors. Dressed in white uniforms, they were waiting for another victim at a very busy junction – Fancy a tour? Cenotes? Isla Mujeres? – I was waiting to cross the street and I had nowhere to run away from them – No? And what about a Mexican boyfriend? Look at him, handsome and single!

Nobody who looks even remotely foreign can walk around the Zona Hotelera uninterrupted. Everyone wants to sell something here: tickets for the huge parties taking place in the evenings, tours to the adventure parks or to one of the abundant wonders of nature, but also coconuts, ice cream, beer, hats and bracelets.

The foreign-looking people are usually Americans who escaped their corporations for a moment or students on spring break. Everything in Cancun is arranged for their liking: dollars are an accepted currency all across Zona Hotelera, shop assistants and bar staff speak English, familiar burritos and steaks replace authentic Mexican tacos, washed down with cocktails served in the Hard Rock Cafe. Souvenir shops are flooded with postcard-like, pseudo-Mexican kitsch produced to satisfy American pop-culture expectations. Thousands of people working here are making sure that the surreal gringo holiday bubble doesn’t pop.

And the gringos? The gringos are on holiday and are willing to believe just about anything that is said o them. There are many rubber trees in the park where Anwar works. From one annoying question to another, the guides came up with a story about Carlitos, a fearless rubber merchant, a Mexican self-made man, who allegedly was once in control of a vast majority of the chewing gum deliveries to Europe. As the time passed, the imaginary merchant earned a house in the park, where from – allegedly – he administering his empire, and a collection of absolutely real donations for one charitable cause or another. – Of course the only real thing in this story is rubber  – Anwar said – but gringos like it.

In effect, gringo’s heads turn. They believe that with dollars they can buy just about anything. The sense of entitlement pours through their ears when they demolish the airport just for fun or complain about Mexico being too Mexican. Even though not all Americans in Cancún are this arrogant, they still forget who’s visiting and who’s at home all too often.

-We had a visitor once – Anwar sneered a little – He came with his twelve-year-old daughter. They went on a quad drive. First of all, the guy did not buy insurance. Secondly, he let his daughter drive even though, according to the park’s policies, she was too young for it. There was a little crash. The guy not only didn’t want to pay for the damage, he also blamed the park employees for the whole situation. He was threatening to file a lawsuit if he didn’t get the photos for free. He was loud enough to get what he wanted; then it turned out it was a trick he used every year.

– Another time a woman came, with a son who couldn’t have been older than 12. She was completely drunk, but her son didn’t seem to be surprised it. She kept bugging us: ‘Hey, boys, don’t you have some weed? I’m sure you smoke sometimes! Will you get me some?’. She did that at every stop, at the canteen, at the exit as she was leaving. There are some gringas who show you more than you’d like to see or husbands asking how I like their wives’ boobs. There were also those spring breakers chanting ‘Build that wall’ on a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Tell me, Marta, how are we supposed to like them?

As we were sitting in a bar on the Mexican side of Cancún, full on a payday, I asked Anwar if it was good that so many Americans were coming there. – Of course it’s good – he said – they leave money. I can buy tacos from that guy at the corner because they come here and I have a job. If I didn’t buy those tacos then the taco guy couldn’t send his children to school, this bar would be empty, and so on. Cancún wouldn’t exist without the tourists.

Not only Cancún would suffer if the gringos stopped coming. The city is an economic giant: 20% of the tourism revenue for the whole country comes from here. In less than 40 years it grew from a tiny fishermen’s village to a metropolis inhabited by more than six hundred thousand people. They came here from all over Mexico with just one goal in mind: to work hard for a better life in a Mexican version of the American dream.

Charms of the Mexican Cancun

– You don’t understand, Marta. – Anwar waved his hand to emphasise my misunderstanding. – Acapulco is not always safe. You can live there, but there are also some bad people you have to be careful with. My brother is a locksmith, the best in town. He repairs car locks. Every now and then a car mafia knocks on his door making proposals he cannot reject, and he has to say ‘no’, but so that they don’t realise he is rejecting them and so that he doesn’t make enemies of them. I just don’t want to have any problems with anybody, that’s why I drive slowly, I fasten my seatbelts and I live in Cancún.

The Cancún that Anwar lives in has nothing in common with the Zona Hotelera. Half an hour bus ride away, it consists mostly of tiny houses spread across the city, a few main roads with no pedestrian crossings, a few shopping malls and a bus station. The mainland Cancún is mundane, practical, as blunt as a city in the tropics could be for an immigrant from Moscow.

It’s not easy to be visibly foreign in Mexican Cancún. Americans are famous for their generous tips, so as long as I’m considered to be American everyone is extremely nice; the contempt is, however, protruding from underneath. The city is divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’: the Mexicans working six days per week and the tourist who don’t always respect that work. The locals are trying to protect their identity from the omnipresent americanization: on the one hand, they do whatever they need to do to keep the guests satisfied and to get as much of their money as possible. On the other hand, quite understandably, the frustration with the unfairness of the circumstances, further highlighted by the arrogance of the Americans, is pouring out of them. This is why Anwar doesn’t like Americans, even though one of his best friends is one.

Everyday life in Cancún is centred around Las Palapas, a little square in the very city centre, closed on the one end with tacos stands and with a large stage on the other. When I went there for the first time, I was convinced that I had arrived too late. It was an early afternoon, the heat was pouring from the sky, a few couples were sitting by stone tables which looked like carousel teacups. They were looking around lazily, waiting god knows what for, unfinished tacos on their plastic plates. I also ate whatever I had managed to order, I looked around lazily for a minute, and went for a walk around the deserted city centre.

When I came back to Las Palapas, a group of schoolgirls was rehearsing their performance, food vendors were putting up their stands, the audience was taking their seats. Mainland Cancún comes back to life in the evening, when everyone gets back from work after a long and busy day and at least forty minutes on a crowded bus.

Afternoon concert in Las Palapas

The carnival in Las Palapas started for good. The dancers were waving their tufts of feathers to a great content of their mothers and grandmothers in the audience. The food vendors were squeezing through the crowd. Anwar joined me only when it started getting dark. We watched half a performance, we had some crispy sweet pancakes stuffed with salty cheese and we headed home.

– Let’s go – said Anwar – I have to entertain gringos for the whole day tomorrow.

Anwar, wind, palm trees and Playa del Carmen

 


 

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  • Julie

    Very insightful post Marta – I was in Cancun for a week and lived in downtown, and I visited the hotel zone every afternoon. It was a totally different world from the downtown, and it is very Americanized. While we are on vacay, the locals have to work hard to make ends meet. I dont blame them and the vendors. A visit to both downtown and Cancun show us the gap of the quality of life in the same city.

    • Exactly, doesn’t it? And it’s not that the quality of life in downtown Cancun is bad – quite on the contrary. It’s the hotel zone which seemed excessive to me. Puerto Vallarta, the other big touristy spot, is so much more friendly. Everything is intertwined, there are so many Mexicans holidaying here. Come here next time 🙂