Mexico has an image problem around the world, exacerbated by stories of violence and corruption —not to mention lingering stereotypes from the era of the Frito Bandito. Brooke talks to a number of people grappling with Mexico's image problem.
Paco de Lucia & Rámon Algeciras - Cielito Lindo
SPOKESMAN: Mexico has gorgeous beaches, archeological sites, great food and everything a traveler could wish, so promoting it should be easy, right? Recent global media has driven our perception to an all-time low.
SPOKESMAN: To defer travel to four entire states and parts of ten others.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Selling Mexico to skittish Americans will take more than putting parts of it back on a map.
P.R. SPOKESMAN: So we have to really find ourselves. We decided to keep our mouth shut and let the most important people do the talking for us, our visitors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a promotional video produced by Publicis Mexico, a P.R. firm touting its Mexico Taxi Project, a series of testimonials by real life American tourists, fresh off their planes from their Mexican vacations, talking to American cab drivers, on American soil.
TAXI DRIVER: Where are you guys coming in from?
TAXI DRIVER: Oh! Did you guys feel like safe and everything down there? Is it -
MAN: That’s one of our biggest -
MAN: Totally safe, yeah.
TAXI DRIVER: Right.
MAN: The great thing about Cabos is everything’s so easy, everyone’s so friendly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two-thousand eleven apparently was a record year for Mexican tourism, yet attracting Americans still is a challenge, what with U.S. State Department warnings and what-not.
ALFREDO ALQUICIRA: The biggest change in the approach was not ask people here in Mexico, because you don’t want to tell the truth to somebody if you're in, in his house.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alfredo Alquicira is Publicis Mexico’s creative director.
ALFREDO ALQUICIRA: If the house smells or isn’t pretty or anything, you're not gonna say it. It’s rude to somebody to say that your house is not pretty, I’m not having a good time - to your face in your house. So we went to U.S. major airports to do interviews there, and the interviews were conducted by an actor who was posing as a cab driver.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mexico’s National Tourism Board offers plausible portraits of pleasing destinations – Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun. As we know, Juarez has some problems attracting tourists, but has its problems cast a shadow on places like Cancun?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has there ever been a product or a place or anything that you have found as challenging as this?
ALFREDO ALQUICIRA: Selling American cars on 2008. I don’t want to say the brand, but [LAUGHS] -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was a bitch?
ALFREDO ALQUICIRA: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why was it hard?
ALFREDO ALQUICIRA: Because that was a year when the two big American brands went bankrupt, and also that side of the border media was taking a party with them. Every day it was, oh, bad quality, bad cars, bad numbers; they’re gonna disappear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can I ask how you did it?
ALFREDO ALQUICIRA: Now that I think about it, it was kind of a – of a similar approach. The problem with the car and the brand was about perception, not about the car itself. So once we got the people inside the car, they were the ones who started talking good about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m assuming you don’t want to say what car that was.
ALFREDO ALQUICIRA: It was the, the Ford Focus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why does it seem less politically correct to diss a Ford than a nation, 'cause it seems like it is. Listen to this astonishing episode of the BBC show, Top Gear, about cars, this one about a Mexican sportscar.
[TOP GEAR CLIP]:
RICHARD HAMMOND: Cars reflect national characteristics, don’t they? So German cars are sort of very built and efficient. Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick. A Mexican car is just gonna be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, -
-leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After saucily likening Mexican cuisine to vomit, they end on a flourish.
RICHARD HAMMOND: I’m sorry but just imagine waking up and remembering you're Mexican.
JEREMY CLARKSON: It’d be brilliant, it’d be brilliant, 'cause you, you could just go straight back to sleep again…. That’s why we’re not gonna get any complaints about this, 'cause the Mexican Embassy, the ambassador’s gonna be sitting there with a remote control like this [MAKES SNORING SOUND]
They won’t complain. It’s fine!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actually, he did. The BBC apologized. But such caper and carefree bigotry doesn’t come from nowhere.
JIM JOHNSTON: Even the fact that people have the idea to make that kind of a joke comes from information that they’ve received previously.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Johnston, a Mexican citizen born in the U.S., blogs about Mexico City.
JIM JOHNSTON: 'Cause these guys probably have never been to Mexico, and yet, there are still these image ideas that creep up and show up in jokes, in cartoons and songs, and things like that. There have been a lot of cartoon images of Mexicans as thieves or as stupid laborers.
Aye, yii, yii, yiiii,
Oh, I am the Frito Bandito.
Give me Frito Corn chips
And I'll be your friend.
The Frito Bandito
You must not offend.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a bit late for that.
JIM JOHNSTON: A couple of years there was an article in The New York Times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mexico blogger, Jim Johnston.
JIM JOHNSTON: There was a story about Mexico City, about a store that sells bulletproof clothing. And there was one sentence in it that said – I’m paraphrasing – if you walk up to somebody in Mexico City these days, if you go up and ask for directions, they’re as likely to run away from you as they are to give you an answer. And this just didn’t make any sense to me. It gave you this feeling that being on the streets of Mexico City, everyone is petrified. If you walked up to a stranger and asked him a question, they were gonna run away from you.
And I thought, this is just ridiculous, this is not at all true. And it would, it would have gone into their brains in a sort of very subliminal poisonous way and given people, I think, a completely wrong idea of Mexico City. I mean, if, if that even happened once to the author of that article, I would have been surprised.
RICARDO GARCIA: I think the relation among Americans and Mexicans is not deep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ricardo Garcia is the editor of Gente, a glossy magazine of style, culture and politics.
RICARDO GARCIA: Maybe because Americans just don’t have time or don’t have the interest or don’t try.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how does it make you feel?
RICARDO GARCIA: Bad, because if you have a neighbor that is very, how do you say –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Snobbish?
RICARDO GARCIA: Snobbish? No, snobbish, no. Well, snobbish, yes, yes, snobbish. Snobbish and rich and he doesn’t say hello in the morning. How, how would you feel? You, you are sick. Your house is not very well, you know. It has a lot of problems and you live in the same neighborhood, and the people in front of you don’t even say hello. How would you feel that about? It’s, it’s, it’s painful, yes. And, in the other hand, you have a lot of – anger: Why doesn’t he feel something for this? He lives here, you know?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So a funny thing happened to me the first day in Mexico City. We were walking down the street in advance of the demonstration. I was carrying my recording kit, and I saw a man with a hurdy-gurdy. So I pulled out the mike. Excuse the terrible mike noise. I wasn’t wearing headphones, and I hadn’t set a level. And he starts playing this.
I moan, oh no, not that. And our fixer, a Mexican scholar, journalist and social media maven who helped plan our interview said, what’s the matter, that’s a beautiful Mexican folk song, Cielito Lindo. But all I heard was the Frito Bandito, and I felt bad. I looked it up. It’s a ranchero song, almost 150 years old, embraced and adapted in every region, and I “Frito’ed” it. So then I started playing versions of it on iTunes, and now I really like it.
[CIELITO LINDO/UP AND UNDER]
We were lucky to have chosen this week to be in Mexico because so much was visible that is often obscured. It’s a warm and gracious culture, but also formal and restrained, at least compared to Brooklyn. This week, however, much that is customarily left unsaid was ringing from the rafters. Mexico’s media culture is giddy with connection fever, which is sparking across generations and political parties, for the first time during a national election. The structure of media is being analyzed and criticized from every corner, and that’s a self-reflective exercise on a national scale.
Meanwhile, the fortresses of silence enclosing the states that are wracked and wrecked by the cartels are eroding. It’s happening at a terrible cost, but it’s happening. Voices are being heard, if not yet heeded.
[CIELITO LINDO/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s it for this week’s show, much of which was first aired last summer from Mexico. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. And it was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne. Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.