Across the Borderby Sophia Koutsoyannis
Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters, edited by Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood, Duke (2009)
Tourism is Mexico’s third most important source of revenue, preceded by oil and remittances from the United States. Following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the tourist industry started to re-develop, as politicians and businessmen coalesced to build Mexico’s image as an idyllic vacation spot and bring much needed economic growth and stabilization. The United States’ Good Neighbor policy (1933-1945) provided the industry another boost. Roosevelt’s administration sought to build stronger bonds with Latin America via non-interventionist methods, encouraging Americans to look to their southern neighbors with a fresh perspective. When U.S. citizens were no longer able to travel to Europe for leisure purposes because of the Second World War, the Mexican government leaped at the opportunity to further promote its beaches and pre-Colonial heritage. The essays of Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters build on the study of tourism and state-formation in post-revolutionary Mexico by looking at a wide range of perspectives from participants in the tourist trade. Each entry examines the political and cultural dimensions of tourist encounters, looking closely at the short and long-term effects these encounters have posed on local people, their cultural heritage, and the environment.
The essays are divided chronologically into three periods. The first section looks at the tourism from the late 19th century into the early 20th. Andrea Boardman examines the role played by American soldiers following the U.S.-Mexican War (1846–1848) whose leisurely explorations of Mexico helped shape the United States’s perceptions of the country. Christina Bueno looks at the ideological and political incentives that led to the excavation and exhibition of the pyramids in Teotihuacán. She aptly details the paradoxical workings of indigenismo, a popular concept which at once celebrates Mexico’s indigenous past all the while perpetuating the marginalization of its indigenous people, through the state-led excavations of the site. The next section looks at tourist development in mid-20th century, when it reaches one of its highest peaks. Each essay deals with a particular region, namely Veracruz, Tijuana, Acapulco, Oaxaca, and San Miguel de Allende, and highlights the major players involved in the development of the tourist industry. In Veracruz, for example, Andrew Wood explores the importance of ridding the port town of tropical diseases in order to make it a viable tourist option. Dina Berger looks at the crucial albeit less explored role American tourists played in advancing the Good Neighbor policy and influencing social perceptions of Mexico during the Second World War. Eric Schantz’s piece takes us to the border town of Tijuana to highlight the role the Mafia and corrupt politicians played in reversing the moralizing efforts established under the regime of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), which sought to bring down casino and race track gambling. Andrew Sackett’s entry investigates the early history of tourist development in Acapulco, underlining how state-driven policies trumped the rights of local dwellers who were ultimately forced off their land via state-sponsored violence. And finally, Lisa Pinley Covert explores the making of the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende into a tourist hot spot by catering to less conventional forms of vacationing. Here we learn how local and foreign artists, elites, and intellectuals advocated for state recognition of San Miguel as an ideal location by re-fashioning its image as a bohemian getaway for cultured travelers and aspiring artists.
The last section brings us up-to-date with more contemporary developments in Mexican tourism. Jeffrey Pilcher examines food consumption as a tourist experience of political and cultural consequences: “Through food and drink, tourists from the U.S. have consumed their Mexican neighbors: alternately dominating, transforming, excluding, and embracing them according to an Orientalist logic that evolves with social relations in both countries.” M. Bianet Castellanos’s look at how an indigenous community living at the outskirts of Cancún, in the village Kuchmil, has interpreted and adapted to the state-led industry. Mary K. Coffey focuses on the exhibition of Mexican art in the U.S. for tourist-driven purposes, elucidating on how the local indigenous roots of these artworks were replaced for a “more ethnically vague category of community” that fit with the neoliberal underpinnings of the private corporation that funded the exhibition. In a similar vein, Alex Saragoza provides an insightful investigation into the development of Los Cabos in light of the defeat of the ruling party, the PRI, after 70 years of one-party rule. This enabled Vicente Fox’s center-right administration to distance itself from previous tourist policies that sought to accentuate its Mexican qualities, veering the industry on a different path that made Los Cabos a “place of affluent placelessness.” Finally, Barbara Kastelein’s essay considers three tourist destinations; Acapulco, Oaxaca, and the town of Amecameca. Based on her own travels and academic research, she explores how local inhabitants understand and employ tourist-driven myths to promote their region’s industry. Some Oaxaqueños, for example, have two houses; one that sells the “magical folksy Oaxaca” and another in which they actually live in.
Holiday in Mexico provides a wide-ranging and historically astute understanding of the tourist economy in Mexico. It carefully underlines the dark side of the industry that stems largely from the socioeconomic gaps between tourists and their hosts, the political corruption of government officials who have made of Mexican tourism a family-run business, and the ideological underpinnings of large corporations that re-order representations of Mexico to align with neoliberal policies. The essays, however, also explore the tactics used by local inhabitants, tourists, artists, intellectuals, health officials, and shopkeepers to promote tourism for their own purposes, leading them to work with or against the state depending on their motives. My one caveat is the centrality of Mexican-U.S. tourist encounters at the heart of these works. While it would be unwise to underplay the importance of United States in the history of Mexican tourism, de-centering this relationship in future studies may shed light on the extensive role transnational factors have played in the history of Mexican tourist development. Expanding the notion of the “tourist,” for example, to include sojourners of other nations, namely transitory migrants from Central and South America, can only enrich our understanding of tourism and its relationship to representations of Mexico.