To read Part 1, click here.
Once you get acclimated to hell, you can begin to find little oases of shade, even of contentment. At Camp Manison, this is what I experienced. Yes, it’s true, every day I had to return to the little cabin of horrors to endure hours of harassment, but I also couldn’t help but begin to enjoy the canoeing sessions, shooting .22 caliber rifles, learning archery and horseback riding. Above all, I reveled in the pool. Some impish builder had made it possible to catch a glimpse of the camp girls undressing there, under the hot lusty Texas sun.
A nuclear family of aquatic creatures with crowns emerging from their heads, feet shaped like fins and a long tail extending from their dorsal fins, relax happily on a mound of sand, with a purple castle as a backdrop. In a smaller portrait, a nuclear family of humans--easily identifiable as North Americans of European ancestry--gaze with satisfaction and joy at a fishbowl, where the world presented in the larger picture is reproduced in miniature, almost in silhouette: “Enter the world of live Sea Monkeys,” says the advertising. “Be the owner of a bowlful of happiness: Instant pets! So eager to please, they can even be trained.” And in the upper left corner, on a red background and with a bigger typeface than any other on the ad: “Only $1.25.”
One of the most pronounced contrasts between the United States and Mexico, in those days, was the array of tantalizing products available to consumers north of the border. Cereal boxes in Mexico, for example, weren’t very well printed: The whites were less white, the cartoons weren’t as cute, but more than anything, the occasional toy included in the box was a sad comparison to those found in “gringo” boxes. (Maybe this conditioned me to be in awe of the spectrum of pink and gold skin tones of those bodies under the Texas sun? Or maybe it was Charlie’s Angels.)
In my country, a kid might find a toy printed on the underside of the box, which would have to be cut out, folded and glued together, and then would collect dust in some forgotten corner of the house until someone decided to throw it in the trash. In the US, kids would be rewarded with glowing pens or balls that bounced as high as the ceiling.
Another contrast between the two countries was that, in Mexico, by the late 70s, a magazine was widely published that alerted consumers to fraudulent products and made quality comparisons between competing brands. This magazine was funded by the federal government, in an effort to protect the Mexican consumer from the abuses of vendors of goods and services. It didn’t take long for people in Mexico to learn to be strident about their consumer rights, and threats to sue companies through the government were taken very seriously.
Artemia Salina is a tiny crustacean with three eyes and eleven pairs of legs that hasn’t changed significantly genetically in the last 100 million years, and is found in saltwater lakes. In its larval state, it has just one eye; as adults the species develop two more eyes, never losing the first one. The larvae swim towards light, while the adults avoid it.
The females of the species can reproduce through mating with the males or via parthogenesis, and the eggs can have thin or thick membranes. The healthy thin-membrane eggs hatch immediately, while the thick-membrane ones, produced in inferior conditions, can survive in a dormant state for several years, hatching as soon as conditions become minimally favorable.
This latter characteristic allowed a North American engineer named Harold von Braunhut to create a small empire founded upon the crudest deception.
Three weeks after I arrived at Camp Manison, my grandfather tracked down my father in a hotel in Capri. “I’m going this minute to get my grandson in Texas. He wrote us a letter. He’s having a terrible time. I’ll fly, drive, whatever it takes.” My father yelled back from the other end of the line, and my grandfather could only catch a few phrases like “builds character,” “it’s time he learned to be a man” and “if you show up there, I’ll give you hell.” My grandpa gave up his attempt, and I finished out my 8 grueling weeks amongst the blondes, los güeros.
In a way—forgive me forcing the simile a bit—my grandfather represented the social-welfare state, continental European-style, trying to intervene to correct situations in which a citizen may find himself embroiled in any society, creating a public safety net. My father, on the other hand, represented a laissez-faire state expecting citizens to solve their own problems, as long as they didn’t commit crimes or grossly abuse others. In Mexico, citizens were aware that a paternalistic institution existed to protect the rights of consumers. In the US, however, a reliable judicial system was in place, through which an individual could defend himself. But to a foreigner, it just looked like a tangled orgy of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits.
There I was, surrounded by denizens of the American dream, a generation to whom—according to the inviolable laws of the free market and economic growth—vendors could flagrantly lie on an astonishing scale, as we’ve all witnessed through TV infomercials. To think, these same people, almost forty years later, would choose as their leader a man who had transformed the salesman’s lie into a raison d’être, a way of seeing the world.