In Mexico, as in other Latin American countries, Europe is an aspiration, before it is a continent. Perhaps it began with a longing felt by some of the immigrants from the “Old World”—once that initial period of tropical enrapture experienced in their new land had passed—to regain some of the values or goods they missed; such as a fine wine, or something resembling a rule of law. It didn’t take long for this yearning for Spain or Portugal to shift—depending on country or era—to England or France.
The white elite sent their children to be civilized in Paris or London, since even pure-blooded Europeans lost points on the scale of human worth, if born in these savage lands, hindering their social and economic climb in the courts of the baroque New World. Perhaps it was the ambition for power felt by some individuals from the conquered peoples that led them to idealize European culture; to sympathize with their oppressors, learn their ways. Centuries later, it would be Yale, Princeton and Harvard which won their sympathies—although, families don’t send their children to acquire culture at Yale, Princeton or Harvard, but to acquire money and power.
And thus, for many of us, Europe represents the pinnacle of a civilization we tried to replicate under the incandescent tropical sun, but also a dark past, the violent exploitation of one people by another, and an orderly existence under the protection of the State. Oh, and good literature, historic art and films.
I didn’t come to live in Europe, I came to live in eastern Europe, which for many of us is the friendlier periphery or parallel. The Balkans, in particular, feels like a mirror image of Latin America.
Also, maybe in contrast to our Anglo-American neighbors in North America, who feel they are the progressive heirs to European culture, we Mexicans and other Latin Americans live always with mixed emotions and a sense of guilt while in Europe, even as the descendants of immigrants from this continent. The guilt born of enjoying the benefits of European civilization, when there is still so much to do in our own countries of origin, to establish a more humane distribution of wealth and a more generous system of opportunities. In Slovenia, I once heard one Mexican call another a traitor for starting the naturalization process, leaving behind the nationality of his birth.
But even with the guilt, the calming effect on the nerves is felt immediately. For an average European, who has not left the continent, the reality of brutal contrasts and societal violence lived at other latitudes is difficult to imagine. Personally, I have made myself a sort of literary niche, exploring this amazement. The stories we relate in Europe –those of us who do not come from a bubble of absolute privilege in Latin America–sound, to local ears, much more like tales of magical realism, mixed with television shows about narcos, than everyday life. This is why sometimes, along with the benefits of security, stability and excellent public services, comes an assault of boredom and tedium.
As a Mexican, living in Slovenia is a cultural paradox: On the one hand, there are the comprehensive public cultural programs, including a large number of free public concerts, generous support for theater, opera and dance, and an inspiring public arts education system for children; and on the other, there is an absolute separation between everyday life and artistic expression.
The space for art is carefully marked, limited and, in some ways, sterilized here. The instructions appear to be “go about your humdrum life and, with your free time, enrich yourself with public cultural offerings.”
In Latin America in general, and particularly in Mexico, art and artistic expression are wrapped up with everyday life. When you get into a taxi in one of our cities, you risk not only being kidnapped, but also encountering a decorative display of self-expression that could win an art installation prize at any European biennial. There is much less public funding, but much more popular art on display. In the specific case of Slovenian cabs, you will find spotless upholstery and control panels, a large GPS and, as a token of individuality, a large screen on the stereo displaying the driver’s favorite radio station.
Society is starkly divided: You are either a consumer of high culture and its recreational artistic output, or you’re a customer enslaved by the big malls and junk television.
Driving my stepdaughter to school in the mornings, I’m reminded, in minutes, why I like living in Europe, or at least, in Slovenia. Civility. The ride from my house to school in Mexico City, my mother at the wheel was, by contrast, a very enlightening demonstration of the lack of civility and respect for traffic laws by a population that has trouble considering other citizens in a societal context, and that believes rules only matter if a police car is nearby.
But with all the tangible benefits living in Europe offers, my biggest concern, since I first came to live here nine years ago, is still the same. How can we create affluent societies, where the basic needs of the citizens are met, and where equal opportunities exist for the young without, at the same time, creating a bland, ungenerous society of spoiled human beings?
I would sacrifice all the spontaneity, color, freshness, and impudence of our peripheral societies for a more equitable distribution of wealth and greater civility in our social interactions, but I can’t quiet the voice in my head, wondering if the exchange is really worth making.
However, I think that enjoying the democratic benefits bestowed by history on this subcontinent, without doing everything possible to spread those same benefits to every corner of the earth—without creating new colonies, nor indiscriminately opening borders and trying to cultivate these same fruits locally for future generations—is in essence a crime, and an unconscionable lack of generosity.