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Was it good for you, too?

10 January 2015

© 2014 John Kirsch. Originally published in Adirondack Review.

Right at the end of my book, Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, in mentioning recent trends in Mexico, I wrote

Foreigners, particularly retirees from the United States and Canada, learning that México is a relatively inexpensive, stable place to live, flood into the country…

With my publisher located in one of those towns where those foreigners were flooding in, my editor tried to add something about “enjoying the good life” to my original text.  And, as I recall, something about sitting on the beach and “delicious” food.  While I did allow mention of “retirement visas” in, I was rather annoyed with the “suggestions” and struck them out as inappropriate.  I can understand the temptation the editor had, but I was merely describing political and economic trends, and tourism as a new industry, not recommending it any more than I recommend traditional industries like mining or manufacturing.

Having later been hired by my publisher, I was, in a small way, expected to be part of the establishment in my own little town, or at least the expat establishment.  I suppose for many, a place like Mazatlán is the “good life”… whatever that is.  The weather is generally good, and there’s a beach.  The bars and restaurants are convivial, and the cost of living is such that those with a decent pension can acquire a lifestyle to which they would like to become accustomed.  But that wasn’t my purpose in living there, nor are the “leisure options” things I would necessarily chose for myself (not as an everyday activity anyway).  And — having lived in some very tiny and isolated places at various times (I rather enjoyed being one of the 6000 or so souls in Alpine, Texas) — it’s not so much a matter of having a wide circle of potential acquaintances that convinced me to move back to Mexico City as it is a matter of being able to pursue whatever it is that makes for a “good life”.

Like most resort areas, outsiders … whether we are comfortable in the new culture or not… are steered into “expat community” activities.  I know several fine people who have found meaningful “second career” in some sort of volunteer organization (whether professionally run, or ad hoc) but I was pursuing a first career, and — while writers can work anywhere, and with the internet, it’s possible to pursue most (not all ) scholarly research — I did need to earn my daily bread and had little time or inclination for the usual charities.

As I recall, my editor, when he hired me, told the “community” I was going to write a history of Mazatlan as a follow up to “Gods, Gachupines and Gringos”… something I had no real intention of doing, but I did look into it… and decided it wasn’t something I could do… or even wanted to do.  But, such is the lure of “paradise” that one assumes one’s own life — or lifestyle — is of general interest to everyone.  Perhaps a local history might sell… locally.  Perhaps it might even be praised… locally.  Perhaps one even might be taken seriously… locally.  Provided, of course, one is thinking locally.

There were also sound business reasons for moving to Mexico City, from what one of our published books calls “Paradise” (and for the author, and his audience, it is), but perhaps more importantly, there was a need to get out of the localism and assumption I was there for the “good life” and only the “good life”… and the overwhelming assumption that the “good life” is the life one wants for him or herself.


John Kirsch,  wrote the following about the issues that arise when your work doesn’t reflect the “good life”.  He has been exhibiting photographs since the late 1970s, and worked for several years as a photographer and newspaper reporter in Iowa and Texas before moving to Mexico.

For several years I’ve been working on a writing and photography project about my paternal grandmother and the lobotomy she had in the early 1950s.

The project has been a journey into a dark corner of my family’s history – and the nation’s, too. My mother only revealed the secret to me many years later, after I had committed myself to a mental hospital in Texas for several days for work-related stress. The revelation made me see my grandmother, who passed away in 1993, as a kindred spirit and I set out to learn more about her experience, and that of others like her, who were committed to institutions like Cherokee State Hospital.

Thousands of people, such as my grandmother, were lobotomized from the 1930s to the 1950s. Some, such as Rosemary Kennedy, sister of John F. Kennedy, were permanently incapacitated. My grandmother was apparently one of the lucky ones. She always seemed happy and cheerful in family gatherings in the late 1950s and early 60s. 

My efforts have resulted in essays published in Iowa newspapers and the outline of a novel in which the lobotomy figures prominently. Last summer The Adirondack Review, a respected online literary and arts magazine in the States, published my photo/text essay featuring some of the photographs I’ve taken in the museum at the mental hospital in Cherokee, Iowa.

 © 2014 John Kirsch. Originally published in Adirondack Review.

© 2014 John Kirsch. Originally published in Adirondack Review.

But I live in Mazatlan and thought it would be nice to show my Cherokee photos here. I have an artist’s ego and wanted to show people here that I’m doing serious photography. I knew my work was challenging, a departure from the usual fare of sunsets and seascapes, but I decided to take a chance and see if a local arts organization would be interested in showing it.  I’m old-fashioned enough to want to make actual prints and hang them on a wall. So, in October, I contacted an arts organization here in Mazatlan, about having an exhibit in their space.

Not only did the Director like my photos, she proposed that I do a slide presentation in the theater before an audience.

A date was set for Jan. 7, then postponed till Feb. 4.

It didn’t occur to me to take the postponement as a sign of softening support. But suddenly quizzical emails from the Director did. I sought assurance that my presentation on Feb. 4 was still on the calendar. Just in time for Christmas I learned that it had been postponed yet again. Soon thereafter the entire project collapsed.

Since the presentation, in whatever form, is not going to happen, at least in Mazatlán, it seems pointless to dwell on the reasons given for scuttling my project. I will say I found the reasons to be unconvincing.

But the experience has caused me to look inward a little, too. Maybe I was naive to approach an arts organization that appears to cater primarily to snowbirds. I can easily imagine elderly couples from Vancouver or Seattle frowning in disapproval at my black and white photographs of straitjackets and the long, needle-like instruments once used to perform lobotomies. If I can imagine that happening, then so could the people running the show.

The larger context is important, too. Like any tourist town (or any town, period), Mazatlan is infected with boosterism. Criticism of existing institutions, especially gringo institutions, is discouraged, at least in public.

Already, an English-language weekly here has turned down an essay on my experiences with the local arts establishment. Inappropriate for a tourist paper, the editor told me. I got no response after telling the editor of another tourist paper what my essay was about.

Something good has come out of this frustrating experience. I had been weighing the daunting prospects of moving to Mexico City.  Having been born in a small town in Iowa and growing up in Des Moines, which is about as close as Iowa comes to having a real city. Crowds and noise bother me, perhaps more than many other people. The prospect of living in such a gigantic place — with a population 60 times greater than that of Des Moines — is daunting to me. I try to convince myself that the chances of getting my work recognized are much greater in a place such as Mexico City, noise and all.

But when I visited my partner, Richard, in Mexico City recently we met with Jack Little, the editor of the internationally distributed poetry magazine,Ofipress.

The editor likes my Cherokee photos and has asked a poet friend to write about the images.

One door closes, another one opens (maybe).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Barry Payne permalink
    10 January 2015 3:57 pm

    Interesting review of life in a tourist resort. You were not alone as the description you paint is the same in Puerto Vallarta where I live for 6 months a year. Good luck with your move. I always look forward to reading your posts

  2. historiadeturismo permalink
    10 January 2015 7:14 pm

    I am delighted that this door has opened for you, Richard. You are a fine writer and researcher. You aren’t afraid of the truth. Run Richard, run… to the grand city. I know you won’t ever regret doing so.

  3. 11 January 2015 11:10 am

    Was led to your blog from Mikel Miller’s Mexico Writers. What a relief to hear another artist writing about things I have experienced and disparaged after 38 years near a foreign community in Mexico. There seems to be a general consensus that elderly northerners (I’m one too) aren’t capable of consuming anything but comedic theatre, puritanical paintings etc. I tried to include a famous 70’s psychedelic poster with an article I submitted to a local mag., promoting an exhibition of posters. It was denied since it included a nude! Yikes. As was the play based on my husbands WWII memoir. (“You need to jolly it up, we’d have to put disclaimers in the promotion”) You are one of the few people I’ve discovered who would understand and appreciate my feelings and frustration. Thanks to you and the very best of luck with all your projects! Would love to read your book and see your fotos.

  4. old.frt permalink
    11 January 2015 10:27 pm

    Typically, only in big cities can one speak the truth.
    And they have to be well over a million in population.
    Anything smaller, to write about a serious hometown topic is to ask for harassment at best and violence at the worst.
    But it may be the case that you can now write about Mazatlan, wort’s and all, since you don’t live here,
    I, for one as a newly ensconced expat, look forward to the Mazatlan stories you choked on earlier.
    All the very best in this new chapter.
    You’ve earned it.

  5. 17 January 2015 7:31 pm

    Very interesting.

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