February 12, 2014

by Paul Rosenthal in San Pedro, Guatemala

Whenever I would tell my dad that I’d had a hard day at work he’d invariably ask, “Did sweat drip from your brow?”

Generally speaking, it hadn’t. I type fast, but not that fast.

I couldn’t help thinking of that as we motored through Mexico. The commonplace and dismissive American stereotype is of the lazy Mexican. We’ve all seen those cartoons of a guy in a sombrero sleeping against a cactus. But in fact, from what I’ve seen, much of the population works long, hard hours just to get by. And often it is not comfy, air-conditioned office work.

No doubt there are plenty of keyboard-jockeys like me, of course. And Mexico is no backwards island off-the-grid. You’ll find wifi hotspots at convenience stores, and plenty of bustling cars and sophisticated businesses. Yet muscle still plays a prominent role in Mexico to an extent that has mostly vanished north of the border.

At farms along the roadside, donkeys pull plows, accompanied by men negotiating each step with the donkey. Bicycles – or strong backs – are everywhere carrying heavy loads. Crews tending to the side of the highway are hacking away with machetes, not power tools. Bicycle rickshaws serve as taxis in small towns (and it always seems that the person riding has twice the BMI of the person pedaling). And on every city block there are people from dawn to well past midnight cooking and selling food, making tortillas by hand, or squeezing juice. At highway intersections someone is usually standing all day in the relentless sun and dust offering snacks for sale.

I’m not an efficiency expert, and can’t attest to the productivity of Mexican workers, or whether, on average, they put in long hours or short. But I can say that we passed countless cacti, and saw no sombreroed men snoozing alongside. And if my Dad had approached most of the folks I saw in the streets and fields and asked, at the end of the day, whether sweat had dripped from their brows, they surely would have replied, “Sí.”