A man, probably in his 30s, stood in front of our car at a traffic light last night and poured some flammable liquid into his mouth. Then he put a lighted torch up to his lips and whooshed out a huge plume of flame.
After he did his dragon act, he knocked on the window of our dinged-up Ford, and the others in line behind us, and asked for money. Everyone gave him something—anything to stop him from hurting himself more. One of the many flame-blowers and flame-eaters in the Mexico City streets, he had decided it was worth it to burn the inside of his mouth and lips for money.
About 40 million out of Mexico's 100 million people are poor, many of them desperately so. Here in the capital, there are 3-year-old kids no higher than the side-view mirror wading through moving cars on wildly busy streets, selling gum or straw baskets or a single flower or just holding out an empty hand. Others eat fire.
When we first arrived a few months ago we thought the flame-eaters were crazy to resort to such a brutal way to make a living. Why not just beg? But reasonable Mexicans, including some who spend their days helping this city's street people, tell us these people simply have learned that flame-blowers make money. They're tired of spending hours in the hot streets selling gum or begging and bringing in virtually no money. If you blow flame or eat a lighted torch, you are usually guaranteed a decent take from your audience.
A good part of our job as foreign correspondents is to explain the goings-on in other countries and cultures to American readers who are interested, but don't have the time, money or desire to go have a look for themselves.
Our job seemed clear when we were stationed in Japan from 1995 to 1999. We wrote about aging in the country with the world's longest lifespan, where 70-year-olds are considered youngsters and 80-year-olds ride motorcycles. We wrote about Japan's annual elaborate celebration of children turning 7, 5, and 3, and the problems of tiny living space (your neighbors beyond the thin walls know how often you wash clothes, eat pickles, and just about everything else), and Crown Princess Masako, whose struggle to bear an heir has been like watching goldfish mate in a bowl.
The further a field from the United States we traveled, the clearer our job seemed. Explaining why Bhutan was only now allowing its people to see television, the brutality of the military regime in Burma, the hard economics of rural Indonesia or gun control in Tasmania—all those stories were easily "foreign" correspondence for American readers.
Mexico has posed a whole new challenge. Americans already know a lot about Mexico. From college kids to business people to retirees, millions of Americans have visited Mexico, and many of them lived here for a time. There are an estimated 500,000 or 600,000 Americans living in Mexico now—100,000 of them in Mexico City alone. The U.S. Census says there are 7 million Mexican-born residents in America. There is a rich shared experience, although it has not always been good, of course.
It was the Day of the Dead here a couple of weeks ago. It was amazing to see, but it would have been difficult for us to write about for our paper. Many Americans may not know much about Mexico's annual celebration of ancestors. But millions do. They have seen their Mexican neighbors celebrating it in suburban Washington or in Georgia or Texas or Los Angeles. Or they have seen it first-hand in Mexico.
There is a familiarity with things Mexican that we never found in Japan. Part of it is that Mexico is simply closer, part of it is also language. Not too many people know what "onegaishimasu" means, but everybody's heard of "por favor." More Americans have been to Acapulco than Sapporo.
Americans know that just south of Texas lies a land where there is desperate poverty. They already know the economic gap is stark: there are 40 million poor people in Mexico; there seem to be 40 million millionaires in your average Starbucks in Palo Alto.
So we see poverty on the streets of Mexico City and we wonder: What can we tell people about it that they don't already know?