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The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
The Mexican Ambassador
by Rebecca Kiernan
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South of the border, Down Mexico Way actually, in my case it is south of the Liffey, down Donnybrook way but let's not get picky. It's this leafy Dublin 4 suburb that sets the scene for my visit to the Mexican embassy.
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The building itself is mildly impressive but not intimidating like its whitewashed American counterpart down the road. I am greeted at the door by the friendly secretary Davina who's more Mountjoy than Mexico, but like I said, let's not get picky. She ushers me into the ambassador's office to meet the man himself, Dr Agustin Basave Benitez, who's been Mexico's representative in Ireland for the last four years. Agustin is an amiable character who, much to my disappointment, lacked the sombrero and big black moustache that I had hoped for. I love a good stereotype Brits abroad, and militant Germans etc. etc. but I wasn't going to find one here. Bah.
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Dr Benitez spoke passionately and emphatically about his home. He said: 'Mexico is one of the most diverse countries in the world, in terms of cultural expressions, the weather, the landscape, food, in fact I think our gastronomic culture could rival that of the Chinese'. Rather than overdoing the gushing sentiments, you get the impression that this guy genuinely loves his country, and by the sounds of things, he loves ours too. But what did I expect? He's not going to tell an Irish journalist that he thinks we're all dumb hicks.
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Nevertheless, rather than the Americans, who, sometimes seem to regard the Irish in a rather sentimental, perhaps patronising way, I get the feeling that the Mexicans see us as equals that the two countries have a genuine affinity. This affinity was most likely borne out of the war between Mexico and America 1846-48. San Patricios, St Patrick's Brigade, consisted of Irish immigrants who defected from the American side to fight with the Mexicans, the reasons for which are not always clear. Romanticists would claim that the San Patriocios believed that the war was unjust and defected to help the losing Mexicans, those of a more cynical nature believe that land grants offered by the Mexican government and tequila induced fog helped sway their decision. Dr Benitez subscribes to the former opinion. He said: 'There is this historic link with San Patricios, when the Irish battalion defected the US Army and went to fight for Mexico. We have a monument for it in Mexico City, and recently, the names of the St Patrick Battalion have been inscribed in gold letters on the walls of the Mexican chamber of Deputies.
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Every year on the 12th of September I go to Clifton, because that's where Captain Riley, the head of that batallion was from and we have a memorial.'
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At first glance, a bond between Ireland and Mexico seems unlikely, culturally at the very least (lets not even start on the weather) I can't imagine Billy from Ballymena settling down to Enchiladas at dinner time, nor for that matter, Juan from Chihuahua tucking into a big Cookstown sausage. Perhaps I shouldn't be so obtuse. Regardless, the ambassador firmly upholds that there is a definite link: 'Mexicans and Irish tend not to know a great deal about each other's countries, yet there is this predisposition to friendship when a Mexican and Irish person meet. That is because we are both Catholic countries and we share a long history of struggle for our independence. We both have lived next door to a big power that has not made life easy for us.' The presence of a troublesome border is another connection. Dr Benitez said: 'I suppose that something similar happens between Mexico and America and Ireland and Northern Ireland. I can sense this tragic history and the difficulties still to achieve an irreversable peace and harmony and I hope that they will eventually achieve it.'
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I felt that Dr Benitez had such a rose tinted image of Ireland that I felt very guilty bringing up that the term 'Mexican' is often used in a derogatory way in this country. The ambassador was not aware of any such slights, but took it in his stride at any rate, commenting that 'there is racism everywhere in the world.' At this point I couldn't even bring myself to point out that it was a Mexican fungus which wiped out the potatoes in Ireland in the 1840s, starving over 1 million of us! But I'm not one to bear grudges. Tellingly, shortly after Dr Benitez began his stint in Dublin, he wrote to The Irish Times revealing his first impressions of the country. He closed the article by saying, 'I suppose there must be an unpleasant Irish person somewhere, but I have not yet had the experience of meeting him.' This man evidently has not been in a kebab shop on Dame Street at 4am on a Saturday morning. Dubliners themselves for the most part, at least the unfortunates I spoke to in Hogans bar, didn't seem to have an excess of informed opinions on Mexico, with one wag saying it's 'the sorta place you'd go if you'd just been dumped', Mexico!? I'd just go to the off licence, while another pannini munching city boy simply remarked 'it's a dump'. Interestingly, neither of my boys had ever been there. As their perceptions must have come from somewhere, I can only speculate that it's media fuelled ignorance, although I'm sure there are other factors.
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The ambassador believes that Mexico's current leader, President Fox has got a bit of Irish in there somewhere 'it's an Irish name'. Fox effectively represents Mexico's democratic transition, a change which has been ongoing over the last three years. Mexico had one party regime in power since 1929 the P.R.I until Fox and co. defeated them in 2001. According to Dr Benitez 'now democracy has been consolidated in Mexico and it is a more politicised country'. So in light of recent events in Mexico, including the recent signing of the free trade agreement with the EU, the political and economic future of Mexico seems more optimistic than ever. Salud!
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