News coverage of Pres. Obama’s recent trip to Mexico and Central America tends to focus on the drug-war violence ravaging much of the region.
The negative press is for good reason, too. Over 60,000 Mexicans were killed in the country’s drug war between 2006 and 2012, and the murder rate is a bit north of 20 lives per 100,000.
But that’s peanuts compared to most of Central America, which has become the main conduit for organized crime.
The worst is Honduras, my maternal homeland, where the murder rate is more than four times that of Mexico and 10 times higher than the global average (a Honduran is killed about every 70 minutes). San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s industrial epicenter, is now the “murder capital of the world,” with an astronomical 169 killings per 100,000 residents.
I was aware of the violence before my trip there in June 2011— I also knew about the golpe that took place in 2009. But being from Chicago, I thought San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa couldn’t be any more dangerous than Auburn Gresham or Sedville.
My grandma, a proud golpista, did her best to convince me that the reports were all lies invented by a left-leaning sensationalist media.
Fortunately, I never witnessed any crime whatsoever during my week-long tour of the country, finding it no more hazardous as I imagine other places around the world are.
Sure, there was the hotel manager in La Ceiba who pointed to the south and then into town, warning us not to go in either direction after dusk. And the family members we stayed with in the capital told us not to pull out anything of value (especially our phones) and suggested we stay indoors at night.
Now, nearly two years later, I find myself planning another week-long trip to another drug-war hot spot — this time, Juárez, Mexico.
My wife, the former DREAMer, was born in Juárez, and her father lives there now after being deported in 2004. I’m going with her to Juárez to introduce myself as his newest (and only) son.
While we’re both excited for the trip — my wife’s a daddy’s girl — we realize Juárez won’t be a walk in the park.
Yes, the city’s come a long way from just a few years ago, when its murder rate (2,738 in 2010) made it the murder capital of the world. Now it’s not even the murder capital of Mexico (“The city has now passed on the unfortunate distinction of being Mexico’s most violent to Acapulco,” writes Mexico specialist Shannon K. O’Neil).
Yet, while Juárez has around 600,000 fewer residents than Chicago, it still had close to 150 more murders last year than Chicago did.
Given the figures, my wife and I understand we’re traveling to a warzone.
But people trek nervously even in Chicago.
In celebration of Cinco de Mayo, I invited a few friends and family members to spend the day with me in La Villita (“Little Village,” for the uninitiated). Nearly all of them expressed more than a little trepidation in going to a part of the city they deemed “ghetto.”
Before I convinced her, one friend told me she didn’t “feel like getting shot today.”
When the day turned a bit too chilly for a festival, we headed over to 18th Street in Pilsen — again, at my suggestion. But after receiving a few catcalls and spotting some tattooed cholos, another girl in the crew pleaded, “Can’t you ever take us someplace safe?”
Before you write me angry letters saying that’s what you get for taking suburban güeras to the Mexican part of town, you may be interested to know that I was the only non-Mexican in the group.
And it’s not a Mexican thing either. I know plenty of Puerto Ricans who avoid El Paseo and Logan Square like swine flu.
The point is, while white America is weary about drug-war violence spilling over the border, death and crime has long since made the jump for many Latinos. The media has us worried about going to places like Juárez and San Pedro, when the places we come from —the places where Latinos live in America — are just as plagued.
It’s like rapper Yasin Bey once quipped: “I’m from the projects — I know danger.”
Candidly, there’s no concluding plan of action to this bit of commentary. I’m not pointing these conditions out to then say here’s what we do. I don’t know what we should do.
But what I do know is that what’s happening in Latin America abroad and in Latino communities at home is the result of decades of U.S. foreign and domestic policies.
Violence, crime and poverty are crippling Honduras and Mexico because the U.S. government doesn’t want them crippling America. The same levels of violence, crime and poverty are crippling La Villita and West Humboldt Park because the government doesn’t want them crippling Lakeview and Wicker Park.
So if there’s any definitive first step that can be discerned, maybe it’s that Latin Americans and Latinos decide that they will no longer live in fear of the places they come from.
Your parents’ or grandparent’s homeland might be dangerous, and your neighborhood might be a warzone, but if enough people are willing, they won’t be for long.
[Photo: Señor Codo via Flickr]