Tampico, Mexico is a city of contrasts. On one hand, a visitor will find that it is a colorful, tropical, and exotic land. On the other hand, the very same visitor might find that it is a foul-smelling city, littered with garbage amidst vacant lots of rubble. Indeed, at times you might feel like you are walking through a city that has just been bombed. Abandoned apartment buildings, broken cement, and unpaved roads are as common as tall, proud palm trees, brilliant flowers, and a bright, blue sky.
The paradox is that Tampico is both beautiful and ugly at the same time.
Tampico is not an Acapulco or a Cozumel, although it does have its share of beautiful beaches. While there is some tourism, Tampico is not a place for the average tourist. Tampico might be where you would want to go to see, feel, and experience what some might call the real Mexico. Depending on one's mood, it can be an attractive paradise far, far away from the United States or it can simply be a dirty, third-world city with more than its share of poverty.
Located seven hours south of Brownsville, Texas on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Tampico is surprisingly remote and untouched by Americans. There is an American presence in the form of big business franchises (Wal-Mart, Burger King, Pizza Hut) on the main Avenida and a tiny contingent of self-proclaimed American expatriates working in Tampico (and living in its most posh neighborhoods) for multinational corporations such as DuPont. And, American pop music can always be found on the radio and is played in the nightclubs. But, for the most part, this part of Mexico is completely devoid of Americans.
My first experience with just how rare an American in Tampico is came on my first visit in May, 1998. I came as a young sociologist, looking to see what was so different about Mexico. An entry in my journal dated 2 May, 1998 notes that, the most different thing down here is me. They stare at me as if they have never seen an American. Indeed, I had never been the recipient of so many stares. Little girls pointed, giggled, and whispered behind cupped hands to each other. Older men eyed me suspiciously. Younger men would nod cautiously, and the women would just plain stare. Even the beggars would hesitate an extra moment before they put out their hands and mumbled something about joven and rico.
This constant staring was the most outstanding feature of Tampico. It was especially strange because the place was only a day's drive to the American border and one would expect that other Americans had visited. Yet, the people in Tampico did not seem to have experience being around Americans. Some shied away and simply gazed from a safe distance. But, some were not so shy. The children were the boldest. And, before I knew it, a group of the youngest were laughing and yelling and pulling me by the arms to the town square. It was here at the town square in the fiesta that followed that I experienced the next most outstanding feature of Tampico: the friendliness of its people.
To be continued...