By Tony Cohan
Reviewed by Living Abroad Contributing Editor Volker Poelzl
Tony Cohan, best known for “On Mexican Time,” a memoir about his early days in Mexico during the 1980s, has written a sequel of sorts to his best-selling travel narrative. Written from the perspective of a long-time American expatriate in Mexico, “Mexican Days” is the account of the author’s travels across the country he has called home for several decades.
The opening scenes of “Mexican Days” sets up one of the main themes of the book: the close and often uncomfortable relationship between the U.S. and its southern neighbor Mexico. After some time in the U.S., Cohan returns home to San Miguel de Allende only to discover that Hollywood has taken over the town for the filming of “Once upon a Time in Mexico”, not unlike some previous U.S. incursions into Mexican territory during the 19th century. Throughout the book Cohan’s informative and critical narrative elaborates on the relations between Mexico and the U.S., not only politically, but also with a historical, social, and cultural perspective in mind.
Encouraged by a commission to write an article about Mexico, he leaves his chosen home town of San Miguel de Allende and sets out in a southerly direction to explore the country, talk to the people, observe, absorb, and share his impressions with his readers. As the author visits the ruins of Mexico’s great civilizations, he takes readers back to the pre-Columbian past and reveals the treasures and the plight of Spain’s colonial rule. “I too felt the romance of ruin among the sagging colonial buildings, the dust of decay, the traces of successive cultures that had been conquered or simply foundered here.”
He travels across this vast country from the mountains near San Miguel de Allende to the colonial town of Guanajuato, to enormous Mexico City, to Oaxaca with its ancient ruins, to the Gulf Coast in Vera Cruz, to the Caribbean coast on the Yucatán peninsula, and to the magnificent Mayan ruins half-hidden in the steaming rain forest. Along the way he talks to Mexicans from all walks of life, meets old friends, makes new ones, and engages the locals in conversation about their lives and current affairs in their country. The theme of cultural exchange, of travel as a means to widen one’s horizon, permeates the book. Cohan writes: “In Mexico I took the stance of a pilgrim, inviting correctives to the limitations of the culture I came from, revelations offered me here as boons.” Mexican Days not only gives readers insight into the soul of Mexico, but also points out the undeniable differences between Latin and Anglo-America. As one of Cohan’s friends explains in the book: “El Che…to the gringo he’s just a defeated romantic, a mere socialist. To a Mexican–any Latin American–he is all that is beautiful in us, all that is damned.”
On his travels across Mexico Cohan also crosses the paths of famous Mexican and expatriate writers, artists, and film makers who have come before him and who left their indelible imprint on Mexican culture. Among them are the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the writer B. Traven and filmmakers John Huston and Sergei Eisenstein. As he writes: “In Mexico all manner of exiles, émigrés, and expatriates have found shelter–from Trotzky to Fidel, from Luis Buñuel to García Marquez, from the Shah of Iran to Howard Hughes. Ex-revolutionaries, deposed dictators, old Nazis and anarchists grow old together on plaza benches in baggy pants, feeding the pigeons.”
This kaleidoscopic view of Mexico’s culture and rich history is interspersed with insightful observations and musings about the current state of affairs. Cohan not only comes across the remains of Mexico’s past, but he also encounters the “New Mexico,” heralded by the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000. This historic election ended the seventy-year rule of Mexico’s corrupt PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. According to Cohan, there was a palpable new optimism in the air during the early years of the new millennium, a sense of renewal and hope, which he encountered throughout his travels. Little did he know that this hope he encountered on his travels would be crushed by a violent war between rivaling drug cartels only a few years later. In light of these more recent events, “Mexican Days” is a chronicle of a short period of hope in Mexico, but also of lost opportunities, failed reforms, and ineffective governance.
“Mexican Days” is available at bookstores, from online booksellers, and from the publisher Broadway Books, a division of Random House. The book is also available as an eBook for Kindle and other eBook readers. To find out more and to read excerpts, visit the publisher’s website to view Mexican Days.