Help me explain why jokes and concern re: Mexican jail/water = problems
January 12, 2020 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm headed on a trip to Mexico (at a seaside resort) with U.S.–based colleagues. People keep joking about ending up in Mexican jail and repeatedly mentioning tips such as not to drink the tap water. Help me explain to them why these can be racist and/or stereotypical things to focus on when discussing our upcoming trip, so I can effectively redirect these lines of joking or discussion.

I believe that there can be some truth behind the messaging and tips about the water. I haven't been to Mexico yet, but I've read that there can be plumbing differences from what folks in the U.S. might be used to in various places in Mexico, especially in outlying areas/villages, where city water may only flow for part of the day and otherwise be stored and distributed via pump or gravity from tinacos and cisternas, and bathrooms may have signage cautioning against flushing toilet paper, due to aging pipes. Just like in the U.S. in California and the Southwest, water rationing might be in effect in some areas of Mexico (though almost certainly not the resort area). I am also aware that many well-to-do Mexicans will purchase significant amounts of bottled water for everyday drinking, and that Mexico leads the world in bottled-water consumption accordingly. These things appear to be all relatively factual. It's also the case that just about anywhere one travels, if you're not used to the bacteria and virii that may be present around you, you might run into digestive issues, even if the water is otherwise clean and sanitized.

These things also don't seem like they're all that likely to apply to daily life in a resort zone. So a first criticism of these reminders and jokes about the water is that they're generalizations that may not apply. Also, the repeated reminders about not drinking the water, especially when we'll be staying in a resort zone, start to feel a bit stereotypically USian, like the easy, dumb jokes about diarrhea I hated on the show Outsourced. And then there are the jokes about ending up in Mexican jail—these jokes have been defended to me as being about where folks on the trip will end up due to being stereotypically clueless USians, thus allegedly reflecting some measure of self-awareness of the speakers' limitations in terms of cultural experience. But they still seem in poor taste and almost like they're preemptively defending poor behavior ("No matter what, they're going to see us as gringos, so we might as well bond over our collective inability to be properly courteous").

I have a few initial thoughts on how to explain the issues with these jokes and "tips," but I'm looking for more approaches to explaining the problems with them to people, as I have a feeling it's going to keep coming up. One thing I've already explained is problematic is that both the jokes and the cautions about the water are or can sound stereotypical, however well-meaning the latter might be. The reality of the water and plumbing is likely far more nuanced and will depend on where we are—in the resort zone, concerns about plumbing are probably far less salient. This doesn't strike me as all that different from traveling in the rural Midwest U.S.; rest stops might have well water, but chain hotels will almost certainly have filtration and treatment systems. How effective these systems are may vary, but people still live in these areas and aren't sick or dirty all the time.

Regarding the jokes about Mexican jail, it feels like they stem from ideas and fears that Mexican prisons are backwards, uncivilized places, devoid of rule of law and/or, perhaps more important in the imaginations of USians, devoid of the invisible benefits and protections of being a white U.S. citizen. This Google Books result, discussing some of the history of portrayals of Mexican jails as "dungeons," seems to confirm that notion.

Both of these sets of jokes and "concerns" seem to stem from racist fears of being the white "other," or of being targeted in some way and not understanding cultural or procedural norms while traveling abroad. Another commonality seems to be stereotype-based fear of sickness or dirty living conditions in Mexico. But what else am I missing? How else can I, a U.S.–based white person myself, get my people and explain why saying these and similar things is problematic, to help head off these types of repetitive, insecure jokes and tips?
posted by INTJ to Human Relations (17 answers total)
I don’t think the issue is the people around you not understanding what their remarks imply about them, and what they think of Mexico and Mexicans, so much as that these people just don’t care. I mean, they planned a trip to visit a place that they’re using stereotypes to laugh about as being crappy or lesser-than. They’re clearly not going to Mexico because they’re interested in the people, the food, the culture there. Are they only visiting resorts stuffed with tourists, so they don’t expect to encounter anyone but white people? Does it make them feel superior to look down their noses?

Maybe you can get it across better with questions: What does it say about them that they’re paying money to visit a place they think is crappy, and on top of that, talking shit about a place they’ve presumably never been? How would they feel if they were from Texas and encountered a bunch of rich European tourists laughing and mocking yeehaw cowboys and large American portion sizes? (I’m sure there are people who would view them/their hometowns with the disdain they’re showing to Mexico here.) If they were going to Manhattan, would they spend vacation prep time whining about rats and noisy city streets? Do they want to be the kind of tourists that embarrass their own people by acting rude?

I guess what it comes down to is, if they don’t care that they’re being racist and looking like boors (which they don’t seem to), can’t they at least see that it’s dumb to spend time they could be focused on anticipating cool parts of the vacation instead talking about potentially negative parts?
posted by sallybrown at 10:49 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]

Maybe point out that given the current political situation, it's far more likely for Mexicans in the U.S. to end up in jails and prisons with terrible "dungeon-like" conditions than the other way around.
posted by primalux at 11:23 AM on January 12 [15 favorites]

I understand your sentiments completely but would be wary of schooling anyone.

My view is that while people might be misinformed it's not my job to teach people lessons. I choose to lead by example and if people are hateful I will say something and after that I don't hang out with them.

Sometimes people aren't hateful but clueless. My boss recently told me a story where she went out of her way to "say hello and reach out to a black couple who were at Christmas mass because I wanted them to feel welcomed".

I so badly wanted to say: Would you go out of your way for a white person? How do you know they don't feel welcomed? They could be regular parishioners and you would have no idea because you only attend at Christmas and Easter. Your behavior is condescending. Mind your own business and act as you would with a white couple, because going out of your way to give them your phony greetings because they are black is gross. You're assuming they are lesser than and others are viewing them as outsiders, but that is your own twisted thinking.

I didn't say any of these things because she's my boss and she's pretty blind when it comes to these things. Maybe her heart is in the right place or more likely she's trying to boost her ego by behaving as if she's accepting and tolerant and others aren't. Who knows. It's weird. It's the same kind of thing when my other coworker goes up to black or Asian babies and coos over them and doesn't do the same to white babies. I've tried to respectfully inform my boss before and she doesn't seem to get it. Sometimes people have to realize on their own that they are being dumb. In the Christmas mass instance I chose to say nothing and kept quiet instead of giving her my approval.

Your coworkers' sentiments sound like the stereotypical "don't drink the water" fears. I took the jail thing as "Things might get wild, hope we don't get arrested." A "What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas" kind of thing. Either way it's a dumb joke because regardless of conditions, the chances of landing jail time or receiving a prison sentence while hanging out at a resort in Mexico are minute unless your coworkers are criminals. If they want to joke about fears of landing in a Mexican jail, let them. It's not something to care about in my opinion.

Maybe I am wrong but my philosophy is to mind my own business in these sorts of discussions unless there is hateful talk. This doesn't seem like that kind of situation. You can't tell other adults what to do or how to think. Be the light and lead by example.
posted by loveandhappiness at 11:36 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]

I am also aware that many well-to-do Mexicans will purchase significant amounts of bottled water for everyday drinking, and that Mexico leads the world in bottled-water consumption accordingly. These things appear to be all relatively factual. It's also the case that just about anywhere one travels, if you're not used to the bacteria and virii that may be present around you, you might run into digestive issues, even if the water is otherwise clean and sanitized.

I haven't been everywhere in Mexico, but I've lived there and traveled there fairly extensively, and it's true: you should not drink the tap water. Some hotels purify their water supply so it's safe. I wouldn't chance it.

What's false is the conception that Mexicans are somehow immune, and can drink tap water—they can't. In most places I've been, the water has been chlorinated so that it's acceptable for washing dishes, washing fruit and vegetables, and small amounts of it won't hurt you. However, a big glass of tap water will get you, and any almost any Mexican, sick.

Mexicans drink bottled water, but I haven't observed single-use bottles in more frequent use than in the US. Mexicans go to water dispensaries with big plastic water-cooler jugs, fill them, and use that water for anything food related: boiling food, making coffee, drinking, etc.

As for Mexican prison, I've heard from several Mexicans that, in fact, the prison system is a backwards, uncivilized place, devoid of rule of law and invisible benefits and protections of being a white U.S. citizen. You don't want to go there.
posted by vitout at 11:54 AM on January 12 [24 favorites]

These are hackneyed attempts at humor. It feels like a false sense of American superiority. Regarding water, We could be going to Flint. Do a little research and develop similar responses regarding prison, border detention facilities, family separation.
posted by theora55 at 11:55 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

I'm currently in Mexico. I've stayed in resorts, Airbnb's, hotels, and am currently at a marina in a small town.

In the small towns and larger ones that I've been in, the homes have cisterns. I've been in one that had a RO system and that was unusual. Some homes have a filtration system but I've only been in one with that. Most of the homes I've been in have garrafons of water for drinking, either hooked up under their sink or attached to a manual water dispenser. They're not expensive at all from a local perspective and is a common thing to get delivered. I haven't met a local that drinks water from the tap. One fancy apartment building I stayed in in Puerto Vallarta had a building-wide filtration system. The water in our marina is not potable and it's city water, what goes to people's taps.

When Americans talk about not drinking the water, it's usually, in my experience in asking them why they say that, an outdated anecdote of locals using tap water for ice and gringos getting sick from it (The whole "Montezuma's Revenge" thing). I have no idea if this was ever in actual practice but restaurants, including roadside taco stands, buy filtered ice so there's no need to worry about it. Tell your coworkers this, because it's still a common misconception that I try to tell everyone about. Ice is ok here!

In homes, most of the time the toilet paper is deposited in a wastebasket. In hotels/resorts it varies on their set-up. I don't know if it's aging pipes as I've been in newer places with this requirement and older places where you can flush it. Might have more to do with access to sewage vs a septic tank, but I'm not sure.
posted by vivzan at 12:06 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]

The jail thing is deeply inappropriate, but as someone who recently ended up in the hospital with a trifecta of gastrointestinal infections (Pathogenic E. coli! Astrovirus! Salmonella! All initially diagnosed as Entamoeba histolytica, which is even more of a horror show!) after taking seemingly every reasonable precaution in Peru, perhaps you can try to mentally reframe the people mentioning the water issue as well-wishes for your health and vacation enjoyment?

I hope you have a great time.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:15 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Off topic but I'd be remiss not to mention another thing that's ok to drink here that scare tourists who are afraid of the water: Agua Frescas, Horchatas, Tejuino, atols, etc. No one is making them from tap water and it would be a shame to skip! Buy these from roadside stands, central markets, street vendors, etc. The only caveat is normal hygiene concerns so buy them from vendors busy with locals.
posted by vivzan at 12:47 PM on January 12

If I’m reading your post correctly, you’re going for a work trip, not a vacation, and your travel companions are coworkers, not friends. So on the one hand, you may need to carefully consider how you deliver your message so it has fewer negative work ramifications for you, but on the other, you may not be as concerned about mildly alienating people who aren’t actually your friends. Only you know where you’re willing to draw those lines, but it’s something you should get clear on before you say anything.

One tack you could take is to ask if the joke makers really want to live up to the Ugly American stereotype, because that’s how it comes across when they make these kinds of tiresome and repetitive “jokes” about the place you’ll be travelling to. Is it a conference or retreat, where you and your coworkers are meeting up with people from other branches or other organizations? Maybe warning your coworkers that they’re not going to make a good impression on colleagues in the field will encourage them to dial it back.

I think it will conserve your energy if you stick to objecting to the jail comments rather than getting derailed by the “don’t drink tap water” comments. I’m not saying you’re wrong that they’re coming from the same xenophobic/American superiority mindset, just that (as you can see with the amount of space you dedicated to talking about the nuances of water in your Ask) it’ll be easier and more straightforward for you to focus on why the jail comments are bad and the overall tone of such conversations. I think this is a pick your battles situation.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:52 PM on January 12

Since this is a trip you're apparently taking with colleagues, if you have the ability to gather them together and just tell them to settle down because they're going to make the company look bad because they're being awful, do that. I wouldn't even step into the battle of why, just say that the Mexican jail jokes are in poor taste (and absolutely NOT a joke that should be made while in transit, for fuck's sake, or to other people in Mexico or in fact anywhere in the world because it's embarrassing) and to follow any instructions they are given about drinking water and flushing things and settle down between now and the time those instructions are available so we can discuss the trip itself like grownups, thanks.

Here is a common sense guide to water and vegetables targeted at travelers in Mexico. If you're staying in a resort, you can generally assume raw vegetables have been cleaned to appropriate standards (as the article says, you can buy vegetable sanitizer in any grocery store, everyone knows about it), and you should look for the mentioned garrafons (usually the same old blue water jug you'd see in any office) for filling the reusable water bottles they should be bringing with them and NOT touching the mouth-parts to dispensers.

I guess if your colleagues NEED to be told not to buy or traffic drugs or sex, go ahead and do that. Hopefully this trip isn't going to require anyone to drive who isn't extremely comfortable with doing so and making sure they're fully legal to do it. They should not drink to such an excess that they commit crimes or become a public nuisance. They should not steal things, commit vandalism, or get into fights. There should be no other opportunity to interface with law enforcement, so that problem is basically pre-solved if they're going to act like adults.

I wouldn't try to win this, I would just say hey, y'all are acting ridiculous about this and it's a risk and it's time to stop.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:13 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

If you feel like being generous with your co-workers, it is possible that their entire conceptualization of a vacation in Mexico is based around the "wild spring break party in Cancun" cinema trope, which more or less looks like:
- beaches and/or quaint border towns
- parties and/or saloons
- tequila and cervesas
- senoritas
- drunken troublemaking that gets you into a hilarious pickle and then you end up in jail, haha, what fun

If you're an American who knows literally nothing about Mexico, the above might be your entire worldview of Mexico, every single part of it. That's still a little xenophobic, but it's mostly ignorant, and for the co-workers who are capable of introspection and growth, you could redirect the conversation by starting with a blunt "That's not really a concern and kind of a stereotype", and then following up with:
- We booked XYZ activities, doesn't that sound fun?
- I'm really looking forward to visiting XYZ temple
- I can't wait to try XYZ food
- Did you know there's a great craft brewing scene in XYZ city/state?
- etc.
posted by slagheap at 1:14 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

The jokes have some basis in truth. Regarding water, I'd only drink bottled water, and would avoid drinks with ice cubes. Having caught a bug in Michoacan on a trip about 20 years ago, I can tell you I'm very vigilant to this day. I was laid out for about a month, and my gut wasn't quite right for about a year. I was reasonably careful, but being a little too adventuresome let got the best of me.

Regarding jail, Mexican police have a reputation for corruption, and with tourists particularly in border towns were tourists are often worst behaved. Which results in jail time. Sucks if you're in this position, but if you don't behave like a jerk, you'll be fine. Additionally, the cops can appear menacing, sometimes riding around in the back of pickups carrying automatic weapons, looking a little more like a band of vigilantes than cops. It was hard for me to differentiate cops from each other, some looking like paramilitary, others appearing more like mall security guards. I asked a taxi driver once what the difference between them were. His reply was, "Only difference is some are rats and some are not."

Last time I went was to a resort town, Ixtapa, next to Zihuatanejo. It had several fairly modern resorts catering mostly to what seemed to be well off Mexicans. Plenty of cops around, but no indication they're looking to shake down average tourists. The resort provided a huge variety of food and drink that I was fairly confident with. Other venues, street food, etc, I'd be much more discriminating.

As for the jokes, I'd be pretty dismissive, "Don't be a dick and you'll be fine." If you want to get all finger waggy and "Well, actually...", can be a difficult angle to follow and still be persuasive.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:41 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you get that bad water and corrupt cops are real things here but you find joking about other people’s problems to be in poor taste.

I usually assume new travelers to a country joke because stepping into an unknown world is scary, and making cynical jokes brings some sense of familiarity and control. Same for a general reliance on broad stereotypes after arrival.

Speaking as someone who has encountered tourists all over the world and sees no difference in them here in my little corner of Mexico, I don’t think you will have much effect pre-trip. Some people need a concrete example for things to be real — they need to actually be here before they’ll be able to replace stereotypes with reality.

And some of them won’t get past it even then, but I think a lot of them will be receptive to the idea that they are not currently throwing up and/or being held for ransom by the police when they are actually here. Mundane reality will render the jokes pointless. So yeah, I think if you’re going to have an effect it will be after the plane lands.

Lastly, I wouldn’t get too hung up on the idea that clueless travelers are a USAin thing. All countries are well represented. And as is common in resort towns everywhere you all are going to be considered f*cking tourists. You could be Mexican and you’d still be a f*cking tourist. You’ll be spending more per night than most of the locals make in a month so a little cultural ignorance is just icing on the cake.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:42 PM on January 12 [8 favorites]

Alternatively, you could just drop some hard truths on the conversation. Like how a lot more Mexican kids have died in American jails in the last two years than the other way around, or how the water in Ixtapa might be safer to drink than the water in Flint.
posted by mhoye at 5:25 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

If this story is even half true, it sounds like the warnings about jail are due more to the corrupt police than their dungeon-like quality.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 5:59 PM on January 12

INTJ, I would also be super irritated with these crappy jokes. I might try a few different tactics.

a) guilt trip - politics: "heeeey, let's ease up on stereotypes about Mexico, talking about how the water is dirty feels too similar to people who think that the entire country is full of dirty people."

b) guilt trip - personal: "heeey, stop pooping on my parade. I'm looking forward to this trip."

c) redirect/criticism: "oh man, I wonder if Venezuela has withdrawn their travel warnings for people traveling to the U.S. I was talking to [non U.S. person] who asked me if it's true all Americans carry guns to go shopping and to church."
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:29 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

I would just be extremely obtuse and ignore that these are supposed to be jokes. “Oh, the resort website says that they supply drinking water.” “What are you planning that has you worried about being arrested? Have you looked at the state department advice?”

If they press, then you get to say “I don’t find X to be very funn, can you explain the joke?” but they’ll probably see that one coming and knock it off, at least around you.
posted by momus_window at 8:42 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

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