At Large

The Bonfire of the Hispanities

Live (still) from Mexico City, where grudgingly unhelpful Embassy personnel and CNN swine flu coverage are discomfited by a 5.8 earthquake.

By 4.28.09

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MEXICO CITY, April 27, 2009 -- On the crowded sidewalks of Paseo de la Reforma, a dark-eyed office worker held a cell phone to her left ear and with her free hand pulled down her blue medical mask to reveal a lovely Latin pair of lips. In a gesture worthy of Albert Camus, she took a deep dark carcinogenic draft from a Marlboro Light. Without exhaling, she replaced the mask.

As is the case so often in this country, something's picturesque with this wrong.

I was in this crowd along the Reforma after a Sisyphean morning at the United States Embassy. I had arrived a little after 9:00 to avail myself of the notarial services offered, according to the Embassy website, every weekday from 8:30 a.m. until noon. In one of the many obstacles to commerce that NAFTA has not alleviated, the only place a United States visitor to Mexico can get business and legal documents notarized for purposes back home is the Embassy or one of its consulates. The rent-a-cop ("seguridad privada") at the entrance told me that the Embassy had decided to suspend all services for American citizens until at least the sixth of May because of the swine flu scare. "Unless it's an emergency." 

After two hours of persistent calls up the bureaucratic ladder and trying to explain that I could show I had a deadline by which to send some notarized documents to the United States, I finally found an official who was willing to consider the threat of unintentionally voiding a major transaction to have the character of an emergency. 

As forbidding as the portals of the Château D'If that confined Jim Caviezel and countless other celluloid Counts of Monte Cristo, the iron gates of the Embassy creaked open. Large, smiling portraits of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton festooned the anteroom to the "citizens' service center" where I waited another half-hour to get the attention of one of the many idle clerks in an office almost empty of citizens.

A "foreign service national" -- one of the local hires who do most of the "work" in our Embassies and Consulates -- deigned at length to recognize my presence. Displaying traits akin to the kids who used to take pleasure in plucking the wings from helpless insects, he pronounced himself unimpressed that my situation presented an emergency. 

"But that's why they let me in here after two hours!" I protested.

After a long consultation in a back room, he returned, carrying a grudge as grand as an Aztec pyramid. "The vice consul will notarize your documents," he hissed.

After no particular hurry, the vice consul appeared. With the fastidiousness of a cleric taking sacred vessels from a tabernacle, the foreign service national readied the shiny metal embossing instrument to adorn my documents with the Embassy's official seal. 

Just before the secular sacrament could be consummated, the room began to feel like a ship on rough seas. "It's an earthquake!" said my wife, a Mexico City native. "The Embassy is built on a hydraulic foundation. That's why it feels like we're on water."

A disembodied voice barked over the public address system, "THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THERE HAS BEEN AN EARTHQUAKE. SECURE ALL CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS AND EVACUATE THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY."

"Well," said the vice consul dryly, "you'll just have to come back later."

Across the side street in the snack bar of the Sheraton, I watched CNN interrupt the Mexican health minister's live news conference on the swine flu crisis to cut to live coverage of the earthquake from just across Paseo de la Reforma. As reports filtered in from around the city and the countryside, it turned out to have been fairly big on the Richter Scale --5.8 -- but there was no apparent human injury or property damage. For an hour, the CNN screen seesawed between swine flu and earthquake hysteria, making me wonder whether the usual fixtures on the round-the-clock news tube, the drug lords and their military foes, were feeling slighted.

Then an Embassy cop with a bullhorn announced "all clear." A half hour later, the documents were notarized. 

Morton Blackwell, the imperturbable trainer of young conservative politicos, gives his students a list of copybook maxims. The one I remember best is "Never give a bureaucrat a chance to say No."

Here in the Mexican capital, bureaucratic Powers, Thrones and Dominations rule the day, undeterred by the goodness and common sense of the world's Morton Blackwells. Last week I had to spend three successive mornings in a blizzard of paperwork at the Mexican Immigration Office just to get a visa renewed for a term of three weeks. Today was Uncle Sam's turn to show he was culturally "with it," too. 

On the way from downtown to the residential neighborhood where I'm staying, I have to cross a bridge over the "Barranca del Muerto" (Dead Man's Gulch). A big green sign on the bridge indicates an exit where I never see anyone turn, for "Avenida Alta Tensión."

My wife explains that the street runs beside the right-of-way for a procession of high-voltage electrical towers. 

Pace Mel Brooks, in this city High Anxiety is not a dire state of mind. It's just a place on the everyday landscape. 

(Mr. Duggan is a visiting, but not much visited, professor in Mexico City, where all the schools from Pre-K to Ph.D. have been closed for the swine flu emergency.)

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About the Author
Joseph P. Duggan served on a U.S. State Department diplomatic mission to Prague in 1988, presenting then-dissident Václav Havel his first briefing on U.S. and NATO defense postures and policies. This article is adapted from Duggan's new electronic book, The Zuckerberg Galaxy: A Primer for Navigating the Media Maelstrom.