A City Surrounded

SAN LUIS POTOSI -- When Graham Greene, whose path I am now following, crossed the border from Texas, he vaulted almost immediately to San Luis Potosi, a place that then meant to Mexicans what Anbar now means to some Iraqis, or for that matter some Americans. In the rough deserts an insurgency thrived, seemingly ineradicable and openly defiant toward the Mexican state. By some reports the same is true today.

In Greene's time, San Luis Potosi was the lone holdout against the government's attempt to eliminate the Catholic church. Starting in 1917, the government of Mexico viewed the church as its rival for the affections of the Mexican people, and grew wary of the populist currents it appeared capable of mustering. By the 1930s, after a Catholic holy war, government forces had driven the clergy underground, except in San Luis Potosi, where a rebel leader, General Saturnino Cedillo, controlled the countryside until his killing in 1939.

Christ with Mexican martyrs, Cathedral, San Luis Potosi

Christ posing with Mexican martyrs, San Luis Potosi Cathedral.

Needless to say, today's San Luis Potosi is just as Catholic as back then, but without the ennobling defiant streak. Mexico's popular uprising, like all popular uprisings, bewitched visiting journalists, and when Greene went to the Templo del Carmen and to the Cathedral his romance was confirmed. He wrote of pews filled with men in dirty trousers, of Mexican peasants "in an attitude of crucifixion" whose faith was pure and simple. "You realize suddenly that perhaps this is the population of heaven -- these aged, painful, ignorant faces: they are human goodness."

I went to the same churches and saw placid, happy scenes. Young men in dark finery clustered outside with girls in puffy dresses and their proud parents, taking photographs after a quinceñanera affirmed her faith in Christ. With good cause, they turned their backs on me, to keep my ratty brown tee shirt and ripped dungarees out of their shots. I slipped into a back pew to observe a quinceñanera taking communion, and saw a whole church full of proud and unpained faces watching her munch on the host. She had on a green, feathery dress, and bowing at the altar she looked like a slain peacock.

Quinceañera, San Luis Potosí

Cathedral, San Luis Potosí

Quinceañera, posing for photos (above) and taking communion.

If the drug war has affected life here, it has done so in ways mostly invisible to the casual visitor. Outside the narrow lanes of San Luis Potosi's historic center (whose main attraction, other than its spiral-columned churches, its tacos potosinos, infused with red chili and covered with potatoes and white cheese) the only insurgency visible in the desert is a besieging ring of big-box stores, challenging the downtown boutiques with low prices and vast selection of durable goods and processed foods. The highway outside San Luis Potosi looks nearly identical to one on the other side of the border, with many of the same shops and hotels and restaurants.

I don't mean to diminish the gravity of the narco-threat, which in any case is surely worse closer to the border. But those who compare Mexico to failed states, and describe it as a place permeated with terror, would do well to explain why here seems so similar to Garland, Texas.

Refried beans, Walmart, San Luis Potosí

Why Walmart poses no threat to Mexican cuisine: dried, caked refried beans served at the hot food section in San Luis Potosi.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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