Dashboard Crucifix: A Seatbelt Lover in Mexico

As I lurch towards the windshield, I watch the pickup driver’s face.

“What that noise?” my toddler asks.

I pull his thirty-pound body back to my chest and tighten my grip. I don’t look behind to see the sources of the screeching tires sliding towards my taxi’s bumper. I’m just watching the man, hoping he feels my fury. But his face remains serene. He’s just making a left turn across four fast-moving lanes the way one does in Mexico.

“When cars stop fast, the tires make that sound,” I say to my son as the pickup man finishes his turn and our taxi resumes breakneck speed.

My little scholar of all things automotive begins to rehearse this new addition to his repertoire.


Which is why we wear seatbelts, mutters the American-mother voice in my head. But this lesson is mine alone: a Christ on his cross dangles from every Mexican taxi’s rearview mirror, but there are no seatbelts.

My current home in Mexico is the most recent in a series notorious for wild roads. In India, the end of every bus ride came with the elation of survival. In Ecuador, most human modes of transport also ferried livestock. And in El Salvador, the history of corpses on the roads is as long and dark as the rules are loose. But I wasn’t a mother when I lived in those places, and, while I had a healthy respect for the dangers I assumed traveling those roads, I loved watching the blur of the road through rust holes between my feet.

Now I suffer from a common phenomenon of motherhood: gruesome imaginings of all the ways my child could possibly die in any given situation. This isn’t fear, exactly, but an automatic response, a reflex. Living abroad exacerbates this, even though I have a lot of practice, and even though Mexico is a country that, in spite of its privileged place among scary U.S. headlines, feels far more sane and safe than India or Ecuador or El Salvador.

Still, the list of potential catastrophes rattles perpetually in my brain: dengue, narcotraficantes, kidnappers, typhoid, earthquakes, crossfire, delinquency, volcanic eruptions, malaria, or (a recent obsession) accidental discharge of a soldier’s downward-turned (i.e. toddler head-level) gun.

Some of the threats I imagine are unreasonable. When part of a hotel exploded in Cancún several months ago, allegedly because of a buildup of “swamp gases” beneath its floors, it supplied me with a new explanation for the fetid emanations I have heretofore nicknamed our house’s “night stink.” But not all of my morbid imaginings are farfetched: so far, in our home, my husband has killed one very large rat, one very poisonous scorpion, and one very convincing pseudo-scorpion, while I have eliminated a slew of black widow spiders. And that close call in the taxi with the pickup truck is hardly an isolated incident.

In the predawn hours, I consider these risks, both real and ridiculous. When a worry persists in the daytime, I do research (i.e., how to treat a scorpion sting, or where is the safest place to take cover during an earthquake). I find out that some of my worries aren’t unique to living in Mexico: two of U.S. parents’ top fears for their kids are also kidnappers and angry extremists with guns. I try to be reasonable. I weigh each risk against what I see as really significant benefits—language acquisition, worldliness, an openness to difference, a wide perspective on the world, to name only a few. Ultimately, I choose to accept the risk or make modifications—so much anxiety can be eliminated with a single good mosquito net.

What I’ve learned already by this process is that most of the risks really are empirically slight, but not all of them. I’ve learned that kidnappers and terrorists are not the biggest danger her in Mexico any more than they are in the U.S. And I’ve learned that U.S. Department of State data finds that auto accidents—and not any of the other scary things we vaccinate against or read about in headlines—are the leading cause of injury or death to U.S. citizens while traveling internationally.

This is to say that, I have come to terms with guns and tropical diseases, and, if it didn’t remind me of itself each evening, I would forget the night stink. But my seatbelt fixation, fomented by deep cultural inculcation—Buckle Up, America!—has made Mexican transportation terrifying to me as a mother.

“I don’t know what to do,” I mentioned to a colleague soon after I first arrived. “You know, getting around with car seats and all.”

I secretly hoped that, as a Mexican who had raised her three teenagers in the U.S., she’d have some
creative solution, or encourage me to buy a car, or at least sympathize. But she just shrugged.

“Oh, in Mexico, things are a lot less strict,” she said.

Of course, she’s right, but that’s not the point. Like the U.S., where I could be charged with child abuse (or worse, if something happened) for not strapping down my child properly in a certified and approved apparatus, seatbelts are compulsory in Mexico. In both the front and back seats. For adults and children. And there are large signs to this effect posted along highways and billboards (replete with pictures of blonde offspring) that remind drivers who is waiting for them at home.

But unlike the U.S. where thirty years of seatbelt promotion has worn down almost everyone’s resistance, in Mexico, law and behavior are not aligned and there is little enforcement working to change this. One only has to watch the traffic for a minute or two to confirm this. Kids bounce like popcorn in the backseats of cars, or ride on their knees with their heads halfway out open windows. And babies ride in the arms of an adult, usually in the front seat.

Once upon a time—admittedly within the stretch of my own memory—this was the norm with kids in the U.S. too. My first grade carpool, pre-minivan days, consisted of 12 kids, and for long car trips, the back seats were laid flat and covered with blankets so we could lounge, play games, and sleep. And I may well have been drawn to international travel simply to experience once more the joy of riding in the windy beds of pickup trucks.

My friends—those here in Mexico and those back home alike—are cavalier. They all say exactly the same thing: “When in Rome—”

My own carefree past and the opportunity to permit my children the same here in Mexico resonates less with me when the ease and temptation are weighed against the risks. In Mexico things aren’t so strict, but the absence of legal ramifications won’t let me off my own hook when should some brakeless jalopy mash our taxi.

And I do have a choice: I could swear off taxis.

It wouldn’t be impossible or even that difficult. Everything we need is close to our home: my son’s school, the produce market, the good panaderia that sells whole wheat bread spiced with anise, the plazas where kids blow bubbles and chase pigeons, the city’s largest park—which includes a playground, amusement park, plenty of shady avenues for tricycle riding, and more pigeons.

I even see benefits to constraining our experience of Mexico to the radius of a comfortable stroll. It would be like changing out the wide-angle lens on my tourist’s camera for the magnifying glass of a toddler’s perspective. My son is certainly as interested in the ants bustling around the base of a pyramid as he would be in the view from the top of that pyramid’s precipitous stairs, and after years of traveling my way, I could no doubt stand for a little shift in perspective.

I could swear off taxis, but I don’t want to. For one thing, I’m pregnant. My feet and my back hurt, I am forever hungry, and I have to pee whenever it is least convenient to do so. For another, in spite of their ability to bolt at top speed, toddlers take an incredible amount of time to get from point A to point B, and strollering over cobblestones is hell. I also have a knack for getting caught in cloudbursts—this is Mexico’s rainy season—and waiting out these storms can seriously jeopardize dinners and bedtime.

I won’t deny that selfishness weighs heavily in the equation; I am not a selfless mother. But there is another reason that I’m loath to rein in our freedom of movement. This one is harder to articulate, but more essential to why my husband and I, pregnant and toting a toddler, moved to Mexico in the first place, why we have lived abroad in the past, why we hope to live abroad now and again in the future.

Yes, there is a burgeoning drug war.

Yes, there are threats like drug cartels and tropical diseases and theft and natural disasters and ubiquitous guns and so on.

Yes, there are plenty of people in the U.S., some in our own family, who condemn our choice to cross our southern border with children in tow as dangerous, selfish, even unethical.

But what we want most for our children is for them to live in the world without capitulating to, or being constrained by, fear. I believe that, a lot like national borders, we have personal boundaries. Even a toddler is setting these boundaries: establishing the known, the understood, the familiar in opposition to the alien, the foreign, the other. Exposure to the strange does not necessarily dissolve these boundaries, but it does make them more porous. As a traveler and now as a parent, I believe I am fighting xenophobia, racism, fundamentalism, isolationism. I believe that this—risky as it may be in the short term—is how we make the world safe.

Of course, I don’t want to be constrained by fear either.

And this is why, once again, I am whizzing through town in the back of a taxi, swaying back and forth as the driver jumps lanes, lurching when a pedestrian or a scrappy dog bolts across the road in front of us. I love the wind in my hair and the sound of my son’s voice narrating what he sees from the vantage of my lap, protected only by my fervent wishes and the crucifix glued to the taxi’s cracked dash.

“’OOK! Mama! Dump truck! ’OOK! Bus! EEEEeeeech! HONK HONK!”

My son may not be safe in all the ways that he could be. He might not be safe at all. But I want more for him than his bodily safety and my peace of mind. I also want him to grow up flexible and free and unafraid. Which I suppose means that I have to be these things, or at least outwardly.

But it doesn’t mean that I throw all my worries to the wind.

I lean forward towards the taxi driver’s ear.

“¡Señor, por favor, tranquilo!” I murmur, smiling so that the words sound nicer than I feel saying them.

He nods. For a block or so, he takes it easy.

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