Monterrey, the capital of the northern state of Nuevo León, is over four hundred years old and has a population of about two million people. The metropolitan area has a population of over four million people. The city is surrounded by mountains on three sides and a desert on the fourth side.
The climate can be described as hot and semi-humid, with limited rainfall. The mountains trap the air, thus producing such a climate. High temperatures reach the low 40’s C. (103° – 110° F.) on June days and the mid-20’s C. (mid-70’s F.) at night. For a week or two in December or January, highs may reach 10° C. (50° F.) and lows, 0° C. (32° F.). The temperature can exceed 35° C. (95° F.) any time from February to November and maintain that temperature from May to September. Basically, the climate is not comfortable.
In the older parts of the city and its suburbs, the streets are narrow. There are few broad streets. Sidewalks are narrow with frequent unevenness of surface. On streets that have very little traffic, pedestrians walk on the street rather than on the sidewalk. Young people can be seen, particularly where traffic light stops are long, washing windshields or juggling when the light is red to earn one or two pesos. Women, often with a baby on the back, try to sell small items or to obtain a handout of a few pesos.
Houses vary considerably from the very poor to the very wealthy. Most are in between. The wealthy sections have houses that would rival those in the U. S. and Canada. It is rare to find these houses on much land. Houses are made of concrete, cinder blocks, or adobe. Inside, the walls are usually painted. It is very difficult to hang pictures on the walls. Floors in many houses are concrete or tiled. Roofs are usually flat or slightly sloped. Windows have bars on them. The houses may share a wall or have a high wall between them. There is sometimes a wrought-iron fence in front, behind which is often a carport. People will not enter a yard without being invited. If there is a gate, they will knock at it. If there is not, they will call, “Buenos dias!” Because of their structure, houses are hot in summer and cold in winter. Every day, and sometimes twice a day, the houses are scrubbed out with soap and water. Since there are no door stops, the water is mopped directly to the outside. The yards are usually tiled as well. Therefore, this cleaning extends to the whole surface and out into the street. Each housewife sweeps her area of the street and pours water over it to keep down the dust. Thus, insects are rare, but large cockroaches are plentiful, living in the sewer system. It is unusual to see central air conditioning or heating. When air conditioning can be afforded, it is room units. A water unit is costly to operate, but less costly than a freon one. Small gas heaters provide heat.
In poorer areas, housing is of concrete blocks, often with broken walls or roofs. Roofs are usually made of sheets of metal. It is rare to have running water or electricity in these houses. Sometimes, doors are missing, with curtains being the only source of privacy. People are usually outside visiting with each other. Sanitation is poor in such sections of the city. However, most houses are considered to be middle class. Automatic washers and driers and refrigerators are luxuries. Many women do their laundry by hand. Each house has a laundry area, which consists of a large concrete sink with a built-in scrub board. The drainage from the kitchen and from this laundry area goes into a large open concrete basin to drain into the sewer system. It may be necessary to place large bricks over the outlet, allowing the water to drain but preventing rats from entering the house. This, however, does not stop the cockroaches. Thus, it is necessary to spray this area frequently with insecticide.
Television reception is fairly good with a roof antenna. It is possible to receive nine channels without cable. One channel has good news and weather coverage from around the world. One channel basically shows movies. Frequently, on some channels, English-language movies will be shown. These are usually very old or very bad. We did not realize that Hollywood had so many flops until coming here. The popular television shows are of a local talent variety, and, no matter how poor the talent, being on television is the important factor.
Basic electricity use is less expensive here than in the U. S. and Canada. A refrigerator and an air conditioner raise the cost considerably because of the climate. Basic telephone costs are similar to those of the U. S. and Canada, but services are fewer and long distance charges are higher. Water is a different situation. Although it is not costly, it can be shut off frequently. When the city reservoir is low, there may be no water in the line from mid-afternoon until after midnight. Most houses have a storage tank, known as a tinaco, on the roof. If it is full, there will be enough water until morning. However, long use of a water air conditioner may empty it. This water is not suitable for drinking. Everyone buys a five-gallon bottle of water at a local store or from a truck that makes regular trips. Smaller, but more expensive, bottles of water can be purchased in stores. It is wise to keep one or two extra five-gallon bottles of water on hand. There is garbage pick-up three times a week at no charge.As the truck enters your street, blasts from its horn alert people that they are coming. Poor people can be seen walking along a street checking garbage set out on the curb just before the truck arrives. If you want to dispose of anything, leave it on the sidewalk in front of your house. It is usually soon picked up by someone. Garbage is sorted as it is thrown onto the truck.
Vendors with various products, e. g., newspapers, food, and handicrafts, can be seen at street corners, on medians, or traveling along residential streets. Some may knock on gates and offer their wares. Some people have a three-wheel vehicle, much like a bicycle, but with two wheels at the front and a cargo space between those two wheels. Trucks with eggs, drinking water, or milk will bring their products to your gate. Each truck has its own distinctive horn so that a resident will know the product even without seeing the truck. There are people who play music in front of a home or on a bus, hoping for a few pesos. Others simply ask for money.
There are many small stores throughout the metropolitan area. Such corner convenience stores as Oxxo and 7-11 are common. For grocery and other shopping, there are large stores, Gigante and Soriana, for example. Sears, Sam’s, and Wal-Mart each have opened stores here. Although there is a good supply of products, a few known in the U. S. and Canada may be missed. There is a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Beef, pork, chicken, and eggs are plentiful, but turkey is scarce.
In Monterrey, but not in the suburbs, are a subway and an elevated railway. Both are modern, attractive, and efficient. For much of the metropolitan area, city buses are available. It is an experience to ride on a bus, especially if it is not a new one. They have squealing brakes – if they have brakes – and seem to be without shocks and mufflers. Often they are crowded. Some drivers take their vehicles through traffic as if they were riding on a motor scooter. Taxis are very numerous. They are compact Japanese and American cars and Volkswagen Beetles, and are called Ecotaxis (ecological taxis). Most are in need of repair. Drivers use their own cars and pay the company about 100 pesos a day to be a part of the system and to use the green-and-white coloring. Very seldom is a large taxi seen. Because of monopolies at the airport, it costs about twice as much to go to the city from the airport as it does to go from the city to the airport. Transit police cars are often Beetles. These make it easier to manoeuver on the narrow streets. Intercity train and bus service is quite good.
The principal religion is Roman Catholic. However, such other religions as Pentecostal, Methodist, Latter Day Saint, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have congregations. Paganism, with its curses and witch doctors, is also openly practised.
Libraries are not a priority in Mexico. The city’s main library is not large. Adult materials are on the main floor and part of the second floor, and the children’s area is also on the second floor. There are about 40,000 volumes total. Some subject areas are quite deficient. New books are few. This building was damaged by fire from out-of-hand fireworks in the nearby plaza in the summer of 1996. Many books were destroyed either by the fire or by water damage. Suburban libraries also are lacking in materials. As in the U. S. and Canada, librarians do the best that they can with limited funding. The best libraries belong to the universities.
There are kindergartens, private schools, and public schools. Facilities and supplies are sub-standard by U.S. and Canadian standards. Well-to-do parents send their children to private schools. In elementary schools, the children wear uniforms. Many schools are crowded; thus, students must attend in shifts. Classes may be in the morning or in the afternoon. When not in school, young children will be seen in large grocery stores sacking for no wages except tips given by customers. Many children will work in the streets, selling gum or candy or assisting parents with their selling. Attending school is not compulsory after elementary school, with many dropping out after this level. To continue means a commitment to a college education.
Young people must work to pay for their education unless their parents are wealthy. Books, pens, pencils, crayons, glue, and paper are luxury items. Often these items are shared. A book may cost 200 pesos, which is the wage for a week in many homes. The buildings are made from concrete blocks, with some not having glass in the windows. This is because it is too hot in the summer and air-conditioning is too costly to put into schools. Thus, when the temperature is too hot or too cold outside, schools must close. If a school has desks, there may not be enough to go around. Thus, students may have to sit on the floor. Some schools do not have blackboards. There are no pictures or learning aids on the walls. The washrooms are very basic, often lacking toilet seats, toilet paper, or washing facilities. Often, the children must wash their hands under a tap outside. This tap is also used for their drinking water. The play area is concrete with playground equipment rare. The yard is fenced in, and the gates are locked. Private schools usually fare better.
Learning is mainly by memorization. The children are not taught abstract thinking. To answer questions which deviate from what is taught can result in failure. Many Mexicans cannot think abstractly or reason out the consequences of a decision. Teachers are not well-paid. Consequently, teaching is not considered a prestigious profession. New teachers and poor teachers are assigned to rural schools.
High schools are basically preparatory schools to prepare students for post-secondary education. When a route is taken, a student must follow the order that the subjects are presented. Changing a route may require starting over again. Some high schools are more prestigious than others. There is a large university and a high-quality technological institute. This institute was founded by a group of local Mexican entrepreneurs, with the first general director being a graduate of M. I. T., of Massachusetts.
It is not difficult to locate doctors, nurses, and dentists. Like teachers and policemen, nurses are not looked on with high esteem. However, along with engineers, doctors are considered to have a high standing in society. People who can afford to do so, use private clinics when hospital care is needed. The care is better and more personal usually. Poor people go to social security hospitals where waiting is the norm. Medical and pharmaceutical costs are low in comparison to those of the U. S. Some people have medical insurance. They use the hospitals as opposed to clinics.
In the suburb where we lived, mail would be delivered once a week, possibly twice if there were extra mail. One never knew which days. The letter-carrier rode a bicycle. He would stop in front of the house and blow a whistle if there were mail for us. If a person preferred to obtain mail more regularly, he could rent a box, if one were available, and walk to the post office each weekday. There seemed to be no set price for stamps. It would depend on the supply of stamps available. The local office could go a few weeks without the appropriate denomination of stamps. On the positive side, mail having addresses that are incomplete, which would be returned by the postal services in the U. S. and Canada, would somehow reach the proper destination in Mexico. Much credit is to be given to the Mexican postal service. Businesses in the U. S. are notorious for not addressing letters correctly.
Dogs and cats are very common in the city. Sometimes, there may be chickens as well. Rats sometimes appear in the sewer system. Large cockroaches are everywhere and difficult to exterminate. All of these can be a nuisance.
Trees are not plentiful naturally because of this being a desert area. The most numerous are palms and oaks. In the metropolitan area, various kinds of trees have been planted along the streets and in the parks. Such fruit trees as date, fig, orange, and avocado can be found.
Monterrey is the main industrial city of Mexico. The wealthiest suburb in the country is located here. Some areas are very poor. The middle class population is relatively small. Because of structure, house fires are rare. Thus, fire fighting equipment is not as developed here. In the suburb of San Nicolás, a city of 750,000 people, there is only one fire station. There are few natural points of tourist interest, other than a beautiful waterfall and a large cave. There are a baseball stadium, a soccer stadium, a bullfight stadium, some museums, and state government buildings in Monterrey. Work and study are the chief activities. Most people are friendly and helpful to non-Mexicans. One bank helped us obtain money from Canada for several months before we had an account there. A young boy at the fruit and vegetable market always turned on the air conditioner when we entered the store. Three small local stores saved boxes for us as we prepared to move.
(Written in 1996.)
See Letters, listed under Reader.