¡Ay Chihuahua! My First Visit There

Pancho Villa, from a portion of the huge mural at the Palacio de Gobierno, Chihuahua. Villa used the city as a base during the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1913.


Travel and teaching resumed on January 18.  Driving to DFW Airport, I was excited to be heading back to the classroom, and to a new place.  That evening I flew 620 miles southwest to Chihuahua, Mexico.  Waiting outside the customs hall was a wonderful young friend, Alejandro Moreno, and his buddy Javier Ortega.  I met Alejandro at last year’s South American Business Forum in Buenos Aires, and he suggested a visit to his school, Tecnológico de Monterrey en Chihuahua, one of some 35 campuses of the school known more commonly as Tec de Monterrey.  A private university, Tec is arguably the premier engineering and business school in the country, and offers many other disciplines.

Alejandro Moreno, from his Facebook page

The chatter in the car from the airport to hotel covered a bunch of stuff, but most interesting and wonderful was the news that Alejandro had secured an appointment to work overseas for two years for ProMéxico, the nation’s investment and export promotion agency.  About 1,000 young people applied for 30 positions.  He was to begin a month of training in three days, then would learn where he would be posted.  Way cool.

Was up at 5:30, up and into the hotel restaurant for the kind of breakfast that has sustained Mexican people for centuries: chilaquiles, tortilla chips mixed with sauce and cheese, and a big helping of refritos, refried beans.  Had a nice chat with the waiter, an early chance to use a bit of Spanish.  Was into Javier’s car before 6:30, driving a few kilometers to the campus.  First class ran from 7:00 to 8:00, my “Ten Pieces of Advice” talk to kids in their last year of Tec’s high school, called Prepa.  They were young and enthusiastic, and I did my best to pump them up.  We grabbed a coffee and went back to the classroom from 9:00 to 10:30.  A good start.

Part of my first class at Tec, the youngest and the most enthusiastic!

Alejandro’s friend Salvador arrived with a Toyota pickup and we zipped into the center (Chihuahua, population 850,000, is the capital of the state of the same name).  The U.S. news media would have you believe that most cities in northern Mexico are in state of permanent mayhem, but the scene on every street was tranquilo.  We parked the car across from a wonderfully ornate theater and cinema from the 1920s, the Colonial, which had been recycled as a cultural center for the city.  A kindly guy near the door unlocked it and allowed us a quick look inside.  Next stop, the cathedral, begun in 1725 and finished 101 years later.  We then ambled a few blocks to Quinta Gameros, a mansion built 1907-08 and now a museum with permanent and temporary art collections.  The interior was stunning, mostly Art Nouveau but with some neo-Gothic and other styles.  In the basement and on the first floor was a temporary exhibition of a contemporary Mexico artist known as Kin Kin, who paints in a distinctive folk-art style.

The former Colonial theater, now a cultural center

Chihuahua Cathedral

Interior of the Cathedral

Quinta Gameros

Art Nouveau bed and nightstand, Quinta Gameros

Artisan, Quinta Gameros

One of KinKin's many powerful and evocative works, depicting the violence and sadness in Ciudad Juarez, the city most in the crosshairs of drug violence, 200 miles north of Chihuahua

We headed back across downtown to a museum in the former post office that mainly focused on Hidalgo, a priest who was one of the many fathers of Mexican independence, and who was executed in Chihuahua in 1811.  Last stop was the ornate Palacio de Gobierno, state offices completed in 1892.  Walls facing the large courtyard were a series of murals depicting the long fight for Mexican independence.  When we Americans think that our 1776-81 war was a major struggle, we would do well to look south, where it took more than a century for Mexico to be fully free.  They are a persistent people!

Palacio de Gobierno

Benito Juarez, one of my heroes and five-time president of the republic, depicted in the large mural at the Palacio; he is often compared to Lincoln, depicted at left.

Miguel Hidalgo, from the same mural

At two it was time for lunch (late by my standards but on time in Mexico!).  A group of Tec faculty and students gathered at El Retablo, a wonderful restaurant.  I won some major cred by ordering tacos made from barbecued beef tongue; they were seriously yummy.   My hosts were also delighted to see me scooping plenty of the several salsas on the table, and I explained that I was well accustomed to spice north of the Rio Grande.

Back at Tec I worked my e-mail (the school has a free, open wi-fi network, totally great) and prepared for the big event, a two-hour presentation on leadership, open to the school and the wider community.  I began the talk en Español, a few paragraphs that I worked up with Google Translate and polished by Ann Hathaway, daughter of my first Spanish teacher Don Miguel, and her brother-in-law, a native Mexican.  I think the audience appreciated the effort.  Here’s the text in English:

Good day, ladies and gentlemen.  I will begin in Spanish, not to be a “show off,” but to express my deep respect for and my long friendship with your great ation and your people.  I first visited Mexico more than four decades ago, and have been back many times since – but not often enough.

Forty years ago, I studied just a little about Mexican history, but enough to come to appreciate the many struggles that have swept over this land.  And I learned what remains my favorite quotation of all time, from the great Benito Juarez, a man of justice and compassion, who said, “respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (“the respect of the rights of others is the peace”).  Simply brilliant words, and as relevant today as they were when your president first spoke them in 1867.

I have a presentation to make, and I could probably continue in this direction for the entire time allotted.  But permit me one more anecdote as introduction.  Some people back home were astonished when I told them I was coming here.  “My God,” they said, “it’s a war zone in Northern Mexico.  Don’t you watch TV?  Read the newspapers?”  Well, no, I don’t watch much TV, and certainly not for the news, but I do read a lot.  And my 42 years of international travel have taught me to look past headlines.  I understand tragedy and am deeply worried about the situation here.  But I live my life without fear, because if I give in to fear, than all who wish to terrorize – the Zetas, the Taliban, and others – will have won.  And one more thing: your state and your city would not be so dangerous if there was no demand for drugs in my country.  And for that, I apologize deeply, and pray that working together, we find a way to solve this huge problem for all of us.


The talk was well received, and by eight I was worn out.  My young hosts, ever hospitable, offered to take me to dinner, but I opted to go back to the hotel, have a couple of beers and a light dinner, and head to sleep.

I was back at it early Friday, three back-to-back lectures from 7:30 to noon.  Toward the end of the middle one, a smiling, middle-aged fellow entered the classroom and sat down next to me, at the desk in front.  I asked him if I should stop, and he waved me on.  During question time, he introduced himself, Joaquín Guerra, and he was president!  In the early afternoon I did a bit more work-work, we grabbed a quick burrito at 1:30, and from 3:00 to 4:00 I gave the seventh and last lecture of the visit, to a group of mechanical engineering students interested in aerospace.  I learned that Tec and the state government of Chihuahua were developing an “aerospace cluster” to manufacture aviation components there, taking advantage of labor cost and proximity to the U.S. market.  Very smart.  Indeed, on the visit I saw lots of positive economic development, which contrasted markedly with the simplistic televised narrative of chaos.

A corner tower of a former hospital across the street from Tec, and in the background a solar-powered building in the high-tech business park linked to the university

The main engineering building at Tec

Back to the hotel, a bit of a break, and at six Alejandro and I drove across town (stopping briefly to meet his mother).  The day before, he promised beer and dinner at “a cowboy bar,” and I was looking forward to rubbing shoulders with some grizzled vaqueros (the north of Mexico has a lot in common with the American West).  The cowboy bar turned out to be La Cabaña Smokehouse, a U.S.-style barbecue place with country-music videos, but it was a lotta fun.  Alejandro, Javier, Yvon, a friend of Alejandro, and I ate ribs, drank beer, and laughed a lot.  They wanted to head to a bar after dinner, but I was plumb wore out.  Back at the hotel, I hugged Alejandro, thanked him, and wished him well in his new job.

The guys would not let me take a taxi to the airport at 5:45 the next morning.  Javier picked me up, and drove me out, the last kindness in a trip filled with them.   Indeed, I could not recall a school that treated me as well as Tec in Chihuahua.  I look forward to returning.

This was the first teaching that was self-funded – you may recall that as part of its bankruptcy restructuring, late in 2011 American ended its decades of reimbursement of travel expenses not covered by the schools.  I’ve created a “teaching fund” to enable my lecturing, and will deposit miscellaneous income into it.  The new approach brings another benefit: complete freedom to offer critical analysis and comment.  Independence is good!

1 Comment

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One response to “¡Ay Chihuahua! My First Visit There

  1. Joaquin Guerra

    Dr. Britton, thank you for your great vision about my country and my city. In addition, I received several comments from my students and faculty about your excellent presentations. Thanks for sharing your time and knowledge with us.

    Joaquin Guerra

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