On Sunday, August 26, I flew to Chihuahua, for four days of teaching at Tec de Monterrey, Mexico’s best engineering and business school. As you can tell from its name, the school started in Monterrey, the industrial center in the north of the country, but now has many campuses (my first visit was in January).
The Tec B-school invited me to be an “academic leader,” which meant a very busy four-day schedule. One of the young faculty members, Priscilla Gomez, and her boyfriend Oscar met me at the airport and drove me to the hotel. I unpacked and headed to lunch in the hotel restaurant, where Constantino the waiter remembered me from my visit seven months earlier. Nice! Had a big bowl of chicken soup with chipotle peppers, and fresh tortillas. Yum!
At three, Fernando, the 16-year-old son of my Tec host, Prof. Ramírez, picked me up at the hotel and we motored a few miles north and east to some caves on the edge of the city. I had never visited a big cavern before, and the stalagmites and stalactites were spectacular. We walked about a mile underground, up and down, through dark spots (that would not be on the tour in lawsuit-crazy USA) and nicely lit formations. Way cool. Fernando was a sweet young guy, smiley and welcoming – we covered a lot of topics on the way to and from the caves.
I was warm when he dropped me off, and the hotel pool beckoned. I was not in the water more than 30 seconds when one of five young guys asked me, in Spanish, if I wanted a beer. “Sí,” I replied, and thus began 90 minutes of total fun with these locals. They were funny. We mostly spoke Spanglish across various topics. It was a nice T-t-S episode. High point in terms of insight was one of the guys relating his experiences working as a janitor in Ottawa three years earlier; he was clearly educated and had a good job in Chihuahua, so his perspective as an illegal in Canada was interesting, not least his withering criticism of their maybe-too-generous social welfare – “I don’t understand why they pay money to drug addicts who won’t work.”
My new pals were friendly, but after a couple of beers I needed an escape route. Snapped a photo of the group, thanked them all, and headed back to my room. Ate a nice fish dinner and was asleep before 9:30.
The first day of classes, Monday the 27th, was super-busy. First stop was to meet my host, Erika Ramírez. We had a short chat, she introduced me to some colleagues, showed me to a temporary office, and introduced me to the first class, at 9:00. I finished three lectures before 1:00, but the afternoon was free, and after a nice lunch with a faculty member I got a bunch of consulting work done. I was back in the classroom – actually an auditorium – from 7:30 to 9 that evening with a presentation to students and some parents. A young host, Luisiana Garza, and her boyfriend took me to dinner at El Retablo, a wonderful restaurant that we visited in January. We had the Mexican version of chile rellenos, poblano peppers stuffed with meat and topped with a nutty cream sauce – yum. Like most of my Mexican hosts, Luisiana was amazed at my fondness for spicy food. I was back at the hotel about 10:30, and fast asleep.
Up even earlier Tuesday morning, lectures at 7:30 and 9:00, a video interview with Tec’s media-relations people at 10:30. Lunch at 1:30 and a lecture at 3:00. Back to the hotel, time for a nap.
Fernando Rodríguez, an aerospace engineering prof I met in January, picked me up at 6:00, and we drove back to campus. He had arranged a dinner meeting of CEDIA, the group responsible for development of an aerospace-manufacturing cluster in Chihuahua that is home to Textron (Bell Helicopter), Honeywell (avionics), and a bunch of other blue-chip aerospace manufacturers. Before the meeting, though, we spent 45 minutes with Antonio Ríos, director of Tec’s hugely innovative technology-transfer and business-incubation center called PIT2. The idea of nurturing start-ups by locating them adjacent to universities is not new (think Silicon Valley), but the twist is that in many parts of the world – Canada, Germany, Sweden, and now Mexico – government and established businesses join in support. Antonio provided a thorough tour of the building, which was almost literally humming with brainpower, even at 6:45. Needless to say, the combination of brains and a labor-cost advantage holds bright promise for Chihuahua – particularly as lower-value-added manufacturing in many maquiladores heads to China.
The meeting began, and I offered a few thoughts about aerospace manufacture and clusters. Answered questions, ate dinner, and visited with some of the delegates. The cluster is large, 7,000 employees and growing. Said goodbye, Fernando drove me home, and as I drifted off to sleep I pumped my fist – halfway done. This was one busy week.
The high point of Wednesday was an e-mail from Erika with positive feedback about my performance so far. She celebrated my “continuous attitude of maravillarte de la vida (amazing yourself about life) and your gratitude for life,” and that made me smile. And get back to work, though Wednesday was not quite as busy. In fact I had the morning off, and a young Tec employee, Claudia, picked me up at the hotel at nine and we visited two museums I did not see in January.
First stop was the Museum of the Revolution, housed in Pancho Villa’s home not far from downtown. I know the broad outlines of Mexican history, and as I observed on these pages in January, it took a long time – more than a century – for the Mexicans to become a free people, and it’s an interesting, if difficult, story. The museum told it nicely, with a great collection of artifacts, including the Dodge car in which General Villa was riding when he was assassinated in 1923. Bought some postcards and we headed to the next stop the home of Benito Juarez, the righteous five-term president of Mexico in the mid-19th Century. Carved on one of the arches in the courtyard was my favorite quotation, “Respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” – respecting the rights of others is the peace. Juarez was ahead of his time; as a full-blooded Zapotec, he also pioneered the rights of people of color and indigenous nations. A righteous person.
There were talks on Wednesday afternoon and another conference for students, their families, and others Wednesday night. When that was done, I joined Javier Ortega, one of my student hosts in January, and three friends and we motored across town to Tio Taco, a modern place in a very flashy, suburban-American style office and shopping complex. Javier said it was dinner with a few friends, but the table soon maxed out at more than 20. Ate a fish taco and a meat-and-cheese taco, yakked with the youngsters, offered a bit of advice. At about ten, one of the students, Michel, sang me a song, accompanied by a mariachi band. Her voice was terrific, powerful with great range, and it was a touching moment. Soon after, a shot of tequila arrived, and though I had a busy next day, I had to down it. And soon beg a ride back to the hotel. At moments like that, I told my hosts that of the 60+ countries I have visited, theirs is quite possibly numero uno in hospitality.
Thursday morning was busy with lectures. At one, the school’s director general, Joaquín Guerra, welcomed me to the lunch meeting of the board of trustees. Though the meeting was in Spanish, I tracked most of the agenda (Antonio from PIT2 provided some general translation). I also had the opportunity to say a few words of thanks and praise, heartfelt. Prior to the last talk, Thursday evening, a met briefly with an entrepreneur who had a clever idea and possible consulting work, all good. The final talk was to businesspeople who were friends of the school, good questions. My last words were from my heart, to apologize for my fellow Americans – public officials, the media, and others – who point fingers at Mexico. “If there were no demand for drugs in my country,” I said, “there would be no violence, corruption, and sadness in yours.”
The week was a terrific experience on so many levels. As much as I enjoyed the classes and the two plenary evening talks, the most satisfying experiences were the one-on-ones with students. For example, I spent 30 minutes Thursday afternoon with Lester, who attended the Monday-night session, and was about to graduate. He e-mailed me Wednesday morning asking about career. His questions were vague and open-ended, and I replied as best I could. So when I passed him Thursday and he called out my name, I sat down to talk, and in a half-hour I was able to provide many more ideas and possibilities to explore – you can’t do career-counseling in an e-mail. He was so grateful, but the exchange gave me much joy.
I woke up at five Friday morning and flew home. It was a busy but truly wonderful experience. I have always liked Mexico enormously, through 42 years of visits.