THE BLOG
07/23/2014 05:46 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

30 Years of Mexico and Me

Upon my thirtieth anniversary of coming to Mexico, I'd like to share some reflections on the country that has had a profound impact on both my personal and professional life. I first came here to visit my college girlfriend in the summer of 1984, and over the past three decades have returned numerous times to visit relatives, conduct research and travel throughout this beautiful country.

As a professor of religious studies it's the spiritual landscape that I observe most carefully. And without doubt the great transformation that has taken place since I've been coming here is the decline of Catholicism and the growth of religious pluralism. Though still predominantly Catholic, Mexico has gone from being 99 percent to 82 percent, and most catholics here do not practice the faith institutionally.

The primary agent of the new pluralism, by far, has been Pentecostalism, the Spirit-centered form of Protestantism which is proliferating throughout the Global South. And in the past decade folk saints such as Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte have attracted millions of devotees, much to the chagrin of the Vatican. I'm currently in the country now conducting research for my second book on the skeletal Saint Death.

Beyond religion the culinary landscape of the country is one of my passions. As Spain's most important colony and home to both the sophisticated mayan and Aztec cultures, Mexico produced a fusion cuisine whose complexity, variety and richness is unmatched in Americas. Tacos al pastor, seven different types of mole, and the world's best egg dishes are a few of the standouts in this gastronomical Eden. A few major trends have caught my attention over the past 30 years.

A new haute cuisine centered on Indigenous foods, such as chapulines (grasshoppers) and escamoles (ant larvae) attracts adventurous Mexican and foreign palates to innovative restaurants, especially in Mexico City and Oaxaca. When I first started coming in the mid-1980s, non-Mexican eats were hard to come by and of inferior quality. I was unpleasantly surprised by the egg roll I ordered at a Chinese restaurant in Mexico City during my second trip in 1985. Instead of a filling of vegetables and shrimp, a hot dog hid ensconced in the fried roll. Now quality international cuisine of all sorts, the latest being Korean, can be found in the capital city and many others across the country.

The political landscape has also diversified since I first started coming in the mid-80s. Essentially a dictatorship of party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had been in power for six decades and had presided over impressive economic growth and established unmatched political stability in Latin America at the cost of democracy. A charismatic Coca Cola executive, Vicente Fox, representing the conservative National Action Party (PAN), finally ended the seven-decade reign by winning the presidency in 2000. Twelve years before the newly created leftist party of the Democratic Revolution probably won the presidential contest, but the computers tasked with tallying the votes mysteriously crashed for a week and when they came back online the PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari was declared the winner by the narrowest of margins.

Though none of their candidates have become president, the PRD has ruled Mexico City for more than a decade and ushered in changes that seemed inconceivable in the 1980s and 90s, such as same-sex marriage and most recently a ban on circus animals. After successive PAN administrations, the PRI returned to the national political stage with the narrow victory of its presidential candidate, current head of state Enrique Pena Nieto.

While I've always had to watch my back here since street crime in Mexico and throughout Latin America is among the worst in the world, the drug war that has plagued the country for the past seven years has turned Mexico into a killing field, with some 80,000 dead since 2007. The horrific bloodshed has happened particularly close to home as my wife and in-laws are from one of the most affected states, Michoacan, where the cartel formerly known as the Knights Templar liquidate anyone who gets in their way of illicit riches.

When I first started coming to the state capital, Morelia, there were many foreigners studying Spanish in the charming UNESCO World Heritage site, but since Calderón launched the drug war here in his home state, I hardly see any Americans or Europeans anymore. For the sake of my relatives and all Mexicans who have suffered from the paroxysm of violence, I hope political leaders on both sides of the border will soon implement new policies that put an end to the bloodshed.

In a recent trip to the gorgeous colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, I awoke early one morning to the sight of hot air balloons hovering over the city. The multihued orbs floating through the lavender-orange sky captured the essence of why I became enamored with the country 30 years ago. The spontaneous beauty of the landscape and many of the people give me a heightened sense of being alive.