I grew up in Mexico, Missouri, but the election makes me wonder if I ever really knew it
To the extent that outsiders know it, Mexico, Missouri — seat of Audrain County and hometown of Christopher “Kit” Bond, the former governor and senator — they know it for its saddlebred horse training and its long-closed firebrick plants. More recently, they might recall that Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue gave a shout-out to the town amid the celebration hysteria after the team won the NBA Championship.
People who grew up in Mexico, as I did, associate this place with an authentically homespun version of the Midwest. The annual soybean festival you looked forward to. The apple butter you made with your extended family. The bulldog mascot you watched panting on the sidelines at football games. The “cruising” you and your friends did from one Hardee’s parking lot to, across town, the other Hardee’s parking lot. You don’t have to be very old to feel a vivid nostalgia for those things.
But you don’t have to have traveled very far from north-central Missouri to wonder at how different everything feels right now.
This is what I’m thinking about on the way to Thanksgiving. I’m wondering whether a few days in Mexico will lead me to better understand how some of the people who attended the same public high school I did, and were exposed to the same childhood experiences as me, voted for President-elect Donald Trump.
I know the what’s-going-on-in-rural-America line has lately been well traveled among journalists, among we who make up “the media” that millions of voters mistrust and perceive as out of touch and condescending. But my curiosity isn’t clinical. All year, opening Facebook and hearing from family, what I felt was real and growing alarm. I was baffled at how people I knew could push aside facts and evidence to buy into an infomercial selling a quick fix. The presidential election seems to have turned the Show-Me State in which I was raised into the Show-You State, raising two big middle fingers to crybaby protesters and self-interested liberals and entitlement abusers, even as the disability and farm-subsidy checks keep going out (and getting cashed).
My parents still dwell in my childhood home on the outskirts of Mexico, and my dad works at his job in nearby Kingdom City. This is where Thanksgiving happens. I haven’t lived in Mexico for 18 years, but I was not one of those never-look-back people. After I graduated from college and took my first real job, at the now-defunct Raytown Post in suburban Kansas City — a gig that came complete with verbal abuse from a male-chauvinist editor — I wasn’t unhappy to end up working for my hometown daily newspaper, The Mexico Ledger. I covered city council and school board meetings, spending time in even tinier nearby towns. I wanted to watch out for the disenfranchised, the little guy, the misunderstood. I wrote about a local who was waging a fight against an insurance company. I talked my way into a Valentine’s Day underground cockfighting tournament, around the time that Missouri policymakers were working to ban the activity. Animal-rights groups criticized the article; those who were my sources on the other side wanted to buy me dinner (which, of course, I declined, wondering whether the piece was as objective as I’d intended). I wrote a column about the school district unfairly disbanding a student pep band, and a satirical piece about the vanity, misogyny and “scholarship” of one of the town’s biggest events, the Miss Missouri Pageant.
Four years ago I made good on my duty as senior-class president and planned our 20-year reunion. I knew that some of my classmates held political views much different from mine, but it wasn’t a divisive occasion. We talked about how we’d grown up in a great town.
But we knew our great town had fallen on hard times. Twenty years ago, the local firebrick companies began laying off people and then eventually closed. For 100 years, the largest such manufacturer, A.P. Green, had made heat-resistant bricks, a product that lined walls in steel factories and paved launch pads at Cape Canaveral. The steel factories were closing. NASA was slowing down. Firebrick demand plummeted, and jobs in and around Mexico — blue-collar and white-collar alike — began disappearing. Some people moved away. Others found jobs to hold them until their kids graduated high school. One by one, the windows of the town square went dark.
Six years ago, investors attempted to resurrect, on a smaller scale, a venture called Mid-America Brick Company. But they filed for Chapter 11 a few years later and then sold to another company, which halted production.
None of this helped the community’s self-image — a self-image that aligns neatly with the so-called white working class that swept Donald Trump to victory November 8. There used to be Democrats in Mexico: In the fall of 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis made a campaign stop here, and I walked to the rally from my dad’s office with my sixth-grade sister, who was handed a sign from a friend to hold up. It read: “Give ‘em hell, Duke.” This was the party of Truman, and it backed unions and farmers, and it included more women and more minorities.
Mexico was not a melting pot then and it isn’t today. Only 7 percent of Audrain County is black; about 3 percent of the population is Hispanic. It’s an industry town without an industry, an agriculture town short on next-generation farmers. The god over Mexico is a Christian one, and He has blessed gun owners, and the gun owners don’t much care for the Obama White House or the media.
My first stop on this Thanksgiving visit, then, is Citizens Armory, a gun shop and shooting range near the MFA Agri Services headquarters.
In the parking lot, I catch myself wondering about something I’d mentioned to my research-scientist husband after the election. We’d always felt that our jobs focused on the common good, that we’d chosen them in part for this reason. Would we now have to defend ourselves and our seeminlgy left-leaning professions? Should we get a gun, too?
I read the bumper stickers on the cars outside the gun range, picture asking these townspeople about Trump and the election, and feel my confidence ebb. “Keep calm and kiss my ass,” warns one. On another vehicle I note the stars and bars of the Confederate flag. I am profoundly out of place. I go inside.
There’s a clock with a crossed-guns backdrop and the slogan “We don’t call 911.” There are semi-automatic weapons behind the counter and a box of shells beside it. Two women working there are eager to let me hold a pink, lightweight revolver, though I’m sure they sense my uneasiness. I grew up three miles away, but now I’m an outsider. I decide against asking political questions. Citizens Armory is one of several gun shops in the area. If I feel braver later, I can try another one.
My husband and I head next door for a beer at a bar that has just opened. There’s Blue Moon on tap and Adele pouring out of an overhead speaker, which is as close to home as I’ve felt in a little while. One of the owners tells us that another newer place in town has gotten popular serving Australian food; I later learn that a co-owner of the Aussie place also owns one of the town’s prominent gun shops, Graf and Sons.
The town square on the night before Thanksgiving sees a steady stream of cars looking for somewhere to eat and drink. Kenny Vanvactor stands on the sidewalk outside the place he rents, next to a popular pizza parlor. His dachshund, a girl named George, paces at his heels. He tells me has no regret about having cast his vote for Trump, despite the week’s news that the president-elect had ruled out bringing charges against Hillary Clinton and now seems malleable on other campaign promises.
Vanvactor grew up in Mexico and returned a few years ago to get better treatment from the VA hospital in Columbia. He has arthritis and a hearing impairment. He was in the Army during the Vietnam War but was never deployed. He worked in California, until his arthritis started bothering him.
“It’s changed,” he says of Mexico. He recalls the businesses closing, the plant layoffs.
Vanvactor listens to the radio — public radio, for the bluegrass show. He tells me he doesn’t use the internet. He talks with people he sees on the street. Somewhere along the way, though, he internalized certain anti-Clinton talking points. “She’s a liar and she let people get killed,” he says, bringing up Benghazi. I ask him how he came to believe this. He knows he heard sound bites but offers no more detailed explanation.
“Nothing was going to change with her,” he says. “At least with him, we have a chance.”
I ask him if it’s about the guns.
“No one is coming for the guns,” he says.
He adds that he supports the legalization of marijuana, leaving me more confused about just who around here voted for Trump and why.
Is it a race thing?
No, he answers. “They said black people don’t want Trump, but I know a woman who cleans over there,” he says, pointing across the square, “who said she was going to be the first one to vote for him.”
When people have asked me about small-town racial division, I’ve often laughed and quoted an Uncle Tupelo song: Everyone is equally poor. And I’ve added personal anecdotes about the town’s great leveling agent: hoops.
The one public high school had, in my time there, what every such institution always has: cliques. The jocks. The preps. The music kids and the art kids. The high-testing honors kids. Many of us floated among the groups. And you could be from any family in any part of town and still find a prominent place if you played ball.
Across Green Boulevard from the shuttered former A.P. Green office building is Garfield Park. The pickup games here are legendary. The concrete courts, next to a recently renovated playground, back up to what historically has been home to most of Mexico’s African-American community.
Cavs coach Lue played here in his younger days. A street named after him runs beside the park. Lue mentioned Mexico twice after the victory, and Mexico repaid him with a parade and a weekend to thank the hometown hero who remembered his upbringing, even though Lue played high school ball for Raytown.
But even Lue probably saw a Confederate flag or bumper sticker somewhere while he was being celebrated.
When taxpayers voted more than 40 years ago on emergency services, they called the zone the “Little Dixie Fire Protection District,” a reference to the region in mid- to upper Missouri settled from Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky. Those people brought with them Southern culture, including slavery. The local marching band is the “Dixie Gray Band.”
Maybe these are just names now, and perhaps there is even racial harmony, or perceived harmony, but the history is still here.
And it was always there, outside my childhood home. Inside, my mother was a feminist who didn’t attend college, and my dad was a trucking-company manager who read Vonnegut and the Dalai Lama. Beyond our doors but not beyond our blood, my parents supported a cousin in her interracial relationship, and they withstood not a little family angst.
My connection to this place, at least for now, has changed. My roots are here, but the small town feels smaller, marred by an inability to see past Trump’s sexist rhetoric, his mocking of a disabled person, his lies. My hometown voted for someone who doesn’t even have Mexico’s best interests in mind — or my best interests in Kansas City, for that matter.
I am tired of hearing about my hometown being the “real America” that my profession failed to see, failed to grasp. I’m downright exhausted when I think about this “real America” setting aside the American progressive ideals of immigrants finding a new life, as my ancestors did, to embrace a retrograde us-versus-them, what’s-mine-is-mine politics. Community spirit remains here for those who never left or those who found a place here after the town’s glory days. I know good people who continue to live, work and teach in the Mexico community.
But was the yearning that some of them felt — for jobs that no longer exist and aren’t coming back, for a time whose simplicity depended on women and people of color being treated unequally — so strong that it overpowered reason?
Maybe it was this way all along, but I don’t think so. Either way, I’m left wondering: Can I go home if I no longer recognize it?