Notes on Mexican Culture

Our inland trip is going to take a while to get posted to our blog; after all, we have hundreds of pictures to sort through of 8 Mexican states and 9 cities visited in 31 days. However, reflections on our trip can be paired down into blogpost thoughts in shorter order. One such reflection is that on Mexican culture.

We repeatedly observed some attributes and behaviors amongst Mexican people during our inland Mexico trip sufficiently to presume they are pervasive in the areas we have visited; in other words, some observations of Mexican culture. They may indeed have deeper meanings than we know, or are less pervasive than they appeared to us in our limited visit, or may just stem from a misinterpretation that is colored by our own cultural filters. Nevertheless, I think it helps our relationships in Mexico to respect the traditions we see and follow them whenever possible. We earn more respect from those around us when we respect their customs, and are less likely to be considered “mal educado” (Poorly educated in the social customs, i.e., low class “ignorantes”)

Dress

Women in most inland locations we’ve been, except perhaps for a scattered number of tattooed young rebels, do not expose their shoulders, let alone their legs or midriffs, regardless of the weather, and rarely do they wear hats. The occasional woman wearing a hat wears a baseball cap, but never a visor. And men do not wear shorts, period. Rick and I stick out of a crowd for his shorts, my no-sleeve blouses, and my visor, even if we could otherwise pass with our facial features, hair or skin color. My peddle-pushers are long enough to be acceptable but they are still a bit unusual. But I think it would be more respectful to those around us, we would fit in better, and we would in turn command more respect from those around us, if Rick wore pants and I wore shirts with sleeves and no visor. Unfortunately, this would mean a major change in wardrobe since all our clothes are geared for the heat of the coast. And I find hats that cover the whole top of my head, too hot, but my eyes are too sensitive to the sun not to wear a hat of some kind. So a visor works best for me. I guess we just have to accept that we are going to stand out, and accept the consequences of the occasional disapproving look.

My handsome prince Rick in his gringo uniform

My handsome prince Rick in his gringo uniform

Appearance

On the average, Mexicans tend to be shorter than us, so we sort of stick out on the subway or walking down the street even though neither Rick nor I are very tall, although this is not universally true. Skin and hair color, however, really varies; while dark hair is definitely the norm, dark skin is rarer than you would imagine in most of the cities where we have been, including in the subway in Mexico City. Mestizo really is the norm.

Speaking your mind in public

Whether it be a leader of a protest defending his cause to one of the many enthusiastic and boisterous crowds we have seen in almost every city where we have been, or a woman announcing her possession of chicklets for sale on the subway, people seem to be a whole lot more comfortable vocalizing to a crowd. It is not unusual for the relative peace of background noise on a crowded bus to be suddenly disturbed by a man belting out a ranchero, and no one reacts with anything but acceptance. Walking down the street in Mexico City, a nicely dressed young man approaches you and carries on for 3 minutes or so, with a well-rehearsed advertisement for the optometrist he represents. Glasses for just $249 Mexican pesos! I find the rhythm and the cadence and the melodic tones of the hawkers on the street fascinating. Articulate oral narration is a skill practiced, it seems, by a lot more people in Mexico, of all social statures.

The will of the people shall be done; to hell with your stupid rules!

So here we were on a Sunday night, waiting to cross a busy street of six lanes in Mexico City. The cars were bumper to bumper but moving slowly. Everyone is out on Sundays anyway, and this was the Sunday preceding a holiday week, so the crowds on either side of the crossing we growing larger and larger; becoming a mob, really. One side of the street lead to a pedestrian walkway, so the crowds started spilling over from the edge of the crosswalk to the whole width of the pedestrian walkway. The crowd on our side had grown to about 30 people deep and a full street width wide. But the traffic signal was really, really long. It seemed it would never turn. A few cops were trying to hold back the crowd. People started whistling, randomly at first, and then more consistently, as if to say, “Let’s do something!” Finally, a small group of daring souls walked out into the middle of moving traffic and tried to cross the street. There was a momentary pause, and then the whole crowd on both sides of the street entered the street and filled it at once, traffic light be damned!

Similarly, and although it sounds like a joke, it is really true: traffic laws are really more just “suggestions.” No one stops at a stop sign; they just slow down. However, if you hit someone or get hit because you failed to stop at a stop sign, it is your fault. It makes people take more responsibility for being aware on the road.

Personal responsibility

Mexicans don’t expect others to do things for them, they have very little sense of entitlement, and they aren’t much of a lawsuit-happy culture either. If you trip and fall on the sidewalk, it is your own fault that you didn’t notice that gaping hole or trip hazard and avoid it. If your car comes back from the repair shop poorly repaired, you repair it yourself.

Eating

I had assumed that with the business modernization of Mexico and the institutionalization of NAFTA, the customary closing of shops in mid afternoon for a large meal would come to an end. After all, the country of Mexico conformed irrationally to the same Daylight Savings Time as the US to facilitate trade. (It is irrational because as you get closer to the equator, the daylight hours vary less between seasons so daylight savings time makes for some darkness or light at odd hours). Anyway, I was wrong about the dining hours changing. In non-tourist areas, like in Mexico City for example, at least half of the restaurants close by 6 pm because they cater to those who choose to eat their large meal of the day between about 2 and 4 p.m. And quite the meal it is. The best deals by far were the complete comidas offered by most restaurants, which included an appetizer, then soup, followed by pasta, then the main course or sometimes two main courses, and ending in coffee and dessert, all for a fixed price just slightly higher than any single entrée.

Both Rick and I like very much the idea of eating the main meal earlier. In most places inland, we ended up having a good breakfast when we woke up and then just a little bite of something small, if anything, during mid-day, followed by our largest meal in late afternoon. Evening was reserved for a cocktail, and maybe a churro, or a small snack like a taco or elote (corn with mayonnaise, limón, chile and crumbled cheese.). We did, however, decide to stop ordering the full comidas at restaurants, just because it was too much darn food and we always felt stuffed.

And now a word about the word “entrée,” which is of course the term we use in the U.S. to describe a main course. This term in English is a misnomer. I guess it stems from French, but Spanish has it right: entrée has the same root as “entrada”, which logically means “the entrance”, or an appetizer. I have seen Mexican menus trying to translate into English make the mistake of translating “entrada” into “entrée.” Our bad. The main courses in Spanish are described as “Plato fuerte”‘ or “strong plate.” That makes a whole lot more sense.

It is polite to say “Buen provecho” to everyone at your table before starting to eat, sort of like a toast. Don’t start eating with Mexicans until someone has said it. Or if passing by another table of people eating, either while coming into the restaurant or leaving, if eye contact is made, it is polite to say “Buen provecho” to them too.

One of the first things you learn eating out in Mexico is that restaurants consider it extremely impolite to bring you your check until you ask for it. So don’t get irritated if they don’t bring it to you; it is their way of being polite!

I love the little plant-stand like purse racks that all restaurants have in abundance. You sit down and the next thing you know, a little stand is brought to the side of your table to hang your purse on. It is much more dignified, clean and safe than using the back of your chair or trying to hang your purse off of your knee or set it on the floor beneath you. The stands are good for men’s hats and backpacks or man-purses too.

A purse rack, found in nearly all restaurants

A purse rack, found in nearly all restaurants

Paper is valued highly and is just not used that much, while plastic bags are ubiquitous with no concern whatsoever for their disposal.

It is not like there is a major concern for paper conservation or anything, it is just that paper products are treated like they are expensive even if they are not. The finest restaurants use cloth napkins but virtually every other place to eat gives you one or two small cocktail napkins and don’t you dare ask for more. The napkin dispenser is rarely full; it is almost like they apportion them. At public toilets, you are required to pay when you enter, and part of what you get after you pay is a tightly controlled number of sheets of toilet paper; heaven forbid should you need more. Toilet paper is thin and often single thickness. I have grown accustomed to bringing my own. And everyone cleans their dishes and counters and floors with reusable rags; no one uses paper towels. When I buy paper towels in the store, they are either too thin and fall apart, or the rare brand of good ones cost a fortune. Plastic bags at the grocery store, on the other hand, are offered in abundance. We use them for garbage on the boat as they fit our garbage can perfectly and we really need to contain our garbage to prevent pests, but I feel like all the effort in California to stop using plastic bags is completely offset by the plastic bag explosion in Mexico.

Anti-American sentiment.

Walking down a crowded pedestrian street in Durango, where hardly a foreign face could be seen, a man selling balloons looks right at us and shouts, “Stop killing my people,” and then rushes off down the street as if to say that we were guilty without further discussion. Apparently, there had recently been more than one separate incident reported of Mexicans being shot and killed by police in Texas unjustifiably. In another incident, an articulate Mexican tour guide explaining a Diego Rivera historical mural inside the Palacio Del Gobierno in Mexico City to Mexican tourists likens the hatred that indigenous peoples had towards the ruling Aztecs, to the hatred Mexicans have to the US, followed immediately by the statement that the US stole a full 50% of Mexico’s land from them in the Mexican-American war. While I rarely get looks or at least don’t notice them, Rick notices the occasional “evil eye” he gets from other men walking down the street in Mexico City. It is not like the anti-American sentiment is rampant, but there is definitely an undercurrent.

And why shouldn’t there be? As one Brazilian reminded me, the US has been behind pretty much every oppressive dictatorship that has ruled in Central and South America for the last two centuries. Mexicans are a very proud people. How would you take it if France’s top conservative Presidential candidate was riding on a campaign promise to exclude all North Americans from ever entering France? Beware, Donald Trump, Mexico is a very big and very powerful country in its own right. You can’t just keep spitting in their faces and expect no response. What is even sadder is what happens to Mexicans when they start admiring the US too much, or move there without cultural support. Hospitality is so important to Mexicans, yet it goes out the window along with all their other cultural values when they move to the money-is-all-that-matters US. A cab driver in Guadalajara told me that when he went to visit his cousin in Los Angeles, his cousin was afraid he was going to ask for money and his cousin’s Mexican wife wouldn’t even invite him into the house, even though he had no intention of anything but a short visit to say hello to a relative. The relationship between the US and Mexico is not a healthy one. Rick and I consider ourselves ambassadors of the US people, as do most Mexicans consider themselves as ambassadors of their country, and most all of us try to dispel the myths about each other created by ignorance. As one hotel clerk in Mexico City said to me, “Just go tell Mr. Trump to come live here and he will change his mind about our people.” I just hope those of us from the US living in Mexico don’t have to suffer the brunt of the hatred and anger created by the outcry of US political conservatives against Mexico. It does make me nervous to think that I could be the victim of a hate crime caused by someone who has suffered so much injustice at the hands of my own people, and from a larger perspective, I worry that all the bad karma that comes out of the US towards Mexico is going to come back and bite us at some point. Mexico does not deserve it; it is not right.

Anti-discrimination in Employment: forget about it!

We saw signs everywhere seeking employment applicants restricted by age and gender. They were blatant and shameless; I mean, there was honestly nothing at all seen as wrong with saying, for example, that they would only consider attractive, single young women between the ages of 18 and 25 for a service job.

Looking for a female cashier at a fabric shop between the ages of 18 and 35

Looking for a female cashier at a fabric shop between the ages of 18 and 35

Generosity and Hospitality:

I hadn’t seen Delia and Eugenia for 28 years; they had been neighbors and friends of mine in Mexico but we lost touch. They picked us up at the bus station, a 45 minute drive from their home, and then they housed us and fed us breakfast, lunch and dinner for four nights, took off time from their work to show us around, and spent every waking minute with us during our stay. When we needed to go down into the city for a day to take care of some business, they drove us all the way down and then all the way back up. It felt way too much for us at first; Rick and I just aren’t used to people going so much out of their way at great expense to welcome us and make sure we are happy in their home. It really was a bit disconcerting. Our US cultural warning signs were firing, with thoughts like, “now if feel indebted; how can we ever pay them back in kind?” But heck, what could we do but keep saying Thank You! and enjoy their hospitality? It warmed my heart to the core, to spend time with my good friends, and it was as though we hadn’t missed a single moment – we were able to understand each other and enjoy each others’ company like our friendship had never missed a beat.

Delia and Eugenia at the rare opportunity for us to buy them lunch - at a Pozoleria

Delia and Eugenia at the rare opportunity for us to buy them lunch – at a Pozoleria

And if you think this type of hospitality is limited to old friends, we were also invited to the Guadalajara home of a Mexican family we met who was vacationing at our resort in Puerto Vallarta. They did the same thing – breakfast, lunch and dinner served to us in their home or bought for us at a restaurant. They had just finished remodeling an adjoining apartment when we arrived, and gave us the whole place to stay in! I think, indeed, that they bought the bed and finished the painting when they did, just so it would be ready for us when we arrived. They gave us the unofficial title of grandparents to their kids, too!

Me and Sofia, my new granddaughter

Me and Sofia, my new granddaughter

And then there is just the random kindness and generosity of strangers. Rick and I were standing outside of the Jardin Borda in Cuernavaca, disappointed that it was closed for renovation, when a gentleman approached us and suggested we go instead to the new museum of contemporary indigenous art that had opened up down the street. I asked him if he was a tour guide but he laughed and said no, not at all, he was just a guy who really enjoyed this particular museum. He had been to the opening a few weeks before. He was a poet, too. As it became clear to us that he was going to show us around the museum, Rick and I wondered, what’s the catch? What does he want? The answer was, he wanted nothing but the joy of sharing his knowledge of his beloved country with us, and possibly, a little companionship. He was really well-informed about the artwork – I learned a lot about the specialties of many different regions of Mexico from his tour: the highly precise pottery of the northern states like Chihuahua that reminded me of Arizona Native American Art; the brightly glazed ceramic images from Michoacan; the trees of life of the State of Mexico; the paper weavings of Puebla; the bead paintings of Jalisco, and more. We treated him to coffee at the museum rooftop restaurant, he told us more about his life, and he read us a few of his poems that he carried with him. And that was it. We thanked him and said goodbye.

Andres, our poet friend who gave us a tour of the Contemporary Indigineous Art Musem in Cuernavaca

Andres, our poet friend who gave us a tour of the Contemporary Indigineous Art Musem in Cuernavaca

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