Living in paradise?


A GRINGA READER recently chided me for looking “at the dirt.” She was taking me to task for not regarding life in Mexico as “paradise.” Like many folks from above the Rio Bravo who have intelligently relocated to Mexico, she finds her new nation to be an endless delight. I am happy for her.

Even though moving to Mexico over 15 years ago was surely one of the best ideas of my life, I feel quite differently about this paradise thing. My contrary perspective comes from being in a Mexican family on one hand and, for many years now, having virtually nothing to do with Gringos on the other hand.

Let me begin by repeating the famous quote from Octavio Paz:

A Mexican’s face is a mask, and so is his smile.

What does this mean? It means what you see is false. Mexico has had a long, difficult and often bloody history. This made life uncertain and put people on constant edge. It also made folks quite suspicious of their neighbors. Mexicans love “Mexico,” but they don’t like other Mexicans much.

Our* long, difficult times have produced two things: 1. Our famous family ties. 2. A smile on our faces.

When you live in a troubled world where there were next to no official safety nets for centuries, you learn to rely on your relatives by necessity. Your family becomes the most important thing, and this cultural fixation continues today even though Mexico is not nearly as troubled and uncertain as it once was.

In the company of family is about the only place Mexicans let their hair down.

Everywhere else, they keep their hair up and a smile on their faces. This smile has become as famous and as locked in tradition as the deep bow in Japan. The smile, however, as Octavio Paz revealed, is bogus.

It is cultural, not heartfelt.

Foreigners here do not know this, and it’s why most find us so freaking “friendly.” It’s why Gringos and the many Canucks who live in Mexico believe they are bosom pals, best friends, with their maids and gardeners.

Mexico is, in fact, very socially stratified, much like Europe. We don’t embrace American egalitarianism.

The endless smile and associated words result in cultural traits that we’re famous for. Topping the list is that we will tell you that we will do something, show up for an appointment or come to lunch, when we have absolutely no intention whatsoever of doing it. We lie right in your face — with a smile, natch.

Almost as famous as our smile is our “yes.” The legion of problems this creates — up to and including the economy — is massive. A promise is often not a promise in the slightest.

I earlier mentioned the advantage of being in a Mexican family. It’s where truth comes out. So many times have I heard relatives say something to someone not in the family and then immediately say the exact opposite when the non-family member has departed. The outsider got the mask, the “yes” and the smile.

Most foreign residents, even those who’ve been here many years, think the mask is real, and that is where our reputation of being such friendly folks originates. But even so, living here at times can be quite trying.

It is very common for Gringos here to say how much they “love the culture,” a laughable phrase that invariably causes my eyeballs to roll in their sockets at the utter silliness of it. Truth is that some aspects of the culture, as in all cultures, are admirable. Some are quite nasty. It is like this in all nations of the world.

I have a funny story.

Years back, I was sitting at a sidewalk table downtown with an American couple who had lived here less than a year. During the conversation, the woman said that she “loved the culture.” My eyeballs started rotating, and the husband smiled because he knew my take on things.

A couple of months later I ran into him on the sidewalk, and I asked where his wife was. He said they were moving back to the United States, and his wife had left before him. I asked why. He said that his wife “couldn’t take it here anymore.” The figurative “dirt” had conquered her. I chuckled.

Almost all foreign residents here live on a separate plane, speaking English, interacting almost entirely with other foreigners, a sort of permanent vacation zone where the natives remain apart, smiling and masked. This woman had somehow wandered off the plantation, out of “Cancún,” an uncommon event.

There is dirt here, and I see it. There are also blue skies, beautiful visitas, helpful people who can do almost anything, low cost of living, low taxes, no dangerous worship of multiculturalism and diversity, liberty in most things, and an efficient, low-cost, healthcare system. It is the antithesis of the 21st century, left-leaning, elitist, meddlesome, spoiled, politically correct, downward-spiraling, race-obsessed, American culture.

But it is not paradise. No place is. But it’s pretty damn swell in spite of its warts.

* * * *

* Having been a citizen now for 10 years, I feel comfy saying “our.”

39 thoughts on “Living in paradise?

  1. Once again, Felipe, you are 100% RIGHT ON THE MONEY! (And, as you know, I know from experience!) I think that is the thing that drives most of us relocated Gringos nuts is the Mexicans saying one thing and doing another. In the U.S. (at least with me anyway) my word MEANT something. If I say I will be somewhere you better believe, unless I am in an accident or in the hospital, I will be there. Not so in Mexico.

    Have a great afternoon, Felipe!
    Hasta luego!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Happily, I can say outright, I agree with you! We differ on many things, but I parrot much of what you say, one stumbler may be the term culture. I frequently say how much I love the abundance of culture here in Merida, meaning all the art, music, theatre. I do respect the Mexican family, and understand I will likely never be privy to the inside of one.

    I too see the dirt. I mostly accept it, but do not revel in it. Yes, there is a lot to love here, but there is a lot to contend with too! Always an adventure!


    1. Debi: Most of the time when Gringos (or you Canucks) say they love the culture here, they are indeed speaking of Mariachi music, traditional dances, the parades, colorful indigenous attire, etc. But, of course, the word is far more than that. It’s how people think and act. Also part of the culture here is shocking, widespread animal abuse, a level of machismo that would drive most American women nuts, especially these days, and its related, widespread infidelity, lots of alcoholism, the constant saying yes when it’s a bald-faced lie. The culture embraces both good and bad.

      As for marrying into a family, I was really surprised at first at how things changed, and how I was treated.

      It is always an adventure here, and I like it, weird as it can be at times.


      1. Spot on, Felipe! But you didn’t cover household employees’ accidental breakage of objects and taking no responsibility for it, and sometimes hiding the evidence. We don’t expect them to pay for the replacement, (They couldn’t afford it.) just to be more careful and be upfront and honest about what happened. It’s almost always,
        ” The glass plate/the lamp/the whatever slipped itself from my hands and fell itself to the floor.” etc. etc.

        We are gradually learning to deal with this behavior.

        This is an experience you miss by not having household employees.
        Don Cuevas


        1. Señor Cuevas: We have had household help, and it’s taught me a couple of things. First, don’t go off and leave them in the house alone. Years after letting the last one go, we still find things missing that were almost certainly stolen. Primarily clothing and music CDs. It was stupid to leave her alone. Few Mexican employers would have done it with a fairly new employee.

          As for breaking stuff, that last one broke the mouse on my desk computer. How she did that is a wonderment. Of course, she denied it. It broke itself. Actually, it’s not a wonderment how that happened. The locals clean with a brutal vengeance. That things subsequently break themselves is no surprise.

          You touch on, probably not accidentally, an aspect of Spanish that provides an out in many circumstances. People don’t break stuff. Stuff breaks itself.

          That always amuses me.


          1. I had a similar experience with a Brazilian housekeeper. She managed to break the bathroom sink. To this day, I don’t know how such a thing happened, but it did. She refused to own up to it and we parted ways, not so terribly amicably.


      2. I am frequently accused of being Canukian, but am not. I am from los estados unidos. Seems my pronunciation of vowels, caused by learning and speaking Spanish has changed, and I now sound like a UP’er.


  3. Wandering off the plantation … ha, ha, that’s great. I have been here 46 years and have a friend who has been here 54 years. He tells me, “We might be close to assimilation but we will never be 100%. I see Gringos come and go. I think only about 1% of Americans can really assimilate into another culture. I figure if they can last five years then maybe they can last long enough to melt in, but like the lady who loved the culture but left not many can be flexible enough to survive.

    They are usually demoralized by then. Someone asked me how is it you can make it in Mexican society? Well, friends, it was the way I grew up. I was a voyager and an existentialist. I traveled for years and I saw the good, the bad and the ugly in the USA also. There’s many similarities in Mexico, but Mexico sometimes offers me things that the USA will never offer me, so I will bend with the wind.

    It’s not about money. A so-called expat blogger mentioned living in a foreign country, and I told him any asshole with a million dollars can live ANYWHERE in the world … UNTIL the money runs out! The trick is doing it without money. He wanted me to write an article about that, and I told him I couldn’t because nobody would believe it anyway, and things change with time. Felipe’s right. It’s an adventure. Only a few can do it. It’s like the Green Berets — 100 men will go out today, but only three will return. Remember that song?


    1. Señor Mystic: Some nations/cultures make it easier for us to assimilate. Mexico is not one of those because it is so very different than above the border. There are no two abutting nations on Earth that are so different. I will never assimilate here. My appearance alone is a huge barrier to that, but I’m not interested in assimilating anyway. Perhaps if I were younger assimilation would be a goal. But not now.

      Yes, I do remember that Green Beret tune.


  4. The gringos who simply adore Mexican culture, all of it, see it through lenses that filter out all but two flavors: indigenous and working class, both of which are their noble savages. They know nothing of the juniors, narcos, nacos, fresas, and the plain, simple and sturdy upper middle class. They’ve never heard of Jorge Castaneda, Joaquín López-Dóriga, or Brozo. Ask them about Tres Marias or Costco or one of the Altozanos scattered across the country, and they’ll dismiss those venues as not Mexican. Their social interactions are seldom with Mexicans of a social class comparable or superior to theirs.

    And that family values talk? Domestic violence, incest, child abuse, illegitimacy, adultery -– the entire panorama is played out right here in this country, just as it was back the Olde Country. We even have pedophiles in Mexico. We’re not unlike Illinois or Oklahoma or anywhere else.

    And that bit about saying yes when we really mean no? It’s easier that way, and we think it’s kinder on others’ feelings. Live here long enough, and you’ll learn to respond to an invitation you have absolutely no idea of honoring with “I’d love to” or “If I can.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ms. Shoes: I was with you completely till I got to the last paragraph. The endless “yes” is because we want to be kind to others? I beg to differ. It’s an entirely self-serving tradition. It is done, as you note, because it’s easier that way. And there is no element of altruism.


      1. I think the endless Mexican “yes” is rooted in a need to tell another what he wants to hear, to resist offending by saying “no.” When I’ve responded to a Mexican invitation with regrets based upon some truthful reason, like having to work or having out-of-town guests, they’ve come back with something along the lines of “you can take a break” or “bring your guests along.” Just saying “yes” when I mean “no,” gives them the response they want to hear, eliminates the challenges, and the odds are that they know I’m lying.


        1. Ms. Shoes: Yes, it is to tell another what he wants to hear, a cultural trait that goes back centuries. It has long been safer to say what others want to hear. To do otherwise is to put yourself at risk, often quite mortally.

          In your case, yes, they will think you’re lying because lying is a million times more common here than telling the truth. Lying is the norm. Sadly.


    2. One huge element of the Mexican culture is embarrassment. Sometimes it seems they are constantly embarrassed about one thing or another. This applies especially to women. One reason people say yes to everything is to avoid yet another attack of embarrassment by having to say no.

      Once, years ago, we invited a local fellow and his wife, Mexicans, to the Hacienda for lunch. Thinking they were just one of a number of invitees, they arrived one and a half hours late. When they arrived, we had already eaten. I don’t play along with that foolishness. Real Mexicans would have waited for them. They discovered they were the sole guests, and they were really embarrassed, as they should have been. They were never invited back.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mexico is a very class-conscious society. How one fits into it depends upon how one carries himself. One’s language, education and religion count for a lot. Who one associates with will determine how he is accepted.

    Yes, there is poverty and dirt, but it is not our poverty and dirt. People have no compunction about telling someone that they don’t belong somewhere.

    Servants, tradesmen and shopkeepers are always friendly. They know upon which side their bread is buttered. Pepe Guizar sang “Como Mexico, No Hay Dos.” To which, a good many added “Gracias a Dios.”


    1. Señor Gill: As with Ms. Shoes’ comment above, I’m with you up to a point. But shopkeepers are always friendly? Sure has not been my experience. Some are though.

      You’re far more likely to find friendly shopkeepers in the U.S., especially in the Southeast.


    1. Lordy, no. It doesn’t snow here. It is colder than usual for this time of year, mostly due to cloud cover, which should not be happening. Been raining now and then, quite strange. It was 45 degrees this morning when I got up.


  6. If I told you I loved the local culture in St Louis, I would mean the 5 star restaurants on Italian Hill, Cardinals games, the live music scene, the zoo, art museums and public parks. You might say, well, what about the problems in the Ferguson community? Yes, there are some crummy neighborhoods in St Louis, and of course I see them, but St Louis is still a great city. I have lived a lot of places for long enough to learn the area and to adapt my life enough to be comfortable and always found something wonderful about each place (except Wisconsin). Mexico is paradise for us, because we defined what paradise would be before we arrived – to live in a place where we could walk, or take public transportation, most places we want to go, to live comfortably within our retirement income, to be close to a major airport in case we needed to get back to the USA in an emergency, to travel interesting places, to find a good church and have an interesting social life, and to have good medical and dental services. The history of Mexico and the art and music just adds to our feeling that we have found the perfect place to live – and what natural beauty surrounds us! – we are headed back to Colima next week to go horseback riding on the slopes of the Volcano. Our hosts may be wearing a fake smile – but, so what? I would rather be surrounded by fake smiles than to be sitting at a restaurant on 6th street in Austin watching strange old men ride their bicycles by the window wearing nothing but …well, nothing…or having to walk back to our truck through the hordes of homeless, crackheads who use the sidewalk as their bed and their toilet. So, maybe the problem is not Mexico – maybe it is with your definition of paradise. As Milton said in “Paradise Lost,” the mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bonnie: We are of one mind that this is a far superior place to live.

      And I owe you for giving me the idea to write this post. Sometimes I run out of material.

      Old men bicycle naked in Austin?! Somehow this does not surprise me. But Jeez!


  7. Some of this is just the Latin mentality. I grew up in the Latin culture and we always viewed family and close friends as the only people that could be trusted and that we would confide in. In Argentina they call this “gente de confianza”. I wonder if this untrusting view of strangers is the source of one of the most annoying things about Latin America: there is a mentality of trying to “get over” on everyone else in business dealings including short changing you when you pay your bills, bill padding, etc. Again the Argentines call this mentality “viveza criolla” translated as “common cunning” which is a much sought after attribute in that culture.


    1. Wesmouch: Since most of Latin America shared an often similar history, I imagine many of the characteristics I mention exist on down the line. But Mexico is the only place I know personally. Well, if you don’t count Puerto Rico.

      You bring up a topic I did not touch on: money. Again, due to a long, difficult past, money too is a touchy subject. You are correct. People are more likely to try and put one over on you here than in the U.S.


  8. Bonnie touched on the point I was going to make. The notion that “paradise” can be found anywhere on this planet is a notion that has no evidence in human experience. It is the primary myth for many people. We search for it knowing it cannot be found within the confines of our flawed lives. I fear it is tacking an arc similar to the word “friend.” At one point, the term applied to a small handful of people with whom we could share the most intimate details of our lives. Now, everyone in the Facebook world is a friend — even if we merely met them one night online while discussing our favorite rock bands from 1967. Reading Jorge Castañeda’s Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans has probably forever changed my view concerning Mexico’s culture.


    1. I, also, have not read this and now will. Thank you, Steve. I read “The Teachings of Don Juan” a number of years ago and thought it was strange, but now that I have lived in Mexico a while, I think I should reread it. I am reading MFK Fisher’s “Serve it Forth!” which is a collection of essays about food…kind of…but also about life. Included is an essay entitled ” Pity the Blind in Palate” which is about how so many go through life without developing their palate .. not just for food, but for all the fine things in life. Music is so much better when you know something about the composers, the time in which they wrote, their particular style. The same goes for art and, of course, for food. I think those who learn about the culture and history of Mexico enjoy it so much more.


  9. ‘Been hangin’ around you in a manner of speaking quite a while. You address this issue on occasion. I am guessing it is a mood thing for you. I can agree with most of what you are saying here. Suffice it to say you are a pragmatic fellow. Not cut from Mexican cloth. Neither am I. Enough said.

    There is more I can agree with than not in what you say here. I think you are on to something. 😉


    1. Señor Calypso: Yes, I have addressed this matter before in other ways, usually in briefer versions. It’s something I find interesting, obviously, how my view differs so much from other folks’ from above the border who have moved down here.

      Yes, I am a pragmatic fellow and I’m not cut from Mexican cloth in the slightest. Yet here I am, and they even gave me a passport. They did not know what they were doing, surely.


  10. Interesting post. As you know, I’ve read enough Mexico Expat blogs to have some sense of what the Gringos in Mexico are thinking and how they are interacting with the culture. And the dominant theme which seems to have emerged is that most can barely order coffee in Spanish, and thus aren’t really close to any Mexicans. As such, they literally have *no idea* of what the culture is. Sure, they see the mariachi bands, the mojigangas, the festivals and parades, but they have no idea what real Mexican people are like, in Spanish, talking about their lives, concerns, and view of the world. So when someone gushes about “loving the culture,” I take it with a hefty grain of salt.

    And yes, there are negative elements of the culture that are quite obvious even if you don’t speak Spanish. The treatment of animals is the most obvious one, something I personally find very troubling. But the whole lack of trust also seems pretty evident. Americans tend to trust each other unless they have some reason not to. But Mexicans? They don’t trust each other until they have gotten to know each other well. And the whole issue of bribery? Sure, it’s probably not as bad as it was twenty years ago, but it’s still an undercurrent of getting things done SOB. NOB? It’s very very rare. Yet even these obvious negatives get pretty much ignored in this desire to see Mexico as some kind of paradise.

    The deep irony in all of this? Many Mexicans consider that living in the USA would be paradise. They can make way more money than in Mexico. There they have the possibility of social advancement, if not for themselves, for their kids. There they don’t have to worry too much about crime, and they can generally count on the police to help. (Yes, I realize the police do bad things here, but I’d wager it’s much less than SOB.) They can efficiently pay their bills and get on with their lives. And they don’t feel like our government is corrupt. I have yet to meet a Mexican who had any faith in the Mexican government. To many of them NOB looks like a kind of paradise.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Mexico and Mexicans, but I feel that I do so with pretty open eyes. I love them warts, and all. But let’s not pretend that it’s some kind of idyllic paradise. (Any more than is the USA.) And let’s really not pretend that the average Mexican isn’t struggling more, and more stressed out about the tribulations of life than the average Gringo. For most average Mexicans, life is a far bigger struggle than NOB. They just manage to put a much better face on things, which is a lesson we NOB ought to learn.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we’re tired of hearing people be “stressed out” by trivial problems.


    1. Kim: We are of one mind on some of the things you mention, but not on others.

      1. If you hear a Gringo (or more likely a Gringa) say she loves the culture here, he/she usually is clueless. Lots of these people live in San Miguel de Allende.

      2. Bribery. In my time here, nobody has ever asked for a bribe. Not one soul. In fact, the only time I offered one, it was rejected. I think this is far, far less of an issue than it was in the old days.

      3. Cops. I pretty much trust cops here. I wish they were paid more. Most of the few interactions I have had with one have been quite pleasant. The only time I was actually stopped by a traffic cop … I was totally guilty.

      4. You’ve never met a Mexican who had any faith in the government here is due, I think, to the types of Mexicans you have associated with. One left-wing teacher and his buddies come to mind. But you’re correct in that distrust of government is widespread. With reason. I think the government is moving in the right direction now. Long way to go, of course. Reform in the areas of law, education, energy are good news.

      5. The average Mexican is more stressed out about the tribulations of life than the average American? I doubt that. I’d say just the opposite.


  11. We live in what I would call a typical middle-class Mexican neighborhood here in Guadalajara, mostly working professionals or business owners. The only Gringos nearby are some Christian missionaries from Utah who live down the street and, of course, I avoid them at all costs. When we do venture out to the Gringo enclaves such as SMA and Chapala I cannot wait to get back home. It is much more uncomfortable for me to listen to an expat whining about all of the things that are wrong with this country than it is to converse with a Mexican neighbor in my limited Spanish. I have not once felt out of place in the four years that I have been here. It is nice to live where even total strangers greet you with a hello and a smile. Yes, maybe it is a mask as Señor Paz wrote, but who among us does not wear a mask of sorts regardless of where we live.


    1. Charles: I would think that the smiles you receive in passing there are genuine. And yes, a visit to San Miguel, etc., is best enjoyed briefly, not long-term.


      1. I like to think of San Miguel as the spot where leftist Bohemians wearing earth shoes and tie-dyed t-shirts go to live out their golden years. They tend to stare into space and talk a lot about “the sunlight.” Simple-minded folk such as myself would imagine the sun is the same in all that part of Mexico. If you move to Mexico to get away from the U.S. culture, why move there? I guess perhaps the restaurants.


        1. Wesmouch: San Miguel is exactly that, of course. The reason they move there is because of the kindred spirits and because you can say you are in Mexico when you really are not totally and because you need not learn Spanish and because there are lots of those great restaurants, which are there because the Gringos are there. It’s all tied together.


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