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.”