Friendly Mexican myth

Yesterday morning, after completing yard chores like watering the terraza’s potted plants, brushing the terraza’s wooden shelves, sweeping the floor, wiping ceramic planters, washing the yard patio’s table and chairs, cleaning the birdbath and replacing its water, removing three huge, cold-damaged philodendron leaves and so on, I sat on a rocker in the terraza for a rest because I deserved it. My child bride was knitting inside.

I looked at the columns of rebar the neighbor has soaring about five feet above and abutting my property wall. He’s building something — a barn? — and he works on it most days, alone. It’s at the back of his and my property. I am happy about this. It mostly follows where he has a large shed roofed with laminated sheets that are badly held down. It’s for his tractor and horse. During a wind storm years ago, one of the huge sheets sailed over into our yard. It could easily have broken our large dining room window. Came close.

They are not nice people, and I debated with myself about what to do with the sheet, but I just hauled it to the street out back and left it by his entrance. I never heard a peep about it, not a “sorry about that” or a “thanks for returning it,” nada, which is what I expected.

Not a cop in sight.

Most Gringos who live in Mexico gush about the friendly people and the “lovely culture.” That sort of silliness amuses me for two reasons. Let’s start with the culture. Do they love the macho-ism? The drinking? The corruption? The narcos?

Just this week, narcos paraded in broad daylight in homemade armored vehicles down a street in another part of my state. While Mexican culture has many lovely aspects, true, it has just as many unlovely and dangerous ones.

And then there is the “friendliness.” If you want friendly, visit the American states of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia or Texas where genuine friendliness is abundant. Friendliness in Mexico is restricted to people you actually know and like. Mexicans are not friendly to strangers, though they can appear so. It is a false friendliness.

This is where I insert the famous and accurate quote from Octavio Paz:

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

These were some of the things I was thinking as I sat on my rocker admiring the lovely morning, anticipating the yummy roasted chicken I would be enjoying for lunch at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant just down the road a few hours later.

It’s a very friendly restaurant.

Down the Magic Dirt Road

MAGIC DIRT: the idea that geographical location will automatically transform the behavior of an individual or group of people.

This concept comes to us from Theodore Beale who writes under the name of  Vox Day. I’m reading a book of his that’s titled SJWs Always Double Down: Anticipating the Thought Police.

SJW stands for Social Justice Warrior, those ham-fisted, left-wing fanatics who enforce Political Correctness in the timorous world of white people.

But SJWs are not the focus today. Magic Dirt is. I happened upon this phrase and concept of Beale’s this week and, coincidentally, as if by magic, I had been thinking about something very similar lately.

Beale was born in Boston and now, apparently, lives in northern Italy upon his Magic Dirt. I was born in Atlanta and now, totally, live in the high mountains of Middle Mexico upon my Magic Dirt. We apparently both noticed the phenomenon, but he’s the one who stuck a name on it, not me.

Both Beale and I moved from American dirt to Latino dirt. I think that’s important. I believe that one who moves from American dirt to, say, Canadian or Australian dirt would likely not notice a great difference in dirt quality, its odor, consistency and color.

But does one change markedly on moving to another nation? I think it depends. I have, but I’m not sure to what extent, but it’s noticeable to me.

Let’s focus on moving to Mexico. There are no adjoining nations on earth that are so different, so if you really want a change, just fly over the Rio Bravo. I have long described Mexican life as akin to living in Alice’s Wonderland.

Cats with big smiles and no bodies that live in trees.

I’m sure the degree of change, the effect of the Magic Dirt, depends on how you live here and how often you go back where you came from. It also depends on if you know the language. It depends on the people you hang out with. If you marry into a Mexican family, that’s about as tight as a foreigner can get.

You’ve slipped through a barely open door. If you’re not in the Mexican family, you’re an eternal outsider, an intruder. You do get the smiles.

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

— Octavio Paz.

If one heads back over the northern border regularly. If you are married to another foreigner. If you do not speak Spanish. These and other elements will affect the effect of the Magic Dirt upon your mind, heart and soul.

How do you know the Magic Dirt is below your fingernails?

One good indication is that the wackiness — often sheer lunacy — of Mexican life ceases to annoy you, or at least to a far lesser degree.

If you wake up due to the 6 a.m. explosions on the nearby plaza but go directly and easily back to sleep, that’s Magic Dirt. If people explain an issue by citing something totally illogical, and you nod or shrug, that’s Magic Dirt.

Walking daily over Magic Dirt can be unsettling, or it can start to feel normal. It depends on the individual, one supposes. And time.

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.”

The first ride

On the Gulf Coast beach at Biloxi, Mississippi.

MY WIFE’S INITIAL visit to the United States was very surprising to her. “How clean,” she remarked as we walked through downtown San Antonio on our first night, having just driven up from Laredo. I think she meant “how orderly” because Mexico is clean, but sometimes it’s not too orderly, part of its romantic, chaotic charm.

It’s not that she was some provincial bumpkin who’d never been anywhere. She spent six months in the mid-1990s in Spain doing postgraduate studies in civil engineering in Madrid. She took advantage of that opportunity to travel all over Europe in her spare time.

But she had never been above the Rio Bravo until we drove up there in 2004 a year after our wedding. Before the trip, she was fond of saying that she had little interest in visiting. Hadn’t lost anything up there, she repeated with a smirk. There was a strain of anti-Americanism in her family.

All that changed immediately when she saw Texas … and Louisiana … and Mississippi … and Alabama … and Georgia. We drove in our little Chevy Pop, which is something like a Geo Metro. No AC, no stereo, no power steering or power brakes or power windows, no power anything. It was the first car I purchased in Mexico.

We spent a couple of nights in San Antonio, strolling the Riverwalk. There was a side trip to Bandera where we ate barbecue on the main drag. It was followed down the street by root beer floats. There’s no root beer in Mexico.

We drove on to Houston, my old home town, for a few more nights. We visited with a few of my previous coworkers who were still wage-slaving on the Houston Chronicle. Then on to New Orleans for rides in the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue and beignets at Café du Monde abutting the river in the French Quarter.

We hired a carriage, horse and driver for a romantic ride. Though she has seen Paris, New Orleans made a big impression on her. We walked the sidewalks of the Garden District. We ate oyster po’ boys.

The stretch from New Orleans to Atlanta is a long, mostly boring haul. We spread it over two days, spending the night in a Holiday Inn somewhere in the sticks of Central Alabama. The best thing about that night was a fried-catfish plate at a nearby restaurant. Alabama knows how to fry catfish.

She’d never had fried catfish. She’d never had oyster po’ boys. She’d never had a beignet. She’d never had a root beer float. She was happy. And her opinion of the United States changed forever. She was in love with the food, the shopping (Target in particular) and even the people, especially Southerners.

Southern people are genuinely friendly, unlike the famous (feigned) friendliness of Mexicans who grin and hug you to death if they know you and cast you a stone-faced glare if they do not.

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

We made it to Atlanta where we stayed about a week, visiting my mother, doing more shopping, more eating, and then we headed south, mostly repeating the route north but with briefer layovers.

The trip had begun the first week in March, so the car’s lack of air-conditioning was not a problem. But we almost got nailed on the return drive in mid-March, just one day, the leg between Houston and the border at Laredo. We sweated a bit. Ironically, on entering Mexico, things cooled off. There are mountains.

My wife returned a changed woman. Before she loved only one Gringo. Now she loves them all. She wants to rent a home and stay in the United States for months at a time. She wants to eat po’ boys and barbecue and beignets and catfish every day. She wants to roam the aisles of Target with a debit card and a smile.

Other trips followed, but it’s been six years now since we’ve been above the Rio Bravo, and she’s unhappy about that. Maybe we’ll return some distant day, but only the Goddess knows when … or if.

We haven’t lost anything up there.