Archive | July, 2013

Mexican Culture 101

19 Jul


Since I have now lived in Mexico for more than a year and have no current thoughts of leaving, I thought it was time to delve more deeply into the culture in which I find myself.   Thus, I enrolled in an 8-hour course over a two week period taught by a woman named Michelle Garrison, originally from Seattle, who holds a Master’s degree in Multi-Cultural Education from the University of Washington.  Michelle has lived and continued her studies here in central Mexico for the past seven years and in addition to her other endeavors, owns a used bookstore.  Enormously fascinating and at times disturbing, the course covered a wide range of subjects including an examination of Mexican values and philosophy, family structure, education, manners and rudeness, as well as Mexican concepts of time, honesty and trust.

Like many Americans, I have made unconscious assumptions about other countries and cultures, informed principally by my own experience growing up in the western United States.  I did, of course, realize that there were differences between peoples but always imagined them to be subtle — after all, we’re all human beings, sharing the same planet — how different can we really be from one another?  As it turns out, quite different.

Before I go further, however, there are caveats to this story.  The main one is that Michelle, a lovely woman, is a “gringa,” the female form of “gringo,” a term whose origin is sometimes debated.  A slang word in Spanish and Portuguese, it is generally used to denote foreigners or non-native speakers.  The true origin likely comes from the Spanish word for Greek, “griego,” as in “It’s Greek to me.”   In any case, Michelle is not a Mexican so her understanding and/or interpretation of Mexican culture is filtered through her American eyes.  I have attempted to verify some of her conclusions by discussing these matters with my Mexican friends and have not yet found any strong disagreement.  [NOTE:  Some object to referring to those of us from the United States as “Americans” since technically all natives of both North, Central and South America are “Americans”; however, it is much more convenient for me to call myself an American than a “United Statesian” or some variation thereof.]  A second caveat is that Michelle has lived more or less exclusively in this region of Mexico and, just as is true in the United States, culture has regional variations.  Indeed, I’m told San Miguel de Allende is a very conservative place and retains more of the ancient and religious traditions than most other places in Mexico (which explains why people come here from all over the country for significant religious holidays).  In spite of its attraction to tourists, San Miguel is the real deal, retaining the spirit and manifestation of its authentic Mexican history.

So back to the class.  There was a great plethora of information presented, some of which I’m still mulling over, but let me share with you a few concepts that I found particularly interesting, beginning with the “word.”  John 1:1 — In the beginning was the word.  In English we think of the word as unchanging, eternal, true, as in the expression, ” I give you my word.”  In Spanish the “word,” la palabra, is less concrete, more transient, more concerned with the present moment, with an idea.  If a Mexican suggests we meet at 10 next Tuesday at Starbucks, it is a sincere “wish” — but it’s really just an idea and many things may happen between now and then which might change the idea.  The plumber wasn’t lying when he told me he would be here at 8 in the morning; it was his intention– it just didn’t work out that way.  Quite often we have experienced the need to re-schedule an event and have come to understand that few of the arrangements one makes ever takes place as originally scheduled but instead is postponed, sometimes multiple times, to a later date.  Time flows at a leisurely pace and there is rarely a sense of urgency; what is more important is harmony.  Unlike Americans who value individuality, Mexicans value community and conformity.  A modest people, they value the commonality of their beliefs and behavior.

The class also covered the subjects of honesty and truth and the question of what constitutes a lie?  I find this whole concept enormously fascinating and have attempted to further my understanding by reading multiple authors.  Sara Sefchovich, a Mexican writer with a doctorate in Mexican History, has distilled the cultural phenomenon of lying by saying, “The only truth is the lie.”  To elaborate, she writes,

“We have established a method of functioning in society, an agreement where we all know we lie. We lie and pretend to believe anyway. Everyone from the smallest child to the most exalted being, lies in this country; it is an essential part of our culture . . . .  Lying is practiced daily in our homes. It lets you draw water illegally, but at the same time, to speak publicly in favor of the importance of the environment and its care.”

Sefchovich asserts that lying is a cultural phenomenon because “Mexico is a country that for reasons of its own history, because of colonization and the conquest, and its relationship with the world, developed two key elements in its culture: one is lying, and the other is corruption.”

Although his book, The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz was first published in 1950, it remains the “go-to” book for expats living in Mexico.  Paz writes, “We tell lies for the mere pleasure of it, like all imaginative peoples, but we also tell lies to hide ourselves and to protect ourselves from intruders.  Lying plays a decisive role in our daily lives, our politics, our love-affairs and our friendships, and since we attempt to deceive ourselves as well as others, our lies are brilliant and fertile, not like the gross inventions of other peoples . . . .   At first the pretense is only a fabric of inventions intended to baffle our neighbors, but eventually it becomes a superior — because more artistic — form of reality.”  My Spanish teacher once told me that he and his wife, who have no children, lie to their Mexican neighbors and claim that they have children and grandchildren, a huge value in Mexican life.  Having not mastered this art, I once had a conversation with the mechanic down the street who was visibly upset when I told him I had no children.  He said to me, “Who will take care of you when you are old?”

Mexicans sift their reality through a filter that softens or beautifies that which is hard or ugly.  In Mexico, a lie is only considered a lie if it is an untruth with a bad intention, meant to harm.   The lies that are interwoven throughout the daily life of a Mexican are generally intended to ease suffering and inspire hope or happiness.  For example, instead of telling a small child that the dog has died, more likely one would say that the dog has gone to live with other dogs across town — and yes, when we have time we’ll go and visit the dog.  This example caused me to ask:  if lying is so prevalent, how do people develop trust?  The answer was that in many cases, they do not, as evidenced by their distrust of the police.  And that distrust is one of the reasons Mexicans live behind walls.

There was so much more to this class but I’m still grappling with many of the concepts; I trust they will become clearer over time.  For example, we studied the two mothers of Mexico — the Virgin of Guadalupe on the one hand — and La Malinche on the other, mistress to Cortez.  Her name, Malinche, means “twisted grass” and has come to symbolize the essence of treachery and betrayal.  These two female figures inform the Mexican view of women — but my understanding of this subject is still in its infancy so I dare not opine further.   I do know that Mexico is a country more sensitive than most when it comes to its sovereignty and the word “Malinchismo” is the term applied to everything seen as injurious to patriotism, honor, and national pride.

The result of taking this class is a new understanding that people are, indeed, different.  The role culture plays in our lives is beyond my expectation and, naturally, causes much introspection about my own culture, the culture of the United States.  As a person who has always loved studying subjects which appear infinite in their scope, the study of Mexican culture aptly fills the bill.