I bet that you know what the word amigo means. Or do you?
The concept of friendship is as much of a cultural construct as it is a basic human need. In other words, while you might know that the English cognate of amigo is friend, you might not know what friendship looks like in Mexico. This is what I have been slowly discovering over the past eight months. I am only now starting to understand the differences and similarities.
Last week’s dramatic events in Boston had me thinking a lot about my friends back home.
My last home was in Boston; I am a runner; many of my friends are runners; several were running the marathon, and; many were cheering near the finish line. As soon as I heard the news, I began scouring news articles and Facebook posts to ensure that everyone was safe and healthy. I felt a deep empathy for the victims, their friends, and their families. And I hoped for my former city the ability to mourn, to rebuild, and to return to its former vibrancy.
Living in Boston taught me how important friends are. I was far away from the majority of my family for almost a decade, therefore these friends had become my defacto family. It certainly was hard to say goodbye to them when I moved to Mexico, and I still miss them tremendously.
Peace Corps life is like that. We leave behind our friends and family, our culture and our language. We start over. But the rules are different in our new home and we learn them as we go. Because of that, it can take a while to make friends in our host countries. We tend get lonely more frequently than our friends and family back in the United States.
So what have I learned about making friends in Mexico? For a foreigner like me, there is a learning curve to it.
From what I can see, family is the most important thing in the culture here; more so than money, personal comfort, individual choice, and, of course, friends. I am not the only one who has observed this. Boye De Mente’s new book called The Mexican Mind: Understanding and Appreciating Mexican Culture states:
Family and personal relationships became the foundation of Mexican life during the first years of the Spanish colonial era because there was no body of law to protect or support the people. Their only recourse when they needed any kind of help was to depend on family…
Mexicans tend to be exceptionally sensitive to every nuance of human relations, to be formal, and to avoid getting personal with people they do not know well.
To me, this passage makes a lot of sense. I recently overheard a mother saying to her children, who were playing trust-fall that they could always play the game together because family is always there for them, but they had better not play it with their friends at school. After all, the other kids were jokers that you should never trust too much.
The Mexican Mind goes on to mention that:
Members of one’s family could more or less be counted on automatically to be loyal and supportive, to act as amigos, without any special effort…
This sentence really struck me. My former neighbor is an only-child. This is uncommon. I always see her working hard on her school work and on home chores. Recently I asked her about her social life because I never hear her mention typical 20-year-old activities like going out with friends and watching movies. She told me with a straight face “I don’t have any… Well, that’s not true; I have my mom and I have you. But really what is important to me right now is studying hard so that I can go to the university.”
At first, I thought that her relatively small social circle was a personal choice since she focuses on her education so earnestly. But later, she elaborated on the topic, saying: “well, my peers go out and do all of that typical stuff, but they do it with their siblings and cousins and such. It is actually really hard to make friends with my non-family peers in my town because they are always with their families.”
As I mentioned before, I am getting very used to being a cultural oddity. One of the strangest things about me is that I left my family to live in another country for two years.
Gosh, aren’t you lonely? Actually, I have lived away from my family for more than 12 years now. Wait, what?!? Well, of course I keep in regular contact with them and visit when I can, and I have many friends who are like family to me… This makes no sense at all is what I read in their faces. I have not yet figured out how to answer these questions in a way that makes sense to my compañeros.
It makes me wonder about all of the Mexicans who have moved to the USA. When family is so important, how do they get by? How lonely they must feel.
So are their friendships in Mexico? Of course! And they are awesome. They just take time, effort, sensitivity, and an open-mindedness to work within a different cultural construct.
More from The Mexican Mind (can you tell that I love this book?):
To maintain a full amigo relationship with non-family members required an extraordinary amount of effort and nurturing. Various aspects of the distinctive lifestyle developed by Mexicans, from long afternoon lunches to the custom of gathering in the evening after work for drinking and partying, were based in great measure on the fundamental need to nurture relationships with friends.
I could not have said it better myself.
I am happy to announce that I now have friends here. It took a while to find them, to build trust, and to learn how to be a good friend here.
I made some mistakes along the way. I don’t think I will ever forget Lulu’s hurt voice in response to my story about a small weekend gathering with some fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. But you didn’t invite me to your party!
I tried explaining that it was just a small get-together, that it was last-minute; that I didn’t want it to be a big thing; that… Her response was a simple: tienes demasiado pretextos. You have too many excuses.
Now I understand why Lulu was a bit hurt. In Mexico, there is almost no such thing as a small party, there is no such thing as “too” last minute to invite another guest, and there is almost no event hosted without inviting the whole list of friends on Face. None of my excuses made sense to her.
We made amends by turning it all into a big joke, so all is copacetic now.
Little by little, I am learning how to be an amiga.
This post is dedicated to the victims, the families, and the friends of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. Family and friends are the most important part of life, especially during tough times.
Making me smile, Guest Edition
- Sitting in town squares while people-watching. And topiary watching. Topiaries sure are popular in town squares, huh?
- Eating fresh and delicious fruit, cut up in cups and ready to eat with a fresh drizzle of lime on top
- Marveling at the slower pace of life and at how much Spanish someone (me!) can learn in eight months
- Buying 66 vanilla beans from one of the best vanilla producing areas in the world for only $20
- Enjoying fresh, local coffee while surrounded by coffee trees in a semi-tropical forest set among dramatic mountain-scape
- Learning how to have “conversations” with other drivers while navigating windy mountain roads. This involves blinkers, arm waving, and whistling
- Finding nearly empty beaches where locals sell cold beverages and giant prawns
- Noticing that people look drastically different from region-to-region, from state-to-state
- Being the only non-Mexican around for an entire week
And I have to add my own, because this post is about friends
- Learning the term for “friends with benefits.” Amigos con derechos or “friends with rights”
- Laughing in Spanish: it is spelled Jajajaja or jejejeje