Obviously, I stand out like a sore thumb in Mexico. The thing is, I like it. I generate curiosity which is, in my opinion, an opportunity to break down barriers and start interesting conversations. On average, about once a week I get asked the following questions:
“What do you think about Mexico?”
Almost everyone that I meet wants to know if I share their national pride.
My response varies depending on whom I am speaking with and how I feel at the time. Sometimes I quote my first host mother, describing the kaleidoscope that is Mexico. Other times, I explain how warm and welcoming the people are in my perspective, or about the surprisingly high diversity and richness of ethnicity, food, and language (did you know that Mexico is more ethnically diverse that the USA and is home to more than 60 spoken languages spoken by more than 10 million people!?). Or I mention the beauty; what a lovely place!
No matter my mood, I always have something positive to say about my adoptive country.
I ran a trail race this past weekend. Since I know the race organizer and his father, I made sure to share sweaty and gross post-race hugs and handshakes with both of them. While shaking hands with the organizer’s father, his friend spotted me. Clearly curious about me, he extended a microphone that was connected to the event’s sound system, and thus roped me into an interview in front of the whole crowd.
One of his questions was one that I answer almost every day:
“Where do you come from?”
It is a fair question. Most people want some frame of reference, and clearly Mexico is not this blondie’s original home.
My answer was not what he was looking for: “I came from the city just on the other side of the mountain.”
Assuming that I misunderstood the question, he rephrased: “no, but where do you come from originally?” I relented and answered the question as he was hoping, but reiterated that I live in Mexico now.
This tends to be my typical response to the “where do you come from” question. I guess that I want people to know that I am not just a tourist, that I belong here, and that I am a part of one of the largest diasporas in the world! I like to show that it is not just Mexicans who cross our shared border to live abroad.
I like that almost everyone who I know is one of the following members of the diaspora:
- Mexican, lived in the United States
- Mexican, lives in the United States
- Mexican, close family member lives in the United States
- US American, close friends with Mexicans living in the United States
- US American, regularly travels to Mexico and learns Spanish to better interact with Mexicans
- US American, works with Mexicans and actively tries to get to know their co-workers better
It is a wonderful, enriching diaspora that I believe makes our countries stronger. Even still, there persists a deep misunderstanding between my original and my current home countries. This is one of the big reasons that I love my job: I serve as a representative of one country while living in the other and communicating back to the first about my experiences. It is diplomacy on the ground, person to person.
…the relationship between our nations must be defined not by the threats that we face but by the prosperity and the opportunity that we can create together. President Obama
“What did you think of Mexicans before you came?”
This one was posed to me yesterday while on one of the park’s trails with my co-workers.
Here’s the thing: I had a lot of contact with Mexican-Americans before I came. I am from one of the states with the highest level Mexican influence. Only a little over 150 years ago, my home state was a part of Mexico. My high school demographics accounted for somewhere between 33-50% students of Mexican origin and/or heritage, which is quite a bit higher than the overall US average of 10%.
These were my peers and my friends. I went to dinner in their homes and had slumber parties where I did not share a common language with the host’s parents. I ate chilies and beans and corn tortillas long before moving to Mexico.
I shared this caveat with my co-workers before launching into my overall positive impressions of Mexicans from the year before: that they love to party (I have confirmed this stereotype, but I clearly underestimated its importance in the culture), and; that they spend a lot of time with family, always prioritizing family above anything else (also confirmed).
“Right, but what BAD impressions did you have about us before??”
I had to think a while on this one. Had I had any negative impressions?
I responded by saying: “Well, that is not generally what I do. I don’t like when someone forms an impression of a large group of people that is negative. We say in English one bad apple spoils the bunch, but I just don’t believe that one bad experience means that ALL Mexicans are a certain way.”
They were not satisfied. “There had to be something bad that you were worried about when coming here. Tell us!”
OK fine. I was a little worried about how I would fare in a culture famous for machismo. I had some negative cross-cultural experiences when I was between 14 and 19 years old, and I was concerned about how I would comport myself among Mexicanos.
But the reality of what I find here is that while Machismo certainly exists, so too does the cultural emphasis on being a caballero, or a gentleman. Either: times have changed; there is regional diversity; the stereotype is exaggerated; and/or I am somehow more or less isolated from it.
That’s not to say I haven’t experienced machismo, just that my experiences with it are the exception and not the rule. By and large I really enjoy the company of men and women here, equally. The biggest shift for me is that I am so much more aware that I am a woman than I was in the United States. Gender roles are quite a bit stronger here, and it certainly has been an adjustment. Every time I try to do something silly like carry the 20 liter water container to my apartment, I am reminded that my dude-roommate should really be the one with that job. I feel like the odd one out when not wearing lots of eyeliner and high heels. Men always insist on paying for my meals when we’re out together. It is different for sure.
With my job responsibilities in mind, I set out to organize a party to bring our two cultures together. I had two perfect excuses: US American Independence Day was approaching, and I wanted to host a Peace Corps Goal 2 event.
Really, giving credit where credit is due, my friend and I came up with the idea together. We host an International Culture club where we pick a country, always on a different continent than the previous one, and share a meal over music or a movie from the focus country.
A few weeks back she says: why don’t we have a USA night and you can make your favorite recipes from home? To which I responded, what about having it on the 4th of July? To which she replied: oh man! We could have a big party and invite all of our friends and family!
The only problem is that July is smack-dab in the rainy season. It is starting to get cold again, and we are expecting about 60 inches of rain in the coming three months.
No matter; I planned to show my friends and their families the closest thing to a typical American Independence Day party as possible, with the help of some fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.
I tried to think of all of the details, including red white and blue decorations. Luckily, Mexico, as I have mentioned over and over, loves a good party replete with decorations. Because of this, the streets abound with party supply stores, none on which carry American flag items. However, I spotted a packet of red white and blue balloons with stars on them in one store! I ask the man behind the counter if I could see them. He gladly obliged, mentioning that they are balloons for the Guadalajara soccer club. Close enough. Counter-man suddenly clues in: Hey! It’s your Independence Day, right? “Why yes it is, and I am having a party to celebrate!”
So what do you do in your country to celebrate your Independence Day?
“Well, it is really fun. We get together with lots of friends and family, we spend the day outside playing sports, watching parades, and eating lots of traditional food, and then when it is dark, we shoot off fireworks.” I paused. “I guess it is really like any regular weekend here in Mexico, huh?”
He laughed and agreed. Yeah, I guess we really like to celebrate here.
The party was a big success, despite the rain. I am not sure that American food went over too well with my Mexican friends though. I heard comments like “huh, I have never had beans that were baked before,” and “so wait, all that you put on corn is butter and salt?” which is a very polite way of saying “I’m not really enjoying this.” My roommate is a bit more direct. When he tried the beans, he said “these beans are a thing of the devil,” in jest.
Of course the chocolate chip cookies were a huge hit though. Who doesn’t love chocolate chip cookies, am I right?
Some event highlights:
- My fellow volunteers crooning “oh my god, potato salad! Rice Krispie treats! You thought of EVERYTHING!”
- Giving S’mores-making lessons and watching my Mexican friends eat their first sticky campfire treats
- Being called a “good wave” and told that I “fall them well” with new friends (this is a literal translation of Spanish meaning that I made a good first impression)
- Being an adept event planner enough to remember to bring toilet paper, hand soap, a medical kit, salt shakers, and biodegradable dishes, but inept enough to forget things like spatulas…we made due by stirring our breakfast eggs with a stick!
- Getting bossed out of the cooking area by my neighbor when she saw how poorly we were faring with the eggs for the egg and bean breakfast tacos
- Learning that the US American party-goers all knew some parts of patriotic songs, but no one knew a complete song. There is an awesome Spanish verb that describes what we did: tarareando. It means when you sing a song and know the words, but all of a sudden you realize that you don’t know the next part…but you keep singing anyhow going “lalalarara…” Also, we recited the Preamble to the Constitution on accident when trying to quote the Declaration of Independence. Whoops!
Making me smile:
- I did not die or injure myself badly during the 20k trail race. The race that was basically a half-marathon with a 2,500 foot elevation gain, covered in mud. I crossed the finish line solidly in the middle of the pack and my friend won the women’s division. And I only suffered a bruised toenail on one foot and the other toenail will likely come off in a few weeks. Good times and success overall!
- There is an awesome Spanish word for dishwater: lavavajillas (la-vah-vah-HEE-yas)
- My co-workers are super fun and hilarious. Yesterday we passed by some playground equipment in the park, and they all ran for the swings and see-saws. I like having co-workers like that.
- I have a cactus problem. I can’t help but purchase miniature cacti and succulents. They are just too cute, but I am beginning to run out of space for them in my house.