Three words

Recently, I asked my co-workers a question:  “What do you imagine the stereotypes are about Mexico and Mexican culture on the part of US Americans? For example, do we think that you only eat tortillas, chilies, and meat?”

“Well that one is true!” they all chimed in, laughing.

Between bites of a meat-filled taco, Isai said: “Um, maybe that we are lazy, sombrero-wearing, machistos.”

“And is that true, what do you think? I have a chance to go back to the USA and tell people what it is like here. What do you all think that should I say?”


In reality, things look a whole lot worse than Isai imagined. The Speedy-Gonzalez image of “the Mexican” is a bit outdated.

Less than a year ago, a company called Vianovo polled 1,000 Americans, asking for participants to write the first three words that came to mind when thinking about Mexico. Later, a journalist created an infographic that showed the results. While I should point out that being limited by only three descriptors certainly limits the depth of the conversation, it still shows something valid. That said, here it is:


Oh Mexico, you poor thing. Your reputation with my home country is not pretty. It is a list where murders are thought of with equal frequency as tequila. One where descriptors like beautiful and fun are buried well below dangerous and corrupt.

The hardest part of this view for me is that only 14% of survey participants see Mexico as a good neighbor and a staggering 59% think of Mexico as a source of problems for the United States.

This shows me that we have a long way to go. That we need to change our perceptions, seeing how Mexico enriches the cultural diversity that we cherish. That we need to see beyond flashy headlines and to think more critically about the scale and scope of the drug war. And that we need to update our idea that Mexico is homogeneously impoverished and to see how rapidly it is developing.

The middle class in the South [including Mexico] is growing rapidly in size, income and expectations…the South is now emerging alongside the North as a breeding ground for technical innovation and creative entrepreneurship. In North–South trade, the newly industrializing economies have built capabilities to efficiently manufacture complex products for developed country markets.
United Nation’s 2013 Human Development Report


I showed the infographic to one of my co-workers and asked her what she thought. Her words spoke to my sentiments perfectly:

To see that, well, I feel like it is judgmental. In reality, every country faces problems like this and it is not fair to think of a country and a culture only in those terms. If you do, it puts a barrier between countries that makes cultural exchange and friendship impossible.


So what are the words that come to my mind when thinking of Mexico? Well, they’re in Spanish because that has become the language I use when thinking of my adoptive country. Do not worry, I translated them!

Ni modo (it can’t be helped/no worries)

“I am Mexican, therefore I only live for today.” While this was said to me in jest by my roommate, there is so much truth to it. During Mexico’s colonial past, getting through the day was challenging enough, which made the future much too uncertain to bother anticipating. And during Pre-hispanic times, indigenous cultures may have been famous for their calendars, but they never measured hours, minutes, or seconds! Can you imagine? Instead, the focus was placed on enjoying the current moment; idle time is good for the soul.  With a history like that, it is no wonder that “ni modo” is such a common phrase.

Aztec calendar

Aztec calendar in Mexico City’s amazing Anthropology Museum. I bet he is saying: ni modo!

The most obvious ni modo-related cultural difference for me is what I first saw as the “lack of planning.” And while I learned that planning does exist in Mexico, it resembles nothing like what I remember of the United States. Sometimes this drives me crazy; when I wrote a grant for a year-long project, I needed to get many people to outline their commitments and contributions for the project, and I had to design a timeline for the entire year. This is just absurd in Mexico. No one is willing to look much beyond mañana. So maybe some of my grant estimates are wrong. However, the good thing about ni modo is that things seem to work out in the long run. The lack of schedules means immense flexibility in a very creative culture. And if I was off a bit in my proposal, ni modo, what are you going to do? Drop the stress and enjoy the moment, right now.

The burro is on "Mexican time." Ni modo!

The burro is on “Mexican time,” waiting out the hot part of the day in the shade. Ni modo!

Juntos (togetherness)

During Pre-Hispanic times, indigenous societies were collective. Much of this persists today, and I see its manifestations everywhere. The sense of togetherness both prioritizes and extends beyond family and friends. It reaches into professional settings, where it can become difficult-to-impossible to get anything done without a previously established personal relationship with work partners. It is all about building confianza; knowing that you enjoy and trust those around you.

I would estimate that I have attended more meetings – also called juntos – in Mexico than in any other job in the past 10 years. Professionals stay in constant contact with colleagues and, it seems to me, meet just for the sake of meeting. Living in Mexico is the ultimate lesson in networking.

Luckily, I learned this early on. I remember a piece of advice from a Peace Corps Mexico staff member: “I suggest you humanize and endear yourself to your co-workers immediately. Establish the personal connection and spend part of everyday thereafter reaffirming this connection. It will make your life so much easier in the long run.” He was so right. And this is something that I do not mind re-establishing. Every day that I spend in the office is a day filled with shared tacos, jokes, and chismes (gossip). Oh how they love gossiping. I see it as just another manifestation of “juntos.”

Taco-time at the office: this particular day Danny added a few too many chiles de arbol. We all talked about suffering through the burning pain being completely worth it!

Taco-time at the office: this particular day Danny added a few too many chiles de arbol. We all talked about suffering through the burning pain being completely worth it! And we all suffered juntos.

Sabroso (flavorful)

I bet you already know that Mexico is a flavorful place, after all US Americans love eating (what we consider to be) Mexican food. To me, the concept of flavorful extends beyond the comida, or the food. Sabroso seemed to be the best word to encompass the spectrum ranging from colorful fabrics and buildings, to the cacophony of sounds that waft through the air, from the firework-filled fiestas to the flower-carrying girlfriends and their accompanying enamored boys.


In my apartment building, the hum of blenders whipping up a new batch of salsa mixes daily with music coming from each of my neighbor’s windows: jarocohuapangobandarancheramariachiand norteño pulse through the air. Each of these types of traditional music is accompanied by a matching dance, adorned with colorful clothing and traditions. And almost everyone here knows how to dance the dances! The rhythms produced by dance shoes pounding the floor are so catching.

This one is Veracruz state's dance for huapango music

This one is Veracruz state’s dance for huapango music

A huapango dancer in the style of the state of Hidalgo slams her feet onto the stage floor, heels-first. Great percussion!

A huapango dancer in the style of the state of Hidalgo slams her feet onto the stage floor, heels-first. Great percussion!

I live in a country with an estimated 5,000 public fiestas per year, and in a city where mariachi bands line the streets from 10 pm until 4 am every night, ready to serenade lucky girlfriends at the drop of a few pesos. And the cool thing, because modern-day Mexico was once a patchwork of nearly 100 different indigenous societies with distinct languages and cultures, every region is completely different. ¡Es un país mega-sabroso! What a flavor-rich country.

It can be challenging to get a good photo when the scene is so full of life: music, food, action!

It can be challenging to get a good photo when the scene is so full of life: music, food, action!


Making me smile, stereotype edition

  • Eating one delicious piece of apple pie at an apple-harvest festival in a nearby town. As American Mexican as apple pie?
  • A friend recently asked me “which is your favorite American city?” I replied “San Francisco” matter-of-factly. He said “For me,  it is Buenos Aires. We are all a part of America, remember?”
  • A friend’s uncle once asked me if I had a hard time transitioning to eating Mexican food for every meal. I said “yes, but not how you would think. I have loved eating spicy food for years now and am enjoying all of the variety in chilies. I also preferred corn tortillas to flour before I came here. What gets me is the huge quantities of meat and the scarcity of vegetables in typical meals.” He was floored
  • The average US American eats about 70 hot dogs per year. While I could not find any hard numbers to back my claim, I can pretty much guarantee that Mexicans have a higher annual per capita consumption of salchichas
  • I think I am more often cold in Mexico than I was in the United States, although I am not sure that that actually makes me smile
  • The photo below is one of my running routes…in Mexico. Not what you would imagine when thinking of the country, right?
  • runningtrail

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