For many years I kayaked on the ocean daily. I greatly enjoyed the need for situational awareness it required. For example, is that two shark fins headed my way or the wing tips of a really large manta ray? (Either way, the inner voice cries “Paddle faster you fool!”)
What is important is greatly dependent on where you are, and being a foreigner from Chocolatetown, USA (Hershey, PA) living in central Mexico makes me keenly aware of a foreigner’s perspective is constantly influenced by our native culture.
For example, I live alone (though 13 pounds of fluff would beg to differ). It’s a first for me having either been part of a large family or having children of my own and I really enjoy it. Rarely does a day go by when I don’t think how nice it is not to have cook meals to qualm the appetites of a small army (read teens). Plus, if I stay late at a fiesta the only one who cares is aforementioned fluff. Independence and individualism rule a North American mindset.
For Mexicans I am pitiable. Life revolves around forever living among family. If that’s not possible, certainly one doesn’t live alone. Ever. You may be in a house filled with siblings you aren’t on speaking terms with or your middle aged children, but that beats being alone. Always.
To Mexicans faith defines all. Yes, that is largely the Catholic faith but there are others with the Evangelicals making inroads particularly in the South. No matter what religion a Mexican is, or isn’t, everyone knows the Virgin of Guadalupe is every Mexican’s mother. Her image, and influence, pervades literally all aspects of Mexican culture. Simply riding a taxi on a rainy day and querying if the driver has avoided the larger puddles you’ll learn “Lupita has been beside me all day telling me which routes to take.”
Despite going to Catholic schools all the way through graduate school I had never heard of Guadalupe before arriving here.
Being from the United States and having been fortunate enough to go from working for minimum wage to being part of the infamous 1%, I’m well versed in the knowledge that money is our god whether using a coupon or making money hourly. Your work and income defines you, even if you wish it didn’t.
To gringos, to graduate from college is invaluable even if it only leads to great personal debt and no better job prospects. The Spanish language itself reflects how being educated isn’t a degree in higher learning but rather a reflection of having been raised well. It took me a bit to understand why locals kept referring to my dog as “well educated”, as if he spent most of the morning working on his master’s thesis in feline studies.
Here human dignity is paramount, a likely aftermath from being a conquered people for centuries. Manners and respect are all part of living in harmony as part of a larger, peaceful group focused on culture, art, tradition and history. I’ve yet to encounter a child not learning an instrument, singing and/or dancing (salsa, indigenous or folklore). That’s probably why Mexican parties always break out in song and dance!
Along with the fiestas come the siestas, or rests. I was taken aback when my Monday English classes answered my weekly question on what each student did that past weekend. Following answers with “We had a fiesta for….”, “I rested.” was the second most common response. Even if I had rested over a weekend, I’d never publically admit to it to my fellow countrymen. If nothing else, water cooler talk would center on a movie watched. To rest is to be lazy in a Protestant Work Ethic.
Up North our focus is our work with relations based on transparency and honesty. The sheer volume of bureaucracy here makes transparency nearly impossible to witness in any endeavor even among fellow foreigners. Toss in machismo and Northern concepts of social justice and equality are missing in action.
Years ago when McDonald’s was sued for having hot coffee too hot it was laughable to our neighbors to the South that we’ve no personal responsibility. Here, you fall into a hole in the sidewalk and disappear into Middle Earth that’s your own doing. Personally, I’ve found the freedom of not spending so much of my work day dealing with insurance companies over liability issues refreshing. I employed technical writers and editors. When was the last time someone was assaulted by a dangling participle?
In both cultures appearances matter. Here one has clean hands, hair, home and homeroom. Appearances north of the Rio Grande are more reflective of our fascination with gyms, fashion and plastic surgery (a booming business for ladies, and more men daily, coming down to San Miguel de Allende to “Freshen’ up and stay in the game”.)
One of the cultural trump cards Northerners hold is the concept of volunteerism and philanthropy. We literally expect our celebrities to support victims of natural disasters and illnesses giving lavishly. Even everyday Joes willingly bought my daughter’s costly and bland cookies to support Girl Scouts.
Both cultures have pros and cons, but to keep your boat afloat one always has to be aware of what direction the cultural tide is coming in from.
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkin