Anthropology (cultur study)

Can people with money have love & happiness? Is it harder to be happy when everything comes easily? Is it easier to be happy when you appreciate everything you have? Does having less make you appreciate things more? Is it easier to be happy when you have less to worry about … like less property, less money, less “things” to care for and protect?


Rich & Lonely Mexico City

Just some questions that have popped into my head lately. Well, to be fair, these thoughts were sparked from an interview I did with a hard-working Mexican woman in the lower Socioeconomic levels in Mexico City. A mother of two and wife, this woman has to get up at 5:30am everyday to get her kids to school on a packed public bus 2 hours away, get to her job where she cookes lunches for 12-15 executive businesspeople (and earns the equivalent of US$10.00 a day), wash all the clothes because in her house they dont have water (in the city!!!), then pick up her kids, return home 2 hours, exercise, make dinner, do all the house chores and make some other crafts she sells around Christmastime, until she can finally sleep at about 1am. Perhaps this life does not seem that abnormal, aside from the very little sleep she gets, even for upper-middle class people in the US. But the difficult part is that in Mexico, she is one of the millions of “informal economy workers”  who are out of the system – they have no healthcare, get no government aid, and if they have any kind of crisis, they are easily out on the street – or more likely, living with 15 other people in a 1-bedroom apartment.


From one point of view, you can hear this story and think, wow, this woman has a really tough life. She must be struggling. She must want to have more. But from another point of view, her point of view, in fact, she is “happier than the rich people” – she has more love, has a closer family, laughs more, has more feelings, and shows more expressions on her face than many people who have all the money to buy nice clothes when they feel like it. In her words, “you cannot have money and love at the same time.”

After my interview with this woman, I got to thinking. Is she right? Are people with money less likely to appreciate it and therefor less likely to enjoy their life everyday? Does being able to get 8 hours of sleep every night make me less lighthearted and loving? I´ve come to the conclusion that this is a gross generalization, and there are probably just as many depressed people who dont have money as there are who do have money. However, I think it´s an interesting point about appreciating what you have. And more specifically, who you have.


Not rich, but in love - BikeLove Mexico City

What this woman doesnt have in economic wealth, she more than makes up for with the people around her. She has 6 siblings who she sees everyday, they work together and hang out together, in a social, warm, caring environment. She has her father and grandmother, who she also spends time with, not to mention her 2 children and husband. In other words, she has a life rich in loved ones, not money.


All together now!

It´s this richness of close-knit extended families that I often have longed for – it´s what I first fell in love with when I lived in Bolivia. (Each of my host parents had 10 brothers and sisters who they saw regularly – imagine the social agenda!) I think it is one of the most beautiful characteristics of “Latin” culture. And in many ways it makes Mexico seem richer than the US, though it has much less economic wealth. And it´s what, in my opinion, the US is lacking today, leading to all kinds of emotional and mental problems because people, surrounded by their plasma TVs, their iPods, their laptops, their fancy kitchen appliances, their shoes and clothes in their big solo apartments, deep-down feel a bit lonely. A bit lost. While people with less economic wealth cannot afford to live alone, and perhaps feel the need for “alone-time” sometimes, they also have a much stronger network of people constantly around them. Which is a beautiful thing, in my opinion!

I think it is possible to have both economic wealth and emotional wealth, but I would venture to say that it is the people around you that make the emotional wealth possible. And unfortunately, working long and hard to get the economic wealth has a tendency to drive away your loved ones offering you emotional wealth. Maybe we need to learn to value and guard our emotional wealth in “Happy Banks.” Thoughts??


I need to correct a likely misperception. I believe many people think I live in “Mexico” … beaches, burritos, Corona & tequila, short dark-haired men with big mustaches on donkeys, Ranchera music – you all know the stereotypes. Those who know me better think I live in “Mexico City” … dangerous, overly-populated, smog-filled, scary, corrupt, foreboding – again, common stereotypes of the city, frequently portrayed in Hollywood movies as the “big, bad city,” where no one really wants to visit. (okay, there´s a few of you crazies out there!)


A perfect park in Mexico City

Mexico, and Mexico City, is far from the stereotype, and my life here is even more distant. While there is a lot of traffic, and smog, and Ranchero music, not everyone has to suffer from it. 🙂 Some of us live in a different kind of Mexico City. The world of Young Urban Professional Expats (the new YUPE). For better or worse, this is the world I live in. While most Mexicans are fighting crowds on the Metro or crowded streets in traffic, I am walking a few lovely, tree-lined blocks to work. While many Mexicans run the risk of encountering dangerous people daily, my world is filled with security guards and doormen and drivers, watching out for any shady behavior. While in much of this city and country it can be risky to eat on the street if you are a foreigner with a sensitive stomach, in my neighborhood you can order at any restaurant without a second thought. This is the bubble formed by the wealthy of Mexico City, who want all the comforts and dont want to see, hear or experience how the other 80% live. I suppose this is not an unusual phenomenon, but it the differences between neighborhoods are even more marked here in Mexico than in many other places.


Mexico City "Tree Advertising"

Now, before you start to judge me, let me tell you how I feel about all this. I hate it. While many people would love to live in the bubble I do, I really cant stand it. I dont mind being able to walk to work, for sure. But I hate that I live in a world filled with fake beauty, where people show off and mask the realities of life. I hate that while I live in a country filled with so much cultural richness, with art and history and natural beauty, I have little contact with the everyday Mexican reality in the majority of the socio-economic levels. And most of all, it makes me sad to think that there are so many Expats that see only this Truman Show world, that never venture for a ride on the Metro, visit the more mainstream “barrios,” eat at sketchy taco stands, wonder at the incredible street art or laugh with people while dancing to Ranchero music at 3am.


Alibrijes in Mexico City

For my part, I will continue living in my Truman Show neighborhood, but make every escape possible to visit other parts of the city, know other parts of Mexican society, and experience different cuisines. And I will try to understand better the lives of all the people who make this Truman Show neighborhood possible … all the guards, doormen, waiters, hosts, cleaners, taxi drivers, and “Ricos Tamales Oaxacaños” street-vendors. The next series of blog entries will be dedicated to observations of micro-cultures of the people who work in my neighborhood.

Levis Amazing New Ad Campaign

I admit, when I first moved to Mexico City, I loved living outside my culture. I loved being surrounded by different people, different ways of thinking, a different language … but most of all, I loved being away from my own culture. I definitely went through a rejection period. When I returned to the US for visits I would proudly walk through the airport thinking I was way better that everyone in the US because I had left the US. I had rejected all things big and materialistic and orderly and sterile. I had rejected English & what I considered at the time to be highly annoying cultural characteristics – like sticking to a schedule. I felt good about it. I was naive.

Now, a few years and many miles of travels later, I have matured a bit, evolved my thinking a bit, and come back around to evaluate my own culture with fresh eyes. I dont think I´m better than people who still live in the US. I dont think my culture is annoying. I am not embarrassed to say I´m from the US. (which might have a little to do with the change in DC … ) Instead, I feel proud of many things American. I feel proud to come from an extremely diverse culture. I feel proud to come from a country full of creativity and inspiration. I feel proud to be a curious, open-minded, friendly person representing the good things (hopefully!) of the US. I listen to all kinds of music – from rap & R&B to jazz and country, I watch movies – from indie films & spots on you-tube to hollywood hits, I love my Mac electronics, I read and laugh and taste and feel, and I am happy to come from a country that fosters invention, innovation and supports the arts. And I am grateful that I was raised to treat everyone equally, no matter what their social status, their skin color, their gender or sexual preference. Because in many parts of the world, people aren´t so open & accepting.

Of course, there are still things about the US that I dont like. For instance, I think people tend to get trapped into thinking there is only one way to live life, which often involves debt, long-term planning, and aversion to risk/adventure. I also think too many Americans are obsessed with happiness (and their general mental/emotional health). And while the US is the birthplace to so much creativity, technology & art, there is an overly proud, “better than you” attitude that often gets exported along with the music, movies and brands.

Levis Go Forth Campaign - Walt Whitman poems

So, while I no longer feel embarrassed or reject my country and culture of origin, I also realize it is up to me to decide which cultural traits I will portray … and which I will reject. (Though I am sure many Anthropologists would argue that we cannot choose our cultural traits. I think as adults we can decide who we want to be.) I feel like I have a more clear sighted view of my own culture – for better or for worse. I now realize that one´s outlook on life is not a result of where they choose to live, but rather of who a person is inside, what their values are, what their dreams are, how they like to spend their day. I no longer feel like I am escaping anything by living abroad. But there are things about living abroad that make me want to stay. Maybe it´s easier for me to be more open to life when I am forced to, everyday. Maybe I´m just lazy, and Mexico kicks my butt just enough to make life a little more challenging and interesting. Lord knows it is NOT because I like to be asked everyday where I am from and how long I have been here! At least now I can say “Estados Unidos” with confidence.

Traditional Hacienda in Mexico

Traditional Hacienda in Mexico

I recently received a very intellectual, well thought-out and explained response to my frustrations in Mexico from one “Fernando” (which, by the way, is supposedly the name of my personal angel … but that´s another story!). Thank you, Fernando!

This particular comment got me thinking about how the history of Mexico has influenced the culture and society here today. As Fernando pointed out, Mexico is really not like a US or Chile, in that the Europeans who came to Mexico did not practically eliminate the native peoples, as occurred in the history of many countries in “the new world.” Yet it is also not quite like a Bolivia, for instance, where the native populations remain in the majority and still maintain a strong cultural identity/language/customs. No, Mexico is unique.

An interesting POV on Latin American History

An interesting POV on Latin American History

As Eduardo Galeano described in his book “Las Venas Abiertas a America Latina,” in Mexico it was the native Aztecs who enabled the Spaniards to take over and control the land, and it was the Spanish-blood Criollos who in turn freed Mexico. A bit of a twist from the classic “Colonizer – Native” story. Mexico was built from a mixed population with cultural, genetic and geographic influence from a wide variety of native peoples, several groups of Spaniards with varied interests in business, religion and the search for a better life, and more recently from the capitalist, consumer-driven culture of the USA. These varied cultural influences converge in Mexico, a nation that never really settled on a singular identity and has had a long history of drastic social class differences that constantly pulled the country and culture apart.

Of course, we can ask if there is really any country that has a singular identity today. Probably not. But still, it seems to me, as an outsider, that Mexico struggles to find the common principles on which to base their cultural beliefs. I could say that in the US, the idea of “you can do/be anything” is a unifying cultural belief. Even Switzerland, a country with several different languages and distinct cultures has some unifying cultural identities. But what are Mexico´s unifying cultural identities? What is Mexico known for around the world, and what do they want to be known for? (No, tequila and tacos do not count as unifying cultural beliefs, in my opinion.)

Perhaps if Mexico could continue this self-exploration and develop a unified point of view on what the country and people should stand for, they could more easily overcome the sociocultural issues that everyone here seems to complain about but no one seems willing to change. Or is this unified vision just a silly daydream? Can profound sociocultural evolution come without a vision of where Mexico wants to go and who it wants to be?

Ideas/thoughts dear readers?

Closed Doors? Not for late-comers!

Closed Doors? Not for late-comers!

One thing I love about Mexican culture is that it is totally accepted, and often expected, that you will show up late. To a party, to a meeting, to work, to a gathering or get-together … it really doesn’t matter. Everyone shows up late. Late can mean 10 minutes, which is a standard minimum, or it can stretch to more than an hour, which is often the case for social gatherings.

I have selectively adapted to this practice, and I love it. Well, maybe it´s not adaptation so much as acceptance of a trait I already possess. I have always been a late person. (I believe people are born with internal clocks set to arrive early, be there on time, or show up late – I fall into the latter group.) So now that I live in a culture that accepts my lateness, I feel more free to be who I truly am. Late.

In the US, many people are also late. (My dad, for instance, is a habitually late person – I am sure I inherited this trait from him.) But in a land that takes many cultural traits from the strict and timely Germans, it is just not socially accepted. And often people actually get annoyed and angry with those who arrive late. (Imagine!) I like to refer to these people as late-haters. (You know who you are … perhaps you should take up Sudoku so you can keep yourself occupied while waiting.)

Luckily, in Mexico, even among gringos, it is totally cool to arrive after the specified time. In fact, I have observed that foreigners are actually some of the worst culprits of the late phenomenon. Are we all just reveling in the newfound social acceptance for a characteristic that we secretly love? Does Latin America specifically attract people whose internal clocks are set to slow time? Or do people adopt the practice once they arrive and get frustrated when they have to wait forever for others to show up, or find themselves in awkward situations as the first guests to a party with a host they barely know? In my case, I finally feel free to be the late person I always was. So there you have it — a good thing about living in Mexico! (After my last post I feel the need to proactively seek out positive aspects of Mexico, as I am here for at least another year or so … )

Looking for fast internet? The Corner Taco Stand.

Looking for fast internet? The Corner Taco Stand.

Today I had the fortune to visit a different neighborhood, leaving the richy-rich area which has gradually engulfed my life in recent months. I happily took the opportunity to walk a few blocks before hailing a cab from the street. NOTE: CABS ON THE STREET IN MEXICO ARE PERFECTLY SAFE, IN MY OPINION. (But if you happen to hail a sketchy cab and get robbed one day, I am not taking responsibility. It is best to check out the driver and assure they have proper identification painted on the cab.)

So, today I strolled down Insurgentes, a big busy street with lots of action, and happened first upon a large, sprawling display of pirated movies with a police man standing guard. I couldn’t figure out if the policeman was selling the pirated movies or waiting around to arrest someone for buying one, or perhaps he was just visiting with his girlfriend who happens to sell pirated movies. I was tempted to look through the selection and pick out one or two, but decided against it, what with the armed policeman confusion and all.

I strolled on, trying to decide what I might like to eat. (My second favorite past-time, after aimlessly strolling the streets of Mexico City, involves discovering new and fun places to eat on the street.) I used to feel a little uneasy about eating on the street – not for fear of getting sick, but rather because I didn’t know the proper way to go about eating on the street.

  • Do I sit on the little stool or stand?
  • Which of the 5 people behind the counter do I order my food from?
  • And how do I know how much it costs? (prices are rarely posted)
  • And what should I order? what is best?
  • And what do I do with my dirty plate?
  • Then, who do I pay?

So many doubts. So many little unknowns making the experience more stressful than it was worth. But as a good anthropologist, I realized that with a bit of observation, a few shameless questions and some trial and error, I could get the custom down pat.

Now, after living in Mexico City for nearly 3 years in total, I am almost an expert street-stand taco customer. Here´s my technique.

  • First, I look for a busy stand with local customers. Locals always know best.
  • Second, I look for a stand with other women. It may sound strange, but I feel a little intimidated with a bunch of dudes staring at me while I eat.
  • Third, I make sure there is a big dude behind the stand making tacos – I personally believe chefs should not be skinny.
  • Fourth, I do a brief check to see if the place looks semi-clean. Presence of napkins and clean plates is a must.
  • Fifth, I make sure I have enough money so I don’t have to worry about the cost. Pay at the end.
  • And lastly, I try to smile or say something to my fellow taco-stand-eaters. It makes the whole experience nicer.

So, I followed my personal street taco eating guidelines, found a busy, semi-clean looking taco stand with lots of woman and a nice, chubby Mexican dude behind the counter. I sat down to order my tacos and almost fell off my little stool when I realized that sitting on the stand before me was a modern laptop, tapped into some wireless connection (surely “borrowed”), playing the real-time version of the Mexico-US soccer game from the Coca-Cola website. Amazing. I have never seen such a delightful mixture of technology with tradition. Good greasy street food with a fast wireless connection. Deep-fried tortillas filled with sketchy meat happily married to a shiny silver Dell laptop with streaming video. I think Mexico just might be headed in the right direction after all.

One of my favorite places to go in Mexico is to the park on a Sunday afternoon. You see all kinds of people there doing all sorts of “typical” mexican park activities … eating, playing, laughing, relaxing, doing absolutely nothing …

A bite to eat

A bite to eat

I first discovered the Latino Love for the park back in the US when I used to teach classes of English as a Second Language to groups of Latinos. During our classes on Monday nights I would get them to speak the few words of English they knew by asking them what they did over the weekend. Week after week, the response was always “I go park .” My goal was to get them to say went instead of go. Even after 8 weeks most continued to say go. oh well. at least they knew the word for park!

Going the Distance, Going for Speed ...

Going the Distance, Going for Speed ...

And I learned that the park is a comfortable outdoors space where even people without resources to have a yard can go and enjoy the feeling of having some personal green space. In Mexico, the typical use of the park is for picnics, and families tend to spend a good portion of the day relaxing, eating, talking and laughing, playing games and enjoying the sunny afternoon outside together.

Kids fascinated by the life-sized Toy Soldier

Kids fascinated by the life-sized Toy Soldier

But in Mexico the whole concept of a park comes a little closer to a “theme park,” as we say in the US. With clowns, toys, ice cream, remote-control boats, electric mini cars for rent, super-developed play areas for kids, and more, the basic green space urban park is transformed into a verifiable fun house for kids and families. Add a big bottle of Coca-cola, some chicken, tortillas and salsa, and you have the recipe for a Sunday of relaxing family fun!

Ice Cream in the Park

Ice Cream in the Park

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