Mexico, lindo Mexico


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.

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?

I´m a bit sad. I think my honeymoon period has ended. (Not with my boyfriend, thank god!) I mean my cultural honeymoon in Mexico has ended. I look around and get annoyed. I have started cussing at Mexicans in my head. They just piss me off all the time now. The country frustrates me. Daily.

I hate the stupid valet parkers. I hate the cleaning people who spend endless hours talking when they should be working. I hate the stupid Telcel dudes in their cheap blue suits who smirk at me when we pass on the sidewalk. I hate the honking horns and drivers who dont let me walk past. I also hate the smarmy men who purposefully let me walk past their cars so they can whistle at me.  I hate rich Mexican men that think they are god´s gift to the world. And I hate rich Mexican women who look at me like they want to smash me with their platform heels and swat me over the head with their humongous LV bags. I hate all the people trying to sell me crap in the street. I dont want your cell phone case nor your gum nor your plants nor your tarot card reading!

Pretty Mexican Street? No, I hate cobblestones.

Pretty Mexican Street? No, I hate cobblestones.

Maybe, just maybe, I hate my neighborhood. How is it possible to live in what most consider to be the “nicest neighborhood” in the city and just feel spite inside? Would I still enjoy Mexico if I lived in a more humilde, more relaxed and quiet neighborhood? Would I like Mexico more if I had to commute to a different neighborhood?

Or, perhaps it is not the neighborhood. Perhaps it is just the country. Am I just ending the blinded-by-joy feeling of first arriving somewhere and discovering all the new, different and lovely secrets of a new culture? Is this normal? Is it possible to find the love again? Or should Mexico and I break up? I cant decide. Please help.

Maybe I should start going to church?

Maybe I should start going to church?

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.

Evidence of love

Evidence of love

There are some sights that literally tickle me inside. Make me laugh to myself, smile girlishly, turn a slight shade of pink in the cheeks. One of them is a frequently occurring sight in Mexico.

Couples Kissing. Legs intertwined, making out, unashamed, in front of the world. Physically lip-locked and emotionally tied-up in each other as if they were the last two people left on earth. Oblivious to others walking by, and as most grew up in this environment here, most passersby also seem to be oblivious to them.

But not me. No, I didn’t grow up in a society of public making-out. I am not accustomed to seeing it on literally every park bench in the city. It still shocks me, even after more than two years of turning my head twice, I have not become accustomed to the habit. I might just be one of the only people in Mexico who feels a hint of shyness when I see two people swapping spit.  But I have to secretly admit that I really don’t mind.  I actually like looking twice and giggling to myself. And hearing that old familiar phrase in my head, “Get a room!” But perhaps it is nice that they DON’T get a room. Perhaps it is wonderful that here in Mexico people are unashamed of showing the physical manifestation of their love. The very visible sign of pure, honest lust for another. I suppose that is a beautiful thing.

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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