Tuesday, July 29, 2008

culture in a dish

Mexico is not Oregon. And Melaque is not Mexico City.

A recurring theme amongst we bloggers is that foreigners who come to Mexico expecting to find a familiar way of doing things are in for a shock. Let me start this post with two facts.

Fact one: I am moving to Mexico to add some adventure back in my life -- and that adventure can come with both good and bad circumstances. Mexico will not disappoint me.

Fact two: I am not a novice at living in new cultures. In the early 70s, I lived in Greece for a year. In the mid-70s I lived in Great Britain for two years. I know that flexibility and patience will need to inform my personality if I am to enjoy this move south of the border.

What I am about to list are some cultural differences I have noted during my visits to Mexico since the early 70s. Some of them are general to Mexico. Others are specific to the Melaque area. I am just an observer, not a sociologist. But I would be very pleased to read your observations. Please add to the comments below.

Gates and Walls

I have always been astounded at the number of walls and gates around Mexican homes. Rather, I should say the homes of wealthier residents. The poor areas of Melaque are as open as my little home town of Powers. Children play in the street. Families are outside. Neighbors talk with one another. Often, there is no front door -- let alone a locked gate and wall.

I know that this distinction is historical. The Spanish brought their traditions of fortified rural haciendas and atrium-centered urban homes with them. And the tradition lives on.

But it is a very clear symbol. The poor have nothing to lose and are open. The wealthy have much and fear losing it.

I am not a Pollyanna. I know there is good reason to have walls and gates and barred windows. The recent rash of burglaries in Melaque is evidence of that. And Melaque is not alone. Other bloggers have written about their travails with thieves.

I, of course, could choose to live amongst the poor and not have a gate. But I am neither Mother Teresa nor St. Francis.

This is another fact I must merely accept.

Tourists and Locals

I have already written briefly on this point. As a beach town, Melaque is crowded with strangers. And like every beach town in the world, the tourists add their own vibrancy and vice, but they are transient.

Several blogs have recently commented on how stupid American and Canadian tourists can be -- especially, young people. My brief exposure to Melaque is that young Mexican tourists can hold their own for unsafe and reckless behavior.

Partying young people (and older people, for that matter) do not bother me. They cause me to shake my head at times, but I welcome the spirit that evidences itself occasionally in stupidity.

Roman Catholicism

Mexico is Catholic. No. That is wrong. Mexico is a secular nation according to the Constitution of 1917.

Mexicans are Catholic -- the second largest group of Catholics in the world. And they show their faith in some very public ways. I sat in front of the Melaque Catholic church for about an hour. Almost to a person, people crossed themselves while going past the entrance -- even scooter drivers.

Festivals and holidays are built around the church calendar. Baptisms are an important for babies and their relatives.

When I talk with Mexicans and tell them that I am a Christian, but that I am a Protestant, they seem to be universally mystified. Almost as if I told them that I am a human just like them, but I eat cars rather than food. The look I get is one of pity: the same look I get when I tell them I do not have children.

As I stated earlier, I should have no problem with this issue. Even though mystified, no one has challenged my religious beliefs. My observation is that is just the way Mexico is.

Just a note. Mexican Catholicism can be a bit eccentric. The photograph above is not from Ireland. That is indeed St. Patrick (See the Celtic cross?) -- the patron saint of Melaque, or, as it is more properly called: "San Patricio Melaque."


This photograph symbolizes what every visitor or resident of Mexico experiences over and over: the feeling that time runs differently in Mexico than it does in northern European cultures.

The photograph is of a large resort complex that was destroyed in the 1995 earthquake. I took the photograph last week. There is another resort north of La Manzanilla that was destroyed at the same time and sits there just as dateless as Charlie Sheen.

A resort abandoned on a great piece of beach? Can you imagine the same thing happening on Oahu or Madeira? Both hotels would have been razed within a month and a new place would be up and running within the year.

So what is the difference? One factor is that both places are on ejido land and investors have no interest in tackling that problem. But there is a broader issue. Time and priorities are different -- especially in a semi-tropical resort town. People find places to stay. When the town really needs that type of complex, something will happen. The right amount of money will change hands and a new resort will eventually appear.

Patience and tolerance. They are two virtues that can be learned and exercised in Mexico. If applied, the foreigner's character will improve. If they cannot be exercised, Mexico will prove to be nothing but a daily struggle.

I want to be clear about one thing. I do believe Mexico can learn a lot about liberal democracy and the free market. Since I have been coming to Mexico in the early 70s, I have seen vast improvements. But Mexico will move at its own pace -- no matter how much blood I try to pump into my plump germanic face.


Rule #1: Animals are generally treated worse in Mexico than in America, Canada, or Great Britain. (I do not know enough about this issue in the rest of Europe to offer an opinion.)

Rule #2: Foreigners cannot change Rule #1.

This is a tough one for me. Brits, Canadians, and Americans have so sentimentalized the issue of animals that it is hard to discuss the topic. Let me confess that I am one of the greatest sentimentalizers. Any of you who have read any of my posts about Professor Jiggs know where I stand on animals.

I keep reminding myself, though, that I am only one generation away from where Mexico is today. Animals were simply not allowed in our house when I was very young. They lived in the unfenced yards and ran free through the town. I do not recall any dogs as poorly-nourished as the street dogs in Mexico. But dogs lived on scraps and what they could find.

I doubt the Powers Market sold very much dog food. (Even by the scoop as in the photograph above where el gato ignores the playful advances of printed pups.)

For every stray dog I saw in Melaque, I saw other owners who truly cared and loved their dogs. The two Irish Setters I discussed earlier are great examples.

The expatriate community in Melaque is very active in offering and sponsoring a spat and neuter clinic each year. By all reports, the number of strays is dropping.

And then there is this issue: bull-fighting.

There are two small bull rings in the Melaque area. I must confess that the closest thing to a bull fight I have ever seen is midget bull fighting. I told that to a friend from Barcelona. The horror in his eyes was enough to let me know that I had said the equivalent of "Hot dogs are far better than any food sold in France."

Will I go see a bull fight? I really don't know. If given the opportunity to go with a local who could explain the subtleties -- I might. If I can try menudo, I can certainly see the national sport of Mexico.

I have left out the one cultural aspect that continues to give me difficulty -- and the one I can do the most to remedy: Spanish. Let's discuss that in the next post. This one is already too long.


Hollito said...

A very interesting and comprehensive entry, Steve.

Talking of gates and walls...well, the biggest collection of those sure can be found in Mexico City. Often in the "nasty" version with broken glass or barbed wire on top.
If I compare this with our life here in Krautland, where everything is open and you could access most gardens and patios without any problems, it could not be more different.
But well, it may be "action-reaction", so if you would not lock your ground and property like the people do, not a lot will be left after a few days...
So - well, it is like it is. It´s quite normal in MX, so no need to complain about it.

Roman Catholicism
Oh yes, that´s true: When one thinks of Mexico, he thinks of Tequila, Somberos and - churches. ;-)
We were married in a very small church in the part of Xochimilco, where my wife lived. She absolutely wanted to have a church marriage, and the paperwork needed for this was hilarious. :-)
In the family of my wife it never was an issue that I am a Protestant. To be true, officially I am no longer one, because I left church. I never was very religious, and when the church tax (yes, we do have that!) began to get too much for my taste, I left.
I think the more "urban" you get in MX, the less religious people are - mostly.

Right, that´s one thing that can drive you crazy in MX. It is the same attitude like "If it is not broken, do not fix it!". So just wait until your car breaks down in some godforsaken part of rural MX, and get it repaired then. No need to do maintenance before! ;-)
I must think of John´s post about this topic. Best is to arrange with this attitude and "to keep cool". Also keep this in mind in terms of punctuality and - to my regret - reliability of a lot of people in MX. The only way is IMHO to see it all in a "relaxed" manner. Otherwise you will get crazy in no time. ;-)

"Rule #1: Animals are generally treated worse in Mexico than in America, Canada, or Great Britain. (I do not know enough about this issue in the rest of Europe to offer an opinion.)"

Well, I have an opinion: In Europe it changes from the north to the south and from the west to the east. Which means, if a dog is unlucky, it gets born as a street dog in Romania or Albania or even in Spain or Italy...

Well, and the bullfighting...nobody is forced to watch it, right?

Steve Cotton said...

Hollito -- Thanks for filling in the details -- especially on European animals. Your comment on bullfighting reminds me of the ongoing EU debate between the UK and Spain over bullfighting. You may have the correct response.

Brenda said...

Yes, you could try living among the poor without gates and bars; but that would not make you a poor person. You would be a target as no matter how little you would have, it would still be much more than your neighbors would have.
I have received the same looks as you mention when people have asked me about religion. It causes no problems; but is a mystery to them. We have lots of people coming door to door here preaching other religions and trying to "convert" you.
Even when the bus passes a church or some other religious artifact the people on the bus or even just walking by will make the sign of the cross.
You will learn to survive and possibly even enjoy the mañana outlook. lol

Steve Cotton said...

Brenda -- Like you, I find the cultural differences fascinating. I have heard many people say (including me, I fear): "People all over the world are the same." I suppose that is true at some theological and philosophical level. But it is certainly not true in the way we live our lives. The people who really believe that is true miss out on the differences that make meeting new people so fascinating -- and frustrating.

jennifer rose said...

The architectural concept of walled-in residences actually comes from the Mudejar influence in Spain. Protection is only one aspect; the walls maximize the use of land in urban and suburban settings. Moreover, who would want to look out onto a dusty, ill-maintained street anyway? Mexican lifestyles just don’t lend themselves to leaving the living room drapes open so that passersby can watch the homeowners sitting back in the Naugehyde recliner a-watchin’ the color television. In many parts of Mexico, even poor folks’ houses don’t have windows onto the street. We Mexicans can easily make the argument that Estadounidenses’ love of open, landscaped front yards is conspicuous consumption.

Catholicism in Mexican is still the state religion, never mind what the Constitution says. Ever wonder why PAN picked blue and white for its colors? Mexicans do look askance at Cristianos, which is what we call non-Catholic Christians. We think they fell off the train to all that’s holy and right somewhere along the line. Heck, we even like Jews more than we do Cristianos, figuring that they’re beyond hope. The Mormons, we’re just not too sure about.

Mexican Catholicism is sort of like Buddhism. You can be a Mexican Catholic without giving up what you *really* believe in or don’t. Unlike the US, where religious icons aren’t part of proper home décor, they’re found in every house in Mexico – even in the abodes of Jews and atheists.

Billie said...

Steve, Have you seen the video
It is about people who have moved to SMA. Not trying to get you to move here but you might be interested in their reasons. And it is really a well-made video.

Everyday it seems like we encounter something about our neighborhood or town that causes us to scratch our heads and try to figure out what it means. Everyday there is some little excitement to make me glad I'm here.

CancunCanuck said...

Good post with some interesting insights. With regards to religion, I think many Mexicans (the ones I have spoken with) assume that "protestant" means "born again". When someone uses the word "Christian", that is what they mean down here, not "Christian/Jewish/Muslim", kwim? "Christians" that are not Catholic are usually Born Again, Church of Latter Day Saints or Jehovah's Witness, or at least those are the most visible religions outside of Catholicism that I have seen in Cancun. I have had no luck explaining "The United Church" or "Anglican" or any other Protestant religion, it's just out of their realm of experience.

The animal issue will get to you at some point living here, you will witness cruelty that your heart will not be able to stand, but there is only so much that can be done in a culture that often views animals solely as pests. It is changing and there are many animal lovers here, but it's not the "norm". It's not only the street animals that will break your heart, but people deliberately poisoning neighbourhood animals because they are seen as worse than rats.

Tourists, sigh, that's what Cancun is all about. And yes, while American and Canadian tourists can be badly behaved, it's often the Mexican tourists who are the worst. My students who work in the hotels and restaurants HATE to serve other Mexicans, the phrase of the summer vacation season is "Pinche Paisanos". And that is not out of my mouth, but from the people that have to serve and clean up.

Thanks for a thought provoking post!

Cee said...

Enjoyed this mucho, Esteban.

When I lived in Veracruz (5 years and many, many moons ago) I would order jicama, naranjas, or piña from the street vendors WITHOUT powdered chile, I got the craziest looks and was even asked "De donde eres?"
Ha! I was born in Veracruz baby, I just don't like chile with my fruit! Now if you want to put the chile in my cacahuates, well go right ahead.

jennifer rose said...

You can read the summarized version of Lost & Found in Mexico at http://staringatstrangers.typepad.com/staring_at_strangers/2007/04/years_ago_town_.html

Steve Cotton said...

Jennifer -- If you think Americans are stuck in the conspicuous consumption mode, take a look at Dutch houses. Everything one owns tends to get piled in front of huge plate glass windows. Of course, Calvinism relies heaviliy upon showings of external wealth as proof of God's grace.

Billie -- I have not seen the video. I will, though. Who knows where I will end up? I just wish I could make the move today. But it is getting closer.

Cancuncanuck -- Thanks for the compliment. I am positive that the animal issue is going to be a problem for me -- especially since Professor Jiggs will most likely not be able to make the trip.

Cee -- Thanks for the chili powder tale. I have not yet fallen to the chili powder addiction on fruit. But I am willing to give it a try.

Steve Cotton said...

Cancuncanuck -- If you think it is difficult to explain "Anglican" to Mexican Catholics, try explaining "Salvation Army."

Anonymous said...


In reference to your comments about religion in Mexico, when I lived in Chile I often heard people say, "Creo en la religión, pero no en el cura".

I think you will see a similar way of thinking among many Mexicans who consider themselves Catholics but eschew the priests' teachings when it suits them. [Please note I say "many" Mexicans, certainly not all]. I've always found this interesting, since one would assume that the priests teach the word of God. Jennifer Rose's description is right on the mark. "You can be a Mexican Catholic without giving up what you *really* believe in or don’t."

I concur with others' comments about the word "Cristiano". It is often used in Mexico and other Latin American countries to describe a person belonging to a fundamentalist Christian church, versus a person who merely believes in the divinity of Christ. That may be why you're getting those strange looks. ;-) They think you're a holy roller!


Steve Cotton said...

Alee' -- "Creo en la religión, pero no en el cura." I like it -- almost a Protestant motto.

Hollito said...

I have not yet fallen to the chili powder addiction on fruit. But I am willing to give it a try.

The first time I tried pineapple with chili was somewhere in Veracruz (or Tabasco?) a few years ago. Pineapple came directly from the field. Great taste! :-)

Steve Cotton said...

Hollito -- I am ready to give it all a try. It is part of the adventure.

Kay Cox said...

Steve, I'm so enjoying your blog and it is so right on about living in Mexico. One must really be content with fitting into a culture that operates at a different speed than what Americans are used to. But that, for me, is part of the charm.

Steve Cotton said...

Kay -- During the past few years, I have been doing my best to simplify my life. I have cut back on my outside activities, got rid of television, and try to take life's little issues in stride. I did not know I was actually practicing for a move to Mexico. From what I have experienced, moving to Mexico does not help to slow down people's lives. We take our lives with us wherever we go. (Thus, "same life, new location.") However, the circumstances of Mexico give a greater opportunity to learn patience.

I continue to learn from all of you.