Tuesday, June 11, 2019

sign of our times -- and town

I must have walked past it several times and paid it no notice.

Well, enough notice that I knew something had changed.

A couple of years ago, Mexican cities started erecting ego signs where people congregated. Giant public sculptures in super-sized letters spelling out the name of the town. The letters were always painted in bright, but complementary, colors, and local symbols were often splashed onto the letters.

Barra de Navidad was no exception. Ours was a double-stacked affair. I expect because of the length of our town's name. Fortunately, we do not live in Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

That sign was covered with symbols of our little community. The fallen-arms crucifix. Fish. Flowers. It was even lit up at night. What it was primarily was a backdrop for tourists to shoot family groupings -- or the ubiquitous selfie.

 I rather liked it. But its popularity was its downfall. First, it was people clamoring on the letters who damaged the paint and the structures. Then the lights were vandalized or trampled on -- if there is a meaningful difference there. And the brine started to have its cancerous way with the metal.

So, off went the sign, like a beloved relative, to the sign hospital. And, like a beloved relative, it was missed. There was a hole where there had once been joy.

I do not know the details, but a new sign was quickly installed as a temporary stop gap. That is the sign you see at the top of this essay. My first reaction when I saw it was an eye roll. It looked as if someone had transferred one of the bumper stickers I have seen around town directly to a metal doppelganger.

But that was all I noticed. Walking by every day, I managed to violate the Sherlock directive: "You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear."

That is, until this week. I was on my walk down the malecon when I noticed two Mexican women of grandmotherly age looking at the sign. One was pointing.

I slowed down enough to eavesdrop on what they were saying. At first, I could not figure out what they were saying -- something about what the sign meant. Then the first one asked her companion: What is "I?"

Then I saw it. I had not noticed that the town sign is not in Spanish. It is in English. Just like the Gringo-inspired bumper stickers on some cars here.

Because I can never let an opportunity pass to use my confusing Spanish, I apologized for interrupting them and told them the "I" was in English. And what it meant when translated to Spanish.

They looked at each other, and then at me, with that universal mixture of "Why?" and "You have got to be kidding?" And I understood the look entirely. After I saw the "I," my reaction to the sign was quite different.

I live in an area of Mexico that relies heavily on tourism -- for Barra de Navidad, tourists are the life blood of the community. But it is primarily Mexican tourism. Mexicans have been spending their vacations here for decades. And they have been coming to the beach in droves over the past three or four years as the Mexican economy slowly improved.

Of course, there are foreign tourists here, as well. But, for the overall economy, foreigners are rather a rounding error when it comes to fiscal impact. It is true that in some areas, foreigners do have an inordinate fiscal impact on the community. There are certain occupations that cater heavily to foreigners. If the foreigners did not come, they would have to take a different job tack.

Some shops and restaurants here market themselves to foreigners. Non-Mexican flags flown in front. Signs in English. Waiters who can take a breakfast order as if the traveler had not left his hometown.

And that is smart business. One of the greatest fears of monoglots is being stuck somewhere and not being understood. 

Those businesses are simply tending to the needs of people who need things and are seeking it in an environment in which they feel comfortable. And, even though one of the greatest truths of travel is that the voyager will learn much more by being able to converse in the local language, most people cannot (or will not) do that.

And thus the signs in English, the California accents of waiters, and now a sign on the beach in English.

I have been assured the sign is temporary. And I have no idea how many Mexican tourists have  been angered or befuddled by the sign's presence in Mexico. Maybe the two grandmothers were outliers. Though I doubt it. Mexicans are proud of their language . It is an indicator of national independence.

There may even be a good reason why the "I" was not replaced with either a "yo" or "me."  Maybe the sign maker was caught in the same grammatical conundrum, and just gave up.) It is just as likely that whoever made the decision to use English was one of the people whose livelihood is dependent on foreign largesse.

I don't know. All of that is just my speculation. 

What I do know is that I am as guilty as anyone else about cultural blindness. If I could not immediately see what was out-of-place with the sign, my head is still controlled by my own culture.

Of course, I know that. And it always will be.

People who have moved from another country and have lived here for decades tell me that they often reflexively revert to seeing the world through the cultural lenses of the Old Country, as my friend Jennifer Rose puts it. It is probably the burden all immigrants bear.

But, all is not lost. I have learned to ignore the "I" in the sign -- for one good reason. The "I" is redundant.

It is that heart that matters. It makes a great framing device to catch our summer sunsets.

You didn't think I was going to say something sappy, did you?


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