A Quick Update

In 2010, we moved back to the small town in Colorado that I never stopped missing while we lived in Mexico. Now I sometimes miss Mexico, but I wouldn't travel as freely as we did when we were there, camping out in remote areas and so forth.

Mexico today is in a period of change, and in many ways it is more dangerous now. That said, I have plenty of American friends who still live there very happily, just taking a few more precautions than they did in the past.

Just to say!

Rosana

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Feb. 1, 2006 —  Today’s post is excerpted with his permission from a letter written by our good friend Peter, a 22-year-old journalist currently living in Oregon. When we built our house in Colorado, he spent three summers helping us and acquired the nickname of our teenage slave. He just spent a week with us here, near Lake Chapala.

I’m not quite sure when the inspiration hit – probably while kicking back in my room, which is a garage next to where Rosana and Kelly have parked their RV. There I was, behind the high walls common to Mexican homes, when the distinct sound of American hip hop broke through the usual chatter of roosters bred for cock fights, passing children, and the three or four women who congregate across the street. Soon, the track changed to another hip hop song, again in English.

That’s when I hit upon the brilliant idea of introducing Bob Dylan to the youth of Mexico. It would be a personal mission of conversion not unlike the burgeoning evangelical movement here. Bob is the soundtrack of my life these days. His music at least seems to revolve around themes of independence with no guidance, the open road, unrequited love, youth, fitting in or not, the meaning of life, and weirdness. I can strongly identify with most if not all of that these days. And he’s also a genius, one that Mexican kids are foregoing in favor of fly-by-night songs that glorify drugs, violence, and overly emotional honey baby garbage. It’s time to get serious.

I’ve spent much of my time in the last few days wandering around the cobble stone streets and narrow sidewalks, under banners of shiny plastic strips left over from Christmas, trying to start conversations in Spanish with actual Mexicans. The goal is the same as most of my trips: to learn about what makes people tick, and how the tick might be different from others I’ve met.

So far it’s been pretty successful. I met a carpenter named Luis two nights ago, and we carried on for a while about when “buenos dias” becomes “buenas tardes” becomes “buenas noches.” This was my opening subject, the piece that hopefully leads to good Spanish practice and interesting case studies in sociology. Luis and I talked outside his workplace about his strong faith in God and his work at an orphanage in the nearby town of Chapala. (He’s part of that burgeoning evangelical movement, which created the orphanage.) The next day, I paid the place a visit, and he showed me around, pointing out the cabinets and closets he had built. We also ran into an overwhelmed-looking high school student. She had left what was probably a pretty normal American life in Tennessee a week ago to come shepherd a dozen preschool children who didn’t speak her language.

This random interviewing has come with a few duds too. After buying some bread at a little convenience store I tried excitedly telling the two women behind the counter that the cell phone ring tone they were experimenting with was actually the soundtrack to this great movie called The Sting. But I forgot the word for movie (pelicula), and they just sort of looked at me funny.

Women, in general, haven’t been very talkative with this guy gringo. Rosana says this is probably a cultural thing.

Overall, I’ve had better luck with the 20ish guys who run tiny tiendas, basically very small grocery stores. These places will sell all the essentials: Beans, rice, huge bottles of water (the stuff out of the tap isn’t good for drinking), beer, Coca-Cola (which Mexicans drink like water), produce, milk, a little meat, candles with the likeness of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and tortillas. A steady stream of customers is almost optional. Often, I’ve learned, 20-something guys are put there by the family to babysit the place on the off chance someone will drop in. Naturally, these kids are bored out of their skulls, and tempting targets for vacationing American journalists who have lots of questions.

Yesterday in Chapala, I walked by another store and heard some American music. It was my chance. Another Sprite and another six pesos, and soon we were going through 22-year-old Martin’s entire CD collection. He loves American music about as much as Mexican music. He played some Eagles, then something by Latin megastar Salina’s brother. Then some Beatles.

“Eschuche Bob Dylan?” I asked.

Blank look.

“Musica de Bob Dylan es muy bueno,” I said. “Es mejor que hip hop y los Eagles.”

More blank, then a quick change of subject.

Need some reasons, I thought. But how to explain Bob in English, much less Spanish.

“Los canciones de Bob Dylan sobre totos los cosas.”

Unconvincing. I gave up, but promised to send him a CD with a few burned tunes. Maybe some bluegrass while I’m at it.

Martin and I went on to talk about adjectives used to describe attractive women. Hot is not commonly used in Spanish, he said. He’s married and has a five-year-old daughter and by the looks of his wife, a new addition will be arriving soon. He’s bored tending the store – happy to talk to me for an hour and a half – but there’s not much else he’ll be able to do. Opportunities for social advancement seem sparse, but there is a certain security to his life. His family set him up with the gig, and with their help, and by working seven days a week, he should be able to survive. The CD collection, alas, will probably be his sole companion during the long days, as the wife doesn’t appear to interest him much.

After an unsuccessful attempt to chat up a carp fisherman who actually hooked a six incher using a piece of tortilla as bait, I walked back toward San Antonio. From Chapala, it’s about three miles. Midway through the very sunny trek along the lake, it came time for an ice cream bar.

Juan, another 22-year-old, and I were in full discussion mode even before I handed over my 15 pesos. The talk centered on the foreigners that have changed his native town so much. Los Canadienses and los Americanos have almost built themselves a separate city along the lake, he said, leaving the natives to live across the highway inland. New commercial districts have sprouted up for the gringos, complete with Internet cafes, larger stores, and other things that don’t exist in neighborhoods where selling tacos from a card table passes for gainful employment.

Juan is doing a little better than Martin, living a stable life running the family business. Like most people who live here, he wasn’t quite sure what to say when I asked him how long he had lived in the area. All his life, of course. How would it be otherwise? He’s studying accounting and is obviously good with numbers, often explaining social issues with elaborate percentages and ratios. His father employs him at the store, and he works another job as guard at a gated community. He’s crazy about his girlfriend, and there were hints that he would soon be going the way of Martin, turning la novia into la esposa.

Foreigners draw broad conclusions about a culture at their peril, but it’s safe to say that the family is everything here. The institution takes care of you long past 18 or whenever you graduate from college if you go, providing connections, often direct employment, a social life, and, I’m sure, as much emotional support as you need.

Juan is set to continue the tradition. He’ll probably get married, have kids, and soon, he’ll be providing connections, perhaps direct employment, a social life, and all kinds of emotional support to his kids, his wife, and probably several dozen relatives.

There are many birthday parties, first communions, weddings, funerals, quincieneras, and Christmas gatherings in Juan’s future. There may even be a crazy or deadbeat uncle to financially support, but hey, there’s a reason this dirt poor town about the size of Brookings has fewer beggars and homeless than Brookings.

After two hours of lively conversation with Juan, I walked back to San Antonio, pondering this situation. It’s almost a prison, from a Yankee perspective. Where American kids dream of leaving to become an actor in New York, Juan dreams of becoming an accountant in his hometown. One can only imagine the social norms and obligations that bring up kids like that. When Martin got married, he joined a family. When Americans get married, they talk of perhaps starting a family someday.

Prison isn’t so bad if you don’t want to leave, and the benefits to those who want to stay are very real, even if the obligations are huge. You can see this by taking a walk in San Antonio at about 9 p.m. The streets are packed with families sitting together, sometimes with friends, on the sidewalks, around the stores, in the town plaza. There are groups of age-segregated people, to be sure, but a group of three generations hanging out together isn’t the exception to the rule that it is in the United States.

And people here smile more than Americans. Part of this is the climate, as Juan points out, but I wonder if a bigger factor isn’t satisfaction. It’s a big country, but the people in this little corner of it are not the nomads we middle class liberally educated gringos have become. We strive maniacally for independence, self fulfillment, love, and the meaning of life. Mexicans, meanwhile, seem to have much of what we’re maniacally striving for figured out already. Love and the meaning of life are problems that I’m betting are tempered by a very large family that loves you and that lives close by. The sad conclusion of my evangelism is that Mexicans don’t appear to have much use for Bob Dylan, save as a tool for studying Americans.

Comment from the old blog:

  • At March 23, 2006 3:04 AM, Blogger Working Gringos said…

    Nice article. Especially because I agree with a lot of your observations :-) In the States, politicians talk about family values. In Mexico, they just live that way.

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