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Ask an old gringo: holidays, drug war, mariachis and street vendors

Marvin West

Question: Americans have endured the recent retailing horrors of Halloween and the spirited sale of Thanksgiving hams, turkeys, Stove Top stuffing and cranberry sauce. Next comes Christmas, the peak of credit-card crisis. How do Mexicans celebrate holidays?

Answer: Mexico is a party place. Fiestas are often and all around. You can see and hear 'em into the wee hours. Music and happiness go on and on and on.

Our neighbors are big on patriotism and remembering saints. There's a lot of flag-waving and firecrackers in February. Carnaval  is really big in Mazatlán and Verzcruz. Locals touch lightly on Valentine's Day. Cinco de Mayo isn't much.

Mexicans love mothers and Mother's Day. They like Independence Day and Revolution Day. They don't have much of a grip on Halloween ghosts and goblins. They somehow balance the Day of the Dead with sensitivity and celebration. It is impressive that they can stare down death and laugh.

They are spared Thanksgiving. The Christmas season takes up much of December and spills over into January. It remains a mostly religious holiday with focus on family - but it is slipping toward commercialization.

For the devout, Easter is the big one and it isn't about bonnets.

Pesos for holiday happiness? Mexico is mostly a cash society. Mexicans pay, borrow from friends and relatives or do without. Mexicans aren't wild and crazy with credit cards. Not yet.

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Question: Our family is coming from Wisconsin to visit friends in Guadalajara. Can we bring gifts of cheese?

Answer: All dairy products are on the don't-do list. That said, maybe you'll get a red light at customs and maybe it will be green. That said, interpretation of the law is sometimes arbitrary. In fact, all Mexican rules and regulations might, at any given time, be arbitrary.

In the case of foodstuffs, what really hurts is to see government agents confiscate a winter supply of peanut butter and divide the loot, three jars, with office pals.

I do believe it improves the odds if items are wrapped in Christmas paper and tied with bright ribbons and bows. All Mexicans have hearts and most catch at least some of the holiday spirit.

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Question: What do you make of the war on drugs?

Answer: It appears Mexico and the United States are cooperating. Mexicans are trying to slow the flow and Americans are funding the effort. Does this sound familiar?

Uncertainty and confusion are part of the mix. When really big money is involved, there is often a question of whom to trust. North of the border, there is an old-fashioned left hand-right hand dilemma.

Example: While U.S. anti-drug people were paying a former Mexican policeman $224,000 over four years for information about corrupt Mexican politicians, police and military, enough for several convictions, Homeland Security authorities were busy building a case to block the man at the border. His name is Guillermo Eduardo Ramirez Peyro. A federal judge saved him.

With this kind of communication, any success is amazing.

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Question: Who pays the mariachis when they play? How much?

Answer: If you are parked on a park bench or at a restaurant table and roving musicians pause and ask if they can play your requests, be generous if you say yes. Help support local talent. If it is good, and the group is small, encourage it with 10 pesos per player.

One of my favorite Canadian friends allocates 20 pesos per dinner band -- with the caveat that it go away instead of play. I called him mean. He said it's just a different form of support. He calls it travel pay.

If you book mariachis for a party, agree in advance on the fee. Those guys are professional entertainers and sewing on sequins is tedious work.

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Question: I caught a snippet on TV news about a miracle in Mexico City, something about street vendors. What's the story?

Answer: This wasn't exactly a death march but it was a forced relocation. Thousands of little merchants have been selling in the historic district for decades. They were organized. They had assigned sites. They had a union and paid union dues to preserve the right to do something illegal, to set up shop on the sidewalks and force pedestrians to walk the gauntlet or walk in the streets.

Rumor has it that some of the pooled resources helped convince city officials to not notice.

The city changed the rules. A new vending area was created several blocks away. Established merchants -- those who own storefronts, buy permits and pay taxes -- applauded. Potential customers suddenly had a chance to find their doorways.

The little guys grumbled but moved. My scouting report says tarps, ropes, display tables, wooden crates and most of the trash are gone from sidewalks -- but don't bet life savings that the vendors won't be back.

Real change is very slow in Mexico.

Published or Updated on: December 1, 2007 by Marvin West © 2007
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is

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