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Ask an old gringo: Easter, cobblestones and WalMart

Marvin West

Question: A few months ago, you provided insight on Christmas in Mexico. How about Easter?

Answer: Easter in Mexico is not bunnies, bonnets or jelly beans. For the devout, it is the most meaningful holiday of the year. For others, it is two weeks off, a family vacation, or maybe spring break, preferably oceanfront.

I haven't been there lately to see for myself but I keep hearing that Mexico City will be deserted. Well, 10 million or so will be missing. Oh happy day!

Observance of the Easter season varies from town to town but everybody does it. Some reenactments of Holy Week are carefully scripted and staged to depict the final significant events in the life and death of Jesus Christ -- his arrival in Jerusalem, the Last Supper, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

You might see all the Bible characters, even Roman centurions on horseback. There is considerable realism: Christians carrying their own crosses, some wearing crowns of thorns, some punishing themselves, beating their backs with short whips.

Some scenes are better than others. Easter Sunday in San Miguel de Allende has pilgrims burning images of Judas. Sometimes the locals get carried away and "heat up" politicians who have fallen from grace.

At Lake Chapala, where we live, a highlight is the passion play in Ajijic. I hear that the priest has a formula for picking the person to play Jesus. On his list are faith and morals and availability for a year of rehearsals.

So far, Mexicans have generally resisted the commercialization of Easter but you might see a bit of fundraising. Most anywhere you look, somebody will be selling miniature crosses and plastic Virgin Marys.

Question: Several times you and other writers have mentioned cobblestone streets. What are you talking about?

Answer: Those of us who paint Mexican word pictures think "cobblestones" sounds romantic. In fact, they are just rocks, cobbled together to make artistic passages. When you bounce over them the first time, you may think they are cobbleboulders. What often follows are tire replacements and suspension and alignment repairs. Some express concern for dental fillings.

Building streets of rounded stones is very labor intensive. Mexicans kneel down on the job and fit the rocks together, one at a time. It would be much faster to build forms and pour concrete streets. The finished product would be much smoother. It would also be more expensive. Labor and rocks are relatively cheap.

Question: True or false, WalMart is taking over Mexico retailing?

Answer: False but moving gently in the general direction of true. The Mexico arm of the Arkansas company opened 120 new stores in 2006 and 132 in 2007. Another 130 or so are under construction or on the drawing board for this year.

We have a junior version of WalMart, Bodega Aurrera, at the west end (naturally) of Lake Chapala, in the town of Jocotepec, in the state of Jalisco. It has several advantages over local merchants: ample parking, lots and lots of things to sell, everything from appliances to fresh fish to pharmaceuticals.

Prices are comparable or lower. Mexican loyalty to the little guys is being tested. Judging by the crowds of customers, it appears WalMart is winning.

Question: What do you hear about the population explosion in Mexico? Will more and more Mexicans be moving North?

Answer: Oh my, you are straying far from my field of expertise (which, incidentally, is less than two acres) but I think the times and numbers are a changing.

I recall the old joke about the national attire for Mexican women being a maternity dress. Not so any more. Several are not pregnant.

Over the grumbling protest of the Catholic church, the country launched a birth control program in 1974.

Nobody talks about the results but statistics may answer your question: Forty years ago, the average family had seven children. The 2005 average was said to be 2.5. Believe it or not.

Our two favorite Mexican families have five and three children. We enjoy all eight, even more since we have compromised on how loud the boom box should play. Do you suppose Christmas presents could be misconstrued as bribery?

Question: Tell us the truth, how are visitors treated in Mexico?

Answer: Not all tourists are treated equally. Those who come to buy or sell or use illegal drugs are treated rather harshly if apprehended. Fair warning, but I don't think too many are caught.

Ordinary, law-abiding folks may be treated warmly or at least politely. You may be seen as new money or, at worst, curiosity objects. There will be little or no visible resentment unless you make a bar pass at somebody else's sweetness.

Now and then, an ambitious local might try to pick your pocket. On the assumption that you can't count, you could be shortchanged or charged too much in simple transactions. There may be snickers behind your back, at your appearance or because of fumbling attempts at speaking Spanish. If you ask directions, you'll get some kind of answer but it may be incorrect. Mexicans don't like to admit that they don't know.

I do believe big-city police look more closely at gringo cars with foreign license plates.

Like everywhere, money talks. It will buy goods and services but not respect. Just looking, it appears that Mexicans treat gringos as well or better than gringos treat Mexicans.

Published or Updated on: March 1, 2008 by Marvin West © 2008
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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