Mexican machismo and a Canadian tourist
“Watch out, Mom!” yelled Rose as the metal hulk of a city bus bore down upon the busy street corner. Hopping instantly back onto the curb, I choked on gasoline fumes while litter swirled in the bus’s dusty aftermath.
“That was a close one,” scolded Josh, “And you’re the only mother we have!”
“Yes. But is it just me or are these buses in Guadalajara moving faster than last year?”
With teen-age indifference, Josh shook his long black hair and shrugged, “Maybe. But, you’re losing your memory anyway, Mom.”
Memory can selectively hook to moments of emotional impact. For example: how the famous Mexican machismo (manliness) affects me. Experiences date back to two long RV road trips with my husband and three young children in 1992 and 1993. In 1998, up-dated twists were added. Two of my teens, Rose thirteen and Josh, fifteen and myself, forty-six flew twice to the west coast of Mexico from Vancouver, Canada. We traveled by bus for the month of December around the states of Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit. Again men’s overall machismo, their strength, valor, self-confidence and masculinity, impressed me favorably. ¡Y me gusta!
In the forging of long term friendships with Mexicans, I welcome the courtesy and attentiveness shown to women. In addition I try to stay mindful of oiling the two-way communication line with generous respect. Even then, a man’s patronizing attitude or my cultural misunderstanding can temporarily derail the track. Reaching into my social survival kit, I quickly grab a ready apology or wrench the situation with humor. Mexicans still use polished courtesies and piropos, (the art of verbal flattery) to show proper upbringing and gallantry.( And get that girl!) So who am I to refuse a courtesy when offered or scorn a noble act? Besides it harkens me back to kinder, politer days of yore!
My admiration also flows towards men who actively support and protect their families in the face of all odds. They consider their machismo a key factor in the molding and sustaining of their families and personal relationships. Dads instill ideals of courtesy and high moral standards in their children, disciplining them to be upright, honest and hardworking. Sons remain devoted to their mothers for a lifetime and husbands supportive of their wives.
Of course, this portrays the positive side of machismo. Everyone knows that the world takes all kinds. Men who abandon their families and/or abuse themselves and others exist everywhere. Some women are culpable in the deterioration of family relationships. It does after all take two to tango. In Mexico, the woman’s role as social dependent is still strong. Increasingly difficult economic times place opportunities for success steadily beyond the reach of the majority. Economic impotency and its attendant frustrations mixed with ascending poverty blast away the traditional extended family stronghold. Now nearly all must work; men, women and children for long hours at low pay. Sometimes men feeling abused by circumstance and other men or women, shift their powerlessness onto those most dependent upon them, their women and children. Machismo can transform into a darker code of honor.
Reacting to the exaggerated expectation to never show weakness or fear that their culture demands of them, Mexican men tend to mask any insecurity behind a facade of bravado and posturing. This ranges from minor peccadilloes to greater displays of courage (the bullfight), risk taking (behind the wheel of a car), violence (bar room confrontations and hard drinking) and sexual prowess (bragging about one’s conquests or siring large families).
Well. That’s the theory. Does it help to explain the practice? Here are a few recent travel experiences selected for their lasting emotional impact.
In general a Mexican man is geared to survival by being aware of what goes on around, in front of, and behind him. This makes him an excellent driver. Driving also gives him a chance to prove that he is muy macho-all man. But some men, particularly taxi drivers, also believe in the military dictum that the best defense is a good offence. Even my estimado amigo, Frederico de Robles, a refined and thoughtful man emerges as ‘Mad Max’ behind the wheel of his car!
Last year, Frederico whizzed Rose and Josh and myself in his car, touring Guadalajara. He sandwiched days of sightseeing around his beloved city between countless business appointments and pressing family responsibilities. A few hours after our arrival by bus in the morning, Frederico with his courtly manners and certain worldliness, phoned our hotel room.
“Are you and your children ready for a day around Guadalajara?”
“Yes. Where will we meet you?”
“I await you in the lobby.”
‘We’ll be down in two shakes!”
Hanging up the phone, I wondered anew at the formality of Mexican culture even among friends. In Mexico, a gentleman does not knock on the door of your hotel room. Plus he arrives half to an hour late. If he phones you to say that he will be another half-hour late, relax and add another hour to his expected arrival. For even a gringa on vacation, this takes some getting used to!
Frederico strode smartly across the parking lot to greet me with a hearty abrazo. Forty-six years of confidence brimmed from his ready smile. Dressed impeccably for business, Frederico sat comfortably in his car, his muscled arm steering us deftly amidst the heavy city traffic. Chatting amicably he delivered us swiftly to the Mercado Libertad in the heart of downtown Guadalajara. After parking underneath the seventeen-acre grand Plaza Tapatía, we climbed the stairs to find endless stalls bursting with merchandise. Information mingled with quick wit bubbling from Frederico’s artesian well of experience and knowledge.
“Amiga. This market supports my theory that the Chinese were in Mexico, a long time ago. The markets, the preparation of food is so similar. Now taste this!”
Wandering among the fresh fruit and vegetables, he added, “Try the fresh cane juice! This is the drink I enjoyed growing up on the sugar-cane plantations in Veracruz.”
After browsing Mercado Libertad for an hour we paused to admire the marimba players on la plaza. Then Frederico hugged us goodbye on the stairs of the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas. He promised to pick us up two hours later by the colonial Catedral for comida corrida. We strolled into the one hundred and eighty-year-old building that housed orphans until the late 1970’s. Today it is a museum and a school sponsoring dance festivals, theatre performances and concerts. Mexican muralist Clemente Orozco painted murals in the main chapel depicting the savagery of the Spanish conquest and the Four Riders of the Apocalypse. Such dark, fiery, nihilistic panoramas are easily surveyed while lying on your back on low wide benches provided for this purpose. Wandering the stony courtyards, a large sign proclaimed, ‘Yoko Ono, Exposición 1998.’
The Instituto Cultural hosted the widow of John Lennon’s avant-garde foray. Several large stone rooms once lively with children today contained rows of silent pine boxes. Surreally the rectangular boxes sprouted several fig trees rooted like an above ground graveyard. In this land where life and death so intricately weave, I died to know what a Mexican would think about this exhibit. But in the seemingly endless rank of corridors on that cool wintry afternoon, we wandered alone. As Rose, Josh and I passed again beneath the overhead Orozco murals, young school children entered the Instituto. Rose smiled and waved at the littlest ones in school uniforms and bright hair ties, all grasping a long guiding tour rope. Future Mexican generations waved back gaily.
In his car, Frederico waited patiently for us by the great Catedral door. He moved promptly out of his car, to open the doors,
“Now, we must go somewhere special for lunch!”
Suddenly while crossing a bustling intersection an aggressive taxi driver careened towards us. ‘Mad Max’ now clutched the steering wheel, playing a wild high-speed game of “pollo” (chicken) with the taxi. Visions of grisly Mexican road-kill flashed before my eyes.
Souls of my unborn grandchildren flying around the dashboard!
“Why the diablo do you drive like THAT!”
“Amiga. You must never back down!”
In a heartbeat Frederico joined the legion of Mexican men who seem to do what they want to do. Oh sure, there are laws in this fascinating country but…
“ La ley se obedece, pero no se comple.” (The law is obeyed, but it is not followed)
Some examples from driving in Mexico illustrate this saying. On highways, a truck in front of you turns on his left signal light means it’s safe to pass, if you are not being passed and if you are quick. Or in the cities, when the same truck driver signals left, now it might mean he is going to turn left. But also, drivers forget where they are or forget to turn off the signals. Sometimes the signal lights are broken. The continuous line in the middle of a highway does not mean you can’t pass. It’s a reminder to speed up when passing uphill on a blind curve! Park anywhere. Do nearly anything!
In pure self-defense, muster quick reflexes, commonsense and pray.
But why take so many risks in the first place? I asked my loco amigo directly, “Frederico. Why do all Mexicanos drive like mad men?”
Frederico threw back his fine head laughing heartily, “Devlin! You think Mexicanos drive like madmen? You should see the drivers in Columbia!”
“Not in this lifetime!”
“Besides it is not me, you should be worried about. For instance. Better to worry about the “killer” bus drivers here in Guadalajara.”
“Like the one that nearly ran me over yesterday?”
“Probably. Those guys are really dangerous. There are over 6000 licensed buses here. In the competition for fares, some drivers drag race our streets, trying to get ahead of the other guy and steal his passengers. If they hit somebody, sometimes they just back up and finish him off so that they will not have to pay compensation.”
“ Amiga, mía. Would I lie to you? Last year alone, Guadalajara had 234 bus-related fatalities. The big ‘monster’, Mexico City with over four times our population, had only 64. And Monterrey, which is near the same size, claimed only 37. These bus drivers are a menace!”
“Is anything being done about the problem?”
“Only the other day, I jumped a red light because there was no traffic in sight. A motorcycle policeman hid behind a bush, watching the intersection. He tried to give me a ticket.”
“Well. You broke a traffic law.”
“ Sí. But I asked him, “Why are you busy giving a tickets to me for breaking a little law when bus drivers are murdering people?”
“So did he give you a ticket?”
“Only a warning. I think, I convinced him. Later that evening, I phoned an influential politician for a big discussion about political will to combat this growing tragedy. You must be very careful on the streets of Guadalajara. I do not wish you or your kids to be hurt in Mexico!”
My inner thoughts shifted erratically, “My dear amigo, I do not want you to die either! Is it just the woman in me that feels such fear? Do men feel more alive somehow, acting this way?
For me, enough sickness, death, separation or distance contrive to keep loved ones apart. To purposefully court danger smacks of machismo madness. Or do the years, spent working as a nurse in an emergency or industrial setting spawn my concerns? Things seen and heard, normally hidden away in a death-denying culture? In Mexico, violent death seems seldom remote and never sentimentally awesome or repulsive as their ballads, religion and arts clearly show.
Frederico often pokes fun at what he calls, ‘my Anglo-Saxon ways’. He stereotypes Northerners as afraid to live or experience life to its fullest. During my daughter’s stay in his home in Guadalajara, the phone rang, bringing news of a tragic death. The father of one of his daughter’s classmate’s died in a sudden car crash. Last year Frederico told me how he was called to claim the mangled body of an employee killed in a drunken crash. My Puerto Vallartan friend José Valadés spoke of his two brothers, both dead from violent car crashes before forty years old. The numberless tangled roadside wreckage of semi-trailers and cars haunt my memory. Countless roadside shrines testify to life lost violently. My concerns are reinforced; not easily denied.
Frederico’s story reminds me of another recent bus experience. Last December my teen-age daughter Rose and I stood on the busy corner of Insurgentes and Badillo in Puerto Vallarta. We waited for one of the frequently running local buses to take us the fifteen miles south to the tiny village of Boca de Tomatlan. Hwy 200 hugs and winds the scenic tropical coastline. Standing room only available, I grabbed fast to the overhead bar as the bus hurtled around tight corners and stopped sharply for passengers. A tall joven (young man) stood up and immediately offered me his seat. We chatted until he dismounted for his cooking job at the fabulous Hotel Mismaloya. The bus lurched to the corner of a steep cobblestone lane that meanders to the village of Boca de Tomatlán. Rose and I sought out the beautiful apartment shared by Canadian snowbirds Jo and Dale, and their teen, Jeff. After an enjoyable afternoon and early evening supper together, they invited Rose to spend the night. Tomorrow Rose would catch the bus by herself back to Puerto Vallarta. In the soft twilight darkness, I trudged up the cobblestone hill to catch the bus back.
Warm scented breezes lifted my long hair while waiting along the narrow highway margin with fifteen Mexicanos. Ten minutes later a local bus roared up to the stop. Nine people clambered aboard ahead. Instantly another bus pulled up swiftly behind the first. As my foot landed on the lowest stair of the first bus, the second bus violently rear-ended it. Reverse hop backwards!
The aggressor bus reared back a dozen feet and rammed into the other’s tail gate. Crash! Pull back ten feet and crash again!
What the diablo was going on?
Road rage? ¿ Mucho macho, eh?
Abruptly halting his attack, the second bus driver climbed quickly down. He walked to the front of the first bus and spoke with its driver. Rapid Spanish volleyed between the men without shouting or violence. The five remaining passengers quickly boarded the second bus so I followed suit. Several wide-eyed children levered open the rusty window frames, poking their dark heads outside to listen. After ten pregnant minutes the two men re-boarded their buses. With a black belch of exhaust, the first bus roared down the narrow highway, pursued by the second.
Macho behavior certainly gives Mexican society much of its character, style and tone. Failure to demonstrate a certain degree of masculinity is automatically assumed to display impotency, homosexuality or even bewitchment. Bragging and refusing to take no for an answer is symptomatic of macho behavior of some Mexican men, especially when they are drinking.
One more irrational result is the institutionalized practice of debasing women on one hand while glorifying them on the other. Many Mexican men feel they must take whatever sexual advantage they can of women because it is expected of them. Hence it is always, “open season” on gringas in big tourist resorts.
The Mexican saying is: A woman is like glass; always in danger.
Over my forty-six years I have learned how to handle unwanted sexual advances. But how would my blossoming daughter, Rose handle the onslaught of macho attention?
For the first week I clucked protective advice at Rose. Then she asked to spend an afternoon on the beach alone while I went grocery shopping in Manzanillo. A few hours later she planned to meet with other teens at the beach volleyball court. That evening she described her experience, “Just after you left, Mom, about ten guys swarmed me on the beach. At first they seemed friendly and we chatted in Spanish. Then they started talking fast in Spanish that I didn’t understand. I knew that they were suggesting all kinds of things to me. So I stopped being polite and shouted, “ ¡No molestarme!” Then I walked away and they didn’t bother me again.”
And I worried!
Rose said that men who panted and barked like dogs as she passed on the streets, particularly annoyed her. Watch out guys. When Rose gets older, she’ll be a force to reckon with!
Near the end of our vacation, I accompanied another Canadian couple to the Puerto Vallarta airport. When their cab pulled up to the hotel, older retirees Hank and Flo slid into the backseat. With a flourish, the cabby opened the front passenger’s door for me. My friends speak little Spanish and left the cab conversation entirely up to me. Since every registered cab dangles the driver’s photo identification card, it’s easy to start the ball rolling with, “Buenos días, Señor! ¿Cómo estás, Señor Guillermo Arredondo?
His head with its hair, a little thinned towards the crown turned to twitch a smile, “ Muy bien. ¿Cómo estás?”
On the twenty-minute drive to the airport, I chatted in my best Spanglish and he in cultivated cabby cortesía. He wanted to know how I liked Puerto Vallarta and asked many questions about Canada. I interviewed him about his family, his work and Mexico.
Señor Arredondo offered, “I work in Puerto Vallarta, six days a week. But I was born in Nayarit. Have you ever been there?
“Yes, six years ago, I traveled through the state. I stayed in San Blas, Aticama and Rincon de Guayabitos. A few days ago I took the bus from Guadalajara through the state. It is a very beautiful place. “
He brightened with my compliments about his home state. The chat lingered longer on the subject of Nayarit. Suddenly he stretched his hand over my thigh and leered, “My wife and three children live here. I have another home over the border. There I have another wife and two children.”
A little diablo within me glimpsed where this conversation headed and whispered out loud, “Bueno. I have two children in Mexico. And my husband is back in Canada with my oldest boy.” Señor Arrendondo’s eyes flickered with disbelief but before he could muster a reply, I laughed.
“ No, Señor. I am staying in Mexico with two of my children but I am returning soon to my husband in Canada. He is starting to say that I have too much excitement without him in Mexico!”
Suggested Reading List about Mexican Culture:
- NTC’s Dictionary of Mexican Cultural Code Words Boye Lafayette De Mente 1996
- The Labyrinth of Solitude Octavio Paz Nobel Prize author 1950
- Nothing to Declare- Memoirs of a woman travelling alone Mary Morris 1987
- The Mexicans- a personal portrait of a people Patrick Oster 1993
- A Trip to the Light Fantastic- Travels with a Mexican Circus Katie Hickman 1993
- Mexican Lives Judith Adler Hellman 1994
- A New Time for Mexico Carlos Fuentes 1996
- Culture Shock! A guide to Customs and Etiquette Mark Cramer 1998
- The People’s Guide to Mexico Carl Franz 1998