Inner versus outer qualities: My friendships with Mexican people
" Mexicans prize the individuality and the intellectual and emotional uniqueness of each person. They regard the innate alma or "spirit" of the individual as the most important of all human qualities and their culture is fashioned around this concept even in the face of the conformity of Mexican etiquette." *(Footnote)
If this statement is true then how different are people generally perceived in my culture! Lip service is paid to this ideal but in day to day reality, another custom prevails. A college student of mine summed it up neatly when she remarked to me, " Yes, all my life I am told to be myself. And then if they don't like it, I must be someone else!" Never accepted fully for just being born a person. Always having to lead a life full of conditional acceptance.
Around here many people pride themselves on their independence and individuality. They freely grant this condition to themselves but refrain from freely granting it to others. They expect everyone to behave more or less like them and to conform in social, business and political situations. Others who follow the beat of a different drummer are viewed uneasily or with prejudice. The world is viewed in concrete terms of black and white, and the worth of individuals is measured by their accomplishments.
In fact, judging people on the basis of their innate character is viewed as a very unpopular romantic notion verging on the "political incorrect". Instead, many people tend to concern themselves only with attitudes and actions of the moment and the surface qualities that people exhibit. Or if they look to the character of the person, they chose to sit in perennial judgement on those characteristics.
Thus I have discovered on visits to Mexico and on the Internet that there is a world of difference between the values of my Mexican friends and those of my society at home in general. My Mexican friends seem to genuinely value my so-called inner qualities. Although they act interested in my life, I feel no great urgency to tell them in any depth about my outer qualities; with how hard I work, what skills I may possess or what extraordinary feats I may have accomplished. I'm free just to be myself. Heroic or timid, patient or impatient, smart or ignorant etc; it is the sum package that seems to interest them. How refreshing a difference!
This is not to suggest that my Mexican friends mirror complete agreement to me. Oh no, no, no! , " Lo cortas no quita lo valiente." This means that you may be a brave, valiant person, without having to be rough. If you are courteous, you will not diminish yourself. Hence we can agree to disagree and still stay friends. And to love, care and support each other. This may sound like a commonsense, every day social contract but in my daily world, such an agreement is relegated to the "exception" rather than the "rule".
My first hand experiences started on a discussion forum on the internet about Mexico. I noticed a particular Mexican man, Antonio, who seemed very interested in sharing his thoughts and experiences about himself and his culture. I lurked for months reading all of the posts, witnessing much "flaming" interchange that seemed to pass for intellectual discourse. Finally I gathered up courage to write him directly and put to him straight; questions about differences between our cultures. Antonio provided an ongoing wealth of information. Over time he admitted to his own sense of wonder, appreciation, understanding and even bewilderment at this shared modern world. I started to ask him point blank questions like; why do all Mexican men drive like crazies? His answers illuminated and intrigued me. Sometimes I described my perplexities regarding concepts like Mexican beliefs about life and death, Mayan rituals inside Catholic churches, the Mexican indirect polite response, Mexican politics and a host of other subjects. Antonio always provided his information with refreshing courtesy and patience. Over and over he displayed his abundance of inner qualities. As we grew to understand each other so did our relationship deepen.
We began sharing little details about our family life. I got to think of this man, Antonio, as a real human being with feelings, issues, problems and joys. It became easier to express myself more personally. I started to feel comfortable sharing my own thoughts and feelings. A vague sense grew that we were heartening each other in a very real and meaningful way. Antonio felt like a "real' friend. This sense of support nurtured a climate in which we could begin disagreeing with each other.
For example we disagreed about abortion. Antonio seemed determined to debate and/or persuade me about this issue. I felt that there was no way that he could have walked a mile in my moccasins, nor I, ever a mile in his. Although I valued his convictions and his passion on the subject, I refused to debate this matter. Above all I tried to honor him as a person with as much a "right" to his viewpoint as I felt that I had for my own. But I would not argue or fight with him. He maintained that we could debate such issues; I thought that we could not. And I told him so, fearing at the same time that this impasse would likely terminate our relationship. My family heritage dictated many emotional splits over such issues or less. I wished to tell him that I might easily have been an abortion myself as my unwed mother had already had one abortion and then desired another before I was even conceived. She had given the second child up for adoption in another country. I could not sit in judgment upon her and others that I had known, even if I felt that it was a grievous act. As a former mid-wife, I considered myself totally committed to quality of life and dedicated to the growth and development of children everywhere.
I reflected that in their early deaths, my parents had died with their feelings and beliefs unaltered. They died as they lived. As a nurse, I had witnessed other deaths under the same circumstances. When their time runs out as in death, a person goes to the grave as the person who they are with all of their " alma" intact. These were my beliefs that gave me comfort. If Antonio wanted to change me, it would take love over time- much time. But I hesitated to express these personal beliefs to him for fear of rejection.
In the course of our dialogs several times a month we smacked into some differences over male/female relationships. He displayed and admitted to " machismo" attacks and I admitted to pressing the buttons, which might provoke them. So we agreed to "draw in our horns" and carry on regardless of our differences. Perhaps even to exclaim " viva la difference!" By now I was enjoying his virtual company so much, I could take any amount of good-natured teasing. The wittier and more personal, the better!
And then Antonio stopped writing for longer and longer periods of time. After a year of writing, I considered him a personal friend. I began to miss him. Even my husband who viewed my whole Internet life with a sense of disbelief, caution and curiosity started to miss my friend. So I sent him a very funny joke for his family and happily he wrote me back. When he still seemed somewhat distant, I started to study Spanish more diligently so that I could display in a tangible written way, my commitment to understanding him and his culture.
So began the second year of our friendship. I began to think that this relationship was taking quite a bit of effort to sustain. Perhaps it would start to die on the vine. I resolved that the best option was to travel to Mexico and meet the man, his family and his life. Although I had wanted to travel back to Mexico, for the five years since my last trip, many circumstances had transpired to prevent a return. One of the key factors was that my husband was not prepared to travel there again with me. And he did not want me to go there without him. It was a no-win situation! Also we had taken upon ourselves the 24-hour care of my 90 year-old grandfather for several years. However family dynamics progressed to a point that I determined that for the emotional survival of everyone, I would return to Mexico for a holiday. My two youngest children, now 12 and 14, jumped at the chance to go back to Mexico for two weeks.
The chance to meet Antonio and his family also served to unite our two daughters who were close in age and interests. Although I was prepared to continue writing him as before, I considered that the only way to really know this person was to meet him face to face.
When I wrote him to tell him that we were coming to Mexico and if possible, we would like to meet him, I received a warm welcome. However when I actually flew to Mexico, I ran squarely into the reality of making arrangements there. My general method is to travel there without plans or itinerary in order to allow the theoretical maximum amount of serendipity to occur.
For starters I was unable to make a phone call from the airport upon my arrival as Antonio requested. At 2 a.m. I had no phone card or pesos. The next day when I got a LADA phone card and started to call him, my friend was out of town for three days. This was unexpected. When phone connection was finally made, Antonio asked us to come right away to Guadalajara by bus because he would be very busy with business over the time that I thought that we would be able to meet. Fortunately being "on holiday", meant that my family was free to arrange our time as we pleased. So we hopped on a long distance Mexican bus for the first time in our lives, and in 6 hours we arrived at the bus station in Guadalajara.
Then the surprises got interesting.
Antonio had given me five phone numbers by e-mail where he could be reached. I tried all five in sequence-again and again for half an hour at the bus depot. The problem was that all of these phone lines were busy at 6:30 in the evening. Here we were in a strange city with night falling and without a place to stay. I had not made reservations because I did not have a clue as to where Antonio might wish us to stay. If meeting time was at a premium then I wanted to maximize it by locating ourselves for his convenience. Finally I decided just to hop onto a local bus with the kids and head for the only landmark that my friend had ever mentioned; the Basilica de Zapopan near his home. It was clear across the city. I kicked myself for not getting his home address and the kids asked me if I knew where we were going. I was not worried about finding a suitable place to stay in Guadalajara. I wished only for connection after all of this travel.
When we arrived at the Basilica, I tried again all of the five phone numbers for thirty minutes. I managed to reach the family maid who left the phone dangling while she ran to find someone who could understand my Spanglish! Finally a lovely female voice answered one line. It was Rosa, one of Antonio's secretaries. If I could have stretched myself through the phone lines, I would have given her a big kiss! She reassured me that she would track my friend down and phone me back. The kids and I got ourselves some street food while we waited by the phone. Rosa phoned back and said that Antonio was busy at a meeting but in an hour he would come and pick us up in front of the Basilica. It was nearly 9 p.m. But now there was a plan!
So we waited in the descending night air on wrought iron benches in front of the church. When a man strode across the plaza to greet us, I scarcely recognized him from the one small Internet photo that I had received only the week before. I blurted out like an idiot; " You're taller than I expected!" Antonio laughed as he picked up our bags and then said something strongly emotional but cryptic about the Virgin of Guadalupe.
My children took surprise at the passion of his statement. I had impressed upon them to be respectful so only curious glances passed between us. I briefly found myself wondering if I was putting us in the hands of a religious zealot. Antonio drove us to his home where we met his wife and two children. I believe that they found the whole incident somewhat unusual but they took it gamely in their stride. We relaxed to eat, drink and enjoy ourselves late into the evening. Antonio took us upstairs to their bedroom where I typed out a message to my husband and son on that very same computer over which this entire relationship had formed. It seemed a surreal event! I pinched myself to make sure that I was not just dreaming!
Antonio danced with Rose around the room to lively music while I read Spanish magazine articles that he had written and wished to show me. I talked with María, his wife and instantly liked her. The kids went off to play Ping-Pong and explore the house. We were having a little party!
By this time I had absolutely no expectations, as everything seemed to fall wonderfully into place. Virtual reality mingled with "real-time" with happy results for, which my heart was gripped with thankfulness.
NTC's Dictionary of Mexican Cultural Code Words - The Complete Guide to Key Words that express how the Mexicans Think, Communicate and Behave.
By Boye Lafayette De Mente
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback