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Inside Mexico: Living, Travelling and Doing Business in a Changing Society

A Mexico book by Paula Heusinkveld

Reviewed by Allan Cogan

This is a very useful book for explaining Mexicans to the rest of us North Americans. Professor Heusinkveld has set out to cover Mexican attitudes to business relationships, social interactions, culture, customs and values and has largely succeeded in describing our neighbors in understandable ways.

I would like to have read "Inside Mexico" four years ago when we first came here to live. However, perhaps it's only now, after four years' experience in the country, that I can really appreciate the people. It's only a few days since my wife and I were invited to our first quinceaños, the celebration of a young girl's coming of age. There were only two other gringos there. It was a touching ceremony, followed by a great party. It was also interesting to see at close quarters a large family with eleven brothers who all appeared to get on with each other. Also, as I get to know my Mexican neighbors better, I, who comes from a very loosely-functioning family in Canada, am rather envious of the closeness of the relationships in the families I see around me here.

The author, quite rightly, makes much of these relationships. As she writes: "In a society in which the government is perceived as corrupt and trust is difficult to obtain, the broad network of relatives called familia is crucial. To an even greater degree than in some other Hispanic countries, Mexicans turn first to family in times of need. The extended family provides a safety net to sustain and support an individual in time of crisis, whether financial, emotional, medical, or legal in nature."

My wife and I are impressed that our neighbors' sons shake our hands when they see us, or the teenage daughters offer a cheek for a kiss. There's a natural graciousness here that isn't present in American or Canadian youth. Again, it's the emphasis on family that produces this. As Professor Heusinkveld explains: "Family gatherings still take priority over most other commitments. A Mexican businessman might postpone an important meeting to attend the birthday party of a niece or nephew. A teenager would probably be expected to attend a grandparent's birthday party even if it conflicted with an outing with other teenagers. These intergenerational festivities result in a comfortable mingling of young and old. Mexican children are socialized from the cradle to interact with people of all ages."

The changing role of women also comes in for scrutiny. Work is still looked on largely as a necessary evil rather than a fulfilling activity. A lot of upper class women still regard the prospect of working rather dimly. After all, Mexican men as a rule aren't prepared to do their part in helping with the housework. Machismo is still a factor in the male psyche. Mexican men find the character of the hen-pecked Dagwood in the American comic strip, 'Blondie', appalling. Also, Mexican women aren't looking for shortcuts in the kitchen as much as their northern neighbors. Frozen dinners and microwaves aren't that big a deal. Another difference: a middle-class woman who takes a job is more likely to hire a maid to help cook and clean than to serve prepackaged meals.

On the subject of food shopping Mexican housewives tend to buy enough for one meal. The rule is for daily shopping of fresh produce rather than that huge monumental weekly visit to the supermarket that Americans and Canadians seem to favor. Refrigerators aren't usually filled with leftovers. A good Mexican homemaker knows exactly what's in her fridge at any given moment.

One modern convenience, the automatic tortilla-making machine, is cited as having a tremendous impact in freeing Mexican women from hours of work, especially in smaller communities. One woman reports that she spent up to seven hours a day preparing tortillas for her family of five. Now the corn is ground at the tortillería in less than an hour.

Modes of dress also come in for thorough discussion. The notion of dressing 'poor' seems absurd to most Mexicans. Provocative dress is still considered vulgar. "Even the most modern young women who might wear faded jeans or cutoffs would make sure they fit perfectly and were accompanied by a fashionable belt, a carefully ironed T-shirt, jewelry, perfume and impeccable makeup, hair and manicure." This can be carried too far, of course, and the author cites one lady she observed exploring the Mayan ruins at Palenque - in four inch heels!

Many other aspects of Mexican life are examined here, such as religion and the separation of church and state, and the unique way Catholicism is practiced in this country. Also discussed are the arts, attitudes to punctuality, bribery, and that favorite of gringos who have been lost and have asked the locals for directions - the Mexican penchant for telling people what they want to hear.

It's interesting that there's no Horatio Alger myth in Mexico. Mexicans don't have the same belief as Americans that they can make things happen. They think, rather, that things happen to them. "Qué será, será" (Whatever will be, will be) more accurately expresses the national fatalistic attitude.

On the other hand, Mexicans are probably more patient and capable of enjoying the moment than Americans. Professor Heusinkveld has a great deal to say on this subject, pointing out that a successful businessman who works twelve hours a day and hasn't time for a decent lunch just isn't enjoying life - at least in Mexican eyes. The ideal Mexican afternoon would normally include time for a leisurely comida with family or friends.

And Mexican introductions don't say things like: "This is John Smith. He works for IBM." They're more likely to say: "This is my friend Mercedes. She's a wonderful person."

Admittedly, what's being described here is an aspect of Mexico that isn't much written about. You won't find anything here about crime and political corruption and the PRI and the immense disparity between rich and poor. This is the Mexico of law-abiding middle-class citizens, professionals and business people, the folks who probably do the most to keep the place going as a viable nation. Sadly, as a rule, we don't hear much about them. But "Inside Mexico" is a reminder that these people exist and have something to teach us.

Verdict:
An excellent readable summary of the differences and similarities between close neighbors who should know each other better.

Inside Mexico: Living, Travelling and Doing Business in a Changing Society
By Paula Heusinkveld

John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 1994

Available from Amazon Books: Paperback

Published or Updated on: December 1, 1998 by Allan Cogan © 1998
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