My family and I live in Mexico, in the small village of Ajijic on the shores of Lake Chapala. We rent a house that comes with a maid, which is the norm in Mexico. Last year, Amelia was our maid and she quickly became an integral part of our household. On her birthday, we try to surprise her. Last year, we gave her flowers and took her out to dinner, which turned out to be the first time she had ever eaten in a restaurant. This year, our new rental house came with a different maid, Josefina, so we decided to employ Amelia two days a week as our cook, in part because she needed the work, but also because we enjoyed our friendship with her. December arrived and Amelia’s birthday was quickly approaching yet again, and I wondered what could we do this year that would be fun and memorable. I also wanted to do something special for Josefina for Christmas. So I started hatching my plans. . .
I casually asked each of them if they had ever visited nearby Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico. Our family had toured its historic center many times with our numerous visitors. The city has magnificent plazas with fountains, a huge cathedral and colonial style buildings. Neither of them had ever visited Guadalajara, even though it was just an hour a way. So, I proposed that we take a day trip there on the Friday before Christmas. They were game.
The relationship between a maid and their employer is quite different in Mexico than it is in the United States. In the US, it is an arm’s length relationship, where you don’t get too personal or involved. In fact, many people never even SEE their maid – she is just a phantom worker for whom they leave a weekly check, and magically their house is clean!
The social contract in Mexico couldn’t be more different. Here, employees work primarily because they like you and want to help you out, not necessarily to be productive. Because of this, you end up spending a lot of time building personal relationships. For example, I usually chat with Amelia for fifteen minutes or so after she arrives to catch up on the latest in her personal life. If she is having any problems, she lets me know. I have loaned her money to buy medicine for her ailments and have commiserated with her on employer problems. I used to think that all this chatting was a waste of time and money – after all – she could be cleaning, right? But I’ve come to value this as an opportunity to get to know her as an individual, plus it’s been a great Spanish lesson. This level of interaction becomes the norm with everyone you deal with in Mexico – whether they are teachers, bankers, doctors, or gardeners. Once you get used to it, the American system seems quite sterile!
Finally the big day of our Guadalajara trip arrived. Josefina, the more refined and formal of the two, was clad in a black and white checkered dress and was ready to go, if a bit tentative. She has a pretty, round face, with short, curly dark hair styled in a bob. Josefina seems to be more educated and sophisticated, coming from Zacatecas, six hours to the north. Both she and Amelia are in their early fifties.
Next, we picked up Amelia at her home a mile west of Ajijic on a small dirt side street. Amelia is clearly of Indian background, with coppery skin, broad facial features, and somewhat short and stocky, with her glossy black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was dressed in blue knit pants with a striped top. Amelia has lived all her life in the same neighborhood and hadn’t been farther than five miles east to the big town of Chapala, with its 18,000 inhabitants. She is social and gregarious, often cracking jokes with me, and never hesitating to correct my frequent Spanish grammatical errors.
I had already given each of them their annual aguinaldos – their Christmas bonus equal to a month’s salary, which is standard practice in Mexico. Neither of them carried a purse, so I wondered where they concealed the money. These village women were street savvy enough to have tucked their money discretely into their clothing.
We were off! The drive to Guadalajara took about an hour. I reminded them to buckle up their seat belts, not a common practice in Mexico. As we left town, we glimpsed the shimmering silver lake through the slight morning haze. The road climbed to cross the mountains, which separate the lakeside area from the often-smoggy Guadalajara. We soon passed the airport, a point of demarcation between the cornfields and cow pastures of the countryside to the busy commercialism, billboards and traffic of Guadalajara. I prayed that my memory of the downtown route was accurate, never having navigated solo before; rarely are street signs posted.
I felt a bit uncomfortable riding along in the car, trying to make conversation. I joked whether we should head for the beach in Puerto Vallarta instead of to Guadalajara. I wondered how to fill the next eight hours in conversation with these two women so different from me, and had doubts about my limited Spanish skills. There were large cultural, language and socioeconomic differences between us, yet I hoped that our similarities as women would allow us to simply enjoy the day together. I can only imagine what was running through their minds – they probably had doubts about spending the entire day with this odd American woman so different from them, perhaps questioning my motives and feeling intimidated by the bigness and strangeness of Guadalajara. Soon we were in the heart of downtown.
I parked in the only parking garage I knew, finding a spot on the 6th floor. As we got out, I noticed the terrific view from the garage window, and urged them to take a look. Josefina came willingly, but Amelia confessed that she was afraid to look out because she had never before been up that high. Of course – the tallest building in Ajijic is only two stories!
As we approached the garage elevator, Amelia began genuflecting and looking distressed. She clutched Josefina’s and my arm tightly on either side and stepped tentatively into the elevator. Another five people got on, well beyond the six-person limit. The elevator jolted and dropped a few inches; the elevator man said No màs. Even I was a bit nervous. Amelia gripped us even tighter, explaining that she had never been in an elevator before. We slowly descended to street level; with a great sigh of relief we stepped out to the sidewalk.
We strolled down the street, surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings made of a pale yellow stone. It reminded me of Italy, particularly the side streets. We passed the park called Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres (Rotunda of the Illustrious Men), which now ironically contained its first illustrious woman, an educator whose statue was balanced on one of the rotunda’s white pillars. We gazed at her stern looking face and concluded that she didn’t look like a lot of fun. We toured the neoclassical Teatro Degollado with its huge columns and front portico topped by a triangular façade adorned by seven muses. The inside was very European with many private opera-style boxes.
We wandered the main plazas dotted with many trees and monuments, some with multi-tiered fountains, and passed the gazebo where they hold free concerts. Plazas are the architectural focus of a Mexican city; adjacent you will always find the main cathedral and town hall. Mexican life revolves around the plaza, especially on Sundays, when the entire family from grandma to grandbaby come to the plaza to meet with their friends. Children often play in the park till 11 at night.
Nearby, I spotted a horse drawn carriage, gleaming white with red velvet cushions and a black leather top. The driver strutted in his black gaucho suit, and black hat and gold adornments: the horse was a lean gray Arabian. We agreed on a price and went for a tour of the central historic district. The clatter of the horse’s hoofs echoed on the cobblestones as we toured the impressive buildings and plazas, Amelia and Josefina glimpsing them for the first time.
Next, we meandered through the long pedestrian street of Plaza Tapatio, once the Guadalajara’s main shopping district. I bought some brightly colored beaded bowls from the Huichol Indians and Amelia bought a green glass pyramid. To make her purchase, her money mysteriously emerged from her shirt, and then just as mysteriously disappeared again. We browsed the multitude of Christmas merchandise on display and gawked at the 60-foot tall Coke tree that adorned the main square. Commercialism at its finest! It was quite pretty, despite its Coke logo decorations. Josefina and Amelia admired the silver tinsel bells draped over the city’s main street.
At the foot of Tapatio Plaza, we stopped at Instituto Cultural de Cabañas, formerly an orphanage from the 1800’s. Today its domed ceilings are covered with massive murals painted by Orozco, depicting the history of Mexico. We studied the twenty-foot high figures staring down at us, including Aztecs, severe Spanish Conquistadors, innocent looking priests, and leaders of the Mexican Revolution such as Hidalgo and Allende. The scenes were violent and bloody, as Indian laborers were whipped and insurgents decapitated by Spanish swords. All this, on a scale four times bigger than life. After half an hour, we had had enough Mexican history.
We crossed a pedestrian bridge over a busy street to enter Mercado Libertad, the city’s covered central market, reputed to be the largest in Latin America. Here you can buy everything from food and clothing to exotic birds; its labyrinth of stalls are worthy of a Moroccan market. It began to get warm, as we crowded past the hoards of Christmas shoppers. Merchandise hung from the ceilings, tucked into every available space, so it was easy to get disoriented.
Josefina and Amelia suddenly seemed at home. Apparently, market shopping was their expertise. They deftly maneuvered the narrow aisles, searching out goods with great efficiency. Josefina bought a navy blue nylon sweater for her upcoming trip to wintry Zacatecas, and Amelia purchased a plastic life-size doll for her granddaughter. I picked up a few miniature trees and a small ceramic angel for my manger scene. They commented how much cheaper the prices were than in Ajijic, and were excited to be getting such a good deal.
We began tiring out as it turned mid-afternoon, and decided to stop for lunch. We found a pretty courtyard style Mexican restaurant nearby, with lovely stone arches and a central fountain. It was a tad upscale, but the location was right. I worried that Amelia or Josefina might feel uncomfortable seeing menu prices where a main dish costs five times their hourly wage. I tried to obtain a menu for them without prices, with no luck. At times like this, I debate just what is appropriate. I feel torn; I don’t want to be insensitive to their financial circumstances, yet I truly wanted make this a special day to remember.
We were ready to order. I ordered ice tea and a main dish of sliced pork with a green tomato salsa, and Amelia and Josefina followed suit. Josefina studied every detail of how I prepared my ice tea or used my silverware and followed suit exactly, like an old pro. Amelia was more direct, inquiring whenever she was unsure. The waiter was a gentlemen in his fifties dressed in a formal black suit with bow tie; we all agreed that he was a bit haughty. When we tried to order a dessert assortment for each of us, he refused in a huff. We laughed at his attitude and each ordered a different dessert, rotating them around the table until we had each tried every one.
After a final round of shopping, we entered the cool dark interior of the grandiose stone Cathedral, built in the 1500’s. Josefina and Amelia stepped to a side altar to light candles and say a prayer. We studied the fifty-year-old relics of a young girl martyr, supposedly her hair and a finger. Based on the crowd of people worshipping, she was one of the more popular local saints.
Finally, we bundled up our many purchases and headed back to the car. Amelia asked me, Does this mean we need to take the elevator again? and I admitted that yes, it did. She crossed herself and we chuckled, returning safely to our car on the sixth floor. She exhaled as we slowly looped through the parking garage to reach street level. We left downtown and made our way back on the highway, past the airport to cross the mountains leading us back to the shores of Lake Chapala.
A few days later, I developed the photographs from our Ladies Day together in Guadalajara, and saw the beaming faces of Amelia and Josefina in front of various city landmarks. When I shared them with Amelia and Josefina, they burst into broad smiles and started talking animatedly about the sights we had seen and the fun we had had. Then I knew. We were together as women and as such, there were no borders.