It’s about (Mexican) time!

articles Travel & Destinations

Larry Freeman

Mexican time is not American time. To Americans, Mexican time is usually thought of as tomorrow, but Mañana does not mean tomorrow, as everyone seems to think, no, it just means not right now. Mañana is not a promise, not a date, not a commitment, it’s just … not right now.

And then there are the subtleties that you have to be aware of, such as, beware of the conditional promise. Like the one that says, “I would gladly do this so small thing for you, you who deserve it done so much, and it would be my honor to do it, were it not for (fill in anything here), ah, but MañanaMañana will be a much better day, and what is more, I will be a much better man, one who is worthy to do this thing for you, and I will be proud to do it then.” All this only means “NO.” Then of course there is the phrase that goes, “Yes, my friend, that is a very interesting idea that you have presented to me, and I will give it a serious thinking over.” This also means “NO”, but a little more strongly, more or less like saying, “What? Have you gone crazy or something?”

Watch out for the, “I will have to get back to you on that, after I confer with those in authority.” This means “Get out of my face or I will have to kill you.”

This all has to do with an atavistic Mexican horror of confrontation. They will tell you anything, just so long as it avoids a confrontation. Of course, to a Norteamericano, it looks like they are lying, but they don’t see it that way.

I have experienced many variations of this. I once went looking for rubber cement, and in each store I was basically told the same thing, “Oh yes, we normally carry that item in our stock, but we are out right now, awaiting our next shipment, but if you will go the hardware (or other) that is just two blocks down the street and across the road, I know that they have what you want, for I saw it there just this morning.” I went to six stores that way, and never did find what I wanted.

I had a TV set that was somewhat out of adjustment, so I took it to a repair store and left with their promise that it would be ready in three days. After six weeks of excuses and specific diagnoses of what was wrong and that they were only waiting for a part to come from the city, I went in and angrily picked up my set (unfixed, of course), to the amazement of the clerk who was in charge. It later turned out that my set was a TV-VCR, and the technician had never seen one of them and had no idea how to fix it.

Then there is the experience of the Mexican appointment. There you are, you have made a definite appointment about something that is to your mutual benefit, and the Mexican just doesn’t show.

A compulsive Norteamericano who had messed up in this way, would be effusive with apologies, profoundly embarrassed, and feel the need to make amends. Not so the Mexican. They seem to feel that promises, appointments or agreements are only things for that moment, things said that are pleasantly agreeable to both parties, and that then life goes on.

They may have been playing with their children, or their dog, or they may have stopped to taste their mother’s new recipe, anything that seems to take precedence at that moment. And if you are incensed at the treatment, they don’t understand, and at the next accidental meeting, they are just as likely not to even mention it.

For the same reason you do not ask directions in Mexico, you might wind up in Tierra Del Fuego!

And there are more subtleties to the Mañana culture. I had the experience of trying to buy tickets for the Bullfights in San Cristobal De Las Casas, part of the Grand Fiesta that immediately follows Semana Santa.

Clearly written on the colorful posters plastered all over town it said that the tickets were available at the following locations:

  • The Regina Pharmacy
  • The Ciudad Real Hotel
  • The Santa Clara Hotel
  • The Municipal Tourist Office

Starting on the Saturday a week before the proposed bullfight, I went to the branch of the Regina Pharmacy across from the mercado, but they didn’t have the tickets. I then went to the Santa Clara Hotel, where I was told they had no tickets, but that it I went to the Municipal Tourist Office, they would surely have the tickets there. So I trudged across the Zocalo to the Municipal Tourist Office, a place plastered with the bullfight posters, and a place where I was treated like the town cretin, and told that of course no tickets for next week’s bullfight could be sold until that week, but that if I returned on Monday, they would surely have the tickets.

It was not until the next Tuesday that I was able to return to the Municipal Tourist Office, where I was politely told that they didn’t have the tickets, but that the Santa Clara Hotel would have them. I carefully explained that, no, the Santa Clara Hotel did not have the tickets, and I was then politely sent to the Ciudad Real Hotel, where they would certainly have the tickets.

I’m sure that by now it isn’t really necessary to say that the Ciudad Real Hotel did not have any tickets, but I was in luck, because just down the street at the State Tourist Office, they were guaranteed to have the tickets.

No, they didn’t have them either, but the very pleasant lady there pulled out a map and began telling me of all the very many places in town where they definitely had tickets. By now, I was likely somewhat acerbic as I informed her that I had been to every one of those places, and that none of them had tickets. Her face suddenly lit up like one of the clear bulbs they use in Mexico, as she exclaimed that she knew that the Regina Pharmacy had tickets.

I told her I had been there and they had no tickets either, but she then exclaimed triumphantly that she knew that I had not been to the Regina Pharmacy on Calle Diego de Mazariegos. I reluctantly admitted that I had not been to that particular branch, but that since Regina Pharmacy was a chain operation, what difference did it make which branch I went to? The posters had not said anything about a particular Regina Pharmacy. Nevertheless, she made me promise to go there, and true to my word, I went.

The cashier at the front of the Pharmacy referred me to the Pharmacist at the rear of the Pharmacy. When I asked him about the tickets, I was amazed when he said that they had the tickets, but that, of course, they could not be sold until later.

“Later?” I yelped. “When later?” “Later, Later”, he exclaimed exasperatedly, as if to say that even a stupid gringo such as I, should know what ‘later’ meant. But I didn’t, and so when I persisted, eventually he shrugged that maybe it would be by seven or eight o’clock that night…

Crestfallen, I left, but continuing in my quest for the holy tickets, I returned to the correct Regina Pharmacy at the appointed time, and again humbly asked the Pharmacist and his clerk for tickets. They looked at each other, exchanging those knowing glances that I have come to know so well, the glances that contained some secret Mexican knowledge that must forever be withheld from gringos.

I was told that naturally they did not have the tickets right at that moment, but that if I could return (here they used that dreaded word) Mañana, they would surely have the tickets then.

When I had the Norteamericano effrontery to say that I had been told earlier in the day that if I returned that night I could pick up the tickets, they responded with the patented Mexican shrug that means ” no se“, which loosely translated means, “you stupid Norteamericano, how am I responsible for what someone else told you, and even if it was me, I am still not responsible.”

Ah Mexico, where yesterday is yesterday and forgotten, where tomorrow is tomorrow and a million light years away, and that anything might happen before then, and all that counts is this minute right now!

Okay, so when I petulantly and impolitely asked just when Mañana, I might be able to pick up the tickets, I was told impatiently, MañanaMañana! As if I was somehow supposed to divine what time that was. I could have understood if they had said Mañana en la Mañana, meaning in the morning. Then we could have proceeded in an orderly fashion to determine what time in the morning, but, no, that is not the way things are done.

I again persisted in asking just what hour I might expect to be honored with the tickets, I was sneeringly told, a media dia, at noon. By this time, my North American temper was getting the better of me, and I impolitely demanded if there was anywhere in town where I could get the tickets RIGHT NOW! They were taken aback by my unseemly display of anger, but then they brightened up considerably and responded that they thought that the Ahorra Pharmacy on the zocalo definitely had the tickets.

Girding my loins once again, I undertook the trek across the zocalo and asked at the Ahorra about the tickets, where, to my surprise, I was told that they didn’t have the tickets right that moment, but they would certainly have them Mañana.

Swallowing my wounded North American ideas of efficiency, I left with my tail between my legs, fated to return the next day.

Wednesday at noon, my faith bent but not beaten, I appeared at the Ahorra to get my tickets. I was greeted by a proud and confident clerk who told me that they actually had the tickets right then! Staggered by this revelation, I remained silent while this miraculous clerk proceeded upstairs to the loft-like offices of the store while I stood downstairs, shifting from one foot to the other, waiting somewhat impatiently, but remaining silent, because after all, this was Mexico.

Then she appeared before me like a vision, beaming and clutching whole books of tickets! Hesitantly, hoping against hope, I asked if these were the tickets for Sunday. Darkness fell across the beatific face of the clerk and a pall descended on the store, indeed, on the whole zocalo, while the sun was extinguished all over Chiapas. At least that’s how it appearred to me.

” ¿Domingo, Señor?” She said in exquisite, if disheartened, Spanish. “These tickets are not for Sunday, Senor, but are for the tickets for tomorrow’s fight, for Thursday.”

Oh Lord, I thought, what had I ever done to be put to such pain and suffering? The situation was worthy of Job himself, and I did not deserve it. But, come to think of it, neither did Job.

Now, please understand, under ordinary circumstances, I would just have accepted the Thursday tickets, and chalked it up to a ‘bad Mexico Day’, but I wanted to see a real bullfight, where the bull and the matador would be equally matched, not a fight with the Novilleros, the novices, who were fighting on Thursday. I had seen Novilleros before, and they were usually just terrified of the bull, and spent their time at the Corrida being chased around the ring by a very frustrated bull.

So, I left the store sans tickets. Okay, I said to my stupid, trusting self. I have finally got this figured out. It would be foolish to come back again on Thursday for the Sunday tickets, because it was obvious that the Sunday tickets would not be available until Saturday, the day before the fight.

Thursday morning, my friend picked up the tickets for the Sunday fight.

Once again I had tilted at the Mexican windmill and been ignominiously defeated. Maybe they didn’t want to sell the tickets. Maybe there never were any tickets. No tickets, no bullfight, no bullfighter, but lots of bull!

Okay, so if there really is a different measure of time in Mexico, why is there a different measure of time?

Americans are obsessed by time and measurements: ruled by it, maybe even enslaved by it. Clocks, calendars, inches, feet, yards and miles. Millenia, years, light years, latitude, longitude. Diameter, circumference, algebra, geometry, pounds, tons, our very lives are circumscribed by numbers, but our concept of time and space is only that, just a concept.

A culture’s perception of time reflects and influences its cosmology, how it perceives the origin and structure of the universe. How a culture thinks about the nature of time describes it.

Western thinking has decoupled our standard of time from astronomical observation. We have isolated our very culture, our religious and political thought. Our view of time reflects our cosmology, and we have abstracted time.

The American (Western) concept of time is in the minority. Most of the Eastern and Mesoamerican world, as well as the North American Indians, have their roots firmly planted in cyclical time, and this affects their concept of time to this day.

The Olmecs, the Maya, the Aztecs, and the other Mexican tribes all subscribe to the cyclical model. This model teaches that time is repetitive, that what has happened before, maybe millions of years in the past, will happen again, and again, and again… And this is true daily, seasonally, yearly, and for longer and longer periods, all cyclical and eternal.

Because of this there are no concepts of past and future, for in the cyclical cosmology, past, present and future all blend into the ‘now’, and time can move forward or backward, because forward becomes backward, and vice versa.

So the Norteamericano perception of Mexican time is correct. They move to a different drummer. Time means different things in El Norte and below the border, and is measured in different ways.

All of which leads me to the next Norteamericano question . . .


The formality of time began with early peoples’ understanding that their very lives depended on the necessity of recognizing planting and harvesting times. This requirement of predictability brought a wish or belief in the existence of supernatural aid in the very real struggle for life. This gave rise to religion, and with it, the introduction of intercessors, people who were holy enough for the gods to listen to. When our ancestors were hanging on by their fingernails, any helping hand was heaven-sent.

So cosmology became inextricably intertwined with cyclical events. Seasons, phases of the moon, sprouting of corn, things that repeated themselves, and could be expected to do so.

Instruments to tell time were initially simple and primitive. Sundials, water clocks, measured candles and hourglasses came first, and gave rise to the idea that time ‘flowed’, and had a continuous, fluid property. Because it was based on cycles in nature, it became known as ORGANIC/CYCLICAL/CIRCULAR or QUALITATIVE TIME and which we will now call CYCLICAL TIME.

As such it was unique, individual and flexible in nature, and the evidence for it was mainly anecdotal. As cyclical, it was seen as constantly recurring and therefore the time of the event was not crucial because it would happen again and again. It mattered little whether an event happened on time, or even if it happened, because it would happen again.

This still exists today as the so-called Eastern approach, but it also continues as the cosmology of the North and South American indigenous peoples. It echoes from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego, and can be explained as: ‘Time has engendered everything that has or will be.’ Then again, since it was based on observed phenomena, if the event did not happen here and now, then it did not happen. ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’

This laissez-faire attitude toward time and events was soon doomed as more precise measuring systems became required.

These new systems arose because the churches needed to regularize ceremonial observances, requiring a method of telling time that was divorced from the cyclical vicissitudes of nature. This new system became known as LINEAR/PROGRESSIVE/ANALYTIC or QUANTITATIVE TIME, which we will now call LINEAR TIME.

Mechanical clocks measure time by a succession of short intervals, and they continue to do so whether mechanically or by the vibrations of quartz crystals, or by the radioactive decay of cesium.

These measurements are rigorous and clearly reproducible. Rather than time flowing as it had been, it now advanced by a series of jerks, ticks or blinks. This created a new reality, one disassociated from human events. Time became quantified, unchangeable, and removed from nature. It was the beginning of science.

Linear time was able to show a beginning and an end. It was finite in that, if a thing didn’t happen now, it would just never happen. The moment was lost forever. Time now had a sense of urgency that was lacking in cyclical time. Now time had a beginning (Genesis, or the Big Bang) and progressed by a series of specific and unique events.

What had been begun by the church has destroyed the spiritual. Time became progressively more mechanized and quantified, and the temporal experience became more impoverished. Time as space is de-temporalized in a way analogous to the dehumanization that occurs when human qualities are denied in the quantification of personality, such as in I.Q. tests.

But while Linear Time has been replacing Cyclical Time, remnants of the earlier Cyclical, ‘people-oriented’ time remains as what can best be described as a ‘gut feeling.’

Regardless of what standards are set for the measurement of time, time is different for each individual. Studies have shown that time perception differs with age. Investigators have basically divided the human lifespan into three sections: Gestation, which ends at birth; Childhood, which extends to Age 7; and Maturity, which continues to Age 77.

Anecdotal evidence (match it with your own experience), says that time passes ten times faster for a 60-year-old, than it does for a 6-year-old.

To a one-year-old, a year is an entire lifetime, but to a fifty-year-old, a year is only 2% of their lifetime, and if one lives to 100, then a year is only 1% of their lifetime, and consumes less conscious time than did 4 days for the one-year-old.

This is Cyclical cosmology based on anecdotal evidence. Cyclical Time is also evident in other ways, and it can be looked at from a historical perspective.

We know intuitively that each part of each day has a different ‘feel’ (you know, that TGIF feel), and, by the same token, different ages have their own zeitgeist, their own feeling.

Our impressions of time and space go hand-in-hand with our culture.

During the 19th Century, there was a serious scientific examination of the phenomenon of light, its colors and interactions. This was matched by a cultural explosion in art, with Impressionism and Cubism, while music saw the shocking advent of Stravinsky, This general examination of fundamental, underlying structure was mirrored in science with the exploration of the atom.

In our own age, the 1960’s brought the ‘Big Bang’ theory of the universe, while our culture gave rise to ‘Pop’ art.

The 1970’s saw physicists conceptualizing virtual particles as ephemeral, and the ‘new’ Quantum Mechanics, stood the scientific world on its ear, and in turn was reflected in a new interest in Conceptual and Minimalist art.

Even places have a quality that contributes to our perceived observation of time. Look at old photographs. Their totality is Cyclical and they would never be mistaken for modern photographs because there are indicia that indelibly mark the time and the age. The color or tone, the hairstyles, clothes, autos, and whatever. A good example is ’40’s film noir, movies that have an unmistakable look and feel that cannot be reproduced, even though it has been tried many times.

Ecclesiastes had it right. “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

To each and every one of us, our personal perception of time is shaped by our own background, intellect and experiences, and it is different for each.

While the infusion of Western scientific thought and culture have transformed Mexico largely into the Western model, their Cyclical cultural heritage still has a profound effect on their perception of time, and it is very different from the strict Linear heritage of the Norteamericano.

So the next time you are faced with a ‘ Mañana Moment’, take a deep breath, swallow your outrage, and smile with the realization that you have just experienced a cultural difference that is several thousand years old, and remember, their perception of time has as much validity as yours.

It is certain that they bear you no malice and intend no insult, and the Mexican attitude probably promotes a healthier heart.

Published or Updated on: April 1, 2004 by Larry Freeman © 2004


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