I saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and I thought, how different could a Mexican-American wedding be? Well, while there are many, many similarities, I overlooked the fact that my wedding is being held in a different country and in a different language. At least in the movie everyone is still in the United States, and English is the common language. I’m dealing with in-laws who have never met before and who have absolutely no way of communicating with each other besides primal gestures.
These past eight months of planning my Mexican wedding have been both gratifying and exasperating. I did my research on Mexican wedding traditions, and my sister-in-law helped with the voice of experience. My boyfriend and I managed to get through everything step-by-step. But there were still inevitable twists and turns that I was not expecting and did not quite know how to handle. These twists and turns were not things that anyone here in Mexico could have warned me about, or have helped me to avoid because they are things that do not surprise Mexicans who benefit from lifelong experience in the culture. Yet as a foreigner, I felt unprepared and helpless when something didn’t go as planned.
So if you are marrying in Mexico, I recommend researching the traditions and finding a Mexican to help walk you through all the steps. But I also recommend talking to someone who is not Mexican who got married in Mexico. This person should be able to cover all the bases and better prepare you for what is in store. I hope this will be a start for some of you. Good luck in your wedding planning, and may you never remarry.
Learn your name!
Learning your name sounds deceitfully simple, and in the United States, it usually is easy. But if you plan on bringing yourself and your name to Mexico, you will most likely find that you don’t know your name. Let me explain. My full American name is Amy Gray Kirkcaldy. That is the name on my birth certificate and baptism certificate. In fact, that has been the name on all my official documents since the day I was born. The day I received my FM3, or visa to work in Mexico, that all changed. Suddenly, I had a second last name, and my official Mexican name became Amy Gray Kirkcaldy Levasseur.
You see, here in Mexico, everyone has two last names. The first one is from the father and the second is from the mother. So Kirkcaldy is my dad’s last name, and Levasseur is my mom’s maiden name. Together, they form my Mexican name.
When a woman marries, she doesn’t lose her maiden name and acquire the name of her husband. However, a married Mexican woman can choose to use her husband’s name if she pleases, so I could use Amy Gray Kirkcaldy de Gattás, Gattás being my Mexican husband’s first last name. PHEW! So now that I am legally married, I have three different names that are all legally valid, depending on the circumstances and where they are used.
I knew this was going to create problems when we started doing the paperwork to get married in the Catholic Church here in Mexico. I needed copies of my birth and baptism certificates. My marriage certificate in the Catholic Church had to have my name exactly as it appears on my birth certificate. Ok, fine….but when we went to obtain permission from Migración to get married in the civil ceremony, they issued my letter of permission with my Mexican name, Amy Gray Kirkcaldy Levasseur, which appears on my FM3. I had no choice how my name appeared on my FM3 because they attach your mother’s maiden name whether you like it or not. So of course, my American name, Amy Gray Kirkcaldy, and my Mexican name, Amy Gray Kirkcaldy Levasseur, are NOT the same. So now I have some of my official documents in agreement with my official American documents and others in line with my official Mexican documents. Confused? So am I.
On Saturday, May 24, the day of our civil ceremony, the judge arrived with our marriage certificate. Of course, there was a problem. On the application, I had filled in my American name, and I should have filled in my Mexican name. My civil marriage certificate had to have the same name as my migration documents, but no one had told me this, so I assumed it should be the same as my birth certificate. Instead of just typing in the name that was missing – Levasseur – in the blank space, they insisted on rewriting the whole document on Monday. We already had a party planned for 20 people. Our witnesses were present and ready to sign, the picture and video people had come to document the ceremony, and everyone was all dolled up…so we went ahead with the ceremony on our “fake” certificate. Everyone signed the incomplete document. We toasted, and we were married – kind of.
Just because you married a Mexican, you will not be free from stereotyping.
I think the judge was angry that I was upset about the whole rigmarole concerning the marriage certificate, because the whole night she made slurs against Americans. Whatever her reasoning, I didn’t like the fact that she kept saying Americans love to marry Mexicans because they find the family values that are lacking in the United States. While this might be true, what place did her ranting have at my wedding when she had never even met me before and had no idea what my family values were like?
It only got worse when it came time for the parents to sign the document. These are not necessary signatures since both Carlos and I are over 18. My parents are coming to the religious ceremony and the big party, but it didn’t make sense for them to fly to Mexico for the civil ceremony too! When the judge saw that they were not there, she made another comment about how it was a shame that my parents weren’t there to sign, because in Mexico family is important. I could no longer hold my tongue, and I told her that the absence of my parents had nothing to do with my family values. That darn judge ruined my night, since from the start I felt like it was all a farce and I was fending off direct attacks from an ignorant woman who didn’t know anything about me or my family.
On Monday we went to the judge’s office, picked up the new document, and hunted down our witnesses so that they could sign the “official” document. Finally, we were really married, and I hope I never have to see that judge again for the rest of my life.
The Civil Ceremony—the ONLY one that is legally valid— is really worth nothing.
After all the hoop-la over the civil ceremony, lo and behold, there was another surprise!!! I discovered that the only kind of marriage or wedding that really counts here in the eyes of most Mexicans is the religious ceremony. We are having both, but we chose to get married in the civil ceremony two months before the religious ceremony in order to begin the process of getting a loan to buy a house. This is actually a common practice here in Mexico because most couples need to combine their incomes as a married couple in order to get a loan. I would like to note that the civil ceremony is the only one that is legally valid here in Mexico, but in any event, after our encounter with the judge, life continued as usual. Nothing at all changed. We were legally married with all the responsibilities of the house, and none of the benefits; I still sleep in my sister-in-law’s room. Yet here is where the hypocrisy kills me – I can think of at least four Mexican couples who I know who were married only in a civil ceremony because the girl got pregnant.
Therefore, when a quick marriage is necessary to legitimize a child, a civil ceremony alone is acceptable. But when someone isn’t pregnant and has been responsible, the civil ceremony isn’t worth squat in Mexican society. So I can buy a house, but I still can’t live in it with my husband.
Despedidas… so wild even your grandmother can attend.
Two weeks after my civil ceremony, my mother-in-law threw me a bachelorette party/wedding shower. Here in Mexico it is referred to as a despedida. (Check the timeline…yet another piece of proof that the civil ceremony counts for nothing here!) At despedidas here in Mexico there is lots of orange juice, hairspray, and pancake makeup, all to the tune of elegant piano music. The average age is probably around 40. It wasn’t bad, it was just uncomfortable for me for two reasons.
First, I hate getting gussied up for anything. The day of my wedding, I can understand, but why do I need to go to the hairdresser to have my hair and makeup done by someone “professional” when they leave me looking like an undertaker got a hold of me? As if being made up wasn’t enough (I looked like I had two black eyes), my mother-in-law invited the newspaper to come and take pictures of the event.
I found this traumatizing to accept since I have been making fun of the people whose pictures are in the “People” section of the newspaper since I first discovered its existence. I thought it was hysterically tacky, and vowed never to do it, but I wasn’t left with any choice. My mother-in-law told me I should do it so that people would see that Carlos was getting married. I didn’t like that answer one bit, and I half-jokingly told her that I would try to look as ugly as possible then, so that the whole world could see the hideous girl Carlos was getting married to. She laughed a nervous laugh, and then changed the subject.
It was decided. I would have to pose for photos. And I wondered (and am still wondering) is there anything about this wedding process I have control over?
The second thing that made me uncomfortable about the despedida was that here they are essentially money-making enterprises. This is something that I appreciate after the fact since my despedida helped pay for my honeymoon in Cancun, but the whole idea made me feel very uncomfortable at first. Instead of inviting your friends and hoping for whatever they are generous enough to give you, you invite every woman who you are inviting to the wedding to have a late afternoon supper with you and, on the invitation, you put the amount of money that you are charging them to attend! This seemed so gauche to me, and yet here it is perfectly acceptable. I had a great time, and I’m sure I will appreciate the despedida even more when I am on the beach drinking a margarita far away from anything to do with the wedding, but I still feel a twinge of guilt when I think about how I charged friends to come dine with me.
Catholic Marriage Talks …I got a first class, non-stop ticket to hell.
Before you can get married in the Catholic Church, you must attend some pre-marriage talks with your fiancée. I was brought up Catholic, but like many others I know, I have started to lose some faith in Catholicism due to the Church’s reluctance to join the 21st century. Therefore, I was less than thrilled to have to attend these talks one whole Sunday from 8:30AM to 7:00PM.
When Carlos and I arrived, we were joined by about 100 other couples. That’s an amazingly large number of people getting married if you consider that these couples came from only a small part of the city of Monterrey. The event was led by a series of couples, experienced in good, Catholic marriages, and all of them had been married for at least 35 years. The day started off innocuously with talks about what it takes to make a marriage work over the course of half a century, and they progressed to budgeting as a couple and the responsibilities of parenting – all very useful. After parenting came the topic of birth control.
Looking back, I’m grateful they did touch upon it because it added a little spark to an otherwise drab day.
The couples in charge handed out a sheet of information written by medical doctors which listed various types of birth control. The couple leading this particular discussion went on to talk about the acceptable, natural, Catholic forms of birth control. Anything not on the acceptable list was badmouthed profusely as a sin.
I tried to take what they said for what it was worth, but what really bothered me was the bias of the information they handed out. The “doctors” had turned every exception into the rule, and they manipulated information as well. Please note that they included abortion as a means of birth control; this set off bells and whistles in my mind. The pamphlet described the Billings Method, the Church’s favorite method of birth control, as “highly recommended,” and compared with the way the other methods are described, the Billings Method looked as if it were 100% effective. I am not buying it.
As for the pill, the secondary effects are described, “At times may cause nausea, hemorrhages, spots on skin, bleeding, blood clotting, heart attack, higher risk of cancer, and STDs.” STOP right there. Only using the pill will leave you unprotected from STDs, but it certainly won’t cause one! The information also says “The pill…can cause fertility problems and sterility, especially in young women.” The couples kept repeating this out loud as well: if you take the pill, you will not be able to get pregnant after you come off. By the end of the day I had heard this line so many times that I actually went to research if it was true or not. I searched “the pill fertility” at google.com and, after reading about 10-15 webpages, I felt pretty confident again that those couples were taking something for which there is no concrete evidence and making it the rule.
In any event, I am not here to convince people of my beliefs. I am not saying that the Catholic Church is wrong in demanding certain behaviors and imposing certain beliefs on those who choose to worship according to the Catholic tradition. I only wish that they were a little more honest in providing their information. Mexico is still very backward in terms of sex education. It is absent in almost every school curriculum, and most kids find out about sex through the grapevine. Parents are often embarrassed to talk to their children, so facts are learned by trial and error. I am often shocked about how little adults getting married here know about sex, birth control, and the human body. Therefore, many Mexicans are highly susceptible to any brainwashing the Catholic Church imposes on them. There is still a devout following here, and people do not realize that to some extent they are being manipulated by ignorance. I think this is a sad situation, and personally, I would rather see the Catholic Church educating people fairly and scientifically in order to help them out of the cycle of ignorance that leads to situations that are not beneficial to the child. Mexican society and Catholicism also put a lot of pressure on an unmarried couple with child to get married, and while this can be a wonderful demonstration of responsibility, it can be challenging for a couple to handle a new baby and a new marriage at the same time – especially when the marriage was rushed or carried out only to legitimize the baby.
The fact is that Mexicans are having sex at a young age, and they are not properly educated to understand the responsibilities of having sex and of raising children. The Church is preaching, but only a select few are listening. The rest are following more modern trajectories without the education they need to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. If we could stop pretending that pre-marital sex doesn’t happen in Mexico and start teaching the facts, perhaps the Catholic church in Mexico would benefit in the long run from having more happily married couples ready to take on the responsibilities of marriage one step at a time.
In conclusion, I offer any poor unsuspecting reader these five things that no one ever told you about marrying a Mexican. I could have added a few more, but I restrained myself because I have to admit that planning a Mexican wedding has been fun, too. I have less than three weeks to go until the religious ceremony. I can’t wait for the religious wedding so that I can finally introduce Carlos as my husband and move out of my sister-in-law’s room and into my new house.
Looking back, I value all of these unexpected turns because they have helped me learn about the country I now officially call home. I even feel I have things under control. Yet I can’t help but think that this idea of control is an illusion. I suspect that the biggest cultural differences are yet to become apparent and the biggest surprises are lurking right around the corner. They will begin to jump out on me at the last minute when my American family arrives in Monterrey and begins to mix with Carlos’s Mexican family. There will be funny, sad, poignant, and horrifying stories…