Before we came to live here, I remember reading a newsletter about settling in Mexico. Three reasons were given by the writer for his satisfaction with the move he made to this country after he retired. The first was obvious — the climate. The second — although it is less of a factor today — was the cost of living. I fully agreed with those two. But the third one frankly didn’t impress me at the time. It was the friendliness of the Mexican people.
Ho hum, I said — we’ll have to see about that one. After all, we’ve all been thoroughly conditioned to Mexico by the news media and by Hollywood movies. In the news media Mexicans are always wetbacks, illegals, the underpaid peasants who are stealing U.S. jobs. In the movies they’re the bad guys, the greasy looking bandidos or the stupid unshaven sidekicks. That’s when they’re not lying under a tree with a sombrero pulled down over their eyes, an empty bottle of tequila lying nearby. I mean, can you think of any Hollywood movie where the Mexicans are the good guys? Mexico has drug lords. We read about them constantly. Have you ever read about an American drug lord? Yet, simple logic tells you there must be some. After all, somebody must be selling and moving those billions of dollars worth of narcotics around the world’s biggest drug-consuming country. Maybe they’re Mexicans, too.
While I’m perfectly aware that this country has more than its share of bad people, I have to say after four years here that some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are Mexicans.
Our first experience came very early. During our first week in Guadalajara we went to an automatic teller machine on Avenida López Mateos with some feeling of trepidation. We weren’t sure how to operate it and whether or not we would understand the Spanish instructions. We weren’t even sure it would accept our Canadian VISA card. Anyway, we did manage to make it work and it did peel off ten one hundred peso bills for us. At least we thought it did. When we stepped away and counted the money there were only nine bills. Oh, oh…here we go, we thought. You can’t even trust the machines. What should we do? Should we accept the loss or go in the bank and complain, even though we couldn’t speak Spanish at the time?
Then the girl who was in line behind us at the ATM turned to us with a hundred peso bill in her hand. I honestly can’t remember what she said, or whether she even spoke English. I only know that she was holding up a 100 peso bill and giving us a questioning look, plainly asking if it was ours. We had obviously missed collecting it from the tray where the bills came tumbling out.
I mention this trivial incident for a couple of reasons. One is that I guess we were a bit surprised — pleasantly, of course. After all, we’ve had sixty years of all that Hollywood and news media brainwashing about Mexico. Another is that later we told a number of gringo acquaintances, a few of whom said: “Treasure that moment, because it won’t happen again.” Soon, however, as matter of fact, we were beginning to think it wasn’t an exceptional moment at all.
Not long afterwards, we did have a genuinely rare experience — I don’t care which country you come from. We were living in the casita of a Mexican family just outside Guadalajara and our rent was about fourteen hundred pesos a month. Shortly afterwards, we decided we might like to buy a home in Mexico, so we went house hunting, thinking the process was going to take weeks or even months. As it happened, we saw two houses we wanted in our first two days of looking. We put an offer on one of them and it was quickly accepted. When we started to talk about a closing date, about two months hence, the owner surprised us by saying that the closing date was okay with him, and if we wanted to move in right then, that was okay with him, too. That in itself is unusual enough, given North American house purchase procedures. Remember those meetings in the lawyer’s office on closing date with the registered cheques and the bills that have to be paid and all the signing you have to do before anyone will trust you with the key? What it meant for us was we could save ourselves a month’s rent for the casita where we were staying. Our new house came fully furnished and decorated and we were eager to start living in it, so — why not?
We went back to our landlady and told her what had happened and that we were moving in the other place immediately. To our amazement, she talked to her husband and — surprise! — they both agreed to return a thousand pesos of our rent money even though we never even mentioned the subject to them. We just assumed we’d kissed that money goodbye.
Now, honestly, do you know of a single landlord in Canada or the U.S. who would do that? Maybe you do, but I don’t. I think the answer you’d get from any landlord would be: “Tough bananas.” End of story.
My friend Al lost his briefcase with his passports and tourist visas and a lot of other important documents in it. It was lost, as he says, by an act of complete stupidity. He left it on top of his car and then forgot it and drove away and had it fall off on the highway. He spent a day frantically looking for it, acting just like the unlucky fellow in the American Express commercials, checking with the police, stopping and questioning people, etc., but with no luck.
When he got home that evening he found a Mexican sitting on his doorstep. I should add that Al lives at the top of a very big hill and the man had walked all the way up to his house. And, yes, the Mexican had Al’s briefcase, intact, complete, nothing missing. He had taken a bus, about fifteen miles, from his own home and then trudged up the hill — completely against the advice of his friends who told him to forget the whole darn thing. And, yes, no doubt he expected a reward, which he got. But he didn’t have to do it. Al was so thrilled he even wrote a letter to the local paper acknowledging the man’s generosity.
My wife and I give English lessons to two girls twice a week and we’ve arrived at the stage where we can enjoy some interesting conversations. The girls — Beatriz, who is also our maid, and her younger sister Elva — both help support the youngest daughter in the family, Rosi, to enable her to get through school. Rosi is extremely clever and consistently achieves outstanding grades. She is the brightest in a family of bright girls and she wants to be a teacher. The sisters have to do some sacrificing to give Rosi the 150 pesos a month she needs for bus fares and other everyday expenses in order to achieve her ambition.
Now that Rosi is getting ready to go to teachers’ college her expenses have gone up. Elva works as a maid to the biggest employer in our village, a man who is doing very well, thank you. This man heard about Rosi and offered to give the family 1,700 pesos for her college fees. Around the same time, my wife and I wanted to pay for Rosi’s books and supplies when she started college. However all of us were politely but firmly turned down.
In telling us about Rosi, they weren’t looking for handouts. They have their family pride. And no amount of arguing was going to change their minds. We reminded them that Rosi’s employer could easily afford the gift he wanted to make and that they were crazy not to take it. Also, we told them we were interested in helping a needy student and would be happier if the student was someone we knew. Rosi is the perfect candidate in our eyes. But no amount of argument would change their minds. Frankly, I don’t think we’ll ever get to help Rosi.
I have a friend in Canada who doesn’t like Mexico because he can’t stand being bothered by beggars on the beach at Puerto Vallarta. He tends to see Mexico as a land of people with their hands out. Well, yes, there are certainly beggars here, even though most of them at least offer to do something — like clean your windshield or sell you something. But to assume that all Mexicans are beggars is to do the country a terrible disservice.
I’m rather proud of my two students and I understand and respect their independent spirit. And it’s nice to know I’ve got a couple of friends who aren’t on the take, even though they won’t let us help them.
Despite the negative things you hear about Mexico, they aren’t all true. Yes, there’s crime, corruption, poverty and a lot of other nasty things. But generosity, honesty, trust, pride… they’re here, too. We’ve had people give us money at public telephones because we didn’t have change. At times we’ve been lost and we’ve had people drive out of their way and say, “Follow me,” and guide us to our destination because that was the easiest way to get us back on the right track again.
I don’t think I’m living in cloudland either. I’m aware of the robberies and break-ins in the area where I live and we take appropriate precautions all the time. Some terrible things happen occasionally — just as they do in the U.S. and Canada. I read about a particularly bad robbery one weekend in our local paper. It was one of those heartless crimes involving an elderly couple that makes you wonder if you’re living in a sane world. And sometimes when you read those stories we gringos have a tendency to pick on all Mexicans and to start talking about ” them” as though they’re all tarred with the same brush.
But I had to remind myself that our local crime took place around the same time that Bill Cosby’s son was needlessly murdered while he stopped to change a tire by the side of an LA freeway. That was an equally stupid and heartless crime. The difference is that when we hear of something like the Cosby incident we usually don’t start criticizing all Americans in general. You have to be careful when you start thinking in terms of racial or national stereotypes.
Frankly, after four years here, most of our experiences with the people have been good ones and the majority of the people we meet are polite and gracious. I like living in a country where the neighbor’s twelve year old son shakes my hand when he sees me. I like being in a place where I can meet my other neighbor’s nineteen year old daughter in a shopping mall and she comes over to me and shakes my hand and offers her cheek for a kiss and politely asks about my wife.
Say what you like about Mexicans — how many U.S. or Canadian teenagers do you know who would do that?