In deciding to move to Mexico a few years ago, I realized that my forays into Rosarito as a twenty-something in San Diego thirty years ago probably wouldn’t constitute a thorough enough acquisition of Mexican culture for perfect assimilation.
I had never even had any close Mexican friends. The closest I’d come was a Puerto Rican co-worker, second generation at that.
My cultural port-of-entry into Mexico had been my love of the Spanish language, which I had initially was introduced to in Spain.
Understandably, the love-hate relationship between Spain and Mexico still exists to the extent that my Mexican friends won’t let me use my beloved Spanish theta and roll their eyes that I even learned Spanish there.
Dating a Mexican from Cancun for a year before I left Denver helped. He put a peevish end to some of my most egregious misperceptions. Time had clearly calcified my beliefs more than I’d realized. I stood corrected.
Realizing how far off base I’d been in some respects, I began to wonder how much further I needed to go. Was I putting too much faith in the belief that by virtue of being a nice person and social liberal, my instincts would guide me successfully in my relationships with my new friends in Mexico? Would I be able to simply intuit which questions not to ask?
Doubt pricked me. My new friends in Mexico were important and hard-fought given the language barriers that still existed. I couldn’t afford to lose a single one of them over some stupid idea planted in my subconscious by U.S media, blurted out in my karate-chop Spanish without the advantage of the subtle verbiage Mexicans use so expertly to soften their opinions.
Unfortunately or not, I do have opinions and only a half-developed ability to suppress them. What were the delicate questions I needed to avoid?
When a good friend in Denver mentioned the column “Ask a Mexican,” a syndicated column by Gustavo Arellano that appears in Denver’s Westword magazine, I was surprised.
First, surprised that my uber-educated friend would read any column printed in a magazine whose back five pages are Denver’s chief resource for finding good weed.
Second, I was surprised she’d be reading a column with a title that seemed vaguely racist (or as one reader pointed out, “You’d never see a column called, “Ask a Black.”)
Trusting her instincts more than my own, I checked the column out online for an afternoon.
The inquiries chosen by “Ask a Mexican” clearly aren’t chosen for their political correctness. Mr. Arellano prints and responds to some pretty dumb and obnoxious questions, answering them with hilarity and tolerance….usually.
Dear Mexican: My co-worker was driving to work this morning when she realized she was being followed by a Mexican in his vehicle. He followed her for at least three miles on the road, and during this time he waved at her, smiled when she frowned, and even puckered his lips. She took small streets and confirmed that he was following her every move until she was able to lose him. What I want to know is, why do Mexican men tend to follow women when they are driving, and do Mexican men really think that relationships start on the road? - Perturbed in Pacific Palisades
Dear Gabacha: Let's ask Chris Berman. In a 1990 Sports Illustrated profile (one of the first big ones on the legendary sportscaster), Boomer admitted to pulling the very stunt you just described. "One day in 1979, he tracked a silver Firebird down Interstate 84," the story reads. "When it pulled into the parking lot of an elementary school, so did he. Berman got out of his station wagon and nonchalantly kicked its tires. When the driver of the Firebird walked past him, he asked her to go to breakfast with him the next day. She accepted, and four years later they were married." Maybe your friend should've stopped her vehicle and met the Mexican of her dreams. Instead, she gets a yenta of a gal pal to stereotype only one group of men instead of admitting that all men are perverted pendejos one way or another. Next thing I know, you're going to ask why Mexican construction workers make kissy-kissy sounds at women without having ever walked past a Manhattan demolition crew.
The column is pretty raw, with Spanish slang and curse words purposely woven throughout the column for its edge. “Ask a Mexican” educates us in the real status of race relations the same way black comedians do; it's so funny we can take it.
One topic that I tiptoe around in Mexico is the topic of drug violence, so I read the following with interest.
Dear Mexican: What do Mexicans in the United States think of the violent drug cartels in Mexico? Do local Latinos cringe with disgust or fear when they hear another drug-cartel story on the news, or do they feel a sense of disconnect because they are living in America now and it's no longer a concern of theirs? Do local Latinos currently fear crossing the San Diego/Mexico border? Do they worry about being kidnapped or carjacked on the way to Rosario, like Caucasian people do right now? -Yo Gabba Gabacho
Dear Gabacho: Mexicans can be scared of the cartels all they want, but far more frightening to the majority of the population is the Mexican legal system. Police officers in the state of Guerrero are being investigated in the kidnapping of more than forty student teachers; last year, a judge freed Rafael Caro Quintero, the notorious drug lord implicated in the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. And the less said about President Enrique Peña Nieto, the better. Actually, let me take that back. PINCHE PENDEJO BABOSO.
By the way, you and your fellow gabachos have to stop thinking that the mundo revolves around you. Unless you're a meth dealer delinquent on your payments or a drug-war soldier, gabachos in Mexico can walk around with impunity; you're Quetzalcoatl incarnate. No way are the cartels stupid enough to kidnap random gabachos or kill them— otherwise, Obama would drone the narcos to kingdom come, and the Mexican government would pretend to care about justice.
Even though the question referenced Mexican-Americans, not citizens of Mexico itself, Mr. Arellano nails the opinion I get from Mexicans: They are far more scared of their justice system than the narcos, scared that if they became victims of a major crime themselves, they’d be left out to dry.
There are a number of sensitive topics that I don't always know how to bring up, but would be interested to know what my Mexican friends think.
Other questions in Ask a Mexican provide a window to the conflict experienced by second and third generation Mexican Americans who struggle with the shifting definition of “being Mexican” as proffered by both Americans and native-born Mexicans.
For example, is speaking perfect Spanish necessary to being Mexican (He seems to think it is.)? Now that would be a interesting question to pose to my friends here over a glass of wine, wouldn't it?
Even for it’s brusqueness, “Ask a Mexican” is a good resource, providing reading lists and research on topics related to the question at hand or in his annual Christmas gift list.
His column references popular Mexican cuisine and music. He writes enjoyable explanations of aspects of Mexican history and the origin of some cultural preferences. Sometimes he makes the origin up, but that’s part of the fun.
When I read some off-color question in the column, I try to think of what my facsimile response as an Anglo might be if some cracker asked me the same question about Mexico or Mexicans upon learning I live part-time here. Then I try to compare his response to mine. Every day I get closer.
The level of rancor with which he answers some of the questions seems a little too harsh. The disparity between his rancor and mine serves only to measure the distance I still have yet to go.
Recommended by Gustavo Arellano (with his descriptions)
Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863 -1866. Next time a Trump supporter says that Mexicans don’t fight for this country, point him to this work from the University of Oklahoma Press. A fascinating tale of Californios —Mexicans conquered by the U.S. during the Mexican-American War — serving the Union.
¡Corrido!: The Living Ballad of Mexico’s Western Coast. The University of New Mexico Press returns with another stunning songbook, this one on the musical traditions of Mexico’s Costa Chica and Costa Grande region.
Shameful Victory: The Los Angeles Dodgers, the Red Scare, and the Hidden History of Chavez Ravine.Everyone has a vague idea of how Los Angeles leaders kicked out a bunch of Mexicans to build Dodger Stadium. But this University of Arizona Press release tells the tale in all of its shameful details.
The Chicano Generation: Testimonios of the Movement. Mario T. Garcia is the most influential Chicano Studies scholar you’ve never heard of, as well as that rare academic who can actually write. For his latest University of California book, he provides in-depth conversations with unsung Los Angeles activists.
Images of the Mexican American in Fiction and Film. Your oldie-but-goodie pick for the year. The late Arthur G. Pettit documents how Americans have ruthlessly stereotyped Mexis since the 1830s with tropes that still exist today.
Los Lobos: Dream in Blue. Leave it to the University of Texas Press to publish the first book on the Chicano rock gods.
You can get introduced to some differences in culture simply by hosting your first dinner party - Ventanas Mexico
Next up: Hanging out is different in Mexico. For one thing, they actually do it.
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Hola, I'm a partner with Ventanas Mexico which provides insight and resources to those considering expat life in Mexico, including the new "If Only I Had a Place" on renting luxuriously in Mexico (written for aspiring expats).
She is also author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web.