Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Love/Hate Relationship with Mexico

These three posts were written in July of 2010, while we were in Oaxaca for three weeks over the fourth of July. They go a fair way towards illustrating my complex and ambivalent feelings about Mexico. Of course there is much more history to tell. I'd like to start writing out the entire story of how Homero and I met and pursued our relationship despite the obstacle presented by his undocumented status. That, however, is a story that spanned three years, three countries, and many miles of red tape. I'm saving it for another day.

My love/Hate Relationship with Mexico, Part 1

I blame it all on a natural aptitude for languages. Way back in second grade, my school started a twice-a-week Spanish class, and my seven year old self loved it. I was GOOD at Spanish - I quickly outstripped my classmates and impressed my teacher. Being the obnoxious little show off that I was, I absolutely adored being told I was amazing and basked in praise, so I looked forward to Spanish every day and worked hard to be the best.

Spanish class didn't outlast second grade, but I did have a good memory for words, and I simply never forgot anything I had learned. So when it came time to choose a language to study in seventh grade, naturally I chose Spanish over French or German. I don't remember but most likely I looked forward to an easy A and more praise. Both of which were in fact forthcoming. I worked ahead in my book and memorized vocabulary lists like a brown-nosed demon. Everyone else in the class naturally hated my guts. I didn't care.

At the age of 19, I decided I was going to travel to Mexico, alone. I'm not sure why - I wasn't, at that point in time, particularly interested in Mexican culture or history, I think I just wanted to immerse myself in the language and see how I did. In preparation I took a few intensive courses at the Seattle Academy of Languages (great school - pioneer square) and set off into the unknown. I flew to Cancun (this was 1991, not the same place it is now at ALL) and from there took a bus down the coast to a small town called Tulum. I rented a palapa for $12/night and swam in the ocean until I was exaughsted every day. I learned to snorkel.

Well, one of the first things I learned is that I LOVED to snorkel and swim in the Caribbean. I loved truly authentic Mexican food, I loved Mexican folk art and Mexican music .... and I loved Mexican boys. Oh how I loved Mexican boys. At 19, I was a very hot little number, and I didn't lack a single minute for the company of slim, dark-eyed, quick-moving, laughing Mexican boys.

Just because I eventually went home to rainy Seattle didn't mean I had the slightest intention of giving up the sweet attention of Mexican boys I had so quickly become accustomed to. After a long interval in which I dated Americans, almost got married, and had a kid, I found myself a twenty-five year old single mother, still pretty hot, who was sick of American men. Clearly it was time to go back to my first love, Mexican boys, but how?

The answer I came up with was salsa dancing. The salsa craze had barely begun and when I went out to the clubs I found hordes of Latin men of all nationalities, and many fewer women, mostly American. Although I am a natural born klutz, there was no shortage of young men who were willing to have their toes repeatedly trampled in exchange for the chance to chat up an attractive, blonde, blue-eyed chick who actually spoke pretty good Spanish. After a couple of years I morphed into a decent dancer. Eventually, this is how I met Homero. The rest is history (or at least, a story for another day). Fast forward twelve years and here I am in Oaxaca with two new children, alternately blessing and cursing my luck.

There are so many things I love about Mexico. There are so many things I hate about Mexico.

Things I love about Mexico:

1) The food is terrific and cheap. Today I bought a gigantic bunch of bananas (Mexican bananas blow U.S. grocery store bananas all to hell), three big ripe mangoes, a few onions, some zuchinni and tomatoes all for the equivalent of $1.75. If you like fruit, this place is paradise.
If you are brave enough to eat at the Mercado, you can get a truly amazing meal for something under $3

2) Oh the Mercados! I could get lost in the Mercado (and I have) and not come out for days. The piles of spices, chiles, medicinal herbs, raw meat, flowers, fish, plastic woven bags, beautiful ceramics and gorgeous hand woven textiles! Oh the endless pirated DVDs! Oh the old ladies in colorful aprons selling weird bugs and unheard of vegetables! Oh the smell of copal and rotting garbage! The tiny children selling tortillas and the skinny lame dogs! The mixed up horror and wonder and pity and joy.

3) Baby donkeys. 'Nuff said.

4) I brought a pair of broken glasses with me that the optician at home said were beyond repair. I knew that was crap: in Mexico, NOTHING is beyond repair. The first place I walked into here fixed them for me in five minutes. They charged me a dollar.

5) Homero can get all four of his wisdom teeth removed for under $400. The little girls and I can get all of our cavities filled for less than $100. Rowan can be fitted with braces for about $200. All of these things together in the states would cost us more than a year's income, and I am not lying.

6) I believe I mentioned something about fireworks (Remote Post, 7/4/10 (Mexican Fireworks)?

7) My Mexican relatives. They are a really terrific bunch of people who would gnaw their own arms off and sell them on the black market just to be able to buy a chicken to cook for you when you come to visit. There just isn't anything they wouldn't do for me and my kids. They are fun loving, hardworking, friendly, welcoming folks and I'm very proud they have accepted me as one of their own.

This is by no means an exhaustive list: I haven't yet mentioned ruined cities in the jungle or sudden, warm downpours but those thins, along with "Things I hate about Mexico" is going to have to wait for tomorrow, because it's time for me to go downstairs and eat some more food. Homero's grandmother is making hand-formed sopes with tassajo and salsa de guajillo.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Mexico, Part 2

Well, actually all I have time to do is list off a few more things I love, then we are off to the cheap dentist. But the hate is coming, I promise!

Stuff I love:

- houses painted bright orange, shocking pink, royal blue, emerald green, daffodil yellow.... sometimes all of the above

- warm rain.

- the street carts. Here, street arts are not just for street food (though oh my gosh the street food deserves it's own post - forthcoming) but also for things like drinking water and garbage collection. Each type of merchant has his own special kind of call - either a voice call or more often a bell, a steam whistle (in the case of the cart that sells steamed yams), or a horn. Everyone recognizes all the different calls, so for example, when the garbage bell rings, you jump up - even from the dinner table - and grab the garbage and run as fast as you can to catch up. This is garbage collection in Oaxaca (See: things I hate about Mexico, forthcoming). The carts are actually giant tricycles, and it is quite a sight to see an old man peddling a giant tricycle loaded down with full water containers. It must weigh a ton.

- old people. Old people in Mexico are so strong and so healthy, generally speaking, even though they look about a thousand years old. Homero's grandmother is so old she doesn't even know how old she is, but her younger sister is 81 and Grandma remembers when she was born. She goes out to the market and carries her own groceries home, up and down these incredibly steep hills. Old ladies in the market selling chapulines (grasshoppers) from a straw basket on top of their heads, toothless and wizened and smiling. Old men in straw hats and homespun cotton trousers pulling handcarts loaded to the brim with flowers or pottery. Our guide yesterday at the mineral springs was an old man, and he was running up and down the steep path like a goat. The rest of us were puffing like freight trains.

- kids playing soccer in the streets. On every side street is a group of mixed age kids, playing soccer using bricks or chunks of rock as goalposts. Whenever you have to pass, you lean out the window and shout "move the rock!" and the kids haul off the big rocks and you drive through and then they put them back and keep playing.

okay more later

My Love/Hate Relationship with Mexico, Part 3

Here comes the hate, in a big uncontrollable stream of consciousness flood:

I hate the same things about Mexico that most Americans hate - the squalor, the dirt, the garbage in the streets, the ubiquitous artless graffiti, the lack of toilet paper or bathrooms that resemble in the slightest a bathroom in the states. I hate the fact that there is not, apparently, a single bathtub in the entire country, nor could I take a bath in one if there were, because I'd be sitting in a pathogenic stew of evil latin american organisms, each capable of causing me many many hours of misery shitting myself blind. I hate diarrhea. I hate puking. I hate sick children burning up with fever, and tiny, disgusting doctor's waiting rooms with flies in the air and water on the floor. I hate never ever being physically comfortable, always either too hot or too squished or too wet or too covered in mosquito bites. I hate mosquitos. I hate gnats. I hate big, weird, lumbering rhinoceros beetles. I hate not knowing which bugs are dangerous and which are not - the kids pick up a fuzzy caterpillar and everyone goes apeshit, but I go apeshit because a wasp the size of a kaiser roll is in my hair and everyone says "oh it won't hurt you!" I hate sunburn. I hate driving - I hate the way people drive, as if it were a contest to see how many pedestrians you can make shit their pants. I hate sitting eight to a volkswagen beetle. I hate the roads, rutted, washing away visibly in the rain right in front of your eyes, twisting and turning in hairpin curves over 1,000 foot cliffs with no guardrail or even pavement. I hate hyperventilating on those roads. I hate imagining us all plummeting to our gruesome deaths and my relatives erecting a stupid little cross where I died and once a year putting plastic flowers on it. I hate the way people treat animals here. I hate seeing dogs stuck up on rooftops who have probably never been down in their lives, half-crazy with loneliness and rage, and even worse I hate the hordes, the army, the crowds, the legions of street dogs - starving, limping, mangy, blind. I hate that the knee-jerk Mexican response to these animals is to throw a rock at them. I hate seeing tiny children, no more than four years old, selling flowers barefoot and grubby faced along the highway. I hate seeing a family in the median, holding up a sick baby and a slip of paper to the cars passing by. That slip of paper is a prescription that they don't have money to get filled. I hate seeing twelve year old fire-eaters performing at busy intersections for pesos. I hate seeing old people beg on the streets, elderly indigenous women for the most part, who I can only imagine were once proud mothers living traditional lives in their ancestral pueblos and now, through some circumstance or another are reduced to holding out their wrinkled old hands to tourists. I hate feeling rich and guilty. I hate having to weigh, a dozen times a day, my need to buy my kids a popsicle against some abuelita's need to eat today. Most of all, more than anything else, I hate not knowing what the hell is going on from minute to minute. My relatives act like a flock of sparrows - they all act communally, nobody ever does anything by themselves, or even in a nuclear family group. To go anywhere - the store, say, or out to lunch - might take four hours because it requires getting thirty people to move in unison. First so-and-so has to take a shower, then another person decides they have time to go to the corner pharmacy, and then the next guy decides they may as well take their kids to the shoe store while they wait... WHY in the name of God everyone has to do everything together I don't know. Today we were all going to the same restaurant, but we had to all meet up in the centro first - three different families - and then caravan in three different cars. We all made it to the restaurant a full two hours late. I hate being late, I truly do. It's my biggest pet peeve. I hate not knowing what is going to offend people, and I hate that apparently it is anything I want to do. I hate not having any say whatsoever in what to do or when to do it, and I hate that anytime I express a preference I piss somebody off - my husband, mostly. I hate that we always fight when we come here. I hate that he puts my needs last, after his third cousin's sister-in-law. I hate feeling helpless and needy and weepy. I hate that I don't know my way around and that even if I did can't go anywhere on my own because my relatives would be shocked and offended for reasons I don't understand. I hate that my normal desire for a little privacy and alone time is seen as anti-social. I hate that we haven't been able to make love and won't for the length of the trip, because we are sharing a room with all of our kids. Plus neither of us even feels like it, what with being mad at each other all the time. I hate biting my lip and walking on eggshells. I hate the feeling that I am just being tolerated, that everyone sees me as a soft, whinging, spoiled American who just can't hack life in the real world.

I hate thinking that just might be true.


  1. Aimee, I'd say that you're far more tolerant than most of us. I think you'll be fine. Maybe you'll figure out all of those weird little unspoken rules and teach the rest of us!

  2. How about the garbage burning YUCK and the lack of neighborly respect. How about that they don't like you because you're white, all they see are dollar signs. And when they ask for a loan they never return it, and even come back asking for more and when you can't they piss on your house. How about having to pay them to not sand fiberglass 2 meters from your home. We're going broke just trying to pay for fucking oxygen.