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What's Wrong with us in Mexico?

Home > News Articles > Expatriate Living

by Doug Bower

I was sitting in the bus station in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. My wife and I had just completed a four-day fact finding mission. We had been there to see for ourselves, to take careful notes of what we observed and to find out if what we had been told by fellow expats in the Mexican city in which we live, was true. We had heard some of the most outlandish stories of gringo, American gringo, behavior and to state it simply, we went to have a look see. We were not disappointed.

My wife excused herself to go to the ladies' room while we waited for our bus back to the city of Guanajuato. Sitting to my right was a young Mexican woman who, I found out later, was a graduate student. We sat in front of a particular bus line's counter, one with whom we had dealt many times. The employees are friendly and almost overly accommodating. We sat there, the young Mexican grad student and I, when an all too frequent American and Mexican culture collision took place.

A band of "merry" American gringos walked into the station and stormed the bus line counter. A blonde woman began wailing, thrashing about, with doubled fists began slamming the counter, and screeching like a dying moose at the Mexicans behind the counter. The faces on the bus line's employees had this look of,

"Well, here we go again—Americans."

For reasons known, I am certain, only to God, this woman thought that in order to conduct business with this Mexican bus line, she had to act like an ass. This woman screamed for a good fifteen minutes when, finally, the bus line apparently gave her that for which she was pitching a typical gringo fit. As she walked off with her band of fellow gringos, she acted as though she had just won a war. She had the look of the conqueror of evil. They chortled and threw menacing glances at the bus line counter as if to say,

"We're Americans, you Mexican slime. That'll teach you to mess with us! We kicked Hispanic butt."

The blonde bomber had screamed at the bus line employees all in English. I must tell you, that most of the gringos with whom I've talked about this very issue claim,

"These Mexicans can speak English and are only pretending they don't."

I don't know why, but I turned slowly to the Mexican girl sitting to my right who was still staring in shocked disbelief (you would think someone from San Miguel would be used to this by now, but she was clearly disturbed) at the whole scene. She saw me looking at her and shifted slightly in her seat to face me but said nothing. I began in Spanish,

"What did you think of that?"

"I didn't like it at all."

"How did that gringa make you feel?"

"Terrible and degraded," her eyes began watering ever so slightly.

We spoke some more and exchanged names and background information. That's something I love about this culture. You establish relationships by talking about things that are important.

My wife walked up and the three of us talked. This woman said something to me that I've never forgotten. I have to say, the last three sentences this woman uttered before she had to catch her bus were,

"Why won’t these Americans learn Spanish?"

"Why won’t these Americans associate with us?"

"What's wrong with us?"

That's when my eyes began to water a bit. This poor dear wrongly concluded there must be something wrong with "Us" that caused the gringos to,

  • Refuse to learn Spanish.
  • Not associate with the Mexicans.

I've got to tell you that this single event and conversation I had with this young, fresh college graduate student has been the single most important impetus for my writing over the past four years. When I've felt down, have felt like quitting the writing gig, when the harsh and vulgar emails (some with threats) come from the nutty gringos who detest what I write, it is this small and seemingly insignificant conversation with this woman that I turn to in my memory and get recharged.

This is a cultural problem, one that I am convinced few gringos realize exists. Maybe I should even call it a cultural violation, offense, a collision that few monolingual gringos have any inkling they are committing.

The logic here is inescapable. You can never, in your wildest imagination, figure out how to be a part of someone's life with whom you cannot or will not communicate. If you will not or cannot communicate with someone in the language of the country in which you choose to live, then no matter how many bilingual locals you claim to have as pals, "Oh yes, they are my close friends," what you are doing is depending entirely upon those bilingual locals when you have to interface with the community which does not speak your language.

When you can't tell your painter, roofer, gardener, contractor, or maid what you want and have to call all those "Mexican friends who speak English," then not only are you using those friends of yours (and those friends know this too) to interface with those locals that are in your sphere of living with whom you should be able to interface, but you are also essentially telling the maid, the roofer, the gardener, or whomever they are not important for you to learn their language.

You know, it is not the myriad of culture bugaboos in Mexico that unnerve me. What is so mind-boggling is how American gringos will come to Mexico, ferret out all the bilingual Mexicans, claim them as "All my friends are Mexican", and then, hold on to your hat, claim to understand the culture on an intimate level. They will claim Cultural Fluency without being able to speak enough Spanish to go to a monolingual doctor, dentist, or call for emergency help, like an ambulance, because they cannot string enough Spanish together to save their lives—literally! Certainly, they cannot comprehend what they are doing. It has to be some sort of delusion, does it not? If they understood the connection between culture and the language of the culture, how could they begin to make the claim they know Mexico?

What Mexico can they possibly know? Do they know Mexico as a CONCEPT? Or, do they know Mexico as a REALITY?

What has to precede any understanding of the Mexican culture is linguistic fluency. Fluency in Spanish does not guarantee cultural fluency, but your foot is in the door. And lest you are now thinking I just made that up, as one reader who cyber-stalks me believes, listen to this:

"Language is the primary mechanism by which people interpret, transmit, and shape their culture. As such, it becomes fused with the culture itself."

If what Mr. Ned Crouch, Cultural Analyst and author of the above quote, said is true, then just what is going on in Gringo Enclaves, American Colonies, and Gated Communities? What's happening there? Those places in which gringos hide (their Gringo Bubble-Town) from the local community in the foreign country to which they have moved (invaded), what do we call it? It isn't expatriation, so what is it?

If the simple definition of an expat is someone who moves to a foreign country and learns the language so that he or she may integrate into the community and adopt the local customs, practices, holidays, go to the local's churches, celebrate what the locals celebrate, then what do you have exactly in areas of Mexico where there seems to be something other than that going on? What do you call something where the foreigners (invaders) have their own stores and products from their home country, live together in little English-only settlements or housing divisions, have gringo doctors available, celebrate their home country's holidays, and so on. What is that? What are we supposed to call it? What are we to call those who dwell in this alternate dimension that exists side-by-side with the reality of Mexican towns and yet aren't Mexican?

Most importantly, what are we to think as to why the creation of these alternate universes is even necessary?

Language…Primary Mechanism…Interpret…Transmit…Shape…Culture.

There are two frustrations I feel deeply about this issue.

The first is that humans are wired to learn languages. No matter your age, even if you have some sort of brain disease, language can be learned. Age is not an issue, as so many Americans seem to think. If poor and uneducated Latinos, with no money for classes, can find a way to become fluent in English so they can get better jobs, then Americans with positive cash flow are without excuse. It can be done. My wife and I didn't begin learning Spanish until we were in our forties. If we can do it, then no one has an excuse unless they are dead and buried.

The second is my friend in the bus station. It hurts Mexicans that gringos won't learn their language. That is because Mexicans know, unlike Americans, that language is the primary mechanism to interpret, transmit, and shape culture. A lack of desire to learn other languages in America is perhaps one reason why Mexicans (and most other cultures) regard Americans as void of culture. We are not seen as highly social or cultural beings in the eyes of the rest of the world. This might be one of the reasons.

There are three things that hide behind the public mask Mexicans wear when dealing with monolingual American gringos. They are the Mexican sense of space, time, and language. Mexicans are a group-oriented people. They do not think as Americans do, with the great "I" plastered between our eyes. Mexicans think in terms of "WE." "We" the neighborhood, we the work team, we the family, we the barrio, we the city, we the nation. Mexicans think primarily about "what is good for us and not me." Mexican sense of time is like a river on which our life raft is floating. Mexicans think we Americans are too obsessed with time deadlines. Then, Mexicans think of language as that which is the primary way in which their culture is communicated.

If you do not learn Spanish, and learn it well, then you are communicating to Mexicans that you do not care a wit about their culture.

I can tell you this is on the minds of most of the Mexicans with whom I've spoken. They know about the American opposition to Mexicans immigrating to America. They know Americans expect Latinos to learn English and to assimilate into the American culture ASAP.

Mexicans see and understand the hypocrisy and that's what hurts them so.

I can guarantee you that if you, monolingual American, were able to get past the surface masks your bilingual Mexican friend shows you, that Mexican friend whom you USE to interface with the rest of Mexico, you would see someone who just may regard you as someone who is cultureless, and maybe even totally clueless in your delusion that you know the Mexican culture.

Without that primary mechanism — language — how can you begin to make the claim of culture fluency?

You can't!

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