by Doug Bower
My wife and I are now beginning our fourth year as American expats in Guanajuato, Mexico. Sometimes it seems only yesterday that we sold all we owned in Overland Park, Kansas, and moved here with just suitcases, nothing more. Sometimes it seems like we never had a beginning but have always lived here.
I think however, no matter how long we stay, we will always be foreigners. No matter how many of the locals we know, how many dinners and parties we get invited to, we will always be strangers. We will always be the American Gringos from the Midwest.
I came to Mexico with no expectations. I intellectually knew and understood that Mexicans, though wonderfully lovely people, are just as fallible as I am. And, they most certainly are. I did not come expecting paradise. I knew I would find bugaboos and problems. Mexico and her people do not have a Utopia south of the American Border.
But, I must admit I was hoping that culturally there would be some sort of respite in Mexico from what had originally driven my wife and I from America. There had to be something, somewhere, that could provide relief from the American cultural meltdown that so repulsed us. There just had to be.
Mexico did indeed provide a surprise that still, to this day, charms us. When we did our fact-finding trip to Guanajuato to see if this was the place for us, what we immediately noticed was the absence of public rage. We did not find what is so common in America whose citizens think it is socially appropriate behavior to "cut loose" whenever the spirit moves them, showing just how violent and mean they can be.
(The only public rage you will see, I am almost afraid to tell you, is with Americans tourists. They seemingly have no compulsion in acting out on the streets of Guanajuato.)
There are no Mexicans screeching in grocery stores, couples fighting in shopping centers, fistfights on the street, cursing (and I purposely learned all the Spanish naughty words and do not hear them being used publicly here!), or anything else that in America causes you to wonder when the knives and guns will come out and the blood will be shed.
That is so refreshing and soul cleansing that I have once again learned to be horrified at the news accounts I read on the Internet of what happens almost daily in America. I had become calloused but now am again sensitive to those horrors.
Another relief soothing to the heart is to see how family is not fractured here. Family, right down to cousins fourth and fifth removed, are part and parcel of the well-being of this society. Some of them live in family compounds, generations of them, and do so in peace, in harmony, in love and respect. I envy this greatly.
For the most part, we've been treated with the greatest degree of respect. Some have made us feel like we are their long-lost American cousins who have finally come home to where we belong. We have been invited into their homes (no small privilege if you know Mexican culture) and sometimes into their lives.
Mexicans, almost without exception, treat Gringos with respect. They show far more respect than we Gringos deserve considering how we've historically treated Mexicans and still do to this day. There are some, however, that have a passive-aggressive relationship with the gringo expat community. Where this comes from is anyone's guess. But there are little, subtle, and almost unnoticeable things that you usually don't see as a tourist. You have to live here and carefully observe behavior to see that are a few snakes in paradise.
One day, while walking home on one of Guanajuato's rather narrow and harrowing sidewalks, a Mexican woman stopped us and politely lectured us. She said because we were gringos, we should walk on the outside part of the sidewalk, nearest the street, so the Mexicans could walk on the inside and not have to be in danger from the car traffic.
Those who do express consternation at the gringos are polite about it at least. Thank you very much.
There is a restaurant here that refused service in the upstairs dining room to a retired, district attorney friend of mine. The manager told him because he was a gringo he had to eat downstairs near the kitchen. He informed my friend the upstairs was for Mexican patrons only.
And, the manager told him this with the utmost politeness, of course.
When I report these sorts of stories, I usually get many readers' comments that border on the vitriolic. For example, "I've certainly never seen this sort of thing happening anywhere in Mexico and I was once in Puerto Vallarta for two whole weeks."
I've even gotten e-mail from Mexicans, not from Central Mexico, who take umbrage at what I write.
The funny thing is the vast majority of Mexicans will never be rude to you in a million years. They will smile and, frankly, patiently endure a lot from American gringos (more than they should). But, endure they will.
What gets good in the quest for assimilating the culture is when you become fluent enough in the language to sit in a home with a local who trusts you enough to tell you things that you will never read in a guidebook or any book about Mexican culture (usually written by an American). He tells you about how he was raised, what he was taught from childhood, and so on.
Nevertheless, when I report what I learned from these encounters, I end up with an inbox full of angry e-mails from those who think they know better--those who live in artificial gringo-enclave bubbles insulated from Mexican culture.
But I keep on, in my not so perfect Mexican paradise, learning all I can so I can have more articles to write.
It keeps me busy.
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