Archive for the 'Mexican Customs' Category

Learning about the Massacre in Tlatelolco

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

The other day my husband brought home the movie “Rojo Amanecer” for us to watch. The title means “red dawn” in English, but this isn’t the cheesy American-made Red Dawn movie about the U.S. getting into WWIII with the Soviet Union. Instead this is a Mexican movie about the 1968 Massacre in Tlatelolco, a neighborhood in Mexico City.

My husband lived in Tlatelolco as a child. He took his First Communion in the church of Santiago Tlatelolco right there in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, where the massacre began. And for years he has been telling me bits and pieces of what he remembers of that night. Mostly what he seems to remember is the sound of the tanks rolling in and falling asleep to the sound of endless gunfire. He told me that it took him a long time to fall asleep that night and that “the gunfire went on and on and didn’t stop.” I can’t imagine what that must have been like for a young child.

The movie Rojo Amanecer won a Silver Ariel award and starred important Mexican actors. It was and is an important movie. It’s also cheesy as all get-out, with nearly non-stop over-acting and unrealistic-looking and generous displays of ketchup. Its characters also have an incredible number of meals in a short amount of time, they never stop eating. But when I watched it what I was seeing was a missing piece of my husband’s childhood. I was learning something important about why he is the way he is and why he thinks the way he thinks.

Watching this movie taught me something about why so many Mexicans, especially my husband, don’t trust their own government. If a government can massacre a crowd, in the middle of it’s capital city, and then cover it up, what else can they do? I think that there is a whole generation of Mexicans who’ve grown up wondering just that. And I think this goes a long way to explaining some of the wild conspiracy theories that get passed around in Mexico. A whole generation of people don’t trust the government and won’t put anything past it.

I recommend Rojo Amanecer to anyone who is a student of Mexican culture or is an expat living here. It goes a long way towards explaining the very real fear so many people in Mexico have of their government’s power.

Telling You What You Want To Hear

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

This is also known as lying to you and it’s an institution here in Mexico.

Ever since I moved to Mexico I’ve been noticing that people would tell me one thing and then go off and do another. This happens with construction workers, with acquaintances, with store employees, it happens all through out society here from what I can see. The first few times it happened to me I was incredulous. Surely being culturally sensitive to and adapting to my new country didn’t mean I had to put up with this kind of bullshit?!? Ah, but it did.

After a few years I began to see that people here tell you what you want to hear because it’s polite. Or because it would be impolite to tell you what you don’t want to hear. Either way it amounts to people saying things are possible when they are not, and telling you that they will make things happen which won’t ever happen.

Recently my husband and I had two experiences back to back in which we were the very frustrated victims of people here telling us what we want to hear.

In one case numerous Bancomer bank employees promised us something over and over, which in the end, after waiting patiently for 4 weeks, didn’t happen. When we challenged the bank, telling them that x, y, z employees had told us this would happen Bancomer came back with “let’s review it again, it should happen,” which leads to another 3 week review process (which we are still in the middle of). At this point I’m just about certain that Bancomer’s strategy is to wear us out so we give up the fight.

We had another experience where we hired an attorney to do some work for us. There were 2 possible routes to resolving our legal issue. One route involved a slow-as-molasses process that involves filing gobs of papers with the Cancun city government. We decided against this route because the lawyer stated that his other proposed route would net results much faster. We met with the attorney on a Friday and he said he could do the needed work the following Monday. That was over 3 weeks ago. And so far the lawyer hasn’t done the work we’ve paid him for. But does he tell us what’s going on? No, he tells us what we want to hear (when he answers the phone).

Now I appreciate that people do not want to hurt me by having to tell me things are not possible. I appreciate that being the bearer of bad news is not polite in Mexico. But where I come from NOT telling people the reality of their situation is extremely impolite. And lying to people is RUDE. So it has been a big adjustment for me to learn not to just get mad when I find someone telling me just what I want to hear. I’ve learned not to believe things until I see them. And I’ve learned to listen for a “yes” that comes to easily.


Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

I want to point out a cultural difference that I often see trip up Americans and other native English speakers when they begin to have dealings with Mexicans. It has to do with writing in ALL CAPS.

On numerous occasions I’ve had my native English-speaking friends tell me that they’ve gotten an email from a Mexican that was written in ALL CAPS. And each time my friend complains that he or she feels offended by the use of ALL CAPS. To an American, and I imagine to others who are native English speakers, getting an email that’s written in ALL CAPS makes you feel like you are being yelled at by the sender. And if the reader feels yelled at before they even begin reading an email it seems natural to expect that the reader might react more negatively to that email than if the same words were written with a normal mix of upper- and lower-case letters.

As a web and graphic designer I’ve studied typography and have learned to convey different moods through the use of different fonts and type styles. Italics feel different from bold. A headline written in all lower-case letters feels different from one written in ALL CAPS. And one of the things I’ve learned is that I’ve got to be very sparing and careful in my use of ALL CAPS, it turns readers away and often makes them not want to read what I’ve written.

So why do so many Mexicans write emails to English speakers in ALL CAPS? Well, to start Spanish is a language that uses accents and other special characters (specifically: á, é, í, ó, ñ, ú, ü, ¿double question marks? and ¡double exclamation points!). But there are times when people writing in Spanish can’t or don’t wish to use all those special characters and accents, so it is acceptable in casual situations to write in Spanish using ALL CAPS and to skip the accents.

I understand that this practice of writing in ALL CAPS in Spanish is not acceptable in formal situations, as it is not proper Spanish. And not using accents can lead to confusion about meaning. But in casual emails it is common for many Mexicans to write emails in ALL CAPS and skip the special characters.

So it follows that if you are getting an email in English, from a Mexican whose practice it is to leave the Caps Lock key on at all times, you will get emails in ALL CAPS. Don’t be offended, the person is not yelling at you, and he or she probably has no idea that ALL CAPS feels like yelling to you.

Mexican Cemetery

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

The illustrious Isla Gringo will no doubt be miffed at me for this because I went to Isla Mujeres recently and didn’t tell him I was coming (sorry baby). But it was the last day of my daughter’s visit and we didn’t plan at all, just got up and on the ferry.

Anyway. One of the first things we did when we landed on Isla Mujeres was to spend a few minutes wandering in the cemetery on the north side of town. Despite the fact that I really, really do not want to be buried I actually like cemeteries.

And Mexican cemeteries are really special I think because they are so colorful and busy. As you can see from the photos below the Isla Mujeres cemetery is packed tight with lots of small above ground crypts (I guess that’s what you’d call them anyway).

Mexican Cemetery in Isla Mujeres

It’s hard to walk around in there because the graves are just inches apart. But I really enjoy all the colors and all the different decorations that people put on the graves. We saw crypts painted in all colors. We saw some that were covered in floor or wall tiles. Some of the lower-rent graves were just concrete block with no stucco and no paint. Most of the crypts we saw seemed to be homemade. And not once did I see what we Americans would call a “normal” gravestone.

Mexican Cemetery in Isla Mujeres

On many graves we saw evidence of offerings for the dead one. Flowers were common but so were other items that I guessed were things that deceased person had loved during life. On one grave we saw an altar with various plastic foods (truly unappetizing), an empty wine bottle (with cork in place), a plastic motorcycle and some laminated scratched off lottery tickets.

The grave in the photo below, I believe, belonged to a young boy. It was adorned with all kinds of plastic and rubber creepy bugs and spiders and alligators and turtles. It also had a half full bottle of soda and a half full bottle of Bevi which I think is chocolate milk. Everything a young boy could want in the afterlife.

Mexican Cemetery in Isla Mujeres

I look forward to poking my head into other Mexican cemeteries in my future travels.

The Customer is Almost Never Right

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

One of the things that’s most striking to me about the culture here in Cancun is the lack of respect for wisdom and experience. You see this especially in the retail, services and banking sectors here. But it’s present in many forms here.

When you look for a job here you are confronted by Help Wanted Ads asking for light-skinned, tall, skinny people who are under 35 (short, old, heavy, dark people need not apply). It is common for these ads to outline what you should look like. But often these ads make no mention of experience. Knowing what you are doing, being experienced in your field, is often less important than having the look the company wants.

You feel this lack of wisdom and lack of respect for experience when you have a problem with a local business. All too often problems are met with blank stares and statements that your problem can only be solved by a) someone who is not there are present and won’t be back today or by b) sending a request to the main office in Mexico City which will take weeks. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve found that the person that I have in front of me, the person who is witness to my trouble, is not capable of solving my problem and furthermore doesn’t care!

The result is that we consumers suffer poor and inefficient service. And we find ourselves losing respect for the impotent employees in the businesses that we have problems with.

I imagine that employees of these business must feel powerless. The home office, the boss, doesn’t trust them to solve problems so the employee sees lots of frustrated clients but can’t help them. It can’t be very satisfying to work in an environment like that. And that’s probably why these employees have to not care, because they can’t do anything anyway.

My own experience, as both an employee and as an employer, is that good employees are the ones that jump in to solve problems as soon as they recognize them. As a boss you want to cultivate a culture where your employees feel rewarded for and are expected to solve the client’s problems as quickly and as well as possible. But this concept seems to be foreign here in Cancun. Here in Cancun the customer is almost never right.

Cheek Kissing in Mexico

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

In addition to liking the Mexican custom of saying Provecho I also like the common custom of greeting people by kissing them on the cheek.

In Mexico the custom is to greet a person by kissing their right cheek just once. Let me clarify and say that men here don’t kiss each other on the cheek, they usually do a pat on the back kind of hug that is sometimes preceded by a handshake. But men will greet women with a cheek kiss. And women greet both women and men with a cheek kiss.

Not everyone gets a cheek kiss, only certain people in your circle are going to expect one. Neither my husband nor myself greets our housekeeper with a cheek kiss, it just doesn’t feel right. And usually I won’t greet someone I am meeting for the first time with a cheek kiss, but sometimes if they are young, or if we are being introduced by a close friend I will give a kiss to a new acquaintance. And we normally don’t greet neighbors with a cheek kiss because they are too familiar, we see them too often for it to be practical.

But when the person you are greeting is a friend or acquaintance usually a cheek kiss is in order. There are all kinds of cheek kisses and they mean all kinds of things. Some of the more memorable types of cheek kisses are:

~ The “I actually don’t like you but I’m kissing you to be polite” kiss. This one is usually given by and to women. It’s often given as just a “mwah” sound in your right ear, there’s not any touching of cheeks and usually there’s no pretense made to pretend to hug.

~ Then there’s the “I’ve got loads of make-up on (and/or a hat on) so don’t mess me up by touching me” kiss. This one also normally involves just a kiss sound in your ear with no cheek touching. But if there’s an accidental touch, and the person really does like you, they will apologize for the lipstick they just put on your cheek.

~ There’s also the “I don’t want your spouse/partner to realize I like you so I’m going to kiss you just a little wrong and maybe he/she won’t notice” kiss. This kiss is a little too emphatic, sometimes it’s too wet and sometimes it lands too close to the edge of your mouth and doesn’t make it quite onto your cheek proper.

~ But the very best kind of cheek kiss is the “It’s really good to see you” kiss. This is the only kiss that should take place imho. This is the one where you really mean it and they do too and both parties feel totally at ease.

I first learned the “It’s really good to see you” cheek kiss from my husband’s family and Mexican friends back when we were living in the U.S. So by the time I came to Mexico I was used to the cheek kissing custom.

Now, after 8 years of being around lots of cheek kissing Mexicans, I’ve found that greeting people with a cheek kiss is very simply normal. And when I travel back to the U.S. I gleefully inflict cheek kissing on my friends there, whether they are expecting it or not. And if they aren’t quite expecting it I cover my totally intentional cheek kiss by saying “I’m Mexican now, so I can’t help it.” Ha!

I think that the thing I really like about cheek kissing is that it softens the social edge between people, and it does so right at the beginning of the conversation. If you start off with a cheek kiss then you are starting with trust and mutual appreciation.


Saturday, May 24th, 2008

One of the things that I really like about Mexican culture is the custom of saying provecho to other diners as you leave a restaurant. Provecho means bon appétit or “enjoy your meal”.

Usually as you get up to leave your table you say provecho to the people at the table nearest yours, but sometimes you hear people saying it as they pass more than one table.

When I’m in a restaurant I have a tendency to forget that I’m in a room full of people. My table and my companions and my food become my temporary little world. And I think that many Americans are just like me. There’s a sense in the U.S. that people want to be left alone when they are eating in a restaurant. So the last thing you are going to do when you are dining out there is to talk to the people at the next table.

But in Mexico that spell of isolation is broken. You ARE in a room full of people. And it’s acknowledged in a polite and particularly kind way. I like that.

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