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Naked or at lunch, just a gringo

15 April 2010

William S. Burroughs, in a letter to Alan Ginsburg written soon after Burroughs moved in Mexico City in 1949 (and later used in the 1985 introduction to  Queer), said what attracted him about Mexico was that:

If a man wanted to wear a monocle or carry a cane, he did not hesitate to do it, and no one gave him a second glance. Boys and young men walked down the street arm in arm and no one paid them any mind. It wasn’t that people didn’t care what others thought; it simply would not occur to a Mexican to expect criticism from a stranger, nor to criticize the behavior of others.

Burroughs’ observation fits two projects I’m working on. Besides my own book on foreign (i.e. English-language) writers and how they defined our north-of-the-border perceptions of Mexico, I have been trying to work in additional material for a paper written by a gringo professor for his foreign grad students to assist them in making the psychological adjustments needed to work within this culture.

Being reclusive by nature, and, like Burroughs, eccentric enough to take up writing as a career, I do, in a very real sense, appreciate the Mexican “live and let live” attitude. I realize Burroughs’ expatriation in the 1940s was for other reasons (like staying out of prison), but his motives and psychological adjustments to Mexico weren’t really all that different from those of the rentistas and jubilados who are thick upon the landscape now.

He made some statements about wanting to settle in the country (and take citizenship), but it was, for the most part, a purely economic decision, not a cultural transition.  He could maintain a certain lifestyle (out of jail) obtain cheap meds (in his case, heroin) and — most importantly for him — not give a shit what the locals thought.   I can understand the attraction… and have no problem with those who want to claim “Fulanotitlan Is Paradise” based on these these simple criteria.

Of course, I find screamingly funny (and, to their credit, so do many rentistas) those clueless gringos  shocked to discover they live in a resource-poor country that doesn’t afford them the luxury of cheap electricity and water;  or complain that the laws aren’t what they are in British Columbia or Texas, or that some U.S. brand of coffee isn’t available in the supermarket; or who demand the right to call somebody to complain about the neighbor who fires up his truck at 5 in the morning.

I suppose, if I were really Mexican, I’d just figure they were bunch of self-centered whiners, and let it go at that.  Mexicans despise whiners.  I know it’s skirting the lines of bad manners to do so, but not being Mexican, I can indulge in some public snark about such things.

While many foreign residents (myself included) are fond of quoting Benito Juaréz’ saying “Among neighbors as among nations, peace is respect for the rights of others,” all too often we overlook that Juaréz said “among” not “towards.”  Too many of us seem to expect special consideration (and are given it, out of simple good manners) without any expectation of reciprocity.   I whipped out a short (and not particularly good) book several years ago on some of the forms of showing respect which seem to be relevant to a psychological adjustment to working and living here, so I won’t go into them here.

The neighbor who is turning over his cranky truck engine at five in the morning expects you to respect his right to get to work.  One’s Mexican neighbors will tolerate the odd foreigner, which is a different thing than being a part of Mexican culture.  The rules, such as they are, say nothing against  wearing a monocle, or boys holding hands (actually, they do… but it doesn’t have anything to do with homosexuality), or personal eccentricity, but do apply to preserving mutual dignidad through a politeness code rooted in indigenous, Moorish and Iberian tradition.

On one of the tourist websites, where the question of not looking like a tourist seems to obsess tourists (as if they’ll ever look like anything but), someone wrote:

After many yrs. travelling here and 6 yrs. living here this time I do whatever I feel like, its one of the great things about being a foreigner in this land– I could stand on my head in the street naked and Mexicans would say, “oh, she´s just a gringa”.

In a way, I find that kind of sad.  Six years, and still “just a gringa”.

It isn’t a matter of genetics or “passing” —  I iron my clothes a bit more and keep my shoes polished  and get my hair cut by a local barber, don’t yell (Mexicans turn their radios full blast, but not their voices) and slow down my street walk, but in no way will I ever been mistaken for a native  and I’ll never “pass” for a Mexican.  Jesús Chairez, who has several generations of Mexican tucked in his genes, and writes wonderfully about my old stomping grounds of Santa Maria de la Ribera, discovered that he, too, is a gringo:

… I was surprised when my chicken soup arrived because sitting in the middle of the soup was a chicken foot, or maybe ET had lost a body part! …

… When I told a Mexican friend of mine about the chicken foot he says, “You gringos crack me up sometimes,” because he never thought it “weird” to have a chicken foot in chicken soup, because HELLO, it is chicken soup.

Funny in that all the time that I lived in Dallas, I was Latino, Mexican-American or Hispanic and now that I have moved back to the land that was my grandparents, Mexico, I am GRINGO! LOL.

I haven’t  stood on my head naked, or been freaked out that chicken soup includes the whole chicken (having for several years eaten every day in the cocinas economicas of Santa Maria de la Ribera I assume real chicken soup to come with the whole chicken: though, like Jesús, I pass on the feet… saving them for the dog — who is not a gringo) but manage to find myself in absurd situations too.  I managed to lock myself out on  back patio wearing nothing but my skivvies last week.. the wall was too high to climb over (and topped with broken glass) and would have meant walking around the block, so I boosted myself on the roof then realized that if I tried to jump down to the front of the house (the front door was unlocked), at the very least I’d break an ankle, or more likely my neck.    The house two doors down has stairwell leading to a second floor apartment, which I could access from the neighbor’s roof, so walked across two roofs and “dropped in” on my neighbor … not really not dressed properly for the occasion.

I live in a beach town, and under-dressed foreigners aren’t all that shocking (though ladies of a certain age getting on a bus wearing bikinis are aesthetically unpleasant and one really should wear a shirt in restaurants, even if the seating is al fresco) so it’s not like she was grossed out.   Or frightened — I used to rent that apartment and she knows who I am. But I had intruded on her rights — interrupting her enjoyment of her own home at the very least.  The situation only called for some polite (and, er, brief) discussions designed to confirm her rights to be free of intrusions and my rights to get back in my house.

The cultural transition to Mexican life is not so much a matter of adjusting to being left alone and free to be as weird as one wants, or of adhering to genetic or sartorial standards, but of understanding that this culture is rooted in preserving dignidad — your own and your neighbors whether the neighbor is one’s fellow diners in a restaurant, the other people on the bus or the lady two doors down .  It less a matter of how one acts in private, or what one eats or where one’s grandparents were born, and even less a matter of how one is dressed:  what counts is how one addresses — and treats — others.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. otto permalink
    15 April 2010 9:08 am


  2. Charles Downes permalink
    15 April 2010 9:37 am

    Thanks for pointing out that
    ” all too often we overlook that Juaréz said “among” not “towards.”

  3. 15 April 2010 8:00 pm

    A wonderful post.

  4. 15 April 2010 10:31 pm

    Good post. Thanks for the mention.

    Jesús Chaírez
    el Gringo Latino from Texas
    now in Col. Santa Maria la Ribera, México D.F.

  5. 18 April 2010 7:51 pm

    Chicken feet in soup are Mexican? My Serboslavian-born German mom knew them too.

  6. setty permalink
    18 April 2010 9:52 pm

    Please send this post to Robert Gates.

  7. 19 April 2010 6:05 am

    Such resonance.
    I have a story about chicken feet also.

  8. locojhon permalink
    19 April 2010 7:03 am

    You nailed that topic smack dab on the head my friend, and in such a nice and humorous way, too! Thank you for having done so.
    That–the Latino attitude of respect toward others–is precisely one of the main reasons why I am so in love with and wanting to move to a certain favored area south of the border.
    In so many ways, it is an example of how life there is so much more human, humane and also so much more comfortably private than in gringolandia, where the word ‘respect’–as in for others–has become passé and antiquated and out-of-use these days.
    But it is also more than that.
    The gringo attitude toward all things Latino that I have seen all over the US, is in large part rooted in feelings of racist/nationalist superiority–that the only right way to do things is the gringo way, because gringos are supposedly so much more (fill in the blank)—powerful, richer, smarter, cleaner, modern, advanced, technologically superior, etc etc whatever-ad-nauseum. People are amazed when I tell them that I have never felt freer in my life than while in Bolivia, for the precise reasons that you mentioned. It’s rightfully called ‘respect for others’, and due to taught feelings of superiority–gringos as a group have largely lost that feeling, and as a result, the whole world in one way or another now suffers. The US respects power, not people, and the people take their cues from ‘above’.
    One last thought to bolster your observations…
    You are aware of the origins of your gringo snarkiness–I believe they are likely similar to mine. Here’s a point that this old-enough-to-know-better (and now-smarter gringo) had to be taught way too late in life by his daughter: Latinos don’t use sarcasm–like at all–for the same reasons as listed in your article–respect for others. Though in the North sarcasm is endemic and a normal part of every day rude gringo life, in the South it is rightfully understood to be insulting to one’s face—intimating that another is stupid, and the concept to many is so alien that though the sarcasm itself is often not well understood—at the same time it is clearly understood to be insulting.
    Think about it.
    That little lesson—thanks to Bolivia—has helped me to become more understanding of others and much more of a respectful human being. I thought I’d pass it on…for what it’s worth.

  9. locojhon permalink
    19 April 2010 7:10 am

    Oooops,,,my apologies to the author RG, who I mistakenly (due to a ‘senior moment’) identified as Otto who thankfully provided the link.
    Credit where credit is due–thank you sir, for a great piece of writing.

  10. otto permalink
    19 April 2010 8:17 am

  11. 20 July 2010 7:36 am

    What a great posting… my sentiments exactly. Gracias

  12. 2 August 2013 9:40 am

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    The clarity on your post is simply cool and that i can suppose you are an expert in this subject.
    Well along with your permission let me to grab your feed to keep up to date with coming near near post.
    Thanks a million and please carry on the enjoyable work.

  13. Peter Bramley permalink
    17 October 2020 10:58 am

    Great article!

    I moved to San Miguel de Allende almost two years ago. I identify as an immigrant not an expat. It’s a personal decision that reminds me that my goal is to assimilate. I continue to work on my espanol.

    As an elder and gay man, I find more acceptance then I did even in my US blue city.

    I will die here. I hope that’s not for many, many years. I love my life in Mexico. I’m looking forward to the end of Covid (whatever that looks like) so I can get back to exploring the whole country.


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