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Bottles and stars

29 March 2014

Texan Jesus Chairez, who has been living on and off in Mexico City (and noting — with good humor — the differences between Mexican-American and Mexican), posted this photo on his Facebook page:


His question — “Can anyone tell me what this Brujeria [witchcraft] is for??? To ward off what evil?” — was one several of us could answer. The “evil” supposedly warded off by pop bottles full of water  is dogs peeing on your plants (or, here, on your wall).

Of course, it’s “brujería” — sympathetic magic to be precise — and completely irrational to assume water bottles keep dogs from peeing… and most commentators said as much.

But a much more interesting comment was this one:

Well i live in mexico and i never see nothing like this but i have a feeling thats a cheap cleaning product and the person is just lazy to collect money or he is in a weelchair may not be right who knows.

It’s interesting not because the commentator tries to offer a reasonable explanation for what’s in the photo, but because he’s unfamiliar with the custom.

And therein is today’s lesson for us writers (and ‘spainers and wannabe pundits) of Mexicana. I’ve been immersed in Mexican studies for most of the last 15 years; have an extensive library of Mexican studies; have written three books on Mexico and contributed to a few others, as well as written on Mexican culture for several years; and am considered knowledgeable on such matters, even by those with much more academic training than myself.

But, although I have been throughout the country (everywhere except the Baja), I have only really lived in a few places: Mexico City being one of them. The comments about not being familiar with bottle-magic made me realize that I’d never seen this in Monterrey or Mazatlán.

I’ve sometimes criticized my fellow foreigners for assuming the opposite: that something unremarkable in most of the world, but not done in the U.S. or Canada, is “unique”. One of my favorite examples is found in the stained glass windows of our local cathedral. Not a particularly venerable or imposing example of ecclesiastical architecture (Mazatlán has only been a Diocese since 1958, and the last quarter of the 19th century parish church was expanded… with cinderblock walls), I guess it seems “old” if you come from Saskatoon or Altoona, and there are some nice stained glass windows… with six-pointed stars at the top.

Ask any child who lives somewhere between Tierra del Fuego and the Rio Grande to draw a star and she’ll draw two equilateral triangles, one with the point at the top, one with the point at the bottom. North of the Rio Grande, you’re more likely to get a five-pointed star. Unless, of course, the kid is attending Yeshiva. So…

… I’ve heard some silly “only in Mazatlán” stories (even from tourist guides) with usually some variation on a theme: Jews. The usual variation is something along the lines of Jews paid for the Cathedral windows for some reason.

With the water bottle magic, I could be falling into this error myself: assuming that because I’m only familiar with it from one place, it’s unique to that place.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the Mexican commentator — a guy in his early 20s — just hasn’t run across it outside what might be a narrow frame of reference — his own community, his own region. It’s easy to make that mistake too. Although Mazatlán is a seaport on the Pacific coast, not known for leather-work, nor are we anywhere near any Mayan cultural centers, but Mexico is known for leather-work… and Mayans. So… of course we have businesses specializing in leather-work… and “Mayan” crafts. One can’t complain about giving the tourists what they want, nor about any possible misconceptions they might leave with, but it’s like selling maple syrup in Arizona, or Navaho jewelry in Boston. Or Tlingat masks in Montreál, or French-Canadian hooked rugs in Vancouver. You very well might, but would you find Navaho traditions in Boston, and — while there may very well be French-Canadians in Vancouver (and maybe even hooking rungs), would you necessarily be aware of their folk customs?

We all tend to forget that all the north American nations are huge geographical masses, with a multi-cultural population. Even in a homogenized society, like the U.S. and Canada, we expect some folk customs to survive, often things we don’t think about. That Mexico was, and is, both less homogenized than its northern neighbors, and at the same ime, more “international” than “exceptional” is something of a conundrum.

I enjoy the privilege of the outsider in noticing the oddities of my neighbors, but whether it is just my own frame of reference as one who grew up with “American exceptionalism” or a genuine artifact of the Many Mexicos which coexist on all levels is one of those questions I intend to keep asking, and have no expectation of every fully answering.

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