Things Not To Say to a Mexican
By sheer coincidence, when I was still living in Colorado and considering moving or retiring to Mexico someday, I happen to date a Mexican from Cancn who worked as as auditor for a global business insurance company.
He had two masters degrees and was working toward his PhD at the University of Denver. A smart guy I thought, although I liked the way he put it better: “I thol you so!...I eeem very smart!”
Green-eyed, fair skinned and an only child, he challenged everything I thought I knew about his country. He liked to tell me that like America, Mexico is a diverse country. At one point he almost had me convinced that I could find pale, green-eyed people all over Mexico.
The more I thought about moving to Mexico, the more the typical American perceptions and fears would bubble up and out of my mouth.
I would query fearfully about what it would be like to live there, how different, how dangerous! He would scrunch up his face like something smelled bad, shake his head and say, “Es igual. Es igual.”
After his seven years in the States, his opinion was that life in America and Mexico was all “igual,” or the same, here and there.
I would raise my alarm about violence and drug cartels. He would raise his mock alarm about violence in elementary schools. I would wag my finger about Mexican police corruption.
He would wonder out loud about American corporate political contributions. How could lobbying possibly be legal in the U.S? Why do policemen keep killing unarmed black men, he'd smugly inquire.
“Why are there so many half-built, abandoned apartment buildings in Mexican towns?” I’d ask innocently. He would roll his eyes and ask why Americans always bragged about “owning their homes” when the banks actually owned them (in Mexico, people usually buy their homes outright, or at least make large down payments).
I had all the same prejudices as most anyone who has depended on newspapers, hearsay and trips to Mexico on Spring Break as reference points.
I had a lot to learn and I am sure that I drove him insane.
As an American living in Mexico, I know his assessment was an oversimplification. Ours are, after all, very different different cultures. I have no doubt that Mexicans think differently in fundamental ways, shaped by a 2,000 year-old culture that has its own answers.
On a day-to-day level here, the differences in how people communicate is immediately clear. Within only a few days after arriving to Mazatan, I noted the Mexican inability to say “no.” “I don’t know” isn’t very popular either.
Their philosophy about how to answer questions reflects a tendency to create an answer that’s their best shot at guessing what you want to hear. Mexicans are much more diplomatic than we are. Our ethics are different too.
However, in many other ways, my friend is fundamentally correct, for every observation you make about living in Mexico, you can quickly and easily come up with something like it in our own society
Context is everything. Tourists marvel at the inexpensive cost of street food in Mexico, but then we have $1.00 value meals in America too. I complained once being taken advantage of by a teenage girl vendor in a Mexican mercado who correctly assessed my lack of knowledge about the price of tamarindo candy.
What about the $60 I almost paid at Dick’s Sporting Goods for a yoga mat last year? At least this thief would look me in the face (completely without flinching...gotta respect that.)
Either way, as my friend from Cancun reminded me, we can just as easily be taken for a ride in the American marketplace as we can in a Mexican Plazuela …es igual. When my HP laptop keyboard and wireless capability went out three months out of warranty, I was reminded we have some pretty shabby workmanship in the U.S too.
When I am struggling in a conversation in Spanish, conversational partners and I often find ourselves digging around frantically for the right word, only to discover to our relief that the word we need is almost the same in both English and Spanish. These words are known as cognates.
Between 30-40% of words in English have a related word in Spanish. Sentences have the same basic structure. They have the same grammatical parts, adverbs, adjectives and so on.
You quickly learn the little modifications that turn an English word into a Spanish word, just as Julian knew all the little modifications that turned Mexican problems into their American equivalent.
The relationship between language and society reflects a wide range of interaction. With our languages being so similar, why should I be surprised at the cultural parallels as well?
Sociolinguistics defined by the Linguistic Society of America
What Mexico and Mexicans can teach us about intimacy - Ventanas Mexico
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My name is Kerry Baker and I'm a partner with Ventanas Mexico which provides insight and resources to people considering expat life in Mexico, including "If Only I Had a Place" on renting luxuriously for less.
I am also the author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web. Yes, you can learn Spanish as an older adult. Here are the tools and lesson plans that taught me.