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Excerpt from This is Mexico

A Conversational Fugue in Three Parts, No Harmony

A gentle breeze blew down from the mountains surrounding San Miguel. It picked up the murmur of the fountain on the patio, joined the voices of Señor Roberto and our friend, Arturo, and carried their conversational fugue to my sunny second-floor window. We had enjoyed a mid-day meal together, those mild poblano peppers charred and stuffed with creamy avocado and potato, while we discussed our renovation project. I like Arturo, but that short encounter stretched my Spanish to its limits. I am proficient in laundry discussions but hours of Spanish conversation give me a headache.

The problem is thinking that speaking Spanish is understanding Spanish. No, like pitcher and catcher, Mexicans communicate in a code that goes beyond words. Octavio Paz observed that Mexicans live behind la pantalla, the mask, a result of years of conquerors, tyrannical governments and a hierarchical caste system. In addition to simply refusing to share unpleasant information (like my gardener and housekeeper who will not tell me about the plants with plaga or the broken hot water heater), Mexicans use a number of non-responsive and unusual linguistic work-arounds to limit risk, even when there is no risk. Here are the three most surreal, the ones that create maximum disequilibrium for the unsuspecting:

  1. Do not be completely honest with anyone who has more power than you;
  2. Do not offer information that is not specifically asked for; and/or
  3. Use a lot of effusive language.

These patterns of conversation generate stress. So, when lunch was over, I pled work obligations and departed for my office where I could overhear the conversation, but not take part. In English, this strategy is sometimes referred to as eavesdropping.

“Does your daughter, María, have a novio?” asked Señor Roberto. Now begins the sobremesa, the charming Mexican custom of chatting after a meal that can go on for as long as digestion itself.

“Sí,” said Arturo, “she has had a boyfriend for the last six years.”

Señor Roberto knows the obvious — Mexican families are large, complex and important. When a conversational lull occurs, the topic of family can be mined like a vein of gold. It is the organizing principle of Mexican society for many reasons, including sheer numbers. At our gardener Juan Pablo’s wife’s brother’s wedding, the mother of the bride, also known as Juan Pablo’s wife’s brother’s new mother-in-law, informed us she is one of eight children. Her husband, she told us, has seven brothers and sisters, and together they have nine children. In her most recent estimates, taking into account those she had that day inherited, she counted over 1,000 relatives. She pressed me to imagine how wonderful that was. I tried, I did, but I couldn’t. All I could think of was refereeing harmony at Christmas dinner.

I had to let go of the 1,000 person Christmas dinner to keep current with the conversation on the novio.

“Sí, he is a very nice young man from a good family.”

I wondered. In my non-scientific analysis entitled Survey of Questions I Ask the Cook with its corresponding and even less rigorous Inventory of Answers That Leave Me Wondering, I find that information in front of the Mexican mask is elastic and subject to change. This often requires asking the same question three times with an increasing level of precision to nail down an answer that conforms to reality.

One day I asked our cook, Luis Fernando, if he could drive us to the bus station in Querétaro, a near-by city. I started with a simple question as we stood together in the kitchen.

“Luis, do you know how to get to the bus station in Querétaro?”

“Sí, señora, I can drive you. Por supuesto.”

Experience has left me not so easily fooled. “I can drive you” means, “Yes, I have a driver’s license and I can operate a vehicle.” I kept a sharp focus on the real question — did he know how to get there?

In the second round, I tried to lasso him back from his prior linguistic left turn.

“So you know how to get there precisely?”

“¡Sí, sí, señora!” This was uttered in a tone similar to, “What are you thinking? I practically live at the bus station.” He squared his shoulders and his chest swelled.

Amateurs may end here, but they will not make it to the station in time for the bus.

“Sí, sí” may be translated by the optimistic as an enthusiastic “Yes, yes!” but in my Inventory of Answers that Leave Me Wondering it often means, “Well, not exactly.” This can cause confusion and an encounter with the surreal. Not to mention unexpected changes in travel plans.

Now we came to the third round, requiring a deep level of specificity, where finally my training as a lawyer had a practical application. I asked as though conducting a deposition.

“Do you know how to get to the bus station including how to get off the highway, get to the street it is on and drive to the front door?”

“Oh, no, señora, I have never been there so I do not know where it is.”

Good information to have before we get started. Because we cannot get to the bus station in Querétaro if we have no idea where it is. Sometimes, we cannot get there even when we do.

I was jolted back to the present when Señor Roberto went for another round on Arturo’s daughter and her boyfriend.

“So you are acquainted with his family?”

Sí, sí,” he said, but a slight, imperceptible hesitation and his failure to add more information planted a seed of doubt. Remember, “Sí, sí” may not mean “yes.” Brevity can also be suspicious. In my Survey, I often received responses delivered with a unique Mexican approach called Do Not Volunteer Anything Not Specifically Asked.

Señor Roberto and I were passing a small farmacia when I remembered I needed árnica — an anti-inflammatory pomade.

“Señora, I want to buy árnica, por favor.” The clerk stood at attention behind the counter, looking very efficient in a white lab jacket.

“Ah, sí, but no, señora, there is no árnica here.” I was startled. I was positive I purchased it here before. In fact, I believe every farmacia in Mexico carries árnica. A farmacia without árnica is like a tienda without Coca-Cola: highly unlikely.

“No árnica?” I faltered. Had I forgotten where I bought it? Were they out? If I came back tomorrow, would they have it? How could I say any of that?

“No, señora. There is no árnica.” She smiled politely.

“No árnica?” My mind began to search my vocabulary like a cell phone looking for a signal.

“No árnica.” Her smile was fading with every repetition.

It didn’t take a bi-lingual visionary to see the future of this conversation was a dead-end. I tried a different tack.

“Did you use to sell árnica?” This was difficult for me in Spanish, as it requires a verb in the past tense. I said something resembling “Do you have árnica but in the past?” A wild swipe of my thumb pointing back over my shoulder signaled the international symbol for a former time. At least I hoped it did.

“No.” She looked sympathetic, but moved away to tidy a shelf of shampoos. My allotted árnica asking time had ended.

Puzzled, I inched toward the door. On their billboard with their specials, I saw “Árnica con aloe.”

Relieved my mind was still intact, I called out, “Señora?” She turned and I pointed to the board.

“Look, it is written here.” The question mark hung above my head.

“Sí, señora, that is árnica con aloe. You asked for…árnica.” I blinked. I stopped. I bought árnica con aloe and added another entry to my Inventory of Answers That Leave Me Wondering.

As we walked away, I asked Señor Roberto, “Do you understand what just happened?”

“Not a clue.”⁠⁠

Learning to work with this system requires a high level of precision. If I call the swimming pool to find out if they are open, they may say, “Yes” but when I arrive, there may be no water in the pool. I would be understandably frustrated, but, of course, I asked if they were open and, yes, of course, they were. The next week, I may call again and wisely ask, “Are you open and do you have water in the pool?” They may say, “Sí, sí, I am very happy to advise you, my esteemed client that there is water in the pool” but when I arrive, there might only be a paltry puddle of water lying there. When I call the third time, and ask, “Are you open, is there water, and is there enough water to swim?” I will have achieved enlightenment, nirvana and a half dozen other altered states of being and the answer will finally be “No.”

Sometimes, the unwillingness to tell bad news to anyone with more power than you collides with the language of respect as they hit the concrete wall of reality. This causes unusual meltdowns in front of your eyes.

Señor Roberto and I went to the vivero one day to buy plants. It was hot and I didn’t want to load them into the car, so I asked la señorita if they delivered.

Por supuesto, señora. What time should we bring them to you?”

This takes more words in Spanish than in English. In contrast to answers that are measured out with an eyedropper, Mexicans can also speak in a language of respect, replete with elaborate conversational flourishes and archaic diction that we English-speakers, with our directness, cannot hope to reproduce.

Last January, Señor Roberto sent a quick email to our lawyer asking him a question. He ended it by saying, “Happy New Year.” The response had a one sentence answer to the question and an entire paragraph of wishes for us: May we have 365 days of health, happiness, good humor, prosperity, many grandchildren and seven other improbable events while he respectfully awaited the favor of our forthcoming questions.

La Senorita waited for my response on the delivery of my plants.

“No hurry. No hay prisa,” I said. “But if I know what time you will come, I will have the money ready.” They won’t carry change.

“But, señora, of course. At whatever time is convenient for you, señora.” She bowed her head to show the deep respect she felt for me and my plants.

“No, Señorita, please, what is convenient for you, your business, your delivery men?” I asked. I almost continued, “for your mother, your father, your cousins…” but as a friend of mine says that would be too much crema on the taco. The problem with the language of respect is that it is contagious and it can spread through your speech like invasive clover if you are not careful.

“Señora, por favor, it is my pleasure to serve you and to make the delivery at whatever time works for you and your family.” The top of my head started to melt and my sunscreen expired. Señor Roberto frowned and sat on a large planter under a palm tree.

She waited, her pencil suspended above her pad to record my every wish.

Bueno, then how about 11:00 tomorrow morning?”

Her smiling face transformed into a scowl in front of my eyes. She pursed her lips and exhaled with a loud whoosh of aggravation. She shook her head vigorously.

“But, no, señora! We cannot do this! No, no there is absolutely no way to do this! This is impossible! We only make deliveries in the afternoon!”

As we walked away, I said what I always say to Señor Roberto.

“Do you understand what just happened?”

He replied as always. “Not a clue.”

Señor Roberto circled around the novio and the daughter story for the third time.

“So is the novio a nice guy, steady, worthy of your daughter?”

“No, he has many problems; he is very troubled.”

A long silence signaled Señor Roberto’s entry into a dissociative state. Talking to Mexicans sometimes resembles eating hard candies with a chewy center. One has to keep assaulting the surface before getting to the surprise in the middle. Having now bitten down, Señor Roberto’s teeth appeared stuck. But what choice is there, but to go forward?


“Well, his mother Guadalupe made a lawsuit against her sister, Dolores, over an inheritance and when Dolores won the lawsuit, Dolores’ son was shot by two hit men that maybe his own mother, Guadalupe, hired. The two hit men failed to kill Dolores’ son, but then two men shot and murdered his mother, Guadalupe, and now he, the novio, might be a suspect. But it might have been the same hit men his mother, Guadalupe, hired to kill Dolores’ son because she refused to pay them since they didn’t kill him.”

Here, he stopped to take a breath.

Needless to say, this family discord would come as a surprise in English, but in Spanish, there was always the possibility I, a mere eavesdropper, heard it wrong. Did he say “matar” meaning “killed” or “nadar” which means “swim?” Did the novio’s mother, Guadalupe, swim with her sister and the son who is the novio called the police because the sister inherited a poor ability to swim from her father? For me, listening to Spanish is like watching Wheel of Fortune —so many blank spaces and I need to buy a vowel. I didn’t think Dolores and Guadalupe were swimming but, by this time, my mind was.

It sounded like Señor Roberto did not trust his understanding of the story either. He moved to a technique we call the Spanish Synonym Game where we try to derive meaning by throwing a flock of synonyms at the conversation and see if any will fly.

“You said ‘estaba asesinado?’ You mean like ‘she was murdered with a gun?’”

“Sí, like murdered with a gun.”

“And the son of the sister was ‘casi matado’ but did not die?” ‘Almost killed’ was as close as Señor Roberto came in Spanish to “attempted murder.”

“Almost dead, yes, but, no, did not die.”

“And the novio of your daughter is a suspect, sí o no?” We often ask a primary question with the follow-on question “sí o no?” Since Mexicans often speak in a style that can only be described as “zigzag,” the answer may too long and complicated for us to understand. This suggestion that there are just two possibilities sometimes works. But not always. Today, Señor Roberto was lucky.

Sí, es posible.”

I sighed, feeling dizzy. The lawyer in me wondered if it is necessary to pay a hit man who hasn’t performed under the contract, but I did not wander there. Instead, I was grateful I was not in charge of refereeing harmony at their Christmas dinner.


The Rhythm of Religion

The Jardín, the heart center of San Miguel de Allende, buzzes like electric wires humming a B-note. Women with babies, old people with Spiderman and Tinker Bell backpacks, a gnarled man hunched into the shape of a question mark with too-big flopping shoes and a worn feed sack stuffed with clothes and tied with rope — everyone carries something. On a converted 1979 Volkswagen bus, the Virgin’s image flashes, resembling the neon sign of a honky-tonk bar. I am drawn to the massive wooden doors of the church, where latecomers gather twenty deep murmuring the mass like mourning doves. Inside, the benches overflow, spilling people into the aisles. The acrid trail of copal and wood smoke mingle in the outside air. My watch reads 5:00 a.m.

It could be just any fiesta day in San Miguel, the birthday of San Antonio, a day for the blessing of dogs, seeds or taxicabs, or the anniversary of the radio station, but it is not. It is the kick-off of the annual pilgrimage to the small church of San Juan de los Lagos, more than 100 miles away. The peregrinos, the pilgrims, face nine days of walking punctuated by raw January nights. Mexican religious devotion, a tapestry of poverty and faith, of the sacred and profane, of modern and ancient, is being played out in surreal technicolor. Suddenly, everyone drops to the ground chanting. I drop too and pray for their safety and they—well, who knows what to pray for when you have been oppressed for almost 500 years? From where I sit, God either isn’t listening or has given up.

I admire their devotion. At the same time I question the decision to be gone from work for nine days, often with no pay, sometimes with no option to return; to leave a business abandoned. What drives this? In my world view, nine days of salary could buy something useful. But then I, a gringa to the core, with steady income, old enough to retire but still working, am in for only a half-day of walking, a fund-raising effort for the prevention of domestic violence. I need to be back by noon for a conference call.

A Mexican friend helps me out. Here, she says, where a majority of the people are resource poor, pilgrimages are often the repayment of a debt to an image — in this case, a fifteen inch statue of the Virgin made of painted and varnished sugarcane paste that resides in San Juan del Lagos. Here, where many people live outside the arms of a safety net, the Virgin, the saints and their many images are as much an asset as a bank or a medical clinic. They are the benevolent family members people turn to for help with their big problems. If my child needs surgery, I do not put my faith in doctors. I pray to an image of the Virgin to cure her and in doing so, I create a manda, a promise. I repay my holy line of credit, the generosity of the Virgin’s attention, by walking to her church annually, sometimes for many years to come. If I cannot walk, I bring food to the pilgrims, the poor feeding the poor. I take my unwritten manda more seriously than any contract drafted by a lawyer; more than any loan or charge card payment. The Virgin must be repaid. If I do not have a problem requiring help, qué bueno! I walk to thank the Virgin for that blessing. I walk because everyone walks. It is a communal event, creating a rhythm to the days, months and years of Mexican life. If it’s January, it’s time to visit the Virgin in San Juan de los Lagos. Next year we walk again, the future a repetition of the past.

Brilliant klieg lights in the pre-dawn dark put the scene in sharp relief. A drum and bugle corps competes with a troupe of indigenous dancers as the Volkswagen I dub the “virgin mobile” begins to inch through the crowd. Like most things Mexican, the scene is eclectic, hallucinogenic, and anything but somber. We wait our turn to enter the long line of peregrinos as it bends away from the square.

I tuck my hands into the sanctuary of my armpits for a jolt of warmth as I look at the people around me, a band of ragtag walkers. Young men and boys lug hand-made crosses of crude wood, some as tall as they are, decorated with religious images and nailed-on photographs of family members. Others carry huge framed Virgin icons strapped to their backs. Old women wear skirts, sweaters and dresses over pants, their entire wardrobe seemingly walking with them.

I turn to speak to a young woman carrying a baby in a cross-body rebozo. With her long hair parted in the middle and covered with a shawl, she looks like she could have emerged from a Raphael painting of the Madonna.

“¿Camina todos los días?” I ask. I wonder how she will walk with the child for nine days.

“Sí, señora,” she says, “we go all the way to La Virgen.”

“Does someone walk with you?” She smiles shyly at me and gestures around her.

Mi familia, señora, mi madre y padre, mis hermanas y hermanos, 30 por todo.”

Christ and crown, cross and sword, Hernán Cortés arrived with a Spanish agenda. Catholicism came with Cortés, but it was made Mexican by the Virgin of Guadalupe. In 1531, the story goes, as the Franciscans began the forced conversions of los indígenas, the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego, a poor indigenous man. Virgin images have popped up in many places over time, a car wash in New Jersey, an underpass in Chicago, but this virgin was radical for her time — she was brown-skinned and spoke Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The roses she gave Juan Diego to take to the local bishop stained her image on his cloak, and within seven years, eight million indigenous people were converted. For better and for worse, the marriage between old world and new was forged.

The indigenous people were warriors themselves. They had conquered and been conquered. When they were conquered by Cortez, they knew the price of losing and the value of adaptation. They took on Catholicism, but on their own terms. They accepted those parts of the religion that made sense to them but kept their old traditions: idolizing many images, using music and dance for festive, communal religious days. Mexico may have the world’s second largest Catholic population, but it is unique in its eclecticism, its vibrant inclusion of los indígenas ways, its expansive view of what is holy. Catholic missionaries themselves encouraged many of the old traditions, like the local deities and the endless fiestas, to “sweeten” the conversion process.

There are many Virgin images here, but the Virgin of Guadalupe is the undisputed mother of Mexico, the ultimate contradiction in a country of contradictions. She is an indigenous representation of a white European religion, a Catholic with the symbols of nature decorating her cloak. She has united indígenas with Spaniards, indígenas with indígenas, and galvanized Mexicans inside and outside Mexico for almost 500 years. She led Hidalgo into the war for independence in 1810, and marched with César Chávez on the road to Sacramento in 1966. Today, she inspires both the devout and the secular, her image adorning everything from garage doors to cowboy boots. She represents the underdog, the oppressed, the feminine.

It is not important to believe her ancient narrative. It is enough to know that, more than the accuracy of her story, she is the image of the Mexican people. Octavio Paz observed that after centuries of failure, Mexicans believe in only two things: la lotería and La Virgen.

It’s April, two weeks before Easter and another opportunity to walk with pilgrims, this time with an image of Christ known as Nuestro Señor de La Columna. The narrow street leading to the main square in Atotonilco is jammed with stalls selling steaming corn tortillas and pungent fried pork, huge clay pots of frijoles, religious paraphernalia, cheap jewelry, and votive candles. It is eleven o’clock at night. If I didn’t know it was a religious procession, I would guess carnival.

My cab driver shrugs and indicates he can’t move any further through the crowd.

“¿Puede caminar?” he asks. I get out. I am about to walk for six hours. What’s another hundred yards?

I join the masses of devout Mexicans who will walk to San Miguel, many with canes, some carrying babies, others pushing wheelchairs and baby strollers on this arduous, overnight journey. They accompany Él Señor, a statue of Christ, who is reputed to have halted an epidemic almost 200 years ago. The silent cavalcade begins at midnight and enters San Miguel at 6:00 a.m., six hours to walk seven miles. I calculate that if I ran, I could cover the whole distance in seventy-seven minutes. But the biers that carry the shrouded images of Christ, Mary and John are heavy and there are many stops, time for reflection, time to share the burden.

“It’s not about how fast we go,” I remind myself as the crowd begins to shuffle en masse from the square, “it’s about the journey.” Still, I have to slow myself down to keep faith with the lumbering pace.

As it turns out, many people cannot walk that slowly and we leave the biers behind us. My flashlight battery fails five minutes in, so I glide along disconcertingly disconnected from the ground. Two hours later, as I rise to the top of a small hill, I see a mirage-like scene: a field drowning in light looking like a refugee camp with food vendors. People lying in the dry grass bundled in Snow White blankets and worn cotton bedspreads rest with their families and wait for Christ to catch up for a 3:00 am Mass. I lie down too, wondering how it is possible to be so frigid in April, when we have 90 degree temperatures during the day. I don’t get out much at 2:00 a.m.

I curl around myself to conserve body heat, the parched smell of dry earth waiting for rain swirling around me. I wonder why these people who work so hard, many who worked all day today, will walk overnight, sleep in a cold, dusty field and wait for a statue.

The answer is complicated. Los indígenas‘ personal devotion to sacred images still echoes through Mexico today; images regarded as beloved family members, alive, real, breathing. Their communal lifestyle is part tradition, economic necessity and an affirmation that you are not alone — sorrow and joy better when shared. Religion reverberates with firecrackers, magic and contradictions, the past as indelible as a tattoo.

I take off my shoes and rub more blood into my frozen toes, my back against a wire fence. I re-focus my eyes to see what I can see. The field is just a field. Nuestro Señor de La Columna is as lifeless as the column he leans on. Vendors hawk simple home-cooked food, tacos wrapped in plain paper, lukewarm coffee in Styrofoam cups. The sacred seems absent. But if I look with different eyes, I can see the faint outline of a different reality; people who mark the rhythm of time with their saints, icons and families; people whose devotion and self-sacrifice sanctify a barren field with their hope; people for whom the threads of sacred and profane are so tightly woven there is no way to tell where one begins and the other ends. They are walking forward, looking backward.

Maybe they are prisoners of history. Maybe it’s a waste of a night’s sleep. Who’s to say?

Forty-five years ago, 96% of Mexicans identified as Catholic, women bore an average of seven children, and Catholicism was a growth business. Today, a fertility rate of 2.2 announces that times have changed. While Catholicism brings solace to an often poor, uneducated population, for some, it has failed. Today, only about 83% of Mexicans identify as Catholic, and a swell of other religious groups, mostly Evangelicals, has made inroads into the Catholic monopoly.

I ask Magali, our housekeeper, about an upcoming religious holiday. “I don’t know, señora, I am not a Catholic anymore.” This surprises me. I didn’t think I had met a Mexican who was not Catholic.

“Really?” I hesitate. I lack the vocabulary necessary to discuss religious pluralism in Spanish but I turn down the radio so I can hear her.

“No, I am a cristiana.” This is the Spanish word for the new evangelical groups springing up.

“What is the difference between being Catholic and being a cristiana?”

“If you are catholica, you go to church and you repeat chants and you perform rituales. The rituales bring people comfort, but I don’t want comfort anymore. In my new church, people help us understand how we need to live, why we need to stop drinking, why we shouldn’t have babies when we are sixteen just because our mothers’ did. Now, I ask God to help me make a better life.”

I look at her, one of seventeen children, nine of whom died in childhood, her mother an alcoholic, her father unknown, unspeakable childhood poverty. A better life doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Despite the still large percentage of the population identifying as Catholic, no state religion exists here. Mexico began to disentangle religion from the state in 1833, secularizing education, taking Church lands, giving legal recognition only to civil marriage, and precluding the Church from having any national political role.

Now, despite the views of either the Church, or the newcomer evangelicals, modern Mexico has begun to legalize abortion, birth control, and same-sex marriage.

Yet, everywhere visual reminders of religion remain. In churches, of course, but Jesus statues stand among the Coca-Cola and chips in small tiendas, an altar presides over the bus station. I give a wide berth to any shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe to avoid being hit by reverent taxi drivers who bow and cross themselves as they drift onto the wrong side of the road. Mexico may be modernizing but within her vast borders, many hearts stay rooted in the past.

Music blares with the thumping boom of a Latin beat on this already hot Saturday morning in the Jardín directly in front of the Parroquia, the main parish church. Here the contrast between ancient and modern Mexico is set in boldface –- young women in tight work-out clothes scream their approval when César, our Zumba leader, turns his back to us and bumps and grinds, his hips moving with the fluidity of well-oiled ball bearings. At the same time, tiny, stooped women in tattered dresses with shawls on their heads weave through the crowd and up the stairs to the church for Mass. Bells call the faithful while loud Latin music calls the adherents of the religion of Zumba. But even the girls in tights cross themselves as they arrive.

Later, in Los Angeles, I come upon a church message board that proclaims, “Sunday — Jesus Saves! Monday — We Have Zumba.” The rhythm of religion is exquisitely complicated the world over.

I can’t help wondering what happens on Tuesday.


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