Wanting to be invisible that day I sat in a Mexican-filled church listening to Blanca´s sermon on God´s love, I tried to block out the intruding street noises so I could really hear the words and let them sink deep into my heart. It was Hallowe’en. Suddenly a huge calabaza at least two feet across lay at my feet. It was E. come to join me. All eyes turned in our direction.
E. is a Mexican friend of mine. She is also a student of two years now, still with a strong disinclination for speaking English. She is small, the creamy color of ‘canela’ with henna dyed hair and flashing white teeth. E. is trim and wears her clothes well; and her body appears young, her face unlined and her eyes chocolate brown, intelligent and knowing. She represents everything good about Mexican society – especially the women – her warm, positive attitude, the uncritical way she accepts and respects others, her natural goodwill and sense of humor. E. is humble, very easy to have around, thoughtful and unpretentous. Unlike many women who emphasize their femininity through sexy apparel and make-up, E. is conservative in dress and behavior. Women like E. are a leading influence in the social revolution currently going on in Mexico. Outwardly reserved and quiet, she nevertheless possesses a resourcefulness and inner strength that is enviable. God made her ‘salt’ to cleanse, preserve and flavor the times through which we live. I learned a lot on our trip to Guadalajara, the objective of which was to visit the international book fair and satisfy our hunger for intellectual and spiritual development by buying a variety of books; novels, kids’ books and teachers’ manuals for the Cornerstone notwithstanding.
Mexican women have lived a much more restricted and disciplined life than Mexican men in all social classes, and the themes that E. revisits in her reading material often have to do with self-esteem. In a country where the macho element has been endorsed by the government and the Catholic Church, she has broken through that oppressive atmosphere in her work as well as her private life. She is truly educated – and in Mexico ‘education’ means more than having been schooled..it means having been taught the finer points of Mexican culture, good manners, respect for parents and other seniors, loyalty to one’s family. In highly refined etiquette, she shows the same formal courtesy when talking to others, people on the roadside waiting for a bus or family members grouped around the living room. And when we were in Guadalajara she talked to everybody! Tapatios. The city´s residents are called ´tapatios.´ Guadalajara is huge, and so old. As we walked along its crowded streets, her russet colored hair bobbing in sync with her small steps, I followed her as best I could with my large stride, stumbling at times and tripping at crosswalks, all the while thinking that E.’s wee steps did not signify strength and power of self; and that the position oh her head, thrust downward most of the time, in contrast with mine, held upright, did not demonstrate control and self-possession or someone who could live generously and lovingly, or with power and joy. I had been taught as a child to walk across the room and back with a book on my head, my mother being sure to teach me to walk in a lady-like yet authoritative manner. But what I hadn’t been taught was that I was made to count, as water is meant to run downhill. That my value was inborn. And that, at a time in which education and personal responsibility were very personal, I could live free of that need to perform for others and therefore be loved.
It was good for me to be with her. I met her family – her sisters, her nieces and nephews. Tapatios all. They welcomed me with warmth, telling me that any friend of E.’s was a friend of theirs. They were all beautiful women, physically and emotionally. Their white teeth flashed as they laughed and joked with one another. One particular niece though, a first year primary teacher, complained about parents as we sat at the table after comida, moms especially who were working and leaving their kids at home without supervision; she anguished over the fact that her students were becoming sexual long before their natural time thanks to the growing influence of American t.v. on their lives as well as the Catholic Church for forbidding birth control to young teens. The conversation centered around the raising of kids and, to the point of visible pain on their faces, the abuses of the political and religious systems of the country. I listened with intensity to these self-aware and free-spirited women, feeling comfortable to speak up now and then and ask questions.
With E. at her place we poured over countless albums, pictures of kids posing together outside her poor home, E. pointing to each one in turn in case I’d forgotten their names. There were pictures of weddings and baptisms, pictures of birthday parties where families were grouped around a table ladden with food – these were the highlights of her life. We shared the low points of our lives too; for her this included being ostricized by her mother for leaving the Catholic Church, a subject not altogether unfamiliar to me. We talked about God’s role in our lives and what He was doing to heal us. We talked about poverty, how her family lived with their noses to the grindstone just to survive, and with no other order than the one imposed upon them by the religious community looking after their own interests and defending their own privileges
And then there was the language. Expressions E. uses a lot are… ‘ a ver’… ( let’s see ), a good crutch word to buy time in which to come up with a tactful response or a polite answer. More expressions for gringos to kick the mind in gear include ‘bueno’; just by itself it means ‘well.’ Or ‘pues’ which means ‘well’ ot ‘then’… ‘es que ‘ is used a lot ( it’s just that…..), or ‘lo verdadero es que’…… ( the truth’s that….. ). ‘Fijarse’ with ‘que’ means ‘be sure’, as in the statement ‘fijate que esta bien cerrada la puerta.´( make sure the door´s locked..) During conversations with her sisters I often heard her say, ‘no es mucha molestia’ ( it’s no bother, I can pick up that 5 pound chicken..); and she often reminded me, ‘you are in your house’ .. ´tu estas en tu casa.´ I was surprised how many instances called for courtesy. My advise to Spanish learners is to get hold of a Spanish phrase book for polite expressions and magic words like ‘con permiso’ and ‘se puede’, and ‘perdon.’ Try out your expressions on any one who crosses your path. A person learns a language not just through their ears but through their feet. ‘Saludame a tu familia.’ Skipping the formalities will tag you as a crude and uneducated gringo. If you want to respect the culture use polite language. And if you’re willing to add an expression to your repetoire of sayings using the subjunctive, if you want someone to repeat what they’ve said, you might say, ‘O sea, el edificio esta a la derecha de este semaforo’… and the person will repeat the instructions or clarify the point. It’s a way of saying, ‘sorry, I missed that.’ ‘O sea…’ These are expressions that help form a life congruent with the culture you’re living in – they need to get into your nerve endings, your imagination and the very reflexes of your lives.
‘Te ves que somos grandes amigas,’ she told her doctor friend when we’d made a date to have breakfast with her. ‘You can tell we’re great friends.’ How nice, I thought to myself. I’m no longer the teacher, ‘la maestra’. She used to say, ‘this is my teacher’ when she introduced me to someone, her husband included. I’m on a more intimate footing now along with the other intimates in her life, more or less Mexican. Mas o menos.
‘Robin, you’re a Mexican now,’ she tells me with a show of white teeth and a laugh.
I’ve learned a bit, mostly to set foot on that road and walk it with a free, long stride, holding in mind a vision, my present reality and what is to come. And I’m still learning as evidenced by some of the books I brought home from the fair, one called ‘Terapia para la Autoconfianza’ picturing a happy faced woman jumping on a trampoline.
I’ll let you know a little more about it in my next blog. Vamos a ver….