Mr. Williams

“That’s why I make good ‘Ws’,” he tells me with sudden intensity, his little face brightening. We are practicing the alphabet, my 6 year old grandson and I. He has left his teacher back in Canada – Mr. Williams – and is now living with me in Mexico. I resist the temptation to feel jealous of Mr. Williams. None of my students have ever pined away for me! Today is ‘Día de los Maestros’, Teacher Day, in Mexico, and instead of honoring his Mexican teachers at the nearby school he continues to laud with little-boy reverence the virtues of Mr. Williams. Whenever we do ‘art’ together, and it’s then that his attention usually settles, he swerves off his usual themes and on to Mr. Williams. “Can we make a ‘cart’ for him and send it in the mail?” he wants to know.

I can imagine Mr. Williams as a man who radiates inner freedom: he is open to every day and each moment. He is a teacher-musician with neither commanding presence or manipulative authority. And my grandson loves him almost as much as he loves his current Marvel heroes like Ironman and the Hulk and ‘Thorn’ (Thor). What do they have in common? They are all gifted individuals with interesting careers, Mr. Williams with his guitar and Thor with his hammer, saving the world from destructive influences. Right now after decades of teaching I am undergoing chemotherapy. Was it my folly, I wonder, that brought this dilapidation so suddenly upon me? I competed with other teachers in my middle school, often without realizing it, and became so concerned with my identity that I was constantly striving to be the best I could be. Like others I ran education’s gauntlet of many killers and it set me on the road to rivalry and competition. I considered suffering annoying at best and expended much energy in denial, preferring instead to doing that which would affirm my identity. My busyness fed that denial as it did to all the other gauntlet runners; my quick ability to deal with problems, often accompanied by a score of mental and emotional “stunts”, sprung forth like dragon’s teeth to meet each challenge along the way. I felt invincible. Years later when I left Canada I stepped off that shore of anxiety and unhappiness, and now I stand in another country, whose bright sun shows every flaw and whose air inspires freedom and happiness. I like to think of the little school next door as an abode of light, and that the easy-going Mr. Williams would feel comfortable within. I hope he visits and brings his guitar.

“W” for … “Wonderful”…

Last installment: cultural awareness classes

Mastering comeback phrases, especially in terms of politeness, is an excellent idea, so having a handful of stock expressions ready to be activated at the right moment is something we need to achieve. “Mucho gusto” someone says, and automatically a click goes off in your brain and you fire back”igualmente.”… You needn’t think at all. Or “el gusto es mío”. “Esta bien” should be the commonest expression to come out of your mouth, “all right.” “I’m going home now”…”esta bien”…” “I’ll call you later”…”esta bien” ….” “I’ll pick you up at 6″….”esta bien”. “Claro” is another colloquial expression meaning ‘of course.’ “Can you lend me a hand getting this broken-down car off the road?” “Claro!” And “como no” is natural sounding. “Ya tengo uno, gracias” …’I already have one, thanks’ is a good expression for fending off vendors, or better still, “ahorita, no gracias”, ‘right now, no thank you’. Here are a few other snappy answers…”en tus sueños” ( in your dreams ), a little bit more impolite way of saying ‘dream on’. When Beto Boca de Basura asks Berta if she’ll come over and clean his house, she responds: “ni sueños” ( not in your wildest dreams ). “Es un burro”, she says. “Tiene menos cerebro que un mosquito”. Pero Berta “tiene mano izquierda” which means she knows how to deal with the situation, burro and all. “En serio”? ‘Really?’ That’s a good one. Also “suficiente” for ‘enough’, as in “tengo suficiente dinero para comprar..” as opposed to “bastante” which rarely works; “tengo bastante dinero” sounds like a bit of a boast as in ‘I’ve got plenty of money’. If someone is spooning Brussels sprouts onto you plate and you think 10 is enough, you might say, “es suficiente, gracias” rather than “es bastante” because the latter sounds like a complaint. “Seguro” means ‘sure’, and it also works for disbelief if you ladle irony all over it. It depends how you say it, because it can also mean the same as our ‘yeah, right.’ These snappy expressions are great because you can avoid frequent stops and starts and punctuating your speech with English interjections.

Foreign words have a certain je ne sais quoi that can make them fun to say, like “ojalá, an Arabism, because the Arabs, as most of you know, were in Spain for centuries. ‘May Allah wish it.’ Very popular in street slang is the use of “madre”, mother being the paragon of the Latin family and held sacred by the Latin male, but it’s the base of an entire vocabulary centered around insulting other people’s mothers. Even grandmothers, aunts and sisters! A “desmadre” is ‘a total mess’, and “hasta la madre” means ‘wasted’. That’s Beto Boca de Basura’s language. You get the point…use “mama” instead. “Me vale madre” means you don’t give a flying French fry about anything. You’ll find that term on t-shirts and in tourist shops. These can be fun expressions but they can also be offensive: don’t use any of them. Warm country, many naughty words. Mexicans love to laugh: they are “ruiseños”. Oh, one more thing I like to teach my students..a good word to avoid in mixed public is “huevos” as it has a crude second meaning, so learn to say, upon entering a store, “hay huevo?” instead of the more risky “tiene huevos?” The point is that using “hay” is not only easier to say but it takes the question out of the realm of the personal and puts it into a more acceptable realm, because to not be stocked with eggs is going to make the grocer feel bad, and besides, the word “hay” which means ‘there is’ or ‘there are’ is so very easy to use.

Having a positive attitude takes precedence over everything else here especially where foreigners are concerned so it’s a good idea to depersonalize responsibility. Using “hay” can help achieve that. Another cultural habit is diminutizing everything. “Casita” for ‘little house’, “poquito” for ‘very little’…”una cervezita”..”papacito”. It reduces the importance of things, to bring them down to a point where they virtually disappear and one doesn’t need to be concerned with them. Apart from the direct meaning of “little”, like “platillo” = little plate = saucer for example, it tends to indicate a frame of mind. It denotes friendliness, kindliness, or in any case a desire to put things pleasantly. If a telephone operator says “espere un momento” she’s being direct, ‘will you hang on a moment’, but if she says “espere un momentito” she’s being more cordial because she’s saying ‘would you mind waiting a moment?’ And the diminutive is a good way to deal with words like ‘rather’, ‘somewhat’ and ‘quite’. “Tempranito” means ‘early-ish’, “crecita” means ‘quite near’ or ‘not very far’. It may be a solution to your difficulties where friendliness is required.

My feeling is, as foreigners, we should we willing to unleash our Spanish in cases calling for common courtesy. And don’t skip over the formalities..instead of wandering around in a shop without saying a word, say something, even if it’s only “buenas tardes” or “adiós”. Try new words..write them on a slip of paper…say them slowly if you have to, speed kills…don’t say them too quickly. That’s one strategy, so adelante. Y buena suerte a todos.

Third installment: Cultural Awareness Class

It’s important to note that the system of “Amisdad” or ‘friendship’ developed over many hundreds of years is still an important facet of Mexican society. You’ve probably noticed how Mexicans nurture the bonds of friendship with extraordinary intensity in order to make them tight and long-lasting. Some say that the most secure and comfortable relationships are the result of a fusion of the participants’ interests and needs…they merge, and the higher the social class the easier it is to maintain powerful connections and to gain benefit from them. The word “palanca” comes to mind. “Palanca” means ‘lever’, primarily, but it also refers to the network of family and friends who depend upon each other for support, employment and power, often in business. In other words “clout.” Family and friends, both important, are the foundation of Mexican society. “Amigos. Compañeros.”

If all Mexicans were asked to list one or two important characteristics of their culture, they would put “simpatico” on the list. It’s a huge compliment to say that someone is “simpatico” or “simpática.” Apart from sympathetic it means pleasing, friendly, trustworthy, well-behaved, the exact opposite of the behavior Mexicans were subjected to for centuries. “Tengo mucha simpatía para alguien” means you have a lot of admiration for that person concerned. “Educación”, by the way, refers to upbringing, not education. “Un niño bien educado” refers to a well brought-up child.

As in every ancient society, Mexican culture is bound up in key words and phrases that explain the attitudes and behaviors of its people. Those special words and phrases are like genetic codes which serve as windows to the heart and soul of the country. Take the word “comadre”, co-mother, and “compadre”, co-father, and the custom of appointing friends, not family, to be co-parents to one’s children. To the kids, the co-father become the “padrino” and the co-mother becomes the “madrina”, another custom that benefits everybody, and one that would do us well to understand. Have you ever been to a “quinciñera”, a girl or a young woman’s coming-out-into-society party? It’s a joyful fiesta where a lot of money is spent – there’s an expression for a time like this … Echar/tirar la casa por la ventana …( throw the house out the window ) …and there’s a dance, a waltz, in which the 15 year old girl first dances with her dad, then her brothers, and then all the other male relatives, symbolizing their protective presence in her life. Social status in general is important, one reason being that knowing one’s station in life enables one to know how to address that person. Did you know that? We must exercise courtesy and take care not to damage the dignity of others. Mexicans tend to be more formal in their speech, so keeping our language at a similar level, at the beginning of a relationship anyway, will help move it along in the right direction. Remember too, that they have difficulty saying “no” to anyone. They consider it rude not to give a positive answer to a question. My husband asks his architect why he’s still waiting for a door after two months of waiting, and the architect says: ” it’s coming. Don’t worry.” Our architect calls the shots – “el tiene la sartén por el mango” ( he has the frying pan by the handle ). In the normal cultural context “mañana” means “sometime in the near future” or “if I have time” or “if nothing unexpected happens.” Whether or not something happens or does not happen is less important to Mexicans than personal ties .. “Respeto” or ‘respect’ is one of the most important words in their vocabulary. They respect people according to their levels of attention to personal relationships. Emotional needs are first, material needs are second.
Warm country, warm hearts.

Second installment: Cultural Awareness class

Mexicans love flamboyant, flowery expressions, in poetic and literary dichos, in witticisms and insults. One of my favorite expressions is “como amaneciste”? ( how did you sleep, or literally, how did you greet the dawn? ). They speak in circumlocutions, zig-zagging all over the place rather than, like us, getting right to the point. Our custom of speaking directly or succinctly is upsetting to them at times, and sounds alien. If you’ve attended a major social event in this country, then you know about the pomp and courtesy that is characteristic of Mexican behavior when on display. They’re good public speakers and many of them can sing. They love jokes. And those in lower classes, in contrast to our culture, have learned how to speak their language with considerable confidence and eloquence. And emotion: warm country, warm people. During “comida” in the middle of the afternoon it’s a time to talk, to socialize with friends and family, but mainly it reaffirms the social connections between family members. Our word “lunch” doesn’t do justice to the traditional mid-day meal because time for “comida” is a multi-faceted affair, with the first part of the meal taken up with the ritualistic stage of bonding; and, as in a business relationship especially, we need to remember that wining and dining is not a luxury but a necessity, and that part of eating with Mexican people, and by extension talking with them, should involve small talk first, and then more weightier matters or more serious discussion after that. And let me speak for a momentito about the phrases “es que” and “lo que pasa es que” because they’re extremely useful sentence starters and because they give you time to think…it’s like the answer to this question, “did you sleep well”? And you answer, “No, well, sort of, but the thing was, there were so many darn dogs barking that I kept waking up”. This is the way they speak a lot of the time and it may seem like a useless phrase to add to your speech but it softens the retort, and besides, you get to sound more fluent. You’ll hear this: “la verdad es que”….the truth of the matter is….its a good way to break bad news or indicate disagreement. “Can I drop by later?” “Pues, la verdad es que pensaba ir al cine.” “Well, actually, I was thinking of going to the movies.” You’re approached by a waiter in a high class restaurant and he asks how everything’s going. Your soup is too salty and you say, “bueno, la verdad es que la sopa es un poco salada.” “Bueno” is a good word to start a sentence smoothly…pay attention to your sentence starters and your Spanish will sound more natural. “Bueno” means ‘now’; it prefaces statements and tones down their hastiness and prepares the listener for a message. You say, “ya me voy” meaning “I’m going now”, but it’s nicer to say “bueno, ya me voy” because it’s like saying “well, I think I’ll be going now”. It sounds more laid-back, and also more polite. Use “gracias por todo”, thanks for everything, if it applies. Also remember to use “mande?” when you didn’t hear someone. It comes from the verb “mandar” meaning to order or command; when a soldier or servant in the past was called upon by a superior, he would answer “mande Ud.” Or “command me. Order me.”

So personal etiquette was akin to morality centuries ago….apology played an important role in Mexico’s former autocratic society because certain authorities had the power of life or death over ordinary citizens. It became second nature for Mexicans to apologize to those above them whether they were guilty of anything or not. Let’s go over a few expressions that might be useful to you .. As I’ve indicated, “con permiso” is a good one…. Use it upon entering someone’s home, a meeting room, a classroom, or needing to pass through where people are blocking your path. If you bump into someone say “perdón.” It’s a magic word. It’s like ‘excuse me’ and it’s for minor situations. That word comes from “perdonar”. Another word of apology is “disculpa” or “disculpame” ( pardon me ). “Disculpa” means “forgive me” or “excuse me” and you’ll say it in the same situations as “perdón”. When you’re using “tu” with a person say “disculpa” or “disculpa tu”, and when you’re using “Ud.” say “disculpe” or “disculpe Ud.”, and when you’re saying it to more than one person you then say “disculpen” or “disculpen uds.” These are good expressions because they are listener-oriented apologies; they make the listener the subject of the sentence. This structure puts the emphasis on the listener’s ability to forgive rather than on your own feelings of regret. You can also say ” mil disculpas”, a thousand apologies. Now, a more serious apology is “lo siento” – it expresses remorse. Use it where depth of feeling is important. “Lo siento mucho” or “lo siento muchísimo”. You might use this at a funeral. “Cuanto lo siento” ….how sorry I am! And “me equivoqué” means “I was wrong”, or “estoy equivocado/a”, I am wrong.

Cultural Awareness Class: first installment on language and culture in Mexico

I’m really glad to know there are people interested in becoming more aware of Mexican culture, appreciating that Mexico is not just about ‘experiencing the life’ – about tacos and beautiful beaches and ancient ruins – but that deep and complex forms of behavior exist among the people, and if we’re going to try to get to know them a little then we need to understand their language. It’s challenging, as I’m sure you’re learning to appreciate.
Before I begin, I need to mention that I may use the name of a certain invented character as an example of what-not-to-say. His name is Beto Boca de Basura.

A cynical aspect of Mexican culture sees Mexicans as being traditionally attached to talking, singing, dancing and festivals, non-productive ways and attitudes; but the other side of that belief is that they can’t be blamed for the bad things they do, because ( centuries ago ) they believed the gods were responsible for their lives and everything that happened was preordained. There could therefore be no ‘culpa’ or blame, because all things were in the hands of uncontrollable spirits. So over the centuries this rationalizing of culpa took place. Drivers speeding down crowded streets had accidents but didn’t blame themselves because they were just expressing their God-given nature; whether or not there was any human agency involved, things just happened by themselves. Is there a positive side to this? Yes, because it stops people from being critical, and it helps make people patient and passive. “Blaming the spirits”. This traditional no-fault syndrome can be seen in such phrases as…”se me olvido” … I forgot, or rather more to the point, “it forgot itself to me.” What happened to that guy over there with the crutches, you ask…he was in an accident and broke his leg. …”se le quebró la pierna”… ‘The leg broke itself to him’. She burnt the house down when she was smoking in bed…”se le quemo la casa” burnt itself to her. The boys broke the window when they were playing baseball… “Se les rompió la ventana”….the window broke itself to them. Verbs for break, tear, fall apart, get wet, burn, fall, get cold, get stained, spill…verbs that are used to express these unplanned and frequently unwanted occurrences can often be heard with SE and an indirect object pronoun. We often use the passive voice to remove the human element in the action, as in “the store opens at 9:00.” We don’t know who opens the store.

Many experts in Mexican culture say that morality is based on face, image and reputation because Mexicans, given their history of savage conquest by the Spaniards, have always feared social humiliation more than anything else….what is seen is more important than what lies behind the scenes. So when Mexicans do something wrong it is invariably based on some outside force… As in the example “se le rompió”, it broke itself to him., or “it broke itself to her.” But not always though – Mexicans have expressions like “agarrar a alguien con las manos en la masa”…to catch someone red-handed. I talked to a Mexican friend of mine yesterday who buys chile de árbol, ( Chile Yahualica ), the little red hot chile from a person in Melaque whose father is a farmer and owns acres of these chiles that she so favors over the chile chino that often passes for the authentic product. The chile chino is only 40 pesos per kilo but the chile de árbol is 1.20 pesos. She said that “le daban gato por liebre” – they used to cheat her by selling her the cheaper chile and passing it off as the real one ( which has no flavor )…gato ( cat ) and liebre ( hare ). This expression dates back centuries and comes from a hunting society in which the hare was more prized than the domestic cat. Don’t get caught selling ‘cat’ instead of ‘hare’.

Being thought of as a “sin vergüenza” or “shameless” is as low as you can go in Mexico, litterally ‘without shame.’ I’ve heard someone refer to a late Sunday afternoon mass as “la masa de los sinvergüenzas”, for those who got up late. The tradition of apologizing is a way of avoiding the appearance of pride; it does not indicate weakness of any kind. Being polite, minding your verbal manners, is extremely important. It’s easy to sound rude when requesting something of someone, especially since we’re taught in English that the only way to do this is with the imperative, or command form of the verb, as in “tráigame un café”….’bring me a coffee.’ A waitress will bring you a one, but she might be thinking, “here’s one in your lap, you jerk”! This is Beto Boca de Basura rearing his arrogant head. A better way is to use the ol’ present indicative and say “me traes un café por favor?” Or use the verb “poder” as many of you can do and say “puedes darme un café por favor?” And because certain situations call for special graces, from you, “me permite un momento por favor?” When you need to interrupt someone, or when you’re waiting for some service and it looks like everyone’s busy….act as though you were cutting in on a dance. Maybe hardly worth mentioning because it’s so common, especially in polite conversation, is the expression “muy amable” …very kind. You’ve probably heard this in stores or in banks from Mexicans of every ilk. And farewells, or “despedidas”. Try to vary your despedidas and tomorrow use a different one than you always use…”nos vemos”…” Adiós” or “hasta luego” …..”hasta la próxima semana”. “Hasta el viernes”, don’t use “vaya con Dios” unless you’re a priest or you’re imitating John Wayne. But “que le vaya bien” works…’s a little formal…..less formal is “que te vaya bien.” “Que descanses” is nice, ‘rest up’ if you’re leaving a friend for the night; and when you’re taking leave of a group or passing by people on your way out, it’s considered nice manners to say “con permiso” to the people staying on. One of my favorite expressions is “ha sido un placer.” A very sweet convention you can use in a restaurant, and with complete strangers, is “buen provecho” as you’re passing by them. ‘May you get the most out of this opportunity, or meal.’ And ‘saludos’, or greetings…..”Como estas?” Everybody knows this one, but vary your greetings too. Informal expressions include “que tal”? Or “que paso”? Or “que hay de nuevo?” Even “cuéntame un cuento”. More formal greetings include “como le va?” Or “como esta?”

Barriga Llena

One of our workers returned to his work site after a hearty breakfast one morning saying,

Barriga llena ( full belly )
Corazón bueno. ( good heart )

He rubbed his belly in a circular motion and smiled. Very simply stated, he was now ready to work using all his creative energy and vigor. And work happily.

And yet a choice or act of will is not simple at all. The ‘will’ represents the power to select what we think on and how intently we focus on it. It is the executive center of the human self, or the ‘heart.’ “Corazón bueno” describes him very well.

A parallel story involves our trip out to the albergue in Pinal Villa two days ago when Ishmael, aged 14, read the “Oruga Hambrienta” ( or “The Hungry Caterpillar” ) to a small group of young kids. The little ones sat in a circle at his feet, their big eyes trained on him and the colorful book he held up. As most readers of children’s fiction will know, the caterpillar, after eating and eating and eating, finally becomes a butterfly. All mystery and magic aside, the hungry caterpillar eats an apple ( una manzana ), three strawberries ( tres fresas ) and a plum ( una circula ); the refrain Ishmael echoed so artfully, patting his belly after each article of fruit was consumed, was…”and he still wasn’t full..”, until the denouement – the transformation – when the oruga eats an entire leaf. Hijole! Una hoja entera!

The storyteller enjoyed the story mainly, I think, in the telling of it because he delivered it with such grace and pleasure. We enjoyed the children’s reactions and the look of pride in his mother’s eyes to see her son flourishing in a leadership role.

I’m glad I’ve chosen to be part of this project, this labor of love. Ishmael, for one, has a hope and a future. We endeavor to keep feeding him, and all the other little Ishmaels.

And us, the helpers? ‘Corazón lleno’ may describe it. I personally received a heart transplant that afternoon.

Are We There Yet?

Those of us living in Barra hope to see a new burst of growth in tourism this year with the effort being made to reclaim our beautiful beach. A project is currently underway to deal with the results of hurricanes and damaging tropical storms along the Barra beach by restoring the sand and reinforcing the stone wall needed to protect the restaurants severely damaged by Jova, one of the latest beads in a long rosary of disasters. Despite the mysterious ways of government – we share disenchantment with the corruption and inequalities of government along with our fellow Mexicans – we are pleased that Mexico is showing an interest in its coastline by regarding it as a resource requiring protection and preservation. We need more tourists here, and the U.S. and Canadian press have turned their backs on Mexico as a favored tourist

I can tell from my house, just a block away from the beach, just how often the operation is in progress these days. It’s full of stops and starts, mostly stops these days, but maybe that’s because of the weather. I like to think so. The concept of time, to the average Mexican, is something to be defied; punctuality is unimportant. And yet I understand, after 9 years of living here, that the so-called ‘mañana syndrome’ is the result of an entirely different philosophy of time. Furthermore, the emotional prism of defeat and resentment through which Mexico views its problems is the legacy of unpardoned injustices from the past; contemporary problems – immigration, trade – also involve the clash of conflicting national interests, with Mexico sensitive towards its huge dependence upon American credit and investments, and tourists. Will they come or will they stay home? As the saying goes: ‘what would we do without the gringos? But we must never thank them.’ Ambivalence runs deep. Mexico is a people at the service of commodities, a people at the service of things. And freedom is a kind of commodity – a person can have as much freedom as he can buy. Mexicans have freedom of expression, though some can shout louder than others, by reason of power, wealth and privilege.

Isn’t it true that Mexico exists at the service of others’ needs, as a source of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than we do from producing them? In fact, the feat of discovering America can only be understood in the context of crusading wars that prevailed in medieval Catholic Spain. They were after the booty of war. The ‘civilization’ from across the ocean that descended upon Mexico was undergoing the creative explosion of the Renaissance, and Mexico seemed like another invention to be incorporated along with gunpowder, and paper, and the compass. The plunder has continued down through the years. Mexico has suffered the curse of its own wealth.

Mexicans are poor because the ground we tread on is rich.

God help me if I ever help to reinforce the division of the present world in which the dominion of poor by rich, of weak by strong, is conspicuous!

The massacre of Indians that began with Columbus never stopped. The price of European avarice, terror and ferocity was Indian genocide. The Yaqui Indians of Sonora were drowned in blood so that their lands, fertile and rich in minerals, could be sold without unpleasantness, to American capitalists. The survivors were transported to the Yucatan, and the peninsula became the cemetery of the Mayans who had been its owners.

The riches that first attracted European colonizers, like gold and sugar, gave rise to a system of exploitation that led to the contemporary structure of plunder that I hold responsible for chronic poverty and underdevelopment today. A 21st century Mexico is still dealing with 16th century problems.

Is the project on the beach jarred and lidded and put on a high shelf? Today’s repast is tomorrow’s fast? But delays are not denials. We watch and listen, and for the most part we don’t interfere. We like to think there’s somebody up there who knows what he’s doing. Let’s hope the ship is fitted for stress and strain. Let’s hope it has a good captain who can seek out the currents and sniff out the wind to make the clearest headway.

We aren’t there yet.