Friday, October 24, 2008

Living in Mexico – The Pretense of It All

GuanajuatoNo matter your motive for moving to Mexico, you should equip yourself with as many tools as you can to help you work through the intricacies of a vastly foreign language and culture. There are two tools that I believe are "musts" for living in Mexico. One is a working knowledge of Spanish. The other tool is a book by Ned Crouch called, "Mexicans & Americans: Cracking the Cultural Code." No matter what else you intend to have or do to bridge the chasm between your Gringoness and life in Mexico, you have to be in possession of these two tools.

Ned Crouch, cultural analyst and lecturer, points out that the Mexican worldview can be summed up in three immutable concepts. The first is that Mexicans see themselves as all part of a procession. Second, Mexicans believe they are imperfect. Third, Mexicans believe there are many versions of reality. This third concept is the one with which Gringos tend to struggle the most.

There is nothing in our Gringo background with which to compare this one concept. That's what makes the Mexicans' view of life so baffling to Gringos. In our Gringo worldview, we tend to take one side or the other in a controversial issue. Mexicans, on the other hand, can take both sides of an issue, controversial or not, at once and experience no sense of contradiction.

We Gringos see issues as black or white, good or bad, yes or no. In the Mexicans' worldview, there can be all manner of shades and shadows within the issue. Gringos see that two worldviews can exist within the same culture; i.e. the liberals and the conservatives in American politics. With Mexicans, this dichotomy can exist in the individual's mind. In other words, a Mexican can hold both liberal and conservative political views at the same time and see no contradiction.

In the Mexican mind, there is always a place to hide because truth and reality are relative. The Mexican mind can embrace two widely different views of reality, often at the same time.

Though the Spanish conquered the Aztecs militarily, they did not obliterate the Aztecs culturally. Though Spanish names and the Spanish language soon became dominant in New Spain (now Mexico), the Aztec culture was (and still is to this day) alive and well. Modern Mexico contains elements of the egocentric Aztec fatalism mixed with Spanish optimism. Though fallen militarily, the Aztecs retained much of their own culture. They just added aspects of the Spanish culture to their Aztec base.

Thus you have the modern Mexican's two views of reality. The Aztec mystical worldview coexists with Spanish optimism.

Even in 2008, there is a Mexican culture in which the two views of reality can exist at the same time in the mind of the Mexican.

A Mexican bruja (a witch or healer) can have clients from every conceivable socio-economic and educational level. Priests routinely refer their parishioners to brujas to have curses removed. Medical doctors refer their patients to brujas as well. Folks with rational-based educations go to brujas for help and often refer their clients to a favorite bruja. Truth and magic mix to form the Mexican worldview.

"Mexicans," writes Crouch, "have a unique worldview of their own Catholic faith. Priests preach the truth but, 'We poor peasants have to grow the corn. So, we will practice our faith, but we will also put the ceramic corn gods in the field.' The Mexican seems to be saying, 'God made me, but I make the tortillas.' They live in two worlds." (Page 188)
Another version of reality that makes up the Mexican worldview is: Pretending.

Crouch tells a story about when he ran across a company's brochure that was pitching office panel systems that would attenuate sounds in an office and create a muffling affect. The brochures had elaborate graphs showing the effectiveness of the panels in their "sound attenuation studies." The only thing was that the company never commissioned these studies of their products. The graphs and claims were, in the worldview of the company's owners, not a deception since graphs are what companies selling sound attenuating panels for offices do…they have graphs. They were "looking the part." Putting sound attenuating studies and accompanying graphs shows the company is "real." It is what modern companies do.

They were pretending.

At a school where my wife taught English as a Second Language, the owner of the school had a huge and very professional-looking sign made and bolted to the side of the building for anyone passing by to see. The sign listed all the services the owner alleged to offer the public. However, of all the services the school's owner listed on the sign, only one of them was actually offered. My wife was the one performing that service.

The school's owner did not think it deceptive to list services on the sign that were not offered in reality. She said, "I might offer it someday." She was pretending. She also had a horde of "certificates" on the walls of her office claiming she was a certified English translator and yet the woman could not utter two words in English without prompting. (She listed translation as one of the services on the sign outside the building.) But, a modern office offering similar services has elaborate signs and certificates listing amazing abilities and services. She looked the part.

It was all a pretense.

A Mexican's tendency for a different version of reality lies in his ability to do what others, like Gringos, would think about doing but never articulate or try.

Is this all currently true of all Mexicans without exception? I doubt it. Then again, I've not met every Mexican without exception, so who knows? But, the culture, in all its surreal generality, speaks loudly.


Doug Bower is a writer who lives in Guanajuato, Mexico and author of A Walk Through Mexico's Crown Jewel: A Guanajuato Travelogue

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