Apr/May 2003 Salon

Yes, We Have No Bananas

by C.E. Chaffin

In my last column, "Escape from LA," I noted some cultural differences between my new digs in Mexico and my polyglot Angeleno heritage. I was glad to receive one comment, complimentary, from a Hispanic writer who now calls Pennsylvania home.

First, an aside: I have noticed in my five years of publishing on the net that responses from readers have dwindled in proportion to the increasing number of my publications. Early on I received many more e-mails than at present. I have wondered if this more represents a decrease in interest in this new medium--resulting in a less intimate connection between writers and readers; an overproliferation of venues; that the net simply became old hat and apathy ensued; or that my some thousand references in Google have rendered me such a known quantity it seems superfluous to write me. Then there is the possibility my writing has simply degenerated to the point where no one reads it, as I always try to suspect myself first.

Still, on behalf of all net writers, I'd like to remind what readers encounter this piece that a net author rarely receives payment for his work--his only reward being the occasional e-mail, whether critical or complimentary. So please write any net authors who have caught your attention (you can always reach me through melicreview@hotmail.com).

This month I attempt to broach my first impressions of the Mexican mindset. A reminder: If you include the Amerindian civilizations, Mexico's history is some seven times older than that of the U.S. (apx. 3000 vs. 400 years) and Spanish history, first appended by Cortez 100 years before the Plymouth Colony, and also derives from a culture much older than ours. An older culture is by nature a more conservative culture, where change is not necessarily welcomed as innovation, rather suspected as a threat to the existing order.

In our current travel guide we were cautioned not to wear shorts in public. Yet the large American contingent in our town had long since breached this protocol, and even some Mexican women now wear shorts, while many teenage girls have adopted low-rider jeans and miniskirts.

Still, the advice of the tour guide was not untrue but more typically Mexican: what is prescribed publicly here often bears little relation to what is actually done. Public declarations of standards are deemed necessary to preserve the face of official Mexico, while behind the scenes much is allowed which is publicly proscribed. Much like in China, another ancient culture, preservation of face (public appearance or perception thereof) is extremely important, even in day-to-day relationships. When asked for something as simple as directions, Mexicans invariably respond with "Si" and smile, whether they know the way or not. An American friend pointed out to me that the only way to be certain of verbal directions in Mexico is to introduce the negative first: "Am I going the wrong way?" This grants cultural permission for the person to agree or demure, and one true negative response is more valuable, in terms of information, than ten positive responses. Mexicans simply hate to say "No."

Saving face nicely interdigitates with a pervasive class system. Example: The mason doing work around our apartment agreed to take the trash out in our absence twice, but never did--nor did he apologize for his oversight (The trash truck comes at unpredictable hours and is only announced by the beating of a bell, whose sound must be distinguished from the local school bells and various street vendors). Though the mason (albañil) smiled and agreed to the task, his behavior demonstrated it was beneath his class as a skilled laborer. God forbid we should have asked our landlady's son to do it, as he descends from the upper landed class, although his sole occupation is to watch MTV 12 hours a day while collecting money from behind the counter of his dust-coated general store, where the potato chip bags look as if they'd been unearthed from a Mayan dig.

There are roughly four classes in Mexico: The landed wealthy upper classes who can trace some Spanish ancestry; the Mestizo middle class, who own businesses or are educated, like doctors and lawyers; the Mestizo working class, like our mason; and finally the Indians or peasants (though rarely of pure blood) who continue to work on small family farms and bring their goods to market from outside the cities (Many of the latter are strikingly handsome, with tomahawk noses and long raven hair reminiscent of portraits from Amerindian times). An acquaintance of mine who lived here in the '60s remembers a government census form which confirmed the four classes, in which the question was asked, "Do you wear A) shoes, B) sandals, C) huaraches, or D) go barefoot?"

To summarize my inexpert generalities thus far: In Mexico you ought not to say "No" to a request, lest you lose the veneer of agreeableness that must be publicly preserved, but you should never stoop to a request below your station. Still waters and smiling faces run deep and hide the cross-currents of private action from public view. In other words, "Yes, We Have No Bananas" might make a good alternative national anthem for Mexico.

The Mexican I have come to know best is our landlady. I will call her "Maria." When we first met she charmed us into renting, no doubt at an inflated price, a third-story apartment above her beauty shop and son's general store. It was half-finished when we moved in; the solarium was without windows, the planters without soil, the fountain inoperative, there were no curtains, the bed was lumpily procrustean, and we had no private entrance. The central stairway was not yet complete--which meant trudging up past her son's dust-coated store, then wading through mounds of thick black hair from recent haircuts, afterwards stepping lightly through the hallway where Maria's spoiled toy poodle, Bon-Bon, is apt to spill urine or worse.

Speaking of dogs, few Mexicans seem to have any appreciation of them as beings. Dogs of all sizes and varieties run the streets, live on scraps, yet are expected to protect their owners' property with ferocious barking at the least violation of territory. Few have collars or tags, fewer still are groomed, and some limp for lack of clipped nails while others hop and skip from uncorrected deformities. They are seen as little more than furry burglar alarms. Our landlady would rather have her poodle befoul her family room than trouble to walk him, and in this dry climate he is often short of water and sneaks upstairs to lap thirstily at our own dog's bowl, so perhaps he is more neglected than spoiled.

As for Maria's mindset, we trusted her to complete the things she promised in a timely fashion. Three months later we still lack a private entrance, a cover for our patio's umbrella (although we just received an overhead fan as well as some inadequate curtains). Last week she was to replace the cracked glass of our dining room table, which the workers said would be cut in a day. Now they tell her it is difficult, even though they did not take the irregular wood frame (which was lighter than the glass) with them for custom fitting. In construction here there are few standard fittings, right angles, or other reliable measurements. All appears slightly not true, in carpentry terms, and bears the individual eccentricities of the workmen. Needless to say, after a week, "Yes, we have no dining table."

Back to Maria's mindset: Socially she tells others we are her "friends" and "like family." Yet when we sit down to negotiate with her over delays, broken promises and the like, she puts on her public face and specializes in excuses. I'll try to reproduce one of these conversations in English:

CE (I'm called "Diego" here): Do you know when our private entrance will be ready?

Maria: The stairs are nearly finished, Diego, but won't be safe to walk on for several weeks, especially given how big you are.

CE: So when?

M: Well, you must understand that it's a really impractical entrance. The door will be too small for you and we can't enlarge it because the bottom abuts our cistern.

CE: Oh.

M: And besides, you'd have to go through my son's garage and I worry that the upholstery people across the street might burglarize us if you forget to lock the garage, and you know my son's truck isn't paid off yet.

CE: Is that all?

M: Well, I was planning to move my two big Neapolitan Mastiffs into the garage after I rent the new house, and your guests might be afraid of them.

(I've purposely left out all my questions and solutions in this conversation because they are of no account, as in: "How can the mason and your friends as well walk the stairs if they are unsafe? We're happy with the small entrance, it's a nice little hobbit hole, besides I have to duck under nearly every door frame in this country. We'll be sure to lock the garage and watch for burglars. Certainly we can befriend your dogs?")

CE: So when might we expect the keys to our own entrance?

M: I'm sorry, I can't say.

CE: And when will we get a cover for the large umbrella on our upper patio so we can sit in the sun?

M: I would have gotten you one by now except that I couldn't find any Madeira wood, and I want to do it right so that it lasts a long time.

(Here I should explain that the umbrella's wrought iron skeleton is an octagon apx. 8' by 8', and two of the eight triangles that make up said frame have been partly covered with cheap bamboo by two old men who sit and discuss how to cut and where to place the next stalk, but have since disappeared. I don't bother to mention such details to Maria as it would be fruitless, yielding yet another long explanation. My suggestion for a canvas cover was, of course, rejected as too temporary a solution, though most of what I see here either constructed or repaired is temporary, at least by German standards.)

I trust the reader gets the general flavor of such discussion, what Transactional Analysis deemed the "Yes-But" game. Yet things do eventually get done in Mexico, though rarely as planned or promised. I have a proverb to help my sanity in this regard: "In Mexico patience is the equivalent of efficiency." In other words, "Mañana," or as John Lennon titled a song, "Tomorrow Never Knows."

On one occasion I did pursue Maria's excuses to their logical ends for over an hour until she finally admitted that the unfinished state of our dwelling was actually due to a cash-flow problem. When I mentioned this to Americans who have lived here for years they were amazed that I got her to admit to such a thing. Yet the energy it took to strip her of her masks was not worth the result, as she delayed doing anything for a month afterwards--either because I had furnished her a new excuse, or else passive-aggressive payback for having "faced" her privately.

I could relate many other illustrative anecdotes, from a pharmacy mix-up that nearly rendered me unconscious to receiving a strange, milky substance after trying to order eggs "over easy"; from cheap car repairs that last a week to trying to find my shoe size, or making a report to the police about my lost wallet (for which they referred me to a local radio station's "Lost and Found" hotline). If I tell all my anecdotes I'll never finish this column, and it's already late. Besides, I prefer cheap generalizations. I mean, Aristotle said horses had 32 teeth without ever counting them, and philosophy comes easier to me than narrative. So for any who wish to stay in Mexico for an extended time (and I don't mean border or tourist towns), here are Dr. Chaffin's short list of tips for an easier experience:

In Mexico:

1) Never trust an appointment time. Always confirm by phone whenever possible.

2) Do not go after the day; let the day come to you.

3) Never take "Yes" for an answer without corroborative evidence.

4) Never ask one class to do the work of another.

5) Don't express anger publicly except as a last resort, though as such it is an extremely effective tool, as everyone scrambles to avoid any embarrassment.

6) Don't suggest new solutions to old problems; you will be thought at best eccentric, more likely stupid.

7) Never discuss money until the end of a negotiation and try not to bring it up first. This attitude may arise from Spanish aristocratic disdain for handling money, but trust me: no one will bring you the check in a restaurant unless you ask for it.

8) Do not directly contradict a Mexican in conversation; always include a polite exit strategy.

9) In bad neighborhoods keep your dog on a leash (unless it happens to be a very good fighter and can defeat the new alpha male of every block).

10) If the Mexican people's nature most resembles stone, be prepared to wear them down like water.

11) Avoid Mexican postal services. Delays and attrition will often cost you more than Fed-Ex.

12) When it comes to mechanical devices even as simple as knives and scissors, don't buy anything made in Mexico.

13) If you want something done right and you can't do it, accept what you get. The alternative is to shoot yourself.

14) It is stupid to argue with those a class above you and silly to ask advice from those below you. Most people just want their orders, not discussions.

15) Don't expect the police to help with justice. They prefer to keep the peace.

16) Do not place yourself in the hands of a Mexican doctor, nor your pet in the hands of a Mexican vet, if at all possible.

17) Whenever disagreeing, always pretend to agree.

18) Give exact change to service people or they may keep the extra; tipping appears to be optional, yet somewhat expected from norte americanos.

19) Dress down; the less wealthy you appear, the less chance a Mexican will take advantage of you. There exists a Mexican price and an American price for nearly everything (especially property and rentals).

20) To repeat: "In Mexico, patience is equivalent to efficiency."

Another saying besides the well-known "mañana" that may help: When strange things happen here, whether magical coincidences or disconnections--as when you meet an old friend you thought dead or your maid doesn't show up, or when you're convinced you saw the colors of La Virgen de Guadalupe in the sunset, then wake to no running water, simply say, as we do, "¿Es Mexico, no?."


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