Culture is like the weather in many ways.¬† We suppose that either one is ordinarily predictable, yet can be frighteningly spontaneous given any set of circumstances.¬† Both tend to be topics of extremely boring conversation, except when tragic death, destruction and open wounds are involved.¬† We think we‚Äôre observing ‚Äėweather‚Äô when we see snow drifts, hear thunder, or feel all slimy, smelly and sticky in the 96¬į heat at 92% humidity ‚Ä¶¬† and it may very well be so.. what else would you call it?¬†¬† Likewise, we see clothing that strikes us as odd, hear a song in a language we don‚Äôt know or eat some exotic food, and feel as though we‚Äôre experiencing a bit of ‚Äėculture‚Äô‚Ä¶ perhaps this also is true.¬† ¬†Both, definitely, are something that we can praise or blame for just about anything.
The esteemed anthropologist, however, is quite distinct from the lowly weatherman.¬† Local nightly news team weather gurus demand our attention far more for their charming personalities than for their ability to predict gusty winds or cold fronts.¬† We have weather all around us.¬† By experience we‚Äôve learned to accept the daily forecast with a grain of salt. On the other hand, the anthropologist can often enjoy a far greater margin of error when under public scrutiny.¬† ¬†We‚Äôre not immersed in the world of which he speaks.¬†¬†We have nothing to verify this acclaimed expert of distant cultures beyond his carefully chosen words and images from afar.
But what, really, should we expect to ‚Äėdiscover‚Äô about Mexico and its citizens, from a distance?
‚Ä¶ very little.¬†
It‚Äôs quite common for foreigners visiting or living here to be asked what they think of Mexican culture.¬† A simple question to answer, one would think.¬† And should you wish to keep it superficial and polite, perhaps you could mumble some sweet nothing like, ¬†‚ÄúOh, I love it!¬† People are so friendly here and know how to truly enjoy the things in life the rest of us take for granted.‚ÄĚ¬†¬† But if you can pull that one off without the bashful guilt of feeling like some wide-eyed Lisa Simpson type.. not to mention without itching all over, it‚Äôs most likely because you either are in fact Lisa Simpson or you‚Äôre still in college.. or both.¬† Naturally, through the lens of ‚Äėhigher learning‚Äô, a response like this makes such perfect sense.¬† And to be fair, the question, normally posed as no more than a means of making light conversation, is by no means a call to go jumping into the deep water.¬†
But just ponder the possibilities‚Ä¶ what if you said this:¬†¬† ‚ÄúOh, I love Mexican clouds!¬† When they look like they‚Äôre going to rain, the rain really comes.¬† They‚Äôre not so deceptive like the clouds where I‚Äôm from‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ¬† How¬†do you imagine the applause for that one?¬† Surely no one would disagree‚Ä¶ and hell, it makes just as¬†brilliant a remark¬†as the other ‚ÄúOh, I love it‚Ä¶!‚ÄĚ one mentioned further above. ¬†¬†I don‚Äôt know.. maybe you‚Äôre getting a nagging urge to enlighten the poor dumb bastard writing this slop, and interject here that ‚Äėculture‚Äô and ‚Äėclouds‚Äô are two completely unrelated things?¬† And that in fact culture is far more, ‚Äėcomplex‚Äô, than mere clouds? ¬†¬†If so, I can assure you ‚Äď you didn‚Äôt get it.¬† But feel free to come back and take a swing at it when you manage to get beyond your college years.
The problem with describing culture, especially a very diverse one like here in Mexico, is that it‚Äôs next to impossible to draw out in a manner by which another can equally comprehend it.¬† ¬†When explaining to someone what to expect, the best suggestion would be to expect nothing, regardless of however many books they‚Äôve read on the subject. ¬†¬†In the event you decide to head down here, don‚Äôt fall into the trap of focusing on what previous fellow outsiders have written..¬† Far better would be to live here a while, and then pick up the book and see how it coincides with your personal experience.¬†
How a visitor sees a culture depends far more on the visitor than the culture itself.¬† The kind of individual you are, what you do wherever you go, and what you do in life are going to be the prism through which you observe anything new.¬† A person who stays in Mexico a week will leave with a much different impression than one who stays here a year or longer.¬† One who works will see things differently than one who doesn‚Äôt.¬† Those who speak Spanish will have a distinct experience from those who don‚Äôt; one who comes alone from one who arrives with friends or family;¬† one who comes from a city from another who comes from the countryside‚Ä¶ as well as one who stays in a city from another who stays in a small town;¬† one who‚Äôs catholic from one who‚Äôs protestant, from one who‚Äôs not at all religious; ¬†a person more to the political left from another more to the right; an optimist from a pessimist from a realist;¬† one who works for the government from one who works in the marketplace;¬† one who drives a car from one who doesn‚Äôt‚Ä¶ and so on and so on‚Ä¶
When you read a book about culture.. anywhere..¬† you‚Äôre introduced to a mass of people, all homogenously characterized by the name and perhaps face of one or a handful of individuals that the author crossed paths with.¬† And that person‚Äôs experience becomes, in whatever way it might, your experience‚Ä¶ which really is no experience.¬† Not at all the likely intention of the author, to be sure, though it‚Äôs almost always the inevitable outcome.¬†¬†
However – when you physically enter a new culture, you don‚Äôt meet ‚Äėthe masses‚Äô.¬† It‚Äôs you now, who meets the individuals. ¬†¬†In no longer than it takes to lay down a book, the anecdotal, journalistic and statistical nature of cultural studies vanishes in a realm where the human nature of individuals, within a framework of history, beliefs, politics, economy, language, education, and most importantly, daily necessity, drives the unstoppable evolution of culture.¬†¬† There‚Äôs an extreme divide between reading about a culture, and finding yourself among what in any book is nothing more than ‚Äėthem‚Äô.¬† ¬†Visitor or not, whether you even realize it or not, you become a part, however significant or microscopic, of your newly discovered culture‚Äôs endless, crawling metamorphosis.
Every individual in any society has an influence over the surrounding culture.¬† From those that most vociferously rebel against whatever the norms may be, to those who feebly bow to every standard without a hint of question.¬† ¬†Culture is determined by individuals, however many million there may be within it.¬† Most certainly, the culture we live in influences our behavior, but our behavior and individuality are determined by human nature‚Ä¶ and our human nature is universal.¬† ¬†Sound too simplistic?¬† It is.¬† Or maybe it sounds just plain twisted.¬† It‚Äôs that too.
What‚Äôs this got to do with Mexico, you ask?¬† The same as it does for any country or society.¬† The healthy development of any culture depends on how many of its individuals are willing to take on and overcome the more unhealthy aspects of our human nature. ¬†¬†
If you saw a philandering Mexican man beat his wife nearly to death after he discovers that she too had the audacity to have slept with someone else, would you just cynically chuckle and say ‚ÄúAh well, that‚Äôs Mexico‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ? ¬†¬†Bueno, I don‚Äôt see it that way.¬† I see a three year-old boy that wants to play with the other kids‚Äô hot wheels, but somehow just can‚Äôt emotionally cope when any of the kids touch his new Tonka bulldozer. ¬†¬†This is the pathetic child I see.. driven by no more than raw human nature, in the body of a grown man, married for no other reason I can think of than the devil having been bored one slimy, smelly and sticky afternoon in hell.¬† ¬†Only in the body of the grown man, he‚Äôs far more dangerous‚Ä¶¬† leaving the rest of us to face the unfortunate choice between putting up with him or having him put to sleep, as is the only responsible course of action with any rabid dog.
But whatever… this concept of culture¬†is not for loving or hating, respecting or disrespecting.¬† All of that you do with people.¬† Some people are friendly, some not.¬† Some are very culturally sensitive, others couldn‚Äôt care less.¬† Many are dirt poor, and many are quite well-off.¬† I‚Äôve met many extraordinarily intelligent and resourceful people, and others who are just plain stupid, their supposed education levels not being as much a factor as you might imagine.¬† Reminds you of the U.S., eh?¬† ‚Ä¶or anywhere else for that matter.¬† The point is that there is no ‚ÄúMexicans this, or Mexicans that‚ÄĚ kind of analysis that‚Äôs going to be really useful to you should you ever decide to come.¬† You’ll have to ‘discover’ Mexico one person at a time.
It’s a fortunate thing for the weatherman that the¬†Mexican¬†clouds are not so complicated…