Real life in beautiful and ugly Guadalajara.
category: culture

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’re observing ‘weather’ when we see snow drifts, hear thunder, or feel all slimy, smelly and sticky in the 96° heat at 92% humidity …  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’t know or eat some exotic food, and feel as though we’re experiencing a bit of ‘culture’… 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’ve 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’re 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 ‘discover’ about Mexico and its citizens, from a distance?

… very little. 

It’s 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,  “Oh, 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.”   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’s most likely because you either are in fact Lisa Simpson or you’re still in college.. or both.  Naturally, through the lens of ‘higher learning’, 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… what if you said this:   “Oh, I love Mexican clouds!  When they look like they’re going to rain, the rain really comes.  They’re not so deceptive like the clouds where I’m from…”  How do you imagine the applause for that one?  Surely no one would disagree… and hell, it makes just as brilliant a remark as the other “Oh, I love it…!” one mentioned further above.   I don’t know.. maybe you’re getting a nagging urge to enlighten the poor dumb bastard writing this slop, and interject here that ‘culture’ and ‘clouds’ are two completely unrelated things?  And that in fact culture is far more, ‘complex’, than mere clouds?   If so, I can assure you – you didn’t get it.  But feel free to come back and take a swing at it when you manage to get beyond your college years.

Mexican clouds

The problem with describing culture, especially a very diverse one like here in Mexico, is that it’s 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’ve read on the subject.   In the event you decide to head down here, don’t 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’t.  Those who speak Spanish will have a distinct experience from those who don’t; 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… as well as one who stays in a city from another who stays in a small town;  one who’s catholic from one who’s protestant, from one who’s 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’t… and so on and so on…

When you read a book about culture.. anywhere..  you’re 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’s experience becomes, in whatever way it might, your experience… which really is no experience.  Not at all the likely intention of the author, to be sure, though it’s almost always the inevitable outcome.  

However – when you physically enter a new culture, you don’t meet ‘the masses’.  It’s 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’s an extreme divide between reading about a culture, and finding yourself among what in any book is nothing more than ‘them’.   Visitor or not, whether you even realize it or not, you become a part, however significant or microscopic, of your newly discovered culture’s 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… and our human nature is universal.   Sound too simplistic?  It is.  Or maybe it sounds just plain twisted.  It’s that too.

What’s 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 “Ah well, that’s Mexico…”?   Bueno, I don’t see it that way.  I see a three year-old boy that wants to play with the other kids’ hot wheels, but somehow just can’t 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’s far more dangerous…  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’t care less.  Many are dirt poor, and many are quite well-off.  I’ve 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?  …or anywhere else for that matter.  The point is that there is no “Mexicans this, or Mexicans that” kind of analysis that’s 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…


August 24th, 2010

You did it again, bud! I love the way you strip away the veneer, and show us the wood beneath, whether it’s worm-eaten or not.

A great post, and one that every world traveler should read and think about.

Bien hecho!


August 26th, 2010

Doc, thanks for the kind words… actually, I was feeling more that I had stripped all the wood away and left only the veneer… and kept some of the worms around too.. But I’m quite content now.. seeing it your way.

Salud, cabrón!

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