Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Getting Used to It All (or Not)

I am continually discovering Mexico's peculiarities. It's not that Mexico is peculiar, but rather that it is strange to see every day things done differently than I am accustomed to. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to learn that life in Mexico is lived in much the same way as in the US, but nonetheless it is peculiar to see ordinary things done in completely different ways. Grocery shopping, bread shops, bus trips all take on a distinct Mexican tint. Some customs I will adopt, while others are best left to the chilangos (Mexico City natives).

Newsstands are one of my favorite things in the city--though they, too, will take some getting used to. They are usually a combination of porn, new mother magazines, and the daily newspapers, which are usually filled with graphic pictures of brutal killings. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the three.

Holidays are another fascination of mine. I have consumed no fewer than three roscos (the Christ-filled sweet bread) since my last post about the celebration of the three wise men (El día de los magos), and I now owe several of my friends tamales next month. It further occurred to me today while watching previews at the movie theater that while Santa is certainly present in the Mexican culture, he is mostly used to sell things--almost every commercial featured St. Nick drinking Coca-cola, buying insurance, and using phone cards to call the US. On one occasion he was accompanied by two of the wise men--perhaps Santa is the third??

On my arrival in Coyoacán, my host father took me to the market. It is a classic Latin American market conducted in stalls that sell everything from meat hung up on a hook to spray bottles with a scent that promises to attract your lover. While I had visited many markets before, I was a bit intimidated by the thought of having to do all my grocery shopping there. Only a few more blocks away, however, is a supermarket (un "super") that has all the makings of a grocery store. And while they offer a wide array of standard items, from tampons to soy milk, I was hard-pressed to find face wash and the eggs are still kept unrefrigerated. Hopefully in the future I will be able to tell you about the more distinctly Mexican products they offer, but for now I stuck to the basics: bread, bananas, shampoo.

As most of you know, I am always game for a lively political conversation. That is what originally attracted me to Mexico City. The other night I was granted just that at a dinner with my host family and some of their guests: their married son, their daughter's boyfriend, and a professor from Tijuana with his wife. I couldn't always express myself as well as I wanted to (and chilango Spanish can be difficult to understand!), but the company entertained themselves by asking me intermittent questions about the states. Why had I come to Mexico? What do Americans really think of Mexicans? (To learn my true opinion, the professor asked me what he said was a telling question: Would I marry one?) Our conversation was peppered with occasional rants by the professor (always with his apologies) about the hegemony that the United States exercises over Mexico and Latin America. Mainly, however, they talked about things I knew nothing about: the former manager of PEMEX (the national oil company), candidates for the PAN... their conversation went well into the night and finished hours after I had gone to bed. If I mentioned mainly the male attendees of the party, that is because they were mostly the ones who did the talking. However, not to be confused, my host mother graduated in economics and her daughter knew plenty to throw in her own piece.

What was particularly interesting about their conversation was the way in which the topic of Mexican politics often led to a wider discussion of politics in Latin America in general: Lula in Brazil, Bachelette in Chile, Morales in Bolivia, Chávez in Venezuela, Castro in Cuba, Bush and Obama... When Latinos talk about America, they mean the whole of the Americas, not just our beloved United States. As my history professor commented to us the other day, while the US is focused mainly on the events inside its borders (and, it can be said, on the events it helps create beyond them), Mexicans have a much more broad scope. This is evident in the newspaper coverage as well, which in Mexico encompasses much more than the obligatory national news. 

My final note is about those things lost in translation. Today at the mall a Body Works store(similar to the American Bath and Body skin care store) sold products labeled in English and French, without a drop of Spanish. I used to think that product labels included French because they were sold there, but now I am sure that they are just there to be pompous. I bought myself a bottle of men's face wash because the "super" had been out and because it was cheap (I am pretty sure men don't go in Body Works anyway, as our token male can attest).

The movies also carried translations: "Four Christmases" with Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn became "Ni en tu casa, ni en la mía" (Neither in your house, nor in mine). Will Smith's "Seven Pounds" was "Siete almas" (Seven Souls). The Adam Sandler movie entitled "Bedtime Stories" was called "Cuentos que no son cuentos" (Stories that aren't made up). In most cases, I believe the Spanish translation was actually more accurate than the English version. I skipped the subtitles all together and saw the Mexican "Rudo y Cursi" starring my personal favorite, the gorgeous Gael García Bernal. As we left the theater we filtered back in to the mall, where we were affronted with stores of all types. They included Radioshack, Body Works, and an interestingly-named athletic shoe store:


  1. "They are usually a combination of porn, new mother magazines, and the daily newspapers, which are usually filled with graphic pictures of brutal killings. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the three." -- :) very clever :)

  2. no, seriously, once I wasn't sure


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