Cultural Literacy

I wrote that blog post back in January, 2008, days after receiving my carta de naturalizacion, which had only been signed half a year before. I’d intended to write something acknowledging the anniversary, but then it just slipped past me. Maybe that’s a sign that being a Mexican by choice is just so much a part of who I am that I no longer need to remember the date.

I had just returned from Bogota, when I was awakened with a call from SRE, telling me “Your carta has arrived, but you’ll need to take the test.”
Bring it on.

Well, they hadn’t created the test yet.

“Create one, because I’ll be in your office tomorrow at noon.”
“You’ll have to know the Himno Nacional.”
So I spent the night studying and memorizing all of the stanzas of the Himno Nacional, but I was damned if I’d sing it. (I knew that I wouldn’t have to.) Admittedly, it got a little edgy, wondering if they’d spring something on me like what the real name of Guadalupe Victoria was. I kept telling myself that they really didn’t want me to give them a dissertation on the differences between the Estrada Doctrine and the Castaneda Doctrine, reminding myself that after all I was a lawyer and had even passed a bar exam. And the test should probably be designed so even Guatemalans could pass it.
I enter the office and surrender my FM-2. The delegado stamps my receipt for it, which is a signal that I’m going to pass. She ushers me to a table in her office to take the test. Nothing I’d studied was on the test, but I could pass it. I do have to say that most people could not. Not even a lot of natural-born Mexicans. It wasn’t easy. But I’m determined. I blank on naming the state where Chichen Itza is located, first writing Quintana Roo, and know that’s not right. Yucatan. I do not want to tell her that she’s mispelled Chichen Itza, but as she’s looking over my shoulder, I ask “It’s in Yucatan, right?” She says it is.
I write out all ten stanzas of the Himno Nacional. Her jaw drops. “You know that?”
Yeah, bring it on.
“You really do know your Mexican writers, don’t you?” she says, amazed that I could name more than the requested three.
“Would you like to know Benito Juarez’ mother’s apellido?  By the way, the test is supposed to be administered orally, so as not to discriminate against those who cannot read and write,” I tell her, just in case she wants to know for future reference. I like to be helpful in that kind of way, but only after I’ve got what I want.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Last week I asked several Mexican friends a few basic questions about this country, just to test their cultural literacy.

I started out with asking them to name a few Mexican writers. The first insisted that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Mexican writer. Doesn’t Colombia ring a bell? The second came up with Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, claiming that he couldn’t think of any more off the bat. The third admitted that she could not name a single one. Haven’t these folks heard of Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlos Pellicer, Denise Dresser, Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, Ramon Lopez Velarde, Manuel Othon, Manuel Gutierrez Najera, Elena Poniatowska, Anita Brenner, Carlos Monsivàis, Homero Aridjis, Juan Rulfo, Guadalupe Loaeza, Laura Esquivel, Margo Glantz, Sara Sefchovich and and Guadalupe Marín, just for starters? Do they ever read the newspaper

One out of the three could not name the jefe de gobierno of…

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Why I Live in Morelia

A better choice for anyone who is trying to decide between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro would be to consider Morelia. It has all that both these towns have – and more. And I’m going to tell you why.

Like me, it’s old shoe.

In Morelia, expats just are. There is critical mass, but they’re scattered throughout the city. Some are retirees, some teach and research, some work at home and on the outside, some spread the word of a Christian god, some are married to Mexicans, some are Mexicans by choice, and some are there only because a loved one found himself unwelcome in the Otro Lado.

The newly-landed go crazy taking photos of every fiesta, parade and barber’s gardener’s third cousin’s wedding, performing good and charitable works, and proclaiming themselves 90-day wonders. Those who’ve been here a while are content to shoot photos of their dogs, friends, and gardens. And food at restaurants, just because taking photos of food has replaced saying a blessing over the repast.

Physicians, Walmart workers, mechanics, and even bureaucrats speak English in this town, but they don’t make a point of bragging about it. They’re content to let a gringo make a muddled but honest effort to speak some Spanish before letting on that the conversation could continue in English. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses speak English in this town.

There once was a weekly gathering of English-speakers in Morelia, but as the numbers of English-speakers grew in this town, interest in the group dwindled to the point that a monthly meeting met their needs. But what do I know about that? After presiding over that group for two long years in the century last past, I never went back.  I figure I’ve paid my dues.

It’s easy to go days without seeing another gringo, and that’s just fine with the expats who live here. Even those whose Spanish won’t win them any awards.

There’s no AA group branding itself as bilingual, but one can be created at the drop of a need.

Morelia’s the kind of town where the Costco manager will introduce himself, and in English, to customers, asking them how they’re being treated. It’s the kind of place where parking lot attendants remember you. Get yourself admitted to Star Medica in an emergency, and even if you’re speaking enough Spanish, someone in the emergency room will come up and speak English.

This is the kind of town where you can run into people you haven’t seen in a decade, and pick up the conversation right where you left off.  There’s a steady, evenness to this town. Long before moving here, I asked Montgomery Budd, a long-time expat now long since expired, what the business of Morelia was. “Business is the business of Morelia” was his reply. Beyond being the home base for Cinepolis, an enterprise of the Organizacion Ramirez, which is the largest movie chain in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world, Morelia is government, education, and finance. It’s a clean city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the planned communities of Tres Marias and Altozano, great shopping and greater golf courses, but it’s also a homey kind of place. It’s the kind of place where you can easily go to the same dentist since 1985, go to the same beauty salon for more than a decade and a half, and where you can run into someone who spent a year at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.

Beyond learning a few words of a language that’s not your native tongue, be prepared to gain some cultural literacy. We have no English-language newspaper published in this town, and copies of news printed in English are limited and expensive. But that’s what the Internet’s for, isn’t it?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find menus written in English in this town. But really, how hard is it to learn how to read a menu in Spanish?

I think that foreigners should be required to take periodic tests on their knowledge of Mexican history and culture. Hell, for all I care, those questions could be grabbed from SRE’s citizenship exam, starting with really easy ones.

A year or so back, I am having breakfast with two expats in San Miguel de Allende. Both have advanced degrees, committed respectable work back in the Old Country, and one is going on and on about some festival or workshop celebrating poetry, ukuleles, and empowered women.  I bring up my exam idea, posing it as gently as I could when they asked what kind of questions might be asked.

For starters, can you name the state capital of the state in Mexico where you live? (Hint: it’s eponymous.)  Uh, San Miguel de Allende? No.

Can you name the current president of Mexico? Is it Cardenas-somebody? No, and it’s not Porfirio Diaz either.

A successful Estadounidense businesswoman comes by to boast about how special and magic the town is. “Everyone’s so bright and special here,” she tells me. She assures me that something bright and special and magic will happen the very minute these people cross the Rio Bravo, and even to those who might sally up from Morelia. I ask her if I’ll become bright and special were I to move to San Miguel de Allende. She promises me that I will. I laugh in her face. I don’t think she appreciated that.

Morelia’s expats prize continuity and substantial investment in their community over excited flurries of novelty. In more ways than one, we mirror the conservatism of the Mexican community. Foreigners who live in Morelia – or anywhere in Michoacán for that matter – aren’t special, don’t feel the magic, and heck, we’re not even feeling particularly entitled. We just are. And that’s what makes Morelia the perfect, Goldilocks kind of place for me.