5 Things Mexicans Say to Avoid the Word “No”

5 Things Mexicans Say to Avoid the Word “No”. Excellent article by Susannah Rigg.

An "Aha!" into Mexican Culture

Agreeing on a time to meet and then having the other person show up late. Very late, at least by the clock. Or perhaps they don’t show up at all. You call the person. “Oops; plans changed. Can’t meet.”

Every expatriate living in Mexico knows that locals and expats often have very different orientations to time. It’s Mexican Culture 101. But knowing the difference, expecting the difference, doesn’t necessarily make it less frustrating when you’re living it on a daily basis.

Live and learn. That’s, hopefully, the story of life and most definitely the story of living abroad—a new adventure every day. We have sure learned a lot about Mexican and Mazatleco culture in the past four years of living here.

One of the learnings we’ve had that has really stood out for me this week is something I call “auto-protectivos” or “self-protectiveness.” In my day job I run a collaborative project in which we publish materials and a method for collaborating across cultures. I remember talking at length with my good friend, Rossana, co-author of Cultural Detective Mexico, after we first moved here. I told her that in my experience with Mexicans I didn’t really “get” the value she writes about called auto-protectivos. At the time she gave me lots of examples and talked me through it. It made sense. But I can’t recall what she taught me. I suppose I was not yet ready for it. I kept thinking, “but most Mexicans are very inclusive and welcoming. They’re not self-protective,” which I somehow saw as exclusionary.

On a very separate train of thought, I have repeatedly marveled at how Mexicans (or at least Mazatlecos) lack consideration for others. Please remember that I lived for years in Japan, the land of consideration for others. Any culture seems lacking in consideration compared to that. I’ve never felt locals here in Mexico lack consideration in a deep sense, as they are very loving people by and large. But in a superficial sense, more like: do they scoot down on a bench to make room for you to sit down or do you need to ask them? Or do they serve themselves food at a buffet without thinking about leaving some for those following them in line, that sort of thing.

Well, it turns out these two very different things — self-protection and my perception of lack of consideration — are actually very interrelated. I’ve finally developed my own “sense” around what this value that Rossana so kindly taught me means. It is fascinating how the learning comes in waves when you live overseas.

Let me share with you a few examples, from our experience, of when local friends have behaved (or we should have behaved) in a self-protective way, and how that relates to a possible outsider perception of lack of consideration for others:

  1. Yesterday, Greg and his compadre showed up at Sergio’s (another buddy’s) house at about 5:00 in the afternoon on a Friday, unannounced. Sergio greeted them in sweat pants and an undershirt. He got them plastic chairs and a beer and set them out in the shade of the street. He told them he’d be right back, and went inside to shower. We can’t imagine this happening in the States. If friends were to show up at my house unannounced, I might take a couple of minutes to change my blouse or to freshen my hair or face, but I’d sit down with my guests right away. But here the “wait while I bathe or finish what I’m doing” happens all the time, in our experience. While in the beginning I’d feel guilty for disturbing someone (“I should have called so they could have been ready”), I am now able to see their reaction as very functional auto-protectivo behavior. Sergio needed to bathe. He was happy to see his friends. He knew he’d be more comfortable if he were clean and refreshed, and he knew they would wait. They were comfortable. He was comfortable. All was well. No stress.
  2. Example two: Also yesterday, Danny had an event with a friend. He had another meeting with a second friend scheduled after the first. He was really excited about the first meeting. He wanted to make the second meeting, but more out of a desire to help a friend in need, more out of obligation. Well, at lunch we reminded Danny, who is by now quite bicultural but very responsible about his commitments to friends, “If you are having a great time this afternoon, don’t let the clock regulate you. Just call your other friend and tell him you’re running late. Take the time to enjoy yourself with your friend in the afternoon.” Well, sure enough, Danny did have a great time in the afternoon. When he called the second friend to tell him he’d be latE, the friend told him that oh, by the way, he’d have to cancel after all, because plans had changed. All was well. Everyone was happy. No worries. Four years ago, Danny would have ended his afternoon fun, arrived at the meeting spot on time by the clock for his second friend, had his friend not show, and then feel bad that he’d been blown off. It does strike me that this “self-protection” or taking care of yourself is actually a really healthy thing that a lot of gringos can learn from.
  3. Example three: We have a very good friend who is very handy. We often hire him to fix things for us around the house. He’s a compadre, so we’ve been all over the hora mexicana or hora gringa thing over the years. We both know cultures are different, and we know we are who we are. This morning our friend was due to come to our house at 10 am to fix an air conditioning thermostat that had gone bad. Greg and I needed to run a few errands. I said, “let’s go run them. Call him and let him know you’ll be back by 10:30. That way we can get our stuff done and still be on time by the Mexican clock.” “No,” Greg said, “I want to wait for him.” We talked it over. We decided that most probably he would arrive later than the appointed time, and we needed to take care of our own needs. If he arrived while we were out, he would call us or wait for us. So, we ran our errands. Got home about 10:45. Our friend had not come while we were out. When he did arrive just prior to noon, we were not at all inconvenienced. We had gotten done in the morning what we needed to get done. We had not inconvenienced ourselves, and we were happy to see our friend.

By exercising self-protectiveness in this cultural milieu, we don’t find ourselves getting upset at having waited, and we are able to take care of ourselves. It’s a very workable way of doing things. Importing some foreign concept of time or consideration of others just doesn’t bring joy or value to life here. We all have to find our own way, and acculturation is an ongoing process. We sure are enjoying the journey!

Expat Lifestyles in Mazatlán: Cathy and Bill

One of the cool things about foreigners who move to Mazatlán is the variety of lifestyles they can adopt here. While the vast majority are retirees, more and more we see families and working people relocating to Mazatlán.

At one end of the continuum we meet extranjeros who live very Mexican lives, adopting the culture, speaking the language and, perhaps, obtaining citizenship.

On the other hand we meet those who have little desire (or sometimes ability) to learn Spanish, who socialize primarily or exclusively with non-Mexicans, and who in many ways have replicated their lives from NOB (north of the border). People at both extremes seem to live happy and fulfilling lives here, which is great to see.

And, of course, there are lifestyles representing every combination in between these two extremes, including many who volunteer ceaselessly and selflessly and many who party and sunbathe daily, living the retirement life they always dreamed of. We have artists, lifelong students, those who start small businesses, and those who remodel and restore historic homes.

Amidst so much diversity, Cathy and Bill stand out. They don’t fit into the most common expat categories, and they are one of the most interesting couples I’ve met here. Both in their fifties, Bill has recently retired and Cathy is nearing retirement. They originate from the US east coast. A few years ago they vacationed in Mazatlán, fell in love, and bought a house on their very first trip here: on a whim, so to speak. The home they bought is in a typical, centrally located Mexican neighborhood. No modern marina area or Centro Histórico, areas in which many other expats live and where perhaps things might be easier for them. Ok, plenty of other foreigners live in neighborhoods with few foreigners. But, neither Cathy nor Bill spoke Spanish when they bought their home, though they are taking lessons and learning quickly. Talk about jumping into the pool rather than checking the temperature first with your toes!

They are not like some retirees who live in the typical neighborhoods because there they can live on social security and a small pension because life is cheaper. Nor do they live in a gated community with killer views. Cathy and Bill live in a nice home a block from the beach, in a mixed-use neighborhood of small homes and businesses.

What’s remarkable to me about Cathy and Bill is how completely open they are to the culture and the people here, despite their initial lack of language and experience with Mexico. To me as an interculturalist, getting to know them has been a breath of fresh air. We witness a lot of unfortunate cross-cultural misunderstanding and negative judgment in our daily lives here, and we ourselves are not immune to it as we create our community here. But Cathy and Bill are excellent role models of how to be open minded, and how to jump into a new community wholeheartedly.

They have befriended their neighbor, an air conditioner repair guy, who has “taken them under his wing,” so to speak. He has welcomed Cathy and Bill as a member of the family and local community. Thus, the couple is invited to the kids’ baseball games, school performances, and every extended family party and event. And Cathy and Bill go. They don’t let the lack of language or cultural understanding stop them; they see these as an opportunity to learn, to build friendships, and to build community. Their circle of friends here keeps growing exponentially, as they learn local slang, how to make ceviche, or how to rehab a car Mazatleco-style.

We first got to know them in the way we first connect with many of the foreigners we know here in town: online. Greg probably answered a few questions they had about living here. He happened to mention our plans to attend a Banda El Recodo concert with our neighbors. They asked us to buy tickets for them to attend as well. The first time we met them was when we delivered the tickets to their house.

We have not had the good fortune to get to know a lot of foreigners in town who attend bandaconcerts, though I know they exist. In fact, among the thousands of people attending that concert, I honestly believe we were about the only foreigners at the event. Cathy and Bill’s excitement about attending this concert paralleled our own. They didn’t stress, as so many new immigrants would, about the hours and hours we waited for the main event to commence. Concerns about safety or violence didn’t prevent their attendance, as it does so many others. They danced and hooted with everyone else, taking photos and videotaping with sheer delight. They ate and drank the local food, with no concern about getting sick. They looked around with us to try and figure out how people were getting chairs to sit on, and together we found the way and happily sat. Till the band came on, of course! It was really refreshing to witness in someone new to town; the differences seemed to energize them rather than intimidate them.

I can count on these two for a funny, self-deprecating story. They were recently invited to a “nephew’s” birthday party. Their friends explained and explained the location of the party to them. They drew them a map. The children attempted to explain in their best school kid English. But Cathy and Bill were still confused. But they’re committed. They drove around in circles, trying to find the location, until they finally found their friends waving at them: from Burger King! Yes, they hadn’t understood the Spanish pronunciation of those well-known words, but it didn’t hinder them from enjoying the party with their friends or from making the most of the story afterwards!

It so happens that in front of where Cathy and Bill live is a large empty lot. When they bought the house, they wondered about it: whether and when it would be developed, mostly. Little did they know that this lot becomes home to major city-wide events a few times a year. While the crowds, litter, noise till all hours of the morning, and dust might bother a lot of people, instead of complaining Cathy and Bill embrace the excitement. “What a great location we have the good fortune to live in,” they say!

Their open-mindedness and enthusiasm are supplemented with a real desire to thank those they feel have made their new home such a joy to them. Each fall for the past few years, when Cathy and Bill drive south to their winter home, they pack their vehicle to the brim with bicycles and sports equipment to give to local kids, and a few adults who are now able to get to work much more easily.

It’s people like Cathy and Bill who make me really proud to be an American. Thank you, friends.

Readers, I first wrote this post a year and a half ago. Somehow the file became corrupted, and this was never posted. Now that I’ve figured out how to “rescue” the file, I’d like to give you a short update.

Cathy and Bill drive down to Mazatlán every year. They spend their summers up in the US going to garage sales and second-hand stores, buying used baseball equipment, bicycles, baby swings — you name it, but things that people here might find useful and hard to find the extra money to purchase. They fill their truck and haul it all down here every fall. They spend the first month they are here finding good homes for all these items.Parties at their home have now become an annual tradition. The neighbors block traffic on the street, one neighbor cooks tacos, another provides the DJ service, Cathy and Bill provide the tables, chairs, paper ware and beer, and fun is had by all. Last time we went there had to be 150 people there; and the four of us the only foreigners! They have far more patience, perseverance, and tolerance for ambiguity than I could ever hope to have. They give so selflessly and so joyously, and their love is returned to them multiplied many times over.

They spend every weekend cheering on their local friends’ kids at the kids’ baseball games, and they’ve been invited to many, many homes and parties. Even though they are here part-time, their lives are so intertwined and important to their Mazatleco friends. It is really wonderful to see how loved they are. Just last night, their friends here hosted a surprise going-away party for these two. Over fifty people attended.

Way to go, Cathy and Bill! Thank you for helping keep Mazatlán the multicultural mix it has always been! And for helping make our world a better place. Enjoy your NOB summer! We will miss you!

RIP/DEP Caballo Blanco


In my post about our Copper Canyon trip I mentioned the terrific book, Born to Run, which first introduced me to El Caballo Blanco, an enigmatic gringo distance runner who fell in love with the Raramurí people and their home. I just read that Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco, was found dead in Gila Cliff Dwellings in southwestern New Mexico. He had been missing for four days, and was 58 years old. He died doing what he loved: running.

While I never met Micah, I will say he has been an inspiration for me. His apparent commitment to and respect for the land, nature, the local people and their way of life, to cross-cultural partnerships or convivencia, was wonderful to witness.

Descanse en paz, Caballo Blanco.


Lenten Program at School


Danny’s now gone to two different Catholic schools here in Mazatlán, and they both have required parents to attend meetings or retreats in order for the kids to get a better grade in religion class. I have trouble with that, but that’s not what this post is about. I do see that it motivates parents to attend and to learn.

I am a Christian and I love this time of Lent. This year I’m doing some social justice meditations along with Bible reading.

But, tonight as I was heading to school to the first of THREE required Lenten meetings, I was not in the best frame of mind. I also have a horrible cold, and am at the point where a tissue needs to constantly be in my hand, and a lozenge in my throat, so I felt very sorry for my neighbors sitting near me.

Anyway, tonight ended up being really interesting. I am so glad I went. There were four married couples on stage, all different ages, from married 8 years with young children to married 36 years with grandkids. The theme of the evening was “weathering economic crisis in your marriage.” The couples each took turns answering a series of three questions on the topic.

Each of the four women said that, when they married, they expected to not have to work. And the husbands all said they expected to be the family provider. All four of them then went on to describe that times have changed from our parents’ days, and nowadays both spouses need to work to maintain a family; it’s the reality and most everyone has to learn to adapt. The couples all told poignant stories about the emotions they went through, and the blame or judgment they heaped on each other, as they worked through to the reality that they would both need to work.

The answers to the first question were pretty astounding to me. I have a couple of girlfriends here who work, and both of them keep their money separate from their husband’s money. The idea seems to be that the man’s duty is to provide for the family, and any money the women makes is her to use as she pleases: things for herself, special items for the kids, etc. But, I’d always figured my friends were exceptions to the rule. Greg and I have always pooled our money, and I figured most Mexicans must, too.

All four of the couples who spoke this evening, however, shared that same perspective as my local girlfriends: that the wife’s income should be for “extras” and the man’s income for the basics. The men want to be the breadwinners; the women want to be provided for. This shocked me. Though I know it’s true in a lot of places, to experience it so blatantly and close to home, when it’s so completely different than the assumptions I grew up with, was interesting for me.

Then, three out of the four couples proceeded to explain that this solution of keeping incomes separate was not a sustainable or constructive one, that pooling the two incomes was better. The fourth couple had actually pooled their money for a while, and then decided to go in the reverse direction, to the “Dad pays for the necessities and I pay for the extras” route, so that the wife could still feel that her husband was “taking care of” them, and so that Daddy could feel he was doing the bread (or tortilla) winning.

The other questions involved how the couples had weathered unemployment, and whether they had ever lived beyond their means and how they’d gotten “out from under” if they had.

The beautiful thing, for me, was that these couples all spoke from the heart. They shared the anger and doubt they’d gone through, they shared that they’d made poor decisions, they put themselves in a vulnerable position in front of hundreds of other parents, many of whom they know. It was so powerful, and so moving.

Just a little reflection and personal anecdote on a Tuesday night.