Reflections on Schooling in Mexico—Straight From the Source

One of the most common inquiries we get from readers has to do with how our son adjusted to the transition to Mexico. We’ve written about it before:

However, this time you can hear the story from the child’s perspective. Our son just returned home for winter break from his first semester at college in the States. He brought with him some sample homework assignments to share with us. One of them answers the question so often asked of us quite well. It is pasted below. He moved here with us after sixth grade, so he entered middle school/secundaria in Mazatlán and went on to complete high school/prepa as well.

Just before moving to Mazatlan.

Just before moving to Mazatlan.

White, middle-class, and worriless: these are three adjectives that adequately describe my childhood. I grew up in a suburb outside of Kansas City, Missouri where I attended grade school. My neighborhood was quite homogenous; our only real source of diversity came from a third-generation Mexican family and another Jewish family that lived a few streets down. However, as a young child I never took notice of this.It wasn’t until the events that closely followed my sixth grade graduation that I realized how uniform my place of living had been.

The day was young as I left school on my bike. The shade of oak trees provided me with a sense of relief after spending a hot, sunny afternoon in gym class. Despite the coolness under trees, I worked up a sweat by the time I arrived home. My helmet latch made a snapping noise as I hung it on the handlebars and made my way through the garage. I walked in and commenced my homework.

Shortly after, the parental squad came in and communicated that they had something to tell me. “Danny, we’re moving to Mexico this summer.” What? Mexico? Had my parents gone insane? I liked my life here, it was comfortable and easy! All I wanted to do was attend the local high school and act like the kids on MTV. I didn’t speak Spanish; everything on CNN was about how much drug violence there was in Mexico. My parents had lost it. My protests that day and throughout the following weeks fell on deaf ears. They were about to ruin my life, and I could do nothing about it.

I remember my sixth grade graduation fondly. I used to be just some other kid, but now I was, “the guy moving to Mexico.” My friends worshiped me, similar to the way that most sixth graders are amazed by high school students. As I got up on stage to receive some pointless award that my mother had pushed me to strive for, I remember the deafening applause and cheers that fell upon me. Even though I didn’t consider most of them as close friends, the moment felt good. It made me forget my melodramatic reaction to moving.

Flash forward to first day of school in Mexico. Everyone was brown. People stared at me. My uniform pants were too baggy and my shirt too tight. It was so hot here. Nervous shakes, sweaty palms, no eye-contact. I found a desk in what would be my homeroom for the next year and managed to avoid talking to anyone. An older man walked into the room and jabbered for a few minutes. Something that sounded like a slurred Latin spilled out of his mouth. This liquid dialect poured into everyone’s ears and was understood by their brains. It wasn’t by mine. I tried writing down the sounds I heard in a notebook so that later Google might be able to help me translate something (a mostly futile attempt).

My first few days at that school were filled with terrifying moments. Whenever someone asked me a question, my voice would crack. Every time a teacher had me introduce myself in a god-awful icebreaker, I would feel vertigo as I stood up from my desk. I didn’t eat lunch for the first few weeks because I was scared. The idea of asking for what I wanted off of a menu I didn’t understand with a line of hungry, unforgiving teenagers waiting behind me was too traumatic. I tried hard to avoid any awkward situation or any circumstance within which I could be made to look a fool. As a consequence, I learned the cues of Mexican culture and the Spanish language much more slowly than I would have had I not been so self-conscious.

An incidental character in my transition to Mexican culture was another American student whose name was Misty. She was going through the same culture shock as me, so you’d think we’d become great friends, yet we didn’t get along. I heard once that things you especially don’t like about other people were the things you don’t like about yourself. Who knows if that is true, but it was definitely the case with Misty and me. Misty was just as lost and confused as I was, just as emotional, but she handled it very differently. She expressed her emotion, frequently running crying to the bathroom when she didn’t understand something. She only spoke English when people asked her questions.

What I admired about her was that she seemed unafraid to try new things. She did everything that I wanted to do but couldn’t because of my ridiculous self-consciousness. I instantly hated her for it. Over the years, Misty and I became friends. We now joke about how much we despised each other. She hated me because I seemed to be doing better than her. I hated her because she felt a freedom I didn’t permit myself. Our relationship was based on envy and it was poisoned because of it.

I’ve learned a lot since then, though. I don’t try to fit in and be cool anymore. Because of this, I am usually happier and make better friends. In the U.S. I had always tried to fit in and had succeeded at doing so. In Mexico, being like everyone else, as a foreigner, was impossible for me. I think that has been my greatest lesson from living in Mexico. Of course, Spanish will look great on my resume, and I’m sure growing up in cultural diversity and as a minority will permit me a different perspective on some subjects. However, overcoming adversity in Mexico was the greatest lesson for me. I learned how to stop giving too much importance to what others thought of me. Sticking out doesn’t make you an outcast. That is what Mexico taught me. That is what being a minority taught me.

Six years later!

Six years later!

We hope this helps. Our son is wiser, stronger, and more resilient for having lived here. Good luck in your adventure!

The People You Touch

DSC_0808 Faces and Places of Colonia San Antonio

Every year we are privileged to be able to help the Medina family and all the others who help out with Desayuno de los Pollos. This year, thanks to help from so many of YOU, we have already been able to purchase 2500 whole chickens and pack up 1500 packs of despensas, or 10 days worth of food. This should feed about 13,000 families this year. We also take gently used clothes, toys and candy to share. In the slideshow below are photos of just a few of the people you touch. And, of course, they are people who very much touch us back in turn, making our holidays bright. (Click the arrows in the slideshow below to view photos more quickly. Please let me know what you think of these portraits! Thanks!)

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Yesterday I went out, as usual, with Yolanda and Jorge, to meet with community leaders of Colonia San Antonio. We handed out about 900 (!) tickets for food to members of the community. Why is this important? Because Colonia San Antonio, as so many other colonias on the outskirts of town (we give out food along 7-9 routes every year; San Antonio is just one of them), is an invasión. This means that the land on which the houses are built is privately owned, and the people living there are squatters. Normal procedure in these circumstances is that poor people move in, “squat” on the land, build homes out of pallets, recycled tarp, or even cardboard or metal. Eventually they band together and string electrical wire for themselves, and lay pipes for water. They have now done this in Colonia San Antonio.

Five or so years ago, when we first started going there to hand out chickens, they had neither water nor electricity. Now they do. I don’t see any transformers or breakers or anything, pretty much just a very long extension cord running from house to house. But, they do have electricity. Once the community grows large and successful enough, the city, or municipio, decides to access the colonia. The city pays the landowner for the land, and the people living in the invasión are required to start paying taxes.

The good news is, the squatters get to own their land and their homes. Some of the people who occupy the land in these invasiones, however, do not live there full time. Some come out to visit the homes they have only on the weekend, like a (very basic) country house. Others farm the land, but live in town. They basically squat as a way of making (a bit of) money, eventually, when the city decides to give the squatters a deed to the land they occupy.

Yolanda, Jorge and I go out here to meet with community leaders, so that they can take us around, home to home. They can tell us who lives here full time, and who only happens to be here once in a while. The community leaders tell us which families are most in need (maybe they need two chickens or packs of food, or extra clothing), and which are doing better than others. In this way, we can be as equitable as possible in what we hand out. This week, we were there from about 10 am till 2:00 pm.

It is one of my favorite days of the year. I am able to meet with incredible community leaders, people who themselves have fallen on hard times, don’t have much in the way of money, but who have the caring and the fortitude, the vision and the sense of justice, to better their communities. I also have the privilege to meet the people I’ve met with over the past five or so years that we’ve been going to Colonia San Antonio. I get to visit with people we know, and get a glimpse into how people there live.

This year, I made a point of taking photos of two things: the faces and the places of Colonia San Antonio. The first slide show, above, is of some of the faces of this invasión. You can see the joy, the dignity, and the difficulty these people experience every day. I have so very much to learn from so many of these people. I am so grateful to be able to meet with them and, hopefully, share with them a bit of joy and ease their burden just a bit.

The second slide show, below, is of the places: the homes, stores, and plazas of this colonia. It amazes me how simply people here live, how hard they work for what they have, yet how clean they keep their homes, the care and love they bestow on their children. How, despite the dust EVERYWHERE, most everyone has clean clothes and skin and hair. Nearly every home is decorated for the holidays, and many of them have beautiful demonstrations of religiosity as well, especially for the Virgen de Guadalupe. (Click on the arrows in the slideshow below to view all photos more quickly.)

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You are most welcome to join us on Christmas Eve morning, Wednesday this week, to caravan out to the 7-9 routes we’ll go on and hand out chickens, food, clothes, toys and candy. We’ll meet at Quince Letras downtown, 6:30 am if you have a pickup truck, 7:00 am if you are coming to help out. We should be finished by noon. Merry Christmas and see you Wednesday morning!

Part of the #MyGlobalLife Link-Up.

Don’t Fall Prey to Scams!

extorcion

Scams are everywhere. From Canada to Chile, Russia to Italy, and China to Australia, you can bet con artists are eager to play with our ignorance (or innocence) and part us from our money.

North of the border we read so much advice about how to prevent online fraud, identity theft, or telephone scams. We know the criminals especially target retirees. Then we move to Mexico. The scams here are different. It’s a different place, a different culture. We need to learn the ropes, educate ourselves on how to avoid falling prey to a con. We may not know the language, or we may struggle with it, as well as with the customs and “fitting in.” Such factors can cause us doubt, feelings of powerlessness and thus, make us more prone to getting duped.

Con artists know human nature; they play on our hopes, fears and beliefs. And what’s one of the biggest stereotypical beliefs about Mexico these days? How violent it is—the preponderance of kidnappings and extortions. Most stereotypes are grounded in truth, but they become so generalized, applied so broadly, and become so firmly fixed in our psyches, that they become false “truths,” boxes into which we habitually throw people, without using our minds or our other senses as filters. The smallest glimmer of the stereotype in the back of our minds provides a direct beeline to our fear response. And that is just what the criminal wants, whether we’re a local or an immigrant.

Do you know the most common scam here in Mexico? It is a phone scam, 80% of which take place in private homes. Someone, most likely from a jail, calls our home. They either say they are our long-lost cousin or compadre who needs help, or they tell us they have our spouse or children held hostage. This latter is enough to get most anyone upset and, when we’re upset, we too often fail to act rationally. Remember that such phone scams are probably no worse than a scam north of the border but, because they play to our fears for our family, it can put us off balance. Think things through now, so that you are prepared if this happens to you.

Here is a summary of the advice I’ve most often read in the local press, about how to respond to a criminal call:

  1. First, think! Do we know the person on the line personally? Is this the person’s voice? Be assertive. Ask questions. Use common sense and intuition; if something doesn’t seem right, it’s probably not. Especially if the person is asking us to leave where we are, go outside, go into a hotel or certain store—don’t do it!
  2. Second, hang up. That is the advice we most often read in the local newspapers. If someone calls us and we don’t know who they are, especially if they are asking us questions or threatening us in any way, hang up. More often than not they will call back. Don’t pick up. We may worry about not understanding the Spanish, about offending someone by hanging up. But, if it doesn’t feel right, we are wise to trust our instincts.
  3. Never, ever, give out any personal information! This is true north and south of the border. If someone tells you they have your spouse or your children, or they are your long-lost cousin, don’t give them a name! Don’t tell them where you live. Don’t give them any information. Play the scenario through in your head, several times, so that the response will come more naturally should such a scam call ever come in. It’s a call we’re not prepared for. It plays to our deepest fears, and our deepest stereotypes. Don’t let it claim you.
  4. If you find yourself unable to hang up, press those on the phone for information. Plan this ahead of time, so you can think clearly in a crisis. Ask them what your spouse is wearing, or on which side of his head your (bald) spouse parts his hair. Hopefully hearing a wrong answer will then give us the courage to hang up the phone.
  5. Once you hang up, contact your spouse, children or cousin to verify that they are ok. You will feel better. Remind yourself that the caller was likely contacting you from outside Mazatlán. The most common calls here in town come from prison—and prisons even as far away as Tijuana! Most often, they just want spending money or time on their phones. But we’ve had friends, local and expat, who’ve given away much more than that. The caller is most likely not watching you or your family members. They are talking about kidnapping because they know it will more likely scare the money out of you.
  6. Call the police. That number is 066. Federal crime prevention can be reached at 088. The tourist police number is 669-914-8444. The anti-kidnapping unit can be reached at 01-800-3221-5803. Or, you can email noalfraudtelefonico@hotmail.com

Stay smart and safe, everyone! Remember, Mexico is a beautiful place, and we choose to live here for awesomely wonderful reasons. Like anywhere, we need to stay aware. Perhaps if we do, we can start to break the cycle of violence that is the kernel of truth in the stereotypes about our adopted home.

5th Anniversary and 200 Posts

5 yearsOur first entry on the VidaMaz blog was June 14, 2008. At that point, I had been a lover of and frequent traveler to Mazatlán since 1982; Greg since 1993. We had been married here (at the Hotel Camino Real in its heyday), and we had already owned our home here for a few years. In 2007, we had made the decision to change our lives, and the country in which we lived. In June of 2008 we loaded our just-out-of-sixth-grade son into a car, drove south by southwest, and enrolled him into junior high school here in our adopted hometown.

And oh how we’ve loved it! Danny did not want to come. He didn’t want to leave his friends. He didn’t want to learn Spanish. When we woke him up for school on the one-year anniversary of our move here, he proclaimed, “One year since we made the best decision of our lives!” We have made so many dear friends, we have learned so many new things, we have experienced events and realities that have stirred our souls. Our son has become bilingual, bicultural, the children of immigrant parents. He celebrated his 13th birthday in our pool, and just two weeks ago he celebrated his 18th. Every parent says it, but where has the time gone?

We started this blog in order to let our family and friends back home, and worldwide, see a bit of our new lives here. What I really treasure about this blog is the way it has helped us keep a record of our journeys, of some of what we have learned, and most importantly, of the people we have met along the way. Mazatlán absolutely has some of the world’s friendliest, happiest, and most open-hearted people on the planet! Thank you all for allowing us to live here in this beautiful port city with you!

In looking at the blog’s statistics, I realize that the blog has become a source of information for many of our fellow expats. We didn’t plan it that way, but we are very happy to be able to be of some service to others. We have thousands of readers who come here to learn how to enjoy Mazatlán with kids and how to choose a school and live here with kids (onetwothree, and many more). Two of our most popular posts include last year’s Immigration Forum (not a topic we’d normally write about, but the changes in immigration rules were hugely important for all expats, and no one else at the time, at least in Mazatlán, was really writing about it), and Getting a Driver’s License in Mazatlán (information that has of course changed since it was first published, but our readers have kindly kept it updated).

Most of our posts, as you our readers know, are about events and people here in town. We definitely enjoy life here, despite or because we work more than full-time. Other popular posts have included:

HOLIDAYS

  1. Quite a few on Carnavál (one, two, three, and our “eternal calendar” of Carnavál events)
  2. Day of the Dead
  3. Spring Equinox at Las Labradas and the Deer Dances (one, two)
  4. Celebrations for Independence Day here in town
  5. Religious tourism in and around Mazatlán for Holy Week

EVENTS

  1. Happily for us, posts about our favorite event all year—Desayuno de los Pollos, a charity event conducted by my good friend Yoly (one, two), are popular. We have participated in this event from the time we came down as tourists. Danny was maybe eight the first time we had the privilege of participating.
  2. The extremely cool annual swim to Deer Island, the Travesía Anual

PROFILES

  1. Eating breakfast with oyster divers
  2. Interview with a cancer survivor who opened a meat shop and deli (and the story of a historic restaurant we enjoyed decades ago)
  3. Shrimp fishermen (one, two)
  4. Lots of excitement around Ice Skating at Christmas last year

OTHERS

  1. Travel nearby (weekend trips): Mezcaltitán, Bird watching in Singayta
  2. Definitely take longer to fully enjoy Copper Canyon

There are hundreds more posts—our observations and experiences of the culture here, dozens of other holidays, events and people. Please check them out.

Everyone, thank you for joining us! We work full-time, we have a son still at home, we enjoy nature, like to exercise, are always ready for a good time, and we enjoy the opportunity to record some of our pleasures here in this space. We are most grateful that you have found this blog interesting or useful. What has been your favorite post?

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!