Teenage Transitions

Parents are thrilled by the major milestones of our children’s first year: their first smile, that first tooth, their first words and steps. The joy of such experiences is etched into our memories. As the years go by, these major milestones seem to get fewer and farther between. Until, that is, they’re teenagers, and the milestones somehow seem to speed up again: trips without parents, time alone without the family, that first kiss…

Teenage transitions are filled with joy much like those of baby- and toddlerhood, yet not quite so purely or simply, at least for me. That first driver’s license, for example, was cause for pride. Our son was growing up, becoming independent. Hooray! But the pure joy is mixed with worry for his safety, hope that he’ll make good decisions to go with this new responsibility. Same goes for that first job, first girlfriend, first scholarship—joy for sure, accompanied with a mix of hope and prayer about how our kid will handle these independent ventures for the first time.

One major teenage transition that I almost failed to record in the hectic-ness of life has happened just in the past month. Parents, you remember all those childhood birthday parties we planned for our kids? All the care, the love, the time, effort and expense?

I wrote a post about party planning in Mexico, and another about one of the challenges of teenage parties, for example. Well, I suddenly realized that in the last month, my kid and his friends have transitioned to become capable, independent party planners.

It started well over a year ago, that groups of 15-25 of them would get together somewhere without parental involvement. Ok, maybe the girls started earlier, but the boys organizing things, that’s more recent. Usually there was no food, no music, no plan.

But, just this past month, Danny and his friends have had at least four parties at our pool, and they have (on their own) made carne asada with grilled onions and salchichas. They have sodas, tortillas, and chips. The paper ware (forks, plates, cups) still comes from our house, but hopefully it’ll evolve, too.

They collect 30 pesos from each kid, a few of them go shopping, a few of them volunteer to “man the grill,” and they spend 10 am – 10 pm in that pool. I haven’t quite figured out how they don’t prunify or turn into fish, but I do know they are enjoying things. The biggest challenge seems to be, as with any teenage party, limiting the number of people that show up. If you invite 10, 30 seem to come. And once they arrive, they text others. I guess they’re learning and figuring it out.

And, fortunately, they do seem to pick up after themselves; they’ve thus far brought all my borrowed kitchen utensils and spices back safely, and the next day Danny has washed the dishes.

He’s walking, folks! ;D God bless healthy kids! God bless good friends! And, a swimming pool on a hot day!

Counterfeiting and Scalping, Teenage-Style 2012 (llegar de colado)


My parents met one night when they both crashed a wedding reception. Neither one of them had been invited to the party. Neither one of them even knew the people getting married!

They lived in small towns near each other, and told me that in the day it was common to show up to drink and dance whenever anyone nearby got married or had a party with a band. According to them, the hosts didn’t mind. They expected uninvited guests to “crash.”

They fell in love after meeting as uninvited guests, a love that lasted nearly 60 years.

Fast forward to four years ago, when we moved to Mazatlán from Kansas City. One of my son’s cultural adjustments was that early on he just could not bring himself to go to a party to which, in his words, he “wasn’t invited.” Which to him, a good US American, meant that the host of the party had not personally invited him. “But here in Mexico, baby, if your friend is invited, and the friend invites you, you are usually welcome if not expected to join.” No, he just couldn’t do it.

The day after such a party, his friends would say, “Hey, Danny, where were you last night? We missed you!” Sometimes even the host of the party would say it to him. So, he learned a more inclusive approach to party-going. He learned he usually didn’t need a personal or direct verbal invitation; friends are always welcome.

But, this “open invitation” approach to parties obviously can get out of hand, especially when kids attend a huge school, when they have a wide circle of friends, or, as with teenagers anywhere, “the word gets out” and there aren’t a lot of other parties that same night. Two weeks ago there was just such a “small” quinceañera to which 300 or so kids showed up! Parents, who pay the bills for the parties, wisely want to limit attendance. But how? It bucks cultural norms.

In order to bridge cultural norms and economic realities, the wrist bracelet was invented. Parents can say, “We are only paying for 100 people for your party. We’ll invite 20 of our friends, and you can invite 80.” Then the parent gives the kid 80 personalized party invitation bracelets to hand out. If you have a bracelet, you can enter the party. No bracelet, no dancing.

Seems clear enough to me.

Well, the other night I learned that kids COUNTERFEIT the bracelets! One of our son’s friends proudly showed me the pulsera he had purchased blank, and how he had taken a Sharpie and carefully and competently copied the personalized text so that he could get into the party. I of course dutifully scolded the kid, and threatened my son with what horrible things would become of him if he ever were to do such a thing. But, in the process I’ve learned that such counterfeiting, and even scalping, of party entrance bracelets is common these days.

The kids told me about a boy at school who has a whole counterfeiting operation. He goes to a party place and buys a bunch of the identical bracelets for that weekend’s party (bracelets come in all colors and many foil or reflective designs as well). He has a counterfeiting “kit” with 3 kinds of Sharpies plus Q-tips and alcohol to clean up any erroneous strokes that occur while making the fake bracelets. He sells the blank bracelets for 25 pesos (they must cost a few pesos at most at the shop, but hey, he delivers right to you at school). Buying a bracelet complete with the counterfeited markings costs 40 pesos (15 pesos for his copying prowess).

If you don’t want to participate in counterfeiting, you can buy a pulsera from someone who was “legally” invited to the party but can’t or doesn’t want to go. These “scalped” bracelets sell for 100 pesos. Who says young kids nowadays aren’t enterprising! Capitalism is alive and well among teenagers in Mazatlán.

Thank goodness that these bracelets didn’t exist in the 1940s. My parents may never have met, and I wouldn’t be here!


El Buki Show Last Night

We were very pleased to be invited last night to the second annual taquiza party which takes over the street in front of our friends’ Cathy and Bill’s house. This year we celebrated Cathy’s retirement. They must have had 100 friends show up, all locals. It is so wonderful to see how generous these two are to their friends, and how much their friends here care about them. One of them set up a disco móvil, the neighbors grilled carne asada, and the state police offered to shut down the street to make us more comfortable, so we were well taken care of.

After dinner, we were surprised to see a very familiar face: Marco Antonio Solis. No, not really. But he sure did look like El Buki! He is a friend of the mechanics next door, and he was more than happy to entertain us by singing karaoke to a few El Buki hits.

Above is a video of him singing. Unfortunately the photos and video are taken with a cell phone in the darkness outside, but you’ll get the idea. This is what I love about living here. You think you’re going to a low-key event where you’ll get to dine outside under the stars, spend quality time with some very cool people, and you end up also being entertained by a rock star.

I had to get my photo taken with him; you never know when I’ll have that chance again, lol!

Dia de los Reyes / Three Kings’ Day


After all the fiestas decembrinas or parties in December: the posadas of every group and neighborhood to which you belong, as well as the Christmas and New Year’s festivities themselves, it might be logical to think that most Mazatlecos would be anxious to take a rest from partying. After all, Carnavál/Mardi Gras is not far off, and we all need to be in party shape!

Well, not so quickly! Before you take down the pinito or put away the crêche, we need to be sure to celebrate Epiphany or 12th Night, which in Latin America is of course called Día de los Reyes. This holiday commemorates the visit of the three magi, Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar, to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. It falls on January 6.

The night before, January 5, is when most Mexican kids hope for a gift. Gifts from Santa are not a traditional custom here, though they are growing in popularity. But gifts from the 3 Kings are enormously popular. Most children will put out their shoes to be filled with candies and gifts, as well as a dish with food for the kings’ camels. Many families buy gifts to donate to needy children this time of year, and many public parties or community events such as Juguetón are held, with entertainment and drawings for gifts and prizes.

The evening of January 6 then becomes an excuse to brew some hot chocolate, eat rosca de reyes (a ring of bread-like cake with one or more miniature dolls baked into the batter), and get together with family and friends to maybe play a few games of lotería or dominoes.

Careful, though! The people who get the monito, the small doll, in their piece of the rosca “get” to host the party and bring the tamales on February 2, Día de la Candelaria or Candlemass, 40 days after Christmas, the day when Jesus would have been taken to the temple.

Thus, we have at least one more Candelaría party to look forward to before Carnavál begins on February 16!


Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 4: Machinez

Machinez is a small town, or pueblo about 15 minutes by car outside of Zacatecas. The residents we know there call it their “rancho”. The rancho has no governance, no police department, no real services. This somewhat organized series of houses, farms, lots and makeshift streets is home to about 250 families. There is a school and a couple of tiendas selling the basics of beer, refrescos and food staples. Most residents raise some portion of their own food, be it meat, produce or both. There is a soccer field and a park of sorts with a few old children’s slides and swings. There is a river crossing through town. The river was fairly dry on the day of our visit, but in rainy season is a force to be reckoned with. The river is a major source of water as we saw tinacos and water trucks being filled from the river. Most homes have electricity and some plumbing (but not much).

So, from this brief description, you may be asking why I have decided to dedicate an entire blog post to the subject. Well, the point of this post has nothing to do with Machinez per se, but about how we came to visit there this day.
The story that unfolds in Machinez occurs throughout Mexico time and time again. It is a story of hard work and resolve to improve one’s life and one’s family’s life. It is a story of the proverbial analysis of risk/reward. And yes, for us, it is a story or reconnecting with friends we have not seen in years.

The friends we came to visit are like many other Mexicans. They are recent returnees from the United States having braved the perilous border crossing to get to a city where a friend or a cousin says they can get work. The hope of that work is promise to the families of the ranchos. You see, it is with the money earned in the States that the ranchos are able to survive. We spent considerable time at two houses on this day – the house of Alvaro and the house of Eduardo. Both of these young men started as dishwashers in Kansas City. Both showed great potential, the willingness to learn English and the desire to get ahead. Eventually they both became cooks during the busy lunch rush. They routinely put out between 100 and 200 lunches of extremely high standard meals under the guidance of a C.I.A. trained chef. They became leaders in the kitchen as they continued to absorb the culture of the workplace and of the States.

The plight of the illegal immigrant is widely publicized and debated. This blog is not about that debate. Is grounded in the facts – like them or not, these are the facts.

As Alvaro and Eduardo continued to work hard and grow as cooks, they hit a ceiling of sorts. They were illegal. They were forever limited in their employment opportunities. And, they were lonely. Eduardo and Alvaro were both single and aside from a few cousins in town, void of social opportunities. Living in the shadows of Kansas City, they hesitated to venture out. A broken turn signal can domino into a bus ride to Tijuana and the loss of everything. Also, going out cost money and was seen as frivolous spending. Like many others, to relieve the loneliness and boredom they took a second job. A second job fills the time, provides additional social interaction and keeps the money coming in. This after all is the goal. We can fall in love with these guys all we want, but our love is not going to keep them around. They are on a mission. Years ago, the goal was to make a life and then bring everyone else up to share in the new life. This has changed dramatically due to the legal/political climate. Now, the goal is to make enough money to build the house back home, buy the car, put the sister through college, pay for dad’s eye surgery, whatever. Rare is the visitor who finds a way to stay permanently (marriage, sponsorship, etc.).

And so it goes in Machinez. The houses that Alvaro and Eduardo have built are some of the finest in town. Big and strong, nicely appointed, two levels high with incredible vistas, they are symbols of a success found by taking off for five to ten years and working really really hard towards a goal. Each has surrounding land with crops and a few livestock. Each is connected to or very close to family homes, also very nice. Their efforts provided economic stimulus for the rancho. The jobs provided were local jobs. The supplies were purchased from locals and money went back into the community. Alvaro has since married. He has a beautiful baby girl and another on the way. Eduardo is still single—but working on it. As they tour us through their homes, they proudly show pictures of their family and point out which cousin or in-law is still in the States. These family members, they tell me, are making the same sacrifice they did in the name of getting ahead. They are missed by many, especially the older family members who realize that they may not live long enough to see their son or daughter’s return. Yet, they understand the reality of the situation.

Alvaro and Eduardo’s lives are quite simple. They work, they celebrate life. They enjoy beautiful weather and scenery. They listen to music everyday (often played by the family band). They share everything with their friends and family in town. This includes their homes and their SUV’s (brought down from the States). They don’t have cell phones, Internet or cable TV. They drink some beer, dance to banda music and retire for the evening. They have little or no crime in their clean community. They don’t have a mortgage or credit cards. They can and do live on very little. If they weren’t under 40, they would sound like they are living the life pursued by retiring gringos.

But they are not retiring gringos. These young men are starting families; they have financial responsibilities and need to work. No problem, right? They are well trained in the kitchen. They cook better than many chefs and restaurateurs that I know. They are certified in serv-safe, understand cross utilization, understand wine basics, can lead a team, can work with vendors, and speak two languages. But you see a great cook in the States, even one that has worked for ten years at an exclusive upper-end dining establishment is nobody in Mexico. To get the attention of a kitchen manager they need to have a degree from a vocational school specializing in culinary arts. They need to have diplomas from Mexico and they have none. There is an outside chance that they can find a friend of a friend in the food industry to introduce them to someone, but it a chance not worth waiting for. Instead, my two friends are gas station attendants. They receive a minor minimum salary and cash tips. They work various shifts, but all are long –both days and nights. Their jobs are dead end to say the least. They work along a busy highway and risk getting robbed or worse. They spell of gasoline and other chemicals when they return home. Like many workplaces in Mexico there are poor sanitary and safety conditions.

What does the future hold for my two friends? I really don’t know. They will not return to the States unless there is a major shift in politics that offers some sort of path to legalization. They would love to cook again and have a job with some potential. Being technically uneducated and from a “rancho”, their options are very limited. There houses will survive almost anything thrown at them and they will always be able to work enough to keep food on the table and the lights on. With any luck they will have children who are able to go one step further, finish school and get a job with some promise. Until then, the beautiful sunset on the western horizon of Machinez will usher in another session with the local band. The moms and daughters will dance with each other and the few men not in the band. As night falls, they will turn in with the adventures in the States a distant memory until the next time a certain gringo comes to town for a visit. And don’t worry, he will.