Thursday, January 24, 2008

News from the streets

A reporter would start out with a main point and then tell a story that exemplifies it. But I can´t come up with a main point. Generalities skew the story I am experiencing. They fail to grip the reality, and they often support or refute stereotypes with an inadequate amount of real knowledge to make such grandiose claims. So this time, because I want you to understand the streets, I´m not going to tell you what I think of them. I´m going to tell you what they´re like.

This morning, the rumble of life is constant but varied. It's a fruit salad-jumble of sensory overload, bursting with the many sounds of work and effort. Stand on the corner of Independencia and Amaldo, just beyond one of the city´s rare patches of grass, and you´ll here it all. High in some second story restaurant across the street a hammer clangs against a nail. The sound repeats every ten seconds. Like every city, traffic flows in its constant way. Here, each one calls out to the world in its own way. Some squeak when they stop, others boom with music. Motorcycles buzz by, always seeming to come out of nowhere. The notes rise and fall, the beat even and consoling, the drum rythms adding a clubbing feel to the streets. Some engines whine as they speed up, others sigh. And the buses do it all. They grunt to get going, let out air with a sighing sound as they wait for passengers to load, and squeak as they stop. The break squeak pitches are high enough to disable a dog´s hearing for life.

Then there are the sights. People in neon outfits ride in pairs on motorcycles, faster than the cars. There are so many children walking with adults who pull them along briskly, on definite missions to just get through this place. Except one girl who passes with her parents. She is carrying a guinea pig cage, following her parents and her little brother.

A woman in a purple cotton skirt and purple sweater around her waist hobbles past. She wears a bright blue headband and a tie died shirt. Hobbling is common down these streets. Using canes, lenaing on walkers, and wearing neck braces is also common. There is a sense that everything needs fixing. I know, I know, I just broke my rules about drawing no general conclusions. I guess if I had to choose a thesis statement, that would be it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On pets, formality, and spiciness

As I spend my days teaching English, reading like mad, and walking to and from class, I now feel prepared to answer some of the questions Angie posted on the blog. Thanks Anj!

Do people have pets?

To answer your question, Anj, yeah. They have dogs that they walk on Sundays. Sundays are a very jolly day around here. One of the main streets opens up for pedestrian use only, and people come out in droves with their families. A lot of them bring their dogs too. Funny thing is, I don´t think I´ve seen any cats the whole time I´ve been in Mexico. Pets don´t seem to be a big deal. It seems like people have other things on their mind, like earning a paycheck and relaxing.

How formal is it? (dress)

Very informal. I live downtown in the second largest city in the country, and so if there is anywhere people would get dressed up, it´s here. A lot of people wear jeans to work, but I also see businessmen and women dressed up in basic business suits. These more serious types are pretty well put together. The women pretty much always wear pointy toed stilletos and the men gel their hair.

In general styles are more intense, and this especially applies to the mainstream. Men sport haircuts with pointy sideburns. Sometimes the back of the haircut even comes to a point, like the hairdresser wanted to give him a rat tail but then stopped short. Hairstyle creativity abounds. I keep seeing this style wear the men make the middle of their hair stick up with gel, kind of like a fin on the top of their head. Downtown, I see lot of women with blonde highlights that don´t exactly look natural with their dark hair.

The women are all about bright colors and patterns: polka dots, leopard print, stripes, flowers. You see it on old ladies, middle aged women, kids, whoever. To appreciate this wealth of aesthetic expression is to appreciate Mexican culture, rich in vibrance and emotion. They love their sequins, beads, and little stitchings of English words. They love their glitter too. I met this girl at a bar whose face looked like it was straight out of the Jetson´s. She had pink eyeshadow, applied in a smooth, thick layer up to her eyebrows. On top of the eyeshadow was a layer of glitter. The blonde highlights in her hair were as pronounced as the blue stripes on her sweater.

Downtown, I see a lot of tacky stuff. There are a lot of questionable styles, either that have gone out of style or are in style now. You´ll see your occcasional pair of pleated jeans. Then there are the twenty-something women who wear really tight jeans. They also wear leggings paired with skin tight shirts. Tight clothes are way in for women, regardless of body type.

Zappaterias (shoe stores) are everyone. These people are obsessed with shoes. Even the men wear interesting varieties, like leather shoes with square toes. The women, of course, are the ones who really go crazy. These days, a ton of women are wearing high heeled boots, usually with stilleto heels and pointed toes. They are also sporting flats in every pattern and material imaginable. The fancier ones have teeny heels which you can´t see, but add that reassuring ¨I´m coming¨ click when you walk.

How formal is it? (speaking)

It´s pretty informal with speaking as well. If you look at the literal translation of the things they say, they are a lot more direct, and less polite, than we are in the U.S. Some might argue that it´s just a different way of saying the same thing, but I think that the intricacies of their literal word choices say something about the culture. For instance, there´s no beating around the bush if you want to get through a crowd. You simply say permiso, which is more of a demand than the typical American request, ¨excuse me.¨

Aside from word choice, they tend to treat you in a familiar way right off the bat. If I seem worried about something, the office ladies at my school are quick to say ¨no te preocupas--¨don´t worry. If I apologize for not knowing a word or ask a dumb question, people in stores and other places are quick to offer reassurance. Being late is not a problem. Most are quick to greet with an easy smile, regardless of how well they know you. There is a sense that we are all in this life thing together. On Sundays, everyone relaxes together. You look on the buses, and there is a collective sense of happiness as people ride along together. Everyone is out in couples, in groups of friends, and most of all with family. Friends chat away openly as they ride buses. If they´re not chatting, they at least seem content. This same sense of a collective experience applies on weekdays, at the end of the day, when everyone is tired and stressed together. You look around and eyes are half open. No one talks, but no one acts out in hostility except for the babies. There always seems to be a crying baby on the 5:00 buses.

They´re pretty frank, regardless of how well they know you. They don´t hesitate to push their way through crowds. On the street, people make eye contact and greet eachother for the most part. People don´t hold back when it comes to greeting or speaking frankly with friends and family. It seems people band together a lot. As much as possible, people try to go places with other people. They make an effort to spend time with friends, even if it´s midday on a weekday.

Do you feel your body becoming do you choose to wear red, green, and yellow more often? Do you think you could become Mexican if you lived there for thirty years?

I have to say, I don´t really feel too affected by Mexican style personally. I´m still me, still wearing my jeans and my corduroy jacket, still stearing clear of their fake patent leather shoes. But at the same time, I am really becoming profoundly affected by how serious they take every opportunity presented to them, from the big to the small. At the salsa club down the street, people do not take the fun atmosphere for granted. If you are dancing with someone, you are paying attention to them.

Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. It´s not to be taken lightly in life...and people here seem to realize this, at least in the moment the opportunity arrives. It´s making me think.

More on this in future posts...

Pretty much, everything you ever wanted to know about Guadalajara can be taken care of right here, courtesy of me.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New Year, New Job

To continue the cliffhanger I left you at last time, we did not go to my host mother's sister's house on Christmas. We spent it around her small table in her home, with her mute son, eating "Ensalada Navidena," a salad of chicken, pinaeapple, raisins, and potatoes mixed with cream. The other dish was some greens and potatoes steeped in shrimp juice. Out of respect for Mexican culture, just in case this was "typical" (which I don't think it was), I'll leave my comments on the meal out.

Looking back on my experience with my host mom in December, I now realize that I did not exactly luck out. While other students were getting big, fancy lunches at their house every day and going on trips to other cities with their family, I was getting invited to the occasional market trip and receiving constant reminders that I would have to be out by December 28, no later. When I realized that my key to the new apartment might not work, and I was not sure if I would be able to get in, I asked my host mom if I could hold on to her key for a few extra days, just in case. The answer was a certain and definite no. "It's not my problem," she said. So I left with my luggage, took a taxi downtown to my new apartment, and luckily, the key worked.

I've now been here for about two weeks, and in comparison to the old place, it's great. First of all, my roomates, Lily and her mother Christine, are really nice. They've been living here for a year and a half and are well settled in. We don't exactly have heating, and as it turns out, they do have winter in Mexico after all, so I'm doing a lot of yoga to keep warm. I've also taken to walking to class as fast as I can, in order to keep the blood flowing. What used to be a 25 minute walk is now something like 15. I do this walk multiple times per day since I have a class early in the morning, and then classes in the late afternoon and evening. During the day, I read and attend Spanish classes...and write about life here.

I'm constantly meeting people on buses, in class, and in passing. They're very open, unashamed to talk about the hardships of their pasts. As I learn and understand more of the Mexican world, I realize what a unique world it is. Above all, the volatile economy keeps Mexicans in a state of uncertainty that colors their histories and their futures. There is a sense that not much can be done, that the powers that be either don't care that the typical Mexican seems to be living pay check to pay check or are just as befuddled over it as the average Mexican. Maybe Mexican leaders need to look at protecting Mexico more and appeasing the U.S. less, suggest Mexican newspaper headlines on trade agreements. (What I want to know is if Mexico is the second leading supplier of oil to the U.S., why don't they seem to have more leveraging power? Why should they need to comply with U.S. trade agreements when the U.S. is at their mercy when it comes to its biggest achilles heal--oil?) Whatever the reason, there is a collective sense that the U.S., not Mexico, is where you go if you want a financially secure life.

"There is not a lot of opportunity here," they keep telling me. When they open up to me, this is the first thing they say. There aren't very many jobs. Many Mexicans have gone through long stretches of time when they were without work, scrounging to find food as each family member searched for work. My house-mate's Mexican boyfriend, Jaime (pronounced Hi-mee) went for six years like this. Cupboards were empty, the future uncertain. You would think this economic volatility would produce a culture that is hyper-sensitive to the importance of hanging onto the money you've got, but it seems that just the opposite is true. Instead, there seems to be a perpetual anxiety not to have, but to spend, money. They grow up with insecurity, are used to insecurity, so when they get money, it is not security that they crave, but rather, the extra luxuries that they've been deprived of: the latest fashions, fancy meals, and nights out. For most, payday is time to spend, not a chance to save. I have a few stories that lead me to these conclusions.

First there's Jaime (Lily's Mexican boyfriend). He spent a few months sick last year and was unable to work. During this time, Lily supported him. Now, don't tell them I told you, but when Jaime got better again and started working, he spent all his money. He did not pay Lily or his other debts. He bought clothes, went out drinking. He told Lily his reasoning, which she imparted to me. "Imagine not having money for a long time, and not being able to spend anything," he'd said to her. "Then when you get it, all you want to do is spend spend spend. You want so many things because you have gone without for so long."

Twenty-nine-year-old Jesus Ola, who I met on a bus when lost on Christmas Eve, told me the same thing. He spent six months in the U.S. earning money, and when he returned he had $1,000. Considering how little his family had, that was a small fortune. However, when he returned, he managed to blow it all in one month. He and his mother, grandmother, and four brothers indulged in wine, steak, fish, and cake for a month. He talks about it with pride though, because to him, it's not a story about failure to make use of his hard-won earnings. It's a story about a time in his life that held the glint and glimmor or a life he'd always hoped for. And maybe he never will experience such extravagance again. Had he saved it, he may have been able to buy things to better his situation--some sort of classes to increase his chances at a more secure salary. But maybe not. "The opportunities are limited in Mexico," he says.