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.