At twenty years old I left Australia to fend for its self, and flew to England. I met up with my sister Lyn, in London: grey, drizzly, emotionally cold London, where English faces hid behind layers of newspaper as they rode the Tube, where suited office personnel with extended umbrellas played dodgem on crowded footpaths. No wonder Poms whinge a lot, I thought: few sunny days, no long soft-sanded beaches, just newspapers, umbrellas and drizzle.
Napoleon came to London to do his Masters in Systems Engineering; lived on a monthly allowance from his father. He wasn’t tall, but his afro-style hair-do gave him as much height as my high-heeled shoes gave me. Our arms locked at the elbow as we strolled along Kings Road. We looked good together. “He’s from Venezuela,” said a friend from the hostel. He wasn’t. He was from Mexico, and his real name was Hector: sharp, witty, generous and foreign. We shared a flat for five weeks while he finished his thesis. When he spoke Spanish to his friends, he went into a world I didn’t know and couldn’t reach. I wanted to speak Spanish. When he asked me to go to Mexico with him, I rescheduled my round-the-world plane ticket—nine pounds charge for a stopover at Mexico City. “Don’t be rash,” a friend advised. “Give it some thought.” I didn’t. I was in love.
My knowledge of Mexico was limited to my mother’s elementary school fascination with the Sonoran Desert, and a talk, when I was in 9th grade, by a visiting Mexican priest about the Missions. In a school of 1,500 girls run by the Mercy nuns, half of us were at the ripe age for receiving subtle messages about how much fun we’d have if we just dedicated the rest of our lives to helping others in far off countries. The Mexican priest was one of a long list of visitors that year, and by far the most interesting. I liked his accent, his funny stories, his love of Mexico and its people. What an exotic place, I thought, to have a Mission.
Hector left for Mexico. He had to tell his parents about me, he said. He had to get a job. I called a friend—my recently-xed Australian surfer boyfriend—to tell him I had decided to cancel that trip to Bali. I was not able to meet him there on my return trip to Sydney. There was no return trip to Sydney.
I left for Mexico a week later. On the long plane trip over the Atlantic, I drew pictures in my mind of a modern Mexico City, with all the influence of Hollywood movies—cacti, donkeys and broad-hatted men carrying rifles. I enacted countless scenes of our meeting: lovers crossing all barriers to be together happily-ever-after. Then, another thought came. What if Hector wasn’t there to meet me? No lovers’ encounter, just an empty bench in the airport for the night, a trip home to Sydney the next day.
I walked out of the International Arrivals lounge and down a long cordoned-off lane. A group of foreign-looking people stood at the end, eyes wide, necks stretched. I looked at each face one by one as I moved along. I knew no one. A hint of sadness touched my thoughts. Then, there he was, his round smiling face, his new short haircut. I quickened my pace down the lane with my backpack, my suitcase, and my red leather over-night bag. I was about to have that lovers’ encounter. I was about to embrace my new life.
Mexico was nicer to me than I was to Mexico. No one called me a Wog, or any other clearly derogative name, just Gringa (American girl), vieja (old woman) and mamacita (little mother). These sounded “nice” at the time.
Most of my Spanish was from Speedy Gonzalez cartoons: “Arriba! Arriba!” and “Andale! Andale!” Zorro taught me Señor, Señora, Señorita and Gracias. The Cisco Kid gave me “Ay Cisco” and “Ay Pancho.” My repertoire didn’t impress Hector or his family of six brothers and sisters, two sisters-in-law, two brothers-in-law, mother and father—all standing together in the lobby of the small, elegant hotel where Hector’s father, Don Gustavo, stayed on his frequent business trips to Mexico City. Only one sister was missing from the group, said Hector’s mother, in Spanish with flittering hand language. Hector translated: His younger sister was in Canada learning English.
I enrolled in a six-month Spanish course, practiced on the streets, in the markets, around the family table until I began thinking in Spanish. I became an efficient Spanish speaker. I corrected the locals on various occasions for their incorrect use of the subjunctive. I used my new language to spread the concept of a more practical culture than the traditional Mexican one—my Australian culture. Mexicans needed to develop a civil conscience, consequential and critical thinking, and an idea, in general, about what they were doing and where they were going in the short and in the long terms. At least, that’s the way I saw it.
I was stubborn. Why did I have to change? I buried myself in my Australian east-coast culture, became more Australian than my parents and my grandparents, made sausage rolls, sang “Waltzing Matilda,” and played cricket on my own. I thought about the New Australians, how some of them clung to their cultures just as I did, while others left old lives behind and accepted the Australian way as if they were born to it. Why did that happen? What was the difference?
In Mexico I struggled against a cankered culture shock. My notions of honesty, decency, friendship, even my Catholicism didn’t coincide in the slightest with the Mexican. I woke up in a bad mood. I despised myself for being in Mexico, for feeling obliged to adapt to this culture, to this family. Though my sweet husband Hector tried hard to explain the nuances of his culture, I insisted my rules were the only rules. I was aggressive, outspoken and rude to most people I met, especially if they didn’t speak English.
Time was another aggravating issue. Mexico-time refused measurement. There was daytime, nighttime, time to eat, time to go. It just came and went, and my Australian watch marked every minute, every second. We had the main meal of the day anywhere between 2 and 5 pm, making suppertime somewhere around 10 o’clock at night. I waited around for people, for action, all the while checking the hours missed: longing, lonely.
Yet Mexico was fascinating right from the start: its deep, Pre-Hispanic history, its giant pyramids to the sun and moon, its ancient ceramic figurines, its golden, coconut-palmed beaches and sunny, warm days. I enjoyed the beer and the food, not the kind of greasy food from those cheap Tex-Mex restaurants that plague the world, but real Mexican food of Mole Poblano and fresh, pink seafood cocktails with green chili and cilantro. I loved the combinations of bright colors and rich textures of fabrics and painted pottery, of toys and household wares, of flowers and potted plants, of spicy sauces in terracotta bowls. The weekly street market reminded me of the green grocers store only a hundred times bigger. Vendors arrived at my street early in the morning one day a week, and assembled metal skeleton stalls which they dressed in tall pyramids of oranges, and red tomatoes, shiny zucchinis, carrots, apples, mangoes and mounds and mounds of colored chilies of deep-red, glaring red, bright orange, dark-green, black. Hand-written price signs swung from the top of the stall framework, or stuck out of the side of a fruit-pyramid. I walked along the aisles, basket on my arm, as merchants reached out with samples in their hands, shouted their prices. Aromas of freshly made tortilla and chili sauce mixed with the bouquet of flowers and fruit, and the stink of fritangas (food fried in pork lard).
Yes, I soon accepted and appreciated the physical aspect of Mexico. It was what I was looking for. Even the dirty, dilapidated aspect of many of Mexico City barrios that often gave the visitor a bad impression, for me represented freedom, the freedom to create and combine in a way I was never before able. Of Mexico’s religious, moral, and societal restrictions, I knew little, and I didn’t care. As a foreigner I lived outside these norms. I was free to act and be different without direct judgment from anyone. I was free to follow my own rules.
Nevertheless, precise rules did exist, and I soon learned there was no substitute for tradition. I was outnumbered and out-voted. The more of this new culture I misunderstood, the more judgment I received, and the more I misunderstood.
At one of my first Christmas dinners in Mexico, I sat with the family around the formal living room. I listened to the sound of the happy chitchat of about 25 people, a fog of words, nothing I could catch onto and follow. A rich smell of tomatoey sauces and turkey and creamy crepes filled the space. We would soon be sitting down to the part I liked best about Christmas. My sister-in-law, the youngest of the family, spoke to her mother, walked over to a glass cabinet, and brought out a statue of the Baby Jesus dressed in what looked like a Christening robe—white, shiny, lacy. Ah, I thought, it’s time to lay the El Niño Dios in the manger, but it wasn’t as simple as that. First, the baby had a job to do—allowing all present in the living room the opportunity to show their love and respect for the child by giving it a kiss.
The young sister-in-law, proud of her role as the official baby carrier, presented herself to each person with the figure held diagonally in her gentle arms so that each of us could place a kiss on its little ceramic feet. As the baby came closer to me, I tried to think of ways to escape. I wasn’t going to kiss any statue full of spit. Besides, it all seemed such an exaggeration. My Australian Catholic upbringing hadn’t prepared me for this. When it came my turn I said no, I wouldn’t, and although my husband tried to explain it was a tradition, I still said no. The baby was placed in the manger and we all sang Silent Night, “Noche de Paz, Noche de Amor…” I sang in English. And so it was, on this Eve of Christmas, I sat confused, having broken one of my new family’s rules in order to remain true to my own. I could see from across the table, I would be answering to my mother-in-law the next day, for yet one more instance of unacceptable behavior.
I feared, in the beginning, that my children would grow up to be Mexican in nature and culture, and disregard their Australian side. That is, I worried they would turn into wishy-washy, small-minded, impractical beings whose lives were directed by the hands of God and whose clothing consisted of combinations of beige and brown tones as was considered classy in the family circle.
From my narrow point-of-view, I could distinguish only two types of Mexican people: the upper class—overly moneyed, made-up, bejeweled and dressed, and the lower class—unskilled, tough-skinned, half-witted and untrustworthy. Both groups demonstrated a fanatical religious devotion that gave me the feeling I was living in the 15th century. It seemed to me they had never been hippies, and Women’s Liberation and the Sexual Revolution had not passed through here.
Mexico’s religiosity was by far my main peeve, especially when I felt the pressure of teaching my children the right way to interpret the over-done rituals and ceremonies. Even the act of making the Sign of the Cross was a far from simple. I learned to make this sign as a child by tracing with the right hand a large cross from the forehead to the breast, and then from shoulder to shoulder, while saying In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. My children, however, learned the Mexican Rococo-style sign, a double-layered sign, which to the untrained eye looked like a figure-8 buzzing around the head and upper torso ending in a kiss of the right thumb and pointer finger, held together in the form of a cross, while one chanted something about the Cross and God saving us from our enemies. My children never completed one of these signing rituals in my presence. My hand stopped that nonsense with a sharp slap.
It wasn’t easy for my son and daughters, nor is it for any sons and daughters of bi-cultural or multi-cultural families to find where their loyalties lie. I tried to make them choose my culture by defaming the culture in which they lived. They could have shunned their birth culture, or they could have shunned me. Instead, they became the go-betweens, the catalysts that enabled me to begin the long, slow lesson of acceptance. As they grew, and spoke Spanish, and went to school, and spoke more Spanish, and brought friends home for lunch and play, and flooded my Australian home with Mexican music, customs, homework and history, they forced me to confront my prejudices and see what the other side was trying to show me. There were no real soldiers fighting this war, no saints, no archangels, just my own apprehension and ignorance. The truth sank in the day my elder daughter could no longer contain her anxiety, when I, on one more occasion, did not contain my mouth about the nation which had adopted me, the family which had put up with me, and the culture which had taught me so much about myself. “But mummy,” she said as her brows wrinkled a little, and soft curls of fair hair separated from her ear at a tilt of her head. “I am Mexican too.”
The saying, “Me cayo el veinte”—The coin (the 20c coin) dropped—described best what happened that day. I realized I was doing more harm than good. Isolating my children was hurting my children.
It was time to reflect on the two cultures that enveloped my young family. It was time to lose my high-minded, arrogant attitude and live in peace.
It was time to play by the Mexican rules, and learn to live in peace.