Monday, July 12, 2010


Here is a list of the Top Ten things I have learned about Mexican culture and everyday life from living in "Puebladelphia", as Philadelphia is called by its Mexican population (which originates almost exclusively from the state of Puebla). DISCLAIMER: This list is by no means intended to be some kind of guide to Mexican culture. If I wanted to write one of those, I would at least have the decency to go to Mexico first. The list is based solely upon my impressions from having befriended Mexicans in Philadelphia. It is intended half for comedic and reflective value, half for the fun of looking back at it after my year in Mexico just to see how accurate or ignorant it is. So without further ado:

1. Mexicans speak with a much different rhythm than Dominicans, more of a repetetive up-and down sing-songy tone, while Dominican questions steadily build to a crescendo before crashing downward. Imagine a heart monitor vs. a roller coaster.

2. Mexicans are constantly saying "qué onda" ("what's up?"), "no manches, guey" (literal translation: "don't stain, dude"), "pinche cabrón" ("damn bastard"), "ándale" and "órale" (which have pretty much no meaning other than affirmation), and playfully call each other "frijól" ("you bean!!"). They unfortunately don't know what "tigueraje" is, and they don't exclaim "coño!" all the time as I am still in the habit of doing.

3. In Mexico, as in most of Latin America, "ahorita" means "right now", which in Latino time means sometime within the next half hour or so. In Dominican, "ahora" means in the next half hour or so, while "ahorita" could mean anything from an hour from now to three hours from now to never in this lifetime.

4. Mexican food is really effing good. In Mexico (or at least southern Mexico), quesadillas are made not with cheddar but with a type of white cheese called Oaxaca cheese (which comes from you know where!). They also eat something called "hongos de maíz" (corn fungus), which is exactly what it sounds like, a fungus that grows on corn. Don't dis it til you've tried it! They of course make tequila, and other alcoholic beverages originating from the agave plant. They also make a delicious drink of rice water and cinnamon called "horchata". Also, "tacos" are not just spiced meat wrapped in a corn tortilla, but also the type of footwear you use to play soccer.

5. Mexicans living in Philadelphia tend to work in restaurants or construction and frequently make more money than I do (that's not saying much, I guess). But they also work their asses off and send most of the money back to their families in Mexico. Not to get too deep into immigration politics, but if one of them did steal your job, people, it's probably because they do it better than you would.

6. Mexicans in Philly who drive tend to have their cars confiscated once every few weeks. Here's how it works: A cop stops one of them and finds that they are driving unlicensed (unlike in Arizona, they don't have to show any immigration paperwork, but they do have to have that pesky license). Almost no Mexican has a license because almost no Mexican has papers. So, the police confiscate the car and put it in a lot until the offender pays a hefty ticket of a couple hundred bucks or so. Once they pay up, they are allowed to go back to driving unlicensed, until the next time they get stopped. (Is it just me, or does that sound an awful lot like institutionalized bribery? In the United States? Can't be!)

7. Contrary to popular belief, a Mexican who marries an American doesn't automatically get a green card in the mail. Instead, an undocumented person who married a U.S. citizen in the U.S. has two options: 1) Go back to Mexico, apply for a visa from there, and wait an indefinite amount of time, maybe years, for the visa to be approved, while the significant other is just waiting around in the United States with the kids. 2) Turn him/herself in as undocumented, and go on trial in hopes of convincing the jury that he/she should be granted a green card because the family is dependent on his/her income or child care. If the judge is in a good mood, they'll grant the undocumented person a visa; if not, the person will be deported and banned from coming back.

8. Sundays in Mexican culture are a rest day, a family day. Many Mexicans in Philadelphia work six days a week, but almost all have off on Sunday. For those that left family behind in Mexico, it is call-your-family day, for the lonely, drink-lots-of-beer day, and for many, soccer day! You'd think that my low-skilled women's team in the Latino league wouldn't have a huge amount of fans, but believe me, we do! That includes husbands, boyfriends, and loads of kids that are allowed to run around virtually unsupervised.

9. Sunday is also party day, and when you are on a Mexican team, you get invited to a Mexican birthday party, baby shower or baby birthday party about every other week. You go to the party even if you were invited by a friend of a friend of the person being celebrated and don't actually know the person. You go because you know there will be delicious, probably home-made food, music, and drinking and dancing later on, no matter who or what the party is celebrating, and no one will ever question your right to be there. At birthday parties, you wait until at least 9 or 10 PM to break out the cake, at which point, everyone sings the Mexican birthday song, Las Mañanitas, before the birthday girl or boy blows out the candles. Once the candles are out, the birthday girl or boy is encouraged to take a big bite out of the cake. Reluctantly they do, knowing full well that as soon as they get close enough their entire face will be pushed into the cake by the person standing behind them, rendering about half of the big, beautiful cake inedible, and the face covered in icing and cake matter. Thus begins a battle involving thrusting globs of icing into other people's faces. Like many battles, men are on one team and women on the other. Once that dies down, people start cutting off slices of the still-intact part of the cake, which turns out to be delicious.

10. If you have Mexican friends in Philly, keep them. Unlike your other friends, all it takes is your showing them some basic kindness and you become part of the gang. It's like an instant family. They will be there for you, never saying they are just too busy to hang out or help you out with something, never making you feel guilty about bothering them too much. They will invite you to all their parties, never worrying about whether or not you have the same music tastes or the correct political views. Mexicans were my first friends in this city, and it was a couple Mexican friends who helped me move twice, both times within a day's or couple hours' notice. It is a type of friendship relatively lacking in the personal judgment and grudginess (allow me to invent that word) that we Americans are used to. I guess there is something to be said for the American (or should I say American middle class) friendship model, in which it takes a lot to develop a close friendship, but once you do, you know that the person likes you for a specific reason. But there is also something to be said for being friendly and generous with someone just because they are human and so are you, for trusting someone until your trust is broken rather than that "guilty until proven innocent", "what's in it for me?" state of mind. It's a different way to think about reciprocity, and I kind of like it.


A new chapter in my life is about to begin, one that calls for the creation of a brand new blog. This chapter will officially begin on August 24th, 2010, the day I fly into Mexico City for my Fulbright orientation. About a week later I will travel to Oaxaca City, where I will live for 9 months, working as an "English Teaching Assistant" at the Universidad Tecnológica de Oaxaca.

Other than the title and the fact that I am supposed to work between 15-18 hours a week, I still have only a very vague idea of my position will entail. I hope to spend my time organizing English conversation clubs, fun cultural events, maybe a film or book club, and collaborating with a professor(s) in leading classroom activities. As a side project, I plan to investigate the theme of bilingual education in Oaxaca; specifically, rural schools in which a combination of Spanish and an indigenous language is spoken (the state of Oaxaca boasts the largest number of indigenous languages spoken of any state in Mexico, at least sixteen). This may involve taking lessons in attempt to learn a sprinkling of some indigenous language, volunteering and observing in a bilingual school, and/or doing some field research on the current status of the bilingual education movement in Oaxaca.

Of course, those of you who know me know that I am not that incredibly academic, and while I will surely be working hard, I will also surely be spending a good amount of time salsa dancing, playing pick-up soccer, enjoying the rich art and culinary scene in Oaxaca (who knew there were 9 different types of mole according to Wikipedia? mmm-mmm), adventuring, meeting new people, and becoming even more in touch with that half of my soul that is Latina.

I don't see my time living abroad as some sort of "gap year" or time off from my "real life". Rather, it IS real life. Life seen through a sharper lens. Sometimes, we get so comfortable with our everyday surroundings and routines that we forget to really live. Picking up and moving to a new place, as I have done twice already in the past two years, has not been without its difficulties but has kept my learning curve steep. Living for a year in Philadelphia, moving between 4 different jobs and 3 different residences, was just as much of an adventure for me as volunteering for a year in the Dominican Republic or studying abroad in Peru or starting college in Middlebury, VT, or working for three summers as a health outreach worker to Mexican migrant blueberry pickers in Hammonton, NJ. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to live in many different places. Perhaps this intensity of experience and rapidity of change can't go on forever if I ever hope to do things like have a steady job and a family, but at the very least I hope to live the rest of my life in a perpetual state of culture shock. Without that, I think I would lose all sense of who I am.