The freakin' foreigner who crossed the border without a working handle on the national language has finally reached the front of a long supermarket checkout line, and everybody behind him is beginning to wonder if they ever will. Ten minutes into what should be the simplest of transactions, the guy is red-faced and flustered, blabbering in some incoherent linguistic hybrid of Spanish and English. Finally he surrenders—buying something with ingredients he cannot translate, holding out a wallet full of money he cannot calculate, trusting the cashier to take only what she needs and make fair change. Anything is better than enduring for one second longer the reaction of the inconvenienced people behind him. They are being . . . so nice! Nobody says, "Oye, pendejo! Si quieres vivir aqu, porqu no puedes aprender una pinche palabra de espaol?"
They didn't say it 15 months ago when I moved to Mexico. They don't say it now—when I just might understand, "Hey, asshole! If you want to live here, why can't you learn a fucking word of Spanish?"
After a lifetime of hearing that kind of abuse—in English—heaped on Latino immigrants to Southern California, the Mexican tolerance for my struggles with their language, laws and customs is embarrassing. And it's not because they are a mild-mannered people, naively cocooned in their timeless traditions, blithely smiling their way to a spiritual joy deeper than the daily tribulations of their worldly poverty. I live in Sinaloa, a state of hardcore agribusiness and hard-ass drug traffickers, where people stop cussing only long enough to make the sign of the cross as they pass in front of the church. There are any number of ways to piss them off, but not speaking Spanish isn't one of them.
And it's a good thing because most of the Americans living here show very little interest in speaking the native language. Most of them are here for economic reasons—because their disability payments or Social Security checks go farther—and they tend to live in predominantly American neighborhoods, pressuring the local cable company to get more English-speaking channels. In Mazatln, you can watch Hal Fishman anchor KTLA's News at 10 every night at 11. The classic among these Americans is the retired accountant in his late 50s. He moved from Fountain Valley to the top floor of the Mission de Angel apartments on a hill overlooking the historic district of Old Mazatln four years ago. But when I addressed him for the first time in my sketchy Spanish, I evoked only a sigh of mystified frustration. I switched to English—and he promptly complimented me on my lack of an accent. After all this time in Mexico, his Spanish is still so bad that he thought I was a native speaker of the language. No wonder. He leaves his apartment only to visit his friends on the other side of town—more Americans, who proudly call their neighborhood Gringo Gulch. Otherwise, he listens to be-bop jazz records all day long and isn't above cranking up the volume if he has to compete with the banda music preferred by the locals. "I like it here," he says. "Where else could I have a penthouse apartment overlooking the water for $350 a month? The people are nice. They all try to speak English to me. But I draw the line at their music. I can't stand it."
Mexico is not only famous for its political corruption, but also very aware of it—unlike the United States, where people seem determined to fool themselves with false patriotism. Periodic public opinion polls always reveal that a majority of Mexicans know their elected officials are on the take or otherwise duplicitous. It is a political fact of their personal lives, aggravating but not a contradiction to their pride in being Mexican. It's also an asset to their world-view. Unlike many Americans during last year's drum roll for war in Iraq, most Mexicans saw right through President Bush. They knew his war was about oil and revenge. Mexico opposed the U.S. in the United Nations Security Council, which was pretty brave, especially because Mexico never pretended they had a chance of stopping Bush from doing what he wanted. They were sad but not surprised when the bombs began to fall. What did astound them were Bush's high approval ratings in American public opinion polls. The average Mexican couldn't believe the average American was so gullible.
Most of the traffic cops in Mexico are on the take—primarily because most of them are paid about $300 per month—and it's not unusual to be pulled over for a ticky-tack violation. It's easy to escape by paying la mordida (the bite), a bribe of between $5 and $20, but the first time it happened to me, the slimy practice rubbed me the wrong way. That is until I returned to Orange County and got a ticky-tack parking ticket at Doheny State Beach—where the rangers don't tell you that the "day pass" doesn't last until the end of the day and begin citing cars at 10 p.m. That little trick cost me more than $90.
Life feels freer in Mexico, but not always in ways that would make American advocates of freedom feel comfortable. The absence of well-funded local governments combined with corruption frequently accounts for poor drinking water, hodgepodge neighborhoods unfettered by zoning laws or strict construction standards, few public restrooms or trash receptacles, dicey sanitation standards at restaurants and hard-to-follow traffic signs. The minimum wage is about $7 per day.
What does feel free in a very good way is the accessibility that Mexico offers its visitors—and its welcoming tolerance. You can roll across the border in your car and get a six-month tourist card, no sweat. You can drop in by plane or cruise ship. And you don't have to worry that anybody is going to give you any shit for not knowing a word of Spanish. People will be nice to you, invite you to their houses, into their lives. But be careful about offering to return the favor. U.S. immigration laws preclude the chance that most of them could ever come visit you. And if they did come, well, you'd always have to be worried that somebody was going to insult them in the supermarket.
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