Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Living Here: Between Generations

Tuesday night dance in Parque Santiago

I just got back to Mèrida after five and a half weeks in Washington and Alaska with my parents. I was there to help them out while my Mom underwent therapy in Seattle. She's doing fine. We're all back home now, they in Alaska and I in Mexico.

It was an interesting time for several reasons, in part because I have not lived with my parents since my teens except for some between-job transitions and summers off from school in my early twenties, and shorter visits and vacations since then. I have not lived with my mother and father as intensively as I just did, week after week, 24 - 7, since I entered kindergarten, because after that time school, jobs and social activities usually kept me away from home for parts of each day.

When you are in your fifties and have been living on your own for thirty-some years, you've changed a lot, and so have your parents. During this recent period together Mom, Dad and I got along fine, but there were days when it seemed we might fall back into the old patterns of my adolescence, the time when most of us begin chipping little chinks of independence out of the structure that parents impose upon their children to help them organize their lives, teach responsibility and to keep them safe. One difference I notice now is that although retired many years my folks still like to plan their day and keep to a schedule for going out, being home, meals and other daily activities, while I live in Mexico and do not wear a watch, no longer have to be at a job, make few appointments, and live my life according to my own rhythm.

As I ruminated about these things, I began to consider some of the differences I notice between family dynamics in the U. S. and in Mexico. The culture in Mexico is more conservative, religious and family-oriented, and this is a complex topic way beyond the scope of a blog post. However if you live in Mexico as a foreigner, it's hard not to notice that children still tend to stay closer to their parents than do offspring in the United States. In Mexico, grown children often live with their parents even after marrying and having families, or live close by and spend lots of time together. Very often elderly parents live with their children.

One thing I notice here is the normalness of adolescents and young adults going out and being affectionate with their parents in public. It is not unusual at all to see adolescent girls holding hands with their mothers while shopping at a mall, or middle-aged fathers and their teenage or young-adult sons walking down the street with arms across each others' shoulders. This is something that we don't see much in the States.

And this respect by young adults for the older generations often is not limited to parents and grandparents. It seems that while friendships among the younger generations in the north tend to be with people close to their own age, here it is more common for young people to have genuine and respectful friendships across a wider range of age groups.

I witnessed an interesting example of Yucatecan inter-generational respect a couple of years ago as I walked one evening in Mèrida centro. On weekends many of the streets around the central square, the zocalo, are closed to traffic so that people can stroll and enjoy the evening. Restaurants put their tables outside, often in the streets, and music fills the air. On these days, families, groups of young people, and couples walk, eat, socialize, and dance in the streets or parks.

On this evening I was walking past a group of people dancing when I noticed an elderly couple moving with a panache that attracted attention. What first caught my eye was their charisma. They both smiled happily, twirling and stepping energetically with the music, and they danced well. They locked gazes as they moved. This attractiveness was in spite of the fact that their smiles revealed missing teeth, and their clothes, although well cared for were visibly worn. He was grey and thin with a prominent paunch; she was a big woman with jet-black hair curled in a manner that suggested to me that she styled it herself by putting it in rollers. She stepped gingerly due to her weight but twirled gracefully under her partner's extended arm. These looked to me like people who had worked hard all their long lives and who struggled with finances at their advanced age. Whatever the trials and tribulations of their lives, there still existed a spark between these two individuals that had persisted through it all. But who knows? Maybe they were on a first date. They sure acted like it. But that's not important in this story.

This couple did not appear well-to-do, but one of the nice things about many evenings in Mèrida is that the spectacle and music are free. Even people without the money to eat and drink in the restaurants can buy a taco or panucho at one of the food stands and enjoy the scene along the streets or in the parks. This elderly couple was making an occasion of the evening and having a great time.

As I watched, a group of eight or ten teenagers, fashion-conscious and obviously well-heeled, approached, laughing loudly and talking on cell phones. When they neared the elderly couple they slowed, lowered their voices, and then stopped to watch. Frankly, a group of teens in the United States might have taken this opportunity to point and snicker, but most likely would have passed right by, the old people dancing to old-fashioned music completely beneath notice. These folks were old enough to be the great-grandparents of the young people, they had big bellies, and they were shabby and definitely not stylish or sexy in terms that most youth would appreciate. But the kids watched and began to smile. Then they started to clap their hands in rhythm with the music as they watched the elders dance.

When the old couple realized what was happening, they smiled more broadly, and began to pour on the juice. The audience responded, and the dancing became even more energetic. The kids clapped louder, and continued doing so until the end of the song. At this point everyone in the crowd that had gathered began to applaud and cheer. The couple giggled and bowed. The teens began to chant, "OTRA! OTRA! OTRA!" -- "another, another, another" -- as the next song began, and the couple complied. The kids stayed until the end of the next number, applauded again politely, and then amidst smiles and calls of "buenas noches," went on their way.

I cannot imagine a scene such as this taking place on a public street in the United States. Something about the U. S. and its youth-, fashion- and sex-obsessed culture makes it improbable. I am glad that occurrences like this are still possible somewhere. And I am glad that particular somewhere is where I live.


  1. That was beautiful Thanks! And oh so true, and one of the myriad reasons I love living here!


  2. thanks for taking the time to compose this, was very nice and came at an opportune moment for me

  3. Hi Marc,
    I so enjoy reading your post and observations. Santiago is on my list w/ my Mum. I remember sitting there last time with her and thinking "is that Stan Kenton music?" It was and she noticed and came alive, talking about dancing to it with "Fergie" my father.
    Thanks for the snippet on Merida.
    The time goes so fast: it's nice to be reminded to STOP and appreciate what's truly important: family, friends, and living life, giving back.
    Abrasos. See you soon.

  4. Hi Marc:
    I am new to your blog, and I love your writing - the detail, and the reflective observations. I especially liked the description of the dance scene - so alive, and so true to Mexico!

    I also love Mexico - the big hearts, the warmth of the people, the colors, the smells, the food. I enjoy many of the things you do - living without a watch and following my own rhythms.

    I live in the north of Mexico, in a village called Banamichi, in the ranching country of Sonora. I also have a blog, and love to observe, contemplate and write about my experiences here.

    I look forward to following your posts in the future. Many thanks for sharing your experiences!!


  5. Marc, this was ... heartwarming? lovely? uplifting? All of those things, and it made me smile on a day when I particularly needed a boost. Gracias, senor.

  6. Beautifully written. I live in Mahahual and enjoy seeing the same family connections that sustain the poorest (or are they?) families. I too am moved by their inclusion of the older members of the family as they share in daily tasks and feel a purpose in the workplace.


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