Sunday, September 18, 2011

Living Here: Socializing

Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca -- My Mexican social life has gone through an evolution over the past eight years. When I first came to Mérida, my group of friends consisted mostly of other foreigners. Now, although I have expatriate friends and continue to make new acquaintances among that crowd, mostly I socialize with Mexican people. The reasons are varied. An experience a few months ago prompted me to think more about the subject.

I was invited by my friend Victoria to visit her home pueblo of Juchitán, out near the Pacific coast in southern Oaxaca, not terribly far from the border with Chiapas. It is a tiring, winding five-hour bus ride from the city of Oaxaca through the mountains down to this area, where traditional Zapotec culture and language is still an active influence on daily life. 

I took a cab from the bus terminal to Victoria’s house.

This old house was first inhabited by her great grandmother, and has come down through the matrilineal line of the family ever since. Roots run deep here, and although Victoria lives in Mexico City where she has pursued a career in music and acting, she identifies herself first and foremost with this place and as a Zapotec woman.

Not long after I arrived, we rode with Victoria’s nephew and his family out to visit relatives who live a little outside of the town. When we got inside the wall that surrounds the large yard, a dog barked once or twice in welcome, and I could hear the sounds of children playing. We were led to a kitchen-dining area that adjoined a roofed patio.

This was an extended-family gathering of maybe 25 people, consisting of mature brothers and sisters, some of their children, grandchildren, and assorted aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

 The eldest men and some of the women were seated around a long table in the large kitchen. I was provided a chair amidst this group.

The table was scattered with heaping platters of seafood, bottles of beer, and an open bottle of mezcal. Over the next several hours, my plate was never empty for more than a moment before another course was served. The fish soup was followed by caviar and ceviche, shrimp, clams, conch, fish cakes, smoked filets and a variety of salsas and other dishes. My beer was never allowed to warm or become empty, nor was my double-shot mezcal glass. People drank, slowly, but no one appeared drunk or became loud.

I noticed the background sounds of talk and laughter. There was no knot of kids sequestered in a room staring like zombies at a big flat screen, X-Box or computer. The children were all playing together outside. No one was checking their cell phone or sending text messages. The music we had came from one of the older uncles who crooned and played the guitar. At times the others stopped conversing to listen or join in the singing, which was sometimes in the Zapotec dialect. Lots of applause and appreciative cheers followed favorite songs.

For cool-blooded, less-demonstrative northerners who have not pariticpated in these kinds of gatherings, they may present a challenge to notions about personal space. There is plenty of hugging, kissing and touching going on. There are lots of people around, and they like to be close together. And being together was the entire purpose of this afternoon. There was nothing to get in the way of that goal.

I have gravitated increasingly toward this type of socializing as I live longer in Mexico and meet more people. I think in part that is because the Mexican parties are gatherings of family and old friends, and most of the foreigner parties are given by people who do not have family or life-long friends around. For this reason and, I suppose for reasons of culture, the foreigner parties are of a different sort.

At "mix and mingle" foreigner parties I occasionally attend in Mexico, I sometimes feel like the goal is to talk to an individual for a couple of minutes, make a good impression, and then continue to "circulate" in order to chit-chat with everyone else before the evening is over. It seems as if my job is to do a little personal PR presentation to each one I meet. In this environment, only superficial interactions are possible. My wallflower tendencies and dislike of small talk have always inhibited me at these types of social events.

In comparison, the Mexican gatherings are leisurely and more relaxed. People don't arrive punctually, but once they've settled in they tend to hang out for a long time. The importance of family and long-term relationships is obvious in the affectionate way people interact. There is a group spirit. Hospitality and manners are integral and highly-refined arts. And often, cultural roots and history are living participants in the here and now.

These are people who know who they are. Here you encounter them among the folks who know them best. Falseness and superficiality are just about impossible.

In these gatherings, there is plenty of time for an in-depth conversation or to listen in on an intricate discussion between others. People may sing or quote snatches of poetry. There is time to not talk and simply enjoy moments, savor the good food, listen to the words of a song, or to soak up the friendliness. There is time to sit in the garden and watch the children play.

On this particular occasion, in a situation where I was a stranger, I was treated like a long-lost relative. I was told with complete sincerity that I was "in my home," and I was made to feel that way.

That's what makes the difference.


  1. Marc,
    Once I was invited by a friend to visit the home of his grandparents who were simple farm people in their 80's living way out in the country. The grandmother cooked the meal which was very simple fare and all of the relatives crowded around the table to eat. There were no eating utensils since tortillas de nixtamal served that purpose. I was given the cooking spoon to eat with since I was a guest of honor. They hired a neighbor to stand outside and throw water up onto the hot tin roof the whole time to make me feel more comfortable. It was one of the nicest times that I ever had.

  2. Bob: Well, 'nuf said, I guess. Although the folks I wrote about are a little better off (so the fare was pretty rich), I have definitely had some of my very best times as the guest of people of very modest means. It's the heart, spirit of sharing, and sincerity of the hosts that makes all the difference.

  3. Marc, thanks for the description of a wonderful gathering. I've also noticed that it's easier to have in-depth conversations here and have spent hours talking about Big Topics with warm people who seem to have all the time in the world.

  4. yucatango, you are right. People seem to have the time, and genuinely enjoy spending time to talk. What a refreshing way to live...

  5. Your storytelling and images evoke that gathering so vividly. It's also another reminder of why it means so much to learn to speak and understand Spanish, isn't it?

  6. For the independence celebration Thursday night and on into Friday, some of my wife's relatives came to town from where they live in a small village about 40 minutes away. Five adults and two kids. It was pretty much as you describe here.

  7. Debbie: My views on the value and importance of learning the language of the country where you live have been made clear in this blog. Some even got mad at me for taking foreigners in Mexico to task for not learning Spanish. To really participate and appreciate, as you know, one must learn the language. I can't imagine living in a different country without at least giving it my best shot.

    unseenmoon: Yes, that's pretty much the way it is, with endless variations, of course. But the heart of the matter doesn't change. I admit that a bit of my latent "gringo-ness" seeps through sometimes when a dinner goes really, really late and I feel ready for the sack and everyone else seems to be just getting started, but I find these events to be delightful times.

  8. Hi Marc, thanks for sharing your visit and insights in this post, I was right there enjoying it with you. Well done.
    This is the kind of experience that is our reward for taking the time to learn to speak the language. I've been fortunate to have experiences like these in my times in Mexico too.
    You made me realize tho, that I haven't had enough of them lately. There are too many foreigners where I live and it's too easy to just socialize with them. I MUST change that!

  9. Well, Trailrunner, you live in kind of a foreigner area there, so I would imagine it's easy to fall into that social circle. Obviously there are lots of ways to break a little more often out of "the group." I am sure you've got lots of ideas about how to do that.

    By the way, congratulations on your new publications! It's nice to hear from you.

  10. Very interesting, Marc. I wonder though--it there a difference experienced between men and women in this role as immigrant-invitee?
    I have read that the social occasions are often split along gender lines.
    I, too, have quit going to most gringo-gatherings for the same reasons you cite. But I also quit going to any party of more than 2 or 3 people. I've not become as comfortable as you have, obviously.

    That's why I wonder, is there a possible gender difference?

  11. Alinde, you bring up a good point. In many of these gatherings, the group does end up divided along gender lines, but not always. It depends upon the group. I have seen it both days. The party I wrote about here mixed it up all evening, although there was a predominance of men sitting and women serving food. I think that generally in smaller pueblos and poorer economic circumstances, and where the people are less educated, the more traditional approach exists, while more prosperous and university-educated groups tend to be more modern in how they socialize.

    However not long ago I was at a dinner among prosperous, modern, educated Mexicans, where the women laughed at me and shooed me away when I stayed too long among the females after the males had all gravitated to the far end of the table. You can never tell.

  12. I think the difference in the Mexican gathering vs the foreigner gathering has nothing to do with cultural differences. The difference is a family gathering vs a group of various people gathering. This Mexican family get together is exactly the same as my family get-togethers have always been in Canada.

    And I am getting a little peeved at the common tendency for expats to praise all things Mexican and put down the foreign community in the process. Why can't we just say that there are good and bad things in both groups and attempt to seek out the good.

  13. Joanne, thanks for expressing your opinion. I am in agreement with you that comparing two kinds of gatherings is like comparing apples and oranges, as I said:

    "...the Mexican parties are gatherings of family and old friends, and most of the foreigner parties are given by people who do not have family or life-long friends around."

    However, based upon twenty years of spending a lot of time among Mexicans and eight years living here, I do think there is a cultural difference. I don't know about Canada, but the typical family-and-friend-type get-togethers I know from the States are not the same as the majority of the Mexican ones I've been a part of. It's a big subject, but I think it has to do with extended families more often still living together or close to each other, and a closeness to roots and culture that more mobile and spread-out families in the US no longer possess to the same degree.

  14. As I've told you many times before, Marc, I love the way you live in Mexico. I hope to follow in your footsteps one day. Lovely writing here, painting a picture of a way of life that has been almost completely lost in the US.

  15. Lynette, it's always nice to hear from you. I think you pegged it -- it's not that this way of socializing doesn't exist north of the border -- it certainly does; more accurately it did. I sometimes comment that in established neighborhoods in Mexico I am often reminded of the way things were at my grandparents' house in Kansas, in the 50's and early 60's. Everyone used to sit on porch swings at night (in Merida people still put chairs out and sit on the sidewalk). Forty-five or more years ago was the last time I witnessed large, multi-generation gatherings of the Olsons coming together. Economic progress and modernization, televisions, internet and mobility have a lot to do with the changes. Americans move a lot, live places where they don't know anyone and have no roots. Many more Mexicans have stayed put. Big difference.

  16. Marc,
    I totally agree with you. I come from a Polish Catholic background in Chicago and have often thought how the family get-togethers and fiestas here resemble those that I experienced as a kid in the 1950's and early 60's. I recall with amusement that in retrospect we spent about half of our time sitting on the front porch "visiting" with people and communicating directly with friends, relatives, neighbors and passers by.

  17. It's not just socializing and family life that resembles what once existed farther north. Much of Mexican life resembles life north of the border 50 or 100 years ago.

    I think this plays a large part in the misconception that most Mexicans are poor and in need of help (i.e. charity). It's less that we are "poor" and more that we simply live to a great degree in another era.

    There are both plusses and minuses to living in another era.

  18. unseenmoon: Very thoughtful, Felipe, what you've said, and I think it's very true.

    I recall stories and have photos of my Dad's and grandparents' early years. They had no conveniences, lived in houses that modern-day Americans would consider tiny and rustic, without indoor plumbing, and owned little beyond clothing, basic household goods, a little furniture and maybe some tools. Yet they always said, and we've heard this many, many times from many sources, "We didn't know we were 'poor.' We were happy." In earlier, less materially-rich times, over hundreds or thousands of years, people often managed to be happy. Happiness came from just living, and relationships, not "achievement" and stuff.

  19. Interesting post. From my own experience in socializing with Mexicans and Mexican families, I've noted one big difference vs NOB. Mexico is much less age-segregated. Older and younger people are thrust together much more often, and thus there seems to be much less of a "generation gap."

    I find that refreshing compared to the States, where friendships of greatly differing ages are either regarded as a curiosity, or with suspicion.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we have friends ranging from 25 years older to 25 years younger.

  20. Kim, you are absolutely right. I have a much greater number of much older and much younger friends among Mexicans than I ever did in the States.

    Until my oldest friend passed away a year ago, I had friends ranging over about a 70-year range, from late teens to late 80's. Pretty interesting.

    Ageism is NOT alive and well among in a large segment of the Mexican population. Young folks often still look to older folks for advice and friendship. And for us mature types, it's great to be able to share and mentor, and also plug into some of the energy and optimism of the younger set. It's one of the really nice things about living here.

  21. Very true, Marc and Kim G--in fact I recently had a cerveza with a Mexican friend, who commented, about a couple we saw at a nearby table--"Where else would you see a young person taking an older relative out for a cerveza?" So true.

    I remember, a long time ago, trying to start up a computer-related conversation with a younger person in a SF "dog Park." Even then, in my forties, I was perceived as being "too old" to be conversing about that topic with a young "geek."

  22. Alinde and Kim: I’ve observed and thought about this many times over the years.

    You might have seen this post., called Living Here: Between Generations:

    [Sorry, can't seem to make a link work here.]

  23. This has been touched on above, but one of the things I love about Mexican gatherings is that usually there are people there from different generations while at the gringo gatherings, this isn't so. For that matter, in the USA, parties are usually one-generational, with a few sore thumbs sticking out as old or young in either direction. I wonder whether the single generational gathering is uniquely American. I really don't know, but I do know it's different in Italy. Parties. Hmmmm. I lived and visited extensively in Japan but was never invited to a party. We received many dinner invitations, with just a few people, but not what I'd call a party.
    In my experience, no group knows how to party like Mexicans. Any excuse to have a gathering, everyone welcome, fewer pretenses.

  24. So many thanks, Marc--Your earlier piece, "Beyond Generations", is a really uplifting testament to Mexican inclusion. I sure appreciate your reference to it (even if it wasn't "clickable".)

  25. Thanks for your comment, Beryl, I have to agree with you 100%. Socializing with the locals is one of the nicest things about living here.

    Alinde, I am glad you enjoyed the post. It's one of my favorites.

  26. Hi Marc, Thank you for writing this article, I really enjoyed reading about your experience. As someone who is thinking of retiring to Mexico - your post really captured the cultural appeal of moving to the country and reinforced the point that understanding Spanish is a must for these experiences. How did you come to learn Spanish? I linked to your post so that others like me may enjoy reading your experience as well ( It's always interesting to read about the assimilation and viewpoints of those living in Mexico. - Rick

  27. Rick: Thanks for commenting. I am glad you appreciated the article.

    In answer to your question, I started learning Spanish early. with school classes in seventh grade, followed by high school. When I was sixteen and again seventeen I did summer volunteer work in Central and South America. That got me motivated, so I took Spanish in college. Than I traveled, and later found ways to use Spanish in my work. For about fifteen years before moving to Mexico, I spent nearly every holiday and vacation i could in Mexico. speaking Spanish.

    To me, the key is to do things you like to do while speaking the language. I've written more posts on learning Spanish, found under the labels Language Learning or Learning Spanish.


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