Friday, December 30, 2011

Living Here: Contrasts

Life in Mexico becomes more interesting as my social world expands. It is also a study in contrasts. One thing I have discovered is that my social life is spread over a much wider and more diverse spectrum here than it ever was in the states.

Here's what I did last weekend.

Very early on Christmas Eve, La Noche Buena, I flew from Oaxaca home to Mérida and from here drove out to be with friends in a small Yucatán pueblo. After receiving arrival handshakes from the men and kisses on the cheek from the women, I was served tacos of relleno negro and wonderful pibil-style turkey. The animal, which had been raised in the back yard, was killed earlier in the day and cooked in the traditional Mayan way, wrapped in banana leaves, placed on a bed of hot coals and rocks at the bottom of a hole, and covered with branches, leaves and earth.

At one point in the evening, a prodigal son, who in recent years rarely had visited home and was not expected, suddenly arrived, to the great joy of his parents and sisters. It was a beautiful and touching moment. The party shifted into high gear.

After eating many servings of food followed by dessert, then lingering late over a few caugamas (liter bottles) of beer, the family group, consisting of a pair of elder parents, their numerous children, and some grandchildren, nieces and nephews, slowly began to hang hammocks throughout the small house and drift off to sleep. I was given a place of honor -- a hammock hung in a corner, near one of the two fans in the house -- in a room with seven other hammocks. A few family members stayed up very late drinking and talking in the back, and only lay down to sleep when hammocks were left free by the early risers.

On Christmas morning we sat around the table and drank coffee, ate leftovers, which had been boiled -- no fridge here -- and took a walk in the monte to observe wildflowers and visit a cenote. Later I helped hang new window screens, which were my holiday gift to these friends. I received a pair of beautiful, handmade pillowcases from the "mom" of the house. After a bucket bath, more food and a lazy afternoon siesta rounded out my relaxing "pueblo Christmas."

The activities of the days preceeding this could not have been more different. I was in Oaxaca to attend the baptism of Benito Xilonen, son of the singer Lila Downs and Paul Cohen. I'd helped my friend Victoria Dehesa, godmother to Lila and Benito, obtain a few items for the ceremony and she'd invited me to visit Lila and family with her and to attend the baptism and fiesta.

It was an elegant event. After the ceremony in a small church, we walked through the pueblo, led by a brass band and announced with voladores, skyrockets, to an old renovated hacienda. As the hacienda gates opened onto a vast lawn, waiters lined both sides of the walkway, offering trays of drinks and ice cream to cool and revive the arriving throng. It was a very eclectic group: lots of local Oaxacan and Mexican folks mixed with an international crowd of family, friends, musicians and artists.

After resting in chairs placed in the shade of large umbrellas, listening to live music and being served appetizers and more refreshments, we were ushered inside the large casona to lunch. Seated at long tables we  dined on a delicious mole as a jazz ensemble played. This was the first of five different bands to entertain us this day, one set each. Jazz was followed by a Oaxacan brass band, then pop music, Oaxacan dancers, and more traditional music.

 At one point in the afternoon I was invited onto the dance floor by Lila. Later, I danced as she sang La Sandunga from the floor nearby. Lila Downs has been my favorite performer and recording artist of Mexican music for many years. For a long-time admirer and follower of her music, these unexpected experiences were right up there with the best of Christmas gifts.

After about ten hours of fiesta I had to call it a night in order to get ready for an early morning flight back to Mérida and my pueblo Christmas, but as I said my goodbyes at midnight it seemed that the party was just warming up. I've enjoyed few such events more and was sorry to leave.

I had two very different experiences in different parts of the country last weekend, but they had much in common: the abundant hospitality, warmth, sharing of important traditions, and genuineness of the people were all very much the same. They were both wonderful celebrations. I feel blessed to be able to walk with equal comfort here in many circles.

To all of my friends and readers, Happy New Year.


  1. And a happy new year to you, Marc. I don't know which event I would rather have experienced. Both were indeed special for you... and us as we read about them.

  2. Thanks, Paul. They were indeed both very special experiences for me. My best wishes to you and Susan in the new year.

  3. Your social groups sound a lot like mine :) My New Years will be with my husband's family in a small town in Yucatan... there will be lots of hammocks and caguamas!

  4. Gringationcancun, that's the way I like it. To bring in the new year I will stay at home in my Mérida neighborhood to watch the burning of the viejos.

  5. Marc, you've got such range. Many thanks for introducing me to the music of Lila Downs.


  6. Eric, I don't know about's just that nice people are nice people.

    I am glad you enjoy the music. Happy New Year.

  7. How great! Are you saying your were actually able to dance with Lila Downs?! I'd feel as thrilled if I could dance with Placido Domingo!
    Probably only Domingo and Kathleen Battle occupy more space on my iPod than do Lila Downs ( and Joan Baez.)

    Thanks for another interesting post.

  8. Alinde, I didn't exactly dance with her. She came up and sort of swept me onto the floor, along with a friend of mine...I danced with the friend...Lila sort of danced next to us and then around with everyone. But it was just as fun.

  9. Thanks for sharing Marc. Happy New Year.

  10. And, of course, your facility in Spanish made it all possible. A good lesson for all of us.

  11. Anonymous, thanks for reading, and Happy New Year to you.

    Steve, I recall that you commented on an earlier post here about the benefits of speaking Spanish, remarking about how important your emerging language skills were for getting things done, even when visiting a place like San Miguel de Allende, where many speak English. You are correct here, too, Without good Spanish, an involved and rewarding social life, at least outside of foreigner circles (which is the huge percentage of people around us), is really not possible without good Spanish.

  12. I still say--talking is overrated. Many of us need to spend more time thinking and listening, and observing .

    I'd like to tell you about a favorite neighbor--a woman whom I "chat with" weekly as she passes by and picks up aluminum cans that I save for her. We chat about my dog, mostly. What's so special? She is deaf and mute, but for a few grunts. And interestingly, I've only once failed to understand what she was saying to me--except for the fact that she'd come a long distance that morning, and that it had been upsetting to her.

    So, again--talking is overrated, especially when it overrides other valuable means of communication. I've had some experiences here with Spanish speaking people who shut-down and call for one of their supposedly bilingual partners--as soon as I open my mouth, and sometimes as soon as they see me.

    I'm not condemning only native Spanish speakers --we gringos do it all the time as well. And I'm fairly certain it is far worse in the USA for Spanish speakers than it is for "us" here in Mexico.

    I'd like to refer any of you interested in this aspect of communication to one of my favorite internet presentations, by John Francis on

  13. Alinde, I agree with you. I spend a lot of time thinking, listening and observing, as I have stated in the "About Me" section of this blog since I started it. These are highly important and underutilized skills. I do think, though, that if a foreigner is going to socialize and make new friends among Mexican people who do not speak English, that a good level of Spanish is pretty important. I listen and observe a lot, and it helps me learn and understand people, However if I can't converse effectively with them, the relationship can only go so far or so deep.

    Thanks, Alinde for continuing to be a regular reader and contributing to the conversation.

  14. Marc, it sounds as if you had a very wonderful and special Christmas.
    We send our best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year. Hope to see more of you in 2012.

    John & Alan

  15. John and Alan, yes it has been a great season so far. My best wishes to you as well for the new year.

  16. Wonderful stories Marc, thanks for sharing them with us.

  17. Marc, Thank you for sharing, I hope to one day be included in events like these. I am limited in my Spanish however I visit with the little neighbor ladies and comprehend most of what is expressed, but I yearn to fully understand and be understood.


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