Sunday, September 30, 2012

Living Here: The Power of Relationships



One of the most satisfying aspects of Mexican culture, to those integrated enough to appreciate it, is the nature and power of personal relationships. A while ago I was strongly reminded of this.

One rainy afternoon I was far from home, riding a combi van in the countryside, when I received a desperate call. "I have been accused of something terrible. This could land me in prison. Please come help."

That was all he said. It could have been the weak cell phone connection, but it sounded as if my good friend Juan may have been crying. Then I heard background noises and abruptly the call was disconnected.

I had an idea of what the issue was because Juan recently had mentioned a very uncomfortable situation in which he had haplessly and unavoidably become involved. The accusation against my kind, honest and gentle friend was ludicrous; it appeared he was being made a scapegoat.

I had no choice. I got off the combi at the next town and boarded another that started me on an overnight journey back to Mérida.

The next day was a Friday, and soon after I arrived home, Juan and I sat down at my kitchen table to figure out what to do. It was obvious that he needed the advice of a lawyer, so I made a list of people I knew who might refer me to someone trustworthy.

On the top of my list was Diego, an attorney whom I'd gotten to know some years before when we'd been in a class together. I deeply respect Diego's integrity. I'd socialized occasionally with him and his wife back then, but to be honest had not done much to maintain the friendship over the years. So although I knew Diego was my best bet, I was a little reluctant to call him out of the blue and ask for help. But the situation was urgent. Juan needed to be informed about his rights, he needed support and a plan, and he needed these things by Monday. I rang Diego's cell number and left a message. Then I started communicating with other contacts on my list.

I had almost given up on Diego when he rang the next day. He apologized profusely for not calling me back sooner, explaining that he and his wife were out of the country and not able to check messages frequently. But he told me to call one of his associates in Mérida and gave me a cell phone number.

I called. The attorney interviewed Juan over the phone for about an hour and finally asked him, "can you come down to the office in about fifteen minutes? I'm the criminal specialist, but we've got several issues here and I want to bring in another associate."

The reception area and halls of the law office were dark, hot and stuffy. It seemed that Diego's law partner had opened up on a Saturday afternoon just for us. After we'd talked for a bit in an air-conditioned office, the other attorney arrived. They proceeded to spend two hours asking questions, discussing points of law, drafting documents and developing a strategy to help Juan resolve his problem. They were serious and professional, but also cracked the occasional joke to keep the atmosphere from getting too heavy. They put us at ease. I liked them both.

When we were wrapping up, the attorneys offered their cell phone numbers to Juan, with a reminder that he could call "24 hours a day" in case of new developments or if he had questions.

I asked if we needed to set up a billing account with the firm. Both men smiled and one said, "Oh no, you are Diego's friends. Don't worry about it." They stood, shook our hands, and as we walked out reminded Juan that they would be in touch next week.

So we'd had a two-hour meeting with a pair of good attorneys who had responded immediately to my call. They came into work on a hot Saturday afternoon to give legal advice to Juan, the friend of a friend of their friend and law associate. They had placed themselves on-call 24 - 7.

For friendship. Do not mention money.

And this is not a rare occurrence in Mexico. It is not unusual at all. In fact, the power of relationships is often what gets things done, especially in business and politics. Someone looks you in the eye and says, "You've got my support, amigo," and things start to happen.

This system not only gets things done, it deepens and strengthens relationships. I think it goes back to colonial times, when there was no body of law to protect ordinary people. People found support and a safety net in their family and social network, so these ties became extremely important. These relationships are nurtured over a lifetime. They remain crucial to this day. The workings and essential nature of these friendships are aspects of the culture which we foreigners often do not understand.

Of course this is not the end of my story. Quite possibly some day, Diego or one of his associates will ring me and say, "I wonder if you can help me out with something." And I will say, "Sure, amigo, you can count on me. I'll be right over."


This is a true story. Names and details have been altered to protect privacy. 

16 comments:

  1. A tale well told. Interestingly, this is exactly how relationships worked in The States when I was growing up -- and when I practiced as an attorney. But I suspect Mexicans have had to rely more on that system during their history -- for some very obvious historical and social reasons.

    Thanks for sharing how relationships an work.

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    1. It's gratifying and very humbling to me, as a foreigner, to be treated with this kind of respect and consideration. I have quite a lot to live up to. This is probably very good for me...

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  2. That is exactly as it was when I was in business and had many relationships with other business professionals in several organizations that I belonged to in the states.
    Then for some reason (litigation) it became every man for themselves. It became more difficult to find trustworthy business relationships with the new guard businessmen.
    There use to be so many things that were done with a handshake, which now a days would be impossible. (litigation) (covering ones behind).
    People my age prefer the old style of those relationships, where trust and honor was developed for a lifetime. We would often do things for people just because it was the right thing to do, to help someone, not holding out your hand for the payment. Ultimately you get rewarded one way or another with either good luck, or good fortune....funny how that happens to people .
    I hope it all works out for your friend.

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    1. Tancho, there are a few younger business people out there who respect the old ways, but not many. Interestingly the guy I am thinking of was living in the States, but of Puerto Rican extraction. He never talked about it, but I discovered quite by accident that he was, as the Wizard of Oz said, I think, a "good deed doer." He helped out other small business people and neighbors all the time. He would never accept compensation. He did a huge favor for me one day and when I asked how I could compensate him, he just told me that there was no reason to. He'd been raised that way, and it's just what he does. I gained a lot of respect for that young man. And...I patronized his business as much as possible.

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  3. When NAFTA was passed, since I had done business in Mexico for many years, I was asked to do some consulting with large companies wishing to do business in Mexico. I agreed. I told them that the first thing they needed to know was that business was done based on relationships, not money. This was in the early 90's. I explained that it is establishing a relationship, family, religion and then money that mattered.

    Many didn't believe me. Came down here in a flash, did it the US way and fell flat on their faces. I'm talking BIG food purveyor companies. Those that came down quietly, built a foundation, are still here, happily.

    Your post made me smile in agreement. I've seen it over and over and over.

    I too feel a need to honor that faith that the people in this country have put in me as a friend. Thanks for writing.

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    1. And thanks for sharing your story, Babs. You've added some details to the theme.

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  4. And powerful they are, when nurtured, that is.

    Unfortunately, greed comes into play, sometimes, and it can all get lost--more people should allow the circle of life, to happen. And it does with enough patience and time...

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    1. I agree. I feel fortunate that I have been offered entry into such a circle here.

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  5. I had a similar situation a couple of years ago while selling my house. The buyer had a total meltdown, threatened to have us killed and barricaded herself in our house. It was clear that we needed a lawyer to straighten things out but we didn't know anyone.

    Good friends of ours came to our rescue and called a lawyer who had been a friend of the family for years as well as their personal lawyer. He opened the office at 8:30 in the evening and talked to us for 2 hours. He charged us nothing for this.

    The following day he sent a lawyer, and an interpreter for our "house guest", and the resulting negotiations went on for 9 hours. Eventually everything was solved and we were charged an amazingly small amount.

    I love Mexico!

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    1. Thanks for sharing you story, Shannon. Of course there are bad people or there can be bad circumstances anywhere you might live. The important thing is to have the strong support of friends when you need it. As I commented earlier, I have felt humbled by the response of people I know here in Merida.

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  6. You know you have been living right when folks remind you of things you did for them in the past and you cannot honestly remember the deed.

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    1. Good point, Norm, and a good philosophy to live by.

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  7. Amigo... you nailed it. You have come to understand what makes this place work and what make it so very special. The people. They can be so confounding at times but their true concern for your welfare is astounding. Quite honestly, they would do anything for you. I have been involved in situations such as you write about. Both as a receiver and a giver. I am living one right now in fact... Truly, La vida es un carnaval.

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    1. Coming from you, this is quite a compliment. I am glad to know that you think I am on the right track.

      After nine years I am still a child in this area. I hope to experience and learn more.

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  8. Let us know how the story turns out...

    al

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    1. The situation is largely resolved...we think. If anything notable happens, I'll let you know if I can, considering privacy issues. I am hoping that this is the end of the story.

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