¡Yo soy mexicano!


Los Rodríguez

Cuando era niño, vivíamos en Chicago y viajábamos a México cada año. Íbamos mi mamá, mi hermano Daniel y yo. Una vez que fuimos, mi mamá estaba embarazada. Todo mundo le decía que no fuera a México hasta después del parto. Como mi mamá era muy cabezona, nos fuimos a México de todos modos. Pues, mi hermanito Diego nació en Celaya, Guanajuato, en la casa de mi tía. La próxima vez que mi mamá se embarazó, nos quedamos en Chicago y mi hermano Ricardo nació en nuestro apartamento.

Cuando yo tenía doce años y ya todos asistíamos a la escuela, yo, por ser el mayor, cuidaba a mis hermanitos mientras nuestros padres trabajaban. Los vestía para la escuela, los acompañaba a la escuela y los acompañaba a casa después de la escuela. Siempre jugábamos juntos y a veces nos peleábamos como suelen hacer los hermanos. A Diego le daba tanto orgullo de ser mexicano de 100% por haber nacido en México. Siempre nos decía, «Yo nací en México. ¡Yo soy mexicano! ¡Ustedes no son mexicanos como yo!». Según él, Daniel, Ricardo y yo éramos gringos por haber nacido en los Estados Unidos. Diego siempre decía «¡Yo nací en México!» con mucho orgullo.

Pues, cuando volvíamos a casa después de clase, no siempre íbamos directamente a casa. A veces cada uno iba con su amigo y luego nos encontrábamos en casa antes de que llegara mi mamá del trabajo. Pero una vez, no llegó Diego para la hora fijada. Me puse nervioso porque sabía que mi mamá me daría una paliza por haber perdido a mi hermanito. Lo fui a buscar por todo el barrio, pero no lo encontré. Cuando mi mamá llegó, me preguntó, «¿Ya están todos?». Le mentí y le dije que sí en una voz muy tímida. Mi mamá se dio cuenta de que alguien faltaba. «¿Dónde está Diego?» me preguntó. «No sé» le dije esperando una paliza.

Mi mamá nos abrigó y salimos en el coche para buscar a Diego. No lo encontramos. Volvimos a casa y mi mamá hizo varias llamadas a parientes, vecinos y chismosas. Nadie sabía dónde estaba mi hermanito. De repente, vimos por la ventana que se estacionaba un coche grande y negro frente de la casa. Salieron dos hombres de traje negro con mi hermanito. Resulta que Diego volvía a casa solo después de visitar a un amigo cuando los oficiales de la migra lo vieron. Le preguntaron, «¿Dónde naciste?», y mi hermanito naturalmente contestó con mucho orgullo, «¡Yo nací en México!» y se lo llevaron. Después de varias horas, lo trajeron a nuestra casa y mi mamá les enseñó documentos para comprobar que Diego estaba en los Estados Unidos legalmente. Luego mi mamá regañó a Diego y le dijo, «¡Ya no le digas a nadie que naciste en México!». Me salvé de una paliza por el susto que sufrió mi mamá. Hasta hoy en día, mi hermano nunca le dice a nadie que nació en México.

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Ixtapa Zihuatanejo


Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo

When I go to Mexico, or anywhere on a vacation, I don’t have a set itinerary. I know where I’m going and I know where I hope to return if all goes well. All other destinations between the start and finish of my vacation are all determined by luck, happenstance, and sheer naivete! God always seems to protect the innocents and the helpless.

So, on my vacation, I knew for a fact that I would leave Chicago on Friday, December 12, 2008, and return to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on January 3, 2009, because that is when my Mexican car permit expired. What I would do to fill all those days in between I left to fate.

Well, not entirely. My cousin’s daughter had invited me to her university graduation party on Friday, December 19, 2008, so I had to get to her house at least one or two days before the party. I thought about going to Celaya, Guanajuato, first, but I always hate saying good-bye to everyone in Celaya. Therefore, I planned to go to Mexico City first and then on the return trip stop by to visit my family in Celaya. So I actually had some type of plan. But nothing went as planned!

I arrived at my cousin’s house on Monday, December 15, and I stayed there with them until the party. They live in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Estado de México, which is just north of Mexico City. I never made it to Mexico City to visit my family there until December 29th.

Let me tell you what happened. I was staying with my cousin until the graduation party and I was thoroughly enjoying my vacation. One day, my cousin tells me she was taking me with her family to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo on vacation the morning after the graduation party. I told her that I had already made other plans. That I wanted to visit everyone in Mexico City and stop in Celaya on the way back. But she insisted. She was firm and assertive. I had to go with their family to Ixtapa. Well, I was weak and immediately caved in to her demand. Besides, I had very been to a beach resort on vacation in Mexico before. I would finally see what attracted Americans in droves to go to Mexico. It would be a good learning experience.

Not your average tourist trap.

Well, when we got to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo after an eight-hour drive, it was hot there! This was December and I was wearing only swimming trunks and I was sweating! Meanwhile back in Chicago, everyone was enduring snowstorms and sub-zero weather. And I didn’t even feel a little guilty! That’s why Americans and Canadians went to Mexico in the winter! I think my biggest surprise was discovering that most of the tourists were Mexicans. Entire families of Mexicans. I was told that most of the foreign tourists go to Acapulco where there’s a constant party atmosphere. We stayed at the Hotel Fontán where my cousin had made reservations the year before for about fifty bucks per night for the room for four people during the height of the tourist season. I felt very fortunate that she invited me along. I actually enjoyed going to the beach and going to all the mercados. There was one terrible, tragic moment that changed our lives forever, but I will leave that tale for another blog post.

Trust


McDonald's, Chicago, Illinois

When I was in Mexico, I learned that I could trust all the Mexicans with whom I dealt. My first trip I was very cautious on the road since I traveled alone. When I met up with my family in Celaya, I realized that I didn’t really know anyone since I had not seem some of my relatives in more than twenty years and some had not even been born yet the last time I was in Celaya. However, I always felt I could trust all my family member without any reservations.

The only Mexicans that I never felt that I could never trust were in Nuevo Laredo when I crossed the border. They just looked like shady characters to me as they tried to hustle me into hiring them as a tour guide to get a visa and auto permit. Perhaps I was merely prejudging, but I didn’t feel safe around them. I just sped past them with my windows rolled up. There were some people who were outright begging there.

I had flown and taken the train on my previous trips, but I had never driven to Mexico before. I asked advice for my driving vacation from everyone who had ever driven to Mexico. The general consensus was to stay on the main toll roads even though I would have to pay tolls because these were the safest roads in Mexico. My cousin advised me not to drive after midnight. I wanted to ask her why not, but then I realized that I would feel safer not knowing why not. I didn’t drive after 10 pm. I had no idea what to expect.

For example, I didn’t know about la propina, the tip. When I needed gas for the first time in Mexico, I stopped at a Pemex gas station. I didn’t realize that was my only choice since the petroleum industry is a government monopoly. First of all, I was surprised to be greeted by an attendant who asked me what kind of gas and how much I wanted. I can’t even remember when I last saw a full-service gas station. I tried to pay with my credit card, but they only accepted cash. I didn’t realize I was supposed to tip him, so I didn’t. However, he never gave me any kind of signal that I was supposed to tip him and he never complained to me as I drove away. Later, my cousins explained that everyone in Mexico lives off tips. From then on, I tipped everyone. And generously, whenever possible.

One of the things I liked about Mexico was that car washes were available at many parking lots. When I’m in Chicago, my car is always dirty because I don’t like to go out of the way to go to the carwash. In Mexico, the carwash comes to you. I went with my sons and cousins to the mall in Celaya to see Kung Fu Panda. An elderly man approached me after I parked my car and asked me if I wanted my car washed. I asked him how much and he was reluctant to tell me. Finally, he told me thirty pesos. He was going to wash my car and then I would pay him when I returned. He actually trusted me. But I knew we would be in mall for a few hours and it was already 6:00 pm, so, he might not be there when we came out–unless he stayed just to wait for me. I asked my cousin if it was okay to pay him before we went in. I actually trusted the man at his work and knew my car would be washed when I returned. My cousin was noncommittal. So I paid and my car was washed when we returned about midnight. The man had been long gone by then.

I trusted everyone and I felt comfortable in Mexico. I had no reason to be distrustful of Mexicans in general. Once, when I stopped for at a tire shop for air, the attendant inflated my tires. He stood there for a moment without saying a word. I asked him how much I owed him. He said whatever I wanted to give him. I gave him twenty pesos and he seemed happy with that. Anyone who did anything for you accepted whatever amount you gave them and were always grateful for it. I was always afraid that they would overcharge me. In fact, I was so happy that they didn’t, so I would end up over-tipping them.

Pizza


 

Domino's pizza

I had some pizza with my sons the other day and I remembered how difficult it was finding food for them to eat in Mexico. It’s not that they don’t have good food in Mexico. It’s just that my sons didn’t like Mexican food made by Mexicans that wasn’t like the American Mexican food that we usually eat in Chicago. We went to Pizza Hut in Celaya and the menu listed many of the same combinations available in the U.S. Of course, they also served pizza with jalapeño peppers. I would have been surprised if they didn’t offer jalapeños. This is a country that always adds some sort of condiment to whatever food is served. If you sit down to eat, you are expected to put red or green salsa on just about everything you eat. So, I was surprised by what I saw at Pizza Hut. People put catsup (in Mexico, it’s hardly ever ketchup) on their pizza. I tried explaining that the sauce on the pizza was made from tomatoes, but everyone said that pizza didn’t taste right without catsup. Well, the surprise was that they actually ate a food item that wasn’t spicy!

Please pass the catsup

Mexican food


Now this is real Mexican food in America!

While in Mexico with my sons, we ate a lot of Mexican food. Even though I had warned them in advance that Mexican food in Mexico was different from Mexican food in America, my sons were shocked that everyone served them Mexican food. But it was nothing like what they had expected. They were surprised that very few restaurants served steak tacos (de carne asada). And all the food was cooked with the spices already in them. They didn’t want any spicy food. They didn’t even want to try the tamales because they had never seen them or heard of them before, although you really can’t have a Mexican party in the U.S. without tamales. It’s the law. When we were at a Mexican restaurant while we were on the road, I also warned them not to expect the waitress to put a basket of tortilla chips on the table. That’s an American custom!

The last time I went to Mexico in December, I didn’t worry about food because I was alone and I adapt well to different environments.  I ate everything my family served me, causing my one cousin to note that I was really Mexican. Anyway, feeding my sons posed a unique challenge. My cousin suggested taking them to a pushcart vender who sold hot dogs and hamburgers our first night in Celaya. I thought it was an excellent idea. Until I saw the vender preparing a wiener with a strip of bacon wrapped around it. I thought for sure that my son wouldn’t like it. But he ate it and said that he liked the way the hot dog tasted with bacon. We also went to Pizza Hut, Burger King, and McDonald’s quite often while in Mexico, much to my disappointment. I really thought that I would get away from fast-food restaurants for a while. Well, I wanted to take my sons so they could experience Mexico, and despite the culture shock, they enjoyed the trip and said they would go back again. 🙂

The peppers are so hot!

Dogs


Toluca, México

While driving through Mexico, I noticed two things about dogs. One, not many people keep dogs as pets. And, two, stray dogs didn’t scare people like they do in the United States. In America, if someone sees a large unleashed dog, they feel automatic dread and run for cover.

I don’t recall seeing a pedigreed dog even once during my last two trips to Mexico, except for my cousin who has an English sheepdog. Most of the dogs I observed on the street were large mutts that were some shade of brown. They usually stood on the curb looking at the traffic as if they were waiting for an opportunity to cross. These dogs were laid back and didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry. I saw more dead dogs on the highway in the U.S. than in Mexico. These Mexican dogs coexisted peacefully with the people, which surprised me. They often sleep on the streets and sidewalks and no one bothers them.

When I was a boy, I remember laughing at one of the pushcart food venders in Mexico City because he sold hot dogs. I just never imagined any Mexican wanting to eat American hot dogs. But I laughed even more when I saw the sign on the push cart that advertised the hot dogs as PERROS CALIENTES! A literal translation of the name for hot dogs.

In English, I never pictured a four-legged furry animal when I thought of hot dogs. But in Spanish, perros calientes did not evoke any appetizing image of one our typically American foods (As American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie, so the saying goes.). I pictured an actual dog on a hot dog bun.

Well, on this last trip to Mexico, I noticed that the venders who sold hot dogs no longer advertised them as perros calientes, but rather as hot dogs. I asked my cousin in Celaya why that was and he told me because the name conjured up the image of actual dogs, which they didn’t want to eat. Well, in Mexico, according to my cousin, there are people who eat tacos made from dog meat. So now hot dogs are sold instead of perros calientes.

José y María


Celaya, Guanajuato, México

In Spanish-speaking countries, the two most common names are José and María. Some parents name their sons José María and their daughters María José. My Uncle Eutimio and Aunt Asunción named their sons José Eutimio, José Ricardo, José Carlos, José Ignacio, José David, José Daniel, and José Agustín. They named their daughters María Concepción, María Elena, María Angélica, and María Carmen. They had fifteen children, but I can’t remember all their names right now. When I first met them on my last trip to Celaya, Guanajuato, they introduced themselves as Timio, David, Carlos, Ricardo, etcetera. Later, I heard one cousin call his brother Pepe, which is the nickname for José. I asked my cousin why he called him Pepe and he said that his name was really José. Later on, another cousin called another brother Pepe. This was a different from Pepe from the first one. I asked how they could both be Pepe. Then they explained to me how all the brothers were named José and all the girls were named María. I still don’t understand how they can name them like that, but they did. Afterwards, I thought about how convenient that would be. If you needed something, you would merely shout José or Pepe and you would have at least two or three sons running in to help you. Ditto if you shouted María.

Te presente a mi hermano José María y a mi hermana María José.