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>Some American Friends & Irene and Socorro

April 25, 2010


Just as oil and water  won’t mix, no matter how hard you try, American and Mexican teens would not mix either.  And it became clear to me over time that it was the American kids who refused to have anything to do with their Mexican counterparts. Was it racism? I don’t know what else you’d call it. My American friends regularly made disparaging remarks about Mexico, Mexicans, Spanish, and Mexican culture. If they’d only realized what they were missing! (There will be many more posts documenting the kinds of things that went on in the American teen community.)
I have Mom to thank for not falling into the same kind of “cultural superiority” evinced by so many Americans. She genuinely liked living in Mexico. To paraphrase: When in Mexico, do as the Mexicans. We did.
BTW, in the second entry this week, Irene is pronounced Ee-ray-nay. 

Some American Friends
Even though I no longer attended the American School, I kept up the friendships I had made there and I regularly attended parties given by American kids, supervised or not. I never told Mom about the unsupervised parties, which were the rule rather than the exception. There was no way she would have let me go.
”I’m going to a party tonight, Mom.”
“Who’s giving it? And what time will you be home?”
“It’s at Christina’s. Around midnight.”
“Will there be adults there?”
“Yeah, Mom, they’re always there.”
SNAPSHOT: That’s me there, in the  middle, dancing, with lots of other kids. My shirt has narrow, vertical stripes of green, white and purple, short sleeves rolled up twice. My pale yellow pants are pegged, of course, and my hair is perfectly in place in spite of the frenetic dancing and the sweat pouring off me. That’s because I’ve used about half a can of Helene Curtis hair spray. Nothing short of a torrential downpour is going to muss it. There are no adults in the snapshot. There are no adults at the party.
I was popular because I loved to dance. There were always girls who wanted to dance but few boys who were willing. Not me. I couldn’t wait to get out there and start moving. As soon as one song ended, I’d be at the record player, going through the LPs and 45s looking for another one to put on. I had my favorites for dancing: “Speedo” by the Cadillacs; “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes; “Mystery Train” by Elvis; just about anything by Gene Vincent; and a host of others.
SNAPSHOT: This is Christina, my American girlfriend. She’s fourteen, five feet tall, about 110 pounds, short blond hair, blue eyes and a soft, well-rounded figure. We’re at the drive-in , watching “Dracula.” We’re well into a long, deep, passionate kiss and my hand moves from her back and finds her breast.
 Christina wouldn’t dance the fast ones so the first part of the evening I danced with all the other girls who would, under Christina’s watchful eye. After nine o’clock, though, the general rule was slow songs only and that’s when Christina and I would dance: The Moonglows, The Platters, The Charms and, several times an evening, at Christina’s insistence, “our” song, “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” by Paul Anka.
She was the first American girlfriend I’d had and it was a new and exciting experience to hold hands, to take her in my arms when we danced and feel her move against me, to take in her scent, to make out on the couch or in the car at the drive-in theater. It was at the drive-in one night that I experienced the guilty thrill of touching her breasts. It had taken me weeks to work up the courage and when it happened I was surprised that she offered no objection. I never touched her again, though. I don’t know if it was because I didn’t know what might happen next, I didn’t know what to do next if something did happen, or if I was afraid that the next time she would get angry. Maybe the first time I touched her was such a surprise, so unexpected, she didn’t know how to react. In any case, we broke up not long after that, when she found out I’d been seeing another girl behind her back.
* * * * *
SNAPSHOT: Christina’s living room, late at night. She and her sister Kathy and my friend Val are sitting on the dark green couch, slightly bent over, looking at me. I’m lying on the floor, unconscious. Nobody is concerned; it’s a game.
One Saturday night when there were no parties happening (this was unusual; there was a party almost every Saturday night in the American teen community), my friend Val and I went over to Christina and Kathy’s house. They invited us in and after a bit Val asked, “Dave, have you done the pass-out game lately?”
“The pass-out game? What’s that?” Kathy looked puzzled. “It doesn’t sound like fun.”
“You don’t know what that is?” I asked. “Lot of guys are doing it. Watch, I’ll show you how to do it.”
“First, I take a lot of really deep breaths. Then watch what I do.” I stood up and for the next thirty seconds or so I took very deep breaths indeed. When I felt ready, I held the final breath and exerted as much pressure on my lungs as possible, as if I were going to exhale, but keeping my airway closed to prevent exhalation. Almost immediately I could feel my face turning red and I started to feel light-headed as the pressure on my lungs caused arteries to the brain to close, blocking blood flow. Suddenly, everything went white, then black. When I came to I was flat on my back, staring up at the faces of my three friends bent over me. My head ached.
“How long was I out?” I asked. It was important to know this because we boys were keeping track of who could stay passed out the longest.
“Only a few seconds,” Val replied.
I got up and made my way back to the couch and sat down, cuddling Christina.
“That’s it? That’s the pass-out game?” Kathy looked at me in disbelief. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever saw! What’s the point? To kill yourself? You could, you know or you could smash your head when you keel over like some drunk.” She turned to Christina. “Don’t you ever try that, Christina! It’s stupid and it’s dangerous!” Christina, being three years younger, simply nodded at this order.
“And as for you two, don’t ever do that in this house again! I can’t believe how stupid it is!” and she marched off upstairs.
Val and I looked at each other and smiled. What did she know? She was a girl.
Looking back, this “game” was dangerous as hell, of course, potentially fatal, though we didn’t realize it at the time. Or maybe we just didn’t think about it. At fifteen, who thinks about dying? This was a fad that, fortunately, passed after a short time. None of us suffered any lasting consequences but It could have been much worse.

SNAPSHOT: A close-up of the knuckles of my left hand, blood trickling down my fingers. Looks like a snake bite.
A far more innocuous, but equally senseless, “game” was done with a comb. I saw it done for the first time at a party when a boy demonstrated it. First, he windmilled an arm around and around, forcing blood down into his hand. Then he took his comb and whacked it across his knuckles with the teeth, causing several small puncture wounds. Then he windmilled his arm again, causing trickles of blood to seep from the wounds. “Wow!” I thought, “that’s
s-o-o-o cool!” Over the next few days I did my part in spreading news of this new fad. For a while, it got to the point where you could count on finding drops of blood on the floor or the furniture at our parties. We did these things to impress the girls. Of course.
Irene and Socorro
Most Americans led very insular lives here in the heart of Mexico. A few had been transferred here by their employer. Some divided their time between Mexico and the States. Many had chosen to retire here. They established little American enclaves at Lake Chapala; in Ajijic, another little town on the lake; and in Colonia Chapalita. For many, their goal appeared to be keeping Mexico and Mexicans at arm’s length. They registered at the American consulate in downtown Guadalajara; they clustered together as if for safety on many of the same streets in Chapalita; they sent their children to the American School in spite of its problems; they did their grocery shopping at Guadalajara’s only supermarket, shunning the two big public markets. I never saw them at the park in the center of the Colonia, never saw them in the little tiendas, never saw them on the buses.
Mom was different. True, she never rode the bus, but she did drop in on the tiendas once in a while, usually for cigarettes. Nor was she averse to going to our local farmacia for things we needed. She refused to register at the consulate. “What’s the point?” she replied when I asked her about it one day. “They’ll just be after us to go to this event or that event, celebrate American holidays and God only knows what else. What do we need that for?” She loved going to the Juarez or San Juan de Dios markets. She loved the color, the noise, the smells, the bustle. Most of all, I think she looked forward to bargaining with the merchants, which she enjoyed and was very good at. Mom recognized that the interplay of offers and counter-offers made and spurned was a custom, something both parties were expected to engage in. Once, at one of our parties, an American man commented with great pride to Mom on how good he was at ‘Jewin’ down the Mexicans.’ “Typical American!” was her disdainful reaction. (We never saw him again at our house after that.
SNAPSHOT: Our Ford wagon is stopped in front of a small adobe house shaded by two trees. Irene, our maid, looking worried, stands in the doorway holding her baby. Three other children crowd around her. Mom is holding open the passenger-side door. A plume of dust, still settling, marks the several miles we’ve traveled off the highway.
SNAPSHOT: Our kitchen. Irene leans against the pantry door, laughing hard. Mom is seated at a small wooden table, laughing just as hard. Fifteen-year-old Socorro, Irene’s daughter, stands at the stove, patting a ball of masa into a tortilla. She’s trying hard to suppress a smile, but not very successfully.
Mom also made it a personal mission to do what she could to change the “ugly American” image to something more positive. She struggled to learn, and use, the language. She treated Mexicans, including our two maids, with courtesy and respect. She occasionally bought them little gifts and gave them an extra day off now and then, and never made unreasonable demands. She liked to practice her Spanish with them and I often heard them in the kitchen, laughing over some mistake Mom had made. Once we drove the forty miles out of the city to Irene’s home to pick up her very sick infant son and take him to the doctor, which Mom paid for. As a result, Irene and her daughter, Socorro, adored Mom.
There were Americans who criticized Mom for “putting ideas in their heads” about how they should be treated, but they could never keep a servant beyond six months. They used to say how “lucky” Mom was to have found Irene. Luck had nothing to do with it. Courtesy and respect had everything to do with it.
Over time, Mom found a few other Americans who, like us, were comfortable living as Mexicans. Through them she began meeting Mexican friends who spoke English and welcomed her into their circles. “You and I are very adaptable, David,” she used to tell me. “We accept change easily and make the accommodations we need to make. A lot of people can’t, or won’t, do that. Just look at all these Americans down here who live as if they were still in California or Florida or wherever the hell they came from. They refuse to open their eyes to what’s around them. Most of them think themselves superior to Mexicans and they’re blind to the possibilities.”
And she was right. My American friends frequently made disparaging remarks about Mexicans, their language, their culture, their country in general and how they couldn’t wait to get back to the good ol’ US of A. They would grimace at the thought of having to attend a Mexican school and couldn’t understand why Mom made Valerie and me do just that. And they certainly weren’t the least impressed that we could speak fluent Spanish; that wasn’t important to them.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2010 9:28 pm

    >Nicely written. Young love and prejudice is quite a range to cover in such a short chapter. Keep up this great story!krabber

  2. April 27, 2010 2:43 pm


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