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October 17, 2010

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Well, this is goodbye I guess. Today marks the final post in Double Exposure. It’s been fun doing this the last ten months. Thanx for the comments and feedback. And please take a moment to check my new blog: The Uncommon Citizen at:    www.theuncommoncitizen.blogspot.com. It’s something a little different.

Dave

Retrospective
I’ve made many trips to Mexico since leaving in 1960. The first was in 1976. My first wife, Vicky, was a tica (a native of Costa Rica) and we sold our house in Seattle, driving down to Costa Rica with our two young children, Monica, five, and Patrick, one. In our still-youthful idealism we thought we could simply pick up, pack up, settle down in Costa Rica and be welcomed with open arms. We were ready, willing and eager to change the world, but the world demanded things we weren’t prepared to give and within three months we were back in Seattle.
On our way to Costa Rica we spent a couple of weeks driving through Mexico, including a three-day stop in Guadalajara. I was astounded at the changes! Twenty years earlier the only two American concerns had been Woolworth and Sears. Now, American commerce was everywhere. Pizza places, McDonalds, KFC, Holiday Inn, Sheraton. Everywhere I looked there was creeping Americanization, including American-style traffic problems. The city was also far more densely populated. When Mom, Val, Felice and I arrived in 1956 the population was 450,000. Fourteen years later it had more than tripled.
Chapala, the eponymous town on the shore of Lake Chapala, had changed also. The quintessence of a small, quiet Mexican village, Chapala had always been a favorite day trip and it was no different now, in 1976. There were more tourists, Mexican as well as American, enough that a curio market had opened.
More people were living and working here in 1976 and there were more cars, although even now most people made their way on foot or horseback. The streets, except for the cobblestoned main street, remained unpaved. Horse- and mule-drawn carts were common. The lake’s waters still quietly lapped against the stone foundations of open-air restaurants built along the shore and people still danced while waiters in their standard black pants/white shirt attire kept the food and drink coming. The sounds of the mariachi bands playing in the restaurants reached your ears before you could see them.
The lake itself, however, had changed. This is a 1976 photo from our family album:
SNAPSHOT: Green water lilies spread as far as you can see. If this were a video you’d see them gently undulating as they rest on the water. A bus stop sign rises out of the lilies, as do some pieces of play equipment in a children’s park behind it.
As has happened in the past, rains had temporarily raised the water level sufficiently to flood the first two or three lakeside blocks, including a small park and playground. The top halves of a swing set and two slides poked incongruously out of the water.
The restaurants, sitting high enough above the water not to be flooded, were still busy, the mariachi bands still played, people still danced and the black- and-white-clad waiters still kept food and drink coming.
 Three decades later (2008), according to friends who have been there, the flooding problem is reversed. Population pressures from new communities and increasing irrigation demands are draining this beautiful lake, Mexico’s largest. The water that had previously lapped against walls and the stone foundations of the lakeside restaurants has receded. Those same restaurants are now a full kilometer from the water, bordered by mud flats in the rainy season and dry, cracked earth the rest of the year. Are they still busy? I don’t know, but certainly the natural beauty that tempted people to eat and drink, to dance and then to linger, has gone. Neither mud flats nor dry, cracked earth charm people.
My second wife, Debby, and I have visited many places in Mexico: Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Queretaro, Zacatecas, Leon, San Luis Potosi, San Miguel Allende, Acapulco, Zihuatenejo and Puerto Vallarta (usually referred to as PV by resident Americans). While much has changed in the intervening five decades, much has not. Roads, for example. In 1956, highways were poorly marked and poorly maintained. There was no regular signage labeling the highways or the distance to the next town. Fifty years later roads are only marginally better. They’re still poorly marked and maintained and highway signs are still scarce. There are, however, four-lane, divided roads which tend to be in much better repair. One other major improvement is that the highway bridges we encountered fifty years ago, the ones that narrowed to one lane, are now gone; drivers no longer have to flash their lights to claim the right of way. The custom of flashing lights persists, however. If a lane is obstructed or a vehicle is stopped on the roadway (not uncommon situations), approaching drivers will flash their lights for dibs on the right-of-way.
Cobblestone streets are still common, particularly in small towns but also in cities. Downtown PV is mostly cobblestone streets (called empedrado in Spanish, from “piedra,” rock). They’re taken for granted by the locals and noticed by tourists primarily when they endure the physical jouncing and jarring in a taxi and even more on a bus. But when you look at the streets, really look at them, you notice a few things. First of all, the stones are not laid willy-nilly; there’s a method to their placement and each street has two parallel rows of smaller stones, about eight feet apart, the length of the street. I don’t know their purpose and neither did people I asked; maybe they’re just decorative. You look a little closer and you notice the stones are fairly uniform in size and are placed in such a way that they are at a uniform height.
What are the advantages of cobblestone streets? Well, they last forever. In PV many of the streets were cobblestoned two hundred years ago. On those rare occasions when stones have to be replaced, it’s quick and easy. This, of course, makes street maintenance much cheaper. No machinery or truckloads of concrete or macadam are needed. Cobblestones also reduce speeding even while vehicles begin to fall apart from the constant jolting they receive. And, I suppose, from a tourist’s point of view, they make a town look “quaint.”
And drawbacks? Well, you don’t find tens of thousands of similarly sized rocks lying around just anywhere waiting to be gathered. You go to a river bed or a quarry and collect and sort them (a job that must take an inordinately long time), and then, somehow, bring them to town.
Ixtapa, a major tourist destination located a little over a hundred miles up the coast from Acapulco, is an exception to the condition of roads in Mexico. As a matter of fact, it’s an exception to just about everything in Mexico. Connected to Zihuatanejo (where cruise ships put in) by a five-mile perfectly maintained and beautifully landscaped four-lane highway, Ixtapa looks more like a Southern California suburb than a Mexican town. There are three or four strip malls each selling much the same things: T-shirts, curios, jewelry, food, art work, gelato and clothing. These are across the street from a row of imposing, lavishly outfitted, tourist hotels on the beach, all of which block not only access to, but any view of, the ocean. Lawns, medians, parking areas are all planted with grass, flowers and trees and are perfectly manicured. Absent from this sanitary little community are Mexicans themselves. Other than wealthy ones staying at the hotels, there are only three places where you’ll see them in Ixtapa: taxi and bus drivers bringing tourists in or taking tourists back, employees working in the hotels, and individuals selling their wares in the flea market – the ubiquitous flea market that sells Aztec calendars, metal lamps, bobblehead turtles, rings, sombreros, pottery and all the other things that tourists equate with Mexico.
Drivers in Mexico continue to be reckless, at least by American standards. They take chances that make Americans gasp. Passing on curves and hills, tailgating, cutting off other drivers, speeding, using the horn in self-righteous indignation; all this is just as common now as it was when I was a teen. Now technology has thrown in a new danger: cell phones. As ubiquitous in Mexico as they are in the States cell phones are used extensively by people while driving. Our tour driver in Acapulco spent as much time talking on his phone as he did pointing out sights to us. It gets to be pretty hairy when your driver, equipped with only two hands, is steering, talking on the phone and honking, all at once. Or, on another occasion, looking at a number on a cell phone held in one hand while dialing the number on a second phone in his other hand.
Ironically, because everyone drives this way, it may explain why there aren’t more auto accidents in Mexico. Drivers are adept at predicting what other drivers (or perhaps “rivals” is more apt) will do.
And if you’re a pedestrian, be doubly cautious! Pedestrians are viewed as a nuisance by most drivers and, apparently, as legitimate prey by others. You risk life and limb when attempting to cross a street. 
           
Cooking with propane is still common and deliveries of propane gas tanks (in PV and Acapulco anyway) are different from what I remember as a kid, when we made a phone call and hoped and prayed the delivery would be made on schedule. In PV the delivery trucks trundle up and down each and every street, propane tanks rattling and clanging in the back, while the driver leans on the horn. Every ten seconds the horn blasts out over the neighborhood to alert people that yes, the gas truck is here, bring out your empty tanks, get your full ones! Unfortunately for us, our hotel was in that particular neighborhood and on our first day, the truck started its rounds at six in the morning. Three hours later we could still hear it. And the next day he was back! Blessedly, later in the morning, however.
             
Acapulco has a slightly different way of announcing the arrival of the propane truck. They play a five second recorded snippet of “Call to the Post,” heard at race tracks, followed by a booming voice that yells, “¡EL G-A-A-S-S-S!” As with the Acapulco trucks, this is repeated relentlessly every ten seconds.
            There are still people who board buses to earn money, just as there were half a century ago. In Puerto Vallarta a young man with a guitar (and cell phone) boarded a bus I was riding. Just as had happened so many years ago when I took my first solo bus ride to Mercado Juarez in Guadalajara, he walked past the driver without paying and proceeded to serenade the passengers. When he finished, he solicited donations and, once again, everyone gave him something, including me this time. He got off at the next stop, handing over his bus fare to the driver, ready to ho p another bus and sing again for his supper.
           
Another time on a PV bus, a man carrying a cardboard box got on and proceeded to extol the merits of some brand of juice he was selling. The box held small cartons of the juice and when he finished his spiel, he went from passenger to passenger, trying to make a sale. This time, no takers. He turned, paid the bus driver, and got off.  
           
Manual labor is far more common in Mexico than in the States. Americans wonder at this. For example, in Acapulco, near our hotel, two men, stripped to the waist, shoveled gravel, dirt, chunks of concrete and other construction debris into a truck. It was nine in the morning and their sweat-drenched bodies obviated any need for a thermometer: it was hot! Three hours later they were still at it, and there was still a sizeable pile left. A front-end loader could have done the work in a fraction of the time. Another example: In Queretaro, Debby and I were walking through a large downtown park and we saw four men mowing grass. True, they were using power mowers rather than push reel mowers, but once again, one man on a large riding mower could have done the job efficiently in a fraction of the time.
            These, and other examples, highlight two things. First, shoveling the construction debris kept two men employed for several hours and mowing the lawn in the park employed four men for probably the better part of a day. These examples are common all over Mexico and, while certainly not efficient ways of completing a job, they keep people employed. Two men, one man on a front-end loader and one on a large riding mower could have done the respective jobs quickly and efficiently but at the cost of taking legitimate employment from four others. While underemployment is still a problem, it beats unemployment.
             
Second, people in Mexico are industrious and willing to work hard. Anyone who has visited Mexico (or who has observed migrant workers in our own country) has seen many examples of this. Unfortunately, many visitors, instead of recognizing the industriousness of the people and the need to work, see, instead, a backward country that has progressed but little.
And let’s keep in mind that for these people there are no built-in social safety nets. If something goes wrong they have to depend on their extended family to help out. Fortunately, family ties in Mexico remain strong.
             
In talking with a man in PV, I learned that hotel workers earn seventy-five pesos (US $7.50) a day, plus tips, lunch and transportation. Construction workers earn two hundred fifty pesos (US $25) for eight hours work, no lunch or transportation provided, and, of course, no tips.
* * *
            I still love to go back and visit Mexico. It’s a way of life that I understand and that I’m comfortable with. I walk through neighborhoods well off the beaten tourist paths and talk with people and watch kids play their universal children’s games. Smells alternate between assaulting me and tempting me, depending on where I find myself. Where in the past I would have heard radios playing music, now I hear snatches of telenovelas as I pass open doorways. It’s like coming home. I greet the old man sitting on his doorstep with a cheerful “¡Buenos dias!” and he cordially returns it, along with a smile. “Buenos dias, senoras, como estan?” is my salutation to the two middle-aged women sitting behind the taco stand in the shade of tree. They, too, smile and return the greeting. And so it goes, an exhilarating feeling of transcending cultural boundaries and connecting with people.
On the beach and in many restaurants you’ll find a strolling guitarist waiting to play your favorite song for a couple of bucks. They mask it well, but I’m sure they’re resigned to playing the same few songs over and over for tourists: Cielito Lindo, La Cucaracha, Guadalajara, Besame Mucho. But they’re delighted when I request a couple of songs that were immensely popular fifty years ago, songs they rarely have occasion to play. (During a song I requested once, “Piel Canela,” the B string on his guitar broke. Didn’t faze him a bit – he continued with the five strings left!) Afterwards, we spent some time talking over the “old days” and the great songs of those days. A couple of times they’ve thrown in a bonus song at no extra charge.
Mexicans are delighted and surprised when I speak to them in Spanish, and the surprise comes not so much from my fluency (many Americans are fluent) and not even from my not having an accent. It’s because the way I speak is the way they speak. Inflections, tempo, gestures, idioms, these are all essential parts of a spoken language and they can’t be learned in a classroom – you have to experience them, be immersed in them, pick them up as a natural part of learning a language. I was fortunate to have learned Spanish so quickly and so easily at the age of thirteen. Language research tells us that around that age the capacity for learning a new language diminishes rapidly. Had Mom waited one more year it’s debatable whether I would have become so fluent, although it would not have affected my sister.
Spanish is the national language in twenty-one countries around the world and it’s spoken slightly differently in each one. Vocabulary varies, just as it does between American and British English, but so do many other things. As one example, Spanish in Puerto Rico and Cuba is spoken much faster than in Mexico. Conversely, Mexican Spanish is slower and spoken in almost a sing-song way. Listen carefully and you’ll hear frequent changes of pitch in sentences (glissando in music), particularly at the ends of sentences. Or, for an easier-to-hear example, listen to Mexican songs, both instrumental and vocal. You’ll hear the glissandos clearly.
What you see is not always what you get in Mexico. Let me give you an example. I was walking through a neighborhood in Puerto Vallarta, watching my steps on a cracked and broken sidewalk (elevated, for some reason, almost three feet above the street). On my left was a high wall, white, except for a three foot band of red paint at the bottom running the length of the wall. The wall was pocked in many places, scarred with graffiti and plastered with help wanted announcements, lost pet posters, advertisements. I didn’t give much thought to what might be on the other side of this ugly, deteriorating wall but if I had, I would have been wrong.
I came to an arched wrought iron gate, black and beautifully scrolled. I stopped to look inside and caught my breath. Four terra cotta steps led up to a tranquil interior courtyard splashed with sunlight. A graceful fountain sat in the middle, the gentle play of water enhancing the tranquility. To the left, a set of equipale (two chairs and a small, round table made of pigskin and euctalyptus) reposed in the shade of a jacaranda tree. Behind the fountain, and on either side, were arches supporting a sloping roof covered with Spanish tiles. Doors nestled in the shadows of the passageways leading off to various rooms of the house. Plants and flowers were a cavalcade of colors and the tantalizing smell of gardenias wafted out the arched gate. Scratch the surface of Mexico and be surprised!
As I mentioned, what you see is not always what you get. We were walking along the marina in Cabo San Lucas when a sign caught my eye: PUBLIC SHOWERS. Sure enough, there were two shower stalls a few yards away, completely exposed to public view. In one of them a woman, completely clothed, was showering. She was actually going through the motions of washing her body. In this case I know what we saw – but I have no idea what we got. 
AFTERWORD
 Mom, Val, Felice and I moved to Mexico in the mid-1950s, and today, over a half-century later, I continue to marvel at what I experienced during those four-and-a-half years. It was such a short time but so important to the rest of my life. Yes, I learned to speak the language like a native and I still speak it with considerable fluency. And I became completely assimilated into the Mexican way of life, a cultural fluency I have also retained. But what I marvel at goes far beyond linguistic fluency and cultural comfort. Mexico was a life-changing experience. When I reflect on the good things that have happened to me over the course of my life, events and opportunities that changed me for the better, my Mexican experience invariably tops the list.
I once made a list of the ways in which I benefited from living in Mexico and it totaled two dozen entries when I stopped. Some are trivial: I’m able to watch soccer (in Spanish), both Mexican first division games and the World Cup and World Cup qualifying matches on Univision, the Spanish language channel.
Other benefits, however, are deeply significant to me. Being bicultural, I discovered, means an innate understanding of the ways and mores of two cultures, an ability to move easily and freely between them, to live comfortably in either one. Understanding and accepting the sometimes major, and occasionally conflicting, differences between the two cultures has helped me to move from bi-culturalism to pan-culturalism, which for me means recognizing that not only do the cultures of Mexico and the United States create no anxiety or conflict in me, but also that, in general, the cultures, groups and countries the world over give no reason for anxiety or conflict. Culture, after all, evolves as a way of maximizing a community’s chances of survival and ensuring its continuity and stability. The good, the enjoyable, the informative and instructive in different cultures, these are so easy to find! Would I feel the same way without having experienced Mexico? I don’t know. Americans, indeed people all over the world, more often than not see many other peoples’ cultural practices (other than the stereotypical “safe” ones such as those pertaining to food, music and dance) as unsettling at best, dangerous at worst. And it is precisely those perceptions that do so much to perpetuate suspicions and divisions, hostilities and hatreds.
Being bicultural has allowed me to develop multiple perspectives, the notion that there is more than just my way or the American or Mexican ways of looking at and understanding people, events and cultures. I have no doubt that because of this I was a much better teacher than I would have been otherwise. I had children from many countries and cultures in my classes over the years and I was able to look at the culture of each child and find the strengths that promote learning. I never tried to force a child into my way of doing things simply because it’s easier or more convenient or because it works for me. I recognized the child’s own culture as a strength.
I have Mexico to thank, also, for my deep love of music. Music has always been an important part of my life, even as a child, and I acquired a passion for rock and roll even before I was a teen. I used to walk past a roller rink on my way home from school and stop and listen to the music that came pouring out to the street: “Rock Around the Clock,” “Earth Angel,” “Speedo,” “Bo Diddely,” “Maybelline” . . . it was music that pumped new life into me, energized me. But Mexico tuned my mind and turned my ears in different directions. I was constantly exposed, of course, to all the different kinds of music Mexico had to offer: the rollicking musica nortena, and ranchera, the quick but delicate and lacy music of Veracruz and Tehuantepec, cha-cha-chas, merengues, jarabes and boleros. I came to know and love the music of so many artists: Agustin Lara, Pedro Infante, Miguel Aceves Mejia, Amalia Mendoza, Libertad Lamarque, Mariachi Vargas, Jorge Negrete and Jose Alfredo Jimenez. I heard it at home on the maid’s radio, on the bus driver’s transistor radio, on the radios in my friends’ houses and in the parks played by strolling musicians. And then I started listening to it on my own. It was no longer just the music of Mexico; it was my music as well.
But that’s not the only music I heard. Most Mexican parties I went to played not only Mexican music on the record player, but also American Big Bands of the thirties and forties. Looking back, I’m surprised at how many Mexican families had large collections of Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Glen Gray, Woody Herman and others. I listened and learned that rock and roll wasn’t the only energetic dance music. “In the Mood,” “After Hours,” “No Name Jive,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” – these and many more were played and I joined in with all the other dancers and came to love that music as well.
Mexico opened my ears to a new way of hearing music and today I have music from all over the world in my collection, traditional as well as contemporary, and I listen to it regularly. And when I listen to the music of India, Lebanon, Spain, Cuba or Greece; when I hear the blues or Black gospel, it connects me with the essence of that culture and touches something vital and deep within me. Music is more than just food for the soul – it’s a window to the heart. Thank you, Mexico.
Being bilingual and bicultural has given me success with many, many opportunities and given me great joy and satisfaction into the bargain. My first wife, Vicky, was from Costa Rica. I taught in a bilingual summer school two years in Eastern Washington because I could speak Spanish. My Masters Degree is in multi-ethnic education with an emphasis on Chicano culture. I received a two-year bilingual education doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington. I’ve been a volunteer interpreter with the Red Cross Language Bank. And, perhaps most importantly, I used my Spanish and cultural knowledge regularly in the classroom and with the parents and families of my Spanish-speaking kids. Many times I have seen Latino students who were embarrassed by or even ashamed of their Spanish (!) come alive and use it regularly after hearing me speak it. At times I would spend several minutes talking to the whole class in Spanish and my Spanish-speakers would all be participating, raising their hands, laughing, responding.
I like to think that I have redirected their attitude and their perceptions from embarrassment to pride.
On a somewhat lighter note, being in Mexico from age thirteen to seventeen led to maybe the best thing that never happened to me: high school. I missed it completely. But what I got in return was far better.






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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2010 9:07 am

    >Hi its really very nice blog,very useful information..Mobiles

  2. October 23, 2010 6:11 am

    >This has been a great read, and I wish it could continue on – but then it wouldn't be about this particular period of your life, would it? My own experience with PV is that the old central part of the city has remained intact for quite a long time, but the norte (cruise ship) area is very different – a whole 'nother place. Some of the roads into and out of it are still pretty scary, and you have made all of Mexico more meaningful to me – as well as much of you and your family's lives. Thanks for an entertaining and enlightening set of stories.Ticbal

  3. October 23, 2010 12:38 pm

    >Thanx to both of you for your comments. My intent in writing this blog was never to attract hordes of viewers but,rather, to entertain and inform those who take the time to read it. Thanx again for sticking with it.

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