Tag Archives: cultural values

Visitors’ Views

15 Feb

Finally, oh finally, we got our yearly visitors! First my stepmom, Karen, came- her first solo trek since my dad passed away, which made it a whole ‘nuther kind of new. Then my mom and her partner Dee arrived, this time with Dee’s son Andy, for his very first escape from Gringolandia.

There were many wondrous moments brought on by these visits, which I may or may not share with you in some future blog post. For now I will share with you some astute observations from my fantastic, fabulous family.

Okay, I will also tell you that Karen and I got to have grown-up time and took fantastically fun photos :

And that my mama and I destroyed Conan and Andy in spades!! (No pics, sorry.) Now on to our next portion, observations from all my glorious visitors:


“Desexualized” Swimming

While Zicatela beach is world-famous for its giant waves for surfing, it is not where anyone wants to take their children to swim. There are two other sections of beach with much calmer waters- one, Puerto Angelito, being the most preferred. (We had our annual all-family-mixer there again, complete with oysters just pulled from the sea, as usual. I got out of control and bought three kinds of cake so we could celebrate everyone’s birthday this year.)

In general around here, the beach is not spring break in Florida. There are not gobs of young women laying out in bikinis. Yes, bikinis are popular beachwear here, for folks with all sizes of bodies. Yes, some people sunbathe. But particularly at the swimming beach, people aren’t hanging out trying to look sexy. They’re just swimming. Or eating. Or having a beer. Or playing in the sand with their kids. Some people wear bikinis, some don’t. Many people don’t even wear official swimming gear. Lots of people, even folks who live here, don’t own a real bathing suit. Plus you get some folks stopping by on their way somewhere else (especially pilgrims going to or from their visit with the Virgin of Juquila) who weren’t really prepared to go to the beach. So there are people in jeans and t-shirts. There are people in other thrown-together swimwear. Nobody cares what other people are wearing or doing, as seen below.


the swimming beach


A lotta people I love. Only my kids and I are in official swimwear. Check out the folks in the background, too.


foreground: my monsters with their sweet cousin. background: NOT spring break in Palm City Beach or whatever it’s called

Use of Public Spaces

“People use all the public space. People are much more present in public.” These were some important observations from Andy. “You can even lie down on the floor of the airport and nobody even looks at you,” he said.

People are constantly out in the street- on their way somewhere, chatting in the neighborhood, watering the garden, sitting on the stoop of some business to share a beer (well, men only on this one). Here it doesn’t matter if there are no sidewalks- people walk anyway, because that’s how most of us get around, at least some of the time. Thanks to there being fewer cars and there being a small corner store on every 3rd corner of residential areas, there’s always somewhere to walk to.

Pertinent to that, ideas about the public and private are radically different here. The public space is where many social events happen, rather than in a private home. People that aren’t family don’t usually just drop by your house and come on in, either. They (usually) stay in whatever outside area or public-ish open area you have, even if it’s a woman visiting another woman. I almost cried tears of joy last year when a friend came and visited us and sat in my bedroom with me, so I could play with Lucia on the bed AND talk to her at the same time (not be excluded from the social, adult world despite my parenting responsibilities in the private, off-limits realm of my bedroom). I had missed that kind of assumed intimacy, that consensual sharing of privacy that we’re into in the US.

I think that using public space more and private space less has some advantages, especially in that you don’t need a fancy home to have social time. However, I think that it gives women an automatic disadvantage at social life outside of their family. Women (pretty much universally) have more domestic responsibilities than men, and tend to spend more time at home because of it. But when your home is not a place for socializing, that means that you can’t socially multitask, like I used to do so much of the time- inviting your friends over to chat and washing your dishes while you do so, for example. Changing the baby’s diaper with your girlfriends in the US means they accompany you to whatever room so you can keep talking. In my personal experience here, that’s not the case. So this public/private cultural difference is a funny juxtaposition because on one hand, everyone being out in public, using the public space is so much more open and accessible, but it’s also less intimate in a different kind of way.

(Apparently I was dying to elaborate on this observation!)

Nature Like We Don’t Get At Home

Seeing iguanas everywhere is STILL fun for me, years later, so you can imagine how cool it is for other folks. I still giggle everytime I’m teaching class and a big ones falls from a tree with a giant clunk. For some reason, though, nobody was very excited to go see crocodiles in a lagoon, once they discovered it wasn’t a behind-the-glass, zoo-like experience. What? You don’t want to see crocodiles next to you in a small paddle boat? (Don’t worry; I was planning on leaving the kids at home for that outing.)

I didn’t even tell Andy about the scorpions, like the one that was strolling all nonchalant across my kids’ bedroom floor one evening last week. Good thing my kids never sleep in their own beds, huh?

16473866_10208290456406783_6800881647283940608_n Pictured: Our major nature adventure to the botanical gardens (obviously, it’s dry season). Andy was not thrilled to learn about the local venomous snakes and potential mountain lions around, but he braved the hike anyway.


The Dogs Run The Streets 

Dogs around here own the streets- both strays and many pets are out running around all day and night. (Pets here are not treated like spoiled children, for better or for worse.) There’s no animal control and not a lot of campaigns to help people spay and neuter, so lots of dogs end up sad and hungry. Karen, a hardcore champion of all animals, bought a bag of dog food to carry around to feed poor, starving stray dogs, like the ones she saw in the mostly-touristy beach areas her past couple of visits. She was pleasantly surprised, however, to find a street full of lazy, chunky mutts. The business owners and residents of the neighborhood where she stayed are economically well-off enough and animal-loving enough to make a little doggie paradise, in one neighborhood at least.

Never-ending Resourcefulness 

Despite very high rates of economic poverty, folks here are ingenious. They come up with solutions for everything, as I’ve raved about before. There aren’t many people asking for change on the street, but there is lots and lots of hustling to make a living, working in the street, selling candy, popcorn, toys, juice, or washing windows or whatever. Andy didn’t even see the door-to-door salespeople walking the dusty streets to sell furniture that they are carrying on their backs, and even so, people’s resourcefulness and perseverance made an impression on him.

No “Essential” Electrical Apparatus

Both Karen and Andy were taken aback by the lack of microwaves. “When you said you were warming up beans for the kids, and then you came out to get Khalil and ran back in yelling about your beans burning, I was kinda confused for a minute,” Andy joked. Karen thought her hotel’s kitchen area was well set up but was definitely missing a microwave and coffeemaker (another electrical appliance that is far from universal down here). A microwave is just not the kind of bare necessity that it is in the US. Mostly corner stores have them if they want to sell microwave popcorn and soup-cup Ramen noodles. My mother in law has one because she used to sell that stuff, although nowadays she only uses her microwave as a storage space for bread, or as an emergency cooking device if her stove runs out of gas and she doesn’t have the money then for a new propane tank.

Also missing in action here: toasters, clothes dryers (it is in the 80s or 90s everyday here, although even in cold and wet places dryers are not “a thing.”)


Mexican toaster- aka comal – not my photo! from FeralKitchen.com

Go, go, go

Everywhere you go, people are walking, riding bicycles, riding scooters and motorcycles, riding ATVs, riding buses, taking shared cabs called colectivos, hailing taxis, and just generally getting around one way and another. Not everyone has a car, to say the least, but there are way more options for transport. Public transportation is more common and more user-friendly than any small city or large town I’ve ever been to in the states.

Andy asked, “How does a country that’s poorer than the United States make it easier for people to get around?” This is a question that everyone in the US should be asking themselves and then asking their community and their elected officials. This question, and so many others like it, also represents to me why travel abroad* is such an eye-opening, heart-reconstructing, mind-altering, life-metamorphasing experience: you shift your paradigms of both the normal and the possible. You shatter stereotypes. You see new things that don’t work for people and new things that do work for people. You question your home culture as much as the culture you’re visiting. It’s a win-win situation for the world and you.

Keep travelling, even if you can’t leave home! Keep loving, at home and abroad!


*I know not everyone can physically travel to another country. Having friendships with folks from a different country, reading foreign books, even watching many foreign movies has similarly altered my consciousness and my heart for the better. It’s a global world; take advantage!


Attempts to capture the moment with my mama and these random small children I found on the street bwahahaha

Prayer Parties! Inducing Yawns since Colonial Times

25 Oct

Thanks to the extreme lack of stimulation that going to church brought about for me as a child, I learned that yawns were caused not just from sleepiness, but also from boredom. I hadn’t even realized I was bored per se, but I remember asking my mom why church always made me yawn when I swore I wasn’t tired. Bless my little heart; I was just not cut out for Catholicism.

I still feel the same irresistible urge to yawn when faced with participating in the rhythmic ritual of Catholic prayer. This is now a rare occurrence, since I don’t attend mass if I can possibly avoid it. Here in Mexico, however, the unique Mexican brand of Catholicism is so deeply entrenched into social life that I occasionally find myself obligated to attend a prayer party. The one at my neighbor’s house last weekend was so- ahem- relaxing that I went beyond yawning; I was semi-entranced, nearly asleep in my chair at 8pm.

I know, you’re thinking that a prayer party surely should be more exciting than church. To clarify, it’s not a party like a fiesta, in the grand style of Mexican parties where you save up money for ten years and invite everyone you’ve ever met. Perhaps “party” is a poor translation on my part, but there’s just no equivalent in my culture for this sort of phenomenon. It’s absolutely part of what makes Mexico so special. Where else can you turn prayer into an important social and cultural event? In Spanish, in Mexico, the event is called a rezo, and it literally just means a prayer. It comes from the verb rezar, to pray. So we could call it a prayer…. circle, theoretically, but that doesn’t fit, either. A prayer hang-out session? I don’t know. Let me tell you about it instead, and maybe you can help me give it a more apt name in English.

As far as I can tell in my 4 years of sociological investigation here, there are two main types of rezos. One type is part of the obligatory action that happens when someone dies. (which I mention in this big rant of a blog post about a string of bad luck). This is tradition, first and foremost, and legitimized as THE way to properly honor the dead. I can certainly respect that. Also, I suspect that it forces the grieving parties to continue to function and to have a social and religious backdrop for their grief. It seemed a bit appalling to me at first, to make recently bereaved folks cook for others, invite people to their homes, and serve them food and drink. I theorized that maybe they set it up like that so folks would be too busy working to fall apart entirely? Maybe that’s the only way to ensure that plenty of people will go visit with the grieving- create this custom of 9 evenings of prayers and food? I don’t really get my own country’s culture on this issue, either, so I am certainly not one to judge here.

Whatever the case, the prayers-for-the-dead rezos are not something I would ever scoff at, and I’m excluding that type of rezos from my intense sociological scrutiny in today’s blog (haha). The other type of rezo, however, is kind of beyond me. It’s a little prayer party- a party like the way we say it in the States- a gathering, a get-together,that takes place at someone’s house with a bunch of invited guests.  However, there’s no catching up, no card playing. The music is abysmal (because there is no music, unless you count the sad singing/chanting business.) Not a bit of dancing. The conversation is pretty much limited to basic, boring small talk, if there’s any talk at all.  And there’s no alcohol involved, unless it’s the last night of a funeral-based prayer session. But there’s food! Free food! And coffee or juice!

The food is not usually that great, for the record. I’m an expert on this because my mother-in-law went to rezos weekly in Juquila when we lived there, and she’d always bring the food home instead of eating it there (another weird Juquila custom). So I know all about what food is given. Something big like pozole or tamales is awesome. Often it’s something simpler, like a piece of sweet bread or (gag) some gelatin (this is another cultural puzzle for me, this love for and creativity with gelatin). Granted, I appreciate the gelatin-givers, because I’m sure if I were religious and inspired enough for this sort of party, I’d be giving out something equally low-maintenance. All in all, though, the food in itself is not sufficient motivation to get me to a prayer party.

Even when they happen outside, somehow the atmosphere becomes dim, perfect for a nap. People set up chairs in rows facing an altar, with candles, incense, and religious images- especially the particular Saint or Virgin that they’re praying to (yes, there’s only one famous Virgin in the Catholic faith, but there are different versions of her- the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Juquila, etc.). Folks come, sit down quietly, and pray this advanced, fancy version of the rosary all together in unison. There are readings from the Bible that correspond with it. When it’s over, the guests get a plate of food and a drink of something handed to them, and they either eat it there or leave with it.

Above: A guide to the rosary- this explains why they say “second mystery, third mystery,” etc. Thank you, Google, for giving me more information. 

These prayer parties are fairly commonplace, too; it’s not like only fanatics have rezos. Tons of people have them. Totally reasonable, lovely people. For example, every year Arturo and Paulina have a rezo for Saint Jude. Before any big neighborhood parties happen in Juquila, people pass around statues of the saint in question and take turns having rezos for him or her. Our favorite neighbors here- the ones across the street- just invited us to their special rezo– the same one we attended last year. I don’t even know what saint I was supposed to be praying over, but I figured since it was our neighbors and they were kind enough to invite us we could go and show our respects. These people are not crazy, by any stretch. This is just what many people do.

The first rezo I went to was one with Conan’s grown-up niece Lili (whom I love and adore), when I lived in Juquila. I successfully avoided the prayer party excitement for the better part of my year there, until Lili made me attend. For some reason, Lili had felt herself obligated to commit to paying for part of a really big rezo, so she asked me to go and support her. We walked through town setting off fireworks all along the path (so Juquila-style). Lucia was right at that age when she was just walking and refusing to be still, ever, so I spent the whole time chasing her around someone’s yard instead of praying (and let me tell you how grateful I was about it). I let my curiosity die down about it from there.

I was talking to my mother-in-law about it again, as she prepares to go to her and Arturo’s yearly rezo. She explained to me quite a bit more about the “mysteries” that they talk about during the prayer- because I’ve yet to understand how/why different people volunteer to read the first, or second, or third “mystery.” “Just what are these ‘mysteries’?” I asked her. She explained that it’s all about praying the rosary in honor of a saint (or a recently deceased person). The mysteries correspond with the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers on the Rosary, and…. that’s about as far as I got in my Catholicism class before one of my children faithfully distracted me.

Of course, the most interesting part of our discussion involved the origins of this ritual. Paulina was telling me that this is how they do it because this is how the Spanish supposedly taught the indigenous folks to pray the rosary. “Aha!” I said, “That’s why giving out food is obligatory. That was probably one of the strategies the Spanish used to lure indigenous folks to their religion.”  And that was all the progress that I made in my intense sociological scrutiny.

Paulina explained that people do it for what she laughingly named the “celestial benefits,” which I suppose I could theoretically understand. Seeing as how I’m not religious and also not Mexican, though, I’m still slightly baffled about why people feel compelled to host these events. I mean, I’m a really big fan of certain saints, despite disavowing Catholicism for myself. But it would never, ever occur to me to invite people over to honor that saint. And okay, I know I’ve been known to have parties partly just to motivate myself to clean the whole house, so I guess the saint motive is loftier than mine. And sure, I cook food for folks at my get-togethers, but then we all enjoy it together; people don’t leave with their untouched food in hand. I guess their party is just holier than mine (hehehe). It’s one of these cultural mysteries that I can respect- because it’s culture- but I cannot really comprehend it.

Meanwhile, I’m still yawning over Catholic prayer- whether it’s in party form or not. And pondering a better translation than “prayer party”- so share your stroke of brilliance if you have one! Love you, dear, colorful Mexico.

Traditional Cures for the Partially Lost Soul

27 Sep

In an English class of mostly Mexican moms in Kentucky, for potluck I once took a beautiful dish of locally-grown heirloom tomatoes, with chunks of mozzarella cheese, and fragrant, fresh basil. Nobody even tried it. “Maybe because the tomatoes don’t look like normal tomatoes?” suggested the other teacher; indeed, the tomatoes were orange and reddish. I was discouraged because I’d been so hyped up to share my flavorful and pretty dish (aesthetics are not my strong suit in the kitchen), and nobody told me why they weren’t eating it.

Now that I live in Mexico, it’s obvious why nobody ate my exotic appetizer. The same reason almost nobody is interested in making pesto, even though you can get a huge bunch of basil for just 5 pesos. The culprit is the basil! Here, basil is like medicine, not food. (Why can’t it be both? I’m still not sure about that one.) People put a big bunch of basil in a vase as if it were flowers for their business to attract more clientele. More importantly, basil is used to curarte de espanto– it’s part of the treatment to cure you when you’ve lost part of your soul.

Sounds dramatic, huh? Erase that part from your mind for a second. Picture a kid in the US who is not gaining weight like they should. What happens? They get a bunch of tests and some pediatric protein shakes, their parents get nutrition counseling and vague threats of involvement by Child Protective Services. Something like that, right?

Down here, in many households the first line of defense would be to take the child to the curandero or curandera (the healer- usually a woman but not always) to get curado de espanto (cured of fright). One of the tias (aunts) was just telling Conan that Lucia is too whiney- and therefore she needs curing. When I first started having troubles with Lucia’s sleeping, when she was a baby, many folks suggested that we take her to get cured. I was convinced she just needed a better sleep routine, but Conan’s womenfolk (his mom and all the aunts) were very concerned that she needed curing. You might need curing if you have a loss of appetite, if your hands and feet are cold, if you have insomnia, if you are tired all the time, if you’re pale, if you have slight fevers, if you have headaches or chest pains, if you just feel run-down, out-of-sorts, not yourself. All of those symptoms could signify that you have espanto (fear/fright) and that you need to go get cured.

Conan used to go get cured from recurring migraines, which were supposedly caused by mal de ojo (the evil eye, yes, siree!). Funnily enough, he didn’t get migraines the whole 10 years that he was in the US. Shortly after we moved to Juquila, though, he started getting one right after walking past his mean neighbor. His aunt- who is not a curandera per se, but who knows tons about herbs and massage and other healing- came over and gave him a quick limpia– a cleanse, let’s call it. And his migraine was gone.

A cleanse is like a quicker, simpler version of getting cured- just something to clean the bad energy off of you. It involves rubbing an egg over you (no, you cannot eat the egg later- it makes the egg bad), brushing you with a big bunch of basil, and using rubbing alcohol or alcohol like mezcal, among other things.


See? That egg is no good afterwards. Apparently.


One of the Tías shows Khalil how it’s done.

People here have all kinds of rituals and protections woven into their daily lives, and who am I to say whether it works or not? For example, there are special charm bracelets for babies to protect them from the evil eye. Everyone in the US would surely be freaking out about them as a choking hazard, but here it’s par for the course. People also hold or touch a baby when they see one that they think is cute, because somehow touching the baby prevents you from accidentally giving the kid your bad energy.

Evil eye is not the only thing that causes these ills that require curing. The other main cause is “espanto”- a fright, let’s call it. Any moment of serious fear can cause those symptoms we talked about above, and therefore require this ritual of getting cured. It could be falling off a horse, seeing a snake, a wave knocking you down in the ocean- all kinds of stuff.* I remember that a friend of mine from Mexico was in a car accident once in Kentucky, and he called his cousin to hurry and bring him some bread to eat, so the fright of being in a car accident wouldn’t get into him (and make him lose part of his soul, I suppose- they didn’t tell me that part because they probably saw that I was already thoroughly confused. I bet it’s harder to find a decent curandero in Kentucky than here, too.) A student of mine from Mexico told me once, too, about how a fright like that is what really causes diabetes. It was one of those moments of seriously testing my abilities to show respect for a person’s culture and beliefs while also hoping to provide alternate/conflicting information that could be really important for that person’s whole family. (I’m still not sure how well I scored on that one. It’s a learning process.)

There is where the problem lies for me- and why I didn’t send Lucia to get cured when everyone told me too. I am never going to believe that one episode of shock causes someone to have diabetes. I think that many cases of “unexplained” symptoms might have a clear explanation, like anemia or poor circulation. My concern would always be about using a curandero exclusively and perhaps missing out on something important that needs a different type of cure.

Being open to this type of healing, however, without excluding other possibilities or treatment options, is absolutely fine by me. While Conan and I both revere science and reason, while we feel a bit dubious some of this evil eye business, we also respect and appreciate the power of energy, and the ways that it can be used positively or negatively. It’s not incredible to think that someone’s negative energy can make you feel bad. Conversely, if just suggestion can make someone feel better- just a placebo, for example- it’s not the slightest bit outlandish to think that a person’s benevolent touch and attention wouldn’t make us feel better, too. Both of us can accept that it might not be the egg or the basil exactly, so much as the ritual of it that focuses the person’s attention and energy, the healing touch, and a little bit of the placebo effect.

So after Conan got his big head injury a few weeks ago, he was happy to take off for Juquila, for a full-scale curing. He’d spent the week attempting to recover and rest amidst the chaos that is our household- kid problems, car problems, money problems, etc.- the usual workweek. He was still tired and dizzy with bouts of confusion. He had bags under his eyes from not enough sleep. Added to that was the fact that he’d lost weight lately. (His weight loss was absolutely due to a positive lifestyle change, but all of his aunts were walking around acting like I was forcibly starving him- although that’s another story.) “You look terrible;” his womenfolk told him. “Go and get yourself cured!” Even his mechanic buddy (the very honest but not very knowledgeable one) had told him that he really needed a cleansing, at least, to improve things with our car, too. We decided that a whole weekend without responsibility and caretaking might be enough cure in itself. So off he went to see the curandera in Juquila.

Getting curado de espanto is a much more elaborate ritual than the simple egg/basil/alcohol business that I’ve seen. A cleanse can be done by anybody who knows the ritual, but getting cured has to be done by an official healer. In Conan’s case, it involved crosses made of palm, many candles, and “some awful green drink,” among the other routine cleansing tools. The curandera analyzed the candle wax to determine what caused his fright, and whether or not he’d been cured after the first session.

The curandero also calls your spirit to return to you- which is part of the difference in this curing versus just getting rid of the bad energy of the evil eye. This ritual is to cleanse you and also bring this lost part of your soul back to you. This soul-seeking part totally makes me think of Peter Pan and his lost shadow. I picture Conan there trying to sew it back on himself and a little old lady laughing and shaking her head. The idea of a lost shadow- this lost part of the soul- sparked my thinking about the shadow parts of ourselves. Now I can see more clearly the beautiful and wise symbolism in this kind of ritual.


Peter Pan trying to capture his shadow, all by his lonesome. Somebody go find that boy a curandera!

It took two curing sessions for the lost part of Conan’s soul to return. He also got a massage and a bath of rose petals. (I admit I was a bit jealous about that part.) The best part, though, according to Conan, was getting all that special attention- from the curandera, from his aunt, with whom he had good, long talks. I mean, imagine! A whole two days devoted to receiving TLC and being taken care of. Granted, you have to do what they tell you and stay under the covers in bed for like a whole day (not sure if I’m capable of that), but I can see how it could be worth it.

Conan conjectures that getting cured probably works so often in part because of the care and attention involved. Imagine being in the turmoil of adolescence and having some “fright” symptoms (aka normal teenage madness). Imagine your mama saying, “Come on- I’m worried about you; let’s go cure you. Stay home from school today, maybe tomorrow, too.” She cooks your favorite foods, she doesn’t ask you to do anything. Your whole family is extra nice to you, or at the minimum doesn’t bother you. You rest and relax for a couple of days, getting massages and special baths. You get the full dose of a placebo effect, too. That surely would cure me from an ailment or two.

I don’t think it’s going to cure diabetes, no. But what if it helped a person in a way that addressed the shadow parts of their spirit that were causing them to overeat and thus contributing to diabetes? I can see how it could be beneficial, even while I can doubt that it would be beneficial enough to be a complete treatment for diabetes. And I have no doubt that it can work for many types of problems. I don’t by any stretch think that all these curanderos are quacks, either. Some of them are herbalists, and I suspect that some probably have lots of other wisdom and healing knowledge to boot.

So did the curandera cure Conan? Her healing did not help our car continue to run. But Conan is certainly much better than he was, even if he’s still too skinny for his aunties’ liking. Can we chalk it up to the curandera’s powers? Who am I to say- it certainly didn’t hurt him, anyway.

Maybe I will get Lucia cured after all. If there’s a possibility my four year old will sleep better and whine less, what have I got to lose?

*I got examples of causes and some other good info from this really insightful page, which is for medical doctors and discusses respecting curanderos. It’s in Spanish.



The Whole-Family Honeymoon

29 Jun

It wasn’t supposed to be a honeymoon exactly, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled, either, when Conan invited his mom to go with us to the beach a couple months after we first moved to Juquila. She was sitting there with us when we started talking about going, and it didn’t occur to Conan to consult with me before suggesting she go with us. Not that I don’t enjoy her company; in fact, she and I get along fabulously, much better than she and Conan get along. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want her to go, particularly. And after pondering over it I realized it would’ve been extremely rude to not invite her. But I admit, if Conan hadn’t invited her I wouldn’t have; I don’t think it would’ve even occurred to me! Perhaps I was thinking that living together was already enough quality time and that Conan and Lucia and I needed some time to be alone as a little nuclear family. I am, after all, a product of that oh-so-individualist, privacy-obsessed, nuclear-family-making country called USA, where the only unity is in the name United States.

Sometimes Mexico feels like an alternate universe. There is no emphasis on individuals and individualism. Like in most other countries, many people live with their parents and often other extended family, usually until they are well beyond being “young adults”, and often until their parents pass away. It’s not about not growing up or just depending on your parents the way we would think of it in the U.S., but rather about an inter-dependency that goes on in families- because there’s a lot to do, because life is expensive, and because those are still the cultural values of most families around here.

Conan and I had agreed to live with his mom for at least a year, which was only fair since he hadn’t seen her in 10 years. And it was a huge help to us- having a place to live, totally furnished, totally free, with someone to help us out with all the things we didn’t understand or know, like where to get the cheap cleaning products, where the best tlayudas are, when to go get Conan’s ID.

Additionally, it was a fine and dandy situation because I really like his mom and we all help each other very well. I am eternally grateful that when Lucia was a baby I lived with someone (besides my partner) who loves and helped take care of my baby every day of the week. I could go exercise and shower without worrying about Lucia- big pot of gold luxuries that most moms in the U.S. don’t have. There was an extra person to share cooking and chores with, which was pretty fabulous as well. Conan and I, in turn, helped her with various other things around the house and in her store, in addition to just keeping each other company.

Mostly, it was a win-win situation. Occasionally, though, I wanted some “gringo” time- some time away from the family. I wanted to “get away from it all” on the beach. We had gone to the beach a week after we moved to Mexico, but it was a trip with my mom, and his mom, and his stepdad, and, well, it wasn’t exactly romantic.

My Dad and Karen (my stepmom) on another family vacation!

My Dad and Karen (my stepmom) talking with Paulina and Arturo (not pictured) on another family vacation!

My in-laws on another family vacation!

My in-laws on another family vacation!

Granted, with a four month old baby, nothing is very romantic for very long. But even beyond my longing for romance, there’s my longing for privacy. I got worried when Paulina mentioned those hotel rooms we had looked at with my mom, where you could put up to 3 people in a room for 250 pesos. I knew her idea was to be her extra-frugal self, not to invade my sense of privacy. But nonetheless I started plotting and planning for nice and polite ways to escape sharing a room with her. But how do you tell your well-meaning family to please go away? It is no easy task.

I still hadn’t figured it out by the time we got to Puerto. But I had enlisted Conan’s help and we were going to play it by ear (the only way to play anything down here, ever; even after a couple of months I was starting to learn that planning was a futile effort). Upon arriving in Puerto we went to visit Conan’s aunt Artemia who lives here. One of his cousins, Benja, his cousin’s wife, Luz, and their two kids also live there. Since Conan hadn’t seen them in 10 years, it was a big reunion, and also his first time meeting the wife and kids (and their first time meeting me and Lucia). They are lovely and wonderful people and I had a great time hanging out with them, that first time and a kajillion times since then.

But the gringo in me came out when they offered us a place to stay. I should have felt grateful for their generosity, which I’m sure would also include sacrifice of their own comfort (sharing beds to make room for us, sacrificing their privacy, etc.). But instead, I’m ashamed to say my immediate thought was “Shit! How can I communicate to Conan that I don’t want to stay here?! How can we get out of this politely?!”

See, I had this image of the 3 of us- me, Conan, and Lucia- in a little room or maybe a small cabin right by the beach. We’d wake up and walk on the beach. We’d lounge around together, enjoying the respite from washing diapers and cooking and cleaning, etc. We’d have dinner at some beachside restaurant, slowly, leisurely, enjoying our little nuclear family. We might even get to spend some adult time together after Lucia fell asleep.

None of that was going to happen if we stayed at his aunt’s house. But the offer was on the table, his mom and his aunt and everyone else all looking at us, awaiting our answer. Conan read my mumbled “I don’t know, what do you think?” correctly. “It’s just that we had talked about staying in a hotel room together.” He explained. “I’ve always wanted to stay in one of those places on the beach. Gotta take advantage while we have the money. It’s kind of like our honeymoon.” He added. Granted we were not married at this point, so I’m not sure where the honeymoon part came in, but it worked.

And everything else fell into place, like these things usually do. Paulina accepted the invitation to stay the night at their house, so she wasn’t bunking with us. And while it might’ve made us seem just a little snobby, rejecting their hospitality to stay in a hotel, at least we bowed out somewhat gracefully.

At the time, it wasn’t that I turned my nose up at their hospitality, but I was not thrilled at the prospects, either, of spending the night with the outside toilet you had to pour water down to “flush,” or the shower that was just a half-concrete, half-tin tiny rectangle at the entrance to their property, where you filled up the bucket to pour water over yourself. I was concerned, of course, about the ratio of beds-to-people and the amount of air that could circulate with a little floor fan in each of the two little rooms. I was worried about the mosquitos that had already started devouring my baby, and the lack of screens on the windows. Although it didn’t seem like a bad place by any means, and I had stayed in much less-luxurious circumstances before, it felt like “roughing it” too much with Lucia in tow, although her one-year-older cousin lived there. Plus, I really, really wanted a night or two of privacy, an after-baby, post-moving “honeymoon,” as Conan had put it.

So we got our hotel room “honeymoon,” which was neither the private nuclear-family-centered time I had envisioned nor the all-family-all-the-time affair that it would’ve been if we’d stayed at his aunts house, or shared a hotel room with Paulina.

We rejected his aunt’s hospitality that first visit, nicely and graciously, we hoped, without knowing that a year later we’d be living in a tent on their patio for weeks while we worked on our house. I didn’t realize then how much we would continue to depend on family and how they’d come to be the center of our social circle as well. I didn’t realize that depending on people doesn’t make you a dependent or needy person, but rather it helps you keep life in perspective and become a more dependable person yourself. It means you can’t say no when a cousin’s kid needs help with some homework because they’ve been recharging your lamps for months. It means you are racing to do the dishes when you’re invited over because they never let you do the dishes when they come to your house. It taught me to accept help without feeling like a failure, without looking for ways to pay it back, just knowing that the time and place will arise.

But at first, my appreciation was sometimes more theoretical than practical. Sometimes I felt grateful for what I had while simultaneously pining for a different situation. At the time, for example, I recognized how lucky I was to have my mother-in-law’s unconditional hospitality, good conversation and company, and her constant contribution to our child-rearing and childcare. But my independence-obsessed roots didn’t die, and sometimes I thought I’d lose my mind if I didn’t get my own space, if I couldn’t have a few days of throwing off my clothes and leaving them where they fell, of ignoring the dishes without worrying that I’d be judged lazy. Sometimes I went to our bedroom and fumed and stewed and cried and wrote my little heart out about the frustration of other people telling me what was best for my baby. I found a note in my journal the other day, something I wrote Conan and never gave him, about refusing to be kicked out of the kitchen, because I’d been told it was too cold for Lucia up there with the wind coming through. I remembered my bitterness, how some days our promised year in Juquila couldn’t go by fast enough, even though we had no definite plans for the future, nowhere to go afterwards.

But while you U.S. readers might be appalled at that kind of “meddling,” folks down here are shocked and appalled by what they see as the callousness and uncaring of families in the U.S., the lack of meddling that they see as indifference. For example, when a woman has a baby here, most of the time, someone or several people take care of the mother for 40 days after she gives birth, making sure she doesn’t have to do any washing or any other strenuous activity, making sure she gets enough rest and can focus on her baby and her recovery. Imagine what that kind of help is like! But of course there’s a trade-off. Life’s full of trade-offs, and I think we all just have to find the balance in whatever situations we have to work with. And yes, when we actually did get married we had some of that balance- a night in a hotel room that my awesome gringo side of the family sponsored us for, and the big after party the next afternoon, where everyone came to our house. While I was reeling from exhaustion and a bit taken aback at having guests the day after the wedding, it all worked out beautifully, with all the food prepped for us and almost all the cleanup taken care of for us by Conan’s family. And so continues the adventure in multi-cultural family building, a relationship in progress for the whole family on both sides.