My stepdaughter Natalia, fifteen, graduated last week from Antonia Palomares school in Jocotepec, on the north shore of Lake Chapala, in Jalisco, Mexico, where I live. Inevitably the parents of the graduating class held a monster fiesta. Mexicans do that, at any provocation. I think it’s genetic. The hall they rented was just a very large room with tables and a bandstand, with the ambience of a high-school cafeteria in 1954, but with room to dance. That’s what counts hereabouts.
My wife Violeta and I showed up with a bottle of tequila, Natalia, mixers, and suchlike paraphernalia of gaiety, and greeted friends at our table. Things got rolling after ten. The lights went down and the band cranked up and lit into an hour and a half of nonstop cumbias, salsa, banda. Short-shorted girls with the band high-stepped and twirled and pseudo-smoke from dry ice curled in varicolored lights. Conversation was impossible, but you don’t come to a fiesta to talk. You can do that anywhere. You come to dance, which everyone proceeded to do.
Mexicans approach dancing a bit differently from Americans. A couple of large circles coalesced on the floor, everyone moving to the music. One after another a dancer would go to the center of the circle to strut his (or, most assuredly, her) stuff, and retire to the circumference to applause.
When Vi and I reached the circle, a mob of teenage girls pushed us into the center. Resistance was futile. The young ladies figured they had a sample gringo and meant to make the most of it. (At these things I usually constitute the entire Nordic presence, there being little real contact between Americans and locals.) We lit into a fast double-step jitterbug to everyone’s satisfaction.
The horns squonked and blared and the rhythm pounded and when anyone especially good was in the center everyone clapped to the beat and hollered “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and I found myself thinking, “This really, truly isn’t Kansas, Dorothy.”
I reflected that Americans don’t quite know what’s down here. We think of Pedro and his burro sleeping under the cactus, or illegals tunneling under the border. That’s Mexico.
Well, yes, sort of, but no, not at all. There’s an actual country here, a hundred million souls, Latin to the marrow, and below a whole Latin world stretching to Tierra del Fuego. The poor in Mexico try to go to the US because that’s where the money is. The rest aren’t interested. They’re Mexican, and they like that just fine, thank you. Though they seldom say it, being considerate, gringos seem cold and reserved to them.
Vi and I took a break for tequila and Squirt (which, not the margarita, is the Mexican national drink). I watched Nata’s classmates, their big sisters, their moms, and thought how endlessly pretty Mexican women are, how naturally they dance. A friend of mine insists that Protestants can’t dance because they don’t have hips. He swears it’s in Gray’s Anatomy. My theory is that Latinas are built around psychic roller bearings and a lack of self-consciousness.
The almost universal response of unmarried American men to the circumambient femininity is, “Hoo-ah! What everlovin’ honeys!” In the US the observation would be regarded as sexist. In Mexico, culturally committed to a policy of sexual dimorphism, it is a compliment and a truism. In some places you might get punched out for suggesting otherwise.
These teens are not going to lead their parents’ lives. Mexico is changing, fast. The birth rate falls like a rock. It is not uncommon for a woman in her late thirties to have eight or ten brothers and sisters, but only two kids of her own. Machismo, if not dead, looks to have a slide rule’s future in Palo Alto. Many of Nata’s classmates plan on universities. Female dentists and lawyers are common.
Before, things were bad. This isn’t feminist propaganda. Violeta’s dad, a standard poor-but-honest sort, was delighted when Vi, sixteen, announced that she wanted to go to the University of Guadalajara, which she did. His encouragement established him as a virtual freak. Other parents said that she would become a whore (though in fact U. Guad has no such program). Other bright women I know in their late thirties were prevented by their parents from studying. Today in Joco, small backward town though it be, Natalia has lots of female company in the Prepa, the farm-system for U Guad, and nobody seems to think anything of it. It is a genie that will not go back to its bottle.
Vivi (an adult friend) and, on right, Natalia, at another fiesta. Phredphoto
Carrie Nation would find the going rough here. Natalia, lovely in a black dress, chattered with friends during a break and drank a tequila-and-Squirt. I think it’s illegal, but Mexicans tend to ignore laws when they make no sense. It is an approach that might profitably be adopted in an over-regulated America. Anyway, the occasional drink is held not to damage those verging on adulthood.
Kids are kids. When we came to Joco from Guad last year, Nata’s rep for being smart had preceded her. She was therefore expected by the other teenagers to have thick glasses, buck teeth, and walk like a dorky robot. This turned out to be of imperfect accuracy. The boys were pleased, the girls less so. Why bright seems universally to create a presumption of boring awkwardness, I do not know.
Parenthetically, I might add that the northern notion of the submissive Mexicana is overdrawn, at least today. (Again, times are changing. They used to get the hell beaten out of them.) Today’s Mexicanas aren’t coiled to strike but submissive, no. For example Natalia, when seriously crossed, exhibits a fawnlike timidity that I associate with the Wehrmacht in Poland. She has teeth. She isn’t looking for a chance to use them. Mexico is less edgy than America. Also less competitive. The two may be related.
Early in the evening a woman walked across the floor leading a little girl, who looked to have learned to walk last week. Mexicans have their own ideas about what I suppose might be called age-appropriateness. The child will grow up thinking that fiestas and dancing are reasonable. Several boys of maybe ten ran around and occasionally joined the circle. Mothers danced with their kids, a thing unimaginable in my high-school years—either that they would dance or that I would do it with them. People here regard it as normal. If you asked them about it, they would look puzzled and say, “Why not?”
I’m running out of space. At two-thirty we bailed. More anon.
(This column is an expanded version of my column for The American Conservative.)
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.