One of the greatest differences, I’ve found, between life in the United States and here in Mexico is this: Here, it is a large part of the rich, old, cultural fabric to recognize and respect other people, even just passing them on the street.
North of the Border? Not so much.
Perhaps I lived in the city of New York twenty years too long. Smiling at, making eye contact with, and chatting up strangers on sidewalks or in subways was simply not done– especially if you were a youngish woman on your own, striving to be street-smart and stay safe.
Even as a little girl growing up in New Jersey’s suburbs in the ‘50s, I and my sisters were taught never to talk to strangers. There were bad people out there, we were led to believe, who could do us harm. So we had to always beware, keep a safe distance, and “run like hell,” if necessary, away from them.
Some of this vigilance and wariness toward others has obviously stuck with me, all these years on.
When I first began private Spanish lessons with my tutor Edith five years ago here in San Miguel de Allende and asked her for secrets of success in learning the language, she said cheerily, “Práctica, práctica!” (Practice, practice!)
“But,” I countered, “how can I practice speaking Spanish when I have no one to practice with between our weekly lessons? I’m here alone.”
She suggested I walk to the Jardin (the city’s central plaza) every day and find a nice person on a park bench to chat with. She smiled. “San Miguel is filled with people who speak Spanish,” she said.
“Yes, but…” I stammered. “I’m from New York. I can’t speak with strangers!”
I’m getting better, though. I’m learning. I’m learning the importance of what Mexicans refer to as cortesía (courtesy), the social protocols taught to all Mexican children by their mothers.
For example: the significance of greeting everyone you meet, even strangers on the street, with a smile and “buenos dias” (good day – used between dawn and noon), or “buenas tardes” (good afternoon – from noon to sunset), or “buenas noches” (good evening/night – after sunset and before sunrise); saying “con permiso, por favor” when requesting attention or space (as in, “excuse me, may I get by?”); and offering this polite blessing on another’s meal (in passing someone’s table in a restaurant, for instance), “buen provecho!”
So instead of avoiding strangers, being wary and suspicious of them, as I and perhaps many other Norteamericanos were trained from childhood to do — for our own personal well being, we may have thought — Mexicans reach out to others in recognition and respect, in a spirit of we’re-all-in-this-together human connectedness. What a difference this makes in day-to-day human interactions, I’ve observed.
A lot has been said and written about the joys of living in San Miguel de Allende – the food, music, colors, art, architecture, culture, history, people, climate, overall beauty, and affordability for us retired gringos – but one aspect has not received as much attention, in my opinion. It is this contrast, this cortesía, this emphasis on respect. Especially, I’m finding now as an older person, respect for older people, regardless of nationality or background.
This was true for me also in Mali, West Africa, when I lived and worked there for three years in my mid-fifties. Mali, like Mexico, is an ancient country, proud of its history and culture. (Perhaps only the oldest countries are wise enough to appreciate older people?) As I noted in my memoir of that experience:
“In Mali, unlike in most parts of the United States, older people, especially older women, are revered. The attitude of respect and admiration shown toward women who have lived long lives and, presumably, gained wisdom along the way permeated Mali’s culture like a golden thread woven throughout the social fabric. … Relinquishing youth, beauty, and sexual appeal for wisdom, reverence, and respect seemed like a healthy tradeoff to me” (p. 161, How to Make an African Quilt: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Ségou, Mali).
Yesterday I listened to Paul Theroux’s marvelous keynote address given at the San Miguel Literary Sala in February 2019 (available from their website, https://sanmiguelliterarysala.org/product-category/audio-recordings/) in which he discusses his new travel book, On the Plain of Snakes, about his most recent travels through Mexico. I listened to him as I busied myself straightening my apartment. But I had to stop what I was doing to write this down: “There’s more respect for an older person in Mexico than anywhere in the States,” he said.
I’m reading On the Plain of Snakes now, highlighting it madly as I go along. Paul Theroux made this trip alone, by car, when he was seventy-six – the age I am now – so I can relate on many levels. In regard to age he writes, in part:
“In the casual opinion of most Americans, I am an old man, and therefore of little account, past my best, fading in a pathetic diminuendo … either invisible or someone to ignore rather than respect. [But] … I think of myself in the Mexican way, not as an old man but as most Mexicans regard a senior … not worn out, beneath notice, someone to be patronized, but owed the respect traditionally accorded to an elder” (p. 5, On the Plain of Snakes).
How refreshing, how life-affirming, I feel, to be seen here and now in Mexico, not as a harmless, vapid, pretty-young-thing, which was the case for me a long time ago in New York — the only reason strangers ever glanced in my direction — but as a fellow human being, still alive, still visible and somewhat relevant, an elder worthy of a little recognition and respect because I have lived this long and, perhaps, learned a few valuable lessons worth sharing.
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This link will take you to three excellent YouTube videos that will further explain Mexican history, culture, and especially cortesia, presented by Warren Hardy, who runs an outstanding Spanish school here in San Miguel de Allende: