As our van pulled up
to the group of homes that we
would be spending the night at, I could sense that different emotions
floating around amongst the students in the van. Nervous chatter
escalated as the van pulled to a stop on top of a steep hill
a number of colonias just outside of town in Nogales, Sonora.
As soon as the engine cut off, realization of just how bad the stench of sweat and stale food had become in the past few days. Chaos ensued. In a frantic scramble to free my nose of burning smell of what seemed to be hot garbage, I fell out the door and landed on the soft dirt that made up the street. I pulled myself up as quickly as possible to avoid embarrassment and promptly grabbed my bags and waited for instructions. My good friend D___ had suggested we smoke a cigarette while we waited for the other students to get settled before we received our housing assignments for the evening. In between cigarette drags, I took a minute to look around at all the houses below, the sunset looming in the distance, and the children that were quickly beginning to surround us in the street. The van was now emptied and our professor had divided us up to go stay with our host family for the evening.
What the hell were they thinking?!?!
Speaking minimal Spanish, I was nominated to be the interpreter for my group. I kept telling myself in my head that this was going to be a quite interesting, if not very short, conversation with these folks we were staying with. Soon after I voiced my apprehension of this decision to D___. He chuckled as two others and myself made our way to the entryway of our temporary home. An older woman and her husband, along with their son who looked to be in his 30’s and wore a mustache, greeted us at the door. I introduced everyone as politely as I could, and after an awkward moment of silence, the couple showed us to our room for the evening. The house was constructed of cardboard and wooden pallets and the floors were flattened dirt. Sheets hanging from pieces of wire were constructed as makeshift doors separating the 3 rooms that made up the home. I had a hard time believing that people could make a house out of these materials. I also had a hard time believing that they lived here, day in and day out without running water, a heater, an air conditioner…take your pick of conveniences!
We dropped our gear onto the couch and bed we would later sleep on and made our way back outside to converse with our classmates. On our way out the door, I noticed the son was sitting on the steps watching the children play in the street. He was wearing a yellow jersey of the Mexican soccer club, Pumas. I sat down next to him and D___ and I offered him a cigarette. He grinned and we obliged him at once! We lit up and since D___ doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish, I sparked up a patchwork conversation about soccer (I watch Mexican soccer so this helped), cigarettes, and Vicente Fox. God knows if he understood what I was talking about, but he was thoroughly amused by laughing at pretty much everything I said. For a moment, I didn’t feel like I was in a foreign country speaking to a man in a foreign language of which I hardly understand.
Now I am completely screwed!
After smoking with the son, D___ and I mingled with five or six other students outside and everyone was sharing their feelings about staying the night in this alien place. D___ expressed how his preconceived notions of how things would be had been fulfilled partially, but also had opened his eyes to realizations that he had not previously acknowledged. The kindness of the people was something he had not expected and was pleasantly surprised with when he encountered it. He was also very impressed with the strength of their cultural identity and made comparisons to how it differed from that of America. There is a huge sense of nationalistic pride that exists in Mexico that is hard for some people to grasp. After contemplating these issues, the grandmother then called us in for dinner. Walking up the steep incline towards the house, I began to get nervous at the idea of interpreting for 3 roommates, not to mention what we were going to eat for dinner. The grandmother motioned for us to sit down and proceeded to serve us each a plate of 4 tacos, beans, and rice, coupled nicely with a tall glass of what appeared to be Kool-Aid. Everyone on the trip, present company included, had been very skeptical about the food and water we had been given. After thanking her for serving us dinner, the grandmother sat down with us and asked us a few questions. I understood her for about the first 20 seconds and then it was all over. I apologized time and again for not being able to interpret more effectively, and then silence enveloped the table. We concentrated on our food, which was very tasty and did NOT get us sick, and my mind raced to remember something interesting to say in Spanish. Finally, I excused myself and went out to the home my professor was staying at and asked her come interpret for us. She followed me back to the house and answered all of grandmothers’ questions and helped us ask questions about her family, her life, and her community. It turned out her son was 33 and his daughter lived at the house with her and her husband. She sold crafts and handmade items in downtown Nogales for money. Her husband was a construction worker and worked long hours. They lived day to day. There was no food in the cooler (there was no refrigerator) and grandmother went to the store to buy food for dinner every night. It was amazing to me that even though there was a huge disparity between my life and the lives of the people we were staying with, we both seemed to be happy with our situations.
That’s pretty strong!!!
After dinner, we cleaned the table, thanked grandmother for dinner again, and went outside to talk with classmates once again. D___ and I lit up a cigarette when the smell hit us. It was a sweet, putrid odor that wafted from over the hill and it struck us like a ton of bricks. I realized that it was coming from a small shack just outside our house. An outhouse! We joked around about who would have to use the outhouse later that evening and how they would deal with the smell once inside. I told D___ that we shouldn’t joke about it because this is what they use for the restroom everyday. I also realized that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it was just different than what I was used to. By this time, it was late and we decided to call it a night and get some sleep.
Noises in the night!
As I lay down for the evening, I thought about the lack of locks on the doors. I have always locked my front door at night, so this arose a bit of concern. I kept thinking about what if this and what if that, and the next thing I remember, roosters were crowing outside and it was 5:00ish in the morning. The sun pierced the cracks in the walls as it peeked above the horizon and D___ asked if I was awake. I responded and we went out for a cig and to talk about the trip so far.
Early morning epiphanies…
I started off by expressing how the trip had really changed not only my views on Mexico and its people, but also my worldview as a whole. I had previously seen the world through the eyes of a somewhat ethnocentric white American male college student. I imagined that the world revolved around America, it wanted to emulate America whether through adopting Levi’s blue jeans or economic superiority. On this trip I saw that Mexico has a very colorful and unique culture, of which it is fiercely proud. I saw people that didn’t have DVD players or indoor plumbing, but people that were happy being surrounded by their families and friends. Four generations of family were under one roof in grandmothers house at one time during the evening for a brief period. I haven’t had 4 generations of family in one household ever in my life. D___ interjected that he shared similar thoughts regarding our experience and added a few of his own. He had thought that everyone in Mexico wanted to come to America not only for financial prosperity, but to become American in the process. He noticed that the family we stayed with was very happy living in Mexico, not to mention that they were very proud of being Mexican and of Mexican culture. We both agreed that it is very difficult, if possible at all, to understand a culture unless you experience it first hand. It was the most introspective conversation I have ever had at 5:00ish in the morning, and it changed my views on not only Mexican culture, but any culture that I haven’t been directly exposed to.
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