My stepdaughter Natalia, 15, 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 held a monster fiesta. Mexicans seem to have a genetic predisposition toward fiestas, having one at any provocation. The hall they rented was just a very large room with tables and a bandstand but space to dance. That’s what counts hereabouts.
My wife Violeta and I showed up with Natalia, a bottle of tequila, mixers, and suchlike paraphernalia of gaiety, and greeted friends at our table. Things got rolling after 10. The lights went down and the band cranked up and lit into an hour and a half of nonstop cumbias, salsa, and banda. 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 than 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 line, a mob of teenage girls pushed us into the center. Resistance was futile. The young ladies 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!” I found myself thinking, “This really, truly isn’t Kansas, Dorothy.” 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.
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 U.S. 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, we seem cold and isolated to them.
Vi and I took a break for tequila and Squirt—that, 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.)
The almost universal response of unmarried American men to the circumambient femininity is, “Hoo-ah! What everlovin’ honeys!” The appreciation is only partly of physical prettiness. In the U.S. this would be regarded as sexist. In Mexico, culturally committed to a policy of sexual dimorphism, it is a compliment and a truism.
These girls 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 30s to have eight or ten brothers and sisters but only two kids of her own. Machismo, if not dead, looks to have a sliderule’s future in Palo Alto. Many of Nata’s classmates plan on university. Female dentists and lawyers are common.
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, and the occasional drink is held not to damage those verging on adulthood.
Parenthetically, I might add that the northern notion of the submissive Mexicana is overdrawn. They 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.
Mexicans have their own ideas about what I suppose might be called age-appropriateness. Early in the evening a woman walked across the floor leading a little girl, who looked to have learned to walk last week. She will grow up thinking that fiestas and dancing are reasonable. Several boys of maybe 10 ran around and occasionally joined the circle. Mothers danced with their kids, a thing unimaginable in my high-school years. People here regard it as normal. If you asked them about it, they would look puzzled and say, “Why not?”