Don’t wear shiny jewelry. Don’t carry a purse if you can help it. Don’t let vendors hear you speak in English, because they’ll hike up their prices.
These are the tips I have collected throughout my (more or less) yearly visits to Mexico. My mother was born and raised in a small village in the south of the country and met my father, an American student, in the big bad capital Mexico City. There they spent the first years of their marriage before coming to the U.S.
Every visit, I’ve been taught by my mom and family in Mexico to be extremely vigilant and distrusting. Always haggle down prices; don’t let your cash be visible; be wary of any claims of quality. I watch my uncle, a longtime resident of the city, tell the taxi drivers not only where we are going but also exactly how they will get us there.
This distrust is understandable in a place where elections are often suspect for rigging and police are bribed into corruption. My father told me of a time when thieves jumped into his taxi, pepper-sprayed him in the eyes, and stole everything but his clothes and wedding ring. Stories like this make the national cynicism and suspicion reasonable. Poverty is widespread, and people can only afford to watch out for themselves and their families. That is all. Better safe than sorry.
But all of this contrasts bizarrely with a public kindness and respect that coexists with the distrust on the street. A world of pase usted and por supuesto cohabitates this space of watch your pockets. On the street, good mornings are lofted toward strangers. There is genuine courtesy between attentive service workers and their customers.
I can’t quite figure out how this simultaneous cynicism and respect works. I can say this: there are good, hardworking people who want to make their money honestly and want to spend it fairly and reasonably. There are also bad people that want to trick and force others into giving them things they do not deserve. I find myself wondering if the latter were once the former and things just didn’t work out – if a last resort became a way of life and they realized too late. I don’t know.
I do think, however, that the good outnumber the bad.
One of my favorite stories from my father’s days in Mexico concerns a quesadilla. After a long day of work, my father stopped by the corner taqueria he frequented near my mother’s apartment. He got a plain quesadilla and started to eat it, exhausted, at the bar. A drunk man next to him glanced over, caught sight of his complexion, and grumbled, “¡Gringo!” My father, tired, asked the man to let him be. The man snatched my father’s quesadilla off the plate and started to eat it. The owner of the taqueria walked over and pointed at the drunk. Without a word, he turned out his hand with a twirl of his finger that pointed straight to the door. The drunk hung his head and left. The owner made my father a new quesadilla.
I always thought I liked that story because it’s kind of funny in a sad way and my dad tells it well. But there’s more to it. An implicit respect, an intangible understanding, and a unified kindness that is grounded in a solid belief in right and wrong. Every year I want – and try – to understand it a little more.