By Carmen Poon
Like many students, when I was in university I had a part time job. I really enjoyed the work, because I had friendly co-workers. It often felt like I was hanging out with my buddies instead of working. There was, however, one fellow who completely rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn’t really put my finger on it until one day he mentioned that he and his wife (a fantastic person whom I genuinely liked) were going to Mexico for a vacation. Within seconds he started bragging about how he expected fast service and if the Mexicans serving him didn’t jump up and serve him fast enough they wouldn’t get their “Tippo grande” (his exact words). As he said this he mimed waving dollar bills under the nose of the imaginary server. At the time, my university major was Spanish language and literature. I had (and still have) many Latino friends from a variety of countries. I could not believe my ears. Shortly after this comment he started in about Asians. Considering that I am married to a Chinese-Canadian man, you can probably guess how well that went over. Tamping down my natural inclination to just clock him, instead I complained to my boss who took action and reprimanded him. (Yay boss!) The racist comments stopped immediately and my co-worker gave me a very wide berth any time we worked together afterwards.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Prejudice has been around pretty much as long as humans have walked the Earth. Nevertheless, it was still disturbing. Stereotypes are not supposed to reflect reality, but in this case they did. My co-worker was basically the personification of an “ugly tourist”; he was entitled, spoiled, English-speaking, and white. Being an English-speaking white Canadian, I would never want to be thought of as someone like him. (Insert shudder here.)
Now that I am living in Mexico, I still encounter people who exhibit this kind of attitude. (Thank goodness they aren’t the majority.) In some cases, they are more refined than my former co-worker, but the elitist beliefs are still there and they are just as ugly. What surprises me is that some of them live here. I met a man who told me that we (Canadians and Americans) have superior nations, because our countries have better infrastructures. I agreed that the infrastructure to which I had grown accustomed in Canada was generally more developed than in Mexico, but I did NOT agree that this fact made us better. I pointed out that Canadians and Americans seemed far more stressed out than Mexicans and that we needed to learn how to relax. Moreover, many of us vacation in Mexico to escape our stress-filled lives, and what is more, he and I both live here! How bad could it be? This man has been living in Mexico for years and appeared to like it, yet he still, surprisingly, expressed this elitist opinion.
The stereotype of the lazy Mexican often goes hand in hand with this kind of attitude, but it is completely erroneous. Before I continue, let’s get one thing straight. MEXICANS WORK HARD for every peso they earn. I’ve been here about two years now and I have been amazed time and time again with my Mexican co-workers and friends. Although, tourists view it as an inexpensive destination, the truth is that for many Mexicans this isn’t necessarily the case. Wages here are considerably lower than those in Canada or the United States. I speak from personal experience. Working as a full time teacher, I was not able to completely cover the living expenses of our three person family. Furthermore, teaching is not the only job in which the pay makes it difficult to make ends meet. Yes, many things are cheaper here than they would be back home. But since moving here, I have been surprised to learn that some items cost about the same or more than they would in Canada. As a result, almost every Mexican I know has at least one part-time job that he or she does for extra cash. Do any of you recall that In Living Color comedy sketch with the Hedley family where they keep talking about having multiple jobs, “mon”? The series of sketches follows “the hardest working West Indian family, the Hedleys”. Each mini episode features their talking about all the different jobs they hold simultaneously and lamenting how lazy people only have one job. In my experience, the working life of most Mexicans is like the Hedleys, except that there is no punch line. Everybody sells something or does something on the side because they have to. I know people who make custom sandals or jewelry, sell athletic wear, do personal training, clean houses, cater, tutor privately, and coach sports.
Moreover, many people here work six days a week, sometimes even seven. The members of the support staff at my school work a half day every Saturday after working a full five day week. The hours can also be very long. My hairstylist works six days a week in twelve hour shifts. As she once told me, “It’s a good thing I like my job.” No kidding! Another woman I know, works six days a week for a local shopping centre and then at a beauty salon on Sunday mornings. She is also a mother. (Any parent will tell you that is a full time job all on its own!)
Once, the mother of a co-worker babysat my son for me. I had asked my other co-workers with children what was an appropriate amount to pay for a full evening of babysitting and had been told that a hundred pesos (about seven dollars Canadian) was acceptable. When I went to pick him up at the end of the evening, I thanked her and handed her a hundred pesos. She snatched the bill up in her hand and it quickly disappeared inside her clothing. In that moment I learned that for many Mexicans every-single-peso is important.
As you can see, the reality that I have encountered is very different from the stereotype of the lazy Mexican, but where does it come from and why does it exist? I haven’t exactly done true research on the subject, but I think it is caused by a few factors like climate, cultural differences, and (of course) prejudice.
Although there are regions of Mexico that can experience quite cold temperatures, a significant portion of the country experiences very hot weather. Have you ever physically exerted yourself in 33 degree Celsius heat with 80 percent humidity? I can tell you it is not recommended. These are the kinds of conditions that many people with physical jobs find themselves working in here in Banderas Bay. So during the hottest part of the day, you can often see labourers sitting or lying down in the shade of a tree, taking a break. I wonder if this is where some of the stereotype began. Your average Canadian doesn’t take an extended break in the early afternoon. And he or she doesn’t usually stretch out under a tree and take a mini siesta either. Do foreigners judge these workers based on the expectations and climatic restrictions of their own countries? I know when I first moved here I did not understand just how the heat could sap your strength or how the sun could wallop you like a prize fighter. I knew about cold, but I did not truly appreciate the intensity of heat. It was only after stupidly (and unsuccessfully) trying to do too much physical activity in the heat, that I realized finding shade and slowing down were, in the end, MUCH more productive, because I no longer got sick from the heat. I wonder if some vacationers simply just don’t understand that the workers are waiting out the heat in the shade and are taking a well deserved break. Many Mexicans have to start work early to avoid the heat. They may take an extended break in the middle of the day, but will also likely be working into the early evening to complete their full work day.
One thing I have noticed here is a definite cultural difference regarding the attitude toward work. As I said, most of the Mexicans I know work two or three jobs and work six to seven days a week often with long hours. Moreover, as in Canada and the United States, many families also have both parents working. In other words, Mexicans are doing the same juggling act that Canadians and Americans do on a daily basis: working a job outside the home, driving their kids to school, attending school events, meeting with teachers, taking their kids to extracurricular activities, and attending (or throwing) the dreaded birthday party! They, however, seem less stressed out than my Canadian friends. I believe it has to do with the Mexican attitude toward work. For many Mexicans, when they walk out of their workplace, that is it. They appear to be much better at not “taking the office home with them” than Canadians. Instead, they concentrate their energies on their family and friends. Conversely, I’ve met quite a few Canadians who have been completely consumed by their work allowing it to pollute their leisure time. (Unfortunately, I have to include myself in that group.)
Do some things take longer here than back in Canada? Absolutely. Many things work on a slower schedule here. For example when I go to the pharmacy, I usually have to wait because the majority of the medications are behind the counter. This means that any time I have to buy something as mundane as cough syrup I have to wait to be served by the pharmacy staff. The wait can also be extended by several minutes if there are a couple of people in front of me. It can be further compounded by the speed with which the staff moves. In Canada I worked at many service industry jobs; I can tell you that the emphasis is often to go, go, go, and move, move, move! That is definitely not the case here in Mexico. Although you will certainly find places where the staff is required to hustle, the culture is much more one of conserving energy. People definitely work, but there is not an expectation to get an ulcer while performing their duties. For those of us raised in cultures that expect services to be done ASAP, or preferably yesterday, it can be very frustrating. To combat this impatient ire that strikes me in these situations, I have started changing my expectations taking my lead from my Mexican peers. I am not getting my cough syrup too slowly I tell myself; I am learning the Mexican method on how to not get an ulcer!
Are you familiar with that didactic story about the ant and the grasshopper? You know, the ant works hard all summer collecting and storing food while the grasshopper plays his fiddle and relaxes. When winter arrives the ant has an abundance of food and the grasshopper is starving because he didn’t do any work in the warm summertime. From the point of view of some foreigners, I think Mexicans might look like grasshoppers, because they love to have a good time. Mexicans know how to relax. They are highly skilled at seizing the moment and enjoying it.
Socializing and spending time with loved ones is a big deal here. As such, parties are very important culturally. And I mean IMPORTANT. For a Mexican, hosting an amazing party is not frivolous. All of the event halls and party rental companies that I have seen in Puerto Vallarta, (and the amount that some of them charge) support this conclusion. When my husband and I were planning our son’s first Mexican birthday party we were quite shocked at the sticker price for some of these venues, yet these businesses continue to have a steady stream of clients.
For instance, I used to live in the colonia (neighbourhood) called 5 de diciembre. My apartment was across the street from a popular event hall that was always in use. On one particular Sunday there was a party being held there that had to be the party of all parties, because it had live music playing for over nine hours straight. The music began at one in the afternoon and was still going strong when I went to bed at ten thirty. It was so loud that I had to crank up the volume on my television and later on had to use the air conditioner for white noise so that my son and I could fall asleep. In Canada, I would have suspected that there was a small music festival being held at the hall, but not here. It was just a loud, fun, over the top Mexican party—and on a Sunday no less! Without a doubt it was a smashing success for the hosts.
While preparing for this article, I spent some time mulling over the question of prejudice. At first, I thought it was a very complicated social problem, that didn’t seem easily explainable, but then I remembered an experience my son, Ethan, had in school and I realized that it isn’t very complicated at all. One year, another boy who loved the limelight, decided that he did not like Ethan. Seeing Ethan as competition for attention, he made a point of making his school life miserable. He was an awful child who physically and emotionally badgered my son the entire school year. Later on, I discovered that he was a textbook bully who felt badly about himself and took it out on everyone else around him. So how does this story connect to prejudice? Prejudicial behaviour is basically bullying. It is treating others poorly in order to temporarily feel better about oneself. In fact, the one time that my son has experienced prejudice was with the aforementioned bully. When he discovered that Ethan’s dad was Chinese, he called my husband some words that I will not include here. Due to his horrible treatment of my son I find it difficult to say this, but to be fair, he was just a kid in elementary school with a very hard home life. He was acting out. Apparently adults are not immune to this kind of behaviour either. My co-worker was clearly enjoying acting like a big shot. He was an adult, yet he too seemed to need to bolster himself.
So, are there lazy Mexicans who want to get paid to do as little as possible? Of course there are! The point is that lazy people and industrious ones as well, can be found in every corner of the world. I know that I have been on my soapbox for quite a few paragraphs now, but I truly believe that it is time for us to stop focusing on what is supposedly wrong with the other guy and turn our attention on ourselves. Instead of acting like children starving for attention and external validation we need to ask ourselves one essential question. Why do we feel the need to run someone else down? Just like schoolyard bullying, prejudice is really all about us. When we finally find the personal fortitude to face our own demons the superfluous need to prove that we are better than someone else will just fall away.
This videp is for my father, grandfather and anyone else who loves classic country music. Gene Autry’s Back in the Saddle Again.
This video is for those of you who want to watch the Hedleys from In Living Color one more time. I love the way they played with stereotypes.
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