It’s a Peace Corps cliche, but we have to remember that everyone comes to site with pre-existing norms and expectations, ‘filters’ back in training. It’s stuff that they encourage us to strip away, so that we can see deeper and more clearly. The cliche of the cliche here is to talk about Mexican perceptions of time and punctuality. We’re supposed to stop being mad about people showing up late and to start examining why that’s the norm here (and in most of the world never colonized by a northern European). I’m not going to go into it because I already have and because it’s not the point of the post. The point is that everybody everywhere shows up to site expecting tardiness and expecting people to have different views on washing produce or on refrigerating eggs or on the acceptability of hiking your shirt up in public and rubbing your keg-stomach to aid your digestion. But there are things there that will blindside you, that you never would have thought of until they smack you head on.
First is the stuff that you probably could have figured out on your own if you’d set yourself to it. Our volunteer leader stressed the other day how careful we have to be out in the country, because if we get hurt on the road, that’s more or less that. There might be an ambulance somewhere, but it will not be rapid response. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place that’s got a sightline on a cell tower, which is rare enough here in the mountains, you’re still going to be in for a helluva wait. Which means that while back in the States you might rubberneck response workers at a scene, here you either hope out and start triage or drive by knowing that the guys leaking onto the asphalt are probably going to die.
Death in general is a big thing. The other day I read an article that contended that Mexicans have a comfortable relationship with death because they have beautiful cultural traditions like el Día de Muertos and parties in cemeteries. That smacks to me of somebody who’s never been here but saw a couple of Discovery Channel specials. Because it’s backwards. Mexicans didn’t invent those festivals ex nihilo and thereby reconcile themselves to death. Rather, it’s that death has been ubiquitous and quotidian for so long that they had to create cultural traditions to deal with it.
All those colorful celebrations come from a Catholic-pagan fusion, which makes just the right amount of sense. Starting with the plague that preceded the Spaniards and wiped out anywhere from 30-90% of the population, depending on your mileage, mestizo Mexcio has been a land of constant and pitiable death with precious few interruptions. Colonization and the encomienda gave way to the wars of independence, the war against the French, the war against the Texans and then against the Americans, the decade-long Revolution, Pershing’s expedition, the Cristero War, the ‘dirty war’ of the 60s and 70s, the Zapatista uprising, and, as always, the ‘drug war.’ A closer connection to the dead has to crop up when it’s such a present possibility; we only manage to push it away from ourselves back at home because we’ve got good medicine and we leave most of our drugs’ violence in other countries.
In a town of 8,000 or so, I’ve been in personal contact with at least five deceased since January, and I don’t know that many people. We’ve had a baby expire from a scorpion sting, my host mom’s boyfriend’s brother from something I wasn’t well introduced enough to ask, a suicide of a kid a few doors down our street, a 40-or-so-year-old woman who called into every one of my radio shows, and a kid around my age who died in a crash coming back from a party at a river in a car that I very nearly rode in. That’s another thing you’ll catch out here in the campo—drunk driving’s almost as popular as sober. You just don’t expect to be eating a laughing with somebody and have them tell you their friend died yesterday. Not until it happens twice, anyway.
Then there are things that you’re just convinced we’re too developed for here. Even in the dustier, more forlorn towns I’ve been to, there has always been at least one internet cafe and phone contact. Every town has a health clinic staffed by med students and everybody is guaranteed at least minimal care. But I’ve been shocked by the hordes of poor little cross-and-cockeyed girls staring at me askance and by the small but significant-because-it-has-to-be number of parents who are also cousins.
Even in a place where people put sugar into every drink, it seems like with access to the internet and doctors and toothbrushes filling the corner stores, I’m constantly looking into the grinning mouths of kids who instead of the proud pink gap of missing baby teeth have blackened stumps instead, who breathe out the miasma of rotting calcium and gums receded to the nerve, kids who have to push candy way back to their last nubby crags to chew.
It’s perverse that the one that got to me most was deaf kids. Not that they’re here—with the profusion of preventable abnormalities, there were bound to be more commonplace congenital things going on. It’s that that out here they never learn sign language. Not American standard, not anything. What makes it more jarring is that every newscast has a person signing away in the corner. Kids are born deaf-mute and that’s the start and end of it. I’ve heard of one who’s learned to read, but just one. For all the rest, life is a neverending party game. I guess that’s another one of those things I might’ve puzzled out on my own.
I look at all that. And I look at what the government’s throwing money at—Pueblo Mágico projects and minor day labor programs. And then I look at what I’m doing, teaching the most privileged young people in the area just a little bit about the water cycle. And I don’t much know what to think.