Mexico Trek!   Trekkers DISPATCH: September 19 Silvia's Log

Torn Between Two Countries: American Cousins in Mexico

Tere and Patty Valenzuela are my two closest roommates from my college days at UCLA. Tere was my first roommate, and her little sister Patty was my last one over a year later. They are Mexican but live in the Los Angeles, California area since they were in elementary school. Almost all of their family is in Mexico City, and they come to visit every few years. I was able to meet with them on the day the Zocalo was preparing for the "Grito" de Independencia (Scream of Independence) day celebrations, just a few blocks from their grandmother’s home. I was so excited to be a part of this bustling day with them in their homeland! When The ZocaloI called from a payphone, Mr. Valenzuela offered to come find me on the corner and walked me back to their family reunion! Here was their grandma, an aunt and her daughter, another aunt and her 2 boys and 2 girls, and an uncle with his 2 daughters and 1 son. Counting Tere and Patty, that’s 10 cousins under one roof! Imagine the noise and the laughter!

Tere’s father and her Uncle Luis took me down the 5 blocks to reach the apartment complex where they live, which was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1985 damaged the previous building from 1770. The entire family lives together around a central plaza where the younger children run around playing. There’s a Virgin of Guadalupe statue, beautifully dressed in a handmade red and green sequined gown made by another family member. When I walked in the grandma, mom, and aunts were talking and immediately sat me down to eat tacos, rice, and spicy red onions! The hospitality is instant here, and so warm. I wasn’t made to feel like an intruding stranger at all, but instead was quickly accepted as another family member more and everyone started asking me questions. While I finished my tacos, their uncle walked in with a miniature Mexican sombrero that read "Viva Mexico" in green and red letters, and a lollipop in the shape and colors of the Mexican flag for me. "Mi casa es tu casa," my house is your house, they told me, and I ended up there for over 6 hours.

Mexican slang

Tere, Patty, and I sat outside watching the afternoon rain and talking about what it’s like for them to be here with so many family members constantly dropping by to see them. Tere says, "Sometimes I feel nervous because I’m trying so hard to assimilate and speak Spanish in front of them, but Patty and I slip back into English between us. We don’t understand the Mexican slang, US Slangand our cousins end up having to explain it to us. That can be awkward. The last time I saw them was 8 years ago, and Patty was here 6 years ago. Our cousins, "primos", used to be little children and now they’re adolescents, they’re so grown up. Time flies and we only realize it when we come and everyone looks so different from how we remembered them."

Even the neighborhood where they’re staying has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. "This used to be the suburbs of Mexico City, and it was much quieter. Now it’s absorbed into downtown, and we try to not be afraid when we’re taking a taxi that drives so wildly or when crossing the street-- that seems so dangerous! Everyone jaywalks here, but in California you get a ticket if you get caught. We try to fit in and not look like outsiders, but it’s funny to see Mom being nervous when we need to run between the speeding cars," Patty giggles. "We follow our cousins but she hesitates."

The rain stopped to a trickle, and we listened to the bands playing from the Zocalo in the distance. The cousins were running around playing catch with a football and jumping over the puddles. It’s the first time Tere and Face PaintingPatty are in Mexico for the Independence Day celebrations, so I ask them what they think of all the noise and excitement! Tere happily jumps in. "This is nothing like the Fourth of July in the U.S. There seems to be so much Mexican pride in the air. I want to soak it all up. It seems like the Fourth of July is just fireworks, but here everyone’s fiercely proud to have gained independence from Spain. There are Mexican flags everywhere you look, people get their faces painted, the buildings are decorated with streamers, and blinking lights adorn the streets. It just seems that when everyone yells out "Viva Mexico!" they mean it, they’re happy to be here. Families are walking around together, and the fireworks are just a small part of the whole celebration."

What are some differences they see between their lives in California and their family’s life here? Patty reveals that in California, she feels like she takes so much more for granted. Here in Mexico, the people are more humble. Over there, each family member, mom, dad, brother, and two sisters, each have their own car. The brother even has 2! Here, the entire family does not own a single car between them. People walk everywhere, even when it rains, and taking buses is a normal part of everyday life.

Tere tells me that "Here the family has a lot less than we do by American standards, but they’re willing to give it all to you. They ask us what we want to eat and have planned a menu for the whole week to make sure we get it all in during our stay. In the U.S., we have so much fruit and vegetables that we don’t even value it and usually eat junk-food as a snack, for example. Here they sell corn and fruit on the corner street stands, and people eat it with gratefulness. Mexicans consume their produce here. In the U.S. I think the chickens eat more corn than people do."

So what do they guess their cousins think of them, coming from "over there", the land of abundance and modernity? "I imagine that our cousins see us as lucky, but not with a feeling of jealousy. That’s what makes me happy. I sense that they are genuinely glad that we are here. A contrast is that here we are wanting everything that’s Mexican, and they want Nike shoes, Guess jeans, and Calvin Klein T-shirts form America. In L.A., we would laugh at my boyfriend’s car because it has no radio and no air conditioning, whereas here they would be thrilled enough to have a car that runs at all. There’s so much we take for granted, and we don’t realize it until we’re somewhere else. That’s something that traveling teaches us."

Tere thinks she has become somewhat Americanized because she has adapted to life in Los Angeles, but when she’s here she tries to be fully Mexican and speak only Spanish. She has friends in California who are especially concerned with their looks and with the things they buy. They’re what we call materialistic. "Here our cousins love us for who we are and not for what we look like or for the things we have. I realize how much I have, how many pairs of shoes or clothes, for example, that I don’t even wear, and how much I take it for granted."

Patty works full-time, has her own car, and lives in her own apartment. That is shocking for her cousins in Mexico, where home, "la casa", is considered to be where the family is, and they don’t want to move out. They like being with their family.

Their cousin, Eva, who is 24 years old, came over and joined us. She is studying at the university and has only a year and a half left. She says that very few students continue on to college. Most stop going to school at age 18 or 20, get married, and don’t study anymore. There are very few spots for university students, and many want to get in, so many end up trying for years just to get into the University. "Because of that, my message to the students following The Odyssey is to take advantage of being in school because few people have that opportunity. Too many people let these opportunities slip by because they’d rather go out and have fun. There will be plenty of time for that. Stay in school."

It stops raining, so the 10-year-old with long, black braids runs up with a pack of firecrackers. In a few hours, it will be time for the Scream of Independence, and I had better get home before there aren’t any taxis left. The neighbor, Raul, is a taxi driver, and the Valenzuela family asks him to get me to Hogar Aragon safely. They’re going out to dinner and are getting dressed. What a beautiful afternoon I spent. "Viva Mexico!"


Related Dispatches: 
Silvia - Torn Between Two Countries: American Cousins in Mexico
Monica - "$24 for a box of cereal?!?" — A Tale of Culture Shock

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