Published January 2001
Dear Carl and Lorena;
I have been meaning to write this letter for some time. Everywhere on the Mex-net people speak of the good food in Mexico, the wonderful Mexican people, the problems of learning and speaking Spanish, and many other topics of intense mutual interest. Nowhere have I seen anyone speak of the obvious.
...That's right! Mexico is not only in Mexico. Of course Mexico was always in the Southwest: a disgruntled hombre in a cantina in Hermosio made that clear to me 30 years ago when it looked like the situation following the Alamo was going to be my fault solomente. But now - right here in my native Iowa, where everyone was always an 'merican right back to when God invented the world (circa 1848), everyone is not an 'merican anymore. The People's Guide to Mexico can now be a handy reference for life here in the heartland.
A normal 3 hour trip from my home in Dubuque, Iowa to Rochester, Minn. now takes 8 hours. I stop at the Mexican tienda in Postville, Iowa (pop. 2000) to pick up a molcajete, una libra de jamaica for my aguas de frutas, dried chiles, piloncillos, chicharron and semillas de calabasa para mole. I also practice my bad Spanish talking to a young man who just got back from Penjamo, Guanajuato (pop 20,000) about whether he knows my daughter's fiance's uncle who owns the bakery there.
Then delightfully finding that the tacos al pastor in Postville are very similar to the flavor of the al pastor in Penjamo, which were our favorites last summer, I buy a pound of the prepared carne. The taste of the Penjamo taqueria is in my home that night.
After a conversation with a man from D.F. (who is long-term constructing a house in San Miguel de Allende) about property taxes in Mexico and whether Dolores Hidalgo or Guanajuato would be better living than San Miguel for us, I pass up the pan dulce and move on toward Rochester, Minn.. Finishing my business there, I have a typical American Mexican restaurant meal. But I at least get the address of a tienda in town where I load up another basket, passing on the bulk canela because we still have some at home, but taking on weight with bag of bolillos. Strange?.... not anymore.
So last spring I am sitting in the taqueria in Dubuque with my visiting-from-Manhattan daughter and she compliments the young senora who cooked our tacos carne asada. The senora smiles self-consciously and mouths a silent, "Thank you", eyes descending. After her husband came in we found out that pretty much exhausted her English vocabulary. So during a little hablo-habla with him we find out he is from the state of Guanajuato and his English is somewhat better than my Spanish, but we both need help to get what we need to know for our futures. We jointly decide to help each other with language and conversation.
Within a week the shy Maria de los Angeles is in our kitchen teaching my wife la cocina mexicana and the two of them are exchanging kitchen vocabulary. Her husband, Rene, and I are outside doing the vocabulary on rabbits, deer and raccoons while anticipating tacos carne asada as the two ninos are playing. That began a very deep friendship that leaves us with both the respect and responsibilities of comadre and compadre.
A few months later in midsummer when we were living in Guanajuato, Gto. for a month we made good on our invitation to visit the rancho on the fiesta of the patron saint of their village of Rincon de Martinez, Gto (pop. 300, mas o menos). It was one of life's great experiences to give pictures and reports of unseen grandchildren to caring people for whom familia es todo and to return with photos of and reports on parents and grandparents who haven't been seen in seven years.
Did the corn field survive the flooding from unusually heavy rains? Photo proof - "Yes". "Oh, they have added a front on the church." "Only three goats now; before my father had many more." Did you like my grandmother? - "Si, su abuela es muy amable." (So amable in fact, that in turning down an offer to stay at her house we had to agree to come for a stay at Christmas.) Chicken and mole, posed and unposed pictures, hanging around with the men in front of the church, talking to an uncle who had worked in California; meanwhile my wife and Dona Michela were inside the church with the other women and specially dressed young girls. As Maria now says with some of her new English, "La gente en Rincon de Martinez are good people."
While in Guanajuato we learned that of the states 9 million citizens, an estimated 2 million are living in the U.S. -- some of whom are our new neighbors in Iowa, and very few of whom speak any English. If we like la gente de Guanajuato en Guanajuato, why would we not like them in Iowa? I well remember how the people of Guanajuato were with me on the streets and in shops when I was practicing my Spanish -- treating me with respect and patience while I talked like a two year old. They were feeding me words, helping with dumb mixups (I once called a wonderful woman's kitchen a pigpen [or worse] -- at the time "cochina" sounded more like the word kitchen than "cocina".), giving directions, and giving me the right change at the mercado or the panaderia.
So now some Mexicans live here in Iowa: their car battery that was fine in summer doesn't cut the mustard at 20 below, the 2 pages of blabber on a rental lease is in English. They don't bank here for the same reason I didn't make an issue with bank officials in Mexico when the ATM didn't give me what I wanted -- insufficient language.
They don't know that American doctors all overcharge on their outrageous prices, knowing that in their game with the insurance companies they will negotiate downward to a standard-allowable-rate-for-procedure that both parties knew beforehand -- so they are able to generate a paper loss. Since doctors here expect the poor not to pay, they hit them with the fictitious high number, anticipating another paper loss.
No one explained the game to honest, sixteen year old Tanis, who works like a man in a stone quarry running a jack hammer 68 hours a week. He paid 68 hours of wages for 10 minutes of foot doctor inpatient time on an infected toenail. To boot Tanis loses a day's pay to meet the doctor's 9-4:30 schedule, his older brother, Rene, loses a day's pay to help negotiate language and I fill in the gaps in Rene's vocabulary. That reminds me of how inefficient I was in Mexico. Our Mexican neighbors may need help setting up a bank account, or any of a bunch of intimidating administrative chores. The more we talk, the more we find what their problems are; some of them we can help solve.
Right now there is a real bargain in Spanish language lessons to be had in the U.S.; actually cheaper than in the immersion language programs in Mexico. With a combination of grammar books and conversation with our Mexican friends we can approximate the language programs we used in Mexico. These conversations have the advantage of being useful Mexican Spanish, and include pronunciation of ancient indian words that are so much a part of the Mexican experience.
I find these very inexpensive books (about $10 each) to be very helpful both in the U.S. and in Mexico:
501 Spanish Verbs
Schaum's Outline of Spanish Grammar
Schaum's Outline of Spanish Vocabulary
Spanish Verb Tenses [Kindle] by Dorothy Richmond
Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions [Kindle] by Dorothy Richmond
On the other side of the equation I ordered some English books for our friends. ESL books are designed to teach anyone (Chinese, Spanish, Bosnian, Turk) English, so there is no reference point. Figuring I couldn't learn like that, I instead bought these books that approach learning English from a Spanish speakers point of view. Maria has done very well with them:
Conversando En Ingles/English Conversational Grammar for Spanish Speakers (This book gives Spanish phonetic pronunciation for English words)
Domine Lo Basico-Ingles: Master the Basics of English for Spanish Speakers
El Ingles Practico Para Personas De Habla Espanola / Practical English for Spanish Speakers (Book and 2 Cassettes)
Gramatica De La Lengua Inglesa: A Complete English Grammar Workbook for Spanish-Speakers
Ingles Sin Maestro Para Estudiantes by Monica Stevens
Cooking Mexican Food
To make good use of the ingredients available in the tiendas Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico (also paperback) is excellent. But it is not a substitute for sharing cooking experiences with our Mexican friends -- home cooking is a little different. Maria cooks the same dishes here that her family does in Mexico.
It all helps take the bite off not being in Mexico, and helps make us more prepared when we are in Mexico.