“Are you sure you’ve got it?”
I pointed out into the afternoon sunlight, “You’re gonna cross this street, go one block that way, and then turn right on the next street, and just keep walking until you see it—right?”
“Yeah.” Then after a pause, “Wait, what’s a block?”
We were sitting at a street taco stand, about four blocks from the little food market we frequent in Santa Rosalia. Frances wanted to walk there and share some of her food with the two dogs that were always outside (I can’t remember the names she’s given them).
“Tell you what, I’ll go with you, but I won’t be with you, I’ll be following behind, keeping an eye on you, but you won’t see me or know I’m even there. How does that sound?”
And off she went, looking both ways before crossing the narrow, one-way street and then purposefully heading down the side street, a plastic bag of gristle swinging in her little hand. I followed behind.
It’s hard to illustrate or explain Mexico to you. Much of its culture still eludes me, and I’ve spent a lot of time here. I work on my Spanish every day, I talk to many people, and I’ve read a couple excellent books about Mexican culture (Mañana Forever by Jorge Castañeda and The People’s Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz). But the more I learn, the more I learn how much there is I’ll never understand. My friend Tim, who lives here, has the same sense and he has an explanation for everything: T-I-M. It’s simply an acronym for This is Mexico, a universal explanation for whatever baffles us. Windy and I say it to each other at least once a week.
But then there are the aspects of Mexico that are different, often endearing, but not necessarily baffling. This story is about one of those.
Recall, I’m following Frances, out of sight, on the streets of a busy little Mexican town…
My little sprite glanced over her shoulder periodically. I knew she couldn’t see me; she continued with determination. Then she hit the gauntlet: two teenaged girls, still in their pale pink school uniforms that made them look like nurses from a 1950s hospital. They got animated as Frances approached them on the sidewalk. I couldn’t hear them. Frances likely didn’t know they were talking to her until the one girl stepped in front of her and bent down, the other crowded, they were trying to communicate. Frances was then turned around, a little person clutched tightly by one girl who beamed at her friend with the camera.
Snap, snap, snap.
Then they switched, passing their new plaything between themselves for more pictures.
Finally they released their prisoner and waved and smiled. Franny continued on, in the opposite direction she’d been headed. One of the girls ran to her and turned her around, pointing up the street.
When I approached the girls a minute later, their backs were turned and they were chatting, their eyes on the little girl disappearing into the street scene ahead, no doubt wondering about her.
“She’s practicing walking to the store by herself,” I said in Spanish as I passed. They nodded and went on excitedly about how cute Frances was.
As much as an attribute can be applied to a group of 100 million people, Mexicans love kids, they just do. I often highlight this for other gringos by pointing out that there is no concept in this country of ‘family friendly restaurant.’ None. The very idea of insulating adults from kids for the adults’ sake just wouldn’t register here.
Strangers often lightly touch my girls lovingly as we walk down the street. I hear whispered terms of endearment like, “preciosa,” or “cariña,” or “muñeca.” I think this happens to a lot of foreign kids in particular.
But this village mindset can be a bit overwhelming too. Earlier this year, in downtown La Paz, I was trying to teach both girls to safely cross streets by themselves. “Go ahead, I’ll wait here mid-block. Just remember everything we’ve practiced: look both ways, make sure you have eye contact with the driver, and cross with purpose.”
We couldn’t do it. Every time we tried, a another pedestrian or shopkeeper would appear from no place and grab my daughter’s hand protectively and walk her across, before returning across themselves to resume whatever they were doing. Sometimes one of the girls would point me out to the kind stranger, probably in response to a question about where their parents were. The stranger’s smile would often fade when they saw me. I’d give a weak wave, “Yeah, I know,” I’d say under my breath, my face flushed, “T-I-M.”