I traveled to Mexico for the first time when I was two months old, swaddled in the hull of the “Sweat Lodge,” Steve and Tina’s beloved ’62 Dodge camper. Over the course of my childhood, we’d make the drive south another 14 times, traveling as a family in Mexico and Guatemala for 4-6 months out of every year.
Mexico was and is a wonderful country for a child. People were invariably welcoming to me, and no establishment was off limits (I have fond memories of sitting under the bar tables at La Fragua in San Miguel de Allende, where I loved to eavesdrop on the revelers.) Spending time in Mexico gave me an early sense of the diversity of existence. My parents often left me with their friend Cuca’s family for days at a time, and so I learned to speak Spanish and to participate in all the daily household chores: at ages seven and eight my friend Patty and I did the grocery shopping and scrubbed endless piles of laundry in Cuca’s big cement pila. Even so, we had plenty of time for games: in the dirt streets we played raucous games of tag and climbed spindly trees to pick strange tropical fruit that to this day I can’t name.
Sometimes I fancy that my best traits are Mexican, attitudes I picked up on dirt street playgrounds and habits I discovered in Cuca’s kitchen or in the barrios of Tepic. I am resourceful, and I know a thing or two about getting by. Hospitality is my standard: mi casa es tu casa. I am cynical yet hopeful, and I am pretty good, these days, at remaining cheerful in the face of overwhelming odds. I have a deep sense of history, and a reverence for my ancestors. Like most Mexicans I know, I believe in doing a good job and working hard, just for the sake of doing a good job and working hard. On the flip side, a few of my worst traits are Mexican too: I’m deeply sentimental and absurdly proud. In other words, I wouldn’t be who I am if not for the time I spent with our Mexican friends.
Just as I picked up slang from my friends, my parents picked up parenting attitudes from Cuca and Mosca and other Mexican friends: they expected me to hold my own in conversation and pull my own weight. Every day that I survive in this current crappy economy, I thank my lucky stars for Mexico. Growing up in a so-called developing nation taught me the skills and the attitudes I need to survive tough times: no day is so dire that it can’t be cheered up a little with the smell of warm tortillas and no evening is so dreary that it can’t be exulted by daydreaming about a trip south.