Ask a Mexican on the Perils of Cultural Misunderstanding

Please settle a dispute. I'm an Anglo living and working in Mexico for years, in Culiacán, Sinaloa (I married one of the famous Sinaloa beauties). My Spanish is passable, and I live and function in Spanish. Where I live, there are virtually no other North Americans, other than English teachers at the university. Everyone else that I know is Mexican. In every way, from TV and radio to shopping and cooking at home, I live like every other culiche. I like to think of myself as sinaloense, and after all these years, my friends and family are coming to consider me . . . perhaps not Mexican, but not exactly an extranjero, either. I don't claim to be Octavio Paz, but I know Mexican literature and history fairly well and love and appreciate Mexican culture (actually, I think there is more cultural difference between Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Quintana Roo than there is difference between Massachusetts, Alabama, and California — but that's another subject). On the other hand, my friend from Colorado was born and raised in Denver. His Spanish is marginal and he lives and works just like every other North American. His grandparents came from Jalisco, however, and he has a Spanish surname. He has visited family in Mexico briefly once since I have known him. In every way, he lives as a middle-class gabacho.

The dispute is this: I am increasingly tired of him making snide comments about how I don't understand Mexico and Mexicans. Firstly, he has never spent any time here — perhaps 20 days in his life. He has never lived here, and he needs a translator when he visits. Secondly, he knows next to nothing about Mexican history or culture. It's sad that he doesn't know Morelos from Guerrero, can't tell a corrido from banda, and doesn't know tacos al pastor from tacos Sonora. Finally, a lot of what he says seems frankly wrong. His perspective on Mexican culture seems a lot more East L.A. cholo than the way that my middle-class friends and family here live and think.

His response is always that I can't understand the real Mexican culture because I'm Anglo. "It's in the blood," he'll say. I reply that those are almost the exact words white racists would use to exclude him from being a "real American" and you are where you live and who you choose to be. I sure feel like I understand as much as a third-generation, English-speaking kid from Colorado. Your opinion?
Culiche Gringo

You know why you're more Mexican than your pendejo of a pocho pal? Because you're smart enough to call yourself a culiche, what natives of Culiacán call themselves (although I'm more familiar with culichi, but what do I know — I'm just a pinche zacatecano). You also refer to gabachos as "North Americans," a literal translation of the Spanish norteamericanos, yet another of our many synonyms for gabachos. All that said, have sympathy on the pocho. You yourself note you are whom you choose to be, and if he wants to practice symbolic ethnicity, despite being less Mexican than a Taco Bell shell, by all means allow him! National identity is as fluid as the Pacific, Culiche, and you are the grand gabacho proof of it. Now, FedEx me some aguachile and chilorio, chingón.

Good Mexican of the week! A decade ago, Chicana artist Alma Lopez released Our Lady, a digital collage that depicted the Virgin of Guadalupe as a living, breathing woman wearing Her trademark green shawl but also a bikini made of flowers. It proved one of the most momentous artworks of this millennium, provoking equal parts praise and outrage by tapados. Its influence is recounted in the recently released Our Lady of Controversy, Alma López's Irreverant Apparition, a collection of essays from Chicana scholars on the subject complete with the chingona DVD, I Love Lupe, a short documentary on how Chicana art's constant tweaks of the iconic Guadalupe image. Essential reading for art and Chicana/o Studies freaks alike!

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Gustavo Arellano
Contact: Gustavo Arellano