16 August 2008

"Don't sweat the small stuff"

Over the last ten years I have had the chance to visit with quite a number of Mexican families in their homes and in particular a lot of lower working class families. I have to tell you that many
people in the United States don't realize how good they have it. As you probably know, most of the "modern" houses here are made of either poured concrete and bricks or concrete blocks. At the top of the scale are fantastic homes that are equal to or better than anything you might find in an upscale American neighborhood. A little farther down you find homes that are similar to those of middle class American suburbia and after that, homes like those of the working class neighborhood in Chicago where I grew up. From there you go to houses made of bricks or concrete blocks that are mortared together and have a flat concrete roof with reinforcement bars sticking up in the hopes that someday the inhabitants may have enough money to afford a second floor. Nearer the bottom of the scale are concrete shacks made of blocks stacked up without mortar and covered with corrugated tin. These houses are about the size of the average American two car garage. Many of these houses have openings for windows but do not yet have any window frames or glass. The windows are merely covered with some kind of curtain.The bathroom is usually nothing more than an old toilet in a corner that is sectioned off by a curtain and to flush it they pour in some water scooped out of a five gallon bucket with a little plastic pail. If the homeowners are fortunate they have piped in water. Otherwise they have to fetch water from a communal spigot. The flushed toilet water runs out into a pit or ditch. The floors are made of bare concrete and usually have no covering. The walls are either bare concrete blocks or bricks plastered with concrete. Usually they are painted in bright pastel colors but not always. There is always a shrine in one of the corners and most likely it will be a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. There are few other wall coverings or decorations other than perhaps a calendar, a picture of Pope John Paul, a picture of Jesus with the Sacred Heart, a family photo, and not surprisingly an occasional picture of John Kennedy. There may also be a guitar hanging from a peg, some folk art knick knacks here and there, and a colorful poster or two. As far as furniture is concerned there isn't much. There is usually a table and very often it is a card table or two card tables put together of the kind that say "Coca Cola" on the top. The chairs around the table will very often be those same cheap, white, stackable plastic chairs that you find in the United States. I hate those chairs. Last but not least there are homes made out of packing crates, carboard, plastic, flattened cans, and whatever can be salvaged from the trash. The people who live in them are often called "paracaidistas" or "parachutists" because their "huts" sometimes spring up overnight like they were dropped in by parachute. These are the saddest homes that I have ever seen...especially in the rainy season.

Some people have small television sets but not everybody. Even if they do have television sets, without a satellite dish or cable you can only get one or two channels and there isn't much to watch except for telanovelas (Mexican soap operas), the news, and soccer games. Even then the quality of the picture is often so poor that everything is viewed through an electronic "snowstorm". Illumination for the interior of the house is usually provided by one or two bare light bulbs and they are usually not more that 60 or 75 watts. Beds are small and usually only single beds and many times they are used in the daytime as places for people to sit. When it is cold in December and January everyone just sits around bundled up in sweat shirts, sweaters, and jackets. Many of the houses were built block by block or brick by brick by the husband and wife of the family who live in them. As time progresses and the family grows a room is added here and there in a helter skelter fashion. For that reason when going from room to room in the average lower class Mexican house you have to be careful to either step up or step down for it is rare that any two adjacent rooms will actually be on the same exact level. It seems that they either lack the necessary surveying skills to make them level or most probably the only tools they have are a shovel and a crude wheelbarrow. An "abañil" or bricklayer can level things with just a hose filled with water but he is a skilled craftsman with a lot of experience.

As folks get more settled and their luck improves they often add a little courtyard to the house with an iron gate and if they are lucky enough to have an old "junker" of a car they keep it behind the iron gate in their courtyard at night. Many people who have such a courtyard can't afford a car. Their courtyard makes a nice place to sit around in the evening though and sometimes they cook their supper on a little grill outside. During the warm sticky weather, however, flies are a real problem and most of the people eat their food with one hand and are constantly "shushing" flies with the other. There aren't much in the way of window screens. Even if there are window screens they are often broken and torn and let the flies in anyway or else the flies bypass the screens entirely and come in through the cracks in the door and window frames or under the door. When people finally get enough money scraped together to put a second story on their homes they often move "upstairs" and turn the first floor into a little "tienda" of some sort and sell clothing or tortillas or whatever. Millions and millions of people in Mexico live in this manner and just living from one day to the next is fraught with peril. I imagine that is why they have such close families and so much dedication to the Blessed Virgin. Without sticking close together they would have no support whatsoever and at least the Blessed Virgin gives them hope.

Getting back to those cheap, white, stackable plastic chairs that I mentioned...they usually say "Coca Cola" on them. I always wondered why Coca-Cola is so big here in Mexico, which is the major consumer of Coka Cola per capita in the world at 527 eight ounce bottles per person per year. This is in contrast to 411 bottles per person in the United States. Mexico is second to the United States in the overall consumption of Coke only because the the U.S. population is much greater. I also wondered about the fact that if so many people are so poor how come they spend their money on Coca-Cola? The answer is fairly simple...but startling. There are millions of people in Mexico who have no running water, sewers, or even electricity. The only water that they have to drink is from the local ditches which is the same source of water that the dogs and farm animals drink from. As a result, many, many people have severe stomach problems and water borne diseases. They know that the water they drink should be boiled first but often they have no fuel with which to boil the water. The only alternative is to buy bottled water which is expensive, especially if you have very little money. As it turns out you can buy Coca-Cola for just about the same price as you would pay for bottled water. You can't live on bottled water because it has no nutritional value but Coca-Cola is loaded with sugar and you get the added benefit of the caloric content. Then too, if you buy seven bottles of Coke and carry them to where people are working and there is no clean water to drink and you sell each of them for one peso more than you paid for them, you will earn the price of one Coke so you get your Coke for free. There is a whole underground economy here based upon Coca-Cola. There is also the addiction factor. These people seem to be hooked on Coke and the Coca-Cola company doesn't let them forget it either. That is why you see the name Coca-Cola everywhere and anywhere, especially on those very cheap plastic chairs. It is sad but true. I imagine that it is the same way in other developing countries. May God bless us all and don't forget about Coca-Cola, right? Is there a lesson in all this for me? I don't know. If there is I imagine that it all boils down to one thing and that is: "Be thankful for what you've got and "don't sweat the small stuff". Life is too difficult as it is without adding worry and frustration to the burden. After all, some of the happiest times that I have spent in Mexico have been in the homes of poor workers that were filled with love, children, prayer, singing, laughter and genuine good will.


YayaOrchid said...

Whew! Now that is one descriptive post! Sad, but true! Thank you for reminding us of all we must be thankful for!

YayaOrchid said...

Thank you for your visit and I just wanted to add a snippet of my response to you over at my blog:

"BTW, you have probably one of the most, if not the only, truly informative blogs about Mexican culture. I admire your writing because you include so much historical data that supports your entries. You really should write a book. I mean that sincerely!"

Hope you continue with such an excellent blog, educating us with all the history and lore of Mexico!

GlorV1 said...

YaYa is right, you definitely have one of the most informative blogs on the Mexican culture. I have read a lot of blogs about how life is out that way and they just don't compare. It kind of scares me, the lack of water that is and I think I will stay right here in mi ranchito and be happy with what I have. Wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

If you keep on like this you people are going to make me blush :)

Brenda Maas said...

Excellent post.

'Eddie Willers' said...

Hi Bob
Excellent post - although you did leave off details of the next level down...the wooden shack with plastic roof. The recent floods here in southern Tamaulipas saw many of such paracaidistas and their rude dwellings.

About the water situation - where do you get the data that Coke costs about the same? We can get a 19 liter (about 4.5 gals) garafon of water for 13 pesos. There are machines springing up that will dispense the same for just 8 pesos.

A Coke is 4 pesos for 500ml. So 38 Cokes to a garafon equals 152 pesos.

Are you tring to tell us that commercially purified water is that expensive in your part of Mexico?

Also, don't forget, there are some Coke bottlers who are also in the water purification business.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eddie,

Wow! You got me. Ouch! I didn't take into account that a shrewd storekeeper would be reading my blog. However, when I wrote that I wasn't thinking about garafones. (Actually the 19 pesos is for the water. If you count the container it is a lot more than that.) I just got back from Walmart where I paid 6.9 pesos each for 500ml plastic bottles of Coke. They were also selling 1 liter plastic bottles of water for 4.5 pesos each so that means that Coke (at my Irapuato Walmart) is about three times more expensive than water when you are dealing with small units. Please forgive me. I guess I should make a correction. I wouldn't want to mislead anyone. The thing is that when you get out of the city and into the little villages where transportation costs get higher and there are more middlemen the prices tend to even out. In the little village next to the shop where I work a 1 liter "agua" costs 6 pesos. In my blog I was matching a generic size bottle of water to a single serving bottle of Coke and without doing the container milileter to liter comparison there is only about a one peso difference. Actually, in this case, mililiter for mililiter the Coke is at least twice as expensive.

Babs said...

Bob, just found your blog from Nancy in Mazatlan. THANKS for writing about the "real" Mexico!
Your blog about the dogs was great too.

Javier said...

I was looking for the Richards book "Don't sweat the small stuff" in a spanish translation when I came across your blog.
I understand the message that you are conveying with the very descriptive scene that though not as prevalent, very common in some Mexican communities.
My concern is that as I continued to read the comments, the description you painted is what most people think to be the predominant Mexican culture.
Yes, México is a developing country and there is a more poverty than in the US, but this is not Mexican culture. It is a way of life for some Mexicans, especially the unfortunate in dense urban areas and in rural communities.
Mexico culture is much more than this and it should not be confused with economic situations that are existent in any country of the world, including the USA.
México es mucho más que tacos y tequila!

Bob Mrotek said...

Thank you for your feedback. However, if you had read any other of my blog posts you might know that I am a big supporter of Mexico and the Mexican people. I have been living and working here for over eleven years now. My post was certainly not an attack on the people. I was merely describing how forty percent of the population live. I know, because some of them are my neighbors. I am here to help and not to hurt. Again, thanks for your visit :)

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.