14 March 2009

Twice as much / Half as much

My father George, God rest his soul, had a favorite saying. Whenever he (or I) learned something the hard way he would always say, “Too old to soon, too smart too late”. These words used to irritate me to no end when I was a teenager but now they come back to me over time and space and they make a lot more sense than they used to. The question that I have during this “economic crisis” is whether or not the banks and the mortgage companies and the automotive companies, etcetera, are asking for double the amount that they really need in the hope of getting at least half of what they ask for. After all, if you ask for double what you need and you get half of what you asked for you should be happy, right?

When I first came to Mexico I had a real problem with “prestamos”. The verb “prestar” means “to lend” and the word “prestamo” is a noun meaning “a loan”. The men where I work were continually approaching me for “prestamos” and they would tell me the saddest, most convincing stories that I ever heard relating to their dire needs. If the need wasn't for a baptism of a child then it was for a sick relative or a new pair of shoes and so on and so forth. Being the gullible and guilt ridden Gringo that I am I always felt compelled to help out whenever I could. The problem was that it started getting out of hand and getting rather expensive. Not only did I have more and more money out on loan but it was getting harder and harder to collect it from the “debtors”.

I dealt with my frustration as long as I could until common sense overcame embarrassment. I went to my boss and discussed the matter with him. I told him all about it and he chuckled and told me that the first thing that I should do is wear ear plugs and when they come around I should tell them that I am “sordo” (deaf). The next thing that I should do if I felt absolutely compelled to loan them money is to be sure and loan them only half of what they ask for because half is really only what they need. I said “Do you mean to say that when a man with tears in his eyes tells me that he desperately needs 400 pesos for the baptism of his firstborn child that I should only lend him half?”. He said, “That's right because that's all that he was expecting to get and if you give him 400 then you just gave him a big bonus. Then he and his buddies will drink more cerveza and he will probably not come to work on Monday and on Friday his pay will be short and he won't have enough money to start paying you back...if you can find him.” Well, the minute he said that it sounded very familiar and I decided that I needed to find a satisfactory solution to this problem before I went broke.

I learned that the “mayordomo” (general foreman) of our shop whom we call “El Machete” is a master at handling “prestamos”. Not only that but he maintains a “caja” which simply means “box” but in another sense means a savings plan something like what we would call in English a “Christmas Club”. The men contribute varying amounts of pesos every week which El Machete collects and controls and whenever someone needs a prestamo he loans them the money out of the caja and they must pay it back with interest. At the end of the year just before Christmas, each contributor gets their money back with a share of the interest. I started contributing 100 pesos per week to the caja and then when people came to me for prestamos I could in all honesty say, “Sorry, but I already gave to the “caja” so you must go see Machete for a prestamo”. At the end of each year I get all my money back plus interest. I immediately put most of it back into the caja again because after Christmas there isn't much in the caja for prestamos and for these people, financially speaking, January is a long hard upward climb. They call it “la cuesta de Enero”, or “the hill of January”. The workers are aware that I do this and they are appreciative, so I no longer have problems with being pestered for prestamos.

Yesterday, I was reading a book called “Old Mexico and Her Lost Provinces by a man named W.H. Bishop that was published in 1889. Mr. Bishop describes a visit to a large hacienda as a guest of the owner. He wrote:

“The room first entered from the main corridor in the house itself was devoted to the uses of a despacho, or office. Here was the department of Don Angel, and the master himself sometimes took his place behind the long, baize covered table, strewn with matters of business detail, to hold audience with the peons of the estate, who came, with wide brimmed hats humbly doffed, to make known various wants and complaints. In the corners stood rifles, spades, and the long branding-iron, which is heated in the month of August to brand the young cattle with the device of their owner.

A fat dark peon enters, and proffers a request for an allowance to be made him for a baptism in his family.

'A baptism?' says the master briskly. 'Well, now, come on! Speak up; don't stand mumbling there! Let us see what your ideas are.'

The man suggests, deferentially, to begin with, the sum of $3 for a guajalote, or turkey, as a pièce de résistance for his feast.

'You are always wanting a guajalote, you people. You don't need anything of the kind. However, let us say $1.50 – twelve reals – for the guajalote. What next?'

'The pulque – about forty cuartillas of pulque.'

'Twenty cuartillas of pulque,' says the master, ruthlessly cutting down the estimate by half. 'Well, what next? Speak up!'

The peasant, one of the laborers by the year, perseveres in his humble, soft voice, regularly making his estimate for each article twice the real figure, and having it as regularly cut down. He caps the whole by demanding four reals for a sombrero, well knowing – and knowing perfectly well that his master knows also – that the kind of sombrero he would be likely to want costs but one real.”

So now I know that this game has been going on for a long time. I ask you for double and you give me half. I guess that is fair enough. If someone wants something badly enough they can always turn to another source to get the other half. I hope that our new president is aware of this game and can play it like the old master in the story and my friend El Machete. If not then perhaps he might end up like me...

Too old too soon, too smart too late.



1st Mate said...

Bob - When I worked as night manager in a small hotel in CA, our housekeepers all contributed to a caja, which I thought at the time was sort of a pyramid scheme. But it was their only way of getting emergency cash, since banks would only laugh at them (they were undocumented workers). Once the caja was used to pay off a coyote when one of our girls went to Mexico for her mother's funeral and had to be smuggled back into the States. She was kept locked in a room until the money was paid.

YayaOrchid said...

Bob, I have to say it again, you sure do know how to tell a story and make a point! Loved it!

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Wonderful advice. We no longer give loans, but sometimes offer to be the padrino of whatever. For instance, let me provide the turkey for the feast or I would be glad to rent the tables for you.
Of course our neighbor cuts our hair so sometimes I pay in advance for hair cuts, we always get them,she gets money that she doesn't have to worry about paying back in cash.
I get so much out of your blog and I love the dialogues too.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of "commom sense", my 85yo Dad lost his along time ago. I am embrassed to say a mexican man, Jorge befriended him over 10yrs ago and lives rent free with wife & kids in one of our buildings. One day Jorge needed $4000 to become a US citzen (I know now it costs $400) but of course my Dad had no idea.

Kind regards, Corrinne

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
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.