Tag Archives: anthropology

A Long Time Home

Despite the lengthy break (insert torrential apology here) this blog definitely isn’t finished, I still have a long list of posts to write, and not a day passes when I don’t think of Mexico. In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot, and I’m currently reading an incredible book with a passage I wanted to share. I know lots of people who have so kindly supported this blog are similarly wandering-minded, people who have shared that inexplicable but unignorable pull I felt before I went to Mexico, to escape the confines of my home country, culture and everything I knew. We all have our own reasons for going, but whether it’s borne of a simple boredom and restlessness or a valiant quest for the meaning of life, there’s a common denominator: we are compelled to question, to learn, to explore.

Culture and identity have been key themes explored during my time in Mexico and documented here, and just a short step on from analysing personal culture and sense of identity lays a broader international and political perspective: ideas of nationalism and borders, territories and boundaries. Stepping outside our own culture is hugely liberating; it is, metaphorically and physically, like stepping outside of your self. The freedom to form our own thoughts and opinions is a luxury we just seldom have the time or capacity for when we’re lodged prohibitively amidst the everyday doldrums of school, studies, work, politics; even the smaller cycles perpetuated by pressures and consensus amongst family and friends. And they’re just the external factors, never mind the pressure we put upon ourselves, the neverending drip of doubts that seep through layers of consciousness like acid rain. We might be struck by the odd bolt of inspired thought, but never seem to have the freedom to explore them fully, to develop our true selves as we’d like to.

 “But let’s just suppose. What if the whole deal – orientation, knowing where you are, and so on – what if it’s all a scam? What if all of it- home, kinship, the whole enchilada – is just the biggest, most truly global, and centuries-oldest piece of brainwashing? Suppose that it’s only when you dare to let go that your real life begins? When you’re whirling free of the mother ship, when you cut your ropes, slip your chain, step off the map, go absent without leave, scram, vamoose, whatever: suppose that it’s then, and only then, that you’re actually free to act! To lead the life nobody tells you how to live, or when, or why. In which nobody orders you to go forth and die for them, or for god, or comes to get you because you broke one of the rules, or because you’re one of those people who are, for reasons which unfortunately you can’t be given, simply not allowed. Suppose you’ve got to go through that feeling of chaos and beyond; you’ve got to accept the loneliness, the wild panic of losing your moorings, the vertiginous terror of the horizon spinning round and round like the edge of a coin tossed in the air.

You won’t do it. Most of you won’t do it. The world’s head laundry is pretty good at washing brains: Don’t jump off that cliff don’t walk through that door don’t step into that waterfall don’t take that chance don’t step across that line don’t ruffle my sensitivities I’m warning you now don’t make me mad you’re doing it you’re making me mad. You won’t have a chance you haven’t got a prayer you’re finished you’re history you’re less than nothing, you’re dead to me, dead to your whole family your nation your race, everything you ought to love more than life and listen to like your master’s voice and follow blindly and bow down before and worship and obey; you’re dead, you hear me, forget about it you stupid bastard, I don’t even know your name.”

It’s from Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which follows three peoples’ lives knitted closely together only to unravel wildly throughout this tragic tale. I haven’t finished it yet but I highly recommend it. And I’m totally poaching “the whole enchilada” for my everyday lexicon. In the book, Rushdie explores themes of home, belonging, escapism and identity, as well as their consequences. His writing is as questioning and provocative as any work of political non-fiction, and while I’m back in England, it’s literature I turn to to give my mind the taste of liberty it craves.

There is such immense opportunity in independence; when chatting with friends we have likened extended travels to a kind of rite of passage¹ to peace of mind, self-knowledge and realisation. What makes us happy? What do we really care about? What do we value most? Egotistical though it seems, to leave our loved ones behind and spend so much time thinking about ourselves, it’s more like a simultaneously selfish and selfless finding and losing: you lose yourself in the bigger picture, and you find your place in it. We come home, and by all superficial appearances things go back to how they were, yet we continue to live in a heightened state of awareness and autonomy. What an incredible privilege to have had that experience.

Having a British passport gets me practically anywhere in the world, with relative ease. Many passports don’t have that kind of international leverage, and it’s just one of an endless list of consequences of that long-established global order that breeds a warped sense of cultural and national superiority and creates a kind of NIMBYism on a global scale. Having a sense of national pride isn’t wrong, but it is dangerous. It is natural to feel love for a country you have grown up in, to feel a sense of reciprocal obligation, but there is nothing natural about incarcerating others in the country they were born in, condemning them to a life of poverty and misery because they had the misfortune of not being born elsewhere. It’s so valuable to get out, to question our politics and motivations, open our hearts, feed our minds, and nourish our souls, for ourselves and for humanity. And to remember that even if we go back in, we’re not going backwards.

Image by one of my favourite artists, Lisa Congdon

Footnote:

1. The concept of the rite of passage was innovated by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep to describe rituals that initiate members into various stages of society, such as transition into manhood or marriage. His major work was Les Rites de Passage (1909), in which he observes a tripartite sequence in ritual observance: separation, transition, and incorporation. One hundred years on, we are truly global citizens: could the 21st century rite of passage be about getting out not getting in?

Heart and Soul: The Mexican Family

“I’m writing about women in the Mexican family,” I said to my host mum, “is there anything I need to say?”

“¡Somos incomprendidas!” came the reply – “We are misunderstood!”

Is there any feminist sentiment more universal than that? What separates women from men is the very same principal that unites women across every other boundary: we are something they are not.

Debate rages on in the field of feminist anthropology as to whether there is really any such thing as ‘universal womanhood’, depending on where one sits on the scale from cultural relativism to cultural universalism. I can’t answer that question, but I do know that I have felt a very strong sense of shared womanhood in my time here. This most commonly manifests itself in jokes and sentiments (both explicit and not-so) expressed between myself and my Mexican counterparts where gender provides the glue where there are otherwise crevices in age, class and experience. So I have to admit my gender bias from the outset: the very fact that I am a female (and always have been!)  intrinsically impacts my experience in Mexico and I have a much greater insight to womanhood here than I do to masculinity. I don’t pretend to be impartial – mine is a study of women, by a woman, with all its implications.

It is the worst kept secret in Mexico that women rule the roost. Infamous Latino machismo is alive and well, but you really needn’t scratch far beneath the veneer of masculine dominance to see that social life, particularly with regard to the family, is almost entirely orchestrated by women. Women are the diary-keepers (one tía in my host family dished out an Excel Spreadsheet listing all the family birthdays at our last gathering), cooks and cleaners, they tend to run the household finances and purchasing, and are most importantly the party hosts and organisers. As families are typically large and extended, this involves negotiating between and arranging a lot of people. Catering for forty-plus people ruffles no feathers, and the entire event (which in classically Mexican style starts early and never has a preempted finish time) runs without a glitch, even when this includes moving all of the furniture outside to make space for everyone and conducting numerous seatings to ensure that nobody misses out on what is always a feast worthy of an Aztec emperor.

Families are not only large, but also very close-knit – it’s not unusual for children to live with grandparents, aunties or uncles for a time for one reason or another, there are frequent reunions, and they place great emphasis on togetherness. Anything goes as a reason for a fiesta, and ‘the more the merrier’ applies as a general rule. This, paired with the prevalent lack of gardens, culminates in the ‘party in the garage’ phenomenon. It’s an actual thing – it must be because there are Internet forums headed with titles like “why do Mexicans do everything in their front yard?” Well, let me enlighten you. Often there isn’t that much space inside, and for security the cars are normally parked in a gated forecourt, so it makes sense, doesn’t it? Whip out the trestle tables, plonk a tarpaulin overhead and wire up some badass speakers, and you’ve got your very own party venue completely gratis!

Mexicans love to have their family around them, and also don’t like to see people without family, so invitations are always extended and lots of people who aren’t technically family are affectionately referred to with family-like nicknames. This makes Mexico a fantastic place to be as an outsider, because even if I hadn’t been welcomed so warmly by my own host family I would almost certainly have been adopted by another.

The importance of family isn’t only celebrated within families but is also recognised nationally (as it is in many countries) with celebration days. But tellingly, Mother’s Day is a really big deal here, whereas Father’s Day passed almost unnoticed. At my old school we spent weeks in preparation for Mother’s Day, making gifts, preparing songs, dances, and poems, and a whole day was dedicated to their performance. Father’s Day was ignored. I asked why this was, and the teacher told me it was because almost all of the children have mothers, whereas there are a lot of children with absent fathers. This made me really sad. What kind of lessons does this teach little boys and girls? Aren’t you just perpetuating the problem by normalising the father’s absence and sending out a message that dads don’t matter? To my relief, at my new job they hadn’t celebrated Mother’s Day or Father’s Day but created Family Day to celebrate family in all of its forms, which in a very poor area where traditional nuclear family is the exception and not the rule seems like a good idea to me.

Mexico also celebrates Children’s Day on the 30th of April, to demonstrate how much they are loved and appreciated. From the celebration of Children’s Day to the constant string of family parties, there is a huge culture of care in the Mexican family, and the extension of love, warmth and appreciation is most noticeably demonstrated through food and giving, usually simultaneously.

The notion of ‘independence’ just isn’t assigned the same value or meaning here, it is not something to be achieved but more likely to be interpreted as a by-product of neglect. Those poor people all alone, why don’t their families look after them? They’re really independent? What a shame, why do they push their families away? Our 20s in the UK is a decade cherished for establishing independence, for getting away from home, achieving things by ourselves and exploring things we probably wouldn’t want our parents to know about. In Mexico, you are very much a child until you have children yourself, at whatever age this happens. In the UK there is huge stigma attached to young people living with their parents past their mid-twenties, and they rarely wish to do so apart from out of financial necessity and benefit. Here, on the other hand, there is far less desire, financial nor emotional, to move out of home.

On the plus side of independence is the freedom and sense of personal achievement it offers, but the flip side of the coin is the feeling of burden – there is a far greater sense of embarrassment or even shame when we need help from family, either in our youth, mid-life, or ageing. Moving back in with family is often perceived as a kind of regression, a personal failure of some sort or the result of a lack of financial resources. It is widely accepted that care homes aren’t ideal but more suitable in terms of convenience when relatives are busy either working or just with their ‘own’ lives. Here it is very common that when a grandparent (or in fact anybody’s spouse) dies, the person left alone moves in with the rest of the family to a part of their house or an adjacent one. There is no sense of shame or embarrassment in asking for help from the family, on the contrary it is more likely for family members to fight over who can offer more assistance.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the Mexicans, it’s that there’s enough love for everyone. My absolute favourite thing about the culture here is its inclusiveness. The young and the old socialise together, and care together, and coming from a culture where we are so fiercely independent and defensively self-sufficient, it’s very touching. Right from the start it was the people’s warmth that I noticed, and time and time again people’s kindness and generosity has exceeded my expectations, from doors opened to hands shaken and food offered. Who is to praise for this culture of love and care that is the social cement of the Mexican family? The women.