20 October 2009


In a comment on the entry on El Pegaso, Bloggerboy posed a simple question, and I know he posed it half in jest. Do the waiters in El Pegaso call me Señor Steve? That simple question raises a whole subject, a whole new topic.

Nothing is simple in México. Nothing. Most particularly, those things that seem simple at first. They are many times the most complicated in fact.

Again, the parable about the Frenchman who decided to write a book explaining Great Britain becomes relevant.

I came to México with essentially no Spanish but confident at least in the knowledge that the word “ Señor” is simply the equivalent of “Mister” in English. And when used without a name, it is the equivalent of “sir.” “Excuse me, sir. Can you direct me to the nearest rest room?” Consequently, initially I was using the word “Señor” all the time.

As time wore on I came to notice that Mexicans do not use that word. Now, it is entirely possible that they use it commonly among themselves, but not in addressing me and not in addressing anyone else, Mexican or otherwise, within my hearing, at least. That is all I can tell you. I am very slow, but I am not completely imperceptive.

This all came home to me after some weeks here. There is a convenience store down the street, an adjunct to the Pemex station, which is exactly like any convenience store any of you patronize in the United States. Same layout. Same general appearance. Same smell. There is a clerk there in the mornings whom I would estimate to be nearly fifty. He is the only convenience store clerk whom I have encountered here who is any older than 21. And he addresses me as “Señor.” The first time it was so strikingly in contrast with my general experience that I immediately wondered, “What the hell's the deal with that guy?” without even thinking about it. I tell you that story simply to illustrate what I am talking about.

By the way, I myself mindlessly stopped using the term “Señor” here long ago, again on the simple theory of, “When in Rome. . . .”

Just before I came, I had finally read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, which is his account of his participation in the Spanish Civil War in the thirties. In fact, I was so enamored of the book that I read it a second time after getting here.

In that book, Orwell has a couple of chapters wherein he describes what it was like in Barcelona in the midst of a true Marxist revolution. That section of Spain was the furthest to the left of any section of Spain at that time. Everybody started dressing the same in workers' apparel. Tipping was forbidden on the theory that it was a sign of the social superiority of one class over another. Signs were posted in the city explaining to people how to act in conformity with the elimination in class distinctions. Among the things that occurred there was the absolute elimination of the use of the term “Señor.” The use of “Señor” was viewed as an acknowledgment of the superiority in class of the person addressed as such.

I am not certain of what follows. This is my working theory right now. México experienced a successful revolution in 1910, which was a class struggle if ever there was one. For one thing, it marked the admission of the Indians to full fledged citizenship in this country for the first time. The great artists who followed, our old friend David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and the famous Diego Rivera, husband of Santa Frida, were all great muralists and all Marxists. Santa Frida herself was a Marxist and a personal friend of Leon Trotsky when he lived here before he was assassinated. Those three muralists, all national heroes themselves, documented the revolution and its results.

Prior to The Revolution, the hacendados, the great landowners, ran this country. They were a small minority of Spanish descent. The vast majority of the rest were their economic vassals directly or indirectly. The development of a middle class as we know it was a much later development in these Latin countries then the history we are used to. And those hacendados demanded respect. They were free to dispense extra-judicial corporal punishment for a lack of respect.

So I am confident that this refusal to use the term “Señor” is a hangover from the revolution in this country. It is a way of tacitly saying, “You are not my hacendado. I do not automatically owe you any respect because of your class or other station in life.” If you were to ask a Mexican about this subject, he or she would probably not explain it this way at all. However, that does not mean that I am not right.

In the interest of completeness, there is another exception in addition to that convenience store clerk. My landlady, an elderly woman whom I address as "Señora Maria," in turn addresses me as "Señor" occasionally, but only occasionally. I have no idea what that means.

Now how does this manifest itself with the waiters at El Pegaso? Waiters being notorious suck-ups, one would think that the use of “Señor” would be a perfect way for them to suck up. Not so. They pick up Americans' names from their charge cards so that they can address them by name the next time. When they do, they use the English “Mister.” “Mr. Smith.” “Mr. Jones.” Even if they are conversing in Spanish with the American. I have never heard them use the word “Señor.” Just watch though. Now that I have taken the trouble to write this, the next time I am in there, I will hear one use it.

As for me, they call me “Steve.” I pay with cash. I was so taken with them off the bat that I introduced myself to them gradually one by one, and asked them to call me that.

When I have become really, really tight with them, I will ask them to call me “Don Steve.” We shall see how that goes.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I am not in a position to give anyone lots of advice about traveling in México, and I probably never will be. I may have entirely misapprehended the situation that I have discussed above. I can pass along one thing with confidence though.

You can make a lot of mistakes here and survive them just fine. This is after all the land of mas o menos, “more or less.” One thing you must not do. You must not underestimate the pride of these people. You do so at your peril. I do not give a damn what Mexican we are talking about. They will have their revenge. That revenge may take the form of something as simple as giving you change for a 20 peso note when you handed over a 200 peso note and then stonewalling you if you call him or her on it.

If you were to piss off a waiter, do not eat that meal. Just pay for it, leave, and never go back to that restaurant. Otherwise, you can let your imagination run wild as to what is actually in that food you are eating.

I like this approach. I like this approach a lot, and I can more than live with it. I can thrive on it.

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