Stuff Mexicans Like #9: La Responsabilidad Personal (Personal Responsability)

20 May

Despite the apparent lack of personal responsability noted in the Spanish universal accident phrases: Se me cayó; Se te olvidaron; Se me hizo tarde; etc. It fell by itself (on me); They were forgotten by themselves (on you); It was made late (on me), Mexicans truly are all about Personal Responsability. For those who live in Mexico, when was the last time a Mexican police officer told you to put on a seatbelt, to produce proof of insurance, or to strap the small child into a car seat? How many times has an officer stopped by your home late at night to ask you to keep the noise down or to remind you of the forbidden firework statute? Has an animal control representative ever rebuked your barking dog or suggested you offer more water to your small roof poodle? It just doesn’t happen. These are personal decisions that one is offered the Dignity and Personal Responsability to choose in México.

Huecos (ooh-AY-koes: holes)
Shortly after arriving to live in Querétaro (kay-RAY-ta-row), I was strolling with a friend in my posh neighborhood in Juriquilla, home of one of the best golf courses in the republic. Just as I negotiated to avoid a large sink hole in the sidewalk, I said to Beto, “Ok. I love the country. Love the people. The food. The culture. The music. The architecture… But what the bleep bleep is this??” (gesturing to the deep uncovered pit in the cement.) “How about if I fall in one day? Huh?”
Beto looked amused, with a duh expression in his twinkling eyes, as if I were proposing some kind of trick question. “Evítalo,” he answered. (Walk around it/avoid it!)
How simple. So simple that I began to laugh. I told him that I liked his no-nonsense approach and would need to meditate on it a bit before commenting.
“Ok, so I’ll evitarlo,” I said. “Now how ’bout if my 2 year-old is playing outside and she falls in the hole by accident? Huh? How bout that, Beto?”
Again, the same amused, perplexed look in his face. “Cuida a tu niña,” he says, with a shoulder shrug. (Watch your kid.) 
Beto stared at me hard as I was shaken to the core with his simple genius. “¿Que harías tú en tu país?”  (What would you do in your country?) he asked, as if he could think of no other option.
“¡Demandar!” (Sue!) I informed him without hesitation.
“¿Pero no es tu responsabilidad ver donde caminas?” he asked. “¿Y cuidar a tu propia hija?”  (But isn’t it your responsability to look where you walk? And to take care of your own child?)
Beto did not understand on what grounds I would or could even consider suing the city, even after I explained that the city is responsible for the sidewalks. When I told him I would call the city to report the hole, he said, “Por qué no lo tapas tú?”  (Why don’t you just cover it up yourself?)
Topes (TOE-pays: speedbumps)
When I moved to Colonia Mexiquito here in SMA, my neighbor, the cock-fighting taxista (taxi-driver), proudly informed me, “People used to drive too fast on our street; then I built the topes.” He was concerned about the speed on our child-friendly cobble-stone street, so he personally installed two large speed bumps! As far as sweeping the sidewalk in front of my home, I, in my Gringa mind, consider the sidewalk to be property of a larger element… the city of San Miguel, for example, the state of Guanajuato. My neighbors, however, feel the Personal Responsability to go outside and clean it every morning. Chin. Damnit.
Mas Ejemplos (more examples)
When my girlfriend, Stephanie, came from Seattle to live in San Luís Potosí, one day she asked the bus driver, “Is it ok to bring my large basket of dirty laundry on the bus? …That lady has a goat.”
One day I pulled into the Oxxo (Mexican AM/PM) to get a Nescafé (instant flavored coffee beverage) but all the parking spaces were taken by vaqueros (cowboys) on horseback. You better believe I snapped a photo. (And you will enjoy it just as soon as I find it and update this post!)
On another occasion I struggled to pass the truck carrying 16 standing people in the truck bed. On the freeway.
 
Only in México goes the dicho, referring to anything and everything crazy you see in day-to-day life, all related to Mexican Liberties and Personal Responsability.  
You don’t like the neighbors barking dog? You go speak to your neighbor with extreme Mexican Manners (see Stuff Mexicans Like #4: Manners). The dog continues to make noise all night long? You climb onto your roof and throw apples and limes at it until the barking ceases. Personal Responsability. (Note: This example is taken from my own life, as a 9 month pregnant woman in Colonia Allende, who was awoken like clockwork at 3am each madrugada by the ferocious Rottweilers next door.) Note 2: The hardened fruit works. Mature fruit only makes a sticky mess and the dogs will mock you in Spanish as they make agua de sabor (fresh fruit water) in their water bowl.
Pinches Gringos Idiotas (and I say that in the nicest way.)
On my friends’ first visit to San Miguel from the Pacific Northwest, they decided to take their two young children to the circus here in San Miguel. Rob, we’ll call him, the husband/father, noticed that the lions’ and tigers’ cages were right out in the open to enjoy as closely as you wanted. Naturally, he got as close as possible and began waving his arm inside the cage dangerously near the tiger’s face, growling and provoking the captive beast. His wife pulled out the camcorder to preserve the memory. On his 4th or 5th aggression toward the animal, it suddenly leaped at his white limb, bearing its teeth and roaring ferociously. Rob, the Doctor, pulled his hand out just in time and nervously laughed on camera at his bravery and his good fortune for having got it all saved on tape to one day show the grandkids.
Back at their rented home, they hooked up the camcorder to enjoy the show over and over again with popcorn and refresco (soda pop). Laughing hysterically as his fingers are narrowly salvaged from harm, it suddenly dawns on Rob. “Look at all those people watching the ‘show.’ Why are none of them sticking their arms in the cages or even getting close? Even the grown men are keeping their distance. …How very odd.” 
Rob’s wife put herself in the shoes of the Mexican circus-goers and arrived at a profound realization: “Mexicans don’t need large signs and fences telling them that it is dangerous to stick your arm in the lion and tiger cages. Somewhere along the line in life, they learned that lions and tigers can be aggressive. That they can attack or even eat other mammals. Like humans, for instance. Perhaps they saw it on Animal Planet or maybe they deduced as much in the circus show. One way or another, these Mexicans became privvy to the danger of certain wild carnivores and made the decision to become responsible for protecting themselves against them… With or without a sign.”
Read the Signs!
In the United States, we are bombarded with instructions and warnings everywhere we go. Seattle: 10 Miles. Seattle: 5 Miles. Seattle: 1 Mile. Do not Step on the Grass. The Conair 695 Hairdryer can cause electrocution and even death if submerged in water. Suffocation Risk. Keep away from Children. Deep water beyond the Buoeys. Hot coffee can cause severe burns. Speed Bump Ahead. Line Forms Here. Take a Number. Thank you for choosing Bartell Drugs. Come back soon. Open 10am- 6pm Monday through Friday. Never strap a carseat in the front seat.  Careful: wet floor. Return Policy. Do not use the  while bathing or in the shower. No U-Turns Allowed. Falling Rocks. Deer Crossing. Smoking Prohibited. Don’t Drink and Drive. Just Say No. Never use the Remington CI-95 Series Curling Iron while sleeping.  (I am not making that last one up. WHILE SLEEPING.)
When these signs are not present, often we feel lost. Confused. Insecure. Defensive. “Well, how was I supposed to know you close from 2 to 4pm? There was no sign!”  “Had I known the scalding coffee would cause 3rd degree burns on my body, do you think I would have cradled it between my thighs while driving?” “Officer, there is no sign for 10 miles specifying a speed limit. How was I supposed to know?” We not only appreciate and crave more instructions from Big Brother, we expect them and demand that someone else be responsible for our errors that could’ve been avoided using common sense when there is no sign present.
 
Evolution
My concern is that this blind faith in signs is damaging the human gene pool. We are no longer the alert, quick response, intuitive people we once were. It is like the difference between my daughter, María’s, fat, long-haired hamster, Pelusa (Fuzz), and the tiny grey wild mice in my new home. The mice are extremely fast, jump excessively high, and sense danger from 2 rooms away. Pelusa, on the other hand, is slow and confused when a threat enters his glass homefront. He is unaware of a large hand getting closer until it actually touches him, in which case he rolls quickly onto his back in surrender and waits, frozen in terror.  The mice are a far superior specimen. So who are we? Wild mice or caged hamsters?
Rescue 911
This kind of absolute faith in systems, the responsibility of others to warn me or tell me what to do, creates a false sense of security that Mexicans simply do not ever rely on. Once I asked my group of savvy, wealthy 4th grade students in Querétaro, “What is the phone number you call in Mexico in case of an emergency?” Crickets. “You know, if someone breaks in your house and you are there all alone, what is that number you would call?”
“¿Mi Papá?” they answered. “La abuela?” “El Tio Toño?”
It took several minutes and hand gestures to get the correct answer: 066. They recognized 911 immediately from television and movies but didn’t know what number to dial in their own country. There is a lack of faith and trust in the government here that runs deep and strong through the blood of all Mexicans. “Why would we call a stranger in a moment of danger? ¡Y mucho menos a alguién del gobierno!” (and much less someone from the government!) My 10 and 11 year-old students explained.
Where to go for Help
In a class for parents in a private school here in San Miguel about child sexual predators, I once suggested that when taking children to a crowded place like the feria (fair) or el jardín (town square) during días festivas (holidays), they should instruct their children that if lost, to first look for a Police Officer to help, and if none were available, to always approach a woman.
The parents burst into laughter and were unable to compose themselves or lower the murmurs going around the room for several minutes.
“What? What’s so funny?” I asked them, hand on hips.
One mother wiped the tears from her eyes and cleared her throat to explain to me slowly, “Maybe that is what children should do in your country,” she said. “Here the Police Officers are often the most dangerous characters in a crowded public place. If I want to avoid a ransom call, I’ll just tell my daughter to find a woman to help her if lost, and skip the police bit altogether.” 
 
After 5 years in the republic, I am slowly but surely becoming more mouse-like in my decision-making. When 066 did not respond to several of my neighborhood violence emergency calls years ago, I created a back-up safety plan.  When I asked a respected neighbor what to do about the problematic gang-related neighbors beside me… whether or not I should go speak to the mother, the matriarch, she looked at me sideways and said, “Move.”  Just 15 months later, I moved. 🙂
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3 Responses to “Stuff Mexicans Like #9: La Responsabilidad Personal (Personal Responsability)”

  1. Pete Livingston May 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    I love the insights shared in StuffMexicansLike, and read the whole series in one sitting. I particularly enjoyed the insights and connections regarding Coca Cola and water in Mexico. Obviously, the author has a love of, and many thoughtful insights about the mysteries of Mexico. Nevertheless, I have a few alternate perspectives on the hamster, signs, and McDonald’s coffee.

    First, the hamster has properly and thoughtfully adapted to its limited, caged environment. Based on its own experience, it knows that the approaching hand is in fact, likely to be a helping hand, and not a cat or rattlesnake. It’s learning allows it to avoid the anxiety and adrenaline rushes of its small, feral, mouse cousins. Thus, rolling onto its back to encourage and expedite belly rubbing is an indication of its intelligence, not its evolutionary degeneration.

    The purpose of warning signs in the U.S. is not to inform or warn the public. The signs are posted to protect — the person / entity posting the signs — from litigation. They are read by very few people and they inform almost no one, save attorneys. Their presence does not indicate a lack of responsibility in the U.S., but merely a desire to escape it. When personal injury attorneys get a grip on the Mexican legal system, the number of Mexican warning signs will skyrocket (along with the existence and cost of malpractice insurance) — and the number of unattended holes in Mexican streets will plummet.

    The litigation mythology about scalding McDonald’s coffee has been created by McDonald’s public relations propagandists. The jury who sat on the Stella Liebeck case, learned that her burns were caused by 180 degree F coffee had put Ms. Liebeck in the hospital for a week. They learned that her requests to McDonald’s were initially just to pay her hospital bills — which the company refused to do. They learned that McDonald’s themselves knew that their coffee had severely burned over 700 people — prior to burning Ms. Liebeck, who was 81 at the time. What McDonald’s needed back then, and what it needs now, is to be more responsible, not less so. To suggest that McDonald’s was the victim rather than the primary guilty party in this case is to side with corporations against those who would hold them accountable. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/1995/06/19/ED13547.DTL and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v._McDonald%27s_Restaurants.

    With hopes that the blonde author will become increasingly prolific (even if Mexicans don’t read her work),

    Pete Livingston
    California, USA

    • garrisonmi May 29, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

      thanks, pete, for your thoughtful commentary and for reading my blog in one sitting! in response:

      * pelusa, the hamster, is actually terrified when he rolls over in defeat/surrender and runs from affection. i understand WHY he has evolved to this lower level of response time and intuition, i merely recognize the fact and hope it is not the same case with humans living in over-“protected” countries.

      * i love signs. i was unaware of this until i arrived to live in a country that has none. i did feel lost. “where the bleepity bleep are the exit signs?” i would shout daily on the freeway. “how am i supposed to know when to come back to buy something if there are no ‘hours of operation’ posted?” i would scold. there are plenty of united statesians and canadians where i live who share my sentiment.

      * i in no way intended to cast a “victim” light on the mcdonald’s corporation. likewise, i don’t feel any “victim” sentiment toward anyone who spills scalding coffee on themself while driving. in general i feel there are no victims, only volunteers.

      * mexicans do read my blog. i live in central mexico and my friends read it and comment on it to me regularly. they like to tell me what to write next. hehe… sometimes i agree.

      keep reading, pete!

      • Pete Livingston May 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

        Dear Garrisonmi,

        Your blog caffeinates awareness. Rolling over on one’s back at the approach of a giant could indicate “rub me now!” or “I am weak and prostrate myself at God’s cuticles!” or “other.” As is my want, I had responded to the most blatantly optimistic of these three, and not considered others. My hope for Pelusa is that, increasingly, the trembling becomes a zenful tribute to its god and decreasingly an experience of terror.

        Similarly, I had conflated multiple groups of signs, including those meant to inform and those meant to warn. I actually enjoy signs of all sorts, whatever their purpose, save those from hate speech categories.

        With regard to the Stella Liebeck and the McDonald’s coffee burn, she wasn’t driving. She wasn’t even at the wheel. The jury, as I recall, assigned 20% of the responsibility to her, and 80 percent to McDonald’s. I note that one of the prime reasons that corporations exist is to limit personal responsibility… Ms Liebeck’s daughter, now a documentarian, gives a wonderful interview about “Hot Coffee” — here: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/25/do_you_know_the_full_story

        I am reminded of my experience of fences — and non-fences — by your comments about signs. When I was traveling in Poland near the Slovak and Ukrainian borders, I noticed that many hectares of abundantly rich land, featured no fences at all. To the locals, this seemed to indicate poverty. To me, richness.

        I have spent some 5 months in SMA — and hope to return there for more mysterious experiences.

        regards,

        Pete

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