The Wow Factor | Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon)
by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98)
There’s a joke (una broma) that Mexicans in other parts of Mexico tell among themselves, I learned this week, that goes something like this: If you want to visit San Miguel de Allende, you’ll need to get a U.S. visa.
In other words, Mexicans themselves don’t think of SMA as being in Mexico, it’s so overrun with us Norteamericano gringos.
This broma, like most jokes, contains a large grain of truth. In the eight years I’ve lived here, I’ve often heard SMA being referred to as “Mexico Lite” and “Gringolandia.” In fact, in 2010 the director Dennis Lanson made a video titled “Gringolandia” about this very fact.
According to the most recent estimates, we expats represent only about 10 percent of the residents of San Miguel, but our presence seems to me to be outsized. We gringos are everywhere, all the time – in all the many restaurants, boutiques, stores, galleries, parks, narrow sidewalks, busy streets — perhaps because we’re either tourists taking in all that SMA has to offer or we’re living here as retirees, no longer tethered to stifling offices or running in circles in the U.S. rat race. We’re free (at last!) and savoring every minute in this stunning, old, proud, historic city.
“Surely this influx of gringos benefits the economy and therefore the locals’ lives?” I asked my source, who was born and raised in San Miguel and has lived here all her life. Her response was somewhat equivocal: Yes, but. The jobs that are engendered for Mexicans here, she explained, unlike in other cities such as Queretero, which has been attracting large industry, are mostly in the service sector – maids, gardeners, waiters, taxi drivers, manual laborers – which earn low incomes. So there’s a deepening divide.
As I understood my source (she speaks in fast Spanish), too few extranjeros (foreigners) even try to learn to speak Spanish or to engage with the Mexican community. Many do, of course; but many more could but don’t. Those who don’t make the effort appear to set themselves apart from – even above – Mexican nationals, as if they see themselves as kings and queens on their own imaginary thrones. The reality is none of us are kings or queens. Not here, not anywhere.
One of the enduring takeaways for me from my experience serving in the U.S. Peace Corps in my early fifties was the fact that we were told repeatedly in our training to consider ourselves as guests in our host country. We were strongly advised to always behave as appreciative guests.
We were there to learn and share, to make friends and to build bridges, not to lord it over others or tell them what to do. In our two years of Peace Corps service we learned respect for other ways of living and being, in addition to learning how to converse in the local language. As most returned Peace Corps Volunteers will tell you, this experience was beyond enriching.
Every gringo friend of mine in San Miguel gives back in gratitude in every way possible – from contributing generously to charitable organizations, to volunteering her time to helping others, or in teaching English to young people. And we’re all learning (at least struggling to learn) to speak Spanish in our old age. But more of us extranjeros, I feel, could (and should) follow suit, even on a small scale.
One American friend, the most giving person I know, who’s been an enormous inspiration to me, keeps a bag of 10-peso (the equivalent of about 55 US cents) coins in her pocket and gives one to every poor person sitting in a bundle on the sidewalk with a hand out. Every single such person she passes on the street.
My friend doesn’t concern herself with what the recipient does with that money (alcohol? drugs? tortillas for the family?); it’s not for the giver to control that outcome, she believes. She puts the coin in the person’s hand (not in the hat or jar) and greets them in Spanish, acknowledging their humanity.
It doesn’t take much to say thank you to the big-hearted, good-natured, often-smiling Mexican people who have taken us in. Gracias is a simple word to remember and to use. Muchisimo gracias (thank you very much) is an even better expression.
And, if all else fails, just look into the smiling faces of the local people you see every day and say thanks with a slight nod and a genuine smile. This small gesture, I feel, made by enough of us, might even help to close the widening divide.
Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) is the author of many published essays, as well as five books: Sweet Tarts for My Sweethearts: Stories and Recipes from a Culinary Career; a historical novel, Jamie’s Muse, based on the lives of her Scottish great-grandparents who emigrated to South Africa in the late 19th century; and three memoirs about her own life-changing experiences in various Africa countries .
An honors graduate of Columbia University in New York (B.A.) and Antioch University in Los Angeles (MFA), Bonnie taught English and Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico’s Taos branch for ten years. Now retired and living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, she writes an award-winning weekly blog called The WOW Factor about the ex-pat life there (www.bonnieleeblack.com).
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This is an absolutely beautiful piece, Bonnie. I had a little of that experience way back in 1986. I was traveling around Mexico watching World Cup soccer matches and happened to pass through “SMA.” All of a sudden, I was back to hamburgers rather than tacos and English as a first language.
Thanks for your input, Steve. If you came back to SMA now, you’d find LOTS of wonderful Mexican food to choose from! 🙂
Hi Steve and Bonnie. My sister moved back to SMA two years ago. My husband and I visited often when they lived there in the early Aughts. There was plenty of Mexican food there then and I’m sure there’s more even now. It’s a beautiful colonial city. I’m so glad she’s back there so I can visit. Loved your piece, Bonnie. I sent it to my sister in case she’s unaware of your blog.