Saturday, May 12, 2012

Indoors and out - the way Mexicans live

Steps in the garden leading up
to the neighbor's house through
that little gate. 
At this time, I'm house sitting for a woman in San Cristobal in her lovely home right on the curve of La Cola del Diablo, the local name for a sharp right angled curve on Calle Dr. Navarro. The street is so narrow, the sidewalks are barely 15 inches wide, and there is room for only one car. They come whizzing down this street. Sometimes there are drunks who've fallen asleep on the sidewalk and are lying with legs or arms flopped into the road. People get hurt and killed on this narrow section fairly often, hence the name: The Devil's Tail.

The street, and the homes along it, are typical of Mexico. The sidewalk is stone, raised above the level of the road by about 10 inches or more. Since it rains here so much, that's actually a good thing, but sometimes trying to hop up onto the sidewalk when a car is fast approaching can be a challenge. The sidewalk butts up against stucco walls made either of concrete blocks, stones, or adobe. Set into those walls are metal or wooden gates. Some walls have portals large enough for a car to pass through, as well as a sloping driveway into the property. A smaller people-door is then set inside the larger doors for the car. If the property has a large exposure along the street, there might also be a pedestrian door further down the wall.
Across the patio from my room, the oldest
building on the property houses a
studio and meditation room.

Walking along any street, one has no idea how wealthy or poor people are. What lies behind those walls and gates is any body's guess. The walls give clues....if they are covered with graffiti then probably the entire neighborhood is rather impoverished. If not, it means the owners are out every day checking and painting over the graffiti from the night before. After a while, the taggers give up and leave that home or neighborhood alone.

Some people have murals painted on the walls of their homes to keep from being tagged. For some reason, the taggers generally won't spray over a mural, especially if it's of the Virgin Mary. On the next street up the hill is a raggedy old house with paint peeling, rotted wood door, and crumbling stucco. It has an interesting and well done sprayed-painted mural of four women's faces set in curls of smoke and flowers. The house has been for sale for a long time, and may not even be occupied. But the taggers tag around that mural.

The door and window of "my"
room. On the other side of the far
wall is the busy Cola del Diablo.

Once in a while, a gate will be open and you can get a glimpse of the interior. Most of the time the view is into a patio and garden space. Homes typically are built with multiple rooms side by side surrounding the patio, each with its own door. Many homes will have a second level, often accessed by an outdoor stairway and sheltered by overhanging portales or porch roofs. Since the lots are small, the actual living spaces share walls with the neighbors without much sound-proofing. In theory, when you build something new, you're supposed to put up your own wall, but many people just use the neighbor's existing wall and build out from there. That's why, in the little casita I've been renting, I hear the neighbor's son practicing with his band as if they are in the next room, which in fact, they are. I'm grateful they're actually pretty good!

My Mexican friend Malena, who has an uncle in Florida, came over for a little visit at my house-sitting gig, and was impressed with the house and it's beautiful garden. She asked me a question. "Why is it that Americans have big houses with beautiful yards but then they put curtains over the windows and use electric lights inside, even in the daytime?" I wasn't sure I could answer that, but after more discussion, the answer finally dawned on me. It's a question of control. We like to control the climate, so we build these homes that are so contained you don't even have to open a window for light or air or temperature. The temperature inside is maintained so perfectly you never have to put on a sweater or take off any clothes. You never have to interact with the real world.

In most of Mexico, there is no heat in the homes aside from a fireplace or a freestanding electric or gas heater. People wear layers of clothes and sleep under many blankets and together, for warmth. In the summer, when it's hot, you go inside those block and stone houses where the temperature is cooler and go out after the sun sets. People here live with the natural world and it's fluctuations. The idea of controlling it never occurs to them, and if it did, they'd see right away how expensive that can get.  It costs far less to keep just the body warm or cool than to try to keep an entire house at a certain temperature. As a result, the homes here are open to the world and whatever it brings in. Security is provided by those tall walls and metal gates; inside, it's open and free.

Into the bathroom, from the patio.
Years ago I heard a talk by an anthropologist who had studied the culture of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. In the days before electricity and indoor plumbing, when people built homes that were adobe brick rooms with a single door, people lived and worked mostly outside. They worked when it was cool and rested in the heat of the day, a custom still practiced throughout Mexico with the afternoon "la comida" or 2 hour siesta. In the winters, people gathered around the fire and told stories, sang old songs, visited with each other, and in this way passed on their culture.

In the 1950's the American government began a plan to upgrade these poor people by supplying them with new houses featuring indoor plumbing, forced air heat, and running water with modern kitchens. The result was that all of a sudden, families had their own homes; gramma and grampa had theirs, kids had their own room, or at least shared with other kids away from where the parent's slept, and there was no longer a need to sit for hours in the one warm room in the evenings. The kids were being taught solely in English at school, and quickly, in just a generation, the culture began to fade away. Many of the tribes have worked very hard to reinstate their native languages in school, and bring people back home, who have moved away, for the annual dances and in some measure preserve what they were in danger of losing forever.
Through the dining room window.

What struck me about that man's talk was how architecture makes all the difference. If your home is such that you live indoors and outdoors at the same time, you adjust to that with your clothing. If you have only one heat source and it heats only one room, then everyone hangs out in there. Social skills are honed, people learn how to deal with each other and their conflicts can't last as long. Nobody would want to leave and be "out in the cold".

So many of the American ex-pats I meet here say they love Mexico because they feel so much more connected with other people. What they were missing is the sense of being part of a community. There are ways to achieve that in the US, of course. But the way we live physically fosters an environment in which isolation is the norm, not community.

A jaguar plate from the village of Amantenango.
Every few days I take my large zippered shopping bag and I walk up the hill to the Mercado.  I see the same people every time I shop. I interact with them, and since I stick out as a foreigner, they remember me too. The potatoes are still covered in the wet dirt from which they emerged that very morning, the eggs still have goo and crap on the shells, the lettuce leaves sport an occasional friendly slug, and the carrots have tops. Almost anything I might want to buy is available in a stall there, I only have to ask and I'm pointed in some direction. It's smelly, dirty, noisy, and crowded.  In contrast, we Americans get into our little "living rooms" on wheels and drive to spotless shopping malls where we buy things (we have no idea who made them or where) from a person we will probably never see again. We buy fruits and vegetables already scrubbed in sterilized Styrofoam packages covered in shrink wrap. Much of our food (grain especially) has not even been touched by human hands. It was grown, harvested, processed, and packaged entirely by machines.

We value that control over the dirt and chaos, we value the total privacy and safety of isolation. We see it as independence. The isolation is certainly no illusion, but the idea that we are independent is.


Living room with ceramic fireplace,
called a chiminea

Back yard with drainage channels for all the rain.
Mural the taggers ignore. Note the
tags right next to it, but not over it.
This house is abandoned and almost
completely covered in grafitti.