In the 1990’s most Americans in SMA wore happy faces. We do now too, but we take SMA more for granted. Back then we were overjoyed because brilliant, bright sunshine warmed our hearts and bodies; scintillating art openings, musical events and theatrical productions surrounded us; ripe fruits and vegetables amazed us; colorful plants and fabrics dazzled our eyes and affordable employees took care of our homes. Their help freed us up to attend and/or participate in a myriad of activities. Now people come to SMA expecting the above.
Then we threw our appreciative hearts into several not-for-profit organizations geared to help poor people. For me it was ideal. I did well in organizations when I had a purpose because it didn’t allow me time to worry about myself and how poorly I interacted with others. For example with the Unitarian Fellowship I joined the choir, gave readings, presided and even did the service sometimes; with Desarollo Rural my husband Roland and I organized a national art exhibition to raise money and for Festival Internacional de Peliculas I wrote reviews of all the films for the English newspaper. In the U.S. we have “professionals” to do these tasks and I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to develop the attending skills in a fun hands-on fashion.
Mexicans and their culture enchanted us too. They were welcoming and eager to understand our language barriers. (I spoke pretty fluently having spoken Spanish with my first husband for six years.) Some of their ways never failed to astonish us, such as the “manana” concept, never presenting a bill in a restaurant until you asked for it, the central plaza with continuous adults crisscrossing, young people circling, stray dogs begging, toy vendors, food vendors; ubiquitous church bells ringing; large and very noisy black colored birds flocking to tree tops at dusk and everyone greeting each other with warm, warm smiles and a como estas?
I believed Mexicans come out well ahead of Americans in their amicability, in family values and in their attachment to daily life. On the other hand, we Americans, we’re capable people; we know what time it is and how to get things done in the most expedient fashion. Why, once in Patzquaro (a picturesque town near SMA famous for its butterfly fishing nets) my husband Roland became a hero, at least in my eyes. One Sunday morning we waited on the train station platform for at least an hour and many dozens of others arrived as time went on. When the little train arrived it was chalk full. The people on the platform rushed to the doors to get on, blocking the exit for the people inside. After several minutes, Roland intervened. He inched his way up the train stairs and opened the door and, though not speaking a word of Spanish, he was tall and with his long arms able to wave people through, creating a path for passengers to leave so the rest of us could get on. We were last to board the packed train and a smiling family stood up, motioning to us their seats.
I was in a world of ongoing, exciting and engaging activities. Sometimes Roland pushed me into events that I would never have dared to even think about. For example, in 1990 or 91 the Mexican National Arts Council was meeting at the Bellas Artes in SM. Roland had a one person exhibition there then and he received permission from the Director to present information to the Council about a special medium he’d discovered. Of course, not speaking Spanish he couldn’t do it. Wanting to please my husband, I agreed to do it. I found myself seated on the stage at a long table with a dozen other presenters in front of several hundred people, reading Roland’s paper I’d translated into Spanish and answering questions. Afterwards, the President of the big University in Mexico City came up and told me to look him up when I went to Mexico City (which I did and he gave me a large bag of beautiful, color brochures of their former exhibitions). Later I was totally astonished at what I had done and later talking with the President sure made me float on air.
More pointedly, freed of gallery responsibilities in Portland and house cleaning, I had time to ponder what to do about my shyness. I made lists and lists of things, but it always included, “learn how to relax.” I had absolutely no idea how to do it or where to begin until in 1991, I joined a six session workshop on personality growth presented by a visiting Unitarian psychologist.
The following is quoted from my memoir Brave. “At that time SMA was a Mecca for people seeking self-discovery, and it was not unusual for visiting professionals to provide classes. Many, including these, were free. Eight participants showed up and after we had spent an hour together, she asked us to voice our first impressions of one another. The time came to describe me. They all agreed I exuded a leave-me-alone, cold demeanor. And this when I wanted to make friends! it was like a disaster; I wanted to become invisible.…..the therapy worked, though.” I studied what she said over and over and started learning how to relax. In January I’ll continue on from here, about what I learned.
Another part of my life in Mexico helped me. From Brave:“When I met with Mexicans, I conversed in Spanish, using their polite indigenous manners: not rushing, always saying “hello” and “goodbye” and, in addition to dealing with the matter at hand, allowing for conversation to develop about whatever either of us thought important.
Not understanding a word of Spanish, after such a discussion Roland often said, “What on earth were you talking about?” when it took me five minutes to buy something as simple as nails for concrete walls. However I treasured these mini-dialogues of diplomacy and kept right on having them.”
Finally, an example of how friendly the Mexicans were. For a weekend trip to Mexico City, Roland and I neglected to get money from our bank until late on Friday afternoon and the teller said they had no cash. We implored him for just a little but he was all out. Then a man dressed in overalls laden with white cement dust standing in line behind us said over our shoulders to the teller, “Here, give them this money,” and handed over a wad of bills. How could I not love these people and want to talk with them?
Happy New Year!