Well, I must admit that I am a news junkie. I try to keep up with most current events, but with my busy schedule, sometimes it’s difficult. I used to keep up with the news when I was a newspaper delivery boy, and I would read the newspapers as I delivered them. Then I stopped following the news in the 1980s when I returned to Chicago from the Marines. That is, until one day, I went grocery shopping and I tried to buy a gallon of milk, but the grocery store refrigerators were empty. Apparently, there was a salmonella outbreak that contaminated bottled milk and I didn’t know about it because I didn’t keep up with the local news. Many people became sick from the salmonella because the grocery stores kept stocking the milk and people who didn’t watch or listen to the news didn’t know about the salmonella outbreak and bought the milk anyway. Well, that really scared me into keeping up with the news. I didn’t want to die needlessly if watching the news could perhaps save my life. Not that I ever feared death, but why die stupidly?
However, when I watch the news now, I always think that everything will affect me personally. If I see or read a news story, I think it will affect someone I know in that area. So, while I watched the news about the fire at 3034 S. 48th Court in Cicero, Illinois, I immediately thought about my aunt Concepción Rodríguez Molina and her son Peter Molina, my cousin. Normally, news stories do not involve anyone I know. But this time was different. My aunt and cousin lived next door to the house that started on fire and killed seven people. She smelled smoke and so they both ran out of their house grabbing only a laptop. They are lucky to be alive! The village of Cicero temporarily put them up in a motel, but they’ll have to find a new place very, very soon. I will help them out in any way I can. But I still can’t believe this happened to someone I knew!
In Mexico, I was surprised when my cousin handed me a bag of potatoes and a potato peeler. She actually wanted me to peel potatoes! In the past, whenever I went to Mexico, I was never allowed in the kitchen while the women cooked. So I sat down at the kitchen table and actually peeled potatoes while my cousin and my aunt prepared the New Year’s Eve dinner. Amazingly, there were two other males in the kitchen helping with the cooking. Mexico is changing. I remember when I was a boy and my mother and aunts were making tamales, I got kicked out of the kitchen while they were preparing the tamales. Once my mother made tortillas and she let me roll one tortilla, but then she kicked me out of the kitchen. My abuelita never even let me try to cook anything when she lived with us in Chicago. Now that I think back, most Mexicanas always tried to discourage me from helping in the kitchen. But I think that it’s a conspiracy. Because then when you meet American girls, one of the first things they ask is, “What can you cook?” And if you ever go to their place for dinner, they test your culinary talents by making you help with the dinner. They’ll let you cook the entire meal if you’re able. But if you’re like me and grew up in a traditional Mexican family, you won’t be able to do much more than warm up tortillas! And they’ll settle for you washing the lettuce.
If you go to el Zócalo in Mexico City, you may see all kinds of Mexicans. You really can’t say you’ve been to Mexico City unless you’ve visited el Zócalo In Mexico City. So every time I go to Mexico City, I end up in the Zocalo at least once.
I really love this public square because many Mexicans feel compelled to visit it. El Zócalo is the center of Mexican life. You’ll also see many foreign tourists. Cathedrals, the presidential palace, and colonial buildings surrounding the Zocalo. If you look down in front of the cathedrals, you will see some glass inlaid into the sidewalk revealing the remains of Aztec pyramids below, which the Spaniards razed to construct the cathedral under orders of Hernán Cortés. As a reminder of Mexico’s past, Aztec dancers are ever present near el Zócalo dancing for the public. They will also perform a spiritual cleansing for you. They will cleanse you of any bad spirits that are hindering your happiness and wellbeing. Whenever you see the Aztec dancers, they are always cleansing someone with at least several others waiting in line for their turn.
I told my cousin that I probably needed a good cleansing, and she said I should get one. She confessed that she was once cleansed when life wasn’t treating her well and it improved her life for the better. She insisted that I should be cleansed. I would become a much better person. Well, I didn’t really believe a cleansing would really help me, so I passed. But now I wonder.
When driving in Mexico, you will encounter el tope. It’s a speed bump that is very unique to Mexico. They come in all shapes and sizes. They actually resemble a speed hump, but they’re actually taller and wider so it takes longer to drive over them. My cousin Mara’s neighborhood has so many topes, that she calls it Topelandia. In America, we also have speed bumps or speed humps. Usually their existence is often linked to petitions. About half of all Americans will petition to have speed humps placed in their residential neighborhoods in order to slow down traffic and make the streets safer for their children. After the construction of said speed bumps, the other half of the residents will petition to have those speed humps removed in order to speed up traffic. Besides, parents should be watching their children so they don’t play in the streets! You either love them or you hate them. I mean the speed humps, not the children.
Most of the time the topes are clearly visible and you must slow down before approaching them to avoid totaling your car. Occasionally, you don’t see one because it hasn’t been painted and you drive over it too fast. Your car bottoms out and all your passengers hit their heads on the car roof. It happens to the best of Mexican drivers every so often. It even happened to me. Everyone complains about the topes, but they’re there here to stay. You just have to accept them. Driving over topes would make great astronaut training. The only place they don’t have them is on the toll roads that lead to America, otherwise no one would pay to use these toll roads that closely resemble American highways. Without those topes, Mexican drivers would drive even more recklessly, if you can even imagine that! I absolutely hated driving over them. The topes, not the Mexican drivers. But I did have a few close calls. With Mexican drivers.
When I was younger, I never slowed down when driving over speed bumps or speed humps. In fact, if I drove over them at regular speed, the speed bumps felt less bumpy the faster you went over them. And they never damaged any of my cars, all of which I drove until they were totaled in accidents, none of which were my fault–I swear. I remember always driving full-speed ahead over the fourteen railroad tracks at 55th Street and St. Louis Avenue on Chicago’s south side and feeling less jolts than when I drove over the tracks slowly. I don’t know who said you should slow down over tracks, speed bumps, or speed humps. You should go over them as fast as possible to feel less bumps. That’s why cars have shock absorbers! I now have a car, a 2005 Pontiac Vibe, with a wheelbase so short that I can ride over speed humps or topes without actually having to slow down! It’s actually kind of thrilling! You go up and down rather quickly, much like an amusement park ride!
Sometimes accidents happen unexpectedly. It’s at moments like these that I truly appreciate the life I have. While in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo with my cousin Mara, her husband Enrique, and their children Daniel and Rebeca, we were enjoying ourselves until Becky was involved in a swimming accident with a boat’s outboard motor. We were there for a whole week. The accident became our reference point. Before Becky’s accident and after Becky’s accident. Everything happened so quickly!
We were sightseeing like typical tourists. We were having a lot of fun. We liked to talk and joke about whatever we were doing. As we walked down the main street, people were trying to sell us trips to beaches where we could snorkel, swim with dolphins, see alligators, and swim on the beach. We eventually found a good deal and went to Ixtapa Island where we snorkeled and then went to swim and tan at the beach. I was in the water a short while–I’m not much of a water person–and then went to talk to my cousin Mara while Enrique, Becky, and Daniel continued swimming. Becky had actually swum competitively so she was really swimming, unlike me who merely dog paddled awhile. I watched her swim and envied her swimming skills. How I wished I could swim like her.
Mara was asking me why I had come out of the water so soon and I told her that I been in the water long enough. We talked awhile when suddenly I heard some yelling in the water. I walked toward the water where I saw some people near a boat with an outboard motor. I could hear a female voice screaming for help, but I could barely see her head. A few men swam toward her to help her. She appeared to be caught up in the propeller of the outboard motor. One of the men asked for a knife–I assumed so he could cut of her clothing. One woman who was lying on the beach swam toward the boat yelling, “I’m a doctor!” Another woman went to the jet ski stand and told the man to call an ambulance on his cell phone. When they finally released the woman from the boat, I saw that it was Becky! She was holding the propeller against her abdomen, so I thought it was embedded into her body. She had blood on her shirt and I could see a gash on her arm. But she was walking with the help of her father who helped steady her as she walked. The doctor tried to stop the bleeding as Becky walked to another outboard boat that took her and her father to the ambulance.
Our tour guide told Mara, Daniel, and me to get all our things. He would take us to the hospital. When we finally got to the hospital, we learned that Becky had been slashed by the propeller on the wrist, abdomen, and leg. She didn’t have any life threatening injuries. A woman who looked vaguely familiar approached at the hospital and told us she was from the resort where the accident occurred. She had seen everything and she had witnesses, too. She explained that Becky had been swimming in the area where swimming was prohibited because of boat traffic. Becky was swimming underwater when the boat operator started up the boat. He then started moving slowly when he heard a thump near the front of the boat. He shut off the engine immediately, but the propeller kept spinning. He never saw Becky swimming. When he heard her screaming, he tried to free her from the propeller. Others then came to help her. The woman then explained that their company would pay all of Becky’s medical expenses if we agreed not to sue. I said that I was merely a cousin and that she should explain all this to Enrique, Becky’s father. But the woman insisted that I sign. I refused because I’m not familiar with Mexican law. I didn’t want to jeopardize anything to which they were entitled. The woman became more assertive, but I continued to refuse to sign.
I watched as she later tried to convince Enrique to write a statement that he agreed to her terms and sign it. He thought about it long and hard. I pulled him aside with Mara and he explained the situation to us. Yes, he could sue, but in Mexico it would take about eight years to settle the lawsuit and chances were slim to none that they would win any settlement, particularly since there were witnesses who had seen Becky swimming in the no swimming zone. Eventually, he agreed to their terms and they did reimburse him with cash for the medical expenses. They even sent a doctor to the hotel room to visit Becky.
After the accident, we were all shaken up. We were mere shadows of our former selves. Becky had to stay in bed the rest of the vacation. Driving in the car caused Becky great pain. We had to drive ten miles the next day to see a doctor to give her a tetanus shot because they didn’t have one at the hospital. That ride was extremely torturous for Becky because of all the bumps. We had to return in three days and we wondered how we would drive Becky home if every little bump caused her so much pain. Finally, Enrique announced that she would fly home with her mother. One of Becky’s friends would take her home from the airport.
However, we were all grateful that Becky was still alive! She was extremely lucky to be alive!
One of the highlights of my trip to Mexico was going to my cousin Becky’s college graduation party! Becky invited me last summer when I visited with my sons, so I planned to go to México for it. She graduated as an engineer in December and from now on she will be addressed by her official title of ingeniera. As part of her curriculum, she had to learn English because it’s an international business language. So when she couldn’t take courses she needed in Spanish because they were closed, she would take them in English. We went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still, El día que se detuvo la Tierra in Spanish, and Becky insisted that we see it in English with Spanish subtitles. In many Mexican theaters you have the option of watching movies dubbed in Spanish or in the original English language with Spanish subtitles. Unlike when I was boy, the movies come out at the same time in Mexico as in the U.S.
This was such a cool graduation party! We went to the Ex-Convento de San Hipólito near the Zócalo in downtown México City. There is a courtyard in the middle of the building, but they put up a temporary roof in case it rained. We arrived at 9:30 pm, even though the party officially started at 9:00, and many graduates and their guests were still arriving. Becky had a table for ten reserved for her. Her parents, my cousin Mara and her husband Enrique, Becky, six of Becky’s friends, and me sat at that table. There was a DJ playing music until the evening program began. A few students gave speeches and each table cheered on their graduate. Click on the link below to hear Becky’s. And, of course, there were Mariachis. Everyone who wanted to drink brought their own liquor. The waiters for our table would then mix our drinks. We had tequila, so the waiter made me a Paloma, tequila with Squirt (Esquirt in México). This custom was something foreign to me. For some strange reason, one of the waiters kept speaking to me in English. The waiters served us our dinner, but I can’t even remember what we ate! After dinner, there was dancing. Everyone danced except me. That is until Mara asked me to dance. My cousin-in-law Enrique commented that I danced like an American because I didn’t raise my hands above my head.
Each graduate was seated at a table for ten, for family and guests. Throughout the night, tables would cheer on their graduate. They would erupt into cheer unexpectedly. Click the link below to hear our table cheering Rebeca proudly.
The party roared all night long. About 6:30 am, the waiters started asking us if we wanted coffee and chilaquiles, fried tortillas with eggs. That was the one thing I loved about the party. We didn’t have to forage for food after the party as we usually do in Chicago. As the evening progressed, the waiters became friendlier with us and talked with us when they weren’t busy. The one who spoke English to me was especially friendly. I told him I could tell he had lived in the U.S. At first he denied it, but then admitted to living and working in Las Vegas for about eight years. But he came back to Mexico because he missed his family. I asked him why he spoke to me in English. He told me that he thought I was Canadian! Go figure!
Well, the party was a lot of fun! When we got home, we immediately went to bed because when we woke up, we were driving to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo!
The thing I enjoyed about being in Mexico was being away from the winter weather awhile. I kept hearing about the extreme cold temperatures and snowstorms back in Chicago, but I was in warm, sunny Mexico. When I was in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, I was actually sweating on the beach. Meanwhile back in Chicago, winter raged on without me. While I was in Mexico, I had my brother Danny visit my house just to check it out once in while and make sure everything was fine.
One evening, I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo with my cousin and her family when suddenly I had an unusual feeling. I told her that I was going to call my brother Danny. So out of the blue, I called Danny. He was very relieved that I had just called him because he just walked into my house and he heard running water. He had just gone to his car to get his flashlight because there was no electricity in my house. He said the power was out. It turns out that a water pipe had frozen and burst in my second-floor bathroom and was pouring water into my first-floor bathroom. The plaster from the ceiling in first-floor bathroom had come down and the first floor and basement were flooded. Danny asked me how to shut off the water to house and I told him where the main valve was. However, I’m sure he would have figured out how to shut off the water without my help because he is very handy with those kind of things. Well, he shut off the water and saved my house. Who knows what further damage would have occurred if Danny had not arrived when he did.
I should explain that Danny usually watches my house when I go on vacation. I should also explain that I had never called him before while I was on vacation. I never felt the need to call him before. I have no explanation as to why I called him this time. I just suddenly announced to my cousin that I was going to call Danny. She didn’t say a word or even ask me why I would call him. I’m glad she didn’t ask me why I was calling him because I wouldn’t have had an explanation.
So why did I call him when I did? I have no idea. The next day, I called Danny to see what happened on his follow-up visit to my house. There was no heat in my house and the water was draining. Then, he asked me why I had called him the day before soon after he had entered my house. I told him I didn’t know why. I had some sort premonition or gut feeling, so I called. And at the precise moment. Danny mentioned that I had never called him before when I was on vacation. But I did call at the right moment this time because he wasn’t sure what to do. The next day, the heat turned on mysteriously and I didn’t have to rush home to take care of my house. I was afraid that if the house froze with the first floor flooded I would have even more damage. Well, for whatever reason I called, I’m sure glad I did!
When I go to Mexico, or anywhere on a vacation, I don’t have a set itinerary. I know where I’m going and I know where I hope to return if all goes well. All other destinations between the start and finish of my vacation are all determined by luck, happenstance, and sheer naivete! God always seems to protect the innocents and the helpless.
So, on my vacation, I knew for a fact that I would leave Chicago on Friday, December 12, 2008, and return to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on January 3, 2009, because that is when my Mexican car permit expired. What I would do to fill all those days in between I left to fate.
Well, not entirely. My cousin’s daughter had invited me to her university graduation party on Friday, December 19, 2008, so I had to get to her house at least one or two days before the party. I thought about going to Celaya, Guanajuato, first, but I always hate saying good-bye to everyone in Celaya. Therefore, I planned to go to Mexico City first and then on the return trip stop by to visit my family in Celaya. So I actually had some type of plan. But nothing went as planned!
I arrived at my cousin’s house on Monday, December 15, and I stayed there with them until the party. They live in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Estado de México, which is just north of Mexico City. I never made it to Mexico City to visit my family there until December 29th.
Let me tell you what happened. I was staying with my cousin until the graduation party and I was thoroughly enjoying my vacation. One day, my cousin tells me she was taking me with her family to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo on vacation the morning after the graduation party. I told her that I had already made other plans. That I wanted to visit everyone in Mexico City and stop in Celaya on the way back. But she insisted. She was firm and assertive. I had to go with their family to Ixtapa. Well, I was weak and immediately caved in to her demand. Besides, I had very been to a beach resort on vacation in Mexico before. I would finally see what attracted Americans in droves to go to Mexico. It would be a good learning experience.
Well, when we got to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo after an eight-hour drive, it was hot there! This was December and I was wearing only swimming trunks and I was sweating! Meanwhile back in Chicago, everyone was enduring snowstorms and sub-zero weather. And I didn’t even feel a little guilty! That’s why Americans and Canadians went to Mexico in the winter! I think my biggest surprise was discovering that most of the tourists were Mexicans. Entire families of Mexicans. I was told that most of the foreign tourists go to Acapulco where there’s a constant party atmosphere. We stayed at the Hotel Fontán where my cousin had made reservations the year before for about fifty bucks per night for the room for four people during the height of the tourist season. I felt very fortunate that she invited me along. I actually enjoyed going to the beach and going to all the mercados. There was one terrible, tragic moment that changed our lives forever, but I will leave that tale for another blog post.
While I was in Mexico, I learned a little more about Mexican relationships. I suppose I have my own preconceived American notions about how their relationships are structured. Well, I was surprised to learn about many aspects about their relationships that were previously unknown to me. Yes, there are Mexicans who marry for life, but that’s not always the expectation of every couple. During one of my many dinner conversations with relatives, I mentioned that the divorce rate in America was about 50%. One of my cousins boasted, “Mexico is catching up!” She divorced a couple of years earlier. And getting a divorce in Mexico is now much easier. Only one party has to go to court to request the divorce! A few of my cousins had children out-of-wedlock. That’s not so unusual here in the U.S., but I was surprised to hear that it also occurs more and more frequently in Mexico. One cousin had recently broken up with his wife. So I asked if he was already divorced or just separated. He said that they were never married. She just left the house and he got to keep their two daughters.
One of the strangest things I heard about was commitment in a relationship–or rather a lack of commitment. If a couple stays together for more than one year and then they break up, one party can file a civil lawsuit for monetary damages for not marrying the other. So many people keep track of their anniversary date, not to celebrate it, but to break up just before they can be sued. And the longer they’re together as a couple, the more monetary damages they’re liable for. Because a couple, it’s assumed, is together because they eventually want to get married.
So, I’m in Mexico, visiting mi familia, and the whole time, everyone keeps reminding me that I’m an americano. Just look at me in the picture. I’m sitting on green, white, and red bench wearing an Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo tourist t-shirt. Now, be honest with me. Do I look American or Mexican? Okay, please tell me after you finish reading this post. I think I’d rather not hear your answer right now.
It’s December 30, 2008, and I’m at my cousin house visiting because all her brothers and sisters are coming in for New Year’s Eve. She has an impromptu dinner because, unexpectedly, she is expecting about thirty guests in her house. No one complains about the fast food (fast for Mexico) that we eat buffet style on styrofoam plates. I already have my food and I’m eating in the living room at the opposite side of the house where the food is on the table in the dining room.
Suddenly, one cousin begins to speak Spanish with a fake American accent. Then, someone else joins in the conversation with his fake American accent. Before you know it, about ten people are speaking Spanish with a fake American accents. I think it’s rather funny. Much laughter ensues until my cousin notices me. Everyone immediately stops talking in Spanish with their fake American accent and everyone looks at me. My cousin asks me if I was offended. Actually, I tell her, I thought it was very funny. I had never heard Mexicans talk in fake American accents before, so I kind of enjoyed it. I heard other people talking like Americans on my trip through Mexico, but they always stopped when they noticed I was near. Everyone seems to think I’m an americano. To be honest, I’m not sure what I am!
My cousin’s husband (my cousin-in-law?) constantly reminded me that I looked American. He couldn’t explain why, but he said I didn’t look Mexican. Other people told me the same thing. I’m sure my skin color had nothing to do with it because Mexicans come in all shades, from dark to light. Perhaps it was my gray hair? Mexicans my age, in general, don’t have as much gray hair as me. Maybe it was my clothing. All my clothes were bought in America. Okay, I bought some of them in Wal-Mart in Evergreen Park, Illinois, but they don’t sell the same clothes at the Wal-Marts in Mexico. I just don’t get it. I have cousins in Mexico who look more American than me, but everyone immediately recognized them as Mexicans.
Conversely, when I’m in Chicago, Mexicans approach me and immediately speak to me in Spanish. How did they know I speak Spanish if I look American? Wouldn’t that make me Mexican? When I’m in Mexico, my cousins eventually concede that I am, in fact, Mexican. Unlike other Mexicans who go back to Mexico to visit their familia, I do eat all kinds of Mexican food and I do understand EVERYTHING they say, including all the colloquialisms and swear words. I always seem to blend in with my familia. Until someone points out that I don’t look mexicano!