Friday, June 14, 2024

Dress fancy and avoid the clowns: a primer on attending parties in Mexico

Y’all ever been to a big party here in Mexico? They are no joke.

For officially planned parties for things like birthdays and weddings, people tend to go all out, but even smallish informal get-togethers are usually what I’d consider kind of a big deal. The music is loud, the drinks flow freely and there’s typically no official end-time unless you’ve rented a salón de fiestas (event hall), in which case the party may simply move to a new place once the clock’s run out.

Kids and babies are often in tow, and if there were official invitations sent out, you can expect to see some spectacularly high heels and skintight fancy clothes. There are even party favors!

This past weekend, I attended a large (to me) party for a family member’s first birthday/baptismal party. It occurred to me that I haven’t really written about the full-blown Mexican institution of parties (one-year-old birthday parties could be their own category, actually). So I decided that there’s no time like the present!

Without further ado, here are some things to expect if you’ve been invited to (or just happened to be walking past and get last-minute invited to) a party.

The kind of extravagance you’re likely only used to seeing at weddings is routinely employed for baby and kid parties. First birthday parties, which are also often baptism parties as well since babies tend to be baptized around their first birthday, are especially a Very Big Deal. While in my own country the “party” usually consists of the exhausted parents, a few family members and a cake at home, it’s not uncommon in Mexico to have 50 to 100 or more guests at a catered event in a rented space. Tables and chairs will be decorated in the party colors and feature elaborate centerpieces (which will typically be offered to guests to take home at the end of the night), food and drinks will be served, and there will be a well-decorated mesa de dulces (literally “candy table”) with treats for snacking.

Even if the salón itself is a bit shabby, the decorations will always be on point. The party I went to this past weekend had a Batman theme. This might not sound fancy, but it was: there were black and yellow sequins everywhere and some of the fanciest balloon sculptures I’ve ever seen!

Most parties have a set structure. Initially, a couple of hours pass while the first guests arrive. The ones who went to the church beforehand — typically just family and close friends — are there first. During this period, there are drinks and music (admittedly almost always too loud for my grumpy taste). Platters of snacks are often put on each table for guests to munch on if they want to wait until more people arrive to begin eating.

If it’s a kid’s party, there will almost always be at least a bouncy house or trampoline to ensure that all the children are thoroughly sweaty and dirty by the time they come back to the table. As people finish their meals, the entertainment (often a clown for a kid’s party, perhaps a DJ for an adult’s … more on that in a moment) will begin their performance, which usually involves a lot of audience participation (don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Then, it’s piñata time! I’m not sure why, but I’ve noticed a trend over the past few years of at least two — and up to five — piñatas being brought out. If you’ve got entertainment, they’ll help out with the piñata song before you’re hoarse after singing it 50 times.

After the piñata, there will be pictures in front of the mesa de dulces, the Las Mañanitas birthday song will be sung and then cake will be passed around (pro tip: if the cake is what most excites you about parties, you’ll be waiting for it for, like, four to five hours — at least). After the cake, people will usually start filtering out, party favors in hand.

Party favors! The drinks, the food, the piñata candy — it’s a lot, but it’s not all! In addition to an extra bag of sweets for the children (called an aguinaldo), you may get some extra little goodies as well!

At the party I attended this past weekend, we walked away with two coffee cups, a paper towel dispenser (with a roll of paper towel already in it!), a candle, and (my personal favorite) a lighter, all Batman-themed with the name of the adorable party boy on it. We were also offered the table centerpiece, but the car we would travel back home in was already too full for a giant batman balloon!

Beware of clowns. If you’re at a kid’s party, the entertainment will probably be a clown, and if there aren’t very many kids — because one-year-olds don’t actually have friends — then the clown will focus on the adults.

It’s not that I’m afraid of clowns. But if you’re obviously a foreigner, zeroing in on you can become an important part of their bit throughout the evening, which is something I dread. That said, they’re usually brilliant comics and masters of improv and do provide pretty quality entertainment. But they talk fast, use a lot of wordplay and are often on mics that have about the same level of quality as drive-through menu speakers.

Gifts. Most people bring gifts (often in Liverpool gift bags), but it’s not the biggest faux-pax in the world if you don’t. They’ll be placed on a special table (usually by the mesa de dulces) and are almost always taken home still wrapped up; there’s rarely a “gift-unwrapping” portion of the evening.

I used to think this was strange, but now I appreciate the dynamic of being able to take them home and let my kid open and examine them tranquilamente without me having to profusely thank everyone (and get my kid to do the same during such an overstimulating event) in the moment. And at least for kid parties, thank-you notes shouldn’t be expected; many people don’t even put gift tags or even write “from ____” on the bag!

In case you haven’t figured this out yet: Mexicans are fancy. People, if you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, dress up for these things. Men can usually get away with slacks and a button-down shirt with dress shoes, but women are in full hair and makeup, fancy dresses (often tight, short ones) and high heels. So, if you want to look like you belong there at least a little, do not show up in jeans and flip-flops (the exception are the hosts, who often end up changing into “team T-shirts” made especially for the party).

Bedtime? What’s a bedtime? One thing I love about Mexico is that children are always included. “No kids allowed” spaces are few and far between, and getting one’s children home by a certain time isn’t something that most parents worry about.

That is very different from bedtime in the United States, where — at least in my family — it was sacred. Here, the view seems to be that kids will rest when they need rest, and they can always catch up on sleep later.

Extra note on piñatas. Every time I witness a piñata breaking, I feel nervous and often ask myself how many people get sent to the hospital annually after a whack on the head with the stick. As soon as even one piece of candy spills out, adults and children alike nosedive for it, and it becomes a kind of frenzy. There’s often an overlap of this happening while the other person is still swinging, and competition is fierce; if someone isn’t fast enough, then they just don’t get candy — at least not until the party favors are passed out.

So there you have it, folks! There’s a lot to love about parties down here and about a culture that values celebration so much. The world or the country or your relationship may be falling apart, but Mexicans know that celebration is good for the soul, full stop.

I personally believe that the fact that Mexico honors that truth is one of the things that’s making this country — despite some occasional scary stuff — one of the top destinations in the world for tourists these days.

There’s always time and always reasons to be sad. Just be sure to kick your feet up once in a while too!

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, and her Patreon page.

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