We moved to Mexico with our U.S.-born son when he was twelve; that was fifteen years ago. We love our lives in Mazatlán, though any family has ups and downs. Fortunately, our son has developed many competencies he wouldn’t have had if we stayed in the USA.
This article is the second in a series on raising an English-speaking child to be bicultural in Mexico. The first focused on preparing for the move and the first year; this article will center on middle school or junior high. I hope this series might help those who are or will be adapting to Mexico as a family.
Life as a teenager
My strongest memory of those early teenage years of our son’s life was how busy we all were! There were always kids or other families in our home. There was always an event to attend, often two or three in one evening. I had been frustrated with our boring social life in Kansas City; now, we had multiple events daily! The community that quickly formed around us was welcoming and fun-loving—a complete blessing for a family with an only child. Of course, there were many times we felt left out—he’d miss a soccer practice due to a lack of communication or misunderstanding. Once, we even returned to school from the summer holidays a week late! Who announces in June when the next school year will start, then changes the start date over the summer break but doesn’t communicate that to all the families? We learned to check in with friends frequently while out of town, as things in Mexico change quickly, and communication is often organic rather than intentional.
A tradition of piscinadas (pool parties) emerged with our son. Quite frequently, a large group of his friends would come over on a Friday after school to horse around in the pool of our condo complex. A memory seared into my soul is when Danny first started doing this. The kids were all twelve, and the girls would wind their legs around the boys’ waists, and several couples would talk intimately around the pool. I was horrified! Such sexuality and public intimacy at such a young age! I didn’t realize at the time this behavior wasn’t sexual; it was a quality of friendship with which I just wasn’t familiar. A couple of years later, when the kids did start getting interested in one another as potential partners, the girls would hang out at one end of the pool and the boys at the other. So much for my horror.
During the middle teenage years, there is, of course, the quinceañera tradition in Mexico. Danny attended many of these parties. We were delighted to see him chosen as chambelán (escort to the birthday girl) at several. The kids looked so great dressed up and learned the coolest dance moves. As parents, we felt honored to be padrinos (godparents) for several kids. We hosted one quinceañera in our condo party room.
We remember the chile-eating contests as the boys quested to out-macho one another at this age. We learned about them when we noticed our son taking milk to school, saying it helped him survive the hottest chiles. The early teen years are also when Mexican school children do lots of project work in teams. We enjoyed the groups coming over to our house to work on projects as we got to know many of the kids in Danny’s class.
Early teens are when many kids get their first jobs. Danny’s first job here was at a palapa restaurant on the beach. We imagined he’d be a busboy, but they assigned him to collect the money to use the port-a-potty! Humility in action. We loved how his school required the kids to do social service hours and volunteer jobs. He helped teach English; he worked for several years at the local animal shelter, cleaning cages and walking the dogs; and he did a few other charity gigs. It has instilled in him a lifelong commitment to helping others, for which we are grateful. It is a practice in most Mexican schools and one I highly recommend to schools everywhere.
Teenagers are, by nature, embarrassed by their parents. During his early teen years, I keenly remember that Daniel asked me to stay silent and not say anything during conversations with strangers. “You sound like a gringa when you speak,” he told me. “I am a gringa! And I need to speak,” I would respond. Ah, family love.
We remember local girls hitting on our son; they seemed fascinated with a foreign boy. Once at lunch in a restaurant, a young teenage girl set a note on our table for Danny with her phone number. It seemed incredibly forward to me for a 14 year-old. That is when we decided to discuss birth control, commitment, and drinking, maybe earlier than in the U.S.
Our home is on the route of the Mazatlán Carnaval parade, the third largest in the world. So, every year we’d have a huge party, and a dozen or so of Danny’s friends would join us. They were so much fun, dancing as the comparsas (puppets) went by!
He was also a member of the Mexican Scouts, which are coed and truly Scout-run. Danny would travel all over the country with his troop. The older kids care for the younger ones; the leaders are present to supervise and chaperone. To this day, Danny can take charge of a group of children (or adults) and quickly improvise an activity to keep them all engaged and entertained. Scouting Mexican-style gave him many lifetime gifts, friends, and skills. One of my favorite memories is Danny and a few of his Scout friends fundraising during Mazatlán’s ArtWalk. They were standing at a table outside a well-known gallery, laughing like crazy. Witnessing our son regaling the others with stories and jokes in Spanish, being the life of the party, after only a couple of years in the country, warmed my soul.
Initial adaptation and Deep Culture Shock
By the second year of our lives in Mexico, we had adapted, at least in surface ways: we’d furnished our home, we knew our way around, we could shop, and had routines. We were comfortable at social events, Danny had a job and volunteered, and we had our jobs and circle of friends. About this time Deep Culture Shock kicked in, and it was about values in conflict— questioning our identities and who we are in this new environment.
One of my most memorable culture shock moments came at the end of seventh grade. We wanted to host a lunada, a beach party, for the entire class. I thought it would be fun to co-host with a couple of other families, thinking that parents would feel more comfortable sending their kids to the beach if local families were co-hosting. So, I calculated how much the taquiza (taco bar), music, and drinks would cost. I chose a couple of women from school I knew to whom the US$100 or so in costs wouldn’t be an inconvenience. I called to share my idea with them. In the States, or even in Japan, where I’d lived for years, my friends would have eagerly agreed—what a fun idea! The response I received from the other mothers was, “Why should I pay for other kids to attend a party? You need to charge each child who attends. If I’m going to pay, will you invite all my friends and family members? No, absolutely not.” I was stunned, speechless. In the U.S., asking children to pay to attend a party would seem absurd. But here in Mexico, it’s an acceptable way to host a party and share the cost. Instead, I erroneously felt that two women I thought were friends weren’t. The interaction cost me a lot of soul-searching and reflection. That’s what cultural adaptation is: the chance to get to know ourselves more deeply, clarify our values, and expand our repertoire of behavior. The lunada, by the way, was a huge success! We ended up paying for it as our thank-you to everyone for helping us integrate, and no one hesitated to send their kids—despite the hurricane that day. We received phone calls all day asking if we were canceling or not. Fortunately, the weather cleared before sunset, and many kids were so eager that they arrived at the event an hour early!
Middle school or junior high
Danny’s middle school was private and Catholic. We realized sometime during the second year that it had been the perfect choice for him the first year. It was one of the only schools in Mazatlán back then that was bilingual, and he’d needed that. Its small size was helpful, as we quickly became part of the community. The teachers were all supportive. But once he became fluent in Spanish and understood the culture better, those advantages receded in importance and the things we disliked grew in their impact.
One example was the parental role in school activities. During parent-teacher meetings, the teachers in our school would always say they welcomed parent involvement. We quickly learned that, at least from our U.S. perspective, they didn’t want to hear our ideas or opinions. The teachers and staff wanted our positive comments, our assistance in class when requested, and not much else.
Our family will never forget the three Christmas plays or pastorelas in which our son performed. These are typically reenactments of the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus, though the story is often updated and placed in a modern context. Our son was the only foreign boy in his class. We were delighted in seventh grade when he told us he had a major role in the school’s Christmas play! Our son? Not yet fully fluent in Spanish? How exciting! We proudly recorded portions of the performance to share with family and friends. Danny played the ugly gringo boss. He did a good job; he’s a good public speaker with a strong sense of comedy. We were a bit sad that they cast the gringo kid as the ugly gringo; it seemed a bit obvious and played to stereotype. And we laughed that they cast the tallest, whitest, richest kid in the school as the “poor, downtrodden, dark-skinned Jesús.” We had moved to Mexico because we felt it crucial to raise our son with experience living as a minority. We needed to watch what we asked for! It was a good lesson in empathy.
After we attended the performance of a second pastorela in eighth grade and the casting of the main parts was the same, we spoke with the drama teacher. “Danny does such a good job in the role. He doesn’t mind. He has never said he doesn’t want to play an ugly gringo boss.” Our explanations of how his casting fueled stereotypes and didn’t stretch the kids’ acting skills as much as it could fell on deaf ears.
When the scenario repeated itself for the third time in ninth grade, we became the ugly gringos. Our son begged us not to go to school, not to say anything. This time Mom and Dad spoke with the principal. And this time, our explanations again made zero impact. In her mind, the drama teacher had done an excellent job, as had the students, so why were we complaining? We moved to Mexico and intentionally chose to encounter values differences and adaptation opportunities, but that didn’t make the experience less stressful or, sadly, make us model citizens.
I remember one time, during a period of enormous frustration with the irony of the school, attending a Lenten program. At Danny’s (Catholic) middle school and high school, parental attendance at weekly programs during the 40 days of Lent was encouraged — students’ grades improved one point in the class of their choice if parents attended as suggested. Every child wanted their parent to attend. I enjoyed the Lenten talks, but these came during my experience of deep culture shock. In my then-sour-mind, these well-dressed, well-made-up, highly religious ladies were the same ones who pushed, shoved, and cut the line when the need presented itself. At the entrance to the lecture hall was a huge bowl of candy. I took a couple of pieces. Many ladies scooped significant amounts of the wrapped candies into their purses. Oh, how I chuckled internally. “Yes, you are so greedy. You are rich, yet you take advantage of anything free you can get your hands on,” my failure-to-culturally-adapt-self told me. The priest then began his lecture by asking each parent attending how many pieces of candy they’d taken. The lesson was about the common good, sharing, other-centeredness, and the evilness of greed: good Christian values. I felt so vindicated! But, of course, what good did that do me? Adaptation demanded that I understand their mindset in grabbing the candies, even if I didn’t like it.
One of the greatest downsides of culture shock is when we behave poorly. It can happen to the best of us. Mexico was in the round of 16 of the World Cup, and the entire country seemed to be shutting down to watch the matches. The school sent home word that children should NOT skip school and that they would be allowed to see the match at school. We knew from most of his friend’s parents that they would keep the kids home anyway, letting them enjoy the big match with family. Many even went out to sports bars to watch it as a family. Being what we thought were responsible parents, we made Danny go to school. He’d be able to watch the match there. However, we got a furtive text from our son saying that, no, too many kids had skipped school, so the staff had decided not to show the match as punishment. Give me a break! Punish the kids who do attend school because too many others have skipped. It pushed me over the edge. I showed up at school to take Danny out for a “doctor’s appointment.” When the school procrastinated for over an hour in releasing him, I demanded his release. I accused them of keeping him hostage against my will. I told them school was not a prison, and they had no right to keep him from me. It was ugly. I am ashamed now to think about it. But I remain happy that I was able to finally get him out of school so we could watch the second half as a family.
Keys to successful adjustment
It was key for us to remain strong as a family. We continued our palapa Friday tradition, celebrating the end of each week with lunch on the beach. We continued our daily meals together and talked about the day’s experiences. As always, we should have discussed some things that we didn’t, but the daily mealtime at least provided an opportunity. Scouts was a godsend for our son’s adaptation: he met people from other socio-economic backgrounds, and we got to know their parents, too. It provided different learning and skill development opportunities than school.
We found it incredibly helpful to know his friends and their parents. We hosted Carnaval parties, Fridays at the pool, and Kings’ Day gatherings, and gratefully, our home became a gathering place for Danny and his friends. Having the kids around so much enabled us to get to know his friends and stay in tune with what they were all up to. It also cost us a lot in groceries!
Having a support network of other parents and knowing the idiosyncrasies of the various kids in our son’s tribe was so helpful in helping Dan to make sense of cultural issues. Those friendships were invaluable to our sanity as parents, too.
We continued to learn that things often don’t happen as expected. We reminded ourselves that frustration is a normal part of learning and adaptation. Communication is miraculous when you think about it; of course we had miscommunication between people so different from us! We tried to enjoy the surprise and go with the flow while remaining committed to holding on to our core values as individuals and as a family.
Finally, we found it extremely helpful to have hobbies or activities that fed our self-esteem and reminded us we were capable, intelligent, friendly people. Sometimes, sitting down and reading a good English-language novel was just what the doctor ordered!
As far as Danny was concerned, these middle school years in Mazatlán taught him that hard work is good, and that time laughing and bonding with friends and family is great. He learned to care for himself and others, proving to be an outstanding friend. He learned responsibility and the value of improvisation and flexibility, and he polished his creativity. We couldn’t have asked for a better set of friends or learning experiences for a young teenager.
This is the second article in a multi-part series on raising our son in Mexico. I trust you will join me for the remainder of the story!
Dianne Hofner Saphiere is a photographer and interculturalist who has lived in Mazatlán since 2008. Her photographs can be found under “Thru Di’s Eyes” on FB, IG or her website, www.thrudiseyes.com. She also runs the expat website www.vidamaz.com.