Monday, June 17, 2024

Spanish tutors: my window into Mexican culture

I’m with my Spanish tutor, Camila. As we sit opposite each other in the kitchen of the Mexican home my husband Barry and I bought in the heart of Guanajuato 17 years ago, we share details about our lives and she teaches me modismos and helps me with my pronunciation. My class is the highlight of my day.

Since we bought the house, I’ve had seven tutors, each of whom has not only taught me Spanish but also offered a window into Mexican culture that I could not have found as easily or quickly anywhere else. 

In my experience, a tutor provides many more benefits than just language skills. A tutor helps me get beyond the stereotypes to understand the real culture.

Here are eight cultural insights I’ve learned from my different maestros:

  1. The importance of courtesy. When Camila WhatsApps me, she always starts with Buenos días or a similar greeting. I’ve learned to use similar courtesies rather than do the American thing of just getting to the point.If approaching a stranger to ask directions or entering a shop, for example, I know to first sayBuenos días or Buenos tardes. As I get on a bus, I always greet the driver. And when I leave a restaurant, I say — as Mexicans do — buen provecho to the remaining diners.A U.S. expat married to a mexicana told me that when his mother-in-law orders a pizza, she spends five minutes on the phone: 30 seconds ordering the pizza and four and a half minutes greeting and offering courtesies.
  2. Indirect communication. Even among Latino cultures, Mexicans tend to take longer to get to their point. For example, in my yoga class, one member coordinates a monthly breakfast. A few weeks ago, I was tickled when I read her long, effusive WhatsApp message to the group. She took 160 words to basically say, “Let’s figure out where to have our breakfast this month.” So different from my more direct, minimalist — and from a Mexican point of view — abrupt American style.
  3. Hierarchy. Erika, one of our early teachers, explained that forms of address referring to titles and roles are an important sign of respect in Mexico. When we were remodeling our 150-year-old house, for example, we called our former architect by his first name, “David,” but soon learned that our foreman referred to him as Arquitecto, who in turn called him Maistro — meaning a trade specialist of some kind.
  4. Ahorita and other diminutives. Mexicans add –ito and –ita to many words as a way of being warm and personal. The word ahorita means “pretty soon,” but beware of taking it literally — it could mean hours.When our neighbor comes over for a drink, she likes to have a palomita (tequila and Fresca). People refer to their grandparents not as abuelos but as their abuelitos. Camila wished me a fun time at la playita. I sometimes hear a Mexican referring to another person as llenito or gordito, meaning on the chubby side. Using such a term is not insulting as it is in the U.S.Recently, when Barry and I were visiting the state of Hidalgo, I asked a stranger where to get the combi for the pueblo mágico Real de Monte. “Derechito,” he replied, adding, “a la vueltita.” (Go straight, then around the corner). It cracked me up!
  5. Personal space and body language. Mexicans stand and mingle much closer to each other while talking than do Americans. When they come out of a shop, it’s a mystery to me how they don’t seem to look left or right yet somehow join the stream of pedestrians without bumping into people.
    A few years ago, a 25-year-old Spanish tutor told Barry that since her sister was getting married, she would have a room to herself for the first time in her life. Being British, he could think of nothing better.“Isn’t that wonderful?” he asked her.“Oh, no,” she said. “I’ll be lonely.”Their respective reactions reflected very different cultural values!In Guanajuato, I see people touching and hugging frequently in public, as well as adolescents entwined on benches in squares and parks, enjoying a degree of freedom that I don’t see in the U.S. On Friday evenings it’s common for students in the secundaria (middle school) to converge in Guanajuato’s jardín, having fun and unsupervised by an adult.
  6. Women marrying later. In 2020, the average age of mexicanas marrying was higher than that of the U.S. (30 vs. 27). One of our former Spanish teachers is now a law professor in Mexico City in her 40s, still unmarried.

    Another former tutor, a single mom with two grown sons, got back together with her high school sweetheart and now lives with him in Querétaro. Camila just turned 33 and has a boyfriend but is in no hurry to marry. This is completely different from when we first studied Spanish in Oaxaca in the 90s.
  7. Different treatment of sons and daughters. I was puzzled to learn that even contemporary mothers tend to demand more of their daughters. Camila explained that this is partly because the moms are counting on their sons to financially subsidize them when they’re old and widowed. However, this attitude by mothers can backfire when a son grows up and expects his wife to wait on him.
    But Mexican wives are not as financially dependent on their husbands as they once were and don’t have to put up with a husband who doesn’t pull his weight. In 2016, more than 43 percent of Mexican women over 60 were divorced, separated or widowed.
  8. Close (sometimes too close) family ties. Mexicans have strong family ties, with a national tradition of an intergenerational comida together every Sunday. However, Camila says that family unity can fray, especially after the death of parents.All my teachers have pointed out that there are downsides to Mexican family life, like parents placing excess pressure on their adult children. For example, one of our first teachers was teaching Spanish part-time while simultaneously going to university. Because she came from a poor family, we offered to pay for her título, the diploma.
    Later, we learned that her mother insisted on the money being used to repair the bathroom in the family home, which was muy feo. Our teacher felt she simply couldn’t say no to her mom.

I’m usually at least a generation older than my Spanish teachers, but age is irrelevant; we share our lives: I consult with them when I face tricky cultural situations, and they help me decode Mexican culture. As my paid friends, informants and cultural experts, they’re worth every peso I invest.

Louisa Rogers and her husband Barry Evans divide their lives between Guanajuato and Eureka, on California’s North Coast. Louisa writes articles and essays about expat life, Mexico, travel, physical and psychological health, retirement and spirituality. Her recent articles are on her website,

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