I know I will always be considered an extranjero while mingling among the masses here in my adopted country.
Being on the other side of cultural prejudice, as an exploited minority, is something that is always lurking in the cavernous recesses of what’s left of my mind. However, an incident four years ago clarified the murky issue of the gringo tax; the higher cost of goods and services for foreigners.
The Mexican consumer protection agency, Profeco, requires all merchants to clearly display the cost of their goods, but this is Mexico where even simple traffic laws are rarely enforced. So, when unscrupulous merchants see an opportunity to make a few extra bucks from an unsuspecting Anglo, they are not deterred by any pesky regulations.
Bartering with roving vendors or haggling with the owner of a curio/t-shirt shop is standard fare for both the haggler and the hagglee. Both parties will attempt to best the other, and both know a gringo tax is in included in the starting price.
However, when you deal with an established, mainstream, retail business, a bit of professionalism is to be expected without regard to the nationality of the customer.
I learned early on that here in Mexico if you are spending more than 200 pesos it really pays to shop around. Sometimes the different prices for the equivalent or similar products are all in the same ballpark, while at other times the disparity is staggering.
Four years ago, I experienced the absolute zenith of my gringoness, the pinnacle of retail plunder, the precipice of profiteering, an unabashed malfeasance, a full-blown in your face attempted rip-off.
While I was doing some interior finish work for a client I came to a point where we needed to order some wood beams. There are several lumber yards around town that would be able to supply me with what the client wanted.
To save time and language problems, I had Juan, my executive assistant, call around to get a firm price for the lumber we needed. We got prices from three different suppliers that ranged from 9,000 to 14,000 pesos for the package.
There was a fourth lumber yard we could not reach by telephone, so I stopped by after work and handed my list to the man in charge. He looked the list over, made a couple of phone calls and pushed buttons on his calculator.
It took him about 15 minutes to come up with a price of 22,000 pesos. I looked at the price, looked back at the list to make sure my quantities and sizes were correct and then looked into the wide smiling face of the pirate that wanted my client’s pesos.
I thanked him for his time and promptly left before my simmering temper forced me to spew forth my extensive vocabulary of Mexican obscenities.
We were into our third day of attempting to locate a source that could actually produce and or deliver the beams some time before next Christmas. I was outside dealing with a minor plumbing disaster when Juan came out and announced he found a supplier that had the beams in stock for a mere 12,000 pesos.
Since the other suppliers could not give me a firm, or even a vague delivery date, their prices were meaningless. I told Juan to have the man put it in writing and email it to me and we would stop by in the afternoon.
On our way to the lumber yard the neighborhood began to look very familiar and I simply assumed there was more than one wood supplier in this colonia. When Juan told me it was in the next block and to take a right turn into the driveway, I realized I was about to reenter the pirate’s lair from three days before; this was going to be interesting.
It was then I understood that the gringo price for the beams was 22,000 pesos and the price for a local was 12,000 pesos. We entered the office and Juan presented a copy of the emailed bid to the now somewhat confused culprit and asked to look at the wood.
There are few times in life when you can catch someone so blatantly in flagrante delicto and I was vastly enjoying the moment. The man’s face started to twist into a sheepish grimace and suddenly developed several nervous tics.
This once proud pirate quickly transformed into a humble but gracious business owner who could not do enough to accommodate our needs.
This experience has taught me that unless I can speak perfect Spanish, I need a trusted Mexican friend to negotiate certain types of transactions, especially when significant sums of pesos are involved.
Also, I would like to thank the Acme Expat Immersion Therapy and Attitude Modification Program for helping me view this incident with the proper perspective, thereby maintaining my tentative grip on sanity.
Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.