Here’s a letter from my father in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, dated 3 August 1964. He, my stepmother, my sister, my cousin, and another friend our age had made several trips to Saltillo’s Universidad Interamericana, where they studied Spanish. I’m not sure who had gone on this particular trip. I had just graduated from Stanford and was about to begin a PhD program in Anthropology at Berkeley. (I only lasted a year before running off to Spain with my boyfriend, but that’s a different story).
My father wrote,
In a way, I’m sorry that you’ve not been able to share these last three visits to Mexico with us. This is a culture fully as alien to the norteamericana as is, for example, the French.
Genevieve and I find that we got here more tired and more overworked than we had supposed, but even so, it is a baptism of strangeness which refreshes the soul and puts each of us, once again, in a different perspective for a little while.
I’ve thought, several times, while I’ve been here, how much more exactly I would be able to express some of my observations and assessments if I had had the advanced anthropological training which you are about to get: for example, Mexicans have great difficulty about expressing immediate thanks (even in situations where Latin Europeans would have no difficulty in being verbally effusive), but they are untroubled about the elaborate expression of thanks for anything a year or so past.
Again, promptness is either an alien quality, where the Mexican rejoices in his successful assimilation of the enormous civilization to the North in at least one of its aspects, or else promptness is an outrage to his personal dignity. A touch of tardiness seems to preserve human warmth and integrity in situations which would otherwise be clock-haunted nightmares of the worst kind.
I’ve found myself wondering whether both these cultural traits might not be cultural residue, left over from the envy, love, admiration, hatred, and grief which the creoles and Indians felt for so many centuries as their gallant, handsome, wonderful, hateful Spanish masters dominated every situation with torrents of beautiful expostulatory Castilian. It wouldn’t take too many decades of that kind of social structure and interaction to make people feel like glaring at each other whenever they feel grateful. Or would it? You’re the anthropologist of the family, not I.
My father could always overwhelm me with torrents of beautiful expostulatory English!