Most of the people in our town range from lower middle class to very poor. They are all working-level people with well-proportioned bodies perfectly fit for labor. In general they are smaller and shorter than us gringos (Anglos), as I like to call us. I often wonder at comments made in the US about hispanics being “lazy”, and even “dirty”. I have not observed any lazy people. Everyone works, with the possible exception of teenagers who don’t attend school, and old, old people. And the only “dirty” people I have seen are homeless. The most humble clothing is usually immaculate.
Their skin is brown, shading from pale to very, very dark. Children here are generally quite beautiful, and tend to be at their most attractive, in my opinion, until around age fourteen or fifteen. Their bodies are mostly bone and muscle into middle age.
Women do the bulk of the housework, which in many Mexican homes is extensive. From the early-morning sweeping and mopping to hand-washing many pounds of family clothes and blankets to cooking and cleaning for large families, it’s heavy work. Free time is often spent repairing clothing and doing fine handiwork (mostly crochet around here).
Many men work outdoors, doing the kind of work that machines do in California. When doing manual labor, men often sensibly break up the work day into two periods. At our house the two men who are building with bricks begin at about 7:30 a.m. as a kind of warm-up. At 10:30 a.m. they stop for breakfast. After that they work until about 4 p.m. They make building plans, carry cement, lay bricks, and dig and pry large stones out of the dirt. They have cut dowm trees, chopped them up and carried them in a wheelbarrow. They work very steadily. In the fields, teenagers are often hired to spray herbicides and insecticides, walking down planted rows. The men who work for the water company do heavy manual labor, providing new connections for the water that comes from the main, chopping through asphalt and concrete. Some men cut and sell firewood. Others work long hours irrigating or herding cattle.
On the street we often see women passing with very small children. “Pre-kinder” boys and girls are often sent to the small stores to bring home purchases for their mothers. From pre-kinder to “secondary” school, all students wear school uniforms. There is, by the way, no separation here of church and state – during school hours there are unison prayers, and there are many references to God in the school and of course in everyday conversation. The schools are quite good, and the level of education is high. Students from Mexico who transfered to the local California high desert high schools invariably entered higher levels than the ones they left. Education in Mexico is “free”, although there are costs involved – there are inscription fees, and book purchases, and families are asked to co-operate for building improvements and other costs.
The levels are Kinder (ages 4 and 5), Primaria (6 – 11), Secundaria (12 – 14, Preparatoria (15 – 17), University (18 and up).
Most clothing here would not be noticably different from what is seen in most communities in the US to the casual observer. Colors and textures may be different, but many brands or knock-offs of recognizable names are very popular here. Mature women here usually wear dresses or skirts and blouses with sweaters or jackets, depending on the season. Many grandma-age women cover their heads and shoulders with long shawls or rebozos, usually in dark colors. It is not considered appropriate for mature women to wear white or light colors . Common color choices are black or navy blue. Curiously, I don’t see much brown.
Teenagers tend to stay in gender-selected groups. Boys stand in the street, sometimes drinking, mostly always laughing amongst themselves, showing off, and waiting for the girls to pass by. And of course, the girls do pass by, by twos and threes, talking seriously or giggling, usually On Their Way to somewhere – a friend’s house, or to mass.
There is a tendency to marry young here. Many families seem to force their female children out of the house, and this naturally is hurtful to the daughters, who at one time were cherished and cooed over. The anger the girls must feel gets channeled into the new relationship.
If the parents of the young couple don’t approve of the union, the boy will often “steal” his girlfriend. In years past, the stealing was real – a kidnapping that may or may have not been consentual. The couple would stay together for a night or a week, and when they returned, the parents would hastily arrange their marriage. Soon the married girls lose their shiny attractiveness and they become subdued, squarish and very much like the very mothers they rebelled against. Their lives become nearly the same as their parents’, and not the glamorous, appreciated roll they dreamed of playing.
In our little town there are two girls that I knew when they were girls; just little girls, with little girls’ adorable sweetness and curiosity. They came here to our portål to see me, the exotic outsider; to read or listen to books I had brought with me. They are still girls in one sense of the word. Barely adults, they were “stolen” at the ages of twelve and thirteen, and although I see them occasionally, I strain to see the sweet, giggling personalities behind the dull eyes and slack bodies. They have their own babies now.
One of Chon’s aunts was stolen; truly stolen long ago, by her boyfriend’s best friend. Her life “turned out” well, and her marriage was probably at least as good as many.
Recently, during the same weekend, two girls were “stolen” here in our town. They showed up a few weeks later, with their husbands. Parents of these couples generally hurry to get the youngsters married in the church whenever possible.