And the idea of visions and versions brings us to another great cultural phenomenon: the lie, and the reasons of its existence.
I was raised in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, who according to legend, on a certain historic occasion arrived home after walking a couple of miles to the store and back, only to discover that he had be given more than the correct change. Of course he immediately turned around and walked back to the store to return what was not rightfully his (an attitude his countrymen haven’t always respected in terms of invaded territories, by the way.)
I don’t know how these stories get handed down, but it impressed me profoundly. It influenced my own behavior to the extent that I have been known to go to the extreme of leaving notes on the windshields of parked cars (yes, plural, it happened more than once) which I had scraped in my adolescent clumsiness while learning to drive, with the legend “I’m sorry, but I think I scratched your car, please call me and I’ll repair the damage.”
I believe that one of the first times I was compelled to see honesty in more subtle, nuanced, terms was when I read the dialogue in an English play, probably by Shaw, in which one character commented to another, “He considers himself honest because he wouldn’t steal money lying on a table.”
Thus I was confronted with the idea that people who think that they are honest could be deceiving themselves and in the process, deceiving others. From there it was just a small leap to understanding a concept which forms part of the trove of popular wisdom in Mexico: a lie can be an act of legitimate self-defense.
So it was that my idea of honesty as a matter of obvious definition as well as a necessary quality of people with integrity crashed into more complex cultural notions. First came the notion that truth can be relative.
I began to realize this with my observation, already commented, of the distinct focuses in American and foreign news reporting.
Then I was confronted with the idea that what some people consider a lie is for others a defense of their personal space, of their possibility of moving freely. The lie becomes a mechanism of survival in a world of arbitrary bosses, suffocating spouses, repressive parents, etc. If one were perfectly transparent, one could be perfectly controlled. The lie becomes a way of exercising power when one has been negated other forms of power. And as the lie creates power, which we all know is additive and corrupts, just imagine all the possibilities of use and abuse that arise…
What seems curious to me (and serves as an indication that I still don’t really understand this business) is that certain people (including on occasion my own descendents) use the lie as a creative exercise. “Let’s see, what can I invent and how long I can keep them believing me…”
As a result the world stops being a prison constructed of undeniable facts and circumstances, and becomes a fascinating place where everything changes according to how one constructs the story. Like art, right? So nobody is limited by crude reality.
Although I begin to understand the usefulness of lying and the justifications for doing so, I still haven’t developed the custom of making use of it. I would, say, lie if someone asks me how much I paid for something when I consider it’s none of their business (and don’t want to deal with their recriminations).
I might add that I am not very good at recognizing when I am being lied to, another indication of my ongoing condition as a cultural outsider.
I also have been unable to suppress a marked American accent. At times people tell me (to be nice) that I sound European, which obviously means more cultured than American. Curiously, it’s Argentines who are most apt to comment on my accent (in their own ridiculous Argentine accent, of course). Mexicans tend to be more discrete.
Actually it embarrasses me to have such a strong accent. Not enough to go to Berlitz and try to correct it, but enough to be disconcerted every time someone says, “All these years in Mexico and you still speak so badly?”
Sometimes I’m told I speak really well, it depends on to whom they’re comparing me, I guess. Of course, when my children were young they didn’t realize that there was something strange about how their mother talked. Not until their friends started asking “Hey, why does your mom talk so funny?”
My oldest son played football from when he was eight until he was twenty, a sport which is neither practiced nor understood nor enjoyed by either of his parents or other relatives, with the notable exception of his maternal grandparents who after all, are from Nebraska, which has a fantastic university football team. Anyway, playing football he met his best friend, a friendship which still endures. His friend is the descendent of a Chinese-Mexican father (who speaks “normal” Mexican Spanish) and an Australian mother (who speaks Spanish like an Australian) and just as in our family, his parents suffer from a certain addiction to feminism and politics.
So the kids understood each other, they knew what it’s like to grow up thinking that orange vegetable is a zanoria (Mexicans consider carrots to be zanahorias, not quite the same thing) and laughing at mothers who talk about astronautos (The word looks like it should end in a good masculine o, but it actually ends in an a, I’ve since learned. ) But the ongoing great debate between the two boys, in which to this day they continue to hold the opinion that the other is vastly mistaken, was: whose mother speaks worse Spanish. Of course the accent one grows up with always sounds better.
At home we didn’t speak much English. At first this was due to the fact that when the children were very young and enjoying the brief period of having their two parents together, both of these parents were intent on being very Latin. I, as a newly-arrived gringa, wanted to incorporate myself as much as possible into my new life. And he, having spent too many years outside the country, needed to reaffirm his shakey Mexican identity. He wanted to avoid the pattern of his own parents, who had established English as the family language, with the result of having Mexican children raised elsewhere and sounding like it.
(To be continued…)