Opinions of the host: Mexicans look at the "other"

Most of us look for mirrors, even if we do not think of ourselves as particularly vain. Reflections are sought in windows and in the eyes of friends and strangers. How we see ourselves and how we are seen go to the core of our identity.

Image:Dan Lund´s Passport Photo

Dan Lund, inspiration to so many journalists, writers and academics, died yesterday, November 13, 2010.

As foreigners in Mexico on extended stays of one kind or another, we are seen as “other.” The regional social integration of North America (which in many ways is not even dependent on NAFTA) has provided an ongoing theme for market and policy research. It’s also an opportunity to catch a glimpse of our reflection.

For more than a decade, the Mund Group has asked a series of questions about the presence of foreigners in Mexico in our periodic national surveys. The form of the question is purposefully tilted negative, in an attempt to flush out any resentment that might exist: “When you see or hear about the following kinds of foreigners are you bothered—a great deal, some, not at all?”

Over the past half-dozen surveys, when we ask about tourists, visiting students, researchers, business people, and journalists, we have found that less than 5 percent are bothered a great deal, and another 7 percent are bothered some. This year we added a new category—“long term foreign residents”—and found the same levels of benign response.

There are two categories that provoke a bit more discomfort: missionaries, of all faiths, bother 15 percent of the respondents a great deal, and another 10 percent some. But the winners in the negative race are foreign police (usually DEA agents in the imagination of the respondents). Consistent with the previous studies, this year’s survey shows that 23 percent are bothered a great deal, and another 18 percent some. This is true even after two years of intense media discussion about the public security crisis.

Since most of the readers of Inside México fall into one category or another of the least bothersome strangers in the land, we will explore further what Mexicans have said about Canadian and US visitors, and longterm residents.

However, before we can understand the guests, we need a clear picture of the host. Our working hypothesis, developed over the past thirty years, is that a central feature of Mexican cultural identity is the triangle of family, travel within Mexico to visit family, and the enjoyment of food at the table with family.

Mexicans describe this triangle again and again in qualitative studies, and it is what many Mexicans living in the US say they miss most about being away from their country. For Mexicans who have participated in our focus groups, the notion of “family” at the comida table is not exclusive. Interviewees anticipate a groaning board that joins old friends and new. The table isn’t really the “mesa” unless it is a bit crowded.

In this context, the invited guest takes on both actual and symbolic significance. For the past couple of years, we have asked Mexicans to imagine particular guests coming to the extended family table, and to describe them. The resulting discussions reflect both a great generosity of spirit, and some conditioned jealousies.

A composite image of the US guests (usually envisioned as a couple) runs something like this: they arrive a little late, and are dressed very casually. For some reason, more often than not, people imagine them dressed in blue. They are large people, perhaps a bit overweight.

They speak Spanish, often in a loud voice. They carry gifts of food for the hostess, often described as some kind of bread or beef, or even fast food they have picked up to share. However ambiguous these descriptions may seem, the Mexican focus group participants are unabashed in their delight to host the guests.

A view of the Canadian guests (also envisioned as a couple) runs in a slightly different direction: they arrive on time, maybe a little early, and are dressed informally, but most likely with a sports jacket for the man and a dress for the woman. For reasons not always clear, people tend to imagine them dressed in brown. They are tall people, healthy and athletic in appearance.

They speak Spanish, but in a subdued voice. They carry gifts of food for the hostess, most often identified as delicacies from their country like seafood or maple syrup. The gifts are seen as “fresh.” The descriptions seem rather detailed, even though few of the Mexican participants have ever sat down for a meal with Canadians.

We may not be like we are imagined to be. In fact, we often are not quite how we imagine ourselves. However, being seen as the “other”—and in fact being the “other”—is one of those marvelous opportunities in life to gain perspective and see our reflection more clearly.

Dan Lund is the president of the MUND Group, a Mexico City-based public opinion and market research firm. Their website is www.mundgroup.com.