Lazens Abroad

Kickin’ it Old School in San Miguel de Allende


Whose Stuff is Your Stuff?

News reports in the U.S. create the impression that Mexico has descended into anarchy.

This is absurd, if for no other reason than it implies that Mexico ever rose out of anarchy in the first place.

Here, in the high central plateau, we know that in places as close as Celaya–an hour away–if you see an ice chest on the side of the road, you probably don’t want to peek into it. Those stains on the outside are not ketchup, but rather cabeza drippings.

But in San Miguel, violent crime–at least for gringos–is rare. Perhaps this tranquility can be attributed to the numerous signs that implore the locals to “be nice to tourists.” The signs are in Spanish of course, and shout from the sides of buildings and bus stops with all the subtlety of two Italian waiters discussing your girlfriend’s ass in their native tongue while they clear your table.

The subtext of the signs is “Yes, white people and wealthy aristocrats from Mexico are irritating. We all know that. But we can get our hands on a lot more of their money by smiling and saying “thank you” than by hitting them over the head.”

So, as long as you exercise the modicum of common sense that God gave geese, you can roam as you please.

But keep your eyes on your bags.

Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit about crime in New York? The gist was, “well, you went outside–what did you expect?”

Now multiply by 10.

Each neighborhood here is administered by the local los cholos, or gangs. It’s a vast bureaucracy staffed by children as young as five, mobs of teenagers, and ranks of ne’er-do-well adults.

You are wise to assume that you are being surveilled at all times. Certainly, any items not bolted down and outside of your present field of vision disappear instantaneously, regardless of whether they have any value.

There is little sense that this ubiquitous thievery is immoral. After all, you, Mr. American, are appallingly wealthy. (And you are.) It is only reasonable to assume that any camera you aren’t at this moment clutching in your hands, any computer you’re not typing on, or any cash in your pocket beyond the amount you will need to pay for these tacos, is something you don’t need, have forgotten about, and will never use again anyway.

Why should it be allowed to go to waste?

There is also perhaps a collectivist undercurrent to the thinking–the last faint cultural vestige of the otherwise failed populist revolution. From this perspective, yes, your valuables are locked in your house. And yes, your house is within your walls. But your walls are are contained within the wider colonia. And as we all know the colonia is the domain of its people, ably represented by those four dubious looking teenagers sharing a forty of Sol on the curb across the street and the army of urchins they command.

By this thinking, everything in your house is theirs to dispose of. And if you are still using it, it is only because they have not yet dropped by to pick it up.

Our clan has been spared a major break-in so far, only because of our unpredictable comings and goings, my work-at-home habits, and the astonishing ruckus that we–a mere family of five–manage to produce. We are like an small platoon of soldiers that, bivouacked for the night, lights one thousand camp fires.

Or maybe they are in terror of our ferocious guard dog.

He will rip your face off. (Image scale: life size!)

In the meantime, an all-seeing but unseen army of Artful Dodgers labors tirelessly and for meager reward to teach you not to leave your shit lying around, for Chrissakes. And what an exasperating exercise in futility it is. Because you never seem to learn, do you?

But their patience is infinite. The first night after we brought home our used VW and parked it in our courtyard, they reminded us of the importance of locking our car at all times by scaling the wall and relieving it of its radio while we were out to dinner.

We appreciated the reminder.

Evelyn and her friend Walker knit and paint small crafts which they peddle for centavos. One day they set their box of crafts and coins down beside Walker’s front door and surrendered it by looking away. We could tell by Evelyn’s choking sobs how grateful she was to learn for the first time that people are essentially bad and will always break your heart and then laugh in your face.

To reinforce this lesson, the same local sneak-thieves hung a dead cat from the wall of the empty lot where Evelyn and Walker like to play. Note that nothing was stolen in this instance. This lesson in the way of the world was complimentary–like the extra donut in a bakers’ dozen.

Note also: In America, hanging a dead cat in a child’s play area might seem threatening–like Luca Brasi’s dead fish. However in Mexico, this sort of thing is quite hilarious.

The climax of our petty theft experience (so far) came last week. I had driven across the neighborhood to pick up Max from a friend’s, and realized I had a flat tire when I pulled up at the house. As I wrestled to fit the spare, a youth stopped on his bicycle to watch and help.

Max came outside with his blue sketch book-diary and a plastic bag with a bottle of olive oil his friend’s mother had bought for us. When he saw I was engaged and in a foul tire-changing lather, he put these items down and went back to play. I (O foolish human!) did not think to move them when I went in to wash up, and sure enough, when I came back out 90 seconds later they were gone.

Panic. The sketch book is precious, for it contains an unbroken record of Max’s Mexico experience. And Max was in terror, for he had misplaced it once before, and his mother’s had had popped off her shoulders in “disappointment.”

We went home, resigned to the loss. But Catherine was in no mood to concede. Back across the colonia she drove with Max in tow.

“Where,” she asked of Max’s friend and his mother, “do those bad kids hang out?”

Both urged her to let the matter drop. She refused. Finally, the boy agreed to show her the gang’s lair, so long as he need only point from across the street.

Catherine took Max and marched several blocks and into San Juan de Dios, where gringos really ought not be, and then into a walled lot where lounged male riff-raff from the ages of eight to 48. Strutting around the open space, los Cholos exchanged the elaborate handshakes that enable them to determine who will soon be cutting who, like dogs sniffing each others’ butts.

“My son has lost some things. I am a proud mother. I want to find them and I will give 100 pesos to whoever can help me.”

One of the kids had a sudden recollection. He had seen just such a blue sketch book. And a bottle that–wait just one second!–might have contained some sort of cooking oil. He rode off on his bike to investigate.

Catherine waited, ignored by the idle gangsters until the young man returned, the items in hand. Payment was rendered, concluding the transaction.

We are learning so much here.

6 Responses to “Whose Stuff is Your Stuff?”

  1. May 17th, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Tony Zito says:

    Utterly fascinating. Such a great blog, Mark — just wanted to holler and let you know it's appreciated….

  2. May 17th, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Tony Zito says:

    Oh, and I hope you're planning on turning this into a book at some point.

  3. May 18th, 2009 at 8:23 am

    marky367 says:

    Thanks Tony–it's good to know this blog does something besides scare the shit out of my Mom…

  4. December 22nd, 2009 at 12:32 am

    Wheel For Sale says:

    Love this site so much!!! This blog is a fascinating one. I wish more of them here. Please give updates.

  5. August 6th, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Dogs For Sale says:

    This type of effort is always appreciable to me. I feel so proud to know person like you.

  6. August 6th, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    Dogs For Sale says:

    This type of effort is always appreciable to me. I feel so proud to know person like you.

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