I’m seeing my Spanish tutor, Camila, later today. We sit opposite each other in the kitchen of my Mexican home and discuss the subtleties of advanced grammar, along with anything else that comes up.
My class is the highlight of my day, and I can hardly wait.
Since my husband, Barry, and I bought an old home in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage city of Guanajuato 17 years ago, I’ve had seven tutors, and each has not only taught me Spanish but also offered a window into Mexican culture, which I could not have found as easily or quickly anywhere else.
In my experience, a tutor provides more benefits than just language. They help me get beyond the stereotypes to understand the real culture. Here are eight cultural insights I’ve learned from my different tutors…
#1. The Importance Of Courtesy In Mexico
When Camila WhatsApps me, she always starts with buenos días or a similar greeting. I’ve learned to use similar courtesies, in speaking and writing, rather than the American way of just getting to the point.
Courtesy is highly valued in Mexican culture. When I approach a stranger to ask directions or enter a small shop to greet the proprietor, I now know to first say buenos días or buenas tardes.
One Mexican custom is not only polite but charming. When people leave a restaurant, they say to the remaining diners, buen provecho or “bon appétit.”
An American expat married to a Mexicana told me that when his mother-in-law orders a pizza, she spends five minutes on the phone: 30 seconds ordering the pizza and four and a half minutes greeting and offering courtesies.
#2. Indirect Communication
Even among Latino cultures, Mexicans tend to take longer to get to their point. For example, in the yoga class I take, one member coordinates a monthly breakfast.
A few weeks ago, I was tickled when I read the long, effusive message she wrote to the group. She took 160 words to basically say, “We need to decide where to have our breakfast this month.”
It was very different from my more direct, minimalist English style.
#3. Ahorita And Other Diminutives
Mexicans add –ito and -ita to many words as a way of being warm and personal. Un ratito means “a little while.” Similarly, the word ahorita means “pretty soon,” but beware of taking these literally—either of them could mean hours.
When our neighbor visits, she likes to have a palomita (tequila and Fresca). People refer to their grandparents as their abuelitos. Camila wished me a fun time at la playita (the beach).
In Mexico, you might hear someone referred to as llenito or gordito, meaning on the chubby side, and calling someone this is much less of a taboo in Mexico than it is in the States.
#4. Personal Space And Body Language
I’ve observed that Mexicans typically stand and mingle much closer to each other while talking than do Americans. As a gringa, I find their jostlingunsettling. I also observe many more crowds in Mexico than in the States.
A 25-year-old Spanish tutor who Barry had a few years ago told him that her sister was getting married, so she would have a room to herself for the first time in her life.
Being British, he could think of nothing better. “Isn’t that wonderful?” he asked. “Oh, no,” she said. “I’ll be lonely.” Their respective reactions reflected very different cultural values.
Mexicans are affectionate, and you see people touching and hugging frequently in public. You also see adolescents entwined and making out on benches, in squares, and public parks, enjoying a degree of freedom, at least in smaller cities, that I don’t see in the States.
On Friday evenings it’s common for students in the secundaria (middle school) to converge on the main square, having fun with each other unsupervised by adults.
#5. Women Marrying Later, If At All
One of Barry’s and my former Spanish teachers is now a law professor in Mexico City in her 40s, still unmarried.
Another former tutor, a single mom with two grown sons, got back together with her high school sweetheart and now lives with him in the city of Querétaro.
Camila just turned 32 and has a boyfriend but is in no hurry to marry.
This is completely different from when we first studied Spanish in Mexico in the 90s.
#6. Spoiled Sons
I was surprised to learn that even modern, contemporary mothers spoil their sons. Camila explained that this is partly because the mothers are counting on their sons to financially subsidize them when they’re old and widowed.
Unfortunately, spoiled Mexican sons sometimes grow up to be entitled husbands. Mexican wives are not as financially dependent on their husbands and don’t have to put up with it, so there are a lot of divorces.
The number of divorces in Mexico has increased in recent years and separations even more so.
Mexican women wear a lot of make-up and see no problem putting it on in public—for example, on the Mexico City metro, buses, and other public transit.
It’s funny to me, because the whole point of make-up is to create an illusion, but Mexican women don’t mind dispelling that illusion.
#8. Close Family Ties
Mexicans have strong family ties, with a national tradition of an intergenerational comida every Sunday. However, Camila says that family unity is fraying somewhat.
According to my teachers, the downside of family unity is that parents place a lot of pressure and a strong sense of obligation on their adult children.
For example, one of our first teachers was teaching Spanish part-time while simultaneously going to university. Although tuition in Mexico is free, extras (like the actual título or diploma) are not.
Because our tutor came from a poor family, we offered to pay for the diploma. Later we learned that her mother demanded that she let her use the money to repair the bathroom in the family home, which badly needed it. Our teacher felt she couldn’t say no to her mom.
I’m more than twice as old as Camila, but age is irrelevant; over Spanish, we share our lives, I consult with her when I face tricky cultural situations, and she helps me decode Mexican culture.
As my paid friend, informant, and cultural expert, she’s worth every peso I invest.