I learned Mexican Spanish in America before moving to South America. I’ve lived in Orange County, Tucson, and Denver – all cities with huge Mexican populations.
I’ve known one Mexican family in St. Louis for almost ten years. They first landed in Houston after crossing the border, but chose St. Louis precisely because there weren’t many Mexicans, so there’s a higher demand for labor and hence higher wages. The father (Papa) got a job at my restaurant as a cook. In short time, his wife and daughter (Mama and Hijamayor) were working there, and as years passed his two sons (Hijomayor and Hijomenor) and even extended family members got jobs.
Sidenote: If you’ve been a reader for a while, you know I’m pro-immigration not only because I’m a product of 20th century immigrants, but also because immigrants are hard workers. What Americans would proudly work entire careers at a restaurant? None, and that’s why the Mexicans come.
Aside from four years in high school, Mexicans taught me Spanish. Because I spoke Spanish and mingled with them, I was seen as a friend of the cause. A couple times I went with them to Club Onda or Dante’s, the Mexican clubs in St. Louis. One guy scored me a fake social security card and Mexican residence ID, which I sold to a Russian chick I knew from school who wanted to work off-campus.
Because I’m a “friend of the cause,” they’ve asked for help sometimes. One guy offered me $1000 to pick up his friend in Sacramento. One time I found Mama and her sister-in-law talking on the verge of tears, obviously worried about something. Their relatives were deported from Phoenix back to Mexico. They were worried because the two kids, 7 and 9, had been left behind and were staying with the neighbors. Two kids stranded in Phoenix alone. They offered me a lot of money to go get them. In both cases, I refused. That’s very illegal coyote shit.
This summer, Mama and Hijamayor approached me with a different favor. They had been in a car accident and the responding police officer reported them. They had a court date in Kansas City and asked if I’d go with them. I don’t know exactly why, but I can guess any number of reasons. They were worried they wouldn’t understand something in English, they were afraid they’d get lost, they were afraid they’d get deported immediately and need someone to drive their car back to St. Louis, or they were just afraid. Who knows why? But I’m a nice guy and I’ve known them forever so I agreed.
We left at 7am and got into KC around 11am, two hours before the hearing. They treated lunch at Gates, a famous KC BBQ spot. Then we went to court. The room was almost all Latinos, with a few Africans. Hearings started around 1:15pm.
The St. Louis office was being renovated, so all the Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois cases were being referred to Kansas City. This proved annoying as it seemed every case I heard was from St. Louis.
The judge first heard cases from people with lawyers. All of them asked for continuances, which they received. One was a Honduran woman who’d already gotten a continuance, but now the lawyer requested a stay as he was appealing on a request for asylum based on a convention to avoid torture. The US won’t deport people likely to be tortured (see the State Department’s human rights report on Honduras).
After the lawyers’ cases were finished, a Kenyan woman was pushed to the front of the line because they had a Swahili English (as opposed to Swahili French) translator on the phone from Washington, DC. The translator’s voice boomed into the courtroom via intercom. He was from Nairobi, as was the woman in garb and headdress facing the court. She had come to America legally, but didn’t show up to an interview regarding her request for asylum. The letter was sent to her St. Louis address, but she had moved to Seattle. The judge asked if she’d like to continue this in a court near Seattle. The Kenyan woman agreed, and another continuance was granted.
After the one Kenyan came the rest of the Latinos. One Dominican guy had married an American woman ten years ago. She was there with him in court. Unfortunately he’d allowed too much time (10 years!) to pass before finalizing his citizenship, causing a deportation order. He got a continuance too.
Mama and Hijamayor didn’t get a lawyer because they didn’t want to waste the money. They didn’t think they had a case. However, the judge recommended to everybody without a lawyer that they request continuances to be properly represented. They distributed flyers with contact info for immigration lawyers who work for free in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. I noted most were Catholic charities.
So Mama and Hijamayor were granted continuances and we were on our way. I wasn’t really needed, but I guess I provided moral support.
A few weeks later, Mama had Hijomayor invited me for Sunday lunch. He picked me up and we arrived at their house around 1pm. Everybody was there, plus Hijamayor’s boyfriend and Hijomayor’s girlfriend. We ate chicken and pork barbacoa mexicana with tortillas, rice, refried beans, and homemade salsa. That Sunday was the weekend of the Mexican bicentennial. They invited me to come with them to the festival on Cherokee Street, the Hispanic center of St. Louis.
We drank micheladas and listened to the bands. The bicentennial festival experience served as a reminder of how different Mexican culture is from the rest of Latin America. Many Americans, including myself before moving to South America, assume a lot about all Latinos based on what we know about Mexicans. In Peru I was surprised they don’t eat beans or tortillas, and they don’t say ‘guey’ at the end of every sentence.
Another difference is the cowboy culture among Mexicans. You see cowboy hats, cowboy boots, big-ass belt buckles on tight jeans, etc. The paisas in Colombia are considered cowboys, and they wear hats and ride horses, but their style’s distinct from the cowboys of Mexico and the American southwest.
Another distinction among Mexicans is obesity. I’d forgotten how fat a lot of Mexican chicks are. I haven’t seen obesity as common anywhere in South America. I think it’s a combination of abundance and diet (obviously). Poor Mexicans aren’t accustomed to the wealth of food in America. Plus, Mexican food is insanely carbohydrate-heavy – more so than other poor countries. Too much rice, corn tortillas, flour tortillas, refried beans, corn, potatoes, tamales, regular soda. They eat corn on the cob smeared with like 4 tablespoons of mayonnaise, then cover it with cheese and chili powder. The Mexicans in America need to tweak their habits to reflect the abundance of the American economy because some of those girls are too damn big.
Cholos are another uniquely Mexican phenomenon – not cholos by the South American definition, but the Mexican definition. Mexican gangsters. The typical uniform these days is a shaved head, a baggy T-shirt with rosary beads hanging outside, baggy khakis, and Chuck Taylors. I saw a couple teardrop tattoos.
St. Louis has a tiny Mexican population. There are nowhere near as many of these guys as you’d see at the bicentennial celebrations in Chicago, Texas, Arizona, or California, which probably draw tens of thousands. But there were a couple groups that caught my eye.
Everyone in this family simply works, pays taxes, and lives their lives free of trouble – everybody except Hijomenor. He’s not a cholo, but he’s a little wild. He worked at the restaurant for only a year before being fired for his attitude. Hijomayor told me the family was concerned about him for a while, but then he became a father and calmed down.
However, Hijomenor still hasn’t figured out how to completely avoid trouble. He’d been off doing his own thing while the family and I were watching the bands. Then he ran back to us and said some guy punched him in the eye. He pointed the guy out in the crowd, about 20 yards closer to the stage. The fat-ass was in his 40s. Hijomenor wanted revenge.
One of the cholo groups I just described was with us now – three of them. They were friends with Hijomenor. I got yoked out all summer, packing on 30 pounds. Some in the family were looking at the 6’3 235lb gringo to see if I was in. Hijomenor asked in English, “You wanna do this?” I told him I was with them.
In reality, I had no idea what the hell they wanted to do. And were the parents cool with it? What were we going to do in the middle of this crowd of 500? Cops were everywhere. I just stood there and waited. One of the cholos, seemingly drunk off his ass, smiled and gave me a fist pound.
Just as I was thinking we wouldn’t do anything around all these people, the ringleader of the cholos marched through the crowd toward Fatass40yearold. Toe to toe with the other cholos behind him, Ringleader pointed at him as if to say “You hit my friend, bitch?” then pointed back at us with his thumb. Surprised and scared, Fatass40yearold shook his head no as Ringleader socked him in his eye.
All hell broke loose. We were along the right side of the stage, against a metal fence separating the crowd from a VIP section of tables. That metal fence came down and the rumble moved into the tables. I got hemmed in by two old women with baby strollers trying to escape the violence. As I got around them, Fatass40yearold had been hit a few times and was swinging a chair to defend himself. I ran in to get a hit, but hesitated when I saw the chair. I also realized I didn’t know what the hell was going on, and had to look around to see if he had anybody else on his team. Only one of his friends was helping, so it was eight (4 men of the family, Hijamayor’s boyfriend, and the 3 cholos) against two. Nine against two if you count me, but I didn’t do anything. The fight moved further down the VIP section, clearing everybody out. The cops broke it up. Fatass40yearold’s face was a little marked up with blood, no real damage. But he was definitely scared.
The four cholos expertly disappeared. The guy most involved in the tussle was … Papa! Awesome! A couple people in the crowd pointed Hijomenor out to the cops. They held him and Fatass40yearold to sort things out. The cops separated them and walked them away from the crowd. They needed to determine if Fatass40yearold wanted to press charges. He didn’t.
Hijomayor and I followed Hijomenor to where the cops were talking to him. They said they’d have to escort him out of the area and if he returned, he’d go to jail. One cop walked with us all the way to Hijomayor’s car to watch us leave.
On the ride home, Hijomenor told me that was the third time he’s fought Fatass40yearold. Fatass40yearold started it the first time at a baptism and it’s been a war ever since. At the festival, Hijomenor had been looking at shoes for his daughter when he got sucker-punched. Hijomenor’s wrist was swollen and bent from taking a hit with the chair. Hijomayor drove to my place, where I invited Hijomenor in for a bag of ice and a shot of whiskey. Then we said goodbye.
Another difference between Mexican culture and what I’ve seen in Peru and Colombia is in fighting. Peru and Colombia have violent, bloody histories. They’re quick to use a knife, their militaries often answer to no one, and they have limpiezas, but hand-to-hand combat is nil. Street fights are weak. All talk and posturing. The few street fights I’ve seen in South America were worse than watching white guys in the suburbs.
That is NOT the case with Mexicans. These cholos were pitbulls. They live for this. You can get 1,000 Colombians or Peruvians together without any problems, but 1,000 Mexicans and you’ll have several tussles break out. It wasn’t even dark yet that day. Maybe it’s something in America that changes them? I’ve heard street gangs in Mexico are nowhere near as bad as the Mexican gangs in Los Angeles or other American cities (current cartel violence aside).
I know many of you readers are Mexican-Americans. What do you think? Feel free to disagree in the comments.
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