A Mexican-American Experience

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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  1. Well, I can’t say much about the gangs as I have always led a pretty sheltered life in that sense and haven’t been exposed to the phenomenon of the gangs, even here in the US. My experience as a Mexican-American is so atypical that when people from all over Latin America in their 20s, 30s and 40s talk about Chespirito and Chavo del 8, I don’t have a clue what is so funny about them because I grew up watching the Disney Channel… in Mexico. I’ve only been around indocumentados on a couple of occasions because where I live, in Vermont, there just aren’t that many. The ones that are here mostly work out on the dairy farms, are easily identifiable, and easily deportable. I think we have the highest deportation per capita in New England only because in lily-white Vermont we have the regional headquarters for Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services, so it’s basically a clusterfuck for any indocumentados up here if they’re caught. I’ve volunteered as a translator for the Mexican mobile consulate when it comes to Vermont and helped the indocumentados fill out passport forms because they don’t have the confidence to fill them out themselves because they only have a grade school education (public education in Mexico is a nightmare). I’ve even given some of them advice on immigration. I try not to answer questions about what I do for a living because if anybody knew, they would run for the hills. Basically, I work for La Migra (now that’s fucked up, isn’t it?). I don’t tell my bosses at work what I’ve done because basically I’m not fulfilling my oath to the agency, as I’m sympathetic to pro-immigration causes. I’ve recalled situations when working for FEMA during the Katrina fiasco, as a translator, I had to inform indocumentados they weren’t eligible for FEMA benefits because of their status and inform them as well to be careful because the FEMA facilities were teeming with agents from Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Federal Police and Citizenship and Immigration Services, even though a directive came from FEMA leadership that no immigration checks could be performed and no people could be arrested due to their status. When I think back to that, it was just insane for any indocumentado to walk into a place teeming with people most anxious to arrest them, even if they didn’t know it.
    As for the cowboy culture, it’s stronger the farther north you go in Mexico, although it is strong in the rural areas in central and southern Mexico. I don’t particularly identify with it because I only grew up in the cities and am a strong urban Mexican in that sense, growing up speaking English as a first language in Mexico (gringa mother), listening to 70s and 80s rock from the US and UK.
    The people I’ve met are hardworking, quiet, mostly keep to themselves and try as hard as hell not to violate any laws. It’s a shame they have to live in the shadows, being among the most law abiding people you could find anywhere.
    As for the eating habits, yes, the diet and America isn’t a great combination. It’s rather a Battle of the Bulge, and a losing one at that. The isolation doesn’t help and the denial of health services only exacerbates the problem. As for the political landscape, anybody with a brain could say that reform is DOA in the current political landscape with anti-immigration forces largely expected to hold sway in the upcoming Congress in both parties, although mostly among Republicans.
    It’s definitely not a good time to be an indocumentado in the US. Obama hasn’t helped much either, increasing substantially the number of deportations of indocumentados that would make even Bush blush. So that’s that.


  2. I agree 100% that most undocumented Mexicans work their asses off, stay out of trouble, and simply live their lives. It’s bullshit we can’t make them citizens faster.

    Re: political angle – It’s amazing how anti-immigration fervor has crippled the Republican party in courting Latinos, who were very much in play 10 years ago. Many voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and Daddy Yankee endorsed John McCain in 2008. But the rednecks in the Republicans and the unions in the Democrats combine to prevent immigration reform.

    How’s this for timing: The Economist just did a piece on obesity in Mexico.


  3. Sounds like my wedding.

    Mexicans are raised to have “corozon” or “heart”. Heart means standing up for youself even against the odds. Every kid wants to be tough, nobody wants to be a bitch. This code becomes exponentially more difficult to live by when the offending party is a gangster who will kill you.

    When the stakes are raised to this level sensible people walk away. Some choose to go gangster & really fuck up the world in a big way.

    In Los Angeles every kid learns a seperate history. 18th St. took on Clanton14. Mara Salvatrucha took on 18 St. Nortenos took on Surenos in the War of the Shoes.

    It is noble to defend youself from a bully. Springing MS13 on the world is a fucked up thing to do. “Every great cause starts as a movement, becomes a business, & ends up as a racket”. The great Eric Hoffer said that, not me.


  4. Colin,
    That’s the same reaction I got from my girlfriend when she found out when we first met. Hehe. I’m on the administrative side, but I know plenty of people who have had experience with the courts. The immigration court system is a byzantine piece of shit. It resides under the Department of Justice, while all the immigration agencies are under the Department of Homeland Security. There is little coordination between the immigration courts and law enforcement, so it can be pretty bad. A friend of mine almost was deported from the country because she left to visit Montreal, Quebec for a weekend escapade while she was waiting for her green card. Because she didn’t have the proper paperwork (as in a travel document), they threw her in jail, she had to post a $10,000 bond and her case was to kicked over to the immigration courts, all this while her husband was deployed over in Iraq and while she was taking care of her little 2 year old kid. In the end, she got her green card, after a 3 year travail. I’ve heard of cases where people have been pulled over on the highway by the state cops, and when they can’t produce proper documentation, they’ve been jailed, let out on bail and then deported from the country. With the outcome of the last Congressional elections, your assessment is right in the observation that immigration reform is DOA. The way the Democrats got their ass kicked in state and federal elections turns many of the redistricting cards in favor of the GOP and that in turn can cement many of the gains in future elections, making any pro-immigration reform unlikely. There is currently an attempt in the lame duck session to pass a limited reform in the form of the DREAM Act, giving students who migrated at an early age a pathway to citizenship. Yet again, stupid procedural rules in the Senate make it a nearly impossible task.


  5. I live around a ton of Central Americans / Mexicans and a few South Americans. I can comment on a few of the things you have here Colin.

    – I believe I also read this somewhere but I know I see it all the time. The US born generation of Mexicans / Latinos in general tend to be fatter than their parents. Their genes aren’t as used to fast food and fried shit that we eat everyday and their parents are working balls to the wall and eating healthier, while their kids are eating fast food and sweets, falling into the xbox lifestyle that many other American kids are.

    – Most of the Mexicans you see here will on average be tougher than let’s say a Colombian in the states. This is simply because the Mexicans we often meet (not all) are border folks and its not so easy for a Colombian or Paraguayan lets say to jump on over to the states. More of the South Americans are here with work permissions and have taken the time to research and come here the legal way. Many of the border folks are the lowest class in Mexico and even in Mexico would be considered tough. It would be the same if White Americans all started to migrate south and instead of educated New Englanders or California liberals, you met hillbilly’s from the South or some Dustbowl peckerwoods. I have also seen some of these guys in action and their lifestyles are not that much different than a border mexican in as far as being hard workers and enjoying a good fight.

    – I know traveling does open your eyes. I had fights / altercations in Europe in places you wouldn’t expect, while being in some “dangerous” places in Sur America didn’t prove to be so bad at all.


  6. I’m a mexican-american living in Houston and I can definitely agree that some mexican-americans can be easily provoked into violence. There’s a whole culture of being tough and easily provoked into violence. Hollywood doesn’t help at all by constantly portraying all latinos as gangbangers, cholos, prison gangmembers, and drugdealers. The rap hip-hop culture also doesn’t help at all since alot of it promotes violence and drug dealing.

    I also used to live in the st.louis area and I was hanging out with some latin kings over in granite city illinois. They were supposed to start helping me sell weed that I was bringing from texas but my whole operation got all screwed up before we could actually start working together. That was like 12 years ago and now when I go back to st.louis I’m amazed at how the latino population has soared. I mean you go to wal-mart in st. charles and half the people in there shopping are latino.

    I’ve never been to south america but I’ve spent plenty of time in Mexico and I haven’t once seen an actual fight. Everybody seems to get along and smile at one another. It’s one of the things I love about being in Mexico. In missouri and texas I can go into most bars knowing that there’s a good chance I might end up in a fight with some redneck or tatooed gangbanger, but I’ve never once felt that way in Mexico.


  7. “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.”

    I saw some pretty serious fights in Medellin. Generally, they involved somebody who had been accused of stealing something, skipping a tab, being rude to somebody’s girl, etc. But I don’t recall ever seeing a ‘one on one’ fight. It was always a mob of 4,5,8 dudes beating the shit out of one other guy. It is actually pretty gross and frightening, because of the lack of mercy.

    I didn’t really get in a fight, but I did get knocked out once in Medellin. I guess I spouted off to the wrong dude outside of a popular whore-bar near San Vicente Hospital. Anyway, it was lights out. I had no idea the punch was coming. I was hit straight in the kisser and crumpled instantly onto the sidewalk, cracking my head open. I luckily was with a ex-military buddy, who threw me in a cab and took me to an ER. I awoke looking at bright lights and a bunch of blue dressed people staring down at me. So I naturally jumped off the table and left the place, going home and to bed. I got up the next day about 7pm. My bed looked like a murder scene. I called my buddy who is a taxi driver, and asked him to take me to a clinic that was good, but cheap. Long story short, I got dozens of stitches in my melon, 6 or 8 in my inner/lower lip, and the price was 165.000 cop. About $85 usd at the time.


  8. Stupid post. It’s not that Mexican culture is disntinct of the “rest of Latin America”. Latin America is not a unity, every country has its own history and unique culture, so if you had Ecuador as a neighbouring country you’d think Ecuador is disntinct to the rest of Latinamerica because that’s the only thing you’d be familiar with anything else would be “so different”.

    Mexican culture and gastronomy are very rich and heterogenous but what you get in the US is a watered down contrived version of it and mostly coming from very marginalized and uneducated populations. The US and Mexico are currently the leading countries when it comes to obesity and in both countries it’s mostly rampant among the poorer classes so stop talking like it’s a Mexican phenomenon- Americans were obese way before Mexicans were! In Mexico the poor Indian peasant was historically skinny simply because all they can afford to eat is beans and tortillas.

    Lastly, About cowboys, the Mexican version is actually the original since cowboy culture was spread by Mexicans all over the southwest (when it was still part of Mexico and before that the New Spain) and later on “taken” by the newly arrived anglos. What in the US you know as cowboys, has origins in the Mexican “vaqueros” (which in turn takes a lot of influences from Spain)


    1. It is not a stupid post because he is only reporting his experience. You are the stupid one for assuming that Colin must have perfect knowledge. His knowledge is not perfect, and this is a post of cultural discovery. That American’s are also fat, does not make the fatness of Mexicans any less a Mexican phenomenon. Clearly Mexicans and Americans are eating different foods–yet Mexicans in Mexico are also fat! You claim that Mexican cowboys were the originators, and that American cowboys are somehow guilty of theft? Then, you then say that Vaqueros originated from Spain? Then who are the originators? Maybe you can explain where the cowboys of Argentina and Colombia stole their culture from.


    2. You point out that we are not getting real Mexican food in the US. But if you go to Mexico, they are still fat as hell! So, it must be that Mexican fatness is a Mexican phenomenon, regardless of what’s happening in the United States.


    3. Mexicans are fat because for all their rich and heterogeneous gastronomy, they stuff every meal with tortillas and refrescos (soda). Like Colin said–carb overload. It’s a Mexican thing: South Americans wouldn’t understand.


  9. The propensity of Mexican-Americans for fisticuffs is a carryover of Mexican’s love of boxing. In Mexico, boxing is a national obsession and the country’s second biggest sport. When I first visited my Mexican family’s ranch in the 1980’s, my young Mexican cowboy cousins were proud of their boxing skills and practiced with each other regularly. When the the local town fair came around, they were eager to organize fist fights with other kids (whom they had disputes with). Also, Mexican immigrants to America tended to move into the poorest neighborhoods where violence was common (often African American neighborhoods with a lot of gangs, and Chicanos naturally started they own gangs. Though Chicano gangs often predate black gangs, they reinforced each other as a trend) . It’s said that East LA has the highest concentration of boxing gyms of any neighborhood in the United States. Other travelers to Latin America have also noted that Mexicans tend to be more aggressive as compared to other Latin Americans (especially the northern Mexicans).


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