What a Decade in Mexico Has Taught Me about Weathering a Global Pandemic
I was walking along Waco’s Brazos River this morning when my throat caught – the woman about to pass me on the walking trail was wearing a red Mexican blouse that was clearly from San Antonino: the elaborate, heavily embroidered style I’d recognize anywhere after living for a decade in Oaxaca City only 50 miles away.
I stopped her at a socially appropriate distance, eager to talk. She’d gotten it in Santa Fe, she said, but knew it was from San Antonino, and after a pleasant chat (and an invitation to come be a guide for the Waco Historical Society, which I think I’ll take her up on), I walked to the Waco Avenue suspension bridge and had a good cry over the pieces of heart that I’ve left forever in Oaxaca, bound up in a culture and land that I love fiercely but still sometimes struggle to understand.
And with my tears all mixed up in the Brazos River, like my two lives in Oaxaca and Waco, I began to see the brighter side of things: that my decade in Mexico has given me a unique perspective to weather this pinche pandemic. (Note: pinche is a Spanish cuss word that’s a little worse than crappy and not much short of f-ing.) Seems appropriate.
So, living in Mexico has taught me these lessons that apply to weathering the pandemic:
We are not captains of the universe. This Mexican mindset is even supported by a Spanish grammar tense that we hardly use in English: the ephemeral, ethereal subjunctive tense where dreams, hopes and unrealized dreams live. I plan to do something with all my heart, but alas – the universe (or hand of God, whichever you will) may not allow for it. Therefore I express my hope that it shall be so, but I allow that I am not in control of it and it may not happen. Ojalá que pase pronto ese pinche pandemia (would that this damned pandemic pass rapidly), but it’s totally out of my control and may not.
Acknowledge that most things are out of your control and focus on what you can change
The only resources we can count on are each other. In the state of Oaxaca, poorest in Mexico except neighboring Chiapas to the south, there are few resources that you can depend on. The government – federal down to local — gives with one hand and takes away with the other, the brutal climate either scorches the earth in dry season or floods it in rainy season, and even in good times the kids miss a third of the school year because of striking teachers. And these aren’t good times. Always the case but even now more so in the middle of a pandemic, there is only each other to count on.
A Mexican friend in Teotitlán del Valle, a town of some 6,000 about 25 miles down the eastern valley from Oaxaca City, told me that since the once daily market has now shrunk to three days a week, people are forced to rely on home markets to feed their large, homebound families. Those who have gardens and chickens sell vegetables and eggs; those who have corn make tortillas.
People take care of one another, and that includes you even if they don’t know you.
Daily life is unpredictable. In Oaxaca, there are protests and marches nearly weekly in which entire parts of the city and surrounding countryside may become inaccessible by blockades, buses and trucks parked sideways to block traffic. One plane trip into Oaxaca from Dallas, a teachers’ strike at the airport forced us to walk toting luggage a mile out of the terminal around supine protesters blocking the road.
There’s a huge laundry list of many things that first-worlders consider their god-given right that may be a problem in any given day in Mexico: city-delivered water (cisterns frequently run dry) in which case you have to order a pipa (water truck) and bucket-bathe in your shower for a while with water saved just for such an occasion; scheduled food and beverage deliveries to stores from other cities (more blockades); earthquakes (the last one just a few days ago, a 7.4 quake based in the Pacific resort of Huatulco, powerful enough to shake dishes off shelves in Oaxaca City); voting (several years ago, in the presidential elections, trucks of ballots were ambushed on the highways and other completed ballots burned in the polling places). The list goes on and on.
You learn to live with the uncertainty because you have no other choice.
I can survive outside of my comfort zone. I moved to Mexico partly to test my boundaries; what would happen when I moved outside my comfort zone of suburban Dallas? Plenty, as it happened. My knowledge zone of language, culture, social customs, food and plenty more was incredibly small.
And yet – it seemed I had no boundaries on my comfort zones. I mangled the language and kept working on it until I could be a translator guide; I didn’t learn to cook good Mexican food but I sure knew where to find it; I repeatedly asked friends (and my poor Spanish teacher, Albert) what words and phrases and customs meant, and how I should react even down to facial expressions. Did I do it gracefully? Maybe not? Did I love it? Absolutely.
So it happens that I can not just survive but even thrive outside my comfort zone, whatever that once was.
Joy is found in incredibly small moments. The life of the average Oaxacan consists of work, work and more work. A happy moment is when you don’t have to work, and you celebrate it with family, friends, food and drink. That’s all it takes to be happy in the moment: not working, not breaking your back 15 hours a day, not worrying for a mezcal-infused moment where the next food money will come from. We norteamericanos sometimes criticize the Mexican mentality for being short-sighted, for not planning far into the future. Mexicans know that tomorrow may change for inexplicable reasons that you can’t control, so why worry too much about it?
If today you have a few moments of joy, savor them and leave tomorrow for tomorrow.
Ni modo. This is a relatively untranslatable expression that basically means, oh well; what can you do? When something happens that you can’t control, ni modo. Usually accompanied with a shrug of the shoulders. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t cause it, and I can’t control it.The pandemic? Ni modo.
Now let’s get on with the little that we can control:
How we treat each other when we don’t agree, in an ultra-polarized climate of masking vs. non-masking. Democrats vs. Republicans. Science believers vs. Don’t Tread on my Freedom believers. Aretha said it best: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Wearing a mask. We’re asked to wear shirts and shoes in public spaces; statistics show flat out that we could put the R-factor of covid (the rate at which it spreads) to neutral if just 80% of people masked 80% of the time.
We’re in a full-blown pandemic, people, and the curve is not flattening. Just do it.
Staying home as much as possible and not crowd-partying. Yeah, it’s boring and unfair to extroverts (just ask me). People who don’t like their significant others are trapped in with them; others want to be with someone and can’t. It’s not forever. Don’t go rave and party like it’s 1999. Covid didn’t exist in 1999. Practice the adult concepts of patience, discipline and restraint. It’s literally a matter of life and death.
Self care and love. On airplanes (well, back when many of us used to fly a lot), the flight attendants say every time to put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others. If you aren’t healthy enough to take care of yourself, you’re not much good to anyone else. Quit with the chips and the endless Netflix. Exercise. Meditate. Pray. Be in training, because you are.
Ditching Before-Corona-Times Expectations. There was a time, oh six months ago or so, that we had the luxury of getting bogged down in perfectionism and just becoming paralyzed with indecision. News flash: perfectionism won’t cut it in a Post-Covid world. Ditch the unrealistic expectations, of yourself and everyone else.
Get to work in your baggy gym shorts, the ones you’ve been meaning to throw away only suddenly they’re the only things that fit after three months of non-stop eating. Pick up the pen in your unmanicured hands, as a lock of unshorn hair falls over your glasses.
There’s not going to come a better, more convenient time to save the world. Ni modo. Find what it is that you can do, where in your own little corner of the world you can do it, and who it will affect.
And get to damn work.
Susan Bean Aycock embracingthechaos.org June 28, 2020