Monday, August 29, 2011

About Lovability in Mexico (Ex-Pat Part II)

Today's our last night in Mexico.  We've spent ten days here, traveling around the center of the country to visit my family and go to a friend's wedding.  We've eaten like crazy, basked in the sunshine of the amabilidad of the Mexican people.

Amabilidad is probably a concept I should explain, for those of you who don't speak Spanish.  Literally, it means "lovability", that is, the characteristic that makes someone lovable.  However, in Spanish (and especially in Mexico) it's not used that way.  To be amable is not to be lovable; it's to be kind + friendly + polite + attentiveness.  Yep, all three four rolled into one.  (Apologies.  I'm mathematically challenged.)
It's the attentiveness of the waiter in bringing you an ashtray before you ask for one, the friendly way he smiles as he puts it on the table and the polite way he avoids interrupting your conversation as he does so, and the kindness with which he finds the least obstructive and most convenient spot for the thing on the table.

Amabilidad is everywhere in Mexico; it's a currency but, more importantly, it's a cultural identity.  It's important to be amable, we learn at our mother's knee, with everyone around us: the maids that clean our rooms, the cooks that serve our breakfast chilaquiles or squeeze our fresh orange juice, the chofer that drives us to school, the vendors and beggars on the street, our teachers, our peers.  It's important to be polite, and kind, and attentive, and friendly; not only does this make us lovable by the people that should love us, but it also makes us unreachable for the people that shouldn't get too close.

Mexico is a country, a culture, of classes.  Money has nothing to do with it; class is about upbringing, about culture, about skin color and family, but especially about amabilidad.  The rude nouveau riche, with all their latest-model cars and Rolex wrists, their caked Sisley makeup and Hermes ties, will always be considered low-class in Mexico...  Until they learn some manners and start being amable to the people that serve them.  The struggling university student that lives with distant relatives because his family cannot afford the expense of even a rented room on top of the costs of books and tuition, who smiles politely at the people he passes on the college quad, who nods at the fruit vendor outside the gate and, whenever he has change to spare, places it with a blessing into the beggar's cup, who addresses teachers politely and respectfully and never ever engages in graffiti decoration...  Yep, you got it: he'll always be a higher class than the Gucci-bedecked brute in a Mercedes.

BUT being amable is not the same as being friendly.  Not always, anyway.  It's an art to develop the right kind of smile for the right kind of class.  A cultured Mexican knows how to be kind and polite to a waiter without inviting more personal contact.  A cultured Mexican, if he or she is the waiter / waitress, will know how to serve politely and attentively without putting themselves at the same level as the patrons they serve.  Amabilidad is, in brief, the way through which Mexicans of a certain class identify each other and identify themselves to other classes.

Have you seen those foreigners in Mexico accosted by beggar children or obnoxious vendors of cheesy souvenirs?  Have you ever seen a Mexican accosted the same way?  No, don't say it's because of the dollars; there are plenty of Mexicans with far more acquisitive power than the average tourist.  Why don't these vendors pursue the Mexican so insistently?  Because of amabilidad.  Ok, sure; there are cases where the rude nouveau riche pushes the vendor away so rudely that there's no way the vendor will follow.  But that, more often than not, results in a broken windshield, or a tire that goes mysteriously flat.  In more extreme cases, it results in a quiet, quick mugging farther down the street.  The vendors and the beggar children may look helpless, but they have their resources and a pretty effective network.  Amabilidad, on the other hand, always results in a smile and a vaya con Dios.  Why?  Because the way the cultured Mexican says "no" isn't rude, it isn't insulting or denigrating; it's human contact, authentic and genuine.  "No, I don't need what you have to sell right now, but I hope you sell a lot and I wish you all the best."  It is such a pleasure to do business like this, to interact with everyone -- patrons, market vendors, street sweepers, business owners -- in a friendly, polite, respectful and amable way.

I find it very strange that there's no word for amabilidad in English or any other language I know.  The concept must exist, I'm sure, but everywhere I've been (which is not that many places, admittedly) it seems to connotate subservience, or haughtiness, or mercenary service.  No, to be amable is not any of these things although it serves all well.  It's more than "bending your hands", to quote an untranslatable Mexican saying, in servitude; it's more than putting yourself above someone -- it's actually the very essence of non-haughtiness.  It's definitely much, much more than mercenary service; fake smiles and efficiency will never take the place for amabilidad, and do it a serious injustice when it's mistaken for it.

What does it take to be amable?  Self-assurance, certainly.  There's no way you can be amable if you're insecure; that's what breeds the rude nouveau riche.  Generosity too; selfishness cannot support an authentic caring for others.  Respect and understanding, so that you can see that others' "faults" are only such in your eyes and not their fault really.  Respect for the differences in people, for the amazing variety that makes up this beautiful country and how they're expressed, is essential.

I love Mexico, and I love the lovability of it and of its people.  I don't care about the drug war (insecurity is a myth here, by the way, but I'll say more about that later) -- I'll never stop traveling here because my soul requires amabilidad, even if it's only in non-continuous doses, to thrive.  If you've never been to Mexico, please visit at least once -- Mexican amabilidad is something that everyone should experience.  If you have visited Mexico, I'd love to hear about your experience here and whether you can recognize what I've written on this very Mexican characteristic.

Lovely beginning of the week for everyone!


  1. Hey Guilie ~ welcome back from hols !! Sounds like you had a great one !
    Your writing really struck a chord ... I would imagine that your Mexican "amabilidad" is the equivalent to my African "ubuntu" :)
    This African concept is "the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others ; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world , it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievement of others ."
    Thanks for sharing this post !

  2. I think a part of what you describe, of the amibilidad, is congruent with the concept of (natural) nobility. To know not only the own value, but also the value of others, recognizing and estimating this value. And of course thus keeping a distance, a space of non-hurt - ah, language, I'm sorry, tonight language escapes me.
    Good to see that your travels went well and you returned safe.

  3. Thank you, Mish and Mago, for your comments! Yes, "ubuntu" definitely sounds similar to "amabilidad", and so does the natural, intrinsic "nobility" that Mago describes (even in spite of the language, hehe). Thank you for reading, and I'm glad you enjoyed this post!

  4. Just stumbled across your blog. Love different cultures and stories about them. What an interesting life you have had with so much tossed into one person!

  5. Thank you, Jaye! That's... a new way of putting it. "So much tossed into one person." Yes, I guess you're right. Then again, aren't we all like that? I know what you mean -- the living outside the home country and all the cultural mix -- yes, it certainly IS kind of obvious in me, haha. But I do believe that we all have that "so much tossed in"... It's just a matter of looking for it, digging in, listening for the stories, I guess. I liked how you described yourself: "I am large; I contain multitudes." Everyone does, maybe (the stories of our families, our friends, our neighbors, our acquaintances, the guy briskly walking his dog past our subway window, the dog obediently ignoring the hydrant it wanted... need I go on?), but here's the trick: you GOT TO LISTEN. I'm so very glad to have found you, and others like you, that do :)

  6. Intriguing.
    Wonder what will happen when my Gujarati Saumyata will interact with this particular amable.

    When are you coming to Mumbai?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...