by Patrick Green
It is difficult to tell where those little epiphanies come from. At one moment we are oblivious and the next moment something has crystallized in our minds and a realization takes place.
On a non-descript afternoon in SMA, I found myself at a local farmacia. As I waited my turn, absentmindedly pacing an aisle, I became aware of music in the background. The volume was low like elevator music, but it took just a moment for me to recognize it as one of Beethoven's symphonies. Beethoven in Mexico struck me as a bit odd. What is he doing here ? He belongs in Vienna or London or NYC, doesn't he? Just then the pharmacist became available. It was my turn. I conducted my business and left without another thought of Beethoven.
A couple weeks later the same scene played out again in the same pharmacy. Once again, I stood lingering near the counter with my mind drifting who knows where. Once again, there he was again, Beethoven. I realized, someone in this pharmacy likes the music of Ludwig van. Once again the same disconnect hit me. He seemed out of place. Although I had not put much thought into it, the maestro seemed very far removed from what I had taken to be 'Mexican'. Mexican musical interests lay elsewhere - Mariachis, banda, ranchero…, no? Still here he was.
Slowly it dawned on me that his presence was deliberate. He was lifting up someone's spirit as they made their way through the grind of another workday, helping them smile at the customers, cooperate with coworkers, bring home a paycheck to put food on the table, shoes on children's feet and shepherd a family forward.
But why did I have this sense that Beethoven would not be appreciated in Mexico like he is in much of the western world? What was going on in me? I worked and played with Mexicans where I grew up in Southern California. I had a myriad of heart-warming encounters when I traveled as a 20-something, 40 years ago, by bus down the Pacific coast to Oaxaca.
I tried to reconcile my deep appreciation of the Mexican people and this seemingly unconscious inclination to think Mexicans are somehow not interested in the music of Beethoven and maybe not even classical music in general, because clearly they are.
My quandry was underscored when I attended The Cerventino Festival. The festival brought the entire Montreal Symphony Orchestra – 80 musicians - to Guanajuato to play Motzart and Mahler. I heard a trio from Armenia perform classical pieces. A Ukrainian pianist played List, Schumann and Debussy. Had I fallen prey to some prejudice or stereotype? I had never considered myself especially enlightened, but I did expect more out of myself than this. Finally I decided there was some unconscious bias buried somewhere within me. I made a review of the recent past in search of other insightful moments where tired, old stereotypes had been laid to rest.
I remembered meeting a young Mexican man, who was taking classes in sustainable agriculture in Queretaro. He was charming and serious minded. He declined my offer of a cerveza.. He did not drink alcoholic beverages. I thought, hmmmm. A stereotype falls victim to real life experience.
I remembered an incoming phone call while I was sitting at a restaurant with a few friends. The caller told me my wallet had been found and that I could claim it near the gazebo in the Jardin. I made my way up Cuna de Allende and met a young man from Mexico City. He handed me my wallet – credit cards and cash in tact. I was astonished. I said thank you and as we shook hands he smiled casually. There was no hint that some noble gesture had been performed. As I walked back to the restaurant I wondered how he knew my phone number to call me as it was not in my wallet. A small lighting bolt hits that place where unconscious bias resides and the residue evaporates into the ether.
Then there was that dinner party at which my wife and I were the only gringos in attendance. An elderly mother had arrived in San Miguel from Veracruz for a visit with her daughter and other family members. We felt honored to be in attendance. We discovered the mother was an immigrant from Lebanon. She had fled the country when the region turned into a land of terrorism and violence. Once in Mexico, she married another Lebanese immigrant. So their daughter, who I always understood to be 100% Mexican, is biologically Lebanese.
I had never thought of Mexico as a land of immigrants, but it is. That night I learned that up to 500,000 individuals of Lebanese descent live in Mexico. Then, during the Spanish Civil War, Mexico opened its borders to any Spaniard wishing to immigrate. Over 20,000 came. There are Mexicans with red hair, with traces of Asia in their face, with names like O'Riley and O'Higgins…. Simply put, my education with regard to Mexico and Mexicans remains a work in progress. As it continues, I also learn about myself and humanity at large.
I have also learned that the nagging stereotypes we carry are buried deep and die hard. However, if we keep our eyes and ears and hearts open, we do learn from the many small epiphanies that come our way and with them comes a better understanding of Mexico, Mexicans and the world we live in.
Patrick Green lives with his wife in SMA. He was born in Southern California but as a young man hitch-hiked to Alaska and stayed there 40 years. His one regret on retiring to SMA is leaving his 1964 Chevy pick-up behind in Alaska. He spends his time in SMA volunteering, studying Spanish and taking note of of things both large and small.