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Being a Woman in Mexico

Sarah DeVries and daughter in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico
Sarah DeVries and Lisa

I used to get whistled and honked at all the time in Mexico. I’d even have my butt grabbed at least once a year on average, which might sound hot under some circumstances, but was always very upsetting. It was all part of being a woman in Mexico.

Now that I’m older, clearly a “señora,” and usually have my young daughter in tow, things are different. People in my neighborhood know me and my familia, which greatly reduces the possibility of random harassment. I am, at last, no longer mistaken for a potential participant in those old “Girls Gone Wild – Cancun!” videos.

Most men nowadays politely ignore me, perhaps offering a quick glance and then a nice “buenos días” as I walk by. Perfect! I accept the interaction. Unfortunately, openly staring and then nudging your buddies and snickering, while not a display of fantastic manners, is still fairly expected and acceptable enough to usually not warrant any kind of social sanction.

To be a foreign woman in Mexico is to be constantly in the spotlight, especially if you look markedly different from the local population. It’s like being one of those white-brown pigeons in a sea of the grey-blue ones. People just notice you, especially when your squawk turns out to be different.

Every immigrant knows that when you are in a foreign country, you automatically become a representative for your own culture. Conversations that include “Where are you from?“, “So you live here?” and “So, you like Mexico, eh?” will number in the thousands. More daring men will comment on what a delight/beauty/different kind of person you are. Why, just the other day I had a taxi driver 100% smitten! Thankfully, there was a pre-established ending to that interaction.

I do appreciate people’s curiosity and friendliness overall, and prefer repetitive conversations to simply being ignored. This, to me, is one of the great gifts of Mexican culture: social isolation is nearly impossible, and while there are days I’d rather not be forced into conversations, I’ll admit – even grudgingly – that it’s good for me to get out of my own head.

While most of my interactions here are open and polite, there’s an undercurrent of suspicion that tends to permeate especially my communication with other women. Through the years I’ve had to learn to curb my enthusiasm and fervor for friendships with them. I used to start out before a potential friendship as an eager puppy, but my experiences have turned me into a wary cat.

Every culture is open and closed in different ways. Relationships – romantic and otherwise – are deliciously intense here. “Jealousy” is given as an explanation for all manner of social slights, and even after so many years, I have yet to completely understand it.

I’m a feminist. I believe in women and love women. But making truly good women friends here has been more difficult than one would think (I’m super cool and friendly, after all!), and I often find myself wondering what the deal is. This is my best theory so far: a culture’s degree of machismo is directly correlated to the extent to which women feel in competition with one another. After all, when the love and admiration of a man has such a direct effect on how well you are able to live, the stakes are high.

It’s something I’ve learned the hard way.

I’ve had what I thought were good women friends, only to find myself abandoned later for some slight of which I was oblivious. Mexicans – men and women alike – are known for their effortless, excellent manners, but not always for true forgiveness or the willingness to talk openly about problems; conflicts are better avoided, often at the cost of non-family members simply being discarded.

Now that I’m a mother and most of my Mexican friends seem to come from the pool of other parents in my daughter’s school, things are better. I’ve made some excellent women friends that I am so proud and grateful to have. But I often wonder – on a cultural level – is it being married and having a child that has made me less threatening? If those circumstances weren’t present, could I still have those same friends? People are people everywhere, but those melodramatic stares from telenovelas (head down, peering out through narrowed and perfectly made-up eyes) are a silly version of a very real built-in suspicion.

I won’t knock jealousy across the board. Without it, that heady flavor of romance that latinos are famous for wouldn’t be possible. It makes relationships and friendships alike tricky, but my overwhelming conclusion here is always this: totally worth it.