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A Source of (American) Embarrassment

San Miguel SunsetWell, here I sit, embarrassed and ashamed. As I pen this missive, I’m enjoying a beautiful day in San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico. My countrymen (from the United States) make me hang my head in shame.

Before you go getting all pissy, let me clarify that not all of my fellow Americans cause me to hang my head. But a big percentage of them wear their arrogance like Easter bonnets, haughty and proud. If only they had earned the right to such arrogance, I could at least understand it, but they haven’t.

Admittedly, I have a slight edge on many of them. Although I’m a native of Michigan, I am fairly fluent in Spanish. I haven’t attained the level of eloquence of an Octavio Paz, but I’m more than comfortable speaking with the locals in their home tongue. My wife, Liz, understands a great deal of the language and can piece together statements when her survival depends upon it, but she still finds herself falling back to English more often than not.

When we walk the streets of San Miguel, we obviously come face-to-face with a great many people. In a crowd, only the deranged attempt to greet everyone on the street. But when more or less alone, when coming face-to-face with someone, even my less than polished Michigan upbringing taught me it is only common courtesy to say “Hello”.

San Miguel de Allende has more gringos than many towns in the American southwest. Like us, many of them wander the streets taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Mexico. The noticeable difference with many of them is that when coming face-to-face with a local, they refuse to speak, even if spoken to. Their stone cold countenances, betray their arrogance. They look away as if eye contact will give them an incurable disease. Somehow, it’s as if their hosts are far below them.

My curiosity began to get the best of me. When I saw what appeared to be an American coming my way, I would load up my smile and say, “Hello. How are you?” Three quarters of them would refuse to respond. They’d do their best to look away and pretend I wasn’t there. After all, I could have been one of those dreaded Mexicans. I have been playing a lot of golf and have a pretty dark color in my cheeks.

After a couple of days of this somewhat frustrating approach, I spoke to the gringos in Spanish. “Buenas tardes” I would say. I was invisible. They’d look away. I would then come back in English, “Good afternoon.” Nothing! No response. The haughty, arrogant bastards would look away as if I didn’t exist. When I guessed wrong and the person turned out to be a local, without exception, I was greeted with a friendly, “Hola. Buenas tardes.” Only my countrymen carried themselves with a stench of self-importance. Again, there were rare exceptions.

I can assure you, I don’t complain of this because they made me feel lonely or unwelcome. I complain because we are guests in their country. They are by and large very gracious hosts. While we are here, we are America to them. We are ambassadors whether we want to be or not. For some, we are their only contact with America. The image we present is their reality.

I want America to be seen as a land of warm and friendly people, people that care about their fellow men and women. You know . . . sort of that “do unto others” type of people.

When you’re traveling in a foreign country, please remember you ARE America. You are the image of our country and our people. I am a proud American. America made me what I am today. But, if I expect respect, I know I must show respect. If I want people to care about me, I must care about them. If I want to be treated well, I’d be a fool to not treat others equally.

If you don’t speak the language, never forget there is one word that is truly universal. It is the smile on your face. Put a smile on America.


One Response

  1. Sadly your observations are true. In my travels (although limited compared to HOJO’s) it never ceases to astound me that Americans travel to other counties to enjoy the riches (beaches, food, wine) & treat the locals with such discourteous behavior. Shame on us. The interactions that I’ve had with the locals in various countries have enriched my life. Adios


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