I love Mexico. I lived in that beautiful country for much of my adult life. I love the people, the food, the beaches, and the rugged enchanting beauty of the Baja desert. My daughter was born there. Both my kids were raised there. Even though I am a huge fan of Mexico, I must confess I have come to recognize that some Mexican stereotypes, while perhaps not totally accurate and probably not the best way to judge a race, culture or people group, frequently carry some identifiable element of truth in them. Stereotypes of any group or nationality were not created in a vacuum; they were sired by truth and birthed in reality. This does not mean that every person in every group lives up fully to his or her projected stereotype potential, but there does seem to be a generalized, observable pattern to a group’s behavior. Take the United States for instance. Not every American is obese, lazy, self-centered, comfort-seeking, materialistic, fast-food-snarfing, politically naïve, ignorant of geography beyond his or her local mall, greedy, TV-addicted, greasy-food-enslaved, monolingual and vicariously violent through worshipping the US military, no matter what the rest of the world says about us. But enough of us do fit these stereotypes to the point where we as a people can see ourselves within this rather tragic list of observable traits. However, since only about of three quarters of these American stereotypes apply to me, I must not assume that all stereotypes are always true of all people in the group.
One of the stereotypes of Mexicans in Baja, which I would declare to be a statement of near universal reality, having seen it confirmed over and over again through repeated direct observation, is that they do not suffer from claustrophobia. A related stereotype is that Mexican personal space is measured in negative numbers. These two related stereotypes are evidenced by the way the locals in any given Mexican community in Baja, particularly among the young people, can fill up a car with far more people than there are seats available. The mathematical formula for determining vehicular occupancy is to use the square of the number of actual seats in the car, in other words three really means nine, four means sixteen and so on. The true maximum number of passengers per vehicle, however, is ultimately determined not so much by some ancient Aztec mathematical formula, but by whether or not the car doors can be fully closed and latched and if the vehicle is still capable of moving under its own power in the direction the driver intends it to go.
There are some wonderful side benefits to car stuffing. Unlike the United States, which suffers from a woefully inadequate urban mass transit infrastructure, Mexico never developed this problem. This is because in Mexico, virtually every vehicle still running may be considered a functioning element of the mass transit system. I suspect it is even possible to get mass transit government subsidies for a Smart car, although it is hard to make stencils small enough to spray-paint “Transporte Urbano y Transpeninsular La Virgen de Guadalupe Secretaría de Transporte y Comunicación” on a car that has only marginally more surface area than a skateboard.
Several years ago my church in La Paz, not far from the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, was invited to participate in a youth camp sponsored by another church 450 miles up the winding desert road from where I lived. In Baja, the longest peninsula in the world, distance means nothing, so a twelve hour trek through the desert meant little more to us than a jaunt to the corner store to get milk. In an effort to show the superior American values of punctuality and the appropriate application of the people-per-car-seat principle, I was determined to use this trip as a teaching moment for as many people as possible. I was going to demonstrate the proper and appropriate values of time and space to a culture that predates the American culture by several millennia. I vowed to myself we were going to leave on time with no more passengers than there were seats in my conversion van. It was going to be “siete a las cinco” (seven at five) – seven passengers and a five AM departure.
It was here that cultures collided like particle beams in a Hadron collider. It was here that a competition to see who was closer to God – my Mexican co-pastor or me–became observable. As five o’clock approached and I prepared to head out, more and more kids approached my van looking for a ride. “Dear God, my van is full, please, no more kids,” was my desperate plea to the Almighty. “Praise God, here comes another kid,” was the heartfelt attitude of gratitude from my Mexican partner in ministry. He clearly had God’s ear. I was obviously being ignored by the forces of Heaven. Forty-five minutes later and 14 passengers fuller, my van, with seats for seven, finally rolled away from the curb to begin the 12-hour trek to the north.
Fourteen passengers with seats for seven; according to the ancient Aztec formula my van wasn’t even at half its carrying capacity. However, since this was a camping trip, backpacks, pillows, sleeping bags, pre-iPod boom boxes, family-size bags of chips and water bottles all competed for space with the human occupants. The laws of physics are real and they are inviolable – matter, all matter, does have mass and does take up space. No two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. A two-pound bag of potato chips occupies as much linear space on a car seat as does the backside of a kid weighing 70 times what the chips do. All told, by Baja standards, the trip north was normal and uneventful. The return trip south, four days later? Now that was something else.
Our camp was held at the edge of an agricultural town which was experiencing a magnificent bumper crop of strawberries. There were strawberries everywhere. There were far more strawberries needing to be shipped than there was available space on trucks to ship them; so the farmers, unable to market their berries, were foisting free strawberries on everyone whose mouth could be pried open. Our hosts, perhaps as a budget extender, or perhaps as an object lesson to teach the young campers the doctrine of divine omnipresence, made sure we had strawberries at every meal and at every snack. Breakfast, mid-morning break, lunch, mid-afternoon break, supper, bedtime snack – all were filled with strawberries. Strawberries in our oatmeal, salad, shakes, pudding, jelly: It was berry overkill. In military parlance it was saturation bombing by berries. Colin Powell would have described it as “shock and awe.” Only a new Moses could have walked through that sea of strawberries on dry land. We ate and drank strawberries in quantities so vast the number has not yet been invented to quantify them.
What the consumption of all those strawberries meant, in practical terms, was that our return trip, which should have taken 12 hours, became a much longer marathon of interconnected desperate potty stops through the desert. It became an odyssey of uncountable, urgent physiologically mandated bio-breaks . Unlike the single eruptions of Mount St. Helen or Krakatoa, the explosive eruptions of my passengers were polynumeric . Unlike the predictability of Old Faithful in Yellowstone, there was no way to predetermine the schedule of these random , bi-directional eruptions from the berry-burdened bellies of my passengers. Each kid in my van was caught up in what seemed like a bi-polar face-off between two NASA Space Shuttles placed nose to nose trying to push each other backwards at full thrust. My fear was that the opposing forces battling inside each kid would meet in the middle, vaporizing them into black holes of nothingness.
Eventually, the trip ended safely. My van survived the ordeal – sort of. My mind and body have, for the most part, healed to the point where I can eat strawberries again, although I’m pretty sure a deep-digging counselor would unearth a repressed memory or two hidden in the crevasses of my damaged brain. I have come to accept that there are some cultural battles I will not win and in which I might as well not even consider engaging. Some cultural issues are so big that attempting to change them would be like trying to stop continental drift with a rainbow. One personal mini protest in which I am still actively engaged, but which I already accept as a lost cause, is that I no longer drive anything that looks like a van. I now own a Subaru with seats for five, but recognize that even that carries the potential for 25 passengers once I cross the border heading south. I have named my little Subaru after Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes A Village, because it can.