A Primer on the Politics of Socializing in Oaxaca

It’s been said that the reason most Oaxacans hold down two jobs is that they need one to meet the financial demands of their day-to-day lives, and the other to attend to their social obligations. While at first blush such a statement seems if not incomprehensible then certainly exaggerated, after careful analysis within the context of how the lives of most expats in the city are expected to unfold as compared to their collective existence in the US or Canada, one finds a clear understanding and the truth of the proposition. And it goes a long way to answering the oft posed question “what do you mean you don’t have time to run your daily errands for god’s sake, you’re retired.”

Let’s say that the average age of foreign born retirees in the city is early 60’s (we tend to not wait until we’ve had heart attacks or been diagnosed with cancer to smarten up), and in our previous lives we worked either as professionals or as self-employed business persons, usually about 6 days or 70 hours a week for most of our adult lives. We looked for ways to get out of social obligations, too tired at week’s end to endure yet another family gathering, and there were never that many in any event, what with smaller families and a priority placed upon saving for retirement rather than spending by, as Horace once proposed, picking the flower of the day. Inviting another couple over or going out for dinner was the order of the day, and we did it perhaps twice a month. For the rest of our leisure time it was usually too much trouble to drive downtown to the theater or for gallery openings. We lead an insular nuclear family existence by and large, acceptable according to North American standards, in particular for those in northern climates who loathed stepping outside from November through March. After so many years of living for our children, by the time it was no longer necessary to do so we’d already been programmed to that lifestyle.

The Oaxacan way of life is the polar opposite of the Canadian and American experience. Not only do families still tend to be larger, but through compadrazgo (a type of fictive kinship whereby one extends the size of his family through the appointment of usually non-blood godparents at a broad range of rites of passage such as first communion, baptism, when a girl turns 15 [quince años], wedding, graduation, and so on) the number of compadres or extended family members one has conceivably continues to grow for decades, exponentially. Youth maintain an uncanny level of respect for the elderly. Inter-generational social gatherings are the rule rather than the exception, with entire families being invited to, for example anniversary and birthday parties of frequently even non-relatives. Thus through compadrazgo the number of social obligations increases, and with the expectation that entire families will attend, functions tend to be large in terms of the number of individuals present.

With respect to birthdays, often people are not actually “invited,” but rather there is an assumption that dates have been diarized, with the expectation that those in one’s loosely based social network will simply show up. While of late lifestyle has changed somewhat for the middle classes in terms of getting together with another couple or two for dinner without a formal reason for so doing, for most this is not yet the norm, and socializing occurs through celebrations only…all in all on a much more frequent basis than is the case with the “new generation.” With an extremely relaxed set of rules respecting attire for almost all functions given the diversity in terms of socio-economic classes of invitees, one is able to flit from a country birthday party to an urban wedding and vice versa with little if any concern with appropriate dress.

For the more formal affairs such as nuptials of urbanites, where invitations are in fact expected, they are hand-delivered no more than about 10 days in advance of the date. The mail is slow and unreliable, and too much advance warning means people might forget. Along with the invitation is a small “admittance ticket” indicating the number of attendees which are to be let in at the door. Not much notice is taken if 6 arrive to fill the complement of guests permitted and one or more were not those specifically identified on the invitation. It’s the number which is the main feature of the invitation, and often specific individuals are not named, but rather “y familia,” which effectively has no bounds in terms of which members should constitute the family. For functions in towns or villages, be they weddings, anniversaries, quince años, or local religious or secular celebrations, where no invitations are provided, one can attend with any number of friends or relatives, and additional tables are simply set up as guests arrive, this likely eventuality having been contemplated by the hosts in advance in terms of additional tables and chairs and sufficient quantity of food on hand.

Before focusing on foreign residents and social gatherings, let’s first deal with the change in lifestyle from a general perspective. You’re no longer too tired every evening or either contemplating or working on pending crises or commitments. Used to be you were exhausted after work on Friday, ran household chores on Saturday afternoon, were able to get out for 3 – 4 hours Saturday night, then did office work on Sunday afternoon and were reluctant to go out that evening, having to get an early start Monday morning. Everything seemed like a chore, especially when it meant fighting traffic for upwards of an hour or so to get downtown and then again to return home. Even the highway traffic to get to the mall was often too much of a bother. Here in Oaxaca, weekdays, weeknights and weekends there is a plethora of cultural events no more than a 10 – 15 minute drive from where you live in the city, generally boasting free or nominal admission. You’re paying, across the board, about 50% of what you’d been accustomed to spending to live north of the border. It’s never too cold and rarely too rainy or too hot. While it’s still true that you’re only as happy as your most unhappy child, at least to some extent with your progeny out of sight they’re more likely to be, at least more often, out of mind.

What to do with that time, energy and additional disposable income gets resolved in short order, as long as you spread your wings, learn a bit of Spanish, do not surround yourself with expats most of your waking hours and instead interact with native born shopkeepers, neighbors, service professionals, tradespeople and artisans in the villages. That is not to say you should live your rejuvenated life with your nose in the air shunning interaction with your fellow foreigners, but rather walk a healthy line. Be amenable to, at least when occasions present themselves, adapting to Oaxacan hours, meaning having comida (lunch) between 2:30 and 4:30 and cena (dinner) after 9. With your new-found potential for changing old patterns there is no rational reason for not attempting to do so.

What’s there to be political about in terms of socializing, one might reasonably ask. Accepting the foregoing assumptions apply to you, and given your ability and willingness to change old patterns given that the impediments for so doing have effectively disappeared, you must still take steps to “fit in.” Growing up in the western world you gradually learned from your parents, peers, educators and by mere osmosis about socializing mores. Without those decades and a support system behind you, as a recent transplantee a bit of assistance might just be the order of the day. Hence, three areas of concrete advice for when attending social functions, with additional assistance thrown in for good measure for when it’s your turn to be host:

TIME: Some Oaxacans are punctual but most are not. Being invited for comida without a time specification means arriving anytime between 2:30 and 4, or thereabouts. Ask what time, naturally, but doing so doesn’t necessarily equate with an expectation that you’ll arrive around that time. Birthday comidas in particular, especially in the country, often meld nicely into the evening. If there’s hired entertainment for such functions, at times it won’t even begin until 5 or 6…but then again sometimes it will be over by then. Rarely if even will a cena begin before 8:30. Depending on patterns of alcohol consumption, dinner can extend until 2 - 4 the next morning. This means that arrival time can conceivably be up until perhaps 11, which leads to a general expectation that you’ll attend the cena after you’ve been to another social obligation for that same night. It’s often no excuse to apologize by saying you already have another commitment. If it’s a wedding or quince años, there’s usually an expectation all round of punctuality, but wandering in “late” won’t be looked down upon. There just isn’t that concern or western obsession with getting there “on time,”…most of the time. If you’re throwing a dinner party, knowing your guests’ pattern or perception of punctuality certainly assists. For example, if you want everyone to be there by 9:30 to sit down after drinks and snacks, you can tell some friends to be there at that hour, and others at 8:30. It might just work out perfectly according to your western notion of planning…but probably not, and in fact does a disservice to any wish you might have to alter your temporal worldview, in any event a most difficult goal to attain.

ATTIRE: A jacket and tie is never absolutely necessary anywhere. Even at the most formal of functions there will be attendees dressed casually according to our imported standards, as their abilities dictate, yet neat and clean. Often middle and upper class men’s attire consists of slacks, collared shirt and leather jacket. It’s not unreasonable to expect foreigners to dress “up,” especially at a high end wedding or quince años, but don’t do the opposite to the extreme, anywhere. Jeans and a t-shirt show a lack of respect. Err on the side of formality. However, consider your surroundings. You can get away with casual clothing in the country at all times. As much as it’s obvious you’re a “güero,” you still don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb dressing too formal. Women: write to my wife for advice. She’s the one always on my case.

GIFTS: Because many people attending social events still bring gifts which are shrink-wrapped with clear plastic onto a piece of hard board, after you have a couple of functions under your belt you’ll be able to discern what’s an appropriate gift from whom, since you will have seen people walking into parties with the contents of their gifts in clear view. You can also get a pretty good idea of the most popular gifts by checking the range of pre-wrapped items in store windows or in the housewares and appliances sections of supermarkets and departments stores. But it’s practically guaranteed that when it comes to receiving presents at your own large celebration, you’ll be in for some surprises. The most shocked we’ve been was at my wife’s fiftieth when a well known political appointee gave her a pair of plastic earrings. Livestock is frequently given at rural weddings, as are sheets, lamps, blenders, coffee makers, dishes, pots and pans, etc. Liquor, including mezcal both labeled and unmarked multi-liter bottles of small-operation production, is an acceptable and appreciated gift under certain circumstances. With jewelry it’s hard to go wrong. The most acceptable etiquette dictates that you bring your gift with you to the function. In fact at weddings and quince años the presentation of gifts is usually a formal ceremony complete with receiving line. But don’t expect a thank you note because it will never appear. In fact even an acknowledgement at some future time of the gift you’ve given is rarely forth-coming. However there’s nothing wrong with you showing your appreciation with a brief call if you are so inclined. Some behaviors not traditionally practiced in southern Mexico are indeed appreciated.

Rites of passage provide both an excuse for socializing and facilitate a primary means by which to reciprocate, the latter exemplifying how one can and is expected to kill 200 or more birds with one stone. But just remember the double corollary of the foregoing adage when residing in Oaxaca…you’re footing the bill for throwing those bashes, and when invited to 200 such functions, gifts are required for each one. You may just wind up coming out of retirement, having really come of age in Oaxaca.


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