Gringo’d in Oaxaca City

Respect is a mutual thing. In my opinion, you need to give it out in order to earn it.

However, there is a clause in this social contract when you are traveling in a foreign land – and the prevailing culture is different from your own – that stipulates respect is warranted, regardless of if it has first been received by the traveler. Respect for the cultural differences, and the code of conduct inherent to that culture.

From what I’ve sensed, and what was conveyed in a Washington Post article from late February, there is some disdain among locals towards gringos, in Oaxaca, among other cities in Mexico, namely because of some foreigners inability to wear masks in public. In the article, Vicente Reyes, a Oaxaca native and president of social impact collective Hermano Maguey, said that,

“It sends a really sad, de-motivating message to locals who are taking care of each other,” Reyes says. “We are all trying to keep it together, and these guys are flying around the city, enjoying themselves and not taking care of us.”

The author of the article suggests Reyes is speaking in respect to younger international foreigners – who are in Oaxaca city to party – as they travel between popular nightlife destinations Mexico City and Tulum.

However, in my experience, it is a fallacy to suggest Oaxaca city has a large, after hours party scene, or that the majority of those foreigners living mask-free are younger… Or even predominantly American, as many of the 700+ comments on the article suggest.

Oaxaca city is close (7-10 drive time) to the coastal city, Puerto Escondido, which is popular with younger travelers, so many of them may stop in Oaxaca city along their route. However, the younger foreigners that came to Oaxaca as a destination, are often there to experience the culture, and not the party scene (or lack thereof), in my experience. And many, if not the majority of those I have encountered, are European.

I’ve actually seen as many older expats or tourists there as a family conducting their business in public without masks as I have twenty or thirty-somethings. Regardless of demographics, I usually give the offenders a solid stank eye in hopes they’ll make eye contact, and pick up on my body language.

Though I’m not personally a proponent of mask-wearing, I do it to appease the locals, and try to curb the stereotype that gringos are a bunch of narcissists who are oblivious to the conduct around them, or at the very least, are impartial to it, and for this reason as well as a variety of others, can be viewed as a piece of meat.

Respect is also about empathy, and that’s what I want to convey to the locals through sympathetic gestures, as well as by taking the measures I need to in order to have them return the favor (mutual respect), and treat me like I’m a human being, rather than just a dollar sign.

Wearing a mask while in public, tipping restaurant staff and street performers (and sometimes just straight-up beggars), offering a “buen provecho“, and yielding the right-of-way to my elders (and often just locals in general) while walking down the street are a few of the ways in which I try to do this.

Typically, I try to go above and beyond what I feel is warranted with my common courtesy, in an attempt to compensate for other travelers (tourists) who seemingly live in their own world.

I also, in general, try to support independent businesses over corporate ones, given the opportunity (and there is almost always the opportunity). But especially in locales where the livelihood of the business owners – and in many cases, their family – is dependent on the volume of business they do. This is a quite common occurrence in Latin America, in my experience; a lot of times the business will be a family affair, and the sole source of income, seemingly more than in the ‘States.

Obviously, independent, family-run businesses exists all over, but the ones in places with a strong tourism industry are maybe the most likely to be desperate for business in these times.

This is a huge generalization, but from what I’ve witnessed, it seems like Mexicans are more industrious than their American counterparts, and have a better chance of adapting to a given situation… Idk if it’s because of how they were raised or it’s just something they grew up with, but they seem to be able to make the most out of a bad situation. Unlike Americans who simply bitch and moan, and blow their stimulus check or unemployment stipend on clothes or DoorDash delivery.

Unfortunately, business owners who rely on tourist dollars have much less opportunity to alter their business model and retain a similar income.

Which is why I am dismayed, but not surprised, that so many commenters suggested “priviledged” and “self-centered” “tourists” not travel because of all the people COVID is “hurting, if not killing.”

This outlook begs the question, what about all the people in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America whom COVID is “hurting, if not killing” by way of famine?

The UN projected that the number of people “marching towards starvation” spiked from 135 million to 270 million as the pandemic progressed, and “left them even further behind.”

The commenter suggests supporting these struggling groups by making donations to non-profit organizations in lieu of traveling, but they method assumes the money will end up in the right hands, after passing through a wall of bureaucracy. I guess I have less faith in the corporate and 501(c)(3) system than most. But, given the opportunity, I would much rather offer direct support to ensure the safe delivery of the funds to those needing the aid.

I don’t presume to be the messiah, single-handedly revitalizing all the independent businesses in popular tourist destinations in Mexico, but the continued trickle of tourist dollars certainly helps support these entrepreneurs by boosting their income.

That is, if the tourists choose to support this type of establishment over the corporate alternatives at their disposal. Personally, I’m out here trying to boost the Mexican economy with my stimulus check 😉

As I mentioned earlier, I’m all about patronizing local, mom-and-pop businesses. Going back to my time living in Chicago, it would break my heart when acquaintances of mine would elect to eat at chain restaurants over the smaller, corner spots; or shop at Target – namely because it was familiar – over the local, independent neighborhood supermarkets or grocery store, which had a just fine selection or variety of products, and competitive prices.

This topic may warrant an entirely separate post, but unfortunately, things don’t appear to be too different among the gringo population in Mexico, from what I’ve gathered.

Through my own real world experience and research by way of many expat forums online, many gringos are often quick to seek out the nearest big-box retailer when looking for a specific item. Usually, their belief is that they can get a better price, and have more options to choose from. However, whether this rings true or not is a function of how much investigation the shopper is willing to do.

If they take the time to immerse themselves among the locals, and do some research by just asking around, they will most likely be able to find the exact item, or something very similar to what they were seeking, often for even less than what it would cost at the corporate-equivalent retailer.

Gringo prices
However, I think it is a common occurrence for travelers, especially those who appear as foreigners, to get priced-gouged by local vendors. In Latin America, where there is an exceptional difference in appearance between the locals and travelers, it is even more common.

I’m not sure if this is due to tourist conduct and attitudes, or if the businessperson simply sees an opportunity for exploitation, regardless of the demeanor of the patron?

Obviously, this occurs throughout the world to some degree as well, you don’t need to look any further than cab drivers in NYC or Chicago operating unmetered taxis and coming up with a fare out of thin air. However, it certainly happens frequently in Latin America or Asia where something tips off the driver that you’re a foreigner who’s out of their element, and thus an easy target.

Standardized, clearly stated prices is pretty substantial rationale for electing to use Uber over a taxi, or shopping at a corporate retailer rather than “the little guy”. I know from personal experience that the insight or belief you have been taken advantage of, especially after repeat occurrences, can be very frustrating.

But, maybe if more expats bought local, rather than patronizing Walmart, Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc., the vendors and local retailers would offer lower prices because they had more business…

Admittedly, I am sometimes (very seldomly) tempted to buy from a known, established large retailer because of the perception that I am getting taken advantage of. Especially when I get that sense after a particular transaction has occurred. However, I almost always dismiss the temptation, and instead look inside myself to determine what I could have done differently to resonate with the vendor and get the treatment a local would.

Demeanor speak volumes, and by demonstrating through various means that you are respectful of the local culture, and conveying empathy, you will probably be less likely to get gringo prices. And maybe more importantly, have the opportunity for a pleasant, life-affirming interaction with an individual who is culturally diverse from you.

– C


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