Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Social Network

"A private sin is not so prejudicial in this world, as a public indecency."

- Miguel de Cervantes

* * * *

The taxi, a comfortable van painted distinctively green and white to identify the route it would take, rolled slowly westward toward downtown. As has always been the case with taxis colectivo, people are picked up randomly along the route until the taxi is full, dropped off at the nearest safe point requested, and refilled and dropped off this way until the end of the route. Unlike metered taxis, the route cabs charge a flat rate. The twelve miles I would be traveling would cost me ten pesos, under a dollar. This is a very economical way to get around, and much faster than taking a bus.

I would enjoy this convenience much more was it not for the invention and popularity of the cellular telephone.

Change is inevitable, even in Tijuana. The vans are a recent development, replacing the hundreds of station wagon taxis taken out of service a few years ago because apparently they were an eyesore for the mayor in office at the time. Metered private taxis came into being a few years before; previously one obtained the services of a private taxi by haggling a deal with the driver beforehand. The convenience store chains where the majority of cell phone owners purchase their minutes are also recent in their volume and as unavoidable in Tijuana as fast food franchises from the other side of the big metal fence.

These differences have changed the way that Tijuana feels and has had some small impact, at least, on the culture. There are still small neighborhood markets everywhere, still small independently owned diners and restaurants, still sedans working as route cabs, and one can still haggle with the driver of a route cab to get a direct trip to somewhere. The cellular telephone, however, has had the most effect; it has sharply changed some aspects of the culture of Tijuana.

* * * *

Rocio's mother gets around. This I mean at face value and in not implying any significance other than that when someone calls my house looking for her because they can't find her at her own house, I remind them that the lady loves to wander her neighborhood. She is friends with everyone, Doña Mago, where Mago is short for Margarita, her given name; nicknames are much more common in Mexico than on the other side of the big metal fence. Her husband is a hard-working man named Elias, but the immediate family calls him El Borracho, meaning "the drunk", and in shorting it to Acho, it remains his nickname to this day.

Elias no longer drinks, but when he did, it was a spectacle – I've never seen anyone who could get so drunk and not pass out.

Mexicans are incredibly social - much more so than are Americans, and Mago is a part of an amazing social network; most Mexicans are a part of an amazing social network. Twenty years ago, it was rare that anyone had a telephone. Telephone ownership was expensive and waiting lists were clogged with people who had enough money and were lucky enough to live near a telephone line; these people were content to wait six months or more for installation. In those days, as now, Mago would go calling on friends throughout the day and they would gossip in hushed tones. Wonderful rumors were born from those whispers, passed on from person to person in the course of a week or a month.

One time Mago told me in Spanish, "Have you heard? The world is going to end next Thursday."

I laughed. I asked her where she got such a notion, and she informed me proudly that everyone was saying that it would happen. That was many hundreds of Thursdays ago. Obviously, there was no truth to that particular rumor. These rumors were passed on privately, person-to-person. To do so publicly and to be overheard would brand one as being scandalous.

One time, when my Spanish was getting good enough to have the ability to construct and speak an intelligible sentence, Elias took me down to a poorer section, within walking distance, and introduced me to some of his work-mates. This was an extraordinary honor for me, a gringo invited into the social network. The men do not gossip. They drink beer outside of the house, talking about work or sports, or else each other. I remember the wife of Elias' friend sweeping the dirt floor inside of their home – which amounted to nothing more than a shack with no apparent front door – and his two beautiful young daughters helping their mother. Poverty is only relative. They had each other. They had their social networks. They had chickens and eggs and made tortillas by hand.

There is no doubt in my mind that fifteen years later, those girls are now proud owners of cellular telephones, even if they still live in that same shack.

* * * *

From the back of the green and white taxi on my way downtown, I tried not to overhear when the cell phones rang. Everyone had one, from the obviously poor to the apparently affluent; except for myself, I find a cell phone to be an inconvenient leash. In line crossing the border, I was surrounded by one-sided conversations right up to the point where cell phones must be turned off. All of these conversations of one-sided scandal!

After crossing, which included an incident where the border security people took one young man out of line and interviewed him and then made him wear a surgical mask and sit quietly at a revision table, I quickly finished my business and re-entered Mexico. I decided to stop at the Nuevo Perico and have a beer or two and get in touch with my own social network, waiting for Scott or maybe Jody or someone else I knew to come along. Even in the bar, cell phones were going off regularly, the only time the conversation was taken outside was when the jukebox blared. Javier came in, and we watched the spectacle together.

"I don't have any use for one of those things," he said after another one went off.

"I couldn't agree more. It's like wearing a leash. An electronic leash where anyone can reach you at any time."

We drank and got caught up; my almost daily trips to downtown Tijuana are now reduced to once or twice a week. Javier and me talked about how culture is sometimes marginalized by technology. Then we discussed more important matters, like sports and the climate and his years in the army and the insanity of crossing the border. All of the while, cell phones went off irregularly but frequently. We bought each other a beer and then I got out of there and headed over to the Dandy del Sur for one last drink; cell signals don't seem to easily penetrate the walls in the Dandy.

I wasn't in there any more than ten minutes when Javier appeared.

"I thought you would be here," he said.

"No cell phones," I said, laughing.

I made my trip home uneventful. After getting some tacos at the corner to go, I flagged down a taxi with a meter and got in the back seat. The meter was broken. I told him where I wanted to go and we negotiated a price of one hundred pesos. The extra ninety pesos were certainly a value since I didn't have to listen to the one-sided conversations of other passengers. Except for taking the freeway, which didn't exist when I first came to Tijuana, everything was just like it was twenty years ago, which is okay by me.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

well dave i have a cellphone.all it cost me is 20 a month.i only use it for work i my have a day off and they might need me to come in to work.too people have my number charles and my boss oh by the way mom and dad have one to.i do agree people seem to love talking 24 hrs a day it gets on mynearvs to.but still some of us do need is kind of funny at home we have a house phone i useit all the time but charles and rachel use there cell more than the house is nice to know that rocio,s dad gave up beer but i bet he,s not as much fun like the good ol day,s.i still miss all the monday night football games we watched boy we drank some beer back then not to forget all the taco,s we ate mmm .mexico is not a bad place to live if you can over look poverty drugs and the killing,s that go on.i only say that becouse i read the paper every day.well im going to go see ya later john

8:46 PM, May 16, 2009  

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