A gentelman in an old fashioned slant-crowned sobrero and field-darkened huaraches stopped me in the middle of downtown Guadalajara the other day.
“Oye señor,” he said, “can you tell me how to get to the Palacio Federal, por favor?”
The two of us stood in the middle of the crowded sidewalk, people pushing around us in both directions, some detouring into the street. Mexican faces. This wasn’t normal tourist territory and there wasn’t a gringo to be seen.
“Well, let me see,” I said. “You go up to the corner there where the big tienda is and turn to your right. That’s Acalde. You pass the Cathedral and stay on Acalde about six blocks until you see the Palacio on your right.”
“Muchisimas gracias, Señor,” the man said and went off with a countryman’s gait.
That wasn’t the first time I’d been asked directions in that part of town, surrounded by Mexican citizens as far as you could see in all directions, and every time I always wondered why I was picked out. Why not somebody that looked like a native tapatio? It isn’t that I’m not pleased to direct folks to wherever they want to go; it’s just that if I were a Mexican looking for the Federal Palace, a gringo who is probably a tourist is the last person I’d ask.
I looked into a store window at my reflection to check that impression. Yep, obviously I appeared about the most unlikely person on the street to know where things in Mexico’s second largest city might be located.
In the first place, I’m the wrong size, too tall. I’m blond, in a hurry, I’ve got a yanqui way of walking and certainly a yanqui look of preoccupation. Yet people choose me to ask for directions in a town I assume is theirs. If I were in Seattle, I wouldn’t select a guy wearing a Sikh turban to tell me how to get to City Hall. I mean, I’m wearing dark glasses, a tense expression, and I’m absentmindedly obeying the street lights. I’ve got to have extranjero painted all over me in the eyes of a lot of local folks.
I wheedled this into a conversation with a Mexican friend, Eduardo “Lalo” Arellano, a couple days later and he agreed about the way I look. “No, you don’t look like a Mexican at all,” Lalo said. “You look like a North American, like somebody from well, you know, Los Angeles, someplace like that. From the other side. You look like an American tourist. Just look at you. You’re too tall, Mano. Too blond, no necktie, no suit. You don’t have enough stomach for your age. You’re wearing Levis and running shoes. Still you don’t have a camera. But maybe you left that back at your hotel. No you don’t look Mexican at all. But that’s not the point, you see.”
“Hombre, that IS the point. I don’t look like the right guy to come up to and ask where things are in downtown Guadalajara. How should a gringo know how to get from here to there in this city? Why would people stop and ask me how to find anything here when I look like I don’t speak a word of Spanish?”
“Andale, Mano, everybody knows how to speak Spanish these days,” Lalo said. It’s like English, becoming very corrupt. On the tele they advertise the estudio couch for the furniture store. In English they use words like macho, vamanos, pronto, all those things all the time. It’s getting so you can’t tell one language from another. It’s a pity, of course, But there it is.” Lalo likes to comment on what he sees as the state of the world whenever he can.
“But why would a campesino ask somebody looking like me where the Federal Palace is? I would have chosen anybody else.”
“Pues, that’s because you’re a gringo, and don’t know any better, Mano. No offense.” Then he shook his head wearily, as if trying to explain something terribly elementary to an inattentive child. “Listen to me.” He put a hand on my arm to make sure he had my complete attention. “It’s really very simple. But you don’t understand it, do you?”
Playing my part, because I really didn’t understand, I shook my head obediently.
“They ask you because you’re not a Mexican.”
“Si. Because if they ask a Mexican man in downtown Guadalajara how to get to the Palacio Federal the chances are that he won’t know.
“Most likely he probably has been here less time than the guy asking him. There’re chilangos (people from Mexico City) all over the place. That’s why the traffic is so loco now. Everybody is a newcomer in Guadalajara these days. Did you know that every day more than a thousand....”
“But the chances aren’t any bette with a gringo,” I interrupted.
“Pues, it’s this way, Mano,” Lalo continued his lecture with a great display of patience. “The Mexican man they ask won’t even know where the Cathedral is unless he can see it. But the trouble is, he won’t say so. No, he’ll say, “Well, you go this way down by that green car.... No, don’t go that way, go this other way.... but I think you can take a short cut by going over there to the right three blocks, then turn north...” You know how it is, Mano. Who’s going to come right and say, ‘Hombre, I don’t know where the maldido Palacio Federal is myself’?”
I squinted at him to see if he were kidding me.
“It wouldn’t be polite, you understand?” Then Lalo got a little embarrassed. “I don’t mean to be critical,” he said, grinning gently, “but gringos just say they don’t know. Zas, just like that. If they don’t know, they just come out and say it right away. Unless they do know, of course. No offense now.” He touched my arm again to show he wasn’t being impolite. “That’s just the way they are. Muy raro, no? So you see, it’s best to ask a gringo, eh. Saves time, like you people always say.”