This article is from the March 2002 The Mexico File
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There’s a Word for It in Mexico: The Complete Guide to Mexican Thought and Culture
by Boye Lafayette de Mente (McGraw Hill: ISBN 0-844272-51-5).
Reviewed by Gordon Jett
I have lived full time in Mexico for seven years and have taken innumerable Spanish classes, ranging from the very formal to the informal and colloquial. Not one of them gave me the depth of understanding about Mexican culture that is contained in this one volume.
The author is described as bringing “more than 25 years of writing about comparative culture” to this book. Indeed, many of his comparisons between contemporary Mexican and contemporary Japanese culture are amazing to me.
The main portion of this book consists of 139 words defined from their cultural and historical perspectives. Each definition consists of one or two pages of a word’s cultural content. “Abrazo” simply means embrace or hug according to Diccionario Larousse. But whom do you hug and on what occasions? Which arm goes over which? What are you saying when you share an abrazo, and what is being said to you? “Mexicans cannot feel really close or intimate with people until they engage in the abrazo, so it especially behooves business people from other countries who want to establish good relationships with their Mexican counterparts to wholeheartedly adopt this custom,” according to the author.
“Culpas” is a word which means “fault” or “guilt,” according to Larousse, but has far deeper meaning to the Mexican culture. As with many Mexican customs or traditions, its roots go way back to the conquest by Spain and the centuries of degradation, humiliation and corruption by the viceroys and the Catholic Church. The people had so little power that they learned to regard bad things as completely beyond their control. A person does not break a glass – the glass broke itself. A man is not guilty of beating his wife – his sexuality drove him to beat his wife. And if he does so and thereafter acts as if he had done the right thing, it is OK. It is only if he shows guilt will he be thought to have done wrong.
This is a book that I found difficult to read from start to finish. But it is beside my favorite armchair, for ready reference or to pick up and read another chapter. In addition to the above-mentioned 139 words, there are shorter definitions of 225 words of equal interest. And the 18-page history of Mexico as an introduction to the book is worth the price alone.
The book is available from www.amazon.com – and if you look it up, you will see a couple of very negative reviews and several very good reviews. It is a book that evokes strong emotions, either good or bad. I go with the good ones and I think you will too. It is a “must read” for anyone who loves Mexico and wonders what makes it tick.