“¡Guerito!” señoras exclaim and young people say under their breath to friends. White boy. Everybody stares.
On the avenue outside my son’s Montessori school, an elegant woman tousles his yellow-white hair in passing, as if she’s stroking silk in a dress shop. A bent old woman begging in the fruit market strokes his cheek.
Thankfully, it has not occurred to him any more than it has to any other blustery two-year-old that he is not the navel of the world. The attention comes as no surprise to him.
Of course, his father and I incessantly wonder what havoc this year in Mexico will wreak upon our son—the navel of our world, in any case: What will this do to his budding sense of self? His little identity? His understanding of the world and people in it?
Granted, too much petting might not be high on the list of dangers if one includes the typical traveler’s list of water- and bug-borne evils, or the burgeoning cartel violence, but, frankly, until we’ve faced off with these threats, they’re as abstract as the psychological.
Besides, as the mother of a beautiful child (as all mothers know themselves to be), I enjoy the attention. It is a profound improvement over the catcalls and whistles that my younger traveler self attracted on foreign streets.
The attention also supports a hypothesis of mine, a delicious half-baked theory that our son will be our golden ticket into Mexico. That living abroad as a family will be, among other things, a new sort of experience altogether, one in which the usual barriers to another culture are not so high or impermeable. I don’t know the answer yet, and since I’m still in the euphoric stage of culture shock my optimism may be boiling over, but let me explain my reasoning.
The solitary traveler—that tall, dark stranger, to speak archetypically—is purely an outsider, a quintessential unknown (and attractive for it). But so long as that traveler remains single, he or she remains apart. This is particularly true for women. Full immersion into the culture ultimately requires finding a local mate—and bedding a good dictionary (as travelers call it) is not sufficient if one wants to participate in a culture and not be simply the stuff of good gossip.
Couples, I think, can go either way. If unmarried, then there are the taboos to worry about: Steve and I played at least one million games of Travel Scrabble in my Ecuadorian host family’s living room, and my host mother was beside herself trying to seal the deal. A married couple is less disconcerting in traditional settings, but there is the isolating factor of the closed circle.
A family, however, can’t keep apart. A family is an open unit that depends and thrives on contacts with the outside. And even if that family—as Steve and I can be—is a bit shy and removed by nature, in addition to culture and language, the presence of kids bashes right through that reserve and sets about making friends. No toddler, least of all my son, is content merely admiring the endless booths selling little guitars and candied fruits in the touristy Mercado del Dulces; he must run with that pack of children in the park behind the market. He doesn’t care what they look like or that he doesn’t understand what they’re saying (the big kids are calling him “dwarf”). He is simply not able to watch the world from the sidelines. He doesn’t do bemused distance or objectivity. If there are pigeons in the plaza, he doesn’t want to take their picture, he wants to feed them, or at least careen into their midst and watch them scatter.
My child forces me to be more present too. In my previous travels, with a staunch determination not to be that loud American, I have avoided speaking English in anything above a whisper. But when my son, who speaks eight words of Spanish (most of them useless words like “sock” and “bear”), is careening over cobblestones desperate to catch pigeons and losing control of his toddler body, there is nothing to do but shout “Slow down!” at the top of my lungs and pregnant-waddle after him.
My son making friends in Morelia’s main plaza.
I know people look up from their papers, see me, and think, “there goes a foreigner” (if they hadn’t already noticed). But whether they know the words or not, they understand a mother warning her child. And then, when that child does inevitably fall, the person nearest—a boy himself—scoops him up again, speaking words that he doesn’t know, but understands perfectly.
This leads to my next point that people—particularly in Latin America—know what to do with children, even children who do not look like theirs or speak words they understand. The laundress coos at my so until he gives in and hugs her. The handsome café waiter breaks from his cool bravado and raves over a wooden truck. And the cashier in a coffeehouse sits down on the floor for a full explanation—in English all but unintelligible even to an English speaker—of an entire fleet of Matchbox cars and trucks and tractors.
I think these are all good signs, but then again, this could all be wishful thinking. I hope not, for my child’s sake as well as my own. I want the world for him, so I am bringing him to it. Now I only hope that he will be able to open it, for us all.