It’s some strange hubris of travel to think we know a country or a people because we came and saw a slice of it, of them. How many different versions of the United States do you imagine foreign visitors carry home? Did they stay with family in the Appalachians? Visit a dude ranch in Arizona? Make a wrong turn into Watts one afternoon when they were looking for the Hollywood hills? My Mexico was made up of poor villagers. They are the bedrock on which I base my sense of who the Mexican people are. They are quick to laugh, treat their burdens with a light touch, pay a man to rake the dirt road in front of their home because he needs the pesos even more than they do.
I met a handful of wealthy Mexicans, came to know two handfuls of people who struck me as part of a burgeoning middle class, enough to understand some of the differences between the socioeconomic strata there, how education and money shape their world. Enough to know better than to base my assumptions about life on Mexico on the lives of poor people in rural villages. But not enough to keep me from doing it anyway. I still remember the look on my Senor Soto’s face when I made this mistake, embarrassed myself. “Es raro, no?” I asked him. That’s unusual, isn’t it? He’d just mentioned he and his wife had two children. I was surprised, though looking back on it now I realize all the middle class families I knew there had only two children. He was driving the taxi, so he couldn’t stop to stare at me, but I remember his piercing look. His voice was kind, but there was steel beneath it.
“You can’t do that,” he told me in Spanish. He’d agreed to let me practice my Spanish even though he was fluent in English. (He even taught me the difference between the words “writer” and “author.”) “You can’t make assumptions about all of us like that.” His gaze moved between me and the highway. I was sitting in the passenger seat. We were on our way to the airport in Guadalajara. “Many people have only one or two children,” he said. “It just depends.” I had known it, seen it already, and yet I blundered in, two feet in my mouth, insulting this well-read man who was fluent in two languages, whose son was attending the university, whose wife and he had practiced family planning. I nodded, blushing.
“Entiendo,” I said. I understand. “Lo siento.” I’m sorry. His kindness never faltered, but he’d put me in my place, and I was glad he did. If I might muster even a faint echo of his grace the next time I need to speak up, I’ll be grateful. I have his business card tucked in my wallet. The day I return, I’ll call to see if he can pick me up from the airport. Or maybe I’ll email him ahead of time, so I can know Senor Soto will be waiting for me there.