Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Meet the Fockers (à la Mexicana)

There’s nothing like spending a Sunday night in a cemetery.

With your Mexican boyfriend.

And his entire extended family.

Meeting a significant other’s family is always a bit awkward. There’s the anxiety of making a good first impression. Of hoping they like you. Of remembering new faces and names.

Throw in the twist of dating a Mexican, and you do all of the above en español while attempting to juggle cultural differences with an extra-large extended family that includes, like, 36 aunts and uncles and at least 467 cousins: Do you offer Tio Martín a handshake or kiss on the cheek? Do you address thirty-something Prima Lupe in the formal “usted” form or use the more familiar “”? How do you react when nearly-deaf, 85-year-old Tia Josefa can’t understand your gringa accent?

And then there’s the issue of location. What could be more comfortable or natural that doing all of this in a cemetery at 11pm on a Sunday night?

But that’s par for the course here in Mexico. This time of year, families get together to celebrate El Día de los Muertos (that’s Day of the Dead), so what better opportunity to introduce your gringa girlfriend to the crew than when everybody’s together anyway?

And that’s exactly how it went down in a tiny cemetery on top of a mountain somewhere in rural Oaxaca this past Sunday. Mexican families believe that the spirits of the departed come back to visit the living on November 1 (it’s known as All Saints’ Day en inglés). Since they only come around once a year, Mexican Hospitality says you’d best make ‘em feel welcome, with elaborate altars in homes (packed with flowers, candles, pictures, food and beverages of choice) and all-night vigils at the cemetery, where families take turns tending the gravesites with flowers, candles, food and music.

Where I come from, cemeteries are usually somber places, evoking scenes of cold November days with brittle, leafless trees and sobbing widows at grey gravesites. But in Mexico on Day of the Dead, cemeteries are carnival-like, with music and crowds, cumbia-blaring speakers and vendors hawking tamales and pozole and atole right outside the cemetery gates.

So what better place than a cemetery to meet you boyfriend's father's sister's daughter's daughter, whose name you forgot thirty seconds after it was told to you, because you were whisked away to meet your boyfriend's mother's sister’s second cousin's son?

And what, exactly, does one talk about over the graves of the dearly departed? The universal awkward-situation conversation topic – the weather – doesn’t always translate to Mexico, because, let’s face it, it’s sunny and beautiful here all the time. And frankly, it seems a little trite to be comparing precipitation trends in Chicago and Oaxaca when you’re supposed to be honoring the memory of Abuelo and Abuela, who are resting for eternity just below your feet.

Given all of this awkwardness, it is strange to admit that I actually enjoyed the experience? My novio’s family was warm and welcoming, offering me lots of hugs and kisses, and it’s-so-nice-to-finally-meet-yous. They streamed into the family’s capilla throughout the evening, piling yellow and white and purple flowers on the gravesites and lighting candles. We chatted about NAFTA and master’s degrees and beach vacations. And later we noshed on hot chocolate and sweet bread.

If meeting extended family in a cemetery is normal in Mexico, I can only imagine how out-of-place my novio must have felt when I took him to my uncle's house in Central Illinois for a good ol' red-white-n'-blue fish fry this past July, inflicting my cousins and uncle and grandma on him all at once. Perhaps this whole meet-my-entire-extended-family-in-a-graveyard-at-midnight thing was his form of revenge.

At least I got some hot chocolate out of the deal. All he got was fried bass and a Bud Light-induced hangover.

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