Monday, June 15, 2009

New Digs

My new apartment smells faintly of dog food.

This is because I now live directly above a Purina food store, complete with stacks of animal feed and wire cages brimming with bunnies and chicks. The building is located along what is somehow a busy street, considering that there are few people -- and hence, few cars -- in Huajuapan. I'm reminded of my days in Chicago when big trucks roared by at 2 am, stirring me out of a sticky sleep.

Sticky. I should mention the fact that the apartment's windows don't open -- a fact that I discovered after it was too late to turn back, after I'd packed my stuff in my old place. After I'd rented a truck to move it exactly one block. After I'd handed over the keys to my former apartment, a place full of functioning, opening windows and fresh air. After the mercury in the thermometer rose to 42 Celsius -- well over 100 Fahrenheit.

Ah, the things we do for cheap rent and free internet and proximity to Mexican boyfriends.

Anyway. My non-opening bedroom windows face the street and the shoe store located on the other side. Inside that shoe store in my new arch nemesis, a bright red car, a children's ride, complete with headlight eyes and fender mouth. It's the sort of insert-a-quarter ride you used to find in the lobby of a Wal-Mart back in the day, right next to the machines that would sell stale bubble gum and little plastic treasures inside little plastic eggs. Every 10 minutes, the car's headlight eyes flash and it calls out in an slightly-demonic-sounding cartoon voice: ¡VEN NIÑO, VEN A DIVERTIRTE! ("Come here, kid, come have fun!") and then there's an onomatopoeia-tastic BOOOOOOOOOOOIIIIIIIIING to finish things off. It's loud enough that I can hear it clearly in my room, even with the windows closed (and, yes, they always are!).

And that's the noise level of the car at rest. Imagine the ruckus after a kid actually convinces mommy or daddy to part with two pesos to get the thing going. The result is a hellish-sounding mix of Western music and gas pedal revving.

But besides the car and the dog food and the non-opening windows, my new digs fantastic. In the new place, there are no nightmare-inducing spiders lurking on my ceiling or armies of ants in my pants-drawer. In fact the place is pretty clean (guess that's what happens when it is hermetically sealed with -- have I mentioned this? -- windows that don't open), which is surprising, considering I'm now living with two guys.

(They're two Mexican guys, mind you, who have somehow been programmed to make their beds and do their dishes and take out the trash. While my mom gave raising me right her best shot, it turns out that I'm the slob in the apartment, a fact that my new roommates find endlessly entertaining. Because of this, they've kept the housekeeper they'd hired before my arrival. She comes on Fridays and make the place sparkle for $100 pesos, about $7.50 dollars.)

The best part? My rent. $75 dollars a month! Kind of puts it all in perspective, no?

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Name Game

My first name, like the first name of seemingly 85 percent of the female population born between 1980 and 1985, is Sara. There’s the “Sarah With an ‘H’” version of the name, there’s the slightly rarer “Sara Without an ‘H’” version of the name, and here in Mexico, we’re usually known as “Sarita” or “Saris,” but, at the end of the day, we’re all Sara(h)s. There are a lot of us running around.

Because of this phenomenon, I was usually known as “Sara M” in my elementary school years, given that there were inevitably two or three or four or nineteen other little Sara(h)s in my class. During my high school years, within my group of four best girlfriends, three of us were named Sara(h). My college roommate was Sara (also of the “Without an ‘H’” variety). As an adult, I’ve worked with dozens of Sara(h)s. My time in Japan, a place where you’d think I’d be able to “escape” my name, was met with endless mail-delivery related confusion due to fact that another American Sara(h) lived down the street. And here in Mexico, I work with another Sara(h) – also a freckle-faced Irish girl from Chicago.

I guess I’m lucky to have a lot of tocayas – that’s a hard-to-translate Spanish word for people who share the same name. But the downside of the situation is that I’m forever erroneously responding to my name. I’ll hear it called out in grocery stores, in the street, at restaurants, wherever. I’ll inevitably turn my head to find out who’s calling me, and will inevitably find that it’s someone else trying to get the attention of one of the other three billion Sara(h)s on the planet.

I recently experienced this “erroneously responding to my name” phenomenon, but, ironically, it wasn’t because there were lots of Sara(h)s running around.

Now, as usual, there were multiple Sara(h)s involved in this particular scenario – this particular time we were in quadruplicate. There was me, of course. There was Sarah, the aforementioned other freckle-faced Chicago Irish gal who lives here in Huajuapan with me. And there were to two Mexican Saritas. But the many tocayas weren’t the problem.

We were all assembled at Huajuapan’s softball diamond on Saturday afternoon. I’d come at the invitation of a Huajuapeña named Sandra. Sandra had spotted me on my morning jog a week prior, running past her sidewalk juice stand at my neck-breaking clip. Sandra, turning out to be just as speedy, had abandoned her post to run after me. The what-must-have-been strange look on my face –confusion at having an unknown apron-clad woman sprinting after me mixed with apprehension at what I thought would inevitably be an awkward interchange (remember the now-infamous quasi-stalking incident involving the taxi driver-cum television producer?) – did not seem to deter Sandra. She boldly invited me to be a part of her softball team.

So this led to the four Sara(h)s at softball on Saturday. I’d accepted, obviously, and, in turn, had invited Sarah, the freckled Irish-American Chicagoan, to come with me. And the two Mexican Saritas were already a part of the team.

The softball game was lovely. It was nice to meet other athletically-minded women – the stereotype of mexicanas content with being housewives certainly didn’t apply to this spirited group of women, women who expertly stole bases and energetically heckled the other team – as it was also nice to break my eleven-year hiatus at having actually swung a bat.

But there was a disconcerting aspect to the afternoon: I kept responding to the wrong name. And the name wasn’t Sara(h).

It was güera.

I hate that word.

Güera, translated to English, roughly means “white girl.” It’s supposed to be a neutral term. Mexicans have a tradition of calling things as they see them – so if you’re referred to as “Chaparrito” (meaning that you’re short) or “Moreno” (meaning that you’re dark-skinned) or “Chino” (meaning that you have curly hair) – it’s not meant in a mean-spirited way. It’s just because, well, that’s what you look like.

So, compared to many of my dark-skinned counterparts here in Oaxaca, I am very very very güera. And I’m reminded of it constantly – by dirty old men when I’m running, by well-intended cashiers in the grocery store, by my landlord when she sees me heading off to work in the morning. Though the term grates on my still-too-PC-from-having-grown-up-in-the-United-States nerves, I’ve slowly gotten used to responding to it.

So when the people in the bleachers started yelling at the güera on the softball diamond that afternoon, I naturally assumed that they were yelling at me. The familiar flush – part anger, part embarrassment at having been called out because I’m different – crept up my face.

But to my surprise, it was Sandra who responded back, as naturally as if they’d called her by her first name.

Sandra, by local standards, is güera. Her chestnut-colored hair is a couple of shades lighter than that of her teammates, and her skin is a light brownish color. Her "fair" complexion has become something of a trademark for her: She’s so güera that the name of her juice stand basically translates to “White Girl Juice” (Jugos la Güera). I discovered this as I ran past her closed-for-the-sabbath shop on the following Sunday morning.

Sharing my status as alpha-güera took some getting used to. I’m used to being the only “white girl” for miles. So I couldn’t help but turn my head when the bleacher set started whooping it up for the güera at bat. My ears naturally perked up when Sandra’s friends approached the dugout and called for the güera. Kids even got in on the act: A four-year-old calling for the güera – that’s Sandra, not me – even caught my attention.

It was unnerving. If Sandra wants the name, she can have it. I’ll take the confusion caused by four Sara(h)s over that of two güeras any day.