The stereotype persists: Mexicans as lazy, trying to get something for nothing, working only enough to buy their next six pack and an afternoon siesta. I have a souvenir from god only knows where, a rock with a tiny figure of a man in a repose lying on it, a sombrero over his face and several miniature empty beer bottles around him. Having just returned from 12 days in Mexico, I’m struck by the strongest lingering impression of my time in the D.F. and Oaxaca. Every Mexican I met seemed to be hustling ALL THE TIME. Little kids sell Clorets at 11:00 on Saturday night. Old women make tortillas at improvised kitchens on the street. Pregnant women hawk homemade horchata in the hot midday sun. Legless men in the food markets sell handmade keychains. Obese kids play drums for pesos in the train stations. I bought a handmade blusa for 100 pesos (about 8 bucks) from an ancient woman on the street in Oaxaca; she plucked one in just my size from a pile she was carrying on her shoulder and sold me not just on the beauty of the intricate embroidery, but perhaps more on the enthusiasm of her patter. When my friend Dee bought a blouse from a woman for 150 pesos and didn’t bargain the price down, the woman crossed herself and thanked Dee profusely. As my husband pointed out, a good day on the job for most Mexicans means they can afford tonight’s tortillas. Most ordinary Mexicans seem to participate in the huge informal economy comprised of selling things on the street. I have never seen more aggressive sales pitches than I have during the past 12 days, when Mexicans have tried to sell me everything from live turkeys to tarps. If you make eye contact with a seller, you must endure an individualized sales pitch: “Don’t you like this? You don’t like this?” The object in question may be thrust under your nose. Not to purchase it will constitute a personal insult to the seller. And, unlike my experience in the United States and Europe, where I have often seen people beg, people in Mexico always have something for sale. It may not be something you want, but they won’t ask you to give them something for nothing.
At the main square (zocalo) in Oaxaca, my husband noticed an ancient woman offering to take Polaroids of people with a camera that, though also ancient, must only have been half her age. He engaged her services and had her take a photo of us. While she shook the Polaroid, waiting for the image to develop, my husband asked if he might take a photo of her. “No, no,” she said, waving a bony hand in front of her face. “Okay,” my husband said, and handed over the 80 pesos or whatever miniscule amount of money she was asking. As she hurried off to find another customer, my husband snapped a photo of her, 85 years old and still hustling.