Wednesday, February 2, 2011

No offense.

The first Christmas after we were married, my wife and I invited my parents to come visit, promising better-than-Cleveland weather, the opportunity to meet several score of new in-laws, and the chance to experience Noche Buena. My adoptive mother's response: "Oh. I don't know if I can eat all that hot, spicy food." Whereupon I spent the next few minutes setting out the cultural and culinary distinctions between Mexicans (one of which my bride is not) and Cubans (one of which she decidedly is). Having analogized yuca to the more familiar potato, having drawn a distinction between jalepenos and comino, and roast pork being no stranger to Mom's table as both child and adult, all fears were soon eased.
I couldn't blame her for her ignorance. Before moving to Miami, I was hardly better informed. Little did I -- the Cleveland-raised Irish/German child of Czech adoptive parents -- realize that what had seemed from a distance to be a great Latino monolith was, on closer viewing, a mosaic of discrete cultures. I quickly learned that if the distinctions between, say, an Argentinian and a Venezuelan, or a Cuban and a Puerto Rican, were then too obscure for me to discern, the members of those groups had no such trouble.*

Since then, in part because of my status as el unico gringo in a very large Cuban family, and in larger part because I have done all I can to reach into the multifarious life of this unique city, I have sat at many a noisy and cheerful table while folk from every Caribbean, Central and South American land held forth in goodhearted passion on such weighty topics as arroz con gandules** versus gallo pinto,*** or the inherently superior qualities of each one's native rums, newspapers, governments, soccer teams, mountains, beaches and women.  I've shared a table with a Haitian buddy and a Dominican one -- not for nothing, their peoples share an entire island -- and found that all anyone could manage to agree on is that we ought to order another Mexican beer.

Decidedly, the cultural fault lines, while narrow, can run deep and so warrant close attention. Even a common language can be a minefield. I suggest you do not ask the Cuban lady at the fruit stand if her papaya is ripe,**** nor should you ask your Mexican dinner guest if he is lleno,***** nor ought you yell to your Honduran soccer teammate to ¡coger lo!****** if the ball is headed out of bounds. But, with just a little bit of good will, all of us gringos, Boriquas, Catrachos, Trinis, Ticos,  Guanacos and the rest manage to get along well enough most days.

Sadly, however, good will is sometimes in as short a supply as common sense. And so we have Robert's Rule, which clearly states that "If you look carefully enough for an insult, you will always find one."  For a perfect demonstration of this principle -- and a counter-example to the corollary, which holds that "The sufficiently robust cannot be effectively insulted." -- consider this "news story" out of a South Florida classroom today. For extra credit, be sure to read the comments.

* Joke told to me by Argentinian shooting buddy: How do you kill a Venezuelan? Push him off of his own ego.
   Joke told to me by Venezuelan shooting buddy: How do you kill an Argentinian? Push him off of his own ego.

** Rice and beans.

*** Beans and rice.

**** Unless you are seeking a date, or a slapped face, inquire, instead, about the state of the fruita bomba.

*****  "Full" to most Spanish speakers; slang for "drunk" in Mexico.

****** "Get it!" to most Spanish speakers; something decidedly more intimate in Honduras.


  1. Don't get me started on argentinian jokes....

  2. when working at a police supply store we had two customers who were married. A black man and his white wife that worked for the PD and wore blue uniforms. When their kid got old enough he joined the SO and came by the store in his new green uniform. My boss's first comment?
    "But, you're the wrong color!"
    She meant, obviously, the uniform, but that story still gives me a chuckle today.