I just came back from a rather troubling conversation that I had with my friend, Max that began with the usual pleasantries, then changed to business – Mexican style – before concluding with a more general philosophical discussion on human nature; specifically on that one quality called honor.
The business conversation started with a recent anecdote on how a customer – of the indebt, nonpaying variety – came into his shop and began to criticize his business. ‘Why did he have so few customers? Why hadn’t he remodeled? Where was all of the new more fashionable merchandise?’
Keep in mind this guy owes Max money for unpaid goods and has, for the last four months. Yet he still pretends to treat Max like they are friends – as in he visited him recently in Max’s shop – yet criticized him (what?), then berated him (what?) for [Max] asking him for money on the street (which is a common practice in Mexico BTW to track down and ask unpaid-up customers for at least a partial service on their outstanding bill), and then – and then – he had the absolute temerity to walk out of the shop without paying so much as a single peso on his outstanding debt.
Small businesses here run on credit. Without it businesses couldn’t operate. I’ve watched time and time again, people walking into Max’s shop doing one of three things: Try some clothes on and leave without buying. Second, buy some clothes on credit and have Max add the amount to their bill. And last, people come into Max’s shop to hand him anywhere from fifty pesos to two hundred pesos to pay down their outstanding balance.
But there still are a number of people that Max has to chase down every week/month to ask them for money. The number of which is evidenced by the thick wad of paper debit notes that Max always has tucked in his wallet. It’s so bloody full with these notes it is a wonder to me how he carries such an immensely thick wallet in his back pocket.
He expected what he was telling me was new and revelatory but I had experienced first hand a couple of incidences when after first arriving in Mexico that paralleled his own; albeit in quality not quantity. For example, against my better judgement, I lent a man I liked some money when he was extremely down and out and two years later even after his fortune had changed I had to go ask him to pay me back.
That’s right, he didn’t come to me with the money. I had to ask for it. And quite frankly I was surprised he paid me. I didn’t expect it. It seems more times than not that money once lent/once given is relegated to some past event and as such somehow never windows into the present or future.
I say that because of another past experience I had down here shortly after I arrived. A sandalmaker asked me for some up front money to buy the better quality of leather than he had on hand for my sandal prototypes. I not just gave it to him, I accepted on faith that I paid him a fair amount. It turned out I overpaid by something like 300%. And he double fucked me by never being able to deliver the quality he said he could.
And he was such a nice man too.
Fuck nice. Trevanian once famously said, ” Nice is how you pay your way into a party if you don’t have the guts to be tough or the brains to be brilliant.”
[That’s how I feel about nice. If that’s your only quality then quite simply I will view you with contempt – which amounts to me doing nothing more than ignoring you – or if provoked, shower you with scorn. So given that attitude it isn’t surprising that certain female members of my family currently link me with the whole oppressive patriarchal fantasy anti-women’s lib thing; like being a white man who is also an unapologetic engineer* makes me an evil minded oppressor.]
I asked my friend, Marko (the man I’d earlier lent that money to) why this guy – who supposedly wanted to do business with me – would fuck me over in such a blatantly horrible manner.
Marko’s reply – in short – was that he – the man – had a family. That he needed the money for his family; as if that somehow justified his cheating me out of my money. I was to learn this was somewhat of a cultural thing – which in a minute I’ll explain further.
After relating the story, I told Max that I’d sooner see my family live on day old bread and peanut butter every day than to steal from someone just to put more or better food on the table. From my first hand perspective: posers, liars, thieves and cheaters are all men without honor. And honor lost cannot be regained. I’m a real hard-ass about this.
The conversation ended with a brief cultural discussion from the Spanish point of view on the subject. And just how culturally different in many cases the concept of honor has alternative roots.
Octavio Paz in his brilliant, ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, made two very important observations/distinctions concerning the primary qualitative differences in honor – Spanish vs. Mexican – while rhetorically asking “What is the Chingada?”
Note: Chingar is a very (very) complicated verb and verbs as we all know can take on a subject form (nouns). And the noun, Chingada is as historically fascinating as it is disturbing.
He replies, ‘The Chingada is the mother forcibly opened, violated, or deceived. The hijo de la Chingada is the offspring of violation, abduction or deceit. If we compare this expression with the Spanish hijo de puta (son of a whore), the difference is immediately obvious. To the Spaniard, dishonor consists in the son of a woman who violently surrenders herself: a prostitute. To the Mexican it consists in being the fruit of a violation.”
Honor as we think of it today is much more western; less macho. at least in western societies.
Honor stemming from the Greek (and Roman) tradition do not ultimately view honor from such a strictly manliness perspective.
Honor to us is more character driven. Honor is not about killing someone because they disrespect you or your family; which coincidentally happens here today in Mexico still quite a lot.
Instead honor in the western sense is much more about one’s general sense of values. Being an honorable man is being honest, dependable, trustworthy, and if the call is truly just – being self-sacrificing.
Without those kind of values- without character, without honor- a man is worse than an animal; he is no more than a selfish creature who deserves the full penalties of the reciprocities from others like him.
* Being a man in the US or UK these days has somehow been linked with what the liberal feminist driven media (or educational system) refers to as the time immemorial system of patriarchy, which by its very historically falsely contrived definition is all about oppressing women and people of color. An engineer – or any other overachieving, logically driven professional – somehow hierarchically ranks among the worst. And some of the female members of my family have somehow twisted my natural introverted reticence into what they feel as solid proof which firmly demonstrates an intolerable level of arrogance that substantiates the whole patriarchal argument.