Children of Mexico
by Ute Carson
Queen, November-December , 1980

My children are all blonde and blue-eyed. No wonder I was enchanted by many of the Mexican children with their black hair and dark eyes and their chestnut brown complexion, smooth and oily ‹like the advertisement on my bottle of suntan lotion. Drawn to them by their difference, they, in turn, looked at me with curiosity. Little Carlos and I met on passing gondolas. He stared at me and his surprised and questioning look needed little interpretation. He seemed to whisper to his sister, "Look at that lady in the big straw hat with no shawl over her arms and her skirt not even covering her legs. Do you suppose that's why she's so white?" Floating in different directions, we soon parted company but not before bridging our two worlds with a smile.

Children are seen everywhere in Mexico, carried by their mothers, walking between their grandparents, or in tow with older siblings. Not isolated into meandering, streetwise peer groups nor guarded by fenced- yards or sheltered inside houses, the children are an integral part of adult social life.

A band plays on the plaza in front of the village church in Taxco. It is a warm night and people mingle about. Some children play hide-and-seek. Another runs to fetch a treat from an adult. It is past what we consider a child's bedtime. We spy the bare bottom of a little boy peeing behind a tree. Across the plaza a toddler cries at being scolded by its father. There is no apparent distinction between children's time and adult time, grown places and children's space. Only after we all retreat does the sound of children's prattle die out.

In Mexico children are brought up differently from birth. Infant mortality is high in spite of recent attempts to provide pre and post care for the general population at public birth clinics. Mexicans are born in great numbers into close families. The Roman Catholic religion strengthens the desirability of having many children. "A man's worth," a Mexican once told me, "is still measured by the number of offspring he sires."

Carried in a stole-like garment, woven in colorful patterns and variations, the infant is in constant close proximity to its mother. In front of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City a beggar woman leans against the railing, her baby wrapped tightly in her shawl. The infant is completely covered; only the body contours are discernible. A group of street musicians play for passersby. A young woman holding out a hat for donations suckles her baby. Even toddlers are often carried in the traditional attire ‹ the rebozo. Our infant backpacks are an approximate imitation. But even the "frontpacks," recently on the market in the U.S., are used for special outings only. Mexican babies are carried around most of the time while the women go about their business. When not in the rebozo, the babies are placed in hammocks. Being rocked induces a soothing effect similar to that of our once popular cradles. For a child the transition is smooth from breast to hanging onto a skirt or to the hand of a brother or sister who chaperones him to school. The Mexican government prides itself on having founded schools in governmental districts all over the country. Children are required to attend them and if their homes are too remote, there are dormitories available for lodging. They then return home for special holidays and at harvest time. Children are uniformly dressed for school, with each grade level wearing a different colored outfit. Watching them run out of the schoolhouse with their satchels on their backs, we are reminded of our parochial schools and of British grammar schools.

As we leave the Shrine of Guadalupe I snap a picture of a little Mexican girl. In black boots and a red ruffled skirt, she turns to us with lady-like self-assurance, while continuing her skipping. Rarely do we see a child not adequately dressed, and more than once we are delighted by the clothes which are worn every day and are most colorful on festive occasions. Sometimes the garments are of elegant white, as at a baby's baptism where a proud Mexican godmother holds the child for us to admire.

To observe an entire family interacting one has only to frequent one of the many parks in any town or to come to a village square on Sunday. With luncheons spread out on their blankets they come together to relax and play. The Mexican child is still today the product of an extended family with limits on individual freedom and flexibility but with the built in security of belonging and of place.

Not Jesus the Christ or God the Father, but the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus are the most revered religious figures in Mexico. This not only reveals a need on the part of the people but also reflects an attitude about the intimate relationship between mother and child. "Giddyap . . . giddyap, horsey," yells a 2-year-old straddling his father's shoulders. The man wipes his brow in front of the church portal. There the laughter and play end abruptly. Their eyes have to adjust to the dimness inside the church. They all kneel, and then light the candles they have brought. They make their way to the altar on which stand more burning candies than on any other altar. It is Mary's altar. She stands in an enclosed case holding her infant Jesus. Her heart is exposed and painted in dripping red. The grandmother fetches a coin from the folds of her garment and drops it into the altar box. They all do their beads and move their lips in prayer. Then the toddler, lifted up by his father, presses his nose to the glass. Next, the baby is unwrapped and lifted up to Mary, its lips also brought to touch the pane. It seems that through that touch the blessing of the Mother of God, the madonna, is directly transmitted to each of them. Now they can return to their tasks. It is to a mother that the people bring their burdens, and from her divine love, they believe, will spring all the blessings for their most precious ones, the Mexican children.

Mexico is a country of tremendous changes. The transition from an agrarian to an industrial society comes in long strides. While many traditions are still deeply anchored, others are thrown overboard for the time being. Coming from a country where we have just begun to re-evaluate and revive some bygone child rearing practices, we are saddened by the disappearance of some old customs in Mexico. The Coca Cola sign beside a village hut betrays the conflict and incongruity between modernization and ancient life styles. On Mexico City's new and efficient transit system, many signs tell the traveler what to do and what not to do. Next to a picture admonishing passengers not to spit on the floor is a poster featuring a woman and a baby. The baby, who is reaching for the breast, is threatened by a large finger and the words "do not nurse here."

There are many changes to be welcomed for the children of Mexico. Thousands live in great poverty and for almost every beautiful healthy Carlos, we see a child crippled by a childhood or hereditary disease. The chance to progress beyond a subsistence level was non-existent for the masses of children until very recently. But something very special underlies a very close-knit family which grants the child self-esteem and security in a community that is his own. Sundered by complex changes, years will be required for the Mexican family to recover those lost insights.

- ~ -