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Although I lived, worked, and attended college in California for seven years in the 1970s, I’d never had an opportunity to visit Mexico. It wasn’t until 1983 when I returned to California with Sharon that a trip to Mexico became viable. 

For some stupid reason we chose to go to Cabo San Lucas. It wasn’t the Mexico I later came to love, but rather a beach resort in the making, a place to go for sport fishing (I tried it and hated every moment), and an area virtually lacking in culture—Mexican or otherwise. (These days it still lacks culture but makes up for it with countless condos, timeshares, and margaritas.)

Two things I do remember about that visit to Cabo include us being dashed against some rocks and pretty banged up by a rogue wave, and the disagreement I had with our hotel manager over a chimichanga. Two chimichangas, actually.

It was simple enough. I wanted one chimichanga. But they brought (and charged me for) two. The nerve! What an outrage! To add insult to injury, I was not able to resolve this issue—in English or the few words of Spanish that I possessed. I eventually tore the bill in half and refused both chimichangas. How dare they! I was an American. And a valued guest. Whatever happened to “the customer is always right”? Had they not heard of this tradition south of the border? (Did I mention I was an American?)

When I went over to the pool where Sharon was lying in a chaise reading, I reported what had happened, expecting sympathy for the indignity that I (an American) had experienced. Instead, she looked up from her book and said, “Do you realize you just made a fool of yourself over 86 cents?” 

Why are women so often right?

And, how would this incident impact the rest of my life? Strangely, it did.

After returning to Oakland, we enrolled in a one-semester class called Spanish Conversation at Laney, the local community college. The class met for three hours every Monday night for fifteen weeks. 

After dinner on Tuesday night following the first class, Sharon said, “It’s time to do our homework.” 

“Are you nuts?”    

I had been in public school for 12 years, undergraduate university for four years, another year-and-a-half taking additional science and math classes, and then grad school for another four years. And NEVER had I done my homework at any time other than the night before it was due! What Sharon (an attorney) was suggesting was lunacy.

In the end, we did our homework, and I was surprised at how good it felt. Again she was right. (sigh)

In our class, when the instructor would ask for “a volunteer to be Juan,” I would always volunteer. When she asked us to describe an illustration in our workbook, Spanish for Communication, I never hesitated. In fact, I remember one specific incident where there was a drawing of an attractive woman at a party scene, and after a quick look in my dictionary I reported, en español, that she was revealing quite a bit of cleavage. After looking again at the book, the teacher smiled and confirmed my observation.

Near the end of the semester one of our classmates recommended Zihuatanejo as a great vacation spot, and we made reservations at the venerable Hotel Irma. 

In the mid-1980s, Zihuatanejo had not yet shed its sleepy fishing village persona. Walking down an unpaved shopping street one afternoon, I noticed an optical place. Since the sign above the door said Optica I didn’t have to look in the dictionary. We walked in and I saw a framed license with the word Optometrista on the nearby wall. It featured a small black and white headshot of a bearded, long-haired man. Looking to my right, there he stood behind a counter. (He seemed shorter in person than in the photo.) Miguel greeted us warmly, and as I walked to the counter, I removed a business card from my wallet and handed it to him. 

“Soy optometrista del norte de California.” There. I’d done it. I spoke Spanish.

He beckoned me into the back office. Sharon immediately said Adiós, and left the shop. She was going to have no part in listening to me engaging in optometric shop talk in bad Spanish. 

As she went off shopping, I entered a new world of Spanish conversation outside the classroom. My fifteen-minute talk with Miguel featured fascinating topics such as:

How much do you charge for soft contact lenses? 

How many years do you have to go to school to be an optometrist? 


Why does Mexican contact lens solution still contain thimerosal (a preservative that had been removed from all American contact solutions years before)?

By the end of the fifteen minutes, my mind was exhausted. (What I actually told my Mexican colleague was, Mi cerebro esta muy cansado—My brain is very tired. I was using whatever words I had to communicate the best I could. That’s how you do it.)

And that could have been the end of it; but it wasn’t. The following year, we returned to Zihuatanejo. I brought with me a gift for my optometrista friend: a used slit lamp biomicroscope (an instrument used for examining the cornea and exterior of the eye). It had been sitting in my garage for a couple of years, was fully depreciated for tax purposes, and I wasn’t using it because I had a newer one. I also knew from my last visit that he didn’t have one. So I gifted it to him. (I’ll spare you the ordeal of getting it through Mexican customs.)

I didn’t realize what the outcome of all this would be, but I hoped it would elevate his ability to diagnose and treat patients in his small seaside town, which was fairly isolated geographically. He had the capability to use ocular medications to treat certain conditions, but lacked some basic instruments to aid in diagnosis. The contrasts between Mexican and American optometric education and practice were dramatic, and in many ways alarming.

I helped him set up the biomicroscope in his office, and there it sat for about 20 minutes before we had a chance to use it. In a scene straight out of a TV show, a mother came in with her young son who’d scraped his eye on a bush while playing. Miguel and I looked at each other and he gave me the nod. We put the kid on a stool in front of the instrument. I focused it on the injury and let Miguel see it in high magnification. I’m sure it was an aha moment for him. He treated the boy with some prescription eye drops he had in the office and told the mother to bring him back in a day or two. It certainly wasn’t the “standard of care” you’d get in the states; but we weren’t in the states. My concern was that because this injury was caused by a tree branch, there was the risk of a fungus infection. For better or worse, this case was out of my gringo hands. 

What followed this episode were two invitations. The first was a visit to Miguel’s home for lunch with his family. We had a wonderful time attempting to communicate with his wife Guadalupe and his two kids, Amilania and Cristiano. Sharon and I were now seeing Mexican life close-up and personal. 

But the second invitation absolutely floored us. During lunch, there was a lot of side conversation going on between the parents and their teenage daughter that we couldn’t understand. But afterwards they made a quite formal verbal invitation, asking us to attend Amilania’s upcoming quinceañera, where she would be celebrating her fifteenth birthday. Of course we accepted. Sharon and I had no idea what to expect. None at all.

A few days later, we were sitting in the room of a nearby home waiting for a ride to take us to Tenexpa, the town where Miguel and his wife Guadalupe had grown up and where much of their family still lived. We’d be there overnight and had been assured we’d be housed adequately. Regardless, we had no idea what to expect. 

During the interminable wait, we were told repeatedly that the driver would arrive ahorita. (We later found out that ahorita translates to either “any minute” or “maybe never.”) When our ride finally arrived it was a pick-up truck driven by Mateo, one of Guadalupe’s brothers. As I started to get into the truck bed with some other guests, the alarmed driver escorted Sharon and me into the cab. Along the way, we picked up five or seven more young women, each carrying a party dress on a hanger. They sat in the truckbed for the 81-mile trip along the sometimes narrow and always winding Pacific Coast road. I remember turning to Sharon at one point and saying, ”We’re either going to have an incredible experience, or we’re going to die.”

Upon arrival, we all had to walk across a grassy town square where a group of little children ran around us asking repeatedly in Spanish, “Do you know Michael Jackson? Do you know Madonna?” Obviously, word had spread fast that two Americans were in town and they must certainly know the two most famous people in the world. In attempting to respond to the kids I drove myself crazy trying to conjugate verbs into the familiar tense used with children. It would have been easier to just tell them yes, we’re best friends with both Michael Jackson and Madonna.

We were housed in probably the nicest casa in town. As we dressed for the event in our room, two young women arrived at the door of our bedroom to assist Sharon with her hair. (No one helped me with my hair.) At one point, one of them excitedly said, “La misa! La misa!”  It turned out we had to hurry so we would not miss the Mass before the quinceañera event.

After an uneventful Mass service, we all walked back to the town square, where picnic tables had been decorated, and I saw not one but two bandstands featuring live musicians. Our hosts had conveniently seated us with a few people who spoke English, including a profesor who told me that he taught Cervantes. I started talking to him about The Man of La Mancha when Sharon whispered to me that, no, his name was Cervantes. With Spanish, as with many things, a little learning is a dangerous thing. Especially in my hands.

It was a night to remember. Amilania, the lovely quinceañera, arrived posed on the hood of a shiny white car (carefully driven by her father). Amilania wore a beautiful pink gown adorned with ribbons and beautifully arranged for photo ops. During the procession 15 boys served as her escorts. Each wore a white military uniform, epaulettes, and a cadet cap—except for her primary escort, who wore a black uniform. This was so cool! 

When the music started, we heard a great song, Juana la Cubana, for the first time. (Unfortunately, both Sharon and I thought the title was Juana la Iguana, and when we later tried to purchase a cassette in town it took two or three salespeople to set us straight. Everybody of a certain age knows this song, and it appears as a minor character in a future essay.)

The guests formed a large circle and all of the men were expected to dance with Amilania. Each gentleman cut-in after 15 or 20 seconds. But when it was my turn, no one stepped up to cut in on the Americano! Amilania understood what was going on, so finally I just handed her off to another guest. 

Sharon and I had been assigned a couple (Guadalupe’s younger brother and his girlfriend) who were, ostensibly, there to shadow us and attend to our every need. When I asked our young couple if they were, indeed, nuestras sombras—our shadows—they smiled and nodded. 

Later, when Sharon turned around to look for the ladies room, her young sombra anticipated her desire, took her by the hand, and led her right up to the front of a long line of women and girls waiting to use the facility—basically a glorified outhouse made of cement, featuring a toilet without a seat. Although she was embarrassed at cutting ahead of the line, the women would not let the esteemed gringa be inconvenienced.

After hours of dancing, celebrating, eating, and drinking, we eventually made our way back to our bedroom, listening to the live music that went on until 4:00 AM. 

The next morning, looking for some possible breakfast, we came upon a few of the still-inebriated adult guests from the night before sitting at a table. They offered us a piece of the many-tiered cake that had stood outside, uncovered, all night. We politely declined, and temporarily went hungry.

Decades later, Amilania (who now goes by Amy) has a son and works every day alongside her mother in the small tienda owned by the family. I’ve often referred to their store as a supermercado, which they think is funny. My Jewish American sense of humor and off-the-wall Spanish seems to entertain them. 

Her quinceañera was certainly a high point of her life, and I’d wager she’s not alone in that. I know for sure I’ll never forget it.

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