I went out to a local Mexican restaurant yesterday on a date with my husband. He ended up having to take a call from work, so for a while, I was munching on chips and gazing at a photograph on the opposite wall. It was a picture of some old-baller Mexican men, you know the one--the iconic picture of dudes in large sombreros, sitting together under a tree, smoking cigarettes, strapped with bullets and generally looking bad-ass.
As I gazed absent-mindedly at the picture while I enjoyed sitting at a restaurant table without children in my food, crawling under the table, fighting over the red crayon or sitting on my eye, I thought, “I wonder who those bullets are for?”
And then, corn chip frozen midway to my gaping mouth, I realized I’d never asked myself that before. I've seen this image a million times. It’s one of the images Americans see of Mexican men, and I never once thought, “What are they doing? Who are they fighting?”
Now, don’t get me wrong here, I've also never thought, “Oh there are those crazy, violent Mexican men all strapped with their bullets, getting ready to come over the border and steal my jobs with their guns and violence.”
Seriously. Never. As I said, I was admiring these men. They looked secure and masculine and they were enjoying a smoke break from fighting whoever those bullets and guns were for. After I got over my surprise that I never thought to ask this question before, I felt embarrassed that these images (mostly seen while I consume a tasty part of their culture) never led me to wonder about the story behind them. I never thought to bring that image past its one dimensionality. Like it’s some kind of Mexican kitsch and not something that must represent what bullets represent everywhere. A fierce struggle.
Now I wanted to know. Bad. That’s when the second wave of embarrassment washed over me. Now I felt like a moronic American for not already knowing what sort of struggle happened in Mexico that was so important that every single cultural image of a Mexican man I've ever seen has him wearing a bandolier I often feel embarrassed by my lack of knowledge about other countries and cultures. This embarrassment keeps me from asking questions and it makes me feel....racist? That’s not quite right. It makes me feel like I have absorbed the arrogance of a country that doesn't feel like it needs to teach it’s citizens about the rest of the world’s history. Even neighbors.
Then I remembered a conversation I had recently with an Australian friend of mine. I was telling him about a movie I had watched recently: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. (Don't judge me). He’d seen it too, he said and thought it was entertaining enough. But when I started laughing about how funny it was because, you know, it was Abraham Lincoln, he said, “I don't really know who that is, he was a president, right?” I spent the next 40 minutes explaining the 16th President of the United States--how he is one of our legend-type American figures, about the story we tell of Lincoln that makes this move ironic and funny, and reciting what I can remember of the Gettysburg Address, in a performance I will title “American Fifth Grade.” Lucky him, right?
But it made me realize something: The rest of the world doesn't know about America either! Why the hell would they? They have a whole country of their own to learn about, and only so many years of grade school to shove it into. None of us can be expected to have cultural knowledge about all the countries--there are a lot. We learn about our own, and then we learn the history of other people's when we meet them and engage in conversation.
I really love learning about other people’s cultures, but I usually feel awkward about my mix of enthusiasm and lack of knowledge. But after discovering that no one was going to think I was a moron for not already knowing these things, I basically made my friend tell me everything he could about Australia: the colonization, the Aboriginal population, the geography, their country’s John-Henry type legends...
Armed with this new found pass on ignorance, I set out to ask our waiter what was up with these images. I still felt a little foolish, and I was honestly afraid my question was going to somehow be offensive. But the next time he was at our table I said, “Hi, I was looking at this picture and I wondered, who are those bullets for? Who are they fighting?”
Guess what? He didn't know either! It may be that he was not from Mexico himself (I could tell from his heavy accent he wasn't originally from the States), or it could be that he is as ignorant of this part of his history as I am on the details of the Spanish-American War. But he said he would ask one of his co-workers, a woman he thought would know.
He called her over and explained my question to her in Spanish, which I didn't understand because I only know one language. She looked over at me and I got up from the table, where my husband was still quietly fielding his call, and asked her the same question.
“Oh, those are the people who fought with Pancho Villa, he was a General who fought the existing government. He is really important in Mexican history.” She pointed to another photo, “That’s Pancho Villa there.”
“Oh, so they were like rebel forces?” I asked?
She trained her gaze on me for a split-second longer than I would have expected, and the look on her face made me think she was wondering what I thought of when I said the words “rebel forces.” She didn't look unkind, just unsure of what sort of idea I had about these men.
“Yes. But they were the good kind of rebels.” she answered, smiling. No offense taken at my lack of knowledge for her country’s history, even though wikipedia tells me that the Mexican Revolution “is often categorized as the most important sociopolitical event in Mexico and one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century.”
I could have stood there, in the middle of the restaurant all day asking her questions, but I figured “historian” is not part of her shift duties, so instead I said,
“Thank you so much. And just to be clear, in my view, nearly all the rebel forces are the good kind.”
Also, just to be clear, a google image search for "Mexican Revolution" comes up with about 1000% more photos of women fighters than a google image search for "The Civil War," which comes up with none. I'm going to leave you with some of those images. Aren't they wonderful?