My Mexican Father-In-Law

Machismo manifests in different ways. Sometimes it’s outright sexism – not letting your wife work, loudly demanding your breakfast, cheating on her with prostitutes. Sometimes it’s a societal problem, like lower salaries and poorer job prospects for women. Sometimes it’s far worse, abuse. Or sometimes it means that a 28-year-old daughter still lives with her parents and isn’t allowed to spend the night with her boyfriend.

Despite the title of this story, I’m not married. In Mexico you use the Spanish equivalent of “-in law” for people in your girlfriend or boyfriend’s family. Your girlfriend’s father is your “suegro,” the same word you use when you’re married. Your mother-in-law is your “suegra,” your sister-in-law your “cuñada,” etc.

My girlfriend rarely sleeps at my apartment. It can be hard for us to take weekend trips. But we do, and if she wanted, she could anytime – it hasn’t been forbidden to her – but she doesn’t, knowing that it would bring judgment and awkwardness. We have machismo to thank for this.But this is the least sinister kind of machismo, the machismo that all Mexican men must possess at least a small amount of. It’s a protective, conservative machismo. Often at its core is a deep respect for women. It’s not even close to abuse, and not blatantly sexist. In fact my suegro Juan took hell from one of his brothers for putting his four daughters through university. A waste of money, the brother said. They’ll just end up getting married anyway.

Juan is a stout, well-dressed, grey-haired man who appears quite serious until you make him laugh. He didn’t like me for years. No attempts at conversation, no smiles of approval, just an obvious contempt. I felt it like a cold draft in the room. I worried about this until I saw how he treated his other daughters’ boyfriends. Hey, he had a good excuse with me. At that time my Spanish was terrible, so if I sat next to him the lack of pleasantries was understandable. Not so for the other boyfriends, who tried to be friendly and were greeted with stone-cold silence.

Now, to his credit, he never talked down on me. I was always invited to family functions. In Mexico, with its extensive families and strong sense of community, there is an endless cycle of weddings, baptisms, first communions, girls’ 15th birthday parties, graduations, even baby showers. I went to them all, sitting at big circular tables, eating piles of food, and drinking tequila and Torres brandy all day. No unkind words or dirty looks from Juan, just a stiff handshake and then he would leave me alone.

Years passed and I’m still here. I finally saw Juan thawing to me on a long road trip from Mexico City to Guadalajara. He was driving the whole family in his big white Suburban to a soccer game, the famous classic match between América from Mexico City and the Chivas from Guadalajara.

Halfway there we stopped on the highway for a bathroom break. I walked up to Juan and he told me to get some drinks out of the trunk.

I opened the big blue cooler. It was jammed full: a six-pack of coke and piles of Modelo beer. This was curious, because Juan only drinks tequila, never beer. But I grabbed a coke for him and one for myself and walked back. He took the coke and looked at mine.

“You want a coke?” he asked. “Get a beer.”

So I switched up the coke and drank beer for the rest of the several hour car ride. He still didn’t want to chat, but he had brought me 40 beers for a two-day trip. Not bad.

Last month he had a broken rib from playing soccer. I carried some furniture around the house for him. We didn’t talk much, but he gave me instructions and laughed at my jokes. Getting better.

I have a German friend who married a Mexican. Hans lived here for years before they got married and finally started living together. But before the wedding the father-in-law was much worse – not inviting him places, talking down on him behind his back, even insulting him to his face.

“But then,” said Hans. “Once we got married, he started calling me all the time. Now he’s always coming over, wanting to drink with me. Look…”

We were at a party at Hans’ house. I looked over at their kitchen table. Hans’ suegro sat in front of all the empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays, laughing and backslapping with Hans’ friends.

“It’s better when they don’t like you,” Hans said.

Ted Campbell writes about travel, music, culture, food, and mountain biking. He lives in Mexico and writes a blog called No Hay Bronca.