Cultural Integration

We have a friend in Mexico.

She is intelligent, wise, sweet, and funny.

When we get together, I get unofficial Spanish lessons. Not just in the language, but for context in the culture. And context is the key to not looking like a fool.

I am not always successful at discerning context.

Okay, rarely.

Fine … you got me.

Yesterday, we had this conversation:

“So, what is the difference between bonita and hermosa? In my mind, I thought bonita meant pretty, and hermosa meant beautiful.”

“No, Joel. They both mean pretty.”

“Okay, but what if I wanted to tell a young woman that she is pretty?”

“You would not do that.”

“Well, yes … I would.”

“She would say that you are lying.”

“Even if she was pretty?”

“That is not the point. You just don’t do it.”

I went on to explain I was not trying to be creepy. Sometimes, I just like to pay a woman a compliment. Our friend now turned the conversation toward the context involved. She said that the woman may or may not think I’m creepy, but because I am saying what men don’t say, I must be lying.

We gringos earn a reputation.

“And linda also means pretty, in a nice way, and bella is the word for beautiful.”

“Both of which I must not say?”


“And if you want to pay the highest compliment of all, you would call her maravillosa. But you must not do that. It means you must have slept with her.”

“Holy shit!”

“You must not say that.”

So, I summarized my understanding by repeating what I would say if I were to compliment a young Mexican woman, which I must never do.”

“Unless you’ve been introduced.”


“If you’ve been introduced, you can compliment her. But do not say maravillosa unless you have also slept with her.”

Immediately, I removed that word from my vocabulary.

Considering how fond I am of children, I re-routed the conversation.

“So, how would I tell a young child that she is cute or pretty? What word would I use for that?”

“All of them.”

“What the hell!”

“You must not say that.”

“I’m sorry, but that does sound creepy.”

“Context, Joelito. You are speaking to a child. It doesn’t matter.”

“I would certainly think maravillosa would matter. As in ‘go-to-jail’ matter!”

“No, no, my friend. It just means you see the beauty she will become.”

“In other words: Child, you look like someone I could sleep with when you grow up. Is that what you mean?”

“Maybe you should not compliment the child.”

“I think we’re done.”

“And Joelito?”


“None of this applies to the newer generation.”

Cultural integration may not be for me.



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