Lesson I: The polite plastic bag

One way to express friendliness or politeness in Mexican Spanish is to add diminutive suffixes to words. For instance, someone giving directions might tell you to pass the parquecito — the “little park” — even if the park isn’t little. At the cafe, someone might ask for a cafecito, or “little coffee,” even if he wants a large. This makes sense to me.

Other times, the habit makes less sense. You come back from the beach and a friend tells you that you are quemadito — a little burnt — even if your skin is glowing red. When you order a juice at the corner store, the cashier asks you if you want el chico o el grandecito? — the little one or the nice little big one? How much does that water cost? Quince pesitos. Fifteen little pesos — which, even if I could make my pesos smaller, is too much for a water. When will the doctor be available? Treinta minutitos, thirty nice little minutes. Although calling them little minutes never made them go by any faster, especially when your appointment was an hour ago.

I never quite integrated the -itos and -itas into my speech, which makes me worry that every time I went to the 7-Eleven and asked for a “bag” instead of a “nice little bag,” I committed some terrible impropriety.

Lesson II: The royal lemon

In a country where basically anything can grow and the range of fresh produce found on almost every corner is spectacular, there are some curious culinary absences in Mexico. One is yeast. You can’t find it in the grocery store like you can in the US, only baking powder. Ask the clerk where the yeast is and they lead you back to the baking powder because the word for both items is levadura.

More puzzling is the lack of lemons. Here it is all limes, all the time. There even seems to be some confusion about what a lemon is. In Mexico, the word for lime is limón, so when you ask about “lemons” people think you are talking about limes. The word for “lemon” is up for debate. Some contend the correct word is limonero, while others insist on citrón. An American friend who lives in Mexico offers as another option limón real: “real” or “royal” lime.

One Mexican guy I met had a different perspective: “Of course we have lemons,” he said. “There are some lemon trees in my grandmother’s garden. But why use them? Limes are better.”

“Better in what way?” I said. “They’re different.”

“Better in every way!”

Lesson III: The national ear

If you walk around in Mexico City with your ears open, you will discover a great divide in popular musical tastes. The music you hear on buses, in markets, at gas stations, or anywhere working-class Mexicans are playing their tunes is usually going to fall into one of two categories. On one side are cumbia and salsa, two Afro-Caribbean styles that people usually play when they want to dance or think about dancing. On the other side are norteño and banda, both native Mexican styles that initially sound kind of like “mariachi” music, but played with drums and synthesized trumpets.

You might compare this divide to the country / hip-hop dichotomy in the US. A Mexican friend told me that, in his memory, banda and norteño exploded in popularity only in the last ten years or so, as a kind of nationalistic expression. A non-Mexican friend told me she was driving with a Mexican couple in their car when some banda came on the radio. “Ugh, change that naco stuff,” one of them said, naco being Mexican slang to describe someone low-class or with low-class tastes. Wikipedia says norteño’s popularity started in the ’90s as the Mexican-American population took off.

I don’t know about all that, but this music video kind of sums up the whole situation. It’s about a Mexican dude who used to be into cumbia and then switched to banda, and adopted an outfit of cowboy boots and hat to match. It’s called “The Traitor.” It’s a cumbia, but there’s a nice little example of banda at the beginning, and the very end.