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Kindergarten Life Lessons, Estilo Mexicano

My six-year-old son takes the stage with serious swagger, resplendent in a full charro costume. He leans slightly forward, thumbs tucked in his belt, as his booted feet tattoo a complicated rhythm across the stage. Baroque gold braiding accents his black jacket, trousers, and sombrero. He approaches the bull, another kindergartner with an elaborate horned headdress, and circles around him, swinging a golden lariat. The bull twists and parries, then bolts across the stage. My son charges after him, they spin together, one approaches, the other feints, first to one side and then the other.

Then, since this elegant gentleman has failed to tame the bull, the prettiest girl in town is asked to try. A gorgeous child dances onto the stage, swaying, twirling, beguiling the crazed animal. He is charmed for a few moments, then thrashes about wildly again. A wise elder is called to the task, in the form of another six-year-old dancer who advances slowly in a shuffling step. With stooped posture and face obscured by the traditional mask of the viejito, he cautiously circles the vicious animal. Several more village archetypes have their moment, all to no avail.

The scene culminates with a lowly borrachita taking her turn: a cherubic little blonde girl plays the town drunk. She does a loose-limbed dance in the general vicinity of the bull and falls down theatrically every few feet. Still not despairing, the entire population of the village comes out on stage. They work together now, but they can’t control the bull no matter what they do.

Finally, Death appears. He lurches about, wielding his scythe, until none of the villagers are left standing. Even the cruel bull, the source of all their troubles, is finally brought down. For in the end, la muerte conquers all.

The crowd of parents goes wild. We love this surreal spectacle. These kids just laid down some truth. Life is tough, people; you’d better learn that now. Death is always in the game, and he will have his triumph. But ni modo, no worries, just keep dancing, everyone. Hold your head high and do your best. Celebrate life. And while we’re at it, let’s do it all with style – why not?

A life lesson for us all, courtesy of Mexican kindergarteners.

My second-grade son appears on stage in not much more than a loincloth and armbands. He and his classmates perform an energetic dance celebrating the lives of the Chichimecas, a fierce, nomadic people indigenous to this region of central Mexico. The Chichimeca men dressed in this manner, apparently, so the boys in the class are matter-of-factly doing the same, on stage in front of 500 people.

This honest, unapologetic aspect of the culture is also apparent in common terms of endearment that shocked me at first. Nicknames like gordito (fatty), chaparrito (shorty), and negrito (dear little dark-skinned one) persist because their owners don’t mind. My American gauge of political correctness must be recalibrated here.

My children are learning to navigate the elegant, labyrinthine layers of politeness in Mexican society and also how to handle this tell-it-how-it-is vein of Mexican culture. In the process, I am often confused, occasionally appalled, and most frequently incredibly proud of my sons as I watch them adapt and grow. Together, we find our way within this beautiful, complex culture.

So when I hear that tired old cliché that all we really needed to know we learned in kindergarten, it rings more true here in San Miguel de Allende. In a Mexican primary school, my boys have not only learned to read, write, and play well with others, they’ve learned to do so in two languages, to greet people properly with a kiss on the cheek, to dance with great style, and to appreciate that while death wins out in the end, life should be lived with enthusiasm and grace.

Surely these are the life skills that will take them far.

Ann Marie Jackson has traveled widely on five continents. After earning degrees from Stanford and Harvard, she worked for the U.S. Department of State promoting human rights in Asia, and for several NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, A Better Chance, and Internews. She now lives in San Miguel de Allende with her husband and two young sons. She is Vice President of Casita Linda, a non-profit that builds homes for San Miguel’s poorest families, and co-founder of micro-lending organization Mano Amiga. Her writing has appeared in Solamente en San Miguel, Volume III, and the bicultural motherhood blog Mamas in a Foreign Land. She is currently writing her first novel.