The Tastes of our Southern Neighbors, and our Housing Issues

Instead of Berbers, ‘Arabs’, Turks, and other Muslim groups, we have to our south Mexico.  Maybe we could consider ourselves relatively fortunate because of this.  The best book in English on Mexican culture in recent times that I know of is Mañana Forever? by Jorge Castañeda.  In the last part of his first chapter, he has a subsection called “Housing the Family and Clinging to the Land.”  Mexico City, he declares, is contrasted with Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo because the other two have lots of high-rise residential, rich, poor, and middle class, and Mexico City does not.  Declares Castañeda, Mexico City “is also a city where, even in midlevel individual buildings, the very notion of sharing a street front with a convenience store, a laundromat, a repair shop, or a diner is anathema.  Similarly, every house is a decorative or architectural castle unto itself.  There are no zoning or construction regulations regarding styles, heights, and so forth.”

Castañeda explains further,

There are many reasons for this rejection of housing patterns that thrived elsewhere, in rich and poor countries alike.  One has to do with a well-studied Mexican penchant for a patrimonial attitude toward life and property:  a house is mine, an apartment isn’t, really.  Another implies the possibility of expanding the nuclear family to the extended one.  This can be accomplished in a tenement, but not easily in a project high-rise.  A further reason . . . . Is the irredeemable nature of Mexican individualism.  The people of the country do not like to share common spaces with others, which is exactly what an apartment building, high- or low-income, entails.  They refuse to use the same elevator or stairwell, the same garbage chute or trash cans, the same front door or doorman, the same parking lot or garage, the same lawns or security arrangements.  The rich and the poor, in this sense, possess a common approach to the collective imaginary.  They prefer to be alone rather than to share anything with the ‘other.’ [underlining mine]

Even before this, I remember driving around Tijuana in years past, and not seeing any high-rise residential towers [and few commercial ones] but I did see things that al otro lado would have taken to be mini-storage parks.  But they turned out to be, apparently, affordable housing.  Mexicans, for economic reasons, might not be able to afford the amount of space on the ground, or close to it, that [non-Latino black or white] Americans might be comfortable with, but ground it is.

Actually, with Americans, [once again non-Latino black and white Americans] it’s a bit more complicated than that.  Americans’ love of single-family homes on the ground seems to be more connected, to me, to Americans’ beliefs about how to raise children.  Like agricultural crops, children need dirt, Americans believe.  Before they are raising children, Americans don’t seem to mind higher density living so much: Infertile Sex and the City, Fertility and the Suburbs.  Indeed, in middle class America, People With Kids seem to live in different worlds from People Without Kids; they live in different places, and if they’re white they even vote differently.

Latin Americans who are not Mexican [and I don’t know about Central Americans] have a different attitude, as Castañeda admits.  Miami is a city shaped by Latin American culture, but definitely not Mexican culture; and it has plenty of residential high-rises.  Asian Americans seem to have a different culture in this regard.  Honolulu, the only majority Asian American city in this country, abounds in high-rise residential – including families with children.  Wealthy Chinese do buy large single-family homes in San Marino, Vancouver, and places of that sort; but they remodel them into ‘single-extended-family’ McMansions with not very much yard.  [Because Mexican individualism includes extended family, as well, if there were a lot of wealthy Mexican-Americans, they might do the same.  San Antonio, unlike Los Angeles, has attracted upper middle-class Mexicans.  I wonder what they do.]

I recognize some of the cultural problems with high Mexican immigration [which by the way nearly stopped near the turn of the millennium], but it is interesting to note that America’s largest immigrant group is one with values similar to ours about living on a piece of ground rather than dwelling in apartments.

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