Understanding social class and hierarchy in Mexico

Illustration: Getty
Illustration: Getty

I am one of those people who don’t care if I have to go to the supermarket on a Saturday morning in my workout outfit before going to the gym, with no make-up on and messy hair. On those morning errands, I have encountered many who are dressed the same, or even still in pajamas. This seems to be okay-early-morning-fashion in Hidalgo (and also at night, right before it is time for cena and people quickly go to the local store to buy some pan de dulce).

However, if I would wrap myself in such an outfit to do business at the bank, I would definitely not have been taken seriously.

This is a huge contradiction in Mexico: on the one hand, it is okay to go out and not dress properly (at least according to my cultural background), but you have to know the occasion. For this, you can use some common sense and walk around a little in various social settings to get a general idea. Or – just ask a Mexican friend.

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The “what you see is what you get” idea appears to be popular here. Classifying seems a cultural norm throughout the country and influences everyday encounters. Sometimes I am surprised about the casual way in which one classifies others, and I find myself often asking, “Why? You don’t know the person’s story.”

Even though classifying is a daily business, it is rare that people will be excluded from something. As my close friends says “in Mexico, you will always have something to eat.” In other words: Most people take care of each other. Then again, the street performer at a red traffic light, what about him? Or the person in the big SUV next to you? Do you also classify, and if so, how and why? What is your cultural framework to see Mexican culture and its people? A lot of questions, but it is interesting (and fun!) to test yourself a little bit every once in a while.

Classifying society indirectly leads to hierarchical structures in that society. This is something that is very visible in Mexico, especially when doing business. For several years, I was teaching at a private educational institution and I was definitely seen as the “Dutch teacher.”

The internal hierarchy in the companies I worked for was incredibly different from what I was used to in the Netherlands. Over there, you speak directly to your boss and, as long as you’re respectful and you don’t yell, you can say anything. Besides, comments will be taken seriously no matter where they come from.

In Mexico, I was conflicted various times when my boss didn’t take action on my ideas or complaints. When I went to my boss’ boss, I had an angry face looking at me. The result (besides angry looks when I walked down the hallway): my opinion was heard and action was taken! Sometimes it is possible to bridge between two worlds.

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Bottom line: As a foreigner in a foreign culture, I love what a Tibetan Buddhist lama in Rotterdam once said to me: Don’t classify; in the end, we’re all human. This is true. However, a little bit of classifying sometimes helps the human mind explain social situations and to make sense of life. Just dive into your own cultural background and ask yourself: “What you see is what you get?”


Debbie Vorachen is an expat from the Netherlands who has been living in Mexico for over five years. She is a cultural anthropologist with a passion for intercultural communication and traveling who founded Ahorita YA. Email ahoritaya@outlook.com if you face any cultural challenges, or if you have any doubts or questions about (living in) Mexico.

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