Mexicans: They’re Everywhere- Part 3
In our third and final instalment of “Mexicans: They’re Everywhere,” we meet Libertad Venegas. Prior to her first visit to Iceland, the only thing she knew about the country was that it was home to a famous singer called Björk. For Libertad, that tiny speck of earth above Europe with the intimidating name was a land of total mystery.
As fate would have it, Libertad wound up falling in love with an Icelander she met online. After a period of courtship, the two made plans to convene in person, and, as they say, the rest is history. “I was going to come to Iceland to meet him. However, I worked as a consultant, and not long after we met I got a three-month job, so I couldn’t really take off,” she shares over the phone. “So, I said to him, ‘why don’t I get you a ticket to come here and stay with me for a while?’”
And he did.
From chaos to calm
Libertad hails from Michoacán, a state in the Southern Pacific region of Mexico that has been in the news of late due to an outbreak of drug war-related fatalities. In recent months, locals—tired of the crime, disappearances, rape and unfair taxation—have banded together in a self-defence group to fight against the Knights Templar cartel. As a result, organized crime in the state has taken a turn for the worse.
“When I went to Mexico in 2011, there was a shooting next to my mom’s house. We were all there when my neighbour’s son was executed. He was only seventeen,” she confides. Libertad doesn’t sound shaken by the horror story she’s relaying, although she admits to a lingering fear for those she left behind. In contrast, one of the things she enjoys most about living in Reykjavík is the ability to breathe peacefully. “I used to live in Mexico City—with a population of twenty million. This place allows me to walk,” she says.
Mexicans tend to be careful at all times. Locking the door, avoiding walking alone at night, holding on tight to valuables and keeping flashy jewellery at home are all part of the national lifestyle. It’s just the way it is. In Iceland, however, Libertad has never felt unsafe. “Sometimes the silence is overwhelming,” she says, “but I learned to slow down my pace and enjoy myself.”
Yes! We have no bananas
As was to be expected, Libertad experienced a bit of culture shock once she relocated to Iceland. Her bubbly and friendly demeanour, for example, is not the norm in her new country, as she would learn. “My husband is always dumbfounded by the way I act towards people,” she says, admitting that she is perhaps more chatty than the common Icelander. “Or what happened with my sister in law! For some reason, I was always hungry when I arrived at her house. She used to keep a bowl filled with bananas, and I never thought twice about grabbing one and eating it. One day, however, she told me that I owed her a bunch of bananas.” This took Libertad by surprise. “The next time I visited,” she goes on, “I brought along a kilo of bananas. And I never grabbed one again. In Mexico, family is always welcome to the table. If you haven’t had any breakfast, you eat breakfast. It’s just how it is.”
When asked about what she misses most about Mexico she immediately responds, “The food, and the weather,” with not a second thought. “The concept of going to the market like we do in Mexico simply doesn’t exist in Iceland. Here you only find produce in a cold section in the supermarket. Although I have to admit that by now we can find staples that weren’t available ten years ago, like avocado and cilantro,” she says.
Libertad says she’s now used to not seeing any hot foods at parties, something that is perfectly normal in Mexico. “Here they will offer five different cakes, cheeses and maybe a salad. That’s it. You don’t really have dinner, it’s more like coffee being served,” she explains. In Mexico, if you attend a party, you can come with an empty stomach and leave the party with a Tupperware container filled with leftovers, also known as itacate. It’s a very bountiful culture when it comes to food. As for local fare, Libertad had to learn the hard way that rice pudding—what Mexicans would only regard as a dessert—was something people ate with sausage as a main course. “The food here is very different. When they gave me that pudding, I kept telling them, ‘That’s not food, that’s dessert!’”
Obviously, one of the most striking contrasts between Iceland and Mexico is the climate—the weather. “Winters here are very long and intense,” Libertad says. “I’m still getting used to the idea of having to wear a ton of clothes everywhere I go.” What really gets to her, though, is the lack of sunlight. “I find that lately, it does affect me a bit more not having a lot of sun. I get bored in the darkness.”
Living in the capital gives Libertad greater opportunity to speak her mother tongue. “Most of my friends are foreigners and Latin-Americans,” she says. “I really don’t know if it’s easy to have Icelander friends. I think it’s possible, but they are very reserved and perhaps understand friendship in a different way.”
The cultural differences, along with her new situation as a mother of an Icelandic/Mexican baby, has lead Libertad on a search for new ways to share experiences, needs and frustrations with other expats. “I participated in the formation of a Spanish-speaking Association to create a platform that brings together Spanish-speaking people and help them incorporate into Icelandic society.”
While the community is quite small, Libertad says, the people who attend now have a place where they can share their struggles. The Association also works with Móðurmál, a local association meant to help preserve new Icelanders’ mother tongues. That way, children born from Spanish-speaking parents can find a way to be bilingual.
One thing that concerns Libertad is seeing her children grow in this extremely safe environment, where it seems like nothing can ever go wrong. “Children aren’t necessarily street smart,” says Libertad, “I think we [as foreigners] are at an advantage because we grew up in big cities, we know what bad looks like. That worries me, but at the same time I’m so happy to see my kid living a peaceful and carefree childhood.”
For Libertad, one of the most interesting aspects of Icelandic culture was realizing how active women were in the educational and political scenes. “Icelandic women do a lot and I respect them for that,” says Libertad. But that sense of equality can be seen in every aspect of the family dynamic. “When my mom came to visit, she was very surprised to see that I could leave the baby with my husband and go out with my friends. The idea of taking off without leaving a plate of food for the husband to reheat is unheard of in most Mexican families,” she notes. And that is one of the things she doesn’t miss at all from her home country. “Men can be very macho over there. Here, it’s not like that at all.”
When asked about the future, Libertad admits she is here to stay. “Twenty years from now I hope to have learned Icelandic already, since it’s really hard for me to speak. I hope my daughter is happy and at ease. And I have faith that things will get better in Mexico one day, that this crisis won’t last forever.”
No Mexicans were harmed in the writing of this article.
Thank you, Libertad Venegas for your valuable time. ¡Muchas gracias!
And special thanks to the Mexican Embassy in Denmark for helping me spread the word and begin my research.