My husband Andy and I had only recently arrived from the UK to Belize, Central America, and were trying to figure out how to make friends here. Inviting one or two local cowboys to a movie night seemed like a good way to us. That evening, as Andy was putting some bowls of popcorn on the table, I was scanning our rather extensive DVD collection. All of our stuff had arrived from London a few days before, and we were getting to grips with how much stuff we had. The unpacking of the 20-foot container had been a rather embarrassing experience. All the Mayan families had gathered around our house to watch us unpack. With each item that was lifted out of the box, they let out a loud "Ooh!" and "Ah!" I had never felt filthy rich before, but I did then. Out of shame, I ended up giving away several things. The families grabbed anything we didn't want. Down to the boxes themselves, which they apparently turned into wardrobes.
"So, babe, do you think they will like The Fifth Element or The Matrix ? Or will those movies be too far out for them? We don't have any John Wayne movies, do we?" I just didn't know what DVD to pick.
Before Andy had a chance to answer, the cowboys arrived, and they hadn't come alone; our deck was filled with what appeared to be a Mayan village. There were the cowboys, their wives, their wives' parents, their children (lots of them), their nieces and nephews, babies suckling the exposed breasts of young women, even their dogs had come along. This wasn't what we had been expecting. And they all looked as if they were going to a wedding, with the little girls in frilly white dresses and the little boys in shirts and pants with freshly washed hair that their moms had glued to their heads in tight side-partings. Looking at these clean, proud Mayans, I felt like a total slob. To me, movie night meant T-shirt, sweatpants, no make-up. Obviously, things were different here.
"I'm sorry," I said, as everybody poured through the door in near silence. "We don't seem to have enough chairs for everyone." But nobody seemed bothered about the lack of chairs; they squeezed as many people on the sofas as possible. Nursing mums and grandparents sat on the comfortable seats, and the kids sat down wherever. The grandmother looked ancient, dignified. I thought that she was at least 80 or 90, but found out later that she was 57. I guess the years of hard labor, the Guatemalan war, and the many children she had had taken their toll.
While I was attempting to be a host to the women and children, Andy and the guys had taken control of choosing the night's movie. Soon they reappeared with their choice of the night: The Godfather .
I blocked the guys from moving toward the DVD player, saying, "No way! We can't watch that. That's way too violent for these children." Andy shrugged his shoulders. "They said it was okay with them."
"No, no, I'm not having that." I snatched the DVD out of Andy's hands and walked back to the rest of our collection, followed closely by the cowboys. "We don't mind. Our kids watch movies like this at home."
I wouldn't budge and asked them to choose again. They picked Die Hard . I said no. They picked The End of Days , and I said no again. I picked Peter Pan . They said no. I picked The Wizard of Oz . They didn't respond.
Andy was getting annoyed with me. "Simone, what's your problem? They don't care about their kids watching violent movies, so why do you?"
"Well, whatever the policy is in their house is their problem. I can't change the policies in my house. And my policies are no violent movies for young kids."
We eventually settled (against my better judgment) on Star Wars. They got their bits of violence, and I hoped that the kids would at least enjoy the funny aliens.
So this was one of our first introductions into Central American culture, and it taught us two important things:
1. Be cautious when inviting people in Central America to your home. In the U.S. or Europe you may invite 200 people to a wedding and expect 100 of those to show up. In Belize you invite 50 and can expect 200. It's the way things are here. Invitations are a kind of free for all, and people love to bring their extended families along.
2. Even though the Mayan community seems very friendly, innocent, and peaceful, they do expose their young children to violent movies, and the children's play often reflects that. They may run around with fake Ninja knives and pretend to slash each other's throats. But in the midst of their throat-slashing sessions, they will wave at you and smile the sweet, innocent smiles.