On the other hand, being invited to a regular social gathering without a specific purpose or motive is distinctly different, and a much easier problem to resolve, since such get-togethers can be viewed as they are in the US or Canada; regardless of the socio – economic status of the host, you can bring a box of chocolates, flowers, tequila or wine (the latter more for the middle classes), something for the household, or even a souvenir representative of your home country such as a bottle of maple syrup.
Celebrations of Rites of Passage in Oaxaca
Oaxacans celebrate rites of passage much more frequently and with much more gusto than Americans and Canadians. In some cases, even for non-significant birthdays (i.e. the ones we traditionally allow to pass without special acknowledgement) there is an expectation that your friends and relatives will drop over for a comida or cena, even if no formal invitation has been extended. Thus, Oaxacans are continually being inundated with social obligations.
And given that in Mexico, family extends to compadres as well as blood relatives, family gatherings to acknowledge a plethora of rites of passage can at times take place almost weekly because of “fictive kinship” relationships. The implication is that in Oaxacan society there is much more gift giving than in the US or Canada; meaning that economic constraints dictate, in general, a more modest gift giving regimen. On the other hand, there is an adage which goes something like this: the reason that most Oaxacans have two or more jobs is that the first one provides a salary sufficient to look after the necessities of life, and the others cover the cost of social obligations.
Who Gave Us the Green Blender?
It’s still normative behavior in many towns and villages, and amongst working or lower class urban Oaxacans, to not enclose a card with a gift, though of course one can certainly do so. This suggests that anonymity is accepted in terms of the gift you give. Thus, you can “get away with” something more modest than one would otherwise reason. Often there is a reception line wherein you’re expected to physically present your gift. If it’s wrapped in a gift bag or box, the recipient must have a pretty good memory to recall that it was you who gave the medium sized box wrapped in blue paper with a purple bow.
On the other hand it is still common practice to present a gift affixed to a piece of stiff and smartly decorated board and shrink wrapped in clear plastic. Thus it’s much easier for the recipient to recall who gave the green blender. It’s a bit more confusing when there are four or five blenders gifted at a wedding, a common scenario.
Urban Gifting in Oaxaca
Registering for wedding gifts is becoming more commonplace in Oaxaca than it was even ten years ago. Registering with a department store with branches throughout the country such as Sears and Liverpool (Fábricas de Francia) is becoming particularly in vogue for couples who will be setting up a household outside of Oaxaca. Since almost all culturally middle class Oaxacans send their children out of state for university, there is an increased likelihood that couples from two different states will marry. And they’ll locate in the state of the spouse who is not from Oaxaca, for economic reasons; it’s harder to make a living in Oaxaca than in most other states.
Similarly, it’s becoming more acceptable to request cash as a wedding gift, making the decision easier except for deciding upon the amount. Thankfully the middle and upper classes now understand that not all foreigners are multi-millionaires.
Regular gifts run the gamut, in both urban and rural environments, and include items which we as foreigners would not think are appropriate, such as a lamp or a set of towels for a baptism or first communion, a pair of inexpensive earrings for a wedding anniversary, etc.
Donating to a couple’s own well-being has arrived in Oaxaca. In a recently received invitation to a 30th wedding anniversary bash for a well-to-do couple, cash was requested; and envelopes were distributed at the door, with a pen enabling the invitee to note his name. Appropriate? Perhaps, given that in Oaxaca the concept of requesting donations to a particular charity has not yet arrived.
It’s Hard to Go Wrong with Benevolence, Religious and Otherwise
Anything goes regarding gift giving in Oaxaca. There does not appear to be the same perception of receiving an inappropriate gift, or “not enough.” A gossip network does not exist. Oaxacans don’t talk about the gifts they receive. They virtually never send thank you notes.
If you’re really stuck, and this article doesn’t serve its intended purpose, there’s always the option of attending at a store specializing in religious gifts such as rosaries, crucifixes, bibles and retablos. But first ensure you know that you invitation has been extended by a Catholic.
Alvin Starkman has been gift-giving in Oaxaca for two decades. With his wife Arlene he operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com), and with Chef Pilar Cabrera Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com). Alvin enjoys assisting tourists to Oaxaca in planning their vacations. Alvin has been working with the federal government in various projects for the past two years (Mexico Today and the CONOCER mezcal training program).