Mexican Strawberry; La Mordida

Mike Salovesh salovex at WPO.CSO.NIU.EDU
Sun Sep 23 09:18:56 UTC 2001

The discussion of the Mexican meaning of the word "mordida" raises Whorfian
questions about the translatability of words that are deeply embedded in
cultural meanings.  I wouldn't think of raising such a general (and
probably unanswerable) question here.  But there something deeply wrong, in
cultural terms, with the translation that's usually given.

Yes, "mordida" is a dimunitive form of "bite".  Yes, it's ubiquitous.  But
saying that "mordida" means "bribe" is more an instance of gringo
projection than of accurate analysis of what mordidas are about.

"Bribes", up here in Gringolandia, imply an effort to suborn some official
process, usually involving an agent of government at some level.  In
public, or in teaching schoolkids how our system works, we hold to an ideal
that everyone is equal before the law.  If I want to renew my driver's
license, or get a copy of my birth certificate, or get some kind of
official answer to my questions about Social Security or Medicare, I write
a letter or go to the relevant government office with the expectation that
a public servant will respond to my request. That "public servant" works
for the government agency.  Since we call ourselves a democracy, we take
that to mean that the government employee works for us.  It would be a
subversion of our whole ideal of how government is supposed to work if one
of those public servants -- that is, one of my employees -- refused to do
the job I'm already paying him to do unless he received additional
compensation: a bribe.

Generally speaking, Mexican rules don't work that way.  Approaches to
government agencies -- including, say, public hospitals or the office that
issues passports or the equivalent of a recorder of deeds -- are like any
other social interaction.  The preferred approach begins with kinship: you
go to your cousin who works in the hospital, and she intercedes with the
doctor to ensure that you'll get an appointment while a doctor's visit will
still do you some good. If you don't have any relatives who provide a link,
maybe somebody you work with or your neighbor or your old second grade
teacher can open the door for you. What counts is the social link to the
institution: going to your cousin who mops the floors will get you into the
hospital process.  If you show up at the appointment desk or the emergency
check-in without the intercession of a social connection you'll wait a long
time for service -- even if you're obviously about to die.

The government employee does not see himself as a public servant. The
services he provides gain their meaning out of personalized relations
almost to the exclusion of their material efficacy.  The government
employee's role includes some instrumental behavior, but the important part
of the role is what the civil servant does as a social enabler.  His value
comes from serving as the link that gets services delivered to his family,
his compadres, perhaps his neighbors, and certainly to the influential
people who interceded personally to get him the job in the first place.
Civil servants are expected to give priority to fultilling individual
personal obligations rather than to fulfilling the duties specified in a
bureaucratic job description. That's why their paychecks are ridiculously
small, even compared to the cost of starving to death. (I'll elide the
systematic exception by not trying to explain how the kleptocrats at the
top of the system accumulate fortunes out of their high offices when the
government and the banks actually went bankrupt twenty years ago and show
no signs of recovery to this day.)

Now suppose that I am in a bind: I need a government service, and I have no
social connection to people who have anything to do with providing that
service. There has to be an alternative means of approach, even in a system
that is personalized to the hilt.  Lacking the standard means of access,
what I can do is provide a reason why a government employee should attend
to my needs even when she has no social obligation to do so.

I find a way of offering a mordida.

For someone with fairly high social status, the mordida might be in the
form of converting a business call on an office to a social call with the
one in charge.
After all, it's standard form to talk politely about the weather or the
news or anything other than the business which brings you to a government
office -- or a store, or a university office, and so on.  Getting right
down to business would be downright boorish, and probably
counter-productive as well.

Talking with the office boss, one way to offer a mordida would be to
mention one's business, off-handedly, framing the statement in observations
that this is a busy office and surely the important people in it have
better things to do than take care of this little problem . . .  Perhaps,
Mr. Manager, you could oblige me by repaying your clerks for the special
efforts they will have to make by letting me buy them some refreshments
when the job is done . . .  Here's a little something that could take care
of it . . .

Those at the bottom of the totem pole just have to ask around to find out
what the standard fee might be, or wait until they're told -- and they pay
because that's the entrance fee.

Maybe I can reduce the cultural gap by translating the word "mordida" into
something we are familiar with in our system.  I think "user fee" might do
the trick. One of the reasons the Mexican government is broke is that
they're not very good at collecting taxes, and the Mexican public is very
good at evading taxes one way or another.  (Again, personal networks
provide a means for keeping the government at bay: I take care of my
relatives, and they take care of me, and no money changes hands so no taxes
accrue.) Paying a mordida simply reflects the fact that someone who wants
something out of the government is expected to pay for services rendered.
If people avoid paying taxes at the front door, they can expect to have to
pay mordidas at the back door.

Mexicans simply can't understand why we gringos get so bothered by  the
idea of mordidas. What they see is that gringos don't know how the system
works, and they don't seem to try to find out. Gringos often ignore even
the most obvious hints suggesting that they would be better off paying a
mordida than trying to use their heads as battering rams -- or their
outraged sensibility as grounds for upsetting everyone around them.

Once in a while, when the cultural wind is in the right direction, an
occasional gringo achieves a Zen satori in these matters.  Take, e.g., an
explanation a federal judge (and good friend) gave me when I questioned him
about a mordida he had just arranged to pay.  He needed some tax stamps to
affix to a stack of official papers so as to complete a transaction  he was
facilitating for his cousin.  The stamps could only be obtained in the
Oficina de Hacienda, the tax collector's office.  The judge sent one of his
clerks to get the stamps, carefully specifying the type needed and the
cost. As he counted out the fee, he told his clerk how much of a mordida to
pay to whom in order to facilitate the transaction.  I knew that the local
tax collector and the judge were compadres and very good friends, and I was
surprised that there would be any mordida. I leaned on or friendship to ask
the judge to enlighten my ignorance.  He spelled it out for me:  "Well, of
course Don Avram (the formal title appropriate in talking to me about his
friend) would take care of this for me.  But I don't want to bother him
with such trifles. It's easier just to have my clerk pay his clerks for
their services ."

Culturally speaking, a mordida isn't a bribe because there is no intent to
subvert the system.  A mordida is an unofficial and informal payment for
official services rendered.

Oh, nuts.  I guess you just had to be there . . .

-- mike salovesh    <m-salovesh-9 at>   PEACE !!!

Jesse Sheidlower wrote:
> > --------------------------------------------------------
> >
> >    From THIS WEEK, NYHT, 12 December 1948, pg. 34, col. 1:
> >
> > _That's the Mexicans' pet name for the tradition_
> > _of bribery--but it no longer signifies affection._
> > _Now press and government are swinging into action_
> > (...)
> >    That's the bribe--or, as the Mexicans call it, _la mordida_.  Springing from the perpetual pinch of poverty, the _mordida_ has been an age-old custom so generally accepted and so widely practiced that it long ago gained the orthodoxy of an institution.
> 1940 _Life_ 2 Dec. 102 In Mexico, and throughout Latin America, it is
> next to impossible to make headway with petty officials without constant
> applications of the _mordida,_ which literally translated means 'the bite',
> or bribe.
> Jesse Sheidlower


-- mike salovesh   <m-salovesh-9 at>   PEACE !!!

        IN MEMORIAM:     Peggy Salovesh
        25 January 1932 -- 3 March 2001

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