It Used to Take a Village

My sister Elsa will marry in November, and the Mexican in me is peeved. The guy is fine: from the same state of Mexico (Zacatecas, in the central portion of the country) as we are, fully bilingual and bicultural like she is, with a steady job and straight teeth. Times are tough, so they’re planning a small wedding—I understand. But what Elsa is setting up is so low-key, so, well, white.

Instead of inviting hundreds plural, she plans to have 100 at the reception, a number that doesn’t even encompass all of my first cousins—on my mother’s side. And instead of a gymnasium or labor hall like my cousins have always rented for their weddings, Elsa wants it at a high-end restaurant. A chef will cater instead of a battalion of aunts preparing pots of beans, rice and goat stew. But the worst sin involves music: Instead of hiring a banda sinaloense (a mighty 18-piece brass band that’s the favored music of Zacatecas and can make USC’s band seem about as loud as a kazoo), Elsa is looking for a deejay. To borrow an expression from another American-immigrant experience, oy vey (which, strangely, sounds like a Mexican-Spanish curse that is also appropriate to the situation but that a family magazine can’t publish, but I digress).

It shouldn’t matter to me. I know assimilation turns even the dumbest immigrant into a John Wayne American, and I’ve seen it happen repeatedly, as my extended family has gone, within a generation, from agricultural workers to college-educated professionals. But I always considered weddings the last refuge for immigrant families to act unabashedly ethnic. It’s a much cherished quirk of the American experience, celebrated again and again in movies. Never­theless, for my family, the truly Mexican wedding is going the way of the Frito Bandito.

The Arellanos belong to a century-long diaspora that traces its roots to the ranchos surrounding the city of Jerez, Zacatecas. There are thousands of us in Southern California alone. Therefore, my parents’ generation treated weddings as an opportunity for villagers to celebrate life as it once was. The marrying couple might’ve been as assimilated as George Lopez, but it was their parents who paid the bills. Bodas weren’t mere religious ceremonies to unite two people under the watch of God; they were a means to transmit culture from one generation to the next.

Observing these weddings was like seeing a grand sociological experiment unfold. The adults danced and prodded their teenage children to try their first clumsy mestizo waltzes and polkas in the hope that romance might spark and the rancho would survive. Women gathered to gossip while chaperoning at the edge of the dance floor; men congregated outside while chugging beers. Kids ran until they collapsed under tables. Everyone wore their finest, but no one could match the hombres in their soft Stetsons, finely embroidered belts sporting arabesque designs and hugely expensive cowboy boots. Hundreds of people attended—it literally took a village to make each wedding work—and I always delighted in seeing the stray non-Mexican guests watch the spectacle in genuine awe.

These were weddings through my teenage years. I attended a couple of white weddings and some pocho (assimilated Mexican-American) versions, but there was no sense of kinship among the invited guests, no brash banda tuba making you dizzier than a dozen Budweisers. Then every few years, with each new batch of marrying cousins and friends, Jerez’s stateside weddings began incorporating more American traditions. First came the deejay, who spun funk, oldies and hip-hop between banda sets. Weddings began migrating from grimy VFW and American Legion halls to community centers to banquet halls, limiting the invites with each migration. Bandas were replaced with conjuntos norteños—music with accordions. Although that might sound like a petty detail to non-Mexicans, it’s like Kentuckians swapping surf music for bluegrass.

The bride and groom always practiced the throwing of the bouquet and garter, but most began eschewing la víbora de la mar (“the sea snake”), a writhing chain of humanity that weaves through tables to collect more participants as the banda plays faster and faster. And—horror of horrors—people began marrying outside the village with other Mexicans and even the occasional white person. Those from the old country grumbled every step of the way, but their Amer­ican kids wanted a day for themselves, not for the community.

It’s not all my generation’s fault. The sociological experiment became too large. With each generation spawning more, the guest list expanded into the hundreds just within one’s genealogical sphere (I meet people once a month related to me that I never knew existed), and no Americanized young couple wants the hassle of coordinating such a guest list. Escalating prices mean the labor halls and community centers of yore are out of reach, and we’re not so stupid as to waste tens of thousands on an event that ends reeking of beer and with a brawl or two. That’s my sister’s rationale, and it’s not necessarily illogical. But I still find it sad. Goodbye, Mexico; hola, America.

Oh, and when I get married? Civil cere­mony, at the courthouse, followed by a quick bite at my favorite restaurant with a dozen or so of my closest. Mexican weddings? Too damn loud.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO writes the syndi­cated column “¡Ask a Mexican!” and is the author of Orange County: A Personal History.

«May issue Wedding Album: The Matchmakers »