Search Baja California

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mexico's Version of Lip Service

By Ken Ellingwood

GUANAJUATO, Mexico -- Once upon a time, there was a city where people came from far and wide to kiss.

The place was blessed with gold and silver, but its kissing legend, passed down like an heirloom, made it rich beyond measure. It tells of a fair maid named Ana who fell in love with Carlos, a poor miner who lived across a narrow alley. The young lovers met on their balconies, stretching across the tiny gap to kiss in the moonlight.

But their love was star-crossed: Ana's father forbade the romance, and threatened to kill his daughter if he discovered the lovers together again. The next night, he caught them and, true to his warning, stabbed Ana with a dagger. Dying, Ana reached out and Carlos kissed her hand -- the couple's final kiss.

The children of this city have learned this lovers' saga by heart and told it over and over to the hopeless romantics who come to see the spot, known as the Kissing Alley, and to share a good-luck kiss there.

So it came as a terrible shock to people here last month when word spread that the city's leaders had issued an edict: Kissing in public was forbidden. Violators would be punished.

The news set off a storm over smooching that, weeks later, still has tongues wagging in picturesque Guanajuato, a mining town in central Mexico -- and reveals a lot about the ways of Mexico, where you don't need to get a room to express your love for each other. Like any good Valentine's Day story, this one ends with a kiss.

The affair blew up in January, when Guanajuato's City Council, led by the socially conservative National Action Party, or PAN, approved an ordinance on public behavior to replace the city's 32-year-old civic law. The ordinance tackled problems such as unlicensed street vendors and jaywalking. But it also targeted offensive language and "obscene touching."

The mayor, Eduardo Romero Hicks, was asked what sort of public acts would be punishable. He said the law would ban "agarrones de olimpiada," which translates roughly as "Olympic fondling." (In an interview later, he explained that this meant "fondling far beyond the norm ... extreme eroticism in public places.")

Garden-variety kissing, the mayor said, was never the target.

But leftist opponents depicted Romero and his PAN colleagues as latter-day inquisitors bent on imposing strict morals on the rest of Guanajuato, a tranquil town with cobblestone streets and hillside homes painted in eye-popping hues of orange, pink and electric blue.

The outcry was swift. Protesters gathered in front of City Hall to kiss en masse. Mexico's media got into the act and pretty soon Romero and his city were at the center of an unflattering national controversy. A satirical video posted on YouTube reworked the lyrics of a familiar Mexican "cumbia" and depicted Romero in a priest's collar. One editorial cartoon showed a couple kissing in a bird cage that was suspended by a fixture shaped to spell "PAN."

It mattered little that the mayor announced within days that the measure would be suspended. All of Mexico seemed ready to take to the ramparts in defense of a treasured institution: the kiss.

"The attitude toward kissing is a good thermometer of the tolerance of a society," columnist Federico Reyes Heroles wrote in the daily Reforma newspaper. He said trying to limit public kissing was like outlawing miniskirts -- the stuff of totalitarian countries. "Eros is part of life," he wrote.

In liberal Mexico City, officials have rallied to the cause of the kiss by summoning residents to a massive Valentine's Day kiss-in on the main plaza. Organizers are hoping for thousands of kissers at Saturday's event, perhaps enough to land a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.

In unveiling the kiss-athon, Mexico City's tourism secretary, Alejandro Rojas Diaz Duran, appeared to toss a dart in Guanajuato's direction by pointing out that PAN members were welcome to join in. He said Mexico City "has always been the example of what Mexican society's values should be."

If so, public kissing would be high on the list. Compared with the U.S., Mexico is a very smoochy place. Mexicans of all stripes kiss each other on the cheek when saying hello and goodbye. Children and parents slobber over each other with abandon. Even strangers merit a kiss; Americans might be taken aback by the Mexican custom of kissing someone on the cheek when being introduced.

Take a walk through many public parks in Mexico City and it can feel as though you've stumbled onto Lovers' Lane, with couples in tight embrace on the wrought-iron benches or entwined on the grass beneath shade trees. The capital's vast and woodsy Chapultepec Park is so well-known as a make-out zone that it has a racy nickname: Chapul-"tetrepo," the last part of which can be translated as, "I climb you," as one would a tree.

It's not only teens locking lips on the street; paunchy, middle-aged couples are given to public displays, sometimes with surprising urgency. Making out in the park avoids the prying eyes of siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who form the extended Mexican family. And there is an overall expressiveness that sets them apart from the northern neighbors.

"We're more romantic. We show our feelings," said Dulce Nancy Gonzalez, a 25-year-old physician who on a recent day accompanied her boyfriend to the steps of Guanajuato's Kissing Alley for a lucky kiss. (Tradition holds that kissing on the third step brings 15 years of good luck.)

"It's not hard for us to show our feelings," Gonzalez said, after she and her boyfriend of three weeks shared several kisses of the sort you'd never plant on grandma. "For us, it's harder to hide them."

In that spirit, Guanajuato's leaders are adopting an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach. Having shelved the controversial ordinance for more review, Romero has gone all the way, declaring his city the "Capital of the Kiss."

^(Optional add end)

Officials are hanging banners and printing postcards that celebrate various flavors of kissing (all very G-rated and mostly showing family situations.) Merchants reportedly are working on the recipe for a margarita-type drink that would be called the "beso," Spanish for "kiss."

Guanajuato's residents have come to view the noisy affair as a cautionary tale about the futility of trying to lasso romance. Or the silliness of politicians. Or both.

On a recent day, Jorge Garcia and Vanessa Altzmuller, teens in matching white hoodies, stretched across the table of a sidewalk cafe near City Hall. They met halfway, touching lips softly, the way Ana and Carlos might have.

This time, they all lived happily ever after.