Gates and bars

Yesterday, standing beside me while I searched for my key to our outside door, Quentin (4), said “That’s something different from Canada. In Canada, we don’t have gates.” Well, of course, some people do. But he’s right. It’s a big difference, and one I tend to forget about when we’re here. It’s just how things are.

In Canada, I lock the house when I go off somewhere–though in fact, it’s more a nod to the insurance company than real protection, since it wouldn’t take a Houdini to figure out how to get in.  But I hardly lock my YARD! And that’s what happens here. Nobody’s space is accessible without a key. So, when we arrive home here, we have to first unlock the gate to the property, then the door to the house. The assumption, I guess, is that otherwise someone would wander off with the flower pots or the propane tank.

And then there’s the ornamental ironwork on windows. It’s easy to IMG_2946forget that it’s not there just to be decorative. Same with the stone or concrete walls surrounding properties of any size—including ours—though it’s harder to forget why the tops of those walls are studded with broken glass or arrow-sharp ironwork. And let’s not forget the guard dogs living on rooftops. Troubling on so many levels.

I don’t think Mexicans are any less honest than Canadians. Of course, the equality gap is greater, so the temptations may be as well. But not everyone is equal in Canada, either. Not by a long shot. Still, it never crosses my mind that my less privileged neighbours might steal the furniture off my deck while I’m off grocery shopping.

IMG_2950I talked to Carolina, my Spanish teacher about this today, at what will probably be my last class of the year. (I need some unscheduled time—between visitors and a planned reunion with high school friends in North Carolina in early March—more than I need more practice with the subjunctive.) Carolina had a couple of interesting observations. To some extent, what appears to be structural evidence of paranoia is an architectural style inherited from the Spaniards: grilled windows sometimes are simply ornamental; many of them wouldn’t deter a burglar.

I have no idea what's behind these 3 doors. A living room? An elaborate courtyard? A hallway to apartments?

I have no idea what’s behind these 3 doors. A living room? An elaborate courtyard? A hallway to apartments?

By extension, enclosed courtyards are not necessarily fortresses, but a way of incorporating outdoor living space into the private domain of the home–a privacy that is, I sense, guarded more carefully here than at home.

That’s the reassuring part. At the same time, Carolina says, the sense of threat to personal property is increasing. She remembers moving to this city fifteen years ago, when doors to the street were often left open all day, when neighbours wandered in and out at will, when stores simply locked their doors at night. It was only three years ago, she says, when the shop across the street from her house put bars on the door and windows. And her neighbours had an open upstairs balcony until recently, when someone broke in and they installed protective grill work. When she first moved here, policemen were unarmed; now they carry semi-automatic weapons, a fact that I find disconcerting.

Of course, it’s not just Guanajuato, or even Mexico. Shops in Toronto are often barred up at night—not so much in Sault Ste. Marie. Gated communities are springing up everywhere. Even in the Sault. And in a growing number of homes in Canada, automated burglar alarm systems take the place of iron bars. But I do wonder if the response, especially here, is commensurate with the threat. It seems at least as likely that the privileged are creating a climate of fear by cultivating a climate of distrust.

“Yeah,” I said to my four-year-old grandson as I pulled the metal gate shut behind me. “That is a difference. There are a lot more gates in Mexico.”

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One Response to Gates and bars

  1. My father once said as we sat in the center of Queretaro gazing up at the shuttered windows behind a curlicue iron grill, “When those shutters were closed, no one sees what goes on behind them”. He was reminiscing about his own childhood – 1905 -1920 – in Mexico City which only numbered 330,000. Privacy was a valued privilege among the citizens who occupied 18th & 19th Century houses in the historic center of the Capital. Here families lived together – fathers, mothers, unmarried sisters, distant relatives. Unlike modern day capitals life was leisurely with merchants coming and going from the mesquite portones and the daily business of feeding the extended family and guests who might drop in at any moment occupied the women of the house who sent cooks to the market with baskets and young boys to return with fresh produce brought daily from Zochimilco. There was violence, machete fights in cantinas and prostitute houses. There was great poverty, and illness on the streets which often smelled of open sewage and manure. But the home was the place of peace, of long comidas at lunch time where events from the other side of the windows and doors were shared, sometimes shocking and revolting. But to the family gathered around the long solid table the shuttered windows allowed each person big and small to enjoy the daily meal, and to share connivance with relatives and friends. The grills in Guanajuato are two and often three hundred years old, although what Carolina points out is true of a global reality where Capitalism is daily unbalancing the ship of state with the devastating greed.

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