Coronavirus and culture change
In addition to the known damage the Coronavirus pandemic is currently visiting on us, it can potentially wipe out an important feature of Mexican American—actually, Latino—culture. More on that below.
The pandemic’s short-term effects…
The pandemic, awful as it is, will pass. Until it does, we’ll stay home; wear masks when going to the grocery store; have our children at home because schools are closed [Online learning is useless for those students who do not have laptops or wifi access at home.]
The pious amongst us had to forego attending religious services such as for Passover, one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays, and Easter, Christianity’s most important holiday, as those were cancelled just about everywhere (with some exceptions—threat of coronavirus notwithstanding, some churches still held Easter services). And since large gatherings are outlawed, we won’t be attending weddings, Quinceañeras, anniversaries, and other large celebrations for a while.
We’re even talking differently. The following are now part of our vernacular, the arsenal of words we use regularly: shelter in place, social distancing, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), ventilators, flattening the curve.
An emotional roller coaster ride…
The pandemic has us on an emotional roller coaster ride. One downside of that ride—in addition to the depressing statistics about the spread of the virus and the number of people being thrown out of work—is that the pandemic is bringing out the worst in some. Price gougers. People taking advantage of elderly folks. People purposely violating the “social distance” protocol and spreading the virus.
The upside of the ride is that the pandemic is bringing out the best in many people. Newscasts routinely relate stories about people shopping for neighbors, and even strangers, who cannot get out. People sharing food with each other. Employers paying their non-working employees. Landlords waiving rent payments. Retired physicians and nurses and medical and nursing students volunteering to work in hospitals, etc.
Another downside is that the pandemic will have long-lasting, and even permanent, effects. The worst of these is that too many families will be left without a spouse, a parent or grandparent, a child, a sibling, etc. Millions of hard-working people will suffer irreparable financial pain as they lose their jobs and their health insurance, and many small businesses will not be able to recover from the loss of business engendered by the pandemic crisis.
The pandemic may precipitate culture change…
I believe (fear?) that the pandemic has the potential to change our culture. I’m thinking of our custom of el abrazo (the embrace, hug), which is an integral feature of Mexican American culture. We greet people outside our families when we see them at the store, a meeting or party, at church, etc., with an abrazo and often when we part with them.
We use abrazos to console or to comfort someone [A side note: the word “hug,” the English term for abrazo, is believed to come from the word “hugga” meaning “to comfort” in the Old Norse language.] Hugging has become a common element during the peace ritual (i.e., when the worshipers wish peace to each other) in Christian church services. And as we know, Mexican Americans are big church goers.
[In modern times el abrazo has even gone virtual—the sign-off on many emails or electronic messages is “Abrazos.”]
But during this pandemic crisis, political leaders, health officials, our doctors, and everyone else with authority are telling us not to get near, much less touch, other people, to keep a minimum of six feet from anyone. Of course, intellectually we know this is good advice whose intent is to keep us well, and we practice “social distancing.”
But even after the pandemic crisis is over, I suspect there will be many people who will be reluctant to get near other people, much less touch them by shaking hands or hugging. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, is even suggesting that Americans should never shake hands again. While there are some who will take Fauci seriously and literally, most of us, once we are sure the pandemic is truly and permanently over, will go back to our old behavioral patterns and give abrazos to friends and family.
The ones I’m concerned about regarding culture change are the children. It is well established that children are greatly influenced by adults, especially authority figures such as parents and teachers. Today we have these trusted authority figures telling children not to get near nor touch their friends, their cousins, their aunts, uncles, or grandparents because these friends and relatives could bring them harm.
That’s a powerful message, one that can (probably will?) have a profound effect on the thinking process and behavior patterns of children. An entire generation might grow up avoiding touching people, including friends and relatives. “Social distancing” will become their cultural norm.
These children, in combination with the adults who will continue practicing social distancing after the pandemic is over, will, over time, occasion a culture change—the abrazo will become an antiquated cultural artifact. For, changing behavioral patterns changes cultures. Given that language is the main transmitter of culture, language plays a huge role in culture change. Telling children that touching their friends and relatives could be harmful to them, then, starts the culture-change process.
Can we un-ring this bell?
I’m not sure we can un-ring this bell. But I think we should try. Judiciously so, to be sure, but still…
Of course, we should wait until we know to an absolute certainty that the coronavirus is completely and totally gone and no longer a threat—maybe even wait until there is a COVID-19 vaccine that has been proven to work (given the urgency of the situation, this might happen sooner rather than later). Then we should emphasize to children that the “social distance” period was temporary, that it’s over, and that they can go back to acting “normal,” that is, giving an abrazo to their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their cousins, and if they so choose, to their friends. That’s my 2¢. What do you think? c/s
Copyright 2020 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: salomonrmsn.com All photos in this blog are in the public domain.