My Kind of Community: Mexicans in the UAE
Dubai - Their numbers in this part of the world may not be huge, but Mexican expats in Dubai can Teach us a Thing or Two about food and celebration.
Viva Mexico!".that is the cry being heard around the UAE this week as Mexicans come together to celebrate their in-dependence day.
September 16th and its famous "Cry of Dolores" marks the moment in 1810 when Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla addressed a crowd of people outside his church in the city of Dolores, declaring the beginning of an armed revolt against the yoke of Spanish colonialism. After a bloody 11-year struggle, the country finally became independent in 1821. But for many Mexicans in the UAE, the occasion is an opportunity to come together to celebrate Mexico's rich and diverse culture, and, of course, to eat their world-famous cuisine.
According to embassy statistics from 2015, there are about 1,200 Mexicans residing in the UAE - although some say the number may be as high as 4,000. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, as Mexicans are not obligated to register with their embassy. But while perhaps small in overall numbers, the community is a diverse bunch.
"Members of the Mexican community here work in a variety of fields, principally as pilots, attorneys, architects, hotel workers, graphic de-signers and journalists," said Francisco Alonso Escobar, Mexico's former ambassador to the UAE. "Mexicans are very well received here." As the size of the Mexican community grows, so too does the UAE's appreciation for Mexican culture, and importantly, Mexican food. Once rare in the UAE, there are now more than 30 Mexican restaurants spread across the country. But many Mexicans say that much work re-mains to be done in the UAE to familiarise the country with the real essence of Mexican cuisine.
"It's very frustrating to speak to my students and colleagues and notice how little they know about authentic Mexican food," Zayed University educational technology coordinator Paola Trejo said. "Unfortunately, in their minds, Mexican food is the same as 'Tex-Mex'."
"I can definitely see that interest and appreciation in Mexican art is growing," artist and former civil engineer Jose Toledo said. "But there should still be more information about it out there. People are keen to know more!" Many misconceptions, Toledo said, are likely due to news coverage of Mexico's complex security situation and corruption issues.
"I think that the lack of general information about the country makes people think about it differently," he said. "Security and corruption are big problems, but not everybody is involved in it. Mexico has a great, ancient, and very important culture, which should be known more, as should its contemporary and popular art." Toledo added that he expects the size of the community would continue to grow as Mexicans head to foreign shores in search of adventure and exciting new job prospects.
"More Mexicans will come to Dubai and to the UAE," he said. "This is a country that offers a lot of opportunities."
Immerse yourself in history's melting pot
Mexicans and the people of the UAE are bonded by shared values and traditions, according to Pedro Blanco, the interim Charge d'Affairs of the Mexican embassy in the UAE.
In an interview with Khaleej Times, Blanco noted that there "are many similarities between our cultures." "The importance of family ties and hospital are, for example, common values of our two traditions," he said. A perhaps little-known fact in the region - but widely known in Mexico - is the strong influence that Arab culture has had in Mexico.
"Mexico received Arab heritage through Spanish colonisation. We all know that Arabs were present in the Iberian Peninsula for 800 years, and their legacy lives on," he said. "more recently, at the beginning of the 20th century, Mexico accepted multiple waves of immigrants coming from the middle east, primarily from what is today Lebanon and Syria."
"These communities adopted very well to Mexican reality, and enriched our culture," he added. The best way to teach the UAE more about Mexico and Mexicans, Blanco remarked, is through promoting Mexico's rich cultural heritage.
"The embassy promotes all aspects of Mexican culture. We've already demonstrated Mexico's gastronomy, and we plan to keep going in that regard," he said. "We also want to spread Mexican art of all kinds, as well as cinema and literature."
"There is nothing more effective to bring people together, and promote world peace, than to bring about mutual understanding of cultures," he said. Looking towards the future, Blanco said, he hopes that more UAE residents - emiratis and expats alike - will get to know Mexico by visiting it and seeing it first hand.
Among those who have already been there, he pointed out, is Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, who visited Mexico in April 2014.
"There is much work to be done in tourism. Mexico has worked hard to make people aware of the many touristic attractions we can offer the world: thousands of miles of beaches, places of archaeological importance across various pre-Hispanic cultures, colonial cities, world-renowned museums, some of the world's most varied food and multiple cultures and traditions."
A band for every occasion
The biggest reason to party and celebrate is National Day (yesterday, in fact! September 16). There's also the Day of the Dead (that follows Halloween), and a bunch of religious festivals, such as December 12 - the day of Virgin Mary, etc. Mariachi (musical) bands come out on December 12, and may 10 (mother's Day).
On typical celebrations, and birthdays, friends and families get together to listen to music, dance, eat, and sing - sometimes even break piñatas (candy-filled containers). Food is of course a big draw, and parties can go on late into the night. In some towns, parties and celebrations can carry on for the better part of a week! All these times, mariachis (see picture above) are hugely popular and can be hired across the country. In fact, they can be hired even in Dubai! There's an idea for your next big bash.
Friends in the city and online
Mexicans love socialising, and when they visit one another, they congregate in kitchens and sample the dishes. Many wear masks to celebrate super heroes and favourite wrestlers.
Through their online communities (such as Mehicanos in Dubai, on Facebook), people come to each other's aid by sharing tips: where to eat, where to buy tortillas, where to buy superhero masks, piñatas, etc. It's a useful platform to ask around for essential information like doctor recommendations, phone numbers of brokers, and to let your community know when you leave the country and are getting rid of furniture, etc, or when you move here and need furniture.
One thing about Mexicans is that once you become friends, they're your friends for life. It doesn't matter whether someone is moving to another part of the world, the bond remains.
No meal without chillies
To cater to the Mexicans in town, several grocery strores and supermarkets in Dubai sell a variety of authentic Mexican chillis. Head to Géant at Ibn Batuta or Waitrose (Dubai Mall and Marina Mall) to pick any in a long list of Mexican favourites: jalapeño, chile verde, chile ancho, chile habanero, chile piquin, chile de arbol... you get them all! Mexicans can eat chilies for all three meals, and even for a snack in between, whether with a tuna sandwich or in a soup, or as a side dish to rice or potatoes or meat.
Every family has their own special recipes, tweaked and customised to their own palates and preferences - fried in olive oil, or roasted in the oven. If you don't want it too hot, lose the seeds! And if it gets too hot, just remember to bite into a loaf of bread.