It is an iconic picture of Mexico: The image of a farmer reclining against a cactus, his sombrero pulled over his eyes, his posture evident that he is asleep. The form has been co-opted into salt and pepper shakers, tiles, bottles, paintings and trays. It exudes a passiveness and has come to symbolize the accepted image of the lazy Mexican.
The problem is, Mexicans aren’t lazy.
We’ve been living in Oaxaca, Mexico, for about three months, and the constantly bustling streets have become a daily comfort. Along the most common bus routes, street vendors sell tamales for breakfast and announce their presence through a megaphone. These vendors have been up since dawn and will continue to hawk their goods well into the afternoon.
Many locals have already been at work for hours when our classmates make their way into the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca around 9 a.m. each day. In the Zócalo, the city center, elderly women walk with towering stacks of thick shawls and scarves on their shoulders. Children as young as 3 years old sell gum, candy and cigarettes.
It’s common to meet Mexicans who work two or three jobs at once. Mirelly Pineda Blas, a 30-year-old Oaxacan, fits the bill. She has a master’s degree in teaching, works two jobs and takes English classes on the side in both Oaxaca and Mexico City.
A close friend of Blas works as a governmental police officer for the Procuraduría General de la República, the office for the Attorney General of Mexico, where she usually works from 9 a.m. until one or two in the morning.
“We live in a country where we work to survive,” Blas said.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average Mexican worked 2,246 hours in 2015, exceeding all other countries involved in the study. The average American worked 1,790 hours that same year.
“How many more hours do you have to work in order to live a stable life?” Blas said. “Not one with luxuries, because in order to get those you have to own a large business or be a politician.”
In Blas’ experience, many Oaxacans, including herself, have to work more than one job to even afford basic city transportation. Compared to smaller cities where taxi rides cost about 20 to 30 pesos, a taxi ride for the same distance in Oaxaca can cost 50 to 70 pesos.
As a young woman who would be considered successful in the U.S. with two college degrees and two jobs, there’s only a small difference in income between Blas and those who are considered within Mexico’s low income bracket.
Twenty-eight percent of Mexican employees work very long hours, one of the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. On average, only 13 percent of employees in member-countries work comparable hours.
Now, we’re back in the Pacific Northwest where we have a large agricultural scene. It is an industry that heavily relies on Mexican, Central and South American workers. In the early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that more than 75 percent of crop workers were born in Mexico.
When you live on the coastal side of the Pacific Cascade Mountains, away from the majority of Washington’s agricultural scene, identifying the kind of laborers who do this work is impossible.
Taking a two-hour drive to a fruit stand east of the mountains exposes you to the Mexican families that provide us with our favorite foods. The rest of their day is up to the consumer’s imagination: Waking up before dawn, working in the hot sun all day, carrying box after box of Washington apples to the trucks.
Clearly, this isn’t a “siesta every day” sort of existence. Mexicans work long hours, for what isn’t always very much pay, doing a variety of jobs that many Americans wouldn’t even consider doing.
There’s a saying in Mexico that describes their working culture: “Sé a qué hora entro mi trabajo, pero no sé a qué hora salgo,” or, “I know when I go to work, but I don’t know when I leave.”