Friday, July 31, 2009

The "Gringo Tax"

During my travels, I'd heard about the Gringo Tax from many ex-pats all over Mexico. Yesterday, I got a taste of it. At least it was an example of it that I could document. Here's what happened:

I was looking for a fan (non-electric variety), something I could take to my summer classes. There is no airconditioning in the classrooms (or most anywhere else in Oaxaca, for that matter). The Casa de Cultura is a former convent, built around 2 open courtyards, two stories high, a balconies on the second level looking down onto the courtyards. On the balconies, it's cool. There is usually a nice breeze. The problem in the classrooms is that the instructors keep the doors and windows shut tight. The music teacher (downstairs), because she wants to keep out noise from the hallway. The art teacher upstairs, because we have a nude model. With a dozen or so student bodies inside, it keeps plenty warm.

So, walking down the street, I stuck my head into a little shop "Miscelena." Mexican towns are loaded with tiny little stores like this. Often they're just one room at the front of someone's house, a room that opens onto the sidewalk. The proprietor is behind the counter. I asked this lady, "Do you have fans?" "We sure do, let me show you what I've got." She opened the glass display case to bring out here stock. A note here: almost nowhere do you find self-service retail. I guess they assume shoplifters would go wild. So what you get is the old general-store technique: you have to ask the clerk for even the smallest item to be shown to you.

She had two types of fan. I could see on the exterior of the box, the price was marked, "9 pesos." I said, "That will work fine. What's the price?" She smiled broadly, "15 pesos." For those of you bad at math, that's a 6 peso difference. What I call the "Gringo Tax." Now, 6 pesos isn't very much at all (42 cents US). But it was close to double her stated price. Do they assume all Americas are "stupid gringos"? That we don't care about money? That we actually prefer to pay a higher price than locals do?

For whatever the reason, this goes on in most purchases, apart from those in big chain stores. In this case, I stared at the woman, right in the eye, and said, "I'll pay 10 pesos." She laughed and said, "Fine." As you can see, the Gringo Tax isn't fixed. It's a weird kind of attitude that says, "Let me see how much I can get away with. If I can cheat you a little, I will. But if not, that's OK, too. But I've got to try, or lose face."

Ni modo.