DUALITY OF CULTURES
By Don Merlot
My first trip to the outside world started in New York in 1968 when working with our international advertising agency and the account people. I met them face to face and worked with them to carry out my responsibilities.
I had grown up in Mexico City. My parents were American; and we spoke English at home.
I attended the American School which was a primary school and junior and senior high. Classes would be half day in English and half day in Spanish. Most students had similar backgrounds; mostly Americans; or European or Mexican parents who wanted to have the children have a bilingual education.
Many fathers worked for American companies or the U.S. Government. There were also Canadians, and Europeans. We were part of the Anglo-American community of Mexico City. When we visited friends, we would walk or ride our bikes to see each other. As we matured we could take busses if we went beyond our neighborhood.
One day I was with a friend on city bus and we were talking in English when an older woman asked us, Por que no hablan en Cristiano? ( “Why are you not speaking in Christian?” She meant Spanish, of course.) I remember being startled by that. We knew other passengers we interested in our answer. I was instantly aware that we were in an awkward situation. We apologized and talked in Spanish. Mexico’s language is Spanish and “in Rome do what the Romans do.”
Mexico is a Catholic country. I was and many of us were Protestant, and Christian too, but we did not want to go there in that conversation. The answer was not that we were both Christian, because traditionally in Mexico there is only one Christian Church; The Roman Catholic Church. After that whenever we were in public we only spoke in Spanish. Most of my friends were blond and blue eyed (so was my mother). The lesson for me was the old refrain When in Mexico do Mexican things. Do not stick out or be different.
By the time I graduated from TBird, I married a New Orleans southern belle Denise Rufin, a Louisiana native and we went off to my new career. For my 25 years, my food tastes were Mexican, American (parents grew in Kansas) and New Orleans (Creole Cooking).
My thoughts and my perceptions were how people perceived us. Recently I saw a story: Advertising was a land of stories. And here I am a junior executive working in international environment’
I had to explain to the New York advertising people who I am and what I want to get accomplished. I was from two cultures when I arrived in the USA in 1968 my schooling at the American School in Mexico City developed my bilingual skills and gave me a primary education in English and Spanish. I was taught US culture and Mexican Culture, language, writing and reading. I was being prepared to go to go to college in the USA. When I went to prep school and College I went as a US citizen.
Even though I was born in Mexico of American parents, the schools treated me as a foreign student. At college I was destined to go in the U.S. Army, but at my Army physical they found a kidney malady that kept me out of the Army and being drafted. I worked in New Orleans for an oil company until I found a graduate international business program at Thunderbird. I completed my graduate degree and found a job working at Whirlpool. So, now in my new job should be accepted as an American?
A story I heard from a new business associate and applied here. The story that made me think how the Americans thought of the advertising concept. A newly married man was alone with his bride and was trying to be gentle to consummate their marriage. She said she was a novice at this, which caused him to reply how can that be? You have been married three times before. She said she could explain; the first marriage was to an octogenarian and when he got to this stage he had a heart attack and died; well, he said how about the second one and she replied, that the second husband changed his mind during the ceremony. He said he could not complete the marriage, because he had such strong physical feelings for the best man and he could not go through with this marriage; so what about the third? Well, she said, he was an advertising man and sat at the edge of the bed and told me how great it was going to be.
Perception of my new life and of me had become my new compass. I found out that in the business world the key to communications was talking and listening – listening was 50% of communications. The most important task was to understand the expectations of the new members of the team; to understand explain my company’s expectation of them, and for me to understand their expectation of me. I found that every new person I met outside the company was measuring me and I learned from my new company that I should be measuring them; express my expectations and listen and understand their expectations.
My company was a patriarchal entity that was founded by one family and driven by one customer. The Family that led them into the washing machine business was the Upton brothers and its first non-family leader was an Easterner with qualifications of putting together impeccable products and working several roads to go to markets was Elisha “Bud” Gray from the New England Graybar dynasty and had graduated from MIT. He worked with manufacturing, engineering and created strong sales accord with SEARS, and had been credited with pioneering the home appliance industry. The international management of the Whirlpool team when I arrived was experienced with a European focus as many of the key sales managers had lived in Europe. There was a Midwestern cultural flavor of the team had just returned from a European. As I arrived the international team looked for guidance on becoming and international brand and looked for an advertising agency with a strong creative staff.
The first concept that would change my lexicon dictionary was the word ‘Advertising’ which was becoming passé; the word on Madison Avenue was ‘marketing Communications” and it covered all the business disciplines; print, Audio, visual and the media that was used. In my first year we found that we had to change advertising agencies that developed after the original agency had a new domestic client and was identified as a competitor which compelled us to resign our business relationship. It was great for me because I was part of a new search team to look for a new agency.
Once we found a new agency the team was with me for my five years in advertising and they were very proactive and met our creative needs and they were great creative minds and they became personal friends.
Actually the first advertising agency was Kenyon and Eckhart and the Account manager was Ted Anson and Englishman. He was a breath of fresh air for me because he knew I was on a learning curve. He grew up in an English middle class environment and told me that the class structures were pretty frozen and after the war the only way for him was take his French and English and come to America. Elio Gonzalez was one of the creative members of his team. But we had to change agencies and Chose Gardner Advertising to replace K&E.
The social and business structure at Gardner opened up my understanding of Advertising. I learned that there were social and cultural rivalries among the team members. The account men were “9 to 5pm” and white collar and for them there was a train out of Grand Central Station at 5; 30 pm to catch to take them to home (Westchester) NY, CT, or NJ. This left the creative people were much more informal. No white shirt and ties. They kept working at the Agency and most stayed in the city. A soon as the account men left and instead of working late they adopted me. When I visited they took me out at night to culturize me show me take me to their dining hang outs and we would socialize. I saw everything that was going on in NYC; Broadway, restaurants. Our creative team was primarily Italian. & the creative executive was Italian born, a proud Etruscan. He was cultured and understood the differences between the US Company and the local culture expectations.
My New York, American and international cultural developed to the outside world came through Bruno Brugnatelli and his team (Elio & Lucci). When I saw the play HAIR which at that time was the rage of the late ‘60’s on Broadway. I thought it was about the American youth breaking away from the World War II parent/ Vet’s values; their parents, whose values had developed as they had grown up in the American depression and reared with American values and now the new generation children were becoming the baby boomers. New Americans grew into PEACENICKS (that did not want war or go to Vietnam).
The play for me was great. I loved the music and the generation’s attachment to change. The night I was there for the show as the play ended there is a scene where the cast members disrobed, -New York had strict laws on nudity, and HAIR was able to have a totally nude cast. As the show ended and the music was blaring, sirens and police whistles were overpowering the ambiance. The police man was shouting and saying “you’re all going to jail for disturbing the peace! The audience was aghast. One man in front of me said, oh no I cannot go to jail, I’ll be fired & my wife will divorce me. It turned out that the cast donned police clothes and created this scene. It was a lot hooting and hollering. It was absolute bedlam as the curtains closed and we left the theater.
The team that took me out was the creative team. Elio, Lucci, the big boss Bruno. When we moved over to GARDNER Advertising the new account guy was George Nigro, a lovable gopher & who became a good friend also.
Understanding of wine and food. Whereas my boss Ralph Carreño was a Francophile and never left the Aquitania wine The camaraderie brought out a great expansion for me to grow and increase my borders (Bordeaux). As far as Bruno and Lucci were concerned Italian culture was superior to the French culture. And they gave me a different perspective as our corporate group was very French oriented.
The wonderful story was the development of French cooking. The Italian influence started when Catherine di Medici of Florence, married Henri II king of France When she arrived in France she wrote her family that the French food need improvement. The di Medici house chefs were sent to teach the French royal kitchen how to cook to please Catherine. She is credited with introducing Spinach into the cuisine, which received the name “Florentine.” I found my French colleagues reluctant to admit this but they did accept it, C’est la vie.
Lucci and Elio befriended me as soon as we joined forces with GARDNER. Lucci wanted to teach me Spanish and Italian; Culture: food and wine, and ignore what Ralph, boss, was telling me about the French; wine, food and culture.
Bruno Brugnatelli was a top creative executive and had befriended Lucci and when I was meeting the Agency in NEW YORK he would join us for lunch. Our lunch eatery was a place called NICK AND GUIDO’S on 8th Avenue. The epicurean selection which was Lucci most favorite dish was linguine, pesto alla Genovese, veal paillard (alla griglia) and escarole tossed in garlic and olive oil. Here he would order the wines which were a Pomino white from Fresco Baldi (with the pasta) and a red from Chianti (for the veal) also from Fresco Baldi from Castello di Nipozzano. (His favorite was a Chianti Riserva Ducale gold label from Ruffino– to him it rivaled good Bordeaux.) He would always end our lunches with a “Sambucca con la mosca” and an Italian espresso coffee. Since we had to go back to work, we minded our wine consumption
Elio Gonzalez had been with the original agency (K&E) and moved over to the new agency. (Gardner) He was bilingual had a tremendous affect on the creative efforts; print media campaigns. Elio had taken our auto washing machine ads and put them into Latin American focus; our products were considered luxury items. He was bilingual had a tremendous affect on the print media campaigns. We were no longer focused on wringer washers but selling automatic washer with electronic cycles; most traditional houses had maids and we had to convince the woman of the house that this technology was simple and not complicated and the maid could do it. “If you are nine years old you can operate this automatic washer.” This was a very successful program Our Spanish speaking distributors in Latin America loved it. Puerto Rico was our largest International consumer of our washing machine products
When the advertising agency had finished the print ad formats, we created TV spots and 30/60 second spots for the cinemas. The agency found an audio visual crew and we went to San Juan, Puerto Rico to film Refrigerator and Air Conditioner ads. Bruno headed up the creative crew and Elio and Lucci were there. They found actors in the Casinos and we finished up in 5 working days.
Giuseppe Lucci was a super creative commercial artist. By time I met him he had been recognized as designing the tail of ALITALIA. I found out that he had 5 permanent works in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was a bon vivant & was happy with a dollar or $1,000. A story of him is that as a young artist in Rome he had an affair and got a girl pregnant and was banned from working as commercial artist in Italy, so he moved to Madrid. He spoke perfect Castilian, and he loved the Spanish culture - the bull fights, red fine, the Spanish guitar, Spanish Rioja, & Fino Xerez, His character was the epitome of a Don Juan Tenorio. When I met him in New York he lived with two girls at different locations at the same time – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with one and the others days with the other. He was a lovable, rascal; I actually observed women pick him up –target him and seduce him. I learned that there was a saying in New York, “your place or mine, and the other said if you re going to argue about it, Forget about it!”
The story was that after Madrid he went to La Habana, Cuba. He redesigned the postal stamps for the Cuban government --for the Castro’s regime. When wanting to display them at a New York art fair, the Cuban government said he was not allowed to go or.
leave Cuba, so he had a love affair with one of the Cuban leader’s wives & she wrangled an exit visa for him and he left Cuba and went to New York where contacted Bruno Brugnatelli who joined his US mentor
Lucci’s Food and Wine knowledge and teachings for me in New York included Spanish food and Argentinean food. We would go down and explore Greenwich Village. The Argentine parillada had beef loin and steaks with chorizo and morcillas (Spanish blood sausage) He found the boit “Rincon the España.” It was a BYOB place and Lucci found a wine shop that had the wines he liked. He bought a Rioja reserva Marques the Riscal to have with dinner; the Rincon prepared excellent gambas al Ajillo and Arroz with saffron which were fabulous... This included a tapas menu and we had Jamon Serrano, Manchego cheese and Spanish chorizos which Lucci had brought a Dry Sherry-- Tio Pepe. We would usually end up the night by going over to Ferrara’s to have cannolis and espresso.
The creative team did not get involved with media as that was George Nigro’s forte. So when we had meals with the big publishers and TV companies; we went into the world print & audio visual world providers. My biggest thrill was going into the ABC building on 6th Ave (or Ave of the Americas). For me discussions and meals in their corporate dining rooms were very special. I had the same experience with TIME: for the English/ international and en Español editions. We met and ate with the president of the international group who was fascinating. George also introduced me into the New York steak world, so I could match my beginning wine knowledge with the best steaks in the world. We were at the many of the best, but the one that sticks out was SMITH AND WOLLINSKY’S because George let me order a Cote d’Or Red Burgundy and their list had a Morey-St Denis that was reasonable. It was like heaven to me I really liked the Burgundian savoir over other red wine.
My menu “likes” really opened up with my New York/advertising experience. I adapted my tastes to include Basil. I was entranced by the anise taste of this herb. I wondered why I had not crossed paths before. I found out the Spanish name for that was Albahaca. It was it was a Mediterranean taste I concluded. The different shapes of pasta intrigued me. Veal dishes became my favorite meat dishes. Wine development by passed the French Bordeaux and Red Burgundy struggle. I was introduced into Gattinara, Barolo, and Barbera.
When it came time to introduce the new advertising program my mentor Ralph Carreño arranged with the sales department a visit to key distributor markets. Contacts were arranged through the regional sales managers and directors. The Caribbean region was based in Puerto Rico and managed by Curt Klus. I knew that name from my past but could not place it until I went to San Juan. He, too, was Thunderbird educated and had worked for Whirlpool in the Bahamas, Spain, Switzerland and Puerto Rico. When we met we recognized that we grew up in Mexico City at the American high school in Mexico City; Curt was older than I and was my sister age and they had been class mates. We were in Boy Scouts and had gone to the same Union Church, so we enjoyed catching up during my first visit. Having shared Mexico together we remembered our Mexican experiences.
The Advertising agency had its agreements off shore, so the mission was to get to know all participants. Our Puerto Rican distributor had the largest sales volume in the Americas. So we arranged a visit to meet the local advertising agencies. There were lots of items to discuss – Adv.Co-op budgets, ad formats etc. I met the distributor general manager who was a real fine man, a Spaniard from Galicia – a Gallego: Max Dominguez. For me it was learning how Spanish America works and it added to my understanding of how Spanish / Puerto Rican modes of operating are. I relied on Curt to guide me to understand the differences in cultures and language. I had to learn a simple thing as words and definitions can have several local meanings one event was when - I was being dropped and the Advertising Agency agent said to me “nos veremos Ahorita.” To me that meant I will see you soon so I went up to change for the next meeting and came back down stairs to the lobby. I waited and waited. So rather than panic that I screwed up I just sat in the lobby. Three hours later Harold, the Ad man comes back, and I asked what happened? He understood the faux pas and he explained, after he laughed he said it was a misunderstanding. In Puerto Rico “Ahorita” means later. I learned in life do not find the similarities but look for the differences.
One of my favorite stories about Spanish words was when an executive from Mexico, not well traveled, visited San Juan for the first time and on his first travel rest day, a Sunday, he went out to explore the area near Condado Beach. He saw several food kiosks serving breakfast and decided he could savor the local fare. The menu was on a chalk board hanging up on the wall. He saw what he liked and ordered. From what he saw and understood in his mind; he ordered “3 tortillas and 2 Fried eggs”. The server said that the tortillas came in three offerings, chorizo, cheese and ham and he said he would take one of each. Of course he spoke Spanish so she did not clarify what was involved. The order was delivered and the visitor almost fell off his stool. There were three omelets; one with Chorizo, one with cheese and one with ham. And there was a plate of two fried eggs. He asked why an omelet and was told that the traditional name in Spain (even before the Conquest of America was that a tortilla) in Spain a tortilla is an omelet. Tortilla in Mexico came from a corn Masa cooked on a griddle, oh he said. The name for a Mexican tortilla happened when the Spanish conquered Mexico.
Klus introduced me to Spanish culture and cooking. One night he ordered a Sopa de Ajillo (garlic soup) it was incredibly good. The Garlic aroma stayed with m for days, but savoring that soup with wine and Spanish bread was one of my highlights in Spanish Gastronomy. I really got stuck on Gambas al Ajillo too. It was prepared and served in a ceramic dish, whole shrimp olive oil, with macerated garlic teeth and red chilli flakes. And served with pan de agua (Spanish bread).These became part of my Spanish repertoire.
I was able to travel with Doug Greene too. He was the regional manager for Central America and South America. He was an outgoing extrovert. He learned Spanish in Los Angeles. He was a MENSA and had graduated from Stanford. After college he had served in Army intelligence and had been involved with desegregating the U. of Mississippi – James Meredith and also was on the detail to desegregate U of Alabama when George Wallace defied national decrees. Doug had gone to Thunderbird too. As we got to know each other, he told me of his love for certain Mexican mariachi music: “Llego Borracho el Borracho” – by Jose Alfredo Jimenez. Doug told me that a Horace Whittlesey had taught him that song at TBird. “Knock me over” I said, Horace was a pal of mine in Mexico City when I was growing up and we did many things together. Horace’s twin brother, Jimmy, had gone to TBird at the same time too. We had been in Boy Scouts, and we had played Little League and PONY League baseball
We traveled to Trinidad and Panama to contact our distributors and discuss advertising placements. This was a whole new world for me. Panamanian history and its link to the USA; the distributor families were the Halman’s and the de Lima’s. They were Sephardic Jewish families that had left Spain in 1492 and had gone to Holland and then to the New World through Curacao. As a history major I was intrigued with their history. In Trinidad I met the Kirpalani family who were our distributor in Trinidad. This Indian Family that that opened up a retail store chain had come over when the English needed help to expand the Sugar explosion in the Americas. The original development of the Spanish Main was Spanish but eventually other European powers came in. Trinidad became English as they broke up the Spanish Main. Doug liked the ethnic foods of the Caribbean and introduced me to Indian curry. I really fell in love with “the RAJ” cooking – new spices and flavors for me.
Greene took me into the realm of Indian cooking and we developed a mutual meal that we would share wherever we found and Indian menu. We would start out with a Mulligatawny Soup, Tandoori Shrimp, Saag Paneer (spinach with spices and Indian cheese) and Garlic Naan (with a kingfisher beer).
After two years I had a chance to go to France. We had developed a new ice maker for the US market. Our distributor in France was interested in having that product for France and Europe. Our Distributor was the PERNOD Company, the largest liquor company in Europe. PERNOD was interested in showing it at a food trade show, L’EQUIP HOTEL. This became one the most exciting moment in my life. For the first time in my life I was in communication and did not understand anything because I did not speak French. Paris was incredible place for me. Everything seemed to sparkle with magical rainbow colors and fine jewelry and beautiful people. Nothing had prepared me for this moment; movies, books magazines, photographs….
The commercial trip for me was fascinating. We had a booth at the American pavilion within the French Trade Show. We had a reception at the Georges V Hotel – which for me was straight out of a fine movie. Curt had arranged that journey included key mangers to evaluate the product and we wanted to know if we could launch the product in France and Europe.
A follow up visit took place 18 months later when we launched the product for international sales. For me it was the best way to meet our French partner and meet the key PERNOD executives.
Ralph my boss had told me a story that I have applied to the rest of my travels and experiences. He said Aloncito, I can send you to France for two weeks and you will return and be able to write a book. I can send you to France for two months and you will return and write a 10 page story of you visits. I can send you to France for two years and when you return you will not be able to write about your experience, because the more you know the vaguer France becomes.
When I look back now at that statement, I realize the truths that are there. Have been to France probably 50 times since that first trip, and have learned something new and different about France every time. Nothing is static, an ever evolving experience. J’aime beau coupe la France.
When we made this a marketing new product evaluation trip Curt the Sales manager brought Martin Mak the refrigeration engineer. The product we were showing was an ice making unit. So the three of took of this journey to France.
The Show went off well. I felt like Dorothy in OZ. We took the Metro system from downtown Paris to the Commercial trade show halls. Both Curt and Martin helped me with the translations and understanding Paris.
Of course the food was remarkable. We went out one night to the Mediterranee Sea food restaurant and had the best Sea Bass stuffed with Fennel. I was introduced to the Wine Sancerre from the Loire Valley. It hit my senses and taste buds perfectly. I was introduced to Steak Frites (not American, but Parisian) Curt and martin took me to the Tour Eiffel and introduced me to Armagnac- what a break from the American way.
Nom de plume is Don Merlot and he is Ron Alonzo. Ron lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. He spent his career in international sales and marketing covering key global markets. The first assignment was selling ice makers to a French company. He is a member of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin and Chaine des Rôtisseurs. He completed Wine Spectator varietal courses and has certifications. He is writing about his wine journey and comments on how he keeps the wine culture simple and basic. He believes in ‘to each his own or to each his own taste’. He feels strongly that ‘if everyone at the hippodrome bet on the same horse, there would not be horse races.' Wines are included in that thought.