Friday - Mar 22, 2019

The Mexican bar exam – Isabel’s choice

by Adam Saytanides

MEXICO CITY – Mexico has to clean up corruption before the nation can develop its economy, confront organized crime, and staunch the flow of immigrants north. But this won’t happen overnight.

The practice of paying a mordida, or bribe, is just too deeply ingrained.

In Mexico, it seems to seep into every aspect of life.

Payoffs for special treatment or favors are not uncommon in any society – corruption scandals and quid pro quos abound in Washington, D.C., for example. But in different cultures, people draw their ethical lines differently.

In Mexico, it’s a fine line between a tip, or propina, which is offered voluntarily, and the mordida, which is a bribe paid out of a sense of coercion. So fine, in fact, that the line between a tip and a bribe can fold back upon itself.

My goddaughter Isabel and I faced this very dilemma recently in Chilpancingo, the Guerrero state capital. I made the trip from Mexico City to be there for her bar exam, or titulación. Isabel had asked me to help her prepare for the big day.

The preparations involved arranging fruit baskets and refreshments for the three professors who’d be administering the exam. But she also faced a dilemma, and wanted my advice: How much cash should she give them?

Isabel was super-stressed over the notion that she should pay 1,500 pesos (US $135) to each of the professors on the panel.

That’s a small fortune for a girl from a remote, indigenous mountain village. Where she comes from, you’d be lucky to find a job that pays eight or nine bucks a day. No one in her family of campesinos ever made it through high school, let alone gone to a university and become a lawyer.

Isabel was panicked over this last-minute expense.

How do you know that you have to pay your professors 1,500 pesos? I asked.

She got that number from a friend who’d passed her bar exam a few days earlier.

The friend said that one of the professors told her, straight up, that he charges 1,500 pesos for the service. This same professor was on Isabel’s panel, but he didn’t ask her for money.

Isabel had studied hard. But she couldn’t avoid this nagging feeling that passing the bar might depend on how much cash she forked over the day before the exam.

In Mexico, the bar exam is oral. At her university, each student chooses the three law professors who will administer the oral exam. The test is a rather subjective process. The bar candidate faces three lawyers seated at a long table — adorned with fresh fruit — and must answer a series of questions about the legal system. You pass or fail right there on the spot.

I asked Isabel if her friend was a good student.

“No, not really. I am much better prepared than she is,” Isabel replied.

Well, perhaps the professor knew this, and she had to pay him off in order to pass, I suggested.

“Don’t insult my career!” she protested. “We’re not paying them off. This is something we give for their time, as a symbol of our appreciation.

I told her it appeared that professors were looking for a mordida, not that appreciative students were offering their mentors a tip.

“Look, that’s just how things work here,” Isabel said with resignation. “What do you think I should do?”

She left me alone to contemplate the dilemma.

It’s a tricky one. You want to feel like you’ve earned your credentials.

But on the other hand, you don’t want to stiff a professor who may expect to be paid something, lest he fail you in revenge. Isabel’s whole life, not to mention her family’s social standing, hinged on the results of this exam.

It seemed too risky not to pay. Yet 1,500 pesos was an outrageous sum. Her first job as a lawyer could pay as little as 3,300 pesos a month, about $300. My gut feeling was she should give them something — enough that they’d have no reason to feel slighted, but as little as she could reasonably get away with.

When Isabel returned, I asked her what she felt was best. Her thinking was basically the same: pay them for insurance against failure, but not so much you feel like you’re buying the results.

She took three envelopes from her stack of schoolbooks and notes and set them on the bed. Each contained three 200-peso notes. She sealed the envelopes after carefully writing her name on the inside flap. Then we hopped into a minibus that took us from her barrio up on the hill into downtown Chilpancingo so she could pay off her professors and make her dreams come true.

(Adam Saytanides is a journalist and radio producer currently based in Mexico City. Reach him by e-mail at © 2007 END