Tag Archives: mexico city

In the Shadow of Disaster

24 Sep

The two places I have spent the most time outside of the mainland United States are the U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico City. Between Hurricane Irma and the earthquake that struck Mexico, it has been a dark past few weeks for two places with a special fondness in my heart. No one I know was hurt or has suffered damages they don’t have the means to repair, but it is jarring nonetheless, especially from a powerless distance.

I first went to the Virgin Islands as a nine-year-old, and as that was my first venture out of the Midwest, the islands always loomed large in the mind of a kid plagued with wanderlust. Most of my return journeys date to my college and grad school years, when I could enjoy a lot of sun and rum and enjoy some rare moments to completely unwind. The natural beauty was stunning, the colonial architecture of Charlotte Amalie had its charms, and thanks to the generosity of others, I could live like a king for a short while.

As the trips went on, I became more aware of the islands’ social reality. Aside from the beaches, the Virgin Islands are one of those forgotten relics of America’s colonial phase, perpetually broke an flailing about. When I went back there shortly after I finished my semester-long stint in Mexico as an undergrad, large parts of it struck me as more like Mexico than anything American. These people will live without power for several months as they struggle to clear brush from the precarious roads clinging to hillsides, and have heaps of junk to clear and little place to put it. My experiences in trail maintenance in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John assure me that the hillsides, stripped bare by Irma, will return to their past verdant selves in little time. Less safe are the towering flamboyant trees, the roadside barbecue stand in Cruz Bay, Duffy’s Love Shack, and the homes so many of the island’s poverty-stricken permanent residents, who won’t even have many tourists to sell to in the coming months. There will be much work to do.

Thanks to a cleaner flow of information from Mexico City’s diverse media environment, I’ve had a more intimate portrait of the damage in the city I called home for a semester during my junior year of college, and had visited twice before. Over the past week, I’ve spent some time every day reading up on accounts of the recovery efforts in Mexico City, or CDMX, as we seem to abbreviate it these days. Some of the pictures are especially striking: signs demanding silence as rescuers listen for signs of life beneath the rubble, Paseo de la Reforma converted into a pedestrian highway as the city comes to a halt, people of all classes consoling each other in the streets.

Earthquakes loom over CDMX, and a catastrophic 1985 quake still haunts those old enough to remember it. The university I attended had its previous campus demolished by an earlier tremor; while the new one was well-built and up in the mountains on solid ground, it was hard not to take stock of the evacuation directions posted next to the door of every classroom. (If you’re stuck in a building, I learned, the safest place to be is standing in the door frame.) Nothing major hit during my time there, but I did feel a slight tremor one day, a low-scale quake accentuated by the fact that I was walking across a less-than-stable pedestrian bridge at the time. The unstable soil just adds to that sense that CDMX is a city on the edge of every churning force in that nation, all of life and the risk of death all wrapped up in one manic burst of semi-ordered chaos.

Earthquakes are a particular risk in Mexico City since much of the center of the metropolis sits on the unstable bed of Lake Texcoco, which the Spaniards drained after their conquest of the Valley of Mexico. The building I lived in would have been a beachfront condo in Aztec days, barely on solid ground. Polanco, the ritzy district I’d wander over to on lazy weekend afternoons, was on the lakebed, but on somewhat more stable ground than the city center and built to a high enough code that it suffered little damage. Less fortunate was La Condesa, the hip district of nightlife and young people where a number of my fellow students from abroad made their temporary homes. Here, numerous apartments toppled, as they did in neighboring Roma Norte. The Parque España, once home to late-night dalliances amid the bushes, was reborn as a temporary aid station. And no collapse gripped national attention quite like the damage to the Enrique Rébsamen school, where at least 20 bodies have been pulled from the rubble.

We are still learning the scope of the damage further south, where towns tucked away in the mountains of Morelos, Puebla, the State of Mexico, Oaxaca, and Guerrerro live in a different world from the well-connected capital. Some of these towns to the south suffered damage in a separate quake just a week and a half earlier, and the long, slow process of digging them out may take much longer. A family friend in Cuernavaca, over a mountain range to the south of Mexico City, sent a message detailing his family’s nonstop efforts to help those they can, bringing meals to the newly homeless and collecting goods for an eventual journey using his larger vehicle out to the outlying villages in need of help.

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Youthful heroism, as captured by a family friend in Cuernavaca. Photo credit: Gerardo Debbink.

The rescue and recovery efforts bring our some of the most heartening displays of human solidarity. Brigades of people (many of them young) poured out all their energy as volunteers, swiftly organizing into rescue operations and digging into collapsed buildings, even amid the terror of potential aftershocks. This quake had the eerie coincidence of hitting on the 32nd anniversary of the disastrous 1985 quake, and while the young people have no memory of that disaster, they seemed to know what to do. Even social media, which deserves so much of the negative press it’s received recently, has emerged as an essential method for coordinating a rapid response to the crisis. The unity and upsurge in Mexican national pride has been a sight to behold, even from afar.

The 85 quake was a seminal moment in Mexican history, not only for the disaster it brought but also as the catalyst for the formation of a genuine civil society. People recognized the rottenness of their government, responded immediately to create some good, and the energy that emerged from that outburst of civic activity played no small part in spurring along Mexico’s democratization in the 1990s. Now, 32 years later, that dream has soured: the opposition parties have lost their sheen, and the longtime ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is nearing the end of a return turn to power that was just as corrupt and sad as in its late authoritarian days. In an Economista column today, Rubén Aguilar Valenzuela, the ex-Jesuit/leftist revolutionary/spokesman for a conservative president from whom I took a class in Mexico, looked at the upsurge with hope: perhaps a new generation will now find the power to take control of its own destiny.

“Why does this only happen in these circumstances, and not in others?” Aguilar asks of the outpouring of civic unity and genuine heroism. “What needs to happen for us to express this capacity in everyday life?” Questions worth asking anywhere, whether in Mexico or in the hurricane-ravaged southern United States, or even in a corner of Minnesota where we have little capacity to comprehend the destructive power that both nature and humanity have the power to inflict. In a better world, it wouldn’t take a crisis to spur people to recognize the immediacy of community, but we live in the world we have. With terror and sadness or just plain anomie looming in so many lives, the least we can do is take these moments and use them to remind ourselves of the goodness that can also exist within the human spirit. Hope can yet spring from the ruins.

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Mexico City, Revisited: Exploring the Giant

9 Aug

My last post tells the clichéd study abroad story: fun host family, mediocre foreign university, basic navigation of a different culture. I would like to think that my time in Mexico, however, goes beyond the most basic of study abroad tropes, and it owes that difference to the city I lived in. Mexico City is so gigantic that no one can dream of making their way through it in four months, though I managed to visit practically all of them on the day a pair of old high school Spanish teachers swung through the city on a visit. No East grad’s journey through Mexico is complete without a day on the canals of Xochimilco with Mrs. Bergum and Mrs. Melchert.

My university, the Ibero, gave its exchange students an easy way in via a Friday “class” that took us to sites around the city. The first trip with tour group took us straight into the city center, where a kindly but long-winded gringa used a bevy of props to lead us through some of the city’s more famous attractions. She knew her stuff, and we followed her across the great plaza known as the Zócalo—every Mexican city has one—and into the Metropolitan Cathedral and finally to the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the centerpiece of the old Aztec capital, rediscovered only during excavations by the national electrical company in the 1970s. But as we meandered through the site museum and the guide droned on and no promise of lunch came forth, a friend and I bailed. With a few quick steps out a side door, we left behind the self-conscious curation of Mexican history and entered the Mexico of today, a cobblestone street lined by small shops and teeming with the seamless ballet of urban life, as the shoppers stop and start and flow along down the avenue. We disappeared into a taquería, came out with some streetside delicacies, and, two days later, came down with diarrhea.

Leaving aside long nights on the toilet, the journey down the side street kicked off my many unguided wanderings of the city, and the Zócalo was a natural place to revisit. The Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, the center of the great imperial city that rose to glory under the Aztecs and became the seat of Spanish power in the northern hemisphere. At its center, a massive Mexican flag, the eagle on the cactus lilting in the breeze. The government, the church, and those Aztec ruins all spectate from the sides, but this is a living plaza, always the center of the action. Often a protest, sometimes a concert or a party, though never more novel than during my final visit in early December: a skating rink! This Minnesota boy could have watched for hours in delight. The rink featured at least a hundred uniformed attendants, all there to help out the poor Mexicans as they shuffled about the rink, clinging to the walls in desperation. Further along the intrepid city government had devised a mini snowman-building station, and an artificial sledding hill made an appearance as well.

Mexicans on Ice!

Mexicans on Ice!

The rink was one of the more lavish flourishes of mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s urban vision. Ever since it gained home rule in 1997, the Federal District has stayed firmly in the hands of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a left-leaning party that has been decimated in the rest of the country thanks to the egotistical handiwork of Ebrard’s predecessor to the top spot in the Federal District, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. To be fair, López Obrador’s administration helped push Mexico City’s urbanism toward the vanguard, and under PRD rule, the city has had a renaissance of cultural life and chic vigor. A large urban elite allows for a center-left party to flourish, and even if it’s not on the cutting edge of the war on poverty, it runs a fairly clean and efficient ship, which is no small miracle south of the border. But Ebrard lost out to the more ruthless López Obrador in the 2012 succession battle, and the PRD split into two, its moderate core left only in Mexico City. The result: a city whose governing vision has more in line with New York or San Francisco than it does with the villages just beyond the Valley of Mexico.

If the Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, then the Alameda, some six blocks to the west, is its soul. Or so I thought when I first laid eyes on the great Diego Rivera mural back when I was in high school, the one that showed the whole of Mexican history promenading down its leafy walks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. On one of my first Sundays in Mexico City I walked from my place in Polanco up Paseo de la Reforma to the mural. I sat before it for a while before venturing into the square itself. The Alameda of 2010 had no great politicians or artists striding up its walks, but there was a complete cross-section of the country: the wealthy on parade, young lovers in the bushes, beggars, the inescapable rows of vendors, protesting leftists, break-dancers, and every possible shade in between. And on a bench in the middle of it all, a dreamy American kid, enmeshed in that urban fabric and in love with it.

A dreamy Sunday.

A dreamy Sunday.

The rest of the center city has chaotic but ordered streets, and is well-serviced by the packed but slick, highly subsidized, rubber-tired subway system. The urban grid conforms to the Spanish colonial Laws of the Indies, with churches and government centers grouped around plazas of varying importance. There’s a bike share system, a number of pedestrian streets, and little monuments or plaques at every turn. The architecture impresses, from a gilded post office to the Casa de los Azulejos, the original home of the Sanborns owls that now roost about the city on the department store’s logo; from the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts to the iconic Torre Latinoamericana, long the city’s tallest building. To the North is Plaza Garibaldi, perfect for one’s mariachi rental needs, and unrepentant debauchery once the sun goes down.

Paseo de la Reforma is the artery that feeds the body of the beast, a grand avenue that belongs on a short list with the Champs-Elysees, the Rajpath, Broadway, and Las Ramblas. Every major intersection brings a traffic circle and a monument, the statues ranging from Columbus to Aztec emperors to Roman goddesses to the city’s most famous icon, the Angel of Independence. It’s wide enough to handle hordes of both cars and pedestrians, and on Sunday, the whole thing shuts down for bicycles. The neighborhoods along it to the west of the center are the trendy and artsy core: Roma Norte, the gay-friendly Zona Rosa (under Ebrard, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009), and La Condesa, the D.F.’s answer to Williamsburg. The streets in each neighborhood have themes, with national heroes and dates in the city center, European cities in Roma, and Mexican states in La Condesa. La Condesa is at once the most happening and perhaps the least Mexican place in the city, a cosmopolitan neighborhood filled with fusion restaurants and clubs for travelers from afar. It was a popular home for the European students at the Ibero, and I spent many nights in its apartments and parks, dining or heading for the Pata Negra, the club where all twenty-somethings’ paths seem to cross while in Mexico.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

West of La Condesa sprawls Chapultepec Park, a giant green space that makes Central Park look quaint. It hosts many of the city’s great museums and monuments, from modern art to anthropology to Chapultepec Castle atop the hill. Below Chapultepec is the monument to the Niños Heroes, six boys who wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves from the ramparts rather than risk capture when the American army sacked the palace in the 1840s. Los Pinos, home to the Mexican president, is here as well, but so are the unavoidable vendors, brackish lakes, and price-gouging toilets. There is no such thing as a free leak in Mexico.

North of Chapultepec and Reforma, beyond the Parque Líbano, lies my old haunting grounds. Polanco is densely urban, filled with apartment towers and shopping streets, though it’s statelier than La Condesa, and the streets are so robed in trees that it seems sheltered from the oppressive crowds downtown. The streets here, all named for great philosophers or writers, make one want to stroll to a café and discuss some great work with other learned people. I meandered its placid streets whenever I needed to get out of the apartment and breathe, stopping for an ice cream or touring the Tianguis market on Fridays, perhaps flagging down the tamale bicycle. At its heart is the Parque Lincoln, a quaint monument to the American president, who gazes across the street at Martin Luther King. A few blocks north is Presidente Masaryk, Mexico’s swankiest shopping street; a few blocks south, the Campos Elíseos: Champs-Elysees, Elysian Fields, one of those streets that just basks in presumption, playing host to embassies and luxury hotels.

Street corner in Polanco.

Street corner in Polanco.

Further up the hill the men of letters give way to mountains, and the lanes loop around walls that guard the estates of Lomas de Chapultepec. I myself lived right on the line between Lomas and Polanco, on Monte Elbruz, a short wedge between two highways that still managed to fill the obligatory quota of 7-Elevens and Starbucks on a Mexico City block. My tower overlooked the Periférico, the ring highway that loops about the center of the city. At night I’d gaze down from the picture windows as the traffic weaved along the canyon below, threading its way through a small regiment of financial and corporate towers. The cool mountain air poured in through the slits beneath the windows, breathing life back into the giant’s lungs.

To the north, a pyramid, a church, and the State Department share a square. It’s the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, still better known as Tlatelolco. This was once a booming native market town, but now this name recalls a different memory, the moment that ripped the mask off the PRI regime. In 1968, the government gunned down scores of student protesters here. The regime ruled ably for forty years, overseeing an economic miracle that pulled Mexico to the brink of the first world. The 1968 Olympics were supposed to prove that greatness, and celebrate the “perfect dictatorship,” the system that seamlessly transferred power from one party boss to another, all the disparate factions of Mexican society united within one machine. Instead, they kicked off a national nightmare.

The next thirty years saw a slow but steady decline. The party couldn’t buy off the far left the way it could with other groups, and its patronage machine went from competence tinged by low-grade corruption to a downright bloated bureaucratic cesspool. The nation’s fortunes rose and fell with oil prices and presidential terms, and after a stolen election in 1988, the PRI was in crisis. It held on for another twelve years, enough time to oversee the lurching implementation of NAFTA and a privatization scheme that simply put state agencies into the hands of wealthy cronies rather than fostering genuine competition. To the credit of President Ernest Zedillo, he was willing to hand off power when the PAN won the 2000 election. The PRI returned to the presidency in 2012, but it is a shell of its former self, with the El Chapo jailbreak showing the bankruptcy of Enrique Peña Nieto’s pretty PR machine. The ghosts of Tlatelolco have come home to roost.

Further north Reforma splits in two, and the Calzada de Guadalupe and the Calzada de los Misterios lead the way up to the Basilica of Guadalupe. The current basilica is an unfortunate modernist thing, but all the beautiful old churches and chapels on the hill at Tepeyac are still there, and one can still mount it for a view of what a sixteenth century miracle has wrought. The shrine marks the site where the Virgin Mary revealed herself to Juan Diego, and the image seared on his tilma became the foundation of a nation. Mexico is a fractured place, filled with hundreds of indigenous tribes and regional cultures, and riven by stark mountain ranges. Many of its Catholics practice something that my Polish and Irish grandparents could never recognize as their own.

Juan Diego's tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

Juan Diego’s tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

But the Virgin courses through all Mexican life, and the flag hanging around the framed tilma drives the point home. While the southern Latin American countries killed their natives and the Andean and Central American ones still live in serious racial tension, Mexico approximates a blended nation. Reality still shows stark divides, but ever since its great revolution in the 1910s, Mexico’s official narrative has aspired to a blended mestizo identity, the raza cósmica that takes pride in both its indigenous roots and its Spanish inheritance. The PRI, for all its failures, built a country around that vision. It is no small victory, and while some racial divides endure, the rest of the world has something to learn from Mexico.

In the far north lie the ruins of Teotihuacan. The name means ‘City of the Gods’ in Nahuatl; the story claims that the Aztecs, still in their exodus phase and wandering the Valley, stumbled through its ruins and figured that no man could have built them. Sitting atop the Pyramid of the Sun today, it’s not hard to see why: its base rivals the Great Pyramid in Egypt. But if the Aztecs aspired to godlike status, they found it soon enough. They found that sign they’d awaited, the eagle perched on a cactus, and build a city to rival Teotihuacan in the center of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan stunned its Spanish conquerors with its size, beauty, and cleanliness, though that did nothing to stop them from slaughtering the lot of them and filing in the lake.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Today, the only living remnant of the Aztec imperial city is on the far south end, in Xochimilco. These canal-filled gardens sum up Mexico simply: a historical artifact kept alive by a raucous party on boats, with vendors paddling along the rented trajineras peddling food and flowers and booze. The traffic is just as hectic as the Mexico City streets, the oarsmen worryingly young, yet no amount of social scrutiny can dim the festive atmosphere. Here Mrs. Melchert showed incredible poise under pressure, earning applause from the Mexicans as she maintained her balance after our trajinera got rammed just as she was leaning out to take a picture.

The south side of Mexico City has more wealth than the north, and it is here that one finds the sprawling campus of the national university (UNAM), home to over 250,000 students; the giant Estadio Azteca is here as well. A little ways further north are two charmingly gentrified neighborhoods with cobbled houses and colorful streets and histories as well. San Ángel features a flower market, a Diego Rivera studio, and a monument to some Irish-American U.S. soldiers who turned on their new county and joined the Mexicans during the U.S. invasion. They all got slaughtered, but they still remember them in San Ángel, and I happened to visit on the day of a remembrance parade that included the Irish ambassador. Better known is Coyoacán, Mexico City’s Greenwich Village of yore, home to the famous blue Frida Kahlo house, where one can learn of all her eccentricities. Just up the street sits the Trotsky museum, where budding little Marxists shepherd the tourists about the bullet-riddled rooms of the exiled revolutionary’s final home. The bullets from Stalin’s henchmen all missed their marks, but later, an ice axe did not.

Not wanting to cause my host family or the university and undue ulcers, however small the real worry, I never ventured on foot into the far eastern reaches of Mexico City. As the city climbs up out of the valley, there in the shadow of the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, the city degenerates into row upon row of concrete housing. The largest slum in the world is here, beyond the D.F.’s border with the State of Mexico, and there’s a ring of badly built homes creeping its way up the mountains on all sides of the city. They’ve come here in search of something more than subsistence farming, the countryside drained of peasants by a growing economy. It is a zone of misery, though Mexico has nothing on the poorest of the poor; in fact, thanks to a growing economy, there are now more Mexicans heading back south across the border with the U.S. The American immigration crisis these days comes from Central Americans, who endure a hellish journey across Mexico to the border. This journey usually avoids the insanity of the capital and instead works its way up the Atlantic coast.

Mexico City faces many issues, perhaps the most worrying being its need to suck up water from all across the country, but otherwise, its problems have solutions. Yes, the mountains that ring the city hold in the smog, though it’s not as bad as it used to be; methods to clean up the sky lurch along. My lungs had no trouble adjusting to the Mexico City air during my workouts, as many past travelers had suffered. The soft former bed of Lake Texcoco, filled in by the Spaniards, causes some structural problems, and leaves the city vulnerable to earthquakes. But the government can and does take steps to stabilize these things, and it’s hard to foresee a catastrophe. The once-worrying taxi system has been cleaned up some. And the drug violence that plagues some parts of Mexico doesn’t really appear in the Federal District: it is just too large and sprawling, and the state has too big of a presence, for any of the cartels to move beyond the run-of-the-mill crime operations found in any big city. At the time I traveled, Washington D.C.’s murder rate was over three times the D.F.’s. I can’t recall a single crime, even minor theft, befalling one of my fellow foreign students—and we weren’t always the most self-aware or cautious bunch.

In a way, my complaints about the traffic how easily it is to lead a comfortable life: the most serious inconvenience of D.F. life is a mundane problem that’s not much better in, say, Los Angeles. Large parts of Mexico City are placid if not downright lovely, which both makes life easier and makes one understand why the Mexican upper classes aren’t terribly bothered with the slums to the east. Their productive, comfortable lives can coexist with the extreme poverty around the city. Seen from the ground, the contradictions that form this city are easier to understand, its vast scale easily gathering it all in. No city did more to drive my fascination with the systems of urban life, and its allure will long endure, no doubt pulling me back before long. For good or ill, Mexico City is without equal.

Next time: Provincial towns and cities of Mexico.

Mexico City, Revisited: The Road to the Ibero

5 Aug

Five years ago today, I arrived in Mexico City for the start of a four-month sojourn south of the border. I was twenty years old, both open to the world and anxious about stepping out of line; a Georgetown international affairs student with strong convictions who was nonetheless feeling more than a little adrift in his studies. And so I headed south for a semester abroad, on a quest for meaning in one of the world’s most difficult cities to comprehend.

I landed in Mexico City in a daze that afternoon, frustrated by wrong immigration forms before a search through the throngs behind the gate for a sign with my name on it. This was my third time in the Valley of Mexico, though the first two visits had been mere snippets to tease me, invite me back for more. This time I’d spend a full semester in the belly of the beast, and put my presumptions of cultural competence and world-wise traveling to the test.

I arrived with a backpack of personal effects and two suitcases filled with a wardrobe heavy on sports apparel that simply screamed “American”—though when one is over six feet tall and white as snow, there’s no disguising it anyway. (For the most part, that is; a handful of people, furnished only with my name, assumed I was German.) This unabashed embrace of my homeland seemed to unsettle my eternally deferential roommate, another American who, in the rare moments we actually talked, sought the experience of an ideal Mexico.

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Gazing wistfully out my apartment window…

Anti-American attitudes in Mexico, in my experience, were limited to a theoretical corner of the academy. I never suffered anything more than a light ribbing as a guero, and I couldn’t count the number of times a Yankees cap struck up a baseball conversation. There’s no purity in the post-NAFTA world, and yes, something may be lost in the mix. But the whole experience seemed to reinforce a couple of Octavio Paz aphorisms: first, that local culture will always divide us, even in a globalized era; and second, that the visitor ought to integrate, not assimilate. We must settle for dialogue, playing off one another’s quirks and learning to make do. There is no eternal essence of what Mexico is; it’s a living history, always in motion, evolving into some new blend of the stories its people create. I have no Mexican blood in me, but Latin America is an inescapable part of my family history, both for my father and now for me. This trip sought to cement that curious root, and blend it in with all of my other histories into something that aspired to coherence.

*          *          *

I wasn’t without guides: I lived with a two host parents in a cozy ninth floor flat they shared with their adult daughter; an older son lived nearby, and swung by nearly every day. They were veterans of hosting foreign students, there to both provide sanctuary from the insanity and turn us loose to explore as much as we could. I also had the silent roommate, whose aloofness was one of the disappointments to the program. I recognized more of myself in him than I cared to admit, but my exuberant push outward had no place in his Mexican journey. What could have been a brotherhood stayed stagnant; though they hid it well, the perplexed host parents worried over his quirks, wondering what they could do to draw him out.

For my part, I had little trouble sliding in with the Meléndez family. The small-world coincidences made it easy: a good family friend of theirs had married a man from Kewaskum, Wisconsin, not far from where my father grew up. They’d gone to visit at some point, and a Green Bay Packers bumper sticker adorned the doorway into my bathroom. (Another cultural blend: the family loved American football, and the children would often bet on games. The daughter, Gina, always won.) Not only that, Gina had spent some time in Lombard, Illinois, where my mother’s family lived for many years. Her knowledge of English was especially handy on one of my first days in Mexico, when the shower drain clogged up and my normally reliable Spanish degenerated into a lot of frantic gestures and repeated cries of “ducha!”

My host father, Gonzalo, was a retired army dentist. He had the patient, relaxed air and easy smile of a man who’d found his home in the world, and always toyed with his wife and giggled over the world’s absurdities. His jefa, Lupita, cooked up a storm and doted as all host mothers must, doing her best to put some meat on my bones. I never got the full story, but it seemed they came from some money, once inhabiting a house near that of billionaire Carlos Slim before they downsized to the well-heeled flat. The children were both graduates of the Universidad Iberoamericana, my study abroad destination, with Gonzalo Junior now working in IT—free support for the cranky old laptop I had at the time—while Gina developed powdered food products.  It was an easy family to join. In the evenings we’d relax with telenovelas or a football (or fútbol) game, though every now and then they’d invite over some friends for rousing games of dominoes. We’d sip away at our tequilas and have a grand old time, hearing all the gossip there was to hear.

Gonzalo, Gonzalo, and Lupita

Gonzalo, Gonzalo, and Lupita

Tequila gets a bad rap in the U.S. thanks to the tastes of drunk college kids, but the real stuff is a delicacy, unbesmirched by the additives that produce the famous tequila hangover. Proper tequila comes from blue agave in Jalisco; anything other liquor from an agave falls under the blanket term mezcal. Mezcal often takes the form of Mexican moonshine—hence the famous worm, used to mop up its impurities—but true mezcal is a nectar of the gods. Only recently had it really found its way north out of the mountains of Oaxaca and into Mexico City, but the rich smokiness and the delightful lack of headaches made it one of my finest discoveries.

*          *          *

I could have used a bit of that mezcal before the daily bus commute, but by the end they proved an excellent education in willpower. Indeed, there was no greater test of my readiness for Mexico than my daily commute from my apartment to my university on the western fringe of the city. Morning rush hour on Paseo de la Reforma is a daily exercise in gymnastics and human contortion: just how many people can we stuff into this bus? One or two might go by my stop before I’d finally find one with space to clamber aboard. I’d wedge myself in through the back door of the bus, pausing only to make sure that all of my appendages made it also. By the end I’d become a ruthless transit rider, knifing my way in and towering a head above all the Mexicans, making sure I had some space to breathe in the rush hour fumes.

My daily chariot was one of the finer specimens on the Mexico City streets, a lurid orange and green machine that had seats for about twenty and standing room for a good seventy, depending how well we all got in touch with our inner sardine. The bus rides never were very chatty, though it was always a serendipitous day when I got on a bus with the guitar player. There were millions of people in the city, but it was always the same damn guy. His songs were uplifting, poppy dreck that I’d have hated if they were in English, but they unfailingly brightened my mornings. His presence was well-worth the eventual generous tip.

A surprisingly tame Anillo Periférico near my apartment.

A surprisingly tame Anillo Periférico near my apartment.

Two days a week I had a class that began at seven o’clock. Never a morning person, these rides were a daily struggle, but they beat the traffic, and there were small delights here, too: as I got off the bus along the highway in Santa Fe, high above the smog and out on the outskirts, the stars were far brighter than they are in the environs of any American city. I would have stopped to admire them, if doing so hadn’t invited death during the crossing of the highway that separated the bus stop from the gates of the Universidad Iberoamericana.

*          *          *

The early morning bus trips were worth it for the man who held court for two hours in a chilly Ibero classroom. Rubén Aguilar Valenzuela’s modest résumé boasted stints as a Jesuit priest, a leftist revolutionary in El Salvador, and the chief spokesman for Vicente Fox, the right-leaning Mexican president whose 2000 election broke 70 years of rule by the “perfect dictatorship” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Fox was a dynamic campaigner but a bumbling President, and Aguilar is now immortalized in Mexicans’ minds for his oft-repeated phrase, “Lo que el presidente quiso decir” (what the President really meant to say…). But he stuck it out, even though he shared neither his President’s ideology nor his foot-in-mouth disease, because he believed in the democratic transition, and its success transcended such petty wars. He believed what he preached, and devoted his mornings to lecturing college kids with a fairly radical message: the answer to Mexico’s plight came not from expecting the free market to rule all nor belief in the power of the government to rectify things, but in a stronger civil society.

Aguilar found a curious home in the National Action Party (PAN), and no doubt it cost him some allies. The right-leaning party might not have matched his social agenda, but in the early 2000s its free market ideology helped it avoid the machine politics that plagued its rivals, the PRI and the leftist PRD. Its image was about as pure as possible in Mexican politics. By 2010, however, things had begun to sour. President Felipe Calderón’s militarized drug war drew Aguilar’s ire; he called the army’s involvement a farce, and pushed for legalized drugs. Instead, Calderón doubled down, and his party crumbled. Frustrated by the failure of the right, a fractured left, and a tide of PRI revanchism, Aguilar settled for lecturing to the next generation of his nation’s leaders, along with one sleepy American kid whom he’d quiz about Mexican baseball players in the MLB.

*          *          *

The Iberoamericana is a gated maze of long, airy brick buildings—puro ladrillo, in the words of Gonzalo Junior—and a replacement campus thrown up after the 1986 earthquake demolished the old campus location. It has a longstanding relationship with Georgetown, though American students were few in number; just two of us formed the entire Hoya contingent. The two of us were inseparable during that trip, and that friendship endures. Joining us in the exchange student melting pot were a boatload of French and Germans, a few Brits, and scattered Latin Americans, along with some Mexicans on loan from universities outside the Federal District. The head of the program was a Texas dame who used her spurs to shred Mexican bureaucracy at will, though she retired abruptly mid-semester, leaving a quietly efficient German in her place.

The Ibero owes its ties to Georgetown to its Jesuit identity, though I never saw a priest on campus, nor did I ever find the well-hidden chapel. No, the Ibero is a finishing school for the Mexican elite, a place where one goes to be seen. Most spent the entire day at school to avoid the traffic; groups spent much of their days sprawled out in chairs at one of the on-campus restaurants, these rare open, semi-public spaces free from vendors or the noise of urban life. Everyone sat about chatting and watching European soccer matches, taking slow lunches, perhaps venturing up to the gym to work on some muscles to show off for the ladies of the Ibero. Class start and end times were suggestions, though everyone got there in the end, and readings came not from books, but from copy machines in the bowels of the library.

The library was a highlight of the otherwise unremarkable Ibero campus, particularly for the novelty of two of the floors in its tower. These floors, you see, were designed principally for napping. After my morning class I’d pull two of the IKEA chair contraptions together and slump into oblivion, joining the herd of dozing students. In a daze a while later, I’d edge the curtain open a little and read something for class, or perhaps the New Yorker or its Mexican counterpart, Nexos. My Georgetown buddy and I probably drove the rest of the exchange crew nuts with our frequent lapses into intellectual digression, but we were never far from the center of the party, either. Oh, how we lived.

Ibero gate, with the library tower behind.

There was still some intellectual life at the Ibero, spurred along by the most talented of the students and professors. In addition to Rubén Aguilar, I enjoyed the presence Ivonne Acuña Murillo, a sociologist, who pushed us through a heap of theorists, some of whom still crop up in my writing. (“Order and progress!”) But there was an unfortunate trend, particularly among the graduates of UNAM, the monstrous national university, to resort to a clichéd, vulgar Marxism. (There was some delicious irony when one of them assigned us an Octavio Paz reading that trashed such people and failed to recognize himself in it.) They also just weren’t very good teachers, and were stuck at the Ibero trying to communicate their desire to save humanity to a bunch of bored rich kids. But oh, did one of them try, and ever so earnestly, flailing as the students tormented him and hauling me up to the front of the room to recount all of the U.S.’s transgressions in Latin America.

Another gem was the art professor, an American expatriate whose name now eludes me. I wasn’t in the class, but this delightful old crone had a fondness for Minnesota accents, and thus invited me to join on a few of their field trips. She’d wander along the gallery, cigarette dangling from her mouth as she dismissed some intricate work with a single droll adjective; any work by Diego Rivera would elicit a muttered “fat man” before moving on. But her knowledge was boundless, and at times it would pour forth on some obscure piece no one else would notice. She also had connections, and made sure all us Americans voted via a federal write-in ballot before inviting us to a penthouse party of expatriates on the evening of the 2010 elections. One of my more formative moments owes her an assist.

*          *          *

Trips home were inevitably even more congested than the rides up the mountain, and during the first two months tended to coincide with the daily storm brought on by the rainy season. This added to the fun, with torrents of water overwhelming the drains and making for precarious leaps in to the bus. The stop outside the Ibero was even more chaotic than my starting point in Polanco, with a steady stream of peseros lurching past, often with kids ordering us to board if we wanted to go to Tacubaya, as if the destination painted on the windshield wasn’t enough. More than once, a fellow exchange student coaxed me away from the stop to the neighboring bar, the inexplicably tagged The Big Yellow.

The constant traffic takes a toll on anyone, and harrowing incidents along the road were commonplace. A crash involving an orange truck scattered citrus all down Reforma, with stains visible for weeks afterward; another day, I witnessed the aftermath of an accident that probably ended the life of a roadside vendor. On one of the dark early mornings, the bus hit something very large; the driver got out, inspected, then kept us going on our way, nonplussed. During one rush hour the bus sideswiped a car, leading to a bickering match between the two drivers while traffic crawled on about us and half the passengers dismounted and hiked up the freeway to the next stop. It became all too clear why Mexicans with means all take weekends away from it all, and my family, with a place in superbly named Tequisquiapan, was no exception.

The smaller cities in Mexico’s colonial heartland can stand on their own as destinations, and proved fascinating cycles outward. This was especially true for someone who is both highly social and introverted, in need of both unbridled life and retreats into that other great Mexican theme, solitude. But make no mistake: they were only temporary respites. The aim of the trip was to sink as deeply as I could into the wonders, and the insanity, of Mexico City.

Next time: Touring the city.

Deep in the Heart of Mexico

16 Sep

Today is the 203rd anniversary of Mexican independence. Not a particularly significant milestone, but not far removed from the Bicentennial of the nation so aptly described by its former dictator, Porfirio Díaz: “so close to the United States, so far from God.” Over one long weekend in 2010, one American kid got to see the whole paradox of a nation summed up in one little road trip. This is the story of my Mexican Bicentennial.

The semester I spent in Mexico City wound up being four of the more important months in my young life, and I could easily turn this blog strictly into a string of reminiscences and have plenty of content to keep it going. I was enrolled in the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Catholic university on the west side of the city, safely perched in a glitzy new neighborhood up in the mountains, far above the bedlam below. I didn’t live on campus, though; instead, I was down along the dried-up lake floor in the heart of the Valley of Mexico, living with a superb host family and a kindly but rather mute roommate. Every day, I pushed myself in through the back doors of a green-and-orange bus and gave my four pesos to the person wedged in next to me; the fifty standing passengers between me and the driver would pass my fare forward, and five minutes later, someone would hand me an utterly useless ticket proving that my fare had made it to the driver. It was a fascinating, and rather heartening, insight into the human condition: it would have been absurdly easy to not pay a single bus fare while crammed onto those buses, yet every single person aboard would pass their fare forward and clutch their stupid little ticket when it finally made it back to them.

Even so, Mexico City is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a certain type of foreigner to be crazy enough to stay for four months amid that teeming mass of humanity. There were only six Americans in my program, and plenty of people back home expressed their worries about my chosen location, though telling them that Washington DC’s murder rate (at the time) was nearly quadruple that of Mexico City did get their attention. Indeed, reality suggested Americans have been conditioned to panic over Mexico by grisly news reports from across the border: Europeans still came to the Iberoamericana in droves, and I can’t remember a single story of even minor theft among the friends I met. The terror of drug-related violence is largely confined to a handful of border and Pacific coast states.

Still, Mexico City isn’t somewhere you go because it’s a default fun study abroad location; it’s somewhere you go because something pulls you there. And so I was thrown in with a group of people who, despite some very disparate backgrounds and personalities, shared a desire to be right in the middle of everything, and the wherewithal to be able to reflect on the meaning of the leap we’d taken. It was no surprise, then, that four of us (one fellow Georgetown Hoya, another American, an Australian, and myself) decided we were going to do the Mexican Bicentennial the only way it could be done.

We knew where we had to be for the Bicentenario, and planned a road trip accordingly. Our destination: Dolores Hidalgo, a city that has officially taken on the rather pretentious name of Dolores Hidalgo cuna de la independencia nacional (Dolores Hidalgo: the Cradle of National Independence; the “Hidalgo” is also an add-on to the city’s original name of Dolores.) It was in this city that, at dawn on September 16th of 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bell at the church to rally the first revolt against the Spanish Empire. The revolt fell flat, but inspired the independence movement, and has the distinction of being one of the few moments of popular rebellion in the Latin American independence movement. (Most other countries gained it amidst political intrigue and/or invasions following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.)

We set out from the university on Wednesday the 15th, and sailed our way up a Mexican interstate north out of Mexico City. As is my wont, I had an atlas open, noting every little town and crossroads we passed in the scrubby, mountainous country high in the central Mexican plateau. Before long we were shooting down a two-lane road toward Dolores Hidalgo, and a suddenly we passed a torch runner flanked by a bunch of slow-moving cars. An Independence Day torch relay, we assumed. How lucky that we’d chosen that route!

The novelty wore off the fourth time we passed one of these torch relays, which we now realized were not remotely official. Trailing behind each group of runners was a pickup truck with a whole bunch of people in the back, happily downing beers and getting an early start on the festivities. Oh, Mexico: what a delightful mix of tackiness and transcendence you are. We snapped up some pictures of the runners, and in time, a giant Mexican flag alongside the road greeted us to Dolores Hidalgo.

This being Mexico, our arrival was anything but smooth. First, we learned that the Mexican Army, on hand to provide a massive security presence lest any drug cartel grow ambitious, had shut down the entire center of the town. We eventually found our hostel, but there was nowhere to park, and, of course, the hostel had found some way to lose our reservations. They were apologetic, but there was only one open bed. We snapped up that one bed, and some hostel employee’s family member offered us parking at some spot on the outskirts of town. Two of our party went to park the car, and the other two of us, wondering vaguely if we’d ever see our friends again, set out in search of lunch. We found a lovely colonial-style hotel with a buffet right off the main Zócalo (plaza), which, to our chagrin, would later prove the culprit for a case of diarrhea.

Once the car was successfully stowed in some mysterious garage, the four of us spent the day wandering the city center, maneuvering our way through bored soldiers on buses and the obligatory army of vendors hawking every piece of Mexico swag imaginable. I snapped up a Mexican flag (later forgotten in a port-o-potty during the diarrhea outburst) and a silly Christmas ornament, both of which complemented my overpriced Mexican soccer jersey superbly. We struck up a conversation with a Mexican-American about our age, a kid who’d grown up in the States but was back in Mexico due to immigration limbo, and watched the less-than-stellar Guanajuato Orchestra. After that, we drifted back to the hostel, where the Mexicans were throwing a party as only Mexicans can. Given our lack of beds, our plan for the night was a simple one: don’t bother with sleep, and crash when beds open up in the morning. Traditionally, Mexicans celebrate Independence Day the night of the fifteenth, as Porfirio Diaz didn’t want to bother with getting up to lead the ceremonies at 7:00 AM, when Father Hidalgo had called his countrymen to arms. On this occasion, however, they decided to go back to the old way in Dolores. We’d have to be back in the Zócalo by 4:00 AM anyway if we wanted to watch the main event, so why bother?

Needless to say, much of the rest of the night was a blur. My vague memories involve dancing about the hostel rooftop-turned-bar, some German girl offering me scotch, a rap battle between our Australian and our new Mexican friend, catching some of the festivities from Mexico City on television, and a fireworks display over Dolores Hidalgo. One of our number got the diarrhea and retreated to our sole bed, but the rest of us made it through the night. We kept to our 4:00 departure time, staked out an excellent spot in the Zócalo, and awaited President Felipe Calderón’s arrival.

My diarrhea hit around six.

I made a few desperate trips to the 5-pesos-per-use port-o-potties, but couldn’t make it. I passed off my camera and retreated to the overbooked hostel, where I made the intimate acquaintance of a seatless rooftop toilet and then tried to rest on a couple of couch cushions lain across the concrete patio. I joined a herd dazed and/or passed-out guests lying on benches or under tables to escape the cool mountain air, desperately trying to block out the norteño music still blasting from the speakers at the bar.

One miserable hour later, five helicopters went screaming directly overhead, maybe twenty feet above the roof. They landed a block away, and in time I could hear President Calderón in the distance, giving the famed Grito de Dolores: “Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morelos! Viva Allende! Viva la independncia nacional! Viva México!” The bells on the cathedral peeled, and the crowd roared. In spite of my sickness and my sleepless delirium, I grinned in awe.

After a fitful morning of sleep we set out for San Miguel de Allende, a colonial beauty of a city popular among American expatriates. Once again, parking was a chore, but we found a quiet churchyard down a hill from the city center and spent an evening wandering the streets and admiring the architecture and the abnormally high concentration of attractive women. Dinner proved something of an ordeal, as we sat for nearly two hours awaiting our pizza as the tables around us were served; our waiter, who simply could not understand our frustration, patiently explained that we could not get a refund because our pizza came with salsa.

I took over the driving duties that night down the desolate road back to Dolores Hidalgo. The next morning it was barely recognizable, back to being a sleepy central Mexican town, all the revelers and vendors and soldiers long-gone. After a delicious meal, we were on the road for Guanajuato, winding through the mountains en route to the old silver mining city.

After dumping one of our number at the airport, we proceeded to spend the next four hours driving in a loop around downtown Guanajuato in search of parking. We soon learned every last detail of the city’s meandering underground tunnels, tight one-way colonial streets, and bustling cafés. Eventually we found a near-empty parking ramp that had been hiding just off the main drag, and, having seen the entire city center during our parking odyssey, were content to spend a leisurely evening dining and drinking wine at a restaurant on an open-air, second-story bridge over a street. After two straight days of madness, we could watch the revelry down below from a contemplative distance, laughing with delight as some of the same characters from that first night in Dolores went by. So many things had gone wrong for us in the past few days, I mused, and yet we were still having the time of our lives. Mexico in a nutshell.

Before heading home the next morning, we hit up the Guanajuato Mummy Museum (a bit overrated, but sufficiently gruesome, and worthwhile if only for the ridiculous souvenirs available at the end) and a preserved silver mine with several areas that had not been closed off to the public nearly well enough to keep out intrepid Australians. Then we got back on the Mexican freeway and drove back to Mexico City, through the remnants of Hurricane Karl and past a bevy of roadside stands, all of which specialized in strawberries and cream. (Economic diversification hasn’t quite caught on among Mexican vendors quite yet.) After that, it was back to the university, where our dear leftist professors would sigh and wonder what the point of all of that merriment was, there in a nation with rampant poverty and corruption and brutal violence brought about by the drug cartels. The promise of Father Hidalgo’s revolt, they said, had never come to fruition, and some of them thought it never would. We were celebrating a checkered past with mindless debauchery in the present, doomed to the same cycles of mistakes.

So much of my time in Mexico was devoted to that study abroad cliché of “broadening horizons,” and I really needed that push into the unknown. But, perhaps more importantly, it also cycled back, and made me look inwards, to ponder what is worth our time and love in such a vast and complex world. At the beginning of my trip, my writings were grandiose and political; a few days before I set out on the Bicentennial trip, I wrote a little reflection on my first 9/11 outside of the United States. In it, I reaffirmed my American identity, not out of any respect for traditions of the past or the delights of the present, but out of a commitment to its dream for the future. The American Dream. It was an understandable stance for a kid who’d spent his entire life trying to live it. By the time I got to the beach town Puerto Escondido in November of that year, my writing had drifted into meditations on love and place in the face of the absurdities of modernity.

It took me a while to understand what was going on—perhaps a year, I’d say—but in time, I learned Mexico’s greatest lesson for an ambitious college kid, both for himself and how he thought of his own country. My Mexican professors were missing something in their worldview, as was I, when I thought only of what the future might bring. Instead, we have to embrace that past, in all its messiness, and do what we can to make sense of it. That wave at the top of this blog is not on Lake Superior; it is rolling up out of the Pacific Ocean near Puerto Escondido. They are those waves that, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, bear us ceaselessly back to the past.

Mexico will always take me back to the past, whether that means those four months of madness or a deeper reflection on how Aztecs and Mayans and Spaniards came together to form a troubled yet vibrant nation. But it will also push me outward, and it’s important to remember that, as I settle into this city that represents my own past, and bury myself in the vagaries of local politics. It requires constant balance; a cycle, you might say, as I try to make sense of my dreams, my memories, and the immediacy of the here and now. Thanks to Mexico, that won’t ever be too difficult.