In the Shadow of Disaster

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 and 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.

cuernavaca

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.

Mexico City, Revisited: Road Trips Beyond

As I’ve mentioned in the previous two posts in this series, Mexico City’s constant crowds will force most anyone with means to venture out from time to time. I toured many of the smaller cities in central Mexico during my four months there, usually on long weekend or over the holiday weekends for the Mexican bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, both of which occurred during my stint there. None of my journeys were quite the road trip in Y tu mama también, though they all had at least one memorable moment.

With two exceptions, they were also all by bus. That may sound terrifying, but the Mexican bus system between major cities is one of the country’s more impressive feats. It’s at least as comfortable as its American counterpart, and sometimes more so; on some buses, a few extra pesos will earn one in-flight snacks and warm towels. Buses feed out of four Mexico City bus stations in each of the cardinal directions, all easily accessible by Metro and well-located for swift escapes. These buses, at least, are on time, clean, and populated by pleasant travel mates. The only real annoyances are the dubbed bad American movies inevitably playing on the TVs, and a few realities of Mexican highway life beyond the bus companies’ control, from ugly wrecks that clog traffic to understaffed tollbooths to animals wandering into the road.

I wrote about my Mexican bicentennial journey to Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato some time ago, and it is hard to beat the sheer Mexican chaos of that long weekend. My only other trip to the north took me to Tequisquiapan, where my host family had a cozy vacation home in a gated community. Tequis was a lazy provincial town, though Day of the Dead festivities did drum up an anti-Halloween protest in its zócalo. The north is Mexico’s conservative heartland, and Gonzalo Junior bemoaned the incessant norteño music—Mexico’s answer to country—on the radio. On our full day there we ventured out early for breakfast in a sun-splashed village before a hike up the Peña de Bernal, a stone monolith, one of the largest of its kind. In the afternoon we made our way to a Mexican winery—not bad, for a nation new to the wine cultivation—and whiled away the evening with another game of cards.

The Peña de Bernal from the village below.

The Peña de Bernal from the village below.

Dreary Toluca rules the first valley to the west of Mexico City, though the majestic Nevado de Toluca with its year-round snows towers over the city and bestows some sense of grandeur upon the crowded plain. (One of my previous trips to Mexico took me up toward the Nevado and into the mountains beyond, though that’s a story for another time.) Some of Mexico City’s most extreme sprawl has been outward into this neighboring valley, though there are some pockets of solitude up in the pine forests that separate the beast from Toluca. One day the host family and some of their friends took my roommate and I up to the Desierto de los Leones National Park, the site of an old monastery, and then moved on for some horseback riding in the rain before a delicious meal in a little hilltop diner.

Further west, Michoacán is a state of great beauty, of rich indigenous heritage, and of serious conflict in the Mexican drug war, the only place in my travels where such qualms ever surfaced. The flavor of the month cartel at the time was La Familia Michoacana, not long after replaced by the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), both noted for their weirdly religious take on drug trafficking. They waver between rebellion and fractious alliances with the national cartels, building loyalty by pumping money into the small towns in the mountains of Michoacán. It was only in Mexico that I began to understand just how much geography—those towering hills and twisting mountains—can make it difficult for a state to assert any authority. La Familia grew bold during my time in Mexico, descended from the mountains, parked buses and trucks across the highways into the state capital of Morelia, and set them alight. Thankfully, my eclectic group from the university had no such obstacles.

Streets of Pátzcuaro.

Streets of Pátzcuaro.

The first stop in Michoacán was Pátzcuaro, a small city on a lake whose utopian origins I’ve discussed before. The Pátzcuaro of 2010 was no utopia, but it was a beautiful place, the wind whispering down its mountain lanes and cooling its plazas. We arrived late at night and wandered the silent streets in search of a hostel, finally stumbling upon one with a few concrete blocks disguised as beds. Woken by roosters the next day, we hiked up a mountain to survey the scene, then descended to the lake, where a boat ferried us out to the island of Janitzio. It’s a famous Day of the Dead destination covered in terraces and quaint homes, though on this weekend it was a poster child for indigenous poverty: there were only a handful of tourists on the island, yet it featured row after row of shops, all selling identical, tacky products, and no business on the way. In spite of it all there was beauty there, a sight best witnessed from the lookout in the upraised fist of a giant statue José María Morelos on the island’s peak.

None of the outlying cities I visited can quite match the scale of Morelia, whose entire city center is a colonial jewel. Our first day there became an endless walking tour of intricate buildings, but there was something worth seeing around just about every corner. We visited on a hopping weekend; an international film festival featuring a few big names was in town, as was a superb bread festival, with championship breads arranged in shapes of trains and eagles and Mexican flags. We split our time there between two hostels; the first was the Tequila Sunset, whose name tells you all you need to know about it, and the second was a far swankier establishment owned by a man who had just come back from a few years in Bloomington, Minnesota. Naturally, we bonded, and the evening of wine and cheese on the rooftop swiftly degenerated when he invited in all his friends.

Par for the course on the streets of Morelia.

Par for the course on the streets of Morelia.

One trip south of Mexico City was to a place I’d been before. My dad, a Spanish professor, has been running study abroad trips to Cuernavaca since the early 2000s, and I went down to visit for a time during one of the early years. It had been years since I’d last seen Gerardo, the Canadian expat who runs the program, but it was a seamless slide back into life in the City of Eternal Spring. My first night involved a dinner on the zócalo with Gerardo, who seemed to know everyone in the square and the nearby artisans’ market; after some shopping, I settled into his home on the outskirts for some quiet contemplation.

The next day, joined by Gerardo’s wife and his friend Álvaro the Marxist Economist, we bought some beer and went for a drive up into the mountains for lunch at a trout farm, where we mused about Mexican politics and joked about Rubén Aguilar and loved life beneath the pines. Back in Cuernavaca that evening I made the acquaintance of a young Canadian who knew Gerardo, and he took me on a novelty journey to a spa he often visited with his Mexican girlfriend (now wife). I sat in a temazcal, an Aztec sweat lodge filled with pungent herbs, and sweated away my troubles before a good, hard massage. After that we ventured down into the Cuernavaca club scene, though the pictures of that night have, alas, “mysteriously” disappeared. But there was no time to linger in that realm, as Gerardo took me to breakfast the next day with a woman from an outlying village whose life had nothing in common with the leisure of the past few days.

Trout farm in the mountains above Cuernavaca.

Trout farm in the mountains above Cuernavaca.

Somewhat less placid than contemplative Cuernavaca was an arranged trip to Taxco by the university for all the study abroad students. This was also not a first time visit, though this jaunt proved a bit different than a day trip with the parents when I was twelve. On the way down the bus stopped at the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, a large cave complex to the north of Taxco, and wandered through towering stalactites and stalagmites and other features I can’t possibly remember. Down its in depths was a spring pure enough that we could drink straight from it, the only water I’ve had that can rival the stuff that comes from Duluth taps.

Taxco is an old silver mining city, and one of the best-preserved colonial gems of Mexico. Even the major streets remain narrow cobblestone lanes, winding their way up the mountainside to which the city clings. Its centerpiece is the church of Santa Prisca, a stunning baroque icon on its zócalo with awfully translated English signs next to the Spanish ones. Thanks to a rainy season deluge, however, touring much of the city beyond the church and the silver markets proved a chore. We settled in a bar for a Mexican soccer humiliation at the hands of Ecuador, then skirted the raindrops on the way back to the hotel. (Two umbrellas were pressed into service as doors on our van taxi, as the real door was nowhere to be found.) The rain did little to dampen spirits, however, and the party raged on in hotel rooms for most of the night, culminating in a nighttime swim in the pool and an ill-advised journey back down into the city in search of tacos, which somehow managed to go off without a hitch. Most of the group suffered ill effects the following morning, though I was raring to go, ready to push through the mists of Taxco and on to the ruins at Xochicalco. I’d been here before too, and it was a good thing, because the rains drove us from the site far too soon.

Santa Prisca in the rain, Taxco

Santa Prisca in the rain, Taxco

I never did get to Puebla, another regular stop on the central Mexico circuit, though I did pass through on a week-long journey into the country’s southeastern reaches. The first stop was Oaxaca, yet another city rich in history. We spent our first day at Monte Albán, a large Zapotec ruin atop a mesa-like mountain overlooking the city, but Oaxaca’s real wealth is in its living culture. The city is a culinary paradise, home to the riches moles and the purest mezcal and other delicacies, to say nothing of some good, crunchy chapulines. (Yeah, fried grasshoppers.) Southern Mexico retains its indigenous roots as well as anywhere in the nation, and that night the zócalo was the scene of a whirling pageant of dance. The next day our hostel gave us a wide-ranging bus trip around the area, with a visit to the Árbol de Tule—the fattest tree on earth!—and a Zapotec weaving operation. Next came Mitla, a ruin small in size but intricate in its Zapotec mosaic work, and then, a long, bouncing road up to the Hierve del Agua, a petrified waterfall. The tour ended at a mezcalería, where the Australian in our party won us a free bottle through feats of epic liver destruction.

The fattest tree on earth, Oaxaca.

The fattest tree on earth, Oaxaca.

That night, I chaperoned us along on to another bus trip, this time to Puerto Escondido, the lone beach trip of my four months in Mexico. It involved normal Mexico beach activities, albeit in a sleepy town with just enough tourism to give it a hippyish edge. (One expat, when asked of her origins, told us she was from the stars, though she’d also spent some time in Cincinnati.) We found a couple of cabins far enough up the shore for some privacy, but close enough to walk into town along the beach. For once, I set my itinerary aside and devoted myself to blissful nothing: leisurely meals in seaside shacks, long nights of festivities on the beach, lazy scrawling in a notebook in a hammock before drifting into a nap and waking without a care in the world.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cristóbal de las Casas

The next bus took us up to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, the farthest southeast and the poorest state in the Mexican union. I covered our Thanksgiving day trip to San Cristóbal and the Zapatista community in rebellion in a previous post, but it was a valuable stop, one that made me think long and hard about how to find my place in the modern world. The next day the bus schlepped us along to Palenque, stopping at a pair of waterfalls along winding mountain roads before coming to the great Mayan ruins in the jungle. Its sprawling palaces peek out of the greenery, and its architectural variety and detail surpass anything in the center of the country. After declining numerous offerings of mushrooms and one last long overnight bus trip, my last Mexican road trip came to an end.

*  *  *

These reminiscences on Mexico tend to be gushing tales of discovery and dalliance. That reflects reality, up to a point. But that isn’t the whole story, and I’d be remiss not to mention the other side. In a way, Mexico was liberation: I was wildly free to reinvent myself and surrounded by excess, in which I participated willingly. And yet I still had a vague sense that I was in this world, but certainly not of it. I both poured myself in the fun and remained a detached observer from on high, an exhausting effort that can be hard to articulate. More than once, returning to my Mexico City flat, I’d slump back in the elevator and run a hand through my hair, drained by the fullness of the life I lived, wondering what it all meant. For the first time since I’d started my aggressive writing two years prior, I had writer’s blocks: suddenly it didn’t come naturally, the world I’d built through those words no longer quite held together. In my relentlessness I was missing something; I didn’t always know what, and even when I did, I didn’t have the ambition to seize it. It took a trip abroad to see what was closest to home; a confrontation with different worlds to learn my place within the one I knew.

Lost in dreams in Puerto Escondido.

Lost in dreams in Puerto Escondido.

People often like to talk about finding their “true selves.” I find this deluded. We have no one true self; we are a wide array of forces and histories, all wrapped up in one body and one mind, trying to make sense of the whole mess. For me, Mexico is one of those parts, thrown in there with everything else.

What did Mexico give me? I can try to put it into words. There was a host family that showed me what family life ought to look like, and a friend or two who showed me the meaning of companionship. Those bonds endure. It showed me how to push outward, how to surrender parts of myself to others, even as I struggled with deeper truths. It showed me a country impossible to paint in black or white, a nation that swallows everything up and makes it all its own. It made me rethink my politics and my worldview, and gifted me with the man I quote more than anyone else. Above all, it turned me loose, however haltingly, and at the same time underscored how much more there is to life than mere freedom. Five years later, I await a chance to go back—but I carry it all with me, part of a living history, and those four months live on, forever renewing an old belief. Viva México, dador de la vida.

Mexico City, Revisited: Exploring the Giant

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

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.

002

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.

Utopia

To the west of Mexico City, in the mountains of Michoacán, lies a small city that once aspired to utopia. Its champion was a man named Vasco de Quiroga, a sixteenth-century bishop who was among the heroes of the miserable tale of colonial America. Tata Vasco, as he is affectionately known among the indigenous Purepecha who still populate the region, did all he could to save the natives from the predations of imperial Spain. The contemporary city of Pátzcuaro, of course, is no utopia; it’s in one of the less stable states of a tumultuous nation, gripped by the poverty that afflicts so much of Mexico. Yet even so, something from that past lingers in the proud indigenous communities that still make the handcrafts Tata Vasco divided among the villages, and in the timeless cobblestone streets that carry in the wind off the nearby lake.

There is good reason to be leery of utopia. The last century has been defined by the horrors perpetrated by people who thought they were creating utopias, and anyone with any sense of the tragic side of human life knows what a delusion those dreams of earthly paradise may seem. How easy it is to dismiss utopian thought as naïve, or even reckless, as the true believers barrel ahead with their agenda without a thought about what they’re doing to the world. How often do we hear vague appeals to ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ without any concept of what these words actually mean? They are the canards of sorry souls who try to invent broader meaning for their lives, placing themselves in some grand sweep of history; a desperate attempt to make life relevant in a world where we cannot share transcendent meaning and are left to invent things for ourselves.

The skeptic’s stance is a scathing one, vicious in its demolition of that utopian instinct. And yet, just as much as the tragic impulse, the drive to utopia is part and parcel of the human condition. It can take curious or even sorry channels, but no amount of cynicism can bludgeon it to death. Retreat from utopia is just as much of a utopia itself, an impossible ideal inseparable from nihilism and all its attendant contradictions.

Dreams are not reality, and should never be mistaken for it. But they are an integral part of the cycle, ever reminders that our rational thoughts, when carried to all their logical conclusions, cannot even begin to answer all of our questions. They inspire awe, and even fear. As they should. To die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep what dreams of death may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

***

Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the maze of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

***

My own relationship with utopia is a tortured one, filled with both wild dreams and relentless reasoning. I’ve also been skeptical of it, often even downright hostile, and justifiably so. Yet I can’t quench the thirst. I’ve written my own utopias in search of one, populated entire worlds that I could disappear into forever, if I so chose. Much of this has been a lonely search, though not always so; at times I’ve dragged unwitting victims along, as in my own journey to Pátzcuaro, and at times I’ve managed to convene a little salon with no limits on what it might ask. The conclusion is always the same.

Utopia is something that these paltry, inadequate words will never quite capture. The Socratic critique rings true: the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And the more aware we are of utopia before us, the more hollow it all seems when we can’t quite find it. No one can, for too long. Small wonder so many believers in utopia are also prone to disappointment and even rage, when it all falls short. The glimpse is ever a dangerous one.

One must push things, to find that glimpse; live a bit, and tread on untested ground. But the search needs grounding. All journeys have a beginning, and all have an end. We have stories that write themselves; things we can bend, yes, but never break. We are what we come from, and in these bounds, we must find whatever it is we search for. Utopia is right here before us, if only we open up our eyes. Perhaps that defeats the point of utopia, but if that’s the case, it’s no great loss.

(Utopia II)

Standing Before Lincoln

Election Day, 2008. I was a freshman in college in America’s capital, absorbed by the prospect of a career in politics. Unlike some, I had no grand vision of a radically transformed society under Barack Obama, but I certainly had an appreciation for symbolic power. It is easy to forget just how much we were all swept up in the moment; on election night, everyone at Georgetown ran to the White House, regardless of politics. The political consciousness of this generation knew no great achievement: the bungled 2000 election, the tragedy of 9/11, a failed mission to democratize the Middle East, and a sudden financial crisis. Finally, it seemed, something had happened that could make us feel good about ourselves.

The adolescent mind of the high achiever, conditioned by continued progress from one successful stage in life to another, saw reason to believe the wider world could act in the same way.  I needed a story that fit my belief in political action. In the absence of any other higher faith, any other guiding point with which to orient the lofty goals I had in mind, the gospel of progress was all I had. The next night, I made a more personal journey, a walk down to the Lincoln Memorial alone. The inscription above Lincoln’s head makes it abundantly clear: this is a temple, a monument to a holy figure in a national myth. If there was a road to an earthly Jerusalem, it surely went through here. Everything made sense, and I was a part of a movement to make things better.

Two years later I was in a very different capital, watching from afar as all that hype about progress crumbled. How far I’d wandered from my Duluth roots: an election party in a penthouse apartment in Mexico City, with a whole bunch of liberal expats and upper-crust Mexicans shaking their heads at what was becoming of the world. (The best of them was the Porfirio Díaz look-alike stumping around the place with a cane.) It was delightful. And yet, what of this challenge to my democratic faith? What to make of this world in which the “overwhelming force of unreason,” in the words of George Packer, had trumped the story of progress? I needed answers.

And so I went and stood before Lincoln again. This time, there was no temple, no reverent surroundings: just the man standing atop a pedestal in a dark park in Polanco, staring across a street at Martin Luther King. It was a crisis of faith, as I came to appreciate one of those nagging possibilities I’d known since a childhood brush with unreason, but never fully grasped: history may not make sense. But it was more than that. In that moment, I realized the liberating truth: it really didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if the political world all went wrong. I could still be a contented person. And I would be.

It took a while to understand exactly what had happened in the Parque Lincoln. One swing in congressional power isn’t enough to re-orient a worldview, nor should it be. Many events over the course of the next year—the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden—suggested that there was yet cause for optimism. For a time, I clung to my liberal dream before it all came into clearer resolution: good things happen here, bad things happen there, murky things happen everywhere, and there’s no good narrative to fit it all. I needed some help to find a new story. Mexico had already armed me with the Octavio Paz interview, while Georgetown gave me a Catholic sort of critique, and in time there was The Answer to Everything. And, of course, I still had my roots, lurking there amid everything. I wrote relentlessly; old stories died, and frustration begat inward retreat before things started to take shape again.

Four years after that night in Polanco, I certainly haven’t forsaken the political realm. Parts of my old political philosophy remain, though not all, and I am ashamed of some earlier strident cries, and some refusal to see political opponents as friends or colleagues. Instead, I try to walk a tightrope, often playing the neutral role; I can see far from here, but I’m well aware of the risks of neutrality for neutrality’s sake, and the meekness of indecision. I still sympathize with stories many of my old liberal travelers tell themselves, and a fair number of their aims; I also now sympathize with those more guided by religious faith or nostalgia or a number of other stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all. None of those are mine, though I have my own stories, just as partial in their truth. It can be a lonely place, here before Lincoln; I must be on constant guard to avoid pretension or extreme distance. But I make no apologies, and it would be a shame not to share the view.

On Tuesday night, I’ll watch the election results, just as I did in DC and Mexico—and in Duluth two years ago, when I was definitively on the road to this approach. I may even celebrate or express my disappointment at times. But that will be all, and on Wednesday morning I’ll go back about my business with little regard for what happened the night before. I’ve found the freedom to cease being consumed by grand sweeps of progress, focusing instead on little niches where I really can make things right. (And make them right I will.) There is no right or wrong side of history; there are only more questions, questions that press endlessly against those presuppositions and neat little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.

I don’t have answers to many of them, and I’m fine with that. That’s no excuse for stopping the search, though. These past six years have been an exercise in learning the value of limits, but in one realm, the pursuit is relentless. The questions never end.

Winning Everywhere but on the Pitch

The U.S.’s World Cup run is done, ending in the Round of 16 for a second straight time after a 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium. The Belgians were the better team; while the U.S. did blow a few good chances, they were hardly carrying the play, rescued time and time again by Tim Howard in goal. Belgium may be small, but it’s loaded with a golden generation of top-flight European talent, and they should give Argentina a good run on Saturday.

The biggest issue for the U.S. was its midfield play and lack of possession. Michael Bradley has been made the scapegoat here, and not without reason, though anyone who was expecting him to be Xavi or Schweinsteiger or Pirlo was in for a rude surprise. The U.S.’s defensive tactics covered for a lot of that hole, but if they want to be more than an exciting upset threat, they really need to start controlling play more. There were some key steps this Cup, with a win over nemesis Ghana and a near-win against a good Portugal team, but the U.S. remains somewhere on the outside of the world’s elite, and that #13 FIFA ranking, for all of its flaws, probably gets things about right.

Even so, the Cup was, for the most part, vindication for Jurgen Klinsmann, who coupled his enthusiasm and mind games with German efficiency and had a knack for making the right substitutions when injuries didn’t force his hand. Whine all you want about ESPN’s bitter robot analyst—err, Landon Donovan—or some of the comments to the media, but the U.S. coach knew what he was doing from start to finish, and his fine touch with the likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green suggests a bright future. Klinsmann took a team with minimal top-end talent and serious injury issues and put them in a position to win. There is a vision here that goes far beyond the 2014 World Cup, and the U.S. has the right man directing this long and arduous ascendancy to soccer relevance.

Mexico, meanwhile, did what the Mexicans do in the World Cup, likewise bowing out in the Round of 16 for a sixth consecutive time. This was the most excruciating, though, as they held a lead over the favored Dutch with less than five minutes to play. The end result wasn’t a huge surprise—Miguel Herrera’s very conservative approach after the Mexican goal left El Tri a bit too reliant on the heroics of Guillermo Ochoa, and exposed that back line so much that it was hard not to think it was just a matter of when the Dutch would strike. The cautious approach worked in the group stage, and it’s hard to rip on Herrera’s tactics after he turned a struggling squad into one that looked pretty good in its first three games, but the Mexicans needed a bit more positivity to compete with the world’s elite. It wasn’t beyond their ability.

The eight group winners may all have gone through to the quarterfinals, but that hardly suggests any sort of dominance by the traditional powers. The great Spanish dynasty is dead, and no one is leaping to fill the vacuum. The Brazilians don’t appear terribly cohesive, and have issues in back; the biggest things they have going for them are geography and Neymar’s heroics. Argentina is in a similar boat, though Lionel Messi might just be good enough to carry his nation to the title in spite of it all. Their side of the bracket is open for the taking, and one gets the sense that they have yet to show us their best. The quarterfinal between France and Germany, meanwhile, should be a thriller between two of Europe’s top contenders. France’s easy road so far is a mild surprise after their debacles in recent years, but the talent is clearly there; the Germans, while perhaps not quite as crisp as their western neighbors, are still probably better when playing to their potential, lacking the disjointedness of their fellow favorites from South America.

The other four teams left in the race offer some intrigue, too. The Colombians are unproven but perhaps the most exciting team in the Cup, and James Rodríguez has the potential to take his coming-out party to the next stage if he can exploit the gaps often left by the Brazilian defense. The Belgians are also new to this stage, and while they lack the dynamism of the Colombians, they have enough top-flight players to trouble Argentina. On the other end of the spectrum, this great Dutch generation refuses to die, and have earned themselves a favorable quarterfinal against Cup darlings Costa Rica. If the Orange Crush can handle the upstarts, who’s to bet against their tried and true formula?

Whatever the end result, this Cup has had the feel of a watershed moment for U.S. soccer. For the first time, it felt like more than a fringe sport. It was hard not to get sucked in when walking into a bar packed with people in red, white, and blue chanting USA! and that cheer that was cool in hockey three years ago, that collective ecstasy and frustration shared by everyone. The aggravating nature of soccer—ninety minutes of frustration in the hope of one or two seconds of brilliance—lends itself to that unity, and when the ball finally does hit the back of the net, everyone gets it. It has its flaws, but the simplicity makes the appeal universal.

All of that said, I have some reservations about soccer going mainstream. There’s the obvious complaint about a broader but less knowledgeable fan base, leaving us with the painful Landon Donovan whiners who didn’t actually know anything about him beyond that one goal against Algeria. But the World Cup also comes with a dose of false cosmopolitanism that ignores the corrupt and moneyed interests that dominate FIFA, an organization in which the New York Yankees would look frugal and kindly to their fellow franchises. FIFA is a fairly accurate reflector the world’s power structure, and I do not mean that as a compliment. The Cup is nice and international, which is all good fun when you’re a kid and learning to appreciate all of the silly little things that make countries unique, but becomes a bit facile after a while, with Mexicans in ponchos and Americans playing up a self-consciously overdone U.S. bravado (‘Murica!). Soccer is a global sport, and that is a double-edged sword; it brings us closer to the rest of world, but abandoning other sports in its favor eats at the diversity that makes things interesting. If our “shared language” boils down to a bunch of stereotypes, Coke ads, pop stars at the kickoff concert, and rolling about on the ground in feigned pain, is it really a language worth sharing?

It can go deeper than that, though, so while soccer will never be my first love, there are aspects that continue to grow on me. For the U.S., it’s time to look ahead to Russia in 2018 with ever-rising hopes; in the meantime, we’ll hope the remaining eight add yet more drama to what has already been a superb Cup. And even if they don’t, maybe will get a few memorable little nibbles.

(Can I get some credit for going over 1,000 words before making a Luis Suárez pun?)

Y Tu Mamá También: Into the Mouth of Heaven

I spent most of my weekend engrossed in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film Y tu Mamá También, either in watching it (twice) or in quiet reflection, even as I went on with a bunch of other tasks.I’d somehow missed it until now, which makes little sense, since it’s a film that brings together so many of my favorite things: masterful cinematography, rapid-fire dialogue, the vividness of Mexico, coming-of-age stories, detached political commentary, road trips, reflections on mortality, and gratuitous sex.

The story is about two wealthy Mexican teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio, afflicted with a serious case of affluenza and the resultant ennui. They do drugs and drink and generally live for sex, whether it’s with their girlfriends or their friends’ girlfriends or tu mamá también or just relentless masturbation. They make a pass at a married Spanish woman named Luisa at a foppish birthday party, and she, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, takes them up on an offer of a road trip to a nonexistent beach named the Mouth of Heaven. And so the threesome sets out across southern Mexico, in pursuit of both literal and figurative mouths of heaven.

It sounds like the old life-changing road trip trope, but Y Tu Mamá También never quite settles for the comfort of the genre. Frequent voiceovers render the characters small pieces at the mercy of the whirlwind of Mexican life, at times the narrator gives a voice to the touching stares, as when Tenoch shows some fleeting recognition of his housekeeper’s hometown, jarred into awareness of life beyond his pampered world. Mexico’s troubled past and uncertain future are woven in the adventure through poignant vignettes, though if the film has a weakness, it might be its attempt to carve out a place in Mexico’s political narrative. (It’s set in 1999, on the brink of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party’s electoral defeat in 2000.) Its critiques of Mexico are more timeless than anything particular to that moment, and when it comes to conveying that reality, Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography should be allowed to speak for itself.

And speak it does: Y Tu Mamá También is a gorgeous film, teeming with that dust-covered tinge of the Mexican countryside; that sense that, despite the presence of that omniscient voiceover, nothing here is quite understandable through the languages we speak. While the boys blather on about sex, they’re sharing spaces with stoic Mexican peasants, worlds apart, which the cameras will occasionally follow down back halls in their slow pans. The film wisely keeps any growing awareness well-hidden, which magnifies the moments when it does come through, as when an aged woman gifts Luisa a little stuffed mouse with her name on it, and when the boys play in the surf with a fisherman. There are no eureka moments boys, but the baleful looks and moments of silence coupled with spurts of serendipity say what words cannot. Nor is their growing awareness entirely a force for unity, as they begin to examine the basis of their own friendship.

It’s easy to dismiss Julio and Tenoch as total dirtbags, which they pretty much are. And yet the film is still tender with them, even as it slowly tears down their world of teenage revelry. Their manifesto, while predictably juvenile in places, aspires to a code of brotherhood: a pledge of unity in the face of a dead Mexican elite, and a desire to live as freely as they can. “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” says Julio; “honesty is the best policy, but fuck, it’s hard to reach it.” And so the boys make their own truth; an unsustainable one, perhaps, but its aspirations are enough to delight the lost Luisa. One is reminded of the claim that Nietzsche is the adolescent’s philosopher, the little Ubermenschen relying on their bravado to build something for themselves in the midst of a wasteland.

Despite the trappings of wealth, it really is a wasteland. Not coincidentally, neither one has a father figure worthy of respect; Tenoch’s is a corrupt government official, while Julio’s is absent. Tenoch’s mother is a naïve dabbler, while Julio’s is a career woman who never appears; their friends appear even more drug-addled and less stable than they are. The boys, raised in an environment masquerading as paradise, must manufacture the drama in their lives, seeking new highs and any gratification to give it all meaning. The pathologies at play are the same as those afflicting countless boys in any country: products of broken homes and superficial cultures and lives without limits. Luisa and her husband may be literal orphans, but they are all adrift. Julio and Tenoch think they know who they are and what they want, but the road trip starts to eat at those certainties; Luisa has no idea who she is and where she is going, and starts to find exactly what she needs simply by living.

The film is often reminiscent of Kerouac in its tricky balance. It grabs attention by reveling in the awesomeness of being a sexed-up boy in the prime of life, and yet through it all there is an elegiac tone of longing for something more. The boys don’t see it at the start; depending on how one interprets the ending, they may not necessarily see it there, either. What they do have, though, is that willingness to seize life on their terms, which leads them to make a pass at Luisa, and that sets a chain of events in motion that will both break them and give them a chance to start anew. A well-executed bildungsroman is never clean in its progression, and there is a superb tension between the boys’ bravado and their brokenness, both of which have a necessary place.

The character who gives the film its elegiac edge is Luisa, who is the antithesis of a Kerouac female; she’s not there simply for the boys’ sexual pleasure, but instead is a thoroughly complex character, alluring even when haunted. She is a woman with nothing left to live for, on the run in search of any sort of release, and ready to take delight in most anything. There is a quiet urgency to her search, as she latches on to the boys, tries to teach them a thing or two, grows alienated by their failures, makes amends, and then, finally, discards them so as to “become one with the sea.”

There is no death or violence on the screen in Y Tu Mamá También, but the fragility of life and the resultant immediacy push its characters to throw aside all caution and tempt fate in their exploits. This is a very Mexican theme, and Octavio Paz would most certainly have appreciated the cathartic rush of tequila shots that builds toward the climax. Luisa tells the boys that their country “exudes life,” but that life may only be possible because death is also so present. This is life on the edge, its vividness riveting and its loss a genuine tragedy.

It is also masterful cinema. It’s pretty and political and laden with symbolism and edgy and so many of the other things a great film should be. But its real strength is in its three brilliant leads, who take their viewers along with them on three journeys that seem so very real, and all deeply personal. There is a struggle to harness masculinity, a brush with those questions on what we’re doing here, and a literal journey through Mexico, exactly as I remember my adopted second country. Days later I’m still processing, not always finding comfortable answers. What more can we ask for?

One Hundred Years in the Labyrinth

I’m not a big believer in heroes. There are obviously people I admire more than others, and some who have certain exemplary character traits that I can only hope to channel. But for the most part, in a paraphrase of the guy pictured below, people should not be placed in heaven or in hell, but here on earth, where they belong. Here on earth, where they are a jumbled mess of admirable and unfortunate traits, many of which are two sides of the same coin. No one can stand too far above anyone else.

One who does stand a bit higher, though, is Octavio Paz, who was born 100 years ago today.

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Image credit:

 http://gestioncultura.cervantes.es/COMUNES/13298_I_octavio%20paz.jpg

Paz led one of the richest lives of the twentieth century. First and foremost he was a poet, but he was also a diplomat, an essayist, and a philosopher. By the end of his career, he was the mandarin of Mexican intellectual life, collecting awards left and right before finally claiming a Nobel Prize in 1990. He became the epitome of a public intellectual, and he took that mantel seriously, refusing to kowtow to anyone or anything. He was no ideologue, yet he had his principles. After the Mexican government massacred student protesters in 1968, he resigned his post as Ambassador to India. At a time when the Mexican academy was almost completely uniform in its Marxist orthodoxy, he came to be a fierce critic of the Soviet Union and of all authoritarian socialism. This made him persona non grata in Mexican intellectual circles, but he challenged it at every turn, and he lived long enough to see most of his theses proven correct.

Paz defied definition. He was fascinated by dualities, contradictions, and dialectics, and held them all together in his head. He wasn’t overtly religious, but he spoke with much respect for Christianity, and for the religious and mythical human impulses. He was obviously no Marxist, but he was willing to say a few kind words about Marx, and thought socialism’s emphasis on justice ought to be rescued from the wreckage of communism’s collapse. At the same time, he denounced the anti-communist military juntas in Latin America. This led some to label him a liberal (in the Mexican and European sense of the word, meaning a capitalist who favored democracy and personal liberty), yet he made thorough critiques of the philosophical underpinnings of liberal society. The Marxist Mexican professor who introduced me to Paz dismissed him as “very conservative,” presumably due to his rejection of both the history and the materialism of Marxist historical materialism. While he certainly wasn’t a conservative in any contemporary understanding of the word, there are some vague aristocratic airs in his approach to the world—a certain delight in taking it as his plaything for further study. Anyone who tried to stick a label on him missed the point.

I could quote from Paz’s magnum opus, The Labyrinth of Solitude, in order to show off some of his brilliance, but it’s a bit too heavy to confront in one simple blog post. Instead, I’m going to pull from a little-known interview that I was assigned to read by that dear old Marxist Mexican while at the Universidad Iberoamericana at Mexico City. This was my introduction to Paz, and while it may not have the coherence of some of his longer works, it is loaded with brilliant little gems, and succinctly pulls together so many of the themes I struck on this blog over the past year. (I’ve added links to those that come most directly to memory.)

The interview was conducted in 1992, as part of a series commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas; the interviewer, a Chilean named Sergio Marras, was primarily interested in Paz’s thoughts on the idea of Latin America. He got that, plus an awful lot more. Take this riff on identities (interview is in italics; my interjections are in normal font; translation mine):

You’ve said that Mexico is different from the rest of Latin America several times in this interview. How would you define mexicanness?

The word “mexicanness” is one that I avoid. It strikes me as dubious. It traps a reality in motion in a prison of concepts and adjectives. Mexico is an invention that, like all inventions, has two sides, or faces: one is the discovery of a hidden reality, not visible at first glance; another is a design, a project. To discover what we are we need to question our past and examine our present but, at the same time, give a sense and a direction to that more or less static reality. The future is an essential part of our present.

In that case, do you believe the famous Latin American identity is possible? What does it consist of?

I don’t like the word “identity.” I like the currently fashionable phrase even less: “search for an identity.” What we now call identity and what we used to call, more precisely, “character,” “soul,” or the “temperament” of a people, isn’t something one can have, lose, and recover. Nor is it a substance or an essence. Latin America is neither an entity nor an idea. It is a history, a process, a reality in perpetual motion and continual change. Words that I would apply to anyone who is “searching for an identity.” Who are we? Our histories—a living and incomplete history, but one that cannot negate the past. Nor should it try to whitewash that past:

We cannot forget that history has always been tragic. Joyce said that history is a nightmare. No, history is a reality, but it is a reality that has the incoherence and the horror of a nightmare.

Even so…Something from the past always remains. It’s very arrogant to condemn our ancestors: they don’t need simply our judgment, adverse or favorable, but our faith. And faith means sympathy: maybe I would have done the same as you, if I’d been there. There’s a norm we’ve forgotten: respect the adversary and honor the defeated. For a while I’ve rebelled against the official histories.

Speaking of Latin America, but applicable to anything with a less-than-ideal past: I think our history–more precisely, that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–has been an immense failure. But defeat does not degrade; the real degradation is not knowing what to do with the defeats. Turning a failure into art is beautiful. We’ve made a few very admirable things out of our failures: a handful of poems, a half dozen novels and collections of stories. Moreover, we’re not dead: we’re a living culture. This has been a great triumph. Latin America has character; it has a soul. This is our great victory.

Those histories lead to the formation of different cultures, and when it comes to culture, Paz strikes a somewhat more cynical note than his more universalistic colleagues. He still finds some room for hope all the same:

Culture will always divide usThe great civilizations have been made through dialogues between different cultures. I’m a believer in dialogue because I’m a believer in diversity. When unity transforms into uniformity, society petrifies. This is what happened to the communists. To live, democracy needs to accommodate contradictory elements so it can make permanent criticism a part of itself. Dialogue, critiques, the exchange of opinions: that is the political life, and that is culture. It’s easy for talk of dialogue between cultures to fall into clichés and a sappy universalism, but Paz avoids that with constant criticism. He most certainly is not an ideologue, and though he does reflect on revolutions fondly at times (his father was a backer of the Mexican Revolution, which was raging at the time Paz was born), he sees better ways to resolve problems:

He who rides a burro [common people, that is] doesn’t believe in utopias nor in ideologies. He believes in heaven and hell. Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people…I don’t lament the end of the myth of revolution. It lived for three centuries and left us both admirable and abominable things; but it has lost all its power. Now it’s not even a ghost: it’s a relic. What we need to do now is clean the dust off our minds with the feather duster and the broom of critiques, not with hysterical moaning about the end of the utopia…Today we don’t have anywhere to take refuge; we’ve run out of universalist ideologies and we have to reinvent everything. A great loss? More like an enormous possibility.

At the time, Paz was trying to be hopeful for a more cohesive hemisphere; history hasn’t really gone in that direction. But he was aware of that, and could salvage some things here, too. Here’s his take on the existential uncertainty of a world after revolutions, one in which philosophical liberalism has, in large part, triumphed:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

Paz suggests Kant, for his critiques of reason; this makes good sense, though my own bias is toward the Greeks. Still, the Greeks don’t always speak clearly about modernity, and it has to be studied on its own terms. For that, we move to a quote that has appeared on this blog before, and perhaps my favorite in the entire piece:

If we think of that trio upon which the modern world was founded–liberty, equality, fraternity–we see that liberty tends to turn into tyranny over others; thus, it needs to have limits; and that equality is an impossible ideal that cannot come to be without the use of force, which implies despotism. The bridge between these two is fraternity.

if we don’t rediscover fraternity, we’ll come to the real devil: the Last Man.

This is one of those apparent contradictions that Paz embraces. He’s a believer in democracy and modernity, for the most part; he knows they’re flawed, but he can’t see a better alternative. The world would be a better place if everyone lived in modern liberal democracies…and yet, even there, he can’t be happy. The world loses something when bourgeois, democratic norms take control; everyone is content to live out their routine suburban lives, and there is no pursuit of glory, no more human greatness. (The phrase “Last Man” was Nietzsche’s contemptuous take on such people.) Paz, despite his general support for the modern project, can’t quite accept this: hence his continued fascination with revolution, with people in the middle of the arena, even if he doesn’t quite agree with them. He reconciles all of this on an existential plane: yes, material comfort is important, but that isn’t what we live for. We live for something more:

Happiness is not, nor can it be, terrestrial. Nor can it be a permanent state. Humans can be happy but for an instant…But its brevity does not matter: an instant can be a window unto eternity.

If you read Spanish, the wonderful Nexos Magazine has a great series of reflection pieces here.

Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas

It’s late November 2010, and for the first time in my memory, Thanksgiving week doesn’t involve that drive south across Wisconsin, south to family and football and gluttony and sneaking a beer from the basement fridge, that sense of rightness taking hold. No; instead I’m far to the south, sprawled in a hammock on a beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, writing idly in a little red notebook, nodding off, and then waking with a sudden start, at first unsure of where I am before the delight of paradise takes control. What bliss.

Truth is, though, I’ve never been very good at staying in the realm of bliss for very long. I’m too restless. I need action, I need meaning. And so I’ve deigned to drag my eclectic traveling party on to another destination, one that will require a bit more thought. Our grand tour across southern Mexico won’t just stop at the beach; instead, it has to go back up into the turbulent heart of this nation, as far away from any façade of Mexican serenity. We’re going to spend Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas.

We leave Puerto Escondido on an overnight bus, the road hugging the coast, and we wake somewhere near the crossing point into Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It shares a long border with Guatemala, and its twisting mountain ranges and jungles are near-impenetrable: this is as far as one can get from the borderland Mexico so many Americans know, the last frontier of a nation trying to convince the rest of the world it belongs in modernity. A state whose people trace their roots back to the Mayan empires of past millennia. The coach rolls through the dismal state capital before scaling the ramparts of the Sierra Los Altos. Base camp for Thanksgiving weekend is the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city whose name pays homage to Bartolomé de las Casas, the friar who convinced the Spanish monarchs to have mercy on the natives. In the heart of indigenous Mexico, some things never change: after the Zapatista revolt in 1994, the one man who managed to tried to bring the rebels and the government to the table for dialogue was the bishop of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz.

Our first day in San Cristóbal is a tame one, as we wander the sprawling markets and sample the most real coffee we’ve ever encountered. The sky is grey, the air cool up here in the hills, and though the city bustles with tourists and boasts restaurants from every corner of the globe, it still has a sense of quiet, a sense of reverence. We dine at a Lebanese place and find a colonial hall that shows a documentary on the Zapatista revolt, brush up on the details of their unexpected 1994 uprising against the Mexican state after the ratification of NAFTA. A group of peasants in ski masks stood no chance against the Mexican army, but the Zapatistas captured the hearts of many in Mexico and beyond, a native group that knows the power of a symbol and stays true to its roots. The fighting stopped years ago, but the Zapatista caracoles remain autonomous, carrying on life at their own pace.

We wake early the next morning and begin our Thanksgiving Day pilgrimage. We board a van that rises up from San Cristóbal de las Casas on a newly-built road, winding its way even further up into the sierra. I marvel at the sheer vastness of mountains, those barriers that no free trade agreement could flatten. Pictures cannot do it justice, the verdant green hills and the towering cliffs, the homes clinging to their sides, perched so precariously that they seem vulnerable to any great wave of change, yet sitting on plots of land that have barely changed over the past thousand years. We come to San Andrés Larrainzar, where the government and the rebels met in a church atop a mountain, reachable only by a long stair marching straight up its side. Here, the parties negotiated their peace accords some fifteen years prior. They answered no questions, resolved no disputes. There are no signs of that now, though: life goes on.

The driver pulls to the side of the road and announces Oventic. The four of us clamber from the van and make our way over to a gate that blocks off a side road. A man in a ski mask awaits; he scarcely reaches my chest, but he still has an air of control. We deliberate, and he asks us our reasons for visiting. We answer as respectfully as possible. A few other masked men mill about, murmuring in Tzotzil. We wait. Are they suspicious? No; this is merely the pace of life in Oventic. Explosions echo further down the road. Has the fighting resumed, on this day of all days? No; a religious procession is climbing the way, shooting off fireworks as it goes. Before it arrives, we are summoned inside.

The cement street cascades down the mountainside, wooden buildings lining both sides. Shops, meeting halls, a women’s center, a school, a clinic with an ambulance. Another masked man, this one somewhat older, guides us downward with a few declarative statements. We may photograph the murals along the walls, but not the people. The street empties into a level clearing, a schoolyard with a basketball hoop. The children tear about the schoolyard, all save one, a boy settled beneath a tree, plugging away at his schoolwork with contented poise. The two of us steal a quick grin. No, they don’t have much; most everything is made of wood, and the public restroom is little more than a trough. But it is no failure, either: behind the gate, there is an ease to life not visible in the poor Mexican communities on the outside, a difference most obvious in the children of Oventic.

Our guide, warming to us, takes us to a pair of stores filled with Zapatista swag. The shopkeepers know just enough Spanish to conduct a sale. Foreign capital in action, even in a commune. The mess of modernity, the impossibility of true isolation: they try to build an autonomous community, but if it were not for their international allure that draws in us tourists of revolution, history would have forgotten the Zapatistas. The Mexican government would have crushed them in short order. They may not exactly be a model for other struggling villages; few others can match their PR savvy. But they’ve succeeded, and even if they do not have much wealth, they certainly have their pride. We are shown the gate and flag down the next pickup truck to head down the highway, offering the driver a few pesos for a ride in the bed.

The truck dumps us in San Juan de Chamula, a dusty town of 50,000 that serves as the gateway to Zapatista country. The feel couldn’t be any more different: the poverty is immediate and anything but idyllic, the vendors aggressive even by Mexican standards, with one little girl dropping her wares on our lunch table at a restaurant and refusing to leave. It is a different world, but yet another world awaits: the inside of the town church is something wholly alien for all of us. The nave is dark, lit only by thousands of small candles, its floor covered in pine needles. The worshippers kneel before countless altars to saints, chanting in Tzotzil, the aroma of incense lulling everyone into a trance. Christian and pagan faith, blurred together in the haze. We stumble out and wander the square in shock for some time before coming back to our senses.

A van takes us the rest of the way back to San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of indigenous Mexico somehow reborn as a cosmopolitan magnet for adventure-seekers. We meander its streets, sit in the placid zócalo and try to imagine an army of invading masked men. We visit an Irish pub, climb a hill to a church, fool around on a curiously placed exercise course. Then, Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey, just pizza in a colorful Italian place, with the Tuscan countryside painted on its yellow walls. A bit of wine, a beer run to the Oxxo, and a night of drink and debate.

What’s it all worth, this rebellion in the backlands? An assertion of identity that transcends any losses, makes all the costs worthwhile? A noble but failed effort, doomed by the march of progress? Delusion on the part of a bunch of uneducated natives? It’s nearly seventeen years since the Zapatistas first took up arms. Seventeen years of fitful fights and useless treaties, of paramilitary incursions and aggressive government responses. Surges of interest, with the tales of Subcomandante Marcos circulating the internet, the foreign support flowing into San Cristóbal. Claims of a new left, a postmodern revolution, the birth of indigenous rights in the Americas. Moments when it seemed like it would all go wrong, when the obstacles blocking the Zapatistas seemed more imposing than the mountains of Chiapas: the brutal massacres and that image of Marcos, shrunk down to size by the austerity of a Mexico City plaza, desperately trying to rally the revolt into a broader movement with his “other campaign” during the 2006 presidential race. It wasn’t to be: whatever its gains in Chiapas, the EZLN has not changed life for the vast majority of Mexicans. It never did quite know if it was a localized revolt or a national movement, and the question of scale kept it from taking off. The paradox of the modern left: it understands the importance of unique identities and is happy to harness the power of the state, but there is no bridge between the two.

Most of those trappings are gone now, as are the forceful rejoinders from the Mexican state. Forget the leftist rhetoric, the development theories, the ideals of efficient economics and what a modern nation should look like. There are only people, trying to make do. Maybe someday the government will finally be able to provide for Mexican peasants high in Chiapas; it’s certainly made some progress on that front, however haltingly. Maybe someday free enterprise will open up those mountain passes, or they might fade into irrelevance as globalization’s losers empty the land. Consider me a pessimist on both fronts.

“Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people,” said Octavio Paz. It was a disease that afflicted even him, a critic of the revolt that destabilized the treaty that was supposed to welcome Mexico into the modern world. For the children of Chiapas, there is no economic theory, no national liberation, no grand vision of a changed world: simply life as it has been, and their daily struggle to make it all work. Culture may shift and erode, but its shadow is long, and its loss drains the world of some of its wonder. It will endure, and with it the people of Chiapas, trying to carve out some stability in a world increasingly wont to discard any sense of order and tradition.

The next day is a quiet one, all in San Cristóbal. And then another van, this one north, past more Zapatista art and a few military installations, winding through the mountains to a pair of waterfalls and the ruins at Palenque. The Mayan city in all its splendor, then its drab modern counterpart, a mercifully short stay. Then another overnight bus ride, once again putting pen to paper as I try to give it all some order. Mexico defies order, of course, and that may be its greatest lesson: even in its turbulence, it holds together, pulsing with life, a life I’ve found during my four months south of the border.

It is a pulse that is, blessedly, alive and well in my own family, and it’s time to make that drive south across Wisconsin again. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.