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.
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.
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.
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.
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.