Sunday, March 26, 2017
Shusako Endo was a Japanese writer from Nagasaki. He is unique because he was a practicing Catholic throughout most of his life. Endo’s novel Silence is reputed to be his masterpiece. The book was published in the late-1960's. Throughout his life, Endo suffered from respiratory illnesses – in this regard, he is similar to Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer. Like Bernhard, Endo’s themes involve extreme suffering (either physical or emotional) as a kind of test or agon that affords a means of perception and underwrites a system of morality. In his novel Silence, three young Portuguese priests learn that their beloved mentor, Father Ferraira, a Jesuit missionary to Japan, has abandoned h is faith under torture. Unwilling to accept this as truth, the young men travel to Macau where one of them dies by disease. The two survivors, Fathers Garrpe and Rodrigues, are, then, smuggled into Japan. Among the impoverished fishing communities on the seashore, the two priests find congregations of peasants who are Christian but practicing their faith underground – the official penalty for refusing to renounce Catholicism is death by torture. The two priests are haunted by a Japanese Christian, Kikijiro, who is a drunk and has been driven half-way to madness by the destruction of his family members, burned to death on pyres of green faggots. Kikijiro reappears throughout the book as evidence of human weaknesses – he apostatizes repeatedly, then, seeks confession and forgiveness from the priests who are said to be the last pastors surviving in all of Japan. Ultimately, both priests are captured. One of them, Garppe, dies by drowning as he seeks to rescue Christians who have been wrapped in rugs and executed by being tossed into the sea The hero, Rodrigues, survives in captivity. He renounces his faith to save Christians who are being tortured to death by being hung upside down over a filthy excrement-laden pit – he recognizes that is justified for him to offer himself as a martyr but that he can not make others suffer martyrdom on his behalf. After apostatizing, Rodrigues lives out the rest of his life in Nagasaki, acting as a kind of expert at censoring Christian images brought covertly into the land by traders. Rodrigues is given the wife and children of an executed man and lives, apparently serenely and without complaint, until his death by natural causes.
Endo’s novel is certainly powerful and effective. As with most Japanese writers, there is an essential kernel that, I think, doesn’t translate. (This is sometimes manifest in abrupt and inexplicable changes in verb tense.) I always feel a vague sense of tentative incomplete-ness in Japanese prose – the reader has the sense that there is something indefinable lurking in the limpid and self-explanatory text that doesn’t quite make it into English. (I feel this even with writers who are strongly influenced by Americans or European novelists – for instance, Murakami; for that matter, I assume that Endo was strongly influenced by Graham Greene’s Catholic-themed novels.)
I was surprised how closely Scorsese follows the novel in his 2016 film adaptation. There are no real deviations between the book and the script that Scorsese filmed. It’s also interesting to me that the book poses an intractable challenge to a film-maker in that almost all the action is interior to the book’s principal character, Sebastian Rodrigues. After the departure of Garppe in the first third of the book, Rodrigues has no one with whom to engage in dialogue until the colloquies with the inquisitor Inoue and Father Ferraira near the end of the novel – these are powerful, if theatrical, debates that seemed derived from Dostoevski. For most of the book, Rodrigues sits in a cage awaiting his fate. In the early part of the novel, Rodrigues with Garppe are trapped in a kind of cell as well. (Interestingly, the book traffics in a paradox – Rodrigues is relieved to be captured; he is anxious that his martyrdom begin and feels a peace that passes understanding when he is imprisoned. Rodrigues is nowhere more free when then when he is jailed.) At the end of the novel, Rodrigues inhabits the prison of his apostasy and is closely watched by the Japanese authorities around him. In Endo’s grim universe, everyone is either a prisoner or heretic hiding from detection; similarly, his world divides into torturers and the tortured. There is no trace of adventure in the novel and no real sense of wonder at encountering a completely foreign culture – we don’t ever see imperial Japan: it is all a remote echo heard from inside of a prison cell or the squalid fishing villages in which the first third of the novel takes place. The most powerful scene in all Scorsese’s films is the sequence in Raging Bull in which Jake LaMotta is arrested, confined in a prison cell, and pounds his fists into pulp punching at the wall. This scene must bear within it something integral to Scorsese’s imagination because Silence is essentially a prison drama, a film about waiting for torture in a dirty cell. In Scorsese’s conception, I think, human beings are entrapped, prisoners of their own selves, and, ultimately, must confront who it is they have become from within their solitary confinement.
The "grotesque irony" that suffuses Endo’s novel – this is how Rodrigues imagines his mission – arises from a series of misunderstandings. Rodrigues has come to Japan to "to lay down (his) life for (the Japanese Christians.) But, in fact, they are laying down their lives for (him)." (Taplinger Publishing edition at 136). Rodrigues is told by Ferraira that Christianity can not take root in Japan’s "mud-swamp" because the Japanese perceive God as a "beautiful exalted man" (150). But this is not so different from Father Rodrigues’ obsession with the beautiful, shining face of Christ, a visage that sometimes merges with his own features. If the Japanese are heretical in their understanding of God so is Rodrigues. Clearly, the emphasis of the book is not on God the Father, nor on the Holy Spirit – Endo’s book is about the mission of Jesus Christ in the world – and Rodrigues’ progress toward ultimately beholding Christ’s face. In this regard, the book’s "grotesque irony" is that so much suffering must occur before Rodrigues’ grasps a fundamental element in his own theology – Christ doesn’t always come as the King in triumph, converting and refuting the pagans; in fact, Christ is best understood as an aspect of God that has come to suffer what we must suffer. One can argue that in his apostasy, Rodrigues has achieved a more abundant and profound faith: he is joined to the aspect of Christ that is humbled to the human condition, scourged or trampled under foot, the man of sorrows who bears our misery with us. Endo’s novel makes this point and, then, moves away from it in a plethora of intentionally bland, incommunicative official documents with which the book ends. Scorsese dramatizes this more vividly with the image of the cross hidden within the garments of Rodrigues’ corpse as he is cremated. The notion that a triumphant Christ the King should be subsumed within the humiliated and suffering Man of Sorrows is consistent, and harmonizes, with a perverse strain of the Japanese imagination – there is a willful interest in torture and sadism in Japanese art. This is visible more acutely in Mishima who imagined himself as Saint Sebastian, naked and pierced by innumerable arrows and who wrote out in gory advance detail the circumstances of his own hara kiri; even the mild Murakami is not immune from this tendency – consider, the horrific war scenes in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles including the passage where a man is flayed alive, an episode recounted in loving detail. British horror films always were produced in three versions: a relatively sedate U.K. edition of the film in which the physical torture was suggested and not dramatized, a more brutal version showing obliquely the torture for the Americans, and a Japanese version with the violence amped-up and performed in gruesome close-ups.
Scorsese’s film counts, I think, as a "late work." In "late work", an artist often simplifies and denies the very qualities that have earned him fame. Scorsese always has had a "late work" or hyper-simplified style – an example is The King of Comedy, the extremely restrained film with which the director followed the baroque flourishes in Raging Bull. But, I think, the selection of Endo’s novel by Scorsese signifies a repudiation – in fact, a kind of renunciation and penance in the theological sense – of the flashy camera technique and spectacular pictorial design that made him famous. Endo’s novel focuses extensively on things that are heard or sensed but not seen. This is integral to a novel about faith. From his prison cell, Rodrigues hears Nagasaki but can’t see it. (139). The book’s sensory cues are mostly non-visual sensations with three notable exceptions: first, there are many images of nature, the sea, and nature generally deployed to suggest the indifference of the natural world to human suffering – this theme has an auditory correlate as well, the sound of cicada ubiquitous throughout the book; Rodrigues fixates on the blood trail left by the decapitated corpse of one of the Christians (the old man with the "decayed eye"), and he also imagines Garrpe’s "black head" swallowed up by the sea when the Japanese Christians are drowned. But other than these cues, most of the texture of the novel is smell and sound – the cell where Rodrigues is confined before apostasizing is foul with urine, Kikijiro’s treachery is signified by the taste of the salted dried fish, there is a memorable bowl of "sweaty" half-decayed pumpkin, and innumerable references to the rotten fishy smell coming from the Japanese – see, for instance, 160 and 164. At one point, hearing a confession, the stench from the Japanese’s peasant’s mouth makes the hero want to vomit (141). Most notably, the climax in the book involves sound only – Rodrigues hears what he thinks is someone snoring. Then, he is informed that the sound is that of the Japanese Christians’ dying as they suspended over the pits full of offal and excrement (165). (Scorsese shows the torture albeit from a restrained and remote point-of-view.) Endo never portrays the torture visually. The sensory impression of this agony that persuades Rodrigues to apostatize is entirely auditory. In fact, the form of the book is mostly non-visual – the text begins with letters purportedly despatched by Rodrigues and follows this epistolary model, a type of writing that is not primarily pictorial or descriptive, through the fifth chapter. As noted above, the novel ends in the citation of a variety of Kafkaesque bureaucratic documents, again eschewing any kind of description. Remarkably, Scorsese, perhaps the greatest living exponent of a vivid pictorial story-telling, elects to direct a film made from a novel that seems to be resolutely unfilmable – it is like Beethoven’s late sonatas that seem to renounce musicality and that use the piano like a device for torture, a sort of rack on which musical forms are twisted and destroyed.
The novel is the Western sense is not a form that is rooted in traditional Japanese esthetics. The emphasis on the travails of the individual self is inconsistent with aspects of Japanese culture that emphasize communal values. In one sense, Endo’s Silence is a novel broken on the wheel of Japanese traditional values – just as Christianity could not thrive in Japan’s "mud-swamp", there is a sense that the kind of novel that Endo is writing can not really exist in Japanese. Hence, I think a certain blankness in the text, a kind of indifference, the way that the gaze of the writer turns away from human suffering to the great thunder clouds hanging over the ocean or the mechanical cry of the cicada.
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
According to legend recounted by tour-guides at his Scottsdale mansion, William Wrigley Jr. was a poor student of unruly disposition. Expelled from private school for throwing a pie against the ivied wall of that academy, Wrigley’s father, a martinet, sentenced him to hard labor in the family’s soap factory. As the tale goes, William Wrigley spent ten years stirring for ten hours a day a vast and malodorous pot brimming with molten animal fat rendered into tallow. He married his wife, Ada, when he was 29 and absconded from the soap factory, traveling to Chicago with spouse and 32 dollars in his pocket. In the Windy City, Wrigley hawked soap on the streets, sweetening the deal for his customers by throwing in a free tin of baking soda with each sale. Surprisingly, the baking soda was more popular than his soap and Wrigley distributed a lot of the stuff. After a while, the young entrepreneur abandoned the sale of his "scouring soap" in favor of retailing baking soda. Experimenting with other "free gifts" at the point of purchase, Wrigley began offering customers sticks of chewing gum as a premium. A vast fortune flowed from these humble beginnings.
During the 1880's, chewing gum was marketed primarily to women as an aid to digestion. The unflavored gum was sold in large wafers. Wrigley’s innovation was to flavor his gum. He invented spearmint, peppermint, and the perennially popular "juicy fruit" flavors sweetening the gum that almost immediately became his sole product. Wrigley built his empire on flavored chewing gum. Apparently, the sale of gum is vastly lucrative – when the Wrigley gum company was sold in 2008 to Mars, Inc., the company that makes candy bars and M & M’s (" the candy that melts in your mouth not in your hands") the buyer paid 23 billion dollars.
The Depression didn’t affect chewing gum sales. If anything, people could treat their hunger pangs by exercising their jaws on a stick of gum. In 1929, William Wrigley built his fourth house in Scottsdale, Arizona as a 50th anniversary present to his wife, Ada. (Wrigley’s home town was Chicago and he had mansions in Pasadena and on Catalina Island – in fact, Wrigley owned the whole island and built the famous Casino there, a sort of fabulous seaside Xanadu.) The mansion overlooks the Biltmore resort, a luxury hotel with golf course, propped up against Scottsdale’s Camelback Mountain. Wrigley developed the resort with other investors but bought them out when the construction on the property was finished. Frank Lloyd Wright spent four months working as a consultant on the Biltmore resort, although he did not design the project. Wrigley and Wright, both from Chicago and prickly personalities, clashed. Wrigley’s mansion is built in an odd fusion of Moorish and southwestern styles – it is a conventional looking palazzo cresting a knoll about a quarter mile from the more modernist Biltmore. Wright denounced the mansion, saying "old man Wrigley has put his wad on display up on that hill." The Biltmore looked to the future; the Wrigley Mansion looked to the past. Wrigley hired an Italian artisan to paint the elaborate coffered ceilings in his mansion and burro trains marched across the desert from the Phoenix rail-head for several days carrying heavy loads of Spanish tile manufactured by Wrigley’s employees in a ceramics factory on Catalina Island.
Due to vagaries of Scottsdale zoning, the big house Wrigley built for Ada must remain a residence or may be denoted a private club. Since no one lives in the house today, the mansion is regarded as a private club, although one that anyone can join on paying the fee for admission. (So are the mighty fallen!) On a cool Spring morning, the house is very pleasant. The entrance rotunda is surmounted by a spoked wheel of timbers, the pie-slices between the joists painted in the sort of colors that you can imagine extracted from iron-ore bearing clays and various kinds of flowers and cochineal beetles. The walls are stuccoed white and a graceful cantilevered stairway spirals around the circular lobby leading to the residential rooms upstairs. The sunniest part of the house, a place with tall windows, has been converted into a restaurant – the kitchen is hidden somewhere in an administrative part of the structure. A large, and relatively unpretentious hall, extends to the side away from the rotunda. The hall also has an elaborate ceiling, coffers painted with colors similar to those in the entrance – the decorative motifs are elaborate stars wrapped in gilded frames and fleur-de-lys patters where pilasters join the ceiling. Some lousy, dim-looking and faded paintings hang in frames probably more valuable than the pictures themselves – there is a faux Claude or, possibly, Turner, its luminous central void considerably darkened around an array of harbor-facing classical temples and peculiar-looking imitations of Gainsborough portraits. Even more bizarre is a much-eroded picture of Charles I at the hunt in direct imitation of Anthony Van Dyke’s portrait – somehow, the stylish cavalier in the painting doesn’t fit the frame and so he has been unceremoniously hacked off at the knees.
This ceremonial room is large and comfortable. It’s most impressive feature is a big, sepulchral-looking Steinway, also fitted-up as a player piano. Only one other hybrid piano exists in the world – it is a combination of world class concert-ready grand piano with a primitive computer (called a "tablet’) that allows the device to unscroll player piano-rolls through its mechanism and, thereby, play itself. Wrigley commissioned several piano rolls of George Gershwin performing his "Rhapsody in Blue" and it is a spooky treat to see the piano’s keys mysteriously rising and falling as a ghost Gershwin labors over his great composition – we are seeing, of course, the exact configuration of notes as they were played by the composer, his own precise interpretation of the music, and this encounter with the spectral, long-dead composers sends a chill down your spine.
Climbing the cantilevered stair to the second floor, the tourist (now club-member) finds the small and airless chambers of a typical mansion made in the early part of the 20th century – the detail work is superb and each room contains its own custom-built fireplace crafted from exotic Arizona stones, but, in general, the aspect of the mansion devoted to the actual craft of living is underwhelming. Each room has its own bathroom and they are lavishly tiled, but dark and lightless and mattress-benches have been placed over the huge sarcophagus-sized tubs, apparently, to keep the people entering on tour from sprawling out in those cavernous cisterns to take unlicensed baths. In the manner of a grand house of the its time, both master and mistress have their own bedroom suites. The Wrigleys were affectionate, however, and William died in bed with his wife in her suite only a year or so after the house was complete. Over the entrance to the house, there is a slab of alabaster depicting a hand holding a rose. The rose droops down almost released from the stony fingers. Wrigley said that as long as the hand gripped the rose by its marmoreal petals his love for Ada would endure. The petrified hand and rose still caps the door into the house, the lintel at the mansion’s threshold.
In the third generation, Wrigley family members despaired of the house – it’s upkeep was expensive and the neighborhood now congested, the desert between the manor on the hill and downtown Phoenix nine miles away built into another kind of wasteland: all snarling traffic and strip malls and barren-looking suburbs. In 1973, the mansion, called "The Star of Phoenix", was sold to a cabal of wealthy businessmen who converted the home into their club-house. Memberships in the elite society were very expensive and there was no clear agenda for the use of the home. So, after another decade or so, the property was on the market again.
Enter Geordie Hormel. He acquired the home in peculiar circumstances and lived there for more than 20 years. Geordie died in 2006 but his trust still manages the property. (Tour guides will tell you that Geordie’s young widow and his two daughters often come for brunch on Sunday morning.) My Austin readers will know something about Geordie – indeed, he is legendary in the small town where I live and where the food corporation founded by his grandfather has its world headquarters. But, to my other readers, I owe the courtesy of a brief digression on this man.
In the late 19th century, a German immigrant and butcher named George Hormel founded a meat packing plant in Austin. George Hormel was a dour, unimaginative, and hardworking man and, by small town standards, he was extraordinarily prosperous. George Hormel’s son, Jay Catherwood Hormel was a brilliant businessman and technical innovator. He built the enterprise into a Fortune 500 Company before his early death in the nineteen-fifties. (George and Jay Hormel, father and son, died within a year of one another). The third generation of Hormel family members showed no interest in the family business with one exception, Geordie. Wonderfully handsome and gregarious, Geordie Hormel mingled with the people in Austin, drank beer and whisky with them and poached the local glamor girls and seemed, at least, initially, interested in assuming the mantle as heir-apparent and leader of the company. He served an apprenticeship in the plant and seems to have worked in marketing for a few years. By the late-fifties, the Hormel family had largely abandoned Austin for warmer climes – the family’s center of gravity was in Pasadena with branches in San Francisco (two of George’s sons were homosexual.) Geordie divided his time between Hollywood and Austin. Renowned as the "Pork Prince", he consorted with a wild and fast crowd of young actors and actresses in Los Angeles. In fact, once, he was convicted of possession of marijuana with his friend, Robert Mitchum. Geordie had a French mother, a war bride that Jay brought back from the Western Front, and, presumably, he spoke that language. Somehow, he managed to woo the French movie star, Leslie Caron. They were married and Geordie, still imagining that he had some role with the family company, moved his bride to Austin. He built her a large, if gloomy mansion, in a forest near town that is always snowy – even in May, one can find odd drifts of decaying snow in the deep and tangled thickets in that woods. The marriage lasted less than a year.
Geordie withdrew from the company. There is a saying about small town life that is indubitably, and brutally, true: In a small town, there is no one more beloved than a small-town boy who has left the village of his birth and made it big; conversely, a small-town hates no one more than a small-town boy who has stayed at home and prospered. Geordie showed signs of falling into the trap of the latter. He lost interest in packing pork, started restaurants and jazz clubs in Austin, and, after these ventures failed, he returned to Los Angeles where he worked in the movie and TV industry composing music. According to legend, Geordie refused financial assistance from the company or his family and was deadset on making his own way. (In other versions of the legend, the family refused to support Geordie because of his bohemian aspirations in the music industry). He married again, a beauty queen – Sammy Davis, Jr. appeared at the wedding as Best Man. This marriage also failed – Geordie was as beautiful as a movie star himself with startling black hair and Mephistophelean black eyebrows and he seems to have been congenitally unfaithful to the women in his life. For about a decade, Geordie supported himself writing jingles for advertisements and theme music for TV shows – he scored most of the early Hanna-Barbara cartoons and wrote the themes for Gunsmoke and Lassie as well as The Untouchables and The Fugitive. Then, marshaling all his resources, Geordie, a talented jazz pianist, purchased a recording studio. This studio, Village Recording, was the love of his life and the business upon which he lavished his technical acumen and not inconsequential business skills.
Geordie had inherited his father Jay’s interest in scientific innovation and he made his West Hollywood Studio a focal point for new technology in recording. Geordie renovated the building, formerly a Masonic Lodge, and utilized its Moroccan Ballroom for recording large ensembles and for music awards ceremonies. With Herbie Hancock, he purchased Fairlight and made another fortune producing keyboards. Equipped with the motto "the customer is always right," Geordie’s studio hosted historical recordings by just about every jazz and pop musician of any substance in the United States – the list of artists who made records at Village Recording runs the gamut from Ray Charles and Johnny Cash to Frank Zappa. (Charley Manson also cut a demo-tape there.)
Geordie’s interest in the nexus between technology and music recording brought him to the Wrigley Mansion. He knew that the mansion club owned one of two Steinway player pianos in existence and Geordie wanted to acquire that instrument together with its priceless piano rolls. He came to Scottsdale in 1983 and inspected the piano. It was exactly as advertised, a monument to recording technology as it existed in the late twenties and a peerless musical instrument. But there was a problem, the piano was immensely heavy and it could not be transported from the mansion without risk of damage – accordingly, the Wrigley family had stipulated by deed that the mansion was not to be sold without the piano and that, in fact, the instrument should remain in perpetuity on the property. Faced with these restrictions, Geordie had no choice but to buy the mansion itself – he paid about 2.6 millions dollars for the property including the precious piano. (A little later, hoping to furnish the house in proper style, Geordie spent another two million dollars on the Old Masters adorning the walls – almost all of the painting turned out to be fake, resulting in litigation for another ten years that ultimately Hormel lost.)
Ultimately, Geordie retired from the Village Recording business and moved to Scottsdale. He married for a third time, a fashion model fifty years his junior. Geordie was probably too old too stray and became a devoted husband, the marriage producing two daughters. When I came to Austin in 1979, the town was rife with rumors of Geordie sightings – he was said to have been seen in a bar on the East Side or drinking champagne in the Tiki Pub, a grass-thatched strip tease parlor that Geordie had founded as a jazz club twenty years earlier. People said that they saw him in Todd Park sitting at a picnic table or that he was in secret attendance when the ancient Dickensian slaughterhouse was imploded by an demolition contractor, its great red-brick towers toppling to the ground. People saw him driving in circles around the new plant, inspecting it with a jaundiced eye. No one could describe exactly how Geordie looked, but he was said to be fantastically handsome still and as charismatic as a matinee idol. Some said that he maintained a mistress in town and visited her once a year. Another person saw him attending a football came, watching the Austin Packers win against rival Albert Lea. During the great and tragic strike, union members said that Geordie was going to fly to Austin and that he would land in his private jet on the runway of the airport primarily built for use by Hormel corporate planes. The strikers said that he would call the opposing sides together and that by the sheer force of his majestic and epic personality, he would settle the conflict. People actually believed this and waited anxiously in the taverns where they plotted guerilla war against the company – denuding Spam cans, for instance, of their key-openers – everyone expecting Geordie to suddenly appear, whisked out of the sky on his jet, come to make peace in his poor, divided home-town.
But, of course, Geordie never returned to Austin. The sightings were all cases of mistaken identity. Geordie contended himself with sniping at the company from Scottsdale. "Spam," he declared, "is a good product – you can open the tin, throw out the meat which is horrible, and use the container to bake beans. I’ve done this many times on camping trips and it works great." By this point, Geordie had become a Buddhist and vegetarian.
At the Wrigley mansion, there are several galleries of large black and white photographs showing Geordie Hormel. You can see him as a young man, improbably handsome and elegantly dressed. In one picture, he stands next to his father Jay Hormel, his grandfather also nearby – the family is posed outside of the Hormel Mansion in downtown Austin and Jay wears suspenders. He has his thumbs tucked into his trousers and stands with his legs apart, very much a captain of industry, and young Geordie is beside him, gazing at his father with something like superstitious awe. There are other pictures of Geordie with various beautiful women, photographs of him reclining on a keyboard in the dark womb of this recording studio, and a large image of the man, cigarette in his mouth, pacing along the mean streets in New York City, a iconic picture that looks like a frame from an early movie by Godard or Truffaut.
As an old man, Geordie had shoulder-length white hair and wore round granny glasses. He was built like a butcher, a heavy-set muscular man. He threw open the doors to the Wrigley Mansion and invited the public to come inside to his restaurant and jazz club. The name of the club was Geordies and it had a famous jazz brunch. Sometimes, upscale diners enjoying their brunch would look into the big ceremonial room next to the restaurant and see an old man, dressed in sweat pants and barefoot, playing the famous Steinway piano. Invariably, someone would report this apparition to management – "some kind of tramp or hobo has broken into the house and is messing with the piano." And, then, management would have to assure the complainants that the old tramp was Geordie Hormel himself, entertaining them by improvising on the famous piano.
Although it probably makes him spin in his grave, the café in the mansion, still called Geordies serves a brilliant Spam cubano. The sandwich arrives on toasted wheat bread. A slab of fried Spam is inserted into the sandwich atop a delicately spiced heap of pulled pork. The sandwich is served on a wooden block with a bright blue and yellow Spam can filled with home-made potato chips. Several slivers of pickle are included. It costs about $14.95, overpriced but, then, you are paying, in part, for the ambience and the sandwich is very, very good.
In the middle of the 17th century, Eusebio Chinus was born in the Holy Roman Empire at Trentino (now Italy). Chinus became a Jesuit priest and was trained in Bavaria. His most earnest desire was to be assigned missionary work in China like his hero Francis Xavier. (Chinus may have felt a particular affinity for the Chinese missions because of his surname – it means something like "the Chink.") Workers were needed among the Indians in the Sonoran desert, however, and so Father Chinus, now named Eusebius Xavier Kino was assigned to remote part of Mexico called the alto Pimeria – the upper territory of the Pima Indians. The alto Pimeria encompasses what is presently northern Sonora, Baja California, and Arizona.
Kino was immensely successful in the duties charged to him and, ultimately, founded 22 missions. One of them, the great church and school at San Xavier del Bac, still ministers to the Indians. (The place is fantastically beautiful, called by Anselm Adams, "the white dove in the desert.") Kino was a renaissance man interested in astronomy, literature, botany, and zoology. He was a great explorer and wanderer in the deserts and, during one of his forays into the wilderness, discovered the ruins of the big house now called Casa Grande. The structure is a cyclopean block of adobe brick, almost 50 feet high, roofless now but with side-walls pocked with holes for viga beams to support not merely one roof at its summit, but also three lower floors as well. For several acres around the towering ruin, smaller walls and enclosures rise like smashed knuckles from the sun-blasted caliche or desert pavement. A oval pit with crumbling masonry walls was all that remained of the amphitheater of a ball park. The place as abandoned, broken walls and the high impenetrable rampart of the big house surrounded by flat, immobile desert, flickering at its edges with mirages, a place so barren that not even mice or jack-rabbits lived there. Kino wrote some notes in his journal and continued on his way. This was the year 1691.
These ruins are now central to Casa Grande National Monument, an archaeological reserve near the commercial strip connecting Coolidge to Florence, Arizona. The big house is protected by an impressive awning supported by great steel girders and four immense metal pylons – this structure, in some ways as interesting as the ruin, was built by the CCC in the thirties to protect the adobe tower from the torrential monsoon rains that arrive in each July and August in the northern Sonoran desert. Rain-sculpted walls housing dozens of small cell-like enclosure seem to kneel before the great tower. The remains of the pueblo walls and apartments extrude from the yellow hard-pan salmon-colored, like fins emerging from a still body of water. The location of the site is unprepossessing – there is a Walmart only a quarter mile away, some auto-parts stores, and fast food places. The terrain is completely without charm, flat basin stretching toward mountain ranges so remote that they are half-hidden below the horizon and peer over the edges of the earth as stylized blue-green pyramids. In this part of Arizona, prisons dominate the landscape. There is an immense and sinister-looking detention center at Florence – indeed, the entirety of that melancholy city seems to be concrete compounds surrounded by barbed wire fences with watchtowers lined-up to overlook the grim featureless prisons.
The cool, linear forms of the big awning holding the ruins in its embrace contrasts vividly with the eroded tower. The tower is riven by cracks at its top and cratered where the roof has collapsed. The sun and wind and rain have abraded the walls into the form of a square butte, more a naturally occurring feature in this landscape than a man-made structure. The impregnable, inhuman look of the big house is amplified by the fact that it has no windows, merely a few ports, round like a place where a burrowing bird might nest. There are doors on each side of the building, forlorn-looking shadowy openings shaped like an engorged letter "T". The inside of the structure, viewed through bars keeping you outside, is a grotto-like well made from melting walls of mud brick. At its base, the walls of the big house are six feet thick, faced with adobe brick and, then, plastered with caliche. The structure is estimated to have a weight of 60,000 tons and was made by workers hauling clay from quarries in the area where the Walmart and its parking lots are now located. The workers carried the clay in baskets, 60 pounds at a time. The upper three stories were supported by juniper logs, each about four to eight feet long with wicker floors woven together and, then, plastered with lime cement. There is no wood anywhere near by. The logs were hewn with stone axes in mountains sixty miles away and carried by teams of men to the building site. In all respects, the enterprise was immense.
No one really knows what the building was for. The casa grande was erected around 1300 AD when the adjacent village had about 2500 residents. Other villages were scattered across the plain, probably all within site of one another, and the Indians grew squash, beans, corn, and chili in fields irrigated by a system of ditches diverting water away from the San Pedro river. Casa Grande is built at the farthest reach of the irrigation ditches, about 17 miles from the river. The ditch system, an astounding feat of engineering, complete with weirs to control water flow and carefully designed gradients to convey the water through the cultivated fields is comprised of more than 200 miles of adobe-lined trench – some of the trenches were nine feet deep. Around 1400, Casa Grande was abandoned. People left the village and great house over the course of a generation. In the end, the entire complex of villages and agricultural fields was also lost to the desert.
Of course, it is a false enigma to claim that the people who lived at Casa Grande mysteriously vanished. However, other Indians in the vicinity were puzzled by the ruins. They said that the tower and the fallen ramparts around it were made by the "huhugum" or Hohokam as they are sometimes called – "huhugum" means "vanished ones." In fact, the villagers seem to have simply moved to other village in the alto Pimeria and the Indians to which Father Kino ministered were, in fact, the descendants of those people who had built Casa Grande. What are these people named? Kino called them the Pima – but "pima" is an Indian word that means "I don’t know." Apparently, someone asked a native informant as to the name of the local Indians and was told "pima" – that is, "I don’t know." From this misunderstanding, the entire territory was named: alto Pimeria. Later, the Apaches scornfully called the desert Indians "papago" – this means something like "beaner" or "chatter boxes." Today, the Indians living in this area call themselves the Tohono O’odham – that is, "desert dwellers." The proper (approved) name for the people who built Casa Grande is "ancestral Tohono O’odham" or "ancestral desert dwellers."
So why was the monumental "big house" now called Casa Grande abandoned? All sorts of explanations have been proposed – perhaps, nomadic raiders frightened the people away, or there was climate change or the Tohono O’odham population exceeded the carrying capacity for the fragile ecosystem. I will suggest another hypothesis based on my visit to the Wrigley Mansion, another big house now abandoned except to tourists, on the slopes of the Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale.
The Wrigley Mansion existed as dynastic "big house" for about three generations. Thereafter, it was used as a club and, then, owned by another wealthy man unrelated to original family that built the place. In effect, the Scottsdale Wrigley Mansion survived as a residence for about four generations – about 80 years. Archaeologists believe that Casa Grande was occupied for about 100 years. Therefore, the time-scales are roughly congruent – from erection to desertion, dynastic big houses survive in their original capacity for three to four generations.
When considering the remote past, interpreters often seek exotic or imaginative explanations for events – there is a tendency, for instance, to exaggerate the role of religion and superstition and view artifacts of the past primarily as evidence of ritual practices. Viewed in this light, one might interpret the many fleur-de-lys decorations in the Wrigley mansion as proof of a flourishing vegetative cult, a religion involving flowers sprouting from the earth as some sort of guarantor of future fruitfulness. (In fact, we know that Wrigley’s wife claimed French aristocratic blood and that the fleur-de-lys was a tribute to Ada’s genealogical pretensions.) Often explanations of this sort defy the principle of Occam’s razor, the notion that the simplest interpretation is generally the best.
A simple fact, shown by the destiny of the Wrigley Mansion, is that dynasties weaken and their vigor lessens with time. From the virile indefatigable founder to the dilettante grandson or great-grandson, there is a span of three to four generations. The Hormel family began butchering pigs but by Geordie’s generation was involved primarily in esthetic activities – fostering the arts of music and recording that music. After just three generations, no members of the Hormel household were involved in the family industry. Similarly, after three generations, the industrial energy and ambition of the Wrigley family had been depleted – simply stated there was no one left to run the family enterprise and the business had to be sold. We don’t need to be a student of Buddenbrooks to understand that enterprising entrepreneurs don’t necessarily produce more than a couple generations of successors willing to carry on the family business. Decadence, it seems, is a natural condition of life.
The big house at Casa Grande is built at a point 17 miles distant from the life-giving San Pedro River. The cultivated land around that big house bore witness to the expertise of ancestral Tohono Oo’dham in managing water resources. Presumably, the big house was occupied by some chieftain whose prestige arose from his (or her) management of the canals necessary to support the villages in the area. Anyone who lives in a rural area understands that managing and conserving an elaborate system of drainage and irrigation ditches is a full-time activity. Significant human resources must be devoted to inspecting the ditch system, repairing weirs, and cleaning out places where the canals have eroded and become blocked with debris. Just as great labor was required to construct the irrigation system in the first place, additional resources must be applied to maintenance of the ditches on a daily, or, at least, seasonal basis. Monsoon rains might result in flooding and breach of dikes. During dry seasons, dust will infiltrate canals or plants undermine the integrity of impoundment basins. Much bucket-labor accomplished with wicker baskets had to be applied to the irrigation system to maintain gradients necessary to the flow of water into the more remote parts of the irrigation network. The vital canals, accordingly, had to be serviced by a labor force and, I presume, these workers were under the direction of the family inhabiting the Casa Grande. The big house is built with certain orifices helpful, it is argued, to predicting the seasons, establishing dates for planting crops, and analyzing lunar motion for the purpose of prophesying eclipses of the moon – ports in the house at its upper levels are claimed to have calender significance: when the sun or moon aligns with a certain opening, calculations can be made as to the season and time of year. These features at the Big House at Casa Grande suggest that the structure housed people whose role was related to managing water resources by understanding seasonal changes, predicting rainy seasons, and determining when crops should be planted.
Although the denizens of the Casa Grande, in my view, were primarily concerned with utilitarian water management activities, there is no doubt that these chieftains claimed supernatural affiliation with the phenomena that they monitored. Probably, their prestige was bound up in the ability to predict seasonal events relating to water resources and their administrative power to command the labor force necessary to maintaining the irrigation canals. To understand a field of endeavor is to exercise control over it. My speculation is that the family in the Great House was instrumental in creating the life-giving canals, managing them, and, further, claimed some ability to intervene in weather events to implement the conveyance of water to the villages.
But after three generations, or four at the most, the lineage is exhausted. The genetic material wears thin. A new generation is uninterested in the hard business of slaughtering pigs or making chewing gum or managing an intricate water system. Perhaps, a drought intervenes, further eroding the prestige of the Great House family. A breach in the canal occurs and the man or woman in the Big House doesn’t care – no one commands a work force to repair the dysfunctional ditch: manana...we will get to that tomorrow. The gradient isn’t properly maintained and sediment changes the elevations of the ditch bottoms so that water no longer flows to the more remote villages. Furthermore, no one knows exactly how to maintain gradients to keep the canals viable and flowing. The prestige of the water managing family collapses. Orders are given but not implemented. No new irrigation ditches are built. When the roof above the tower’s fourth floor collapses, there are no vigas in the warehouse with which to make repairs. The nearest mountains with junipers big enough to support the roof are sixty miles away. No one is willing to go that distance to lug the big logs back to the village. In another generation, the place is silent, deserted, sand sifting down into the canals and the old mud-brick walls melting into the caliche.
Digression on the Border Wall: The United States is now in the throes of what the French call an Egocrite – that is, a regime in which the leading politician claims an exact identity between himself and the State. It is well-known that President Trump has promised to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Some of this wall, of course, would pass through Arizona.
One problem with this quixotic venture is that some fifty miles of this border, west of Phoenix, lies within the Tohono O’odham Nation. Furthermore, this Reservation straddles the border. At least, 2000 members of the tribe live across the border in Sonora, Mexico. Accordingly, as far as the sovereign Tohono O’odham Nation is concerned, the citizens of that polity reside both in Mexico and the United States and are accustomed to traveling freely between the two countries. When Arizona was acquired by the Gadsden purchase, the status of these Indians was problematic – should they be regarded as citizens of Mexico or the United States or should there be dual citizenship? Ultimately, in that era of nation-building, the politicians elected to consider the Indians as citizens of the United States or Mexico depending upon where they were primarily domiciled on the reservation – this solution was never really accepted by the tribe whose members regard themselves as having something like dual citizenship.
On an Indian reservation, everyone is related. To construct a wall along the border will divide family members from one another. Furthermore, the Tohono O’odham are fond of pilgrimages – Mexican Indians frequently make pilgrimages to the "White Dove of the Desert" at San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson. Similarly, the Indians in the United States are obligated to yearly pilgrimages to Magdalena, Mexico to visit the bones of Father Eusebio Kino. A wall dividing the two nations would interfere with these religious observances. The tribal authorities on the Tohono O’odham reservation have served notice on the Trump administration that they don’t intend to tolerate the construction of a wall across their sovereign nation. So in 2018, when we will undoubtedly be embroiled in wars in the Middle East, Korea, and the China Sea, with fighting taking place as well in Eastern Europe, the Trump administration will likely find itself conducting the last of the Indian wars in south central Arizona.
Saturday, March 4, 2017
No estoy yo acqui que soy tu madre?
CDMX, the Ciudad de Mexico, founded by the Aztecs in 1325, is the oldest capitol in the western hemisphere and its largest city as well. No one knows how many people live in the city and its environs – above a certain numerical level, everything is estimate. But there are probably 8.8 million people within the territorial limits of the city itself, an aggregate of 22.2 million living in the basin or Valle de Mexico.
Mexico City is divided into a central region of approximately 1300 square miles comprising the Federal District (D.F.). This area comprises Mexico’s cultural and political center, the capitol of the country. Ringing the Federal District are various barrios, suburbs, and cities that are known as the "State" – that is, because these colonia are located outside of the Federal District in the State of Mexico. The 8.8 million people in the D. F. regard the State as chaotic, lawless, and potentially dangerous. The people in the State regard those living in the D.F. as snobbish, self-important, and narcissistic – they call the inhabitants of the D.F. definos (based on the abbreviation for the Federal District), a mildly derogatory term. (Although the slang-word for an inhabitant of Mexico City, chilongos, was originally a term of abuse, it has been adopted as a badge of identity by most people who live within the City.) Inhabitants of both central Mexico City, the D. F., and the ring of colonia comprising the metropolitan agglomeration regard those living elsewhere in the country with disdain – if you are not an inhabitant of CDMX, you live in the "provinces."
In this essay, I gather some impressions and thoughts about CDMX arising during by six-day visit to that City in early January 2017. During that time, I toured the city under the guidance of a young friend who is engaged in research at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). My friend is a very intelligent, handsome, and engaging young man – his parents, immigrants from Mexico, have lived across from me in Austin, Minnesota since the early 1990's. Born of Mexican parents, but also an American citizen, this young man, whom I will call GRH, was an ideal guide to the City.
Mexico City is garish, astonishing, and chaotic. Therefore, at least at the outset, I will try to regulate my prose so that my writing is lucid, sober, and orderly. The pressure of my experiences, however, and the force of that city’s influence, a dense field of colors and smells, sensations, a babble of voices, the roar of subways and the wild, lurid intricacy of the street-life, may overwhelm me, rupture my sentences and afflict my grammar, and, perhaps, force me into some sort of verbal expressionism. This, however, I hope to avoid.
First, the weather: before traveling to CDMX, I looked at the forecasts posted on the Weather Underground website. For someone used to a mid-continental climate with its wide and unpredictable variation in temperature, the forecast was baffling. Every day, past and future, was sunny, with a low temperature between 40 and 45; by mid-afternoon, the temperature would rise to 75 degrees and, then, slowly decline to readings in the early evening in the mid-sixties. After midnight, the temperature would drop again to the low forties. Weather Underground graphs these temperatures and the effect was something like a sine wave rising steeply in the day to an afternoon crest and, then, sliding slowly downward to an early morning trough. When I saw a dozen or so days graphed in this way, it seemed as if I were looking at some kind of procession, a parade of identically dressed retainers marching one after another into the future.
Some of the murals at the ancient city of Teotihuacan, a place about an hour away from CDMX by bus, show figures interpreted to be a storm god or, more probably, the masked worshipers of that god. (In Nahuatl, the god was called Tlaloc but, since we don’t know the language spoken by the inhabitants of Teotihuacan, a vast city that was abandoned 400 years before the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs founded their metropolis, we have no idea what the people in that earlier city-state called this deity.) The storm god priests painted in the frescos at Teotihuacan are all shown in profile, with ornate architectonic headdresses and tail-roaches studded with schematically depicted feathers, wearing goggles to simulate the eyes of frogs or other amphibians that flourished in the old reed lakes of the basin during the rainy seasons. Each god, or priest imitating this god, is identical, bearing a scepter, drawn in mellow-looking pigments that now read as yellow against Pompeiian red. Ranked across the wall, they looked to me like the temperature graphs posted on the Weather Underground, a procession of sinusoidal deities of exactly equal size, marching through the eternal spring of the Vale of Mexico.
Mid-afternoon in CDMX, the sun is bright and has a real bite, enough to force pedestrians to seek the shady side of the street, but the air feels cool and, as the evening progresses, there is something strangely delicious about the climate, something that entices you to go outside and walk in the twilight. The rainy season is past and it is dry as a bone and strange red and yellow flowers hang from the vines and, among the closed and forbidding houses, all presenting their great walls topped with coils of razor wire and electrified fence, there are Christmas decorations: stars shining over Bethlehem and the brilliant orbs of ornaments suspended over the incommunicative half-hidden doors leading into the residential compounds. In the market place, people wear stocking caps and thick winter coats and they have bundled up their children into spherical balls of hat and mitten and overcoat and, yet, it is, indisputably, 62 degrees with no breeze stirring. Everyone is dressing for a January that doesn’t seem anything like January at all – more like a mild and sweet day in early May.
The pizza party took place at 39,000 feet and I had the worst seat in the house. The jet was cramped, an aisle down the middle with three seats on each side, and my assigned location was the very last row in the plane, 36C – that is, the aisle seat closest to the toilets in the back of the air-bus. On my left, a middle-aged man held a huge pizza box on his lap. The man was Korean, but spoke loudly in Spanish, delivering orders to his family who were ranked about him like the petals opening around the stamen of a flower. One of the Mexican Korean’s sons sat across the aisle to my right. His other son sat to his left. The man’s wife was in the seat ahead of him, 35B, I suppose with his small daughter occupying the window seat in that row. Fumes from the pizza made me half-dizzy – I hadn’t eaten for several hours and was very hungry and, when the plane ascended from the sweaty murk at Houston, and climbed to its cruising altitude, the Korean Mexican opened the huge box, displaying a round wheel of crust and glistening cheese studded with fragrant pepperoni. The scent and, then, the display of the pizza, a pie with a circumference of a bicycle tire, made me salivate like a dog and I wished that the Korean Mexican would offer me a slice, but, of course, his agenda was to feed this family – his wife and three children and all of them were hungry, chirping like little birds in Spanish and asking to be fed. The Korean Mexican handed out the hot slices and, when it came time to pass one to his son on my right, across the aisle, he lifted the pizza over my head and dangled it there until the son could seize it with his upraised hand and, during the process, pepperoni grease splashed down onto my bald spot and burned there. The pizza party continued with the distribution of slices over my head sometimes resulting in a fleck of cheese or a bit of sausage dripping down behind my ear.
The stewardesses ran over my toes with their service carts and people queued-up for the toilet jostled me, damaging the notes I was taking in the margin of my book, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. More pizza changed hands and, then, the plane descended into Mexico City. Whenever I looked across the aisle to the hatch-window opposite, I saw the same thing: a featureless plain covered with low concrete buildings extending as far as the eye could see. The whole vista was sunk in greyish smog and the sun was setting without flourish or color – it was like seeing an enormous, infinite city drowned in waters, as if the ancient and life-giving lakes had been resurrected by the tides of smog and the buildings submerged in that briny flood. The sight was sinister and dispiriting.
I can’t write with any real authority even about those things that I know. I am a lawyer and, if I were to write about being a lawyer, I would falsify my experiences in every phrase and sentence. Similarly, I am not writing about CDMX, a place so huge and complex as to be incomprehensible even to those who have lived in the city all their lives. So what is my subject? I suppose that truth requires that I make this admission: I am writing about the one thing that I know about, although only a little – that is, myself.
We were afraid that GRH would not meet us at the airport. Emails had gone awry. But he was there, waiting outside Salida 2. He was on time. We were the ones that were tardy.
The air had a sweet foul smell like cabbage cooking or rotting flowers. But I knew that it was the odor of the sewers.
Mexico City’s airport is on the north side of the city. Of course, the metropolis is so vast that the airport is crushed among teeming neighborhoods that extend limitlessly in all directions. Coyoacan, the colonia where we were staying, is across town, on the other side of the city.
In general, CDMX is amorphous – like God, its center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere. The famous, sun-blasted Zocalo establishes a literal center to the city. But, the Zocalo is peculiar in that it is an absence and not a presence, an opening in the sea of buildings and dwellings. Most modern cities define their centers by a glittering and columnar massing of skyscrapers, the towers built closely so that, from a distance, they appear as a single structure welded together at hip and belly. Mexico City is prone to devastating earthquakes so that it would be folly to build to steeply upward into the heights of the sky, particularly since regulation of building codes is slipshod and ad hoc. Accordingly, the city’s center is defined by what is not there – by a great open plaza and the absence of the pre-Columbian Templo Mayor that once occupied the sacred island that was the center of the World.
GRH thought that the cab ride from the airport to Coyoacan would take an hour-and-a-half, although the distance is only eight or ten miles, but, after some initial traffic jams, vehicles were flowing smoothly and we reached our destination in much less time than anticipated. The cab driver stopped next to an open square dizzy with Christmas lights and swarming with people.
The first quarter mile that you walk in CDMX is a shock to the senses. The crush of people overwhelms you. Street lights are erratically placed and, in the darkness, there is a violent clash between shadow and light – rows of push-carts sheltered under canvas awnings line the street and people are gathered, obstructing the narrow and ruinous sidewalk to buy food from the vendors. Under their awnings, the dark faces of the vendors are hidden in the shadow but light falls upon their wares, the steaming pots and the grills laden with spiced meat and the towering columns of tortillas. People are selling every kind of thing from more carts pushed in among the food vendors – there are women selling carved wooden animals painted with hallucinatory colors, shawls, tee-shirts, key-chains, tiny figurines. Half of the vendors have packs of cigarettes open atop their piles of brightly colored merchandise – you can purchase cigarettes one at a time. Fogs of steam rise over orangish and huge ears of corn. The air seethes with smells – fennel, chili peppers, mists of jalapeno that blaze in your eyes, sewage and diesel, licorice, cinnamon, toasted corn, freshly fried potato and plantain chips. Caternary-curved loops of lights dangle between carts and the sidewalks is a serpentine with power cables and the store-fronts are all open, some of them mere niches from which people’s voices cry out to you over their wares, other openings in the walls that extend deep into the block, places where waiters in tuxedos are swooping down over tables or escalators whisking people up to rooftop cantinas.
I come from an old place, a very old place. The people in Austin are elderly and they move slowly and predictably and, to us, the world is full of dangers that are all the more prevalent because worried about incessantly. Mexico is a very young place. Children tugged this way and that by their parents fill the streets. Adolescent boys and sweet-looking little girls dandle smiling (or howling) infants on their laps, sitting on street curbs next to leashed and morose-looking dogs. Lovers seek out nooks and crannies in the buildings and shove their bodies together. Every bench in the big city park is occupied, sometimes by two couples, both entwined in an embrace. Along the edges of the plaza, a caramel-colored church rises woozily above the chaos, half-drunk it seems with the vibrant light splashing up against it and in the square’s center, two bronze coyotes the size of Volkswagens stand in an aureole of fountain spray, incandescent with the green and red Christmas lights reflected in the dancing water.
Perhaps, ten-thousand people are gathered in the two conjoined plazas at Coyoacon on this Wednesday night in January. Most of them are between the ages of 15 and 35. A few grizzled grey-beards shuffling down the sidewalk seem to be in their forties. Some of the grey-beards sit on camp-stools next to food carts or trinket wagons supervising the labor of two younger generations – sons and granddaughters. I don’t see anyone even approximately my age. Where are the old people? Where is anyone who looks like me?
I can imagine being a German or, even, an Italian or Greek. I have a sense for what it might be like to be Roman or Parisian. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a Mexican. The crazy optimism of the street-life, its fearlessness and vigor, is beyond my comprehension.
To get from one part of the two diagonally conjoined plazas in Coyote-ville (Coyoacan), you can walk through a billowy white tent, shaped a bit like the swollen belly of a queen termite, a big elongated balloon somehow dropped to earth into this plaza.
In CDMX, you are always encountering things that make no sense at all, sights and experiences that can’t be understood. In the white tent at Coyoacan, there are many peculiar things – people dressed up as devils and angels prowling around, odd and terrifying foods, people selling mezcal and tequila either by the cup or the bottle, a blare of music as each vendor tries to attract your attention by amping up the volume of his boombox beyond the range of his neighbor. In one booth, hamburgers are sizzling on a hot grill – some half-hidden propane tanks are spitting fuel into a blue fire that blazes openly at shin-height, heating this part of the tent so that, it seems to me, the plastic fabric might be endangered, the tent walls either melting or coming unseamed or worse, risking transfiguration in upward-ascending flames. The booth advertises Serb Burgers. In Spanish, the sign assures customers that the Serbians "make the best burgers in the Balkans".
What does it mean to make "the best burgers in the Balkan States?" Nearby, gyros are spinning on a rotisserie, a slab of cayenne-flavored meat shaped vaguely like a baby on a spit.
GRH leads us, gaping at the vehemence of the streets, to a restaurant called Los Parados. It’s a huge place occupying the corner of one of the older buildings around the plaza. The walls and floor are tiled and the food is prepared at a barge-shaped grill and oven in one corner of the eatery. Like all of the establishments around the square, the place is teeming with people, whole families gathered around heavy wooden tables and sitting on pier-shaped wooden benches for their supper. GRH suggests some items on the menu and he orders for us. We have beer with our meal, Pacifico and Victoria. The place is bright, well-lit and, from our table, seems to extend in all directions for a great distance. Waiters and waitresses hustle back and forth in ceaseless motion and the cooks at the grill stand in puffs and columns of steam, sometimes batting down small, pyramidal fires.
I have enchiladas in a chili verde sauce. In CDMX, food is not heavily seasoned. Restaurants expect their patrons to customize the level of spice in the food. Each table is equipped with a tray laden with cups of salsa, raw onions, avocado slices, green and malign jalapenos, small walnut-shaped limes split in two. People in CDMX squeeze lime onto everything that they eat. Then, they choose the salsa that is to their taste. Red salsas are, generally, sweet and mild; orange and yellow salsas are made with habanero and scotch bonnet peppers and they are like an acetylene-torch in your mouth, green salsas are unpredictable – made with tomatillo and peppers, they can be mild and refreshing, almost minty to the taste, or fiery hot. You have to test the green salsa by putting a dab on your palm and, then, cautiously applying your tongue to that sauce.
The food is superb, astonishingly flavorful and complex, and comforting as well. With the beers, our three dinners, including soup and appetizers, cost about $22 American. A single person eating in Los Parados – the word means "unemployed" literally, but in Chilongo, something like "stand up guys" or "a person of leisure" – might pay $5 American dollars for an excellent meal of several courses. Most of the items on the menu are priced at about 75 to 100 pesos – that is $3.50 to about $5.00.
"I can’t believe how cheap it is," I say to GRH.
"Mexicans eat very well," he tells me. "Many people are poor, but no one starves and, when they eat, they eat very, very well."
GRH suggests to me a very wonderful speciality of the house. He tells me that if I return to Los Parados, I should order a dish that has a name beginning with "a", possible "arau" – this consists of a deep-fried tortilla covered with refried beans layered with goat or mutton meat and, then, covered in melted queso, the whole thing slathered with sour cream. I take out my pen to write down the name of this dish, but the restaurant is very noisy and a procession of cars is passing slowly between the food stands on the sidewalk, horns blaring, and so I can’t quite make out the spelling.
The AirBnB place is about six blocks away. As soon as you leave the plaza, the streets are silent and very dark. Long walls topped with barb wire shield the houses from the street. No windows are visible. In CDMX, a window is an invitation to burglary or kidnaping or, even, worse. A market a couple blocks from square is closing. Men are calling to one another, making curious flute-like whistling sounds to guide their helpers as they back or park cars. (I now know that this whistling actually constitutes a language, complete with grammatical tenses and different parts of speech – the Chinantec and Mazatecan linguistic systems have a "whistled language" intelligible at great distances and capable of all sorts of rhetoric. In fact, Sochiapam Chinantec has three recognized and wholly separate "whistled dialects." These languages are spoken in northern Oaxaca and the Vera Cruz area.) Unsold food in the market is being sorted and there are heaps of rejected vegetables and tortillas simply whisked into the gutters under the loading docks along one side of the big, barn-like structure. I glimpse a sign for the Jardin de Pulpo, the "Octopus’ garden", perhaps, a reference to a song by the Beatles.
Our way takes us along a shattered sidewalk next to a high-wall that marks a prep school named after Benito Juarez. A Virgin of Guadalupe painted on the wall hovers over the sidewalk.
We find 86 Farias Gomez, the address of the apartment that we have rented. Across the street, on the corner, a mom-and-pop cubby-hole sells candy bars, pop from a cooler, and various household items. The little neighborhood store is named after Malinche or Malintzin, Hernan Cortes’ concubine who acted as both emissary and translator for the Spanish conquistador. However, the small shop also occupies the corner of 86 Farias Gomez and an avenue named Malintzin after Cortes’ mistress, either a heroine or a race-traitor depending upon your view of Mexican history – whether the store designates the woman or the street or both is unclear, of course, probably formally undecideable. In this part of Coyoacan, the east-west streets are named after Aztec or other Indian nobility, Malintzen, for instance, Montezuma, and Cuahmatec. The north-south streets bear Spanish names, presumably worthies from Mexican history.
The owner of the apartment is ostensibly Pablo, a very handsome, jut-jawed young man about 30 years old. He seems to be always traveling. In fact, I think the small efficiency apartment was formerly Pablo’s rooms, or, perhaps, a garage before he moved away from the compound which is, in fact, a dignified family home. Access to the place is granted through two massive steel doors, painted dark green. One door is wide enough to accommodate the entrance of a small car into the interior courtyard, apparently a garden lined with green rubber trees. Our door opens – if you can manipulate the key just so – into the small efficiency, a bedroom, combination kitchen and sitting room as well as a tiny toilet with shower. I suspect that this little suite of rooms may have been retired from use and remodeled when Pablo grew up and, in fact, moved away from the ancestral home. The actual owner of the compound seems to be Pablo’s father, a very dignified, handsome, and slender gentleman, who seems to be in his early fifties. Pablo’s father is named Augustos. He speaks no English, although, fortunately, GRH is with us to translate. Through the window in the toilet, cracked an inch or so, you can look up into the courtyard, peering through a glossy and exuberantly green rubber tree, upward to some big, ornately framed windows. The Mexican middle- and upper-class lives in homes with interior courtyards, these residential buildings two stories high with their big windows opening into the courtyard and, therefore, within the fortified space. There are no exterior windows and the houses have a secretive, guarded aspect – from the sidewalk, it is impossible to determine where one property ends and the other begins, the open spaces or lawns, as it were, are inside of the house, surrounded by the living rooms, bedrooms on the second floor, the kitchens and common areas, including rooms for servants at street level. Looking through the rubber tree as I stand over the toilet, I can make-out the big windows in their cast-iron frames, the balconies, the flowering ivy climbing the walls, but have no real idea what is beyond this facade turned inward on the brown stucco and adobe courtyard. (Sometimes, while walking, I can look through a grated gate to glimpse in passing expensive cars parked in the courtyards, chauffeurs conferring gravely with silver-haired matrons wearing gold crosses over their breasts, glistening chrome and cascades of flowers and great carved doors with brass handles.)
Several expensive art books are set on low tables for display. Augustos turns on the TV – Mexico is perpetually in crisis and the cable news shows forlorn stretches of desert highway where phalanxes of police cars are inexplicably parked, uniformed men desultorily picking through a wasteland.
GRH asks about drinking the tap water. Augustos gives the same answer that is provided anywhere you go in CDMX: "the tap water is perfectly safe and good to drink; it has been treated with chlorine, except that you should not under any circumstances drink the tap water."
"Don’t drink the water," GRH says after translating this peculiar and contradictory intelligence.
He takes us across the street and we buy a shrink-wrapped gallon of Bonafont agua ligera. It costs about a dollar.
GRH worked for five months as a laborer in a peach orchard in California’s Imperial Valley. Although I have asked him several times why he subjected himself to this grueling labor, his answers have always been oddly ambiguous and uncertain. Perhaps, my gifted young friend intends to write the great American novel, not in the vein of Melville or Hawthorne or Dreiser, but the great Pan-American novel. In that case, I suppose, his experience in the orchards, laboring seven days a week in the ghastly heat of California’s inland empire, would be valuable to him.
GRH is cosmopolitan; he has a German girlfriend who lives in Munich and he spent a semester studying in France. He has been a political and community organizer and has been to Rome and Cappadocia and god knows where else – at 23, he is far more of a world traveler than I am. Working in the peach orchard, GRH tells me that met many very admirable people. One man, greatly respected by all other workers, was 79 years old – he was a master of the difficult art of pruning peach trees for maximum productivity. This old man could out-work the other younger laborers because of his efficiency, the sheer intelligence embodied in his hands and muscles. GRH understood, of course, that he had an escape from this manual labor, an exit through the back-door, that his tenure in the orchard would end and that he would return to scholarly pursuits. This made him distinct from the other workers although he lived with them, ate the foods they ate, slept in their dormitories and worked elbow-to-elbow with them in the sweltering orchard. The work, GRH told me, was for him, at first, like being "kicked in the face."
GRH said to me that there are very few actual immigrants to the United States from Mexico. With only a very few exceptions, everyone who travels to the north for work fully intends to return to Mexico lindo at some time in the future, preferably the near future. The government-mandated minimum wage in Mexico is 70 pesos a day – that is, about $3.50. Most people make more than that, but, nonetheless, a day’s physical labor in Mexico represents to most workers an hour or so of paid wages in el Norte. Accordingly, people go north always with the plan to make enough money to return to Mexico and buy a ranch or a reasonably nice house in a leafy suburb in one of the big cities. Very few people move to the United States with the intention of putting down roots and permanently residing there. When this happens, as it does often, it is a kind of error or failing.
GRH told me this story: a man was married and lived in the D.F. with his wife and several children. The man was poor and, so, he decided to travel to the States to make some money. He left CDMX and, with great difficulty, crossed the border illegally, almost perishing in one of the deserts of the southwest. Evading border patrols and immigration, he made his way to the Imperial Valley – this story, in itself, would be epic, the subject for some modern-day Homer or Virgil.
The man found a job working as an agricultural laborer. He tried to save money but there were distractions. Probably, he was lonely, took up with a woman in the valley and, perhaps, she had his child or children. When he could, he sent money back to his family in the D.F. But some months, he was cash-strapped and missed making those payments. Months of backbreaking labor became years. Each new year, the man would count his money and ask himself if he had saved enough to be able to return in dignity to his wife and children, now mostly grown-up, in Mexico City. Each year, he resolved to return to his home, but didn’t have enough cash to his name to return as the sort of conquering hero that he imagined himself to be. His friends in Mexico City forgot him and, perhaps, his wife, struggling to make ends meet in that place, also became embittered.
At last, the man had saved $6,500 dollars (about 130,000 pesos). With his money carefully sewn into his coat and trousers, the man bought a bus ticket in Bakersfield and returned to Mexico City. He had been in the United States for 19 years. GRH admired the man’s persistence and attended his going away party at the encampment where the migrant workers slept. Everyone drank cheap tequila and mezcal and there were bawdy toasts and embraces and, then, the man departed with his life-savings hidden in his clothing. He said that he had spoken with his wife in the D.F. and that she had agreed to meet him at the bus station in the northern part of the city – the place where buses depart for Teotihuacan on the outskirts, but, also, Monterrey, Chihuahua, and Juarez City.
The man reached Mexico City and was very happy. He made an excited call to his mates in the peach orchard: "I am home," he said. He told his friends that he would call them the next day after he had met his wife. For some reason, she had not come to the bus station to meet him, but he said that he was going to look for her and that he knew where she lived. The man knew that taxi-cabs in Mexico City have a malign reputation and that the subway is dangerous and, so, he said that he was being safe, that he would "foot it" across the city. But there was no call the next day. The workers in the peach orchard dialed his phone number a dozen times but there was no answer. Then, after four or five days, someone at the orchard received a call from the man – he was obviously disoriented and sounded as if he were drunk or drugged. The man said that nothing was the same, that Mexico City had changed completely from what he remembered of the place, that things had moved inexplicably, and that the old familiar places could not be found. The man said that he was alone and that he was wandering by foot through neighborhoods that he couldn’t recognize and that he didn’t know where he was. He told his friends that he had no money. "What happened to your money?" "I don’t know, I just don’t know," the man said. "What about your wife?" The man replied: "I don’t know. I just don’t know." Then, the phone call abruptly ended.
There were no further communications with the man. No one knew how to reach his wife. Some of the men suspected that she had remarried or had a lover and that they had tortured their co-worker for his money. Curiously, the men who held this opinion said that they could understand her motives and, that, after all, what more could be expected of an abandoned wife. Others said that this was unfair and that they didn’t know what the man’s wife in the D.F was like, had no real idea as to her character and that it was calumny to accuse her of this crime. CDMX is famously dangerous, particularly to a wayfarer carrying lots of cash, and, perhaps, the man had simply succumbed to the sort of crime endemic to parts of the city.
GRH went to Mexico City in late September or early October. Later, he learned that the man from the peach orchard had died in late November, apparently the victim of a broken heart. People said: "this sort of thing often happens." And they blamed the City – she is a vicious bitch, she is fickle, she changes entirely from month-to-month. Last year’s Mexico City is not the same as this year’s Mexico City. Every six months, the City sheds its skin and becomes something new.
Pedro Paramo is a famous Mexican novel written by Juan Rulfo. In that book, a man promises his dying mother that he will return to the village where he was born. When he reaches the village, the place is abandoned, a ghost town – everyone has moved to el Norte or Mexico City. The people remaining in the village turn out to be specters, apparitions – gradually, the forces of a deadly past coalesce and the revenants kill the man who has returned to his desolate home-town. But the novel doesn’t end when it’s protagonist dies. Instead, the ghosts take over the story and, adobe brick by brick, the town is reconstituted. There is a crime of passion and someone is stabbed during a fiesta and, at last, the villages melts away again, a lonely crossroads again in the desert with a ruined church. I imagine the story of the man recounted to me by GRH as having something of this form, but larger and more encyclopedic. Here is the outline for the great Pan-american novel – the man who travels to work in the United States, abandons his family, perhaps, but, then, seeks a reunion with them when he has made his small fortune. Something calamitous happens and, at the end of the book, the man stalks through the strange streets of Mexico City as a kind of zombie, a living corpse. He has returned but the place to which he comes is no longer his home.
According to Google maps, it is a 23 minute march to the subway station under the new Coyoacan Mall. (Google also says that it would take 28 days to walk from Austin to Mexico City – this seems questionable to me.) This is good – it’s fascinating to walk in CDMX. Every couple blocks, you encounter a sign and a wonder.
The way takes us past the Cineteca Nacional, a big white structure that seems to have wings. Every week, a film is shown against one of the big Cinerama-aspect walls of the building. A grassy amphitheater slopes down to the huge surface where the movies are projected and the lawn is inset with marble slabs – it looks a bit like a modernist graveyard with the stones embedded so as not to pose an obstacle to the lawn mowers. The Cineteca has a nice, general interest bookstore and a big coffee shop. "It is an ideal place for a date," I tell GRH. "You bring the girl here, tour the bookstore to show her your excellent literary taste and high intelligence, go to the show, and, then, spend some time in the coffee shop eating pastry and sipping Java, discussing the film."
GRH has just attended a movie here, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room. He names the film in Spanish and characterizes it has "hysterical" and "exaggerated", a fair enough description. A couple days later, I discover that the film that he has named in Spanish is the Maddin movie. "You didn’t like it, did you?" GRH asks hopefully. "Actually, I did," I say. He looks at me with sadness: "No, not really. Tell me you didn’t like it." "It’s an acquired taste," I say. "Maddin is from Winnipeg. Once when we got drunk, we tried to call him on the phone. But he didn’t answer."
The subway is pretty much like every other subway on which I have traveled. It’s dirty and very hot underground and some of the people look like thugs and ruffians, although most of them are lower middle-class or working people worrying about getting to their jobs on time. The lines are color-coded and, because some people may be illiterate (or, like me, non-Spanish-speaking), the stops are identified by pictographic symbols: there is a stylized transmission tower, a lion, coyotes for Coyoacan, a cannon, a water-fountain and so on. Public transportation is ridiculously cheap – five pesos (about a quarter). GRH has a card that he uses in the toll-gate scanners, pressing it to the sensor once for himself and, then, after he has passed through, again for me.
At every stop, a vendor gets on to makes his or her pitch. There is a distinct prosody to the sales spiel: four iambic feet, da-duh!, da-duh!, da-duh! da-duh! and, then, a long "o" sound. The sales pitches seem to rhyme although, I think, it’s mostly a slant rhyme or assonance. Mexicans come in all sizes and shapes; some of them are very pretty and delicate, others extremely ugly. Oddly enough, however, the city seems to be ethnically very homogenous. There are no Asians, no Africans, no one with black or yellow skin at all. Accordingly, for someone used to riding trains in Chicago or New York City or, for that matter, Philadelphia, the undercurrent of menace that Caucasians instinctively feel in the presence of aggressive young Black men doesn’t exist. Although I was probably blissfully indifferent to the real hazards in the CDMX subway, I didn’t experience the basso profundo sense of anxiety that I feel in an urban subway in the United States – people are generally quiet and insular; like their houses that turn compulsively inward, away from the street, most faces on the subway, "petals on a wet, black bough", are introspective and closed.
We exit the subway and stroll across the vast Bosque de Chapultepec, CDMX’s version of Central Park. GRH stops at a street vendor and buys a big cup full of water-melon and other fruits. The slices of fruit are cool and juicy (he offers me a couple) and they have been dusted with a powder made from cayenne pepper, chili pepper, and cinnamon.
Across a causeway, in the cool shadows of the park, I see an array of columns, shaped almost exactly like gargantuan tubes of lipstick. Six columns rise above an alabaster terrace where a fountain is playing. Protruding from the top of the lipstick tubes, each about 35 feet high, are stylized flames made from bronze – it looks like Goth-style lipstick to blacken your lips but on a huge scale. Bronze badges shaped like eagles decorate the shaft of the lipstick tubes, shafts that also can seem overtly phallic depending upon your temperament and the fever-grade of your imagination. This is the Monumento al los Ninos Heroes – the monument to the boy-heroes, six military cadets who flung themselves from the parapet of the Chapultepec citadel rather than surrender to the invading forces from the United States. This act of self-sacrifice supposedly occurred in the Battle of Chapultepec on September 13, 1847. The citadel was defended by children, cadets at military school, and they fought the onslaught of General Winfield Scott’s troops bravely for about two hours – the boys, between the ages of 13 and 18 were vastly outnumbered, perhaps as few as 47 against the entire American army. Their commander gave the order to retreat, but, allegedly, the six Ninos Heroes, refused to abandon their positions at the parapet. At least, one of them, Juan Escutia is said to have draped himself in the Mexican flag and, then, hurled himself from the citadel ramparts into the teeth of the advancing foe. (The incident is probably apocryphal, although skeletons were found in 1947 at the base of the old fort’s walls. If you go into Chapultepec fortress, now an art museum, you can see a mural by Gabriel Flores showing Juan Escutia’s dive into death and legend. The image is spectacularly bad – it looks like a still from Japanese anime with the somber-faced big-eyed boy flying through an orange-yellow haze pretty much identical with the color of CDMX’s smog. A diaphanous eagle, like a con-trail, seems to emerge from the flying figure’s ass and the flag wrapped around him gives Juan Escutia something of the aspect of super-hero – it looks like his cape.)
We walk another eight or nine blocks and come to a place where flute music beckons us from the sidewalk and toward a clearing in the woods. There are people flying here as well. A huge blue pole made from iron and riveted with rungs rises about 80 feet into the air. At its top, a man is sitting in the bright cascade of sun wearing an elaborate headdress, beating a tom-tom, and playing the flute. Below him, similarly clad men are hanging head-down and whirling around the huge pole. A crowd of onlookers stands bemused outside the ring of sand around the big pole. The flying men are livid with rose-colored plumes and their headdresses dangle from them, sculpted by the breeze as they sail overhead. I have seen images of this exercise, some sort of Indian ritual from Jalisco, in the National Geographic and, of course, I am dumbfounded to see it happening here in this park, before my own wondering eyes.
GRH says: "It’s a religious ritual from Jalisco and has an Indian name. But people in Mexico City are lazy and they don’t know what to call it and, so, they just say it is hangers from Jalisco." (There is another, more dignified name for these acrobats – la Voladeros de Jalisco, "the Jalisco flyers.")
The Jalisco hangers slowly descend from the sky – with each revolution of the pole, they seem to drop about four or five feet. The flute music and tom-tom follows them down insistently. Just as their headdresses are about to skim the sand where the pole is staked, they grab their knees, and reverse position, and drop down running, feet first in the pit. Someone passes a hat and I give them 20 pesos.
Too large to be comfortably toured, the vast Museo Nacional de Antropologia enlarges upon the format of a featureless facade with internal courtyard characteristic of Mexican residential architecture. This building is another home, of course -- the home of the old gods and they are legion and so the place is spacious, a sort of Valhalla periodically opening to outside gardens where stelae and other monuments rear up from the lawn under the placid and antique palm trees. You could walk these halls forever and not see everything – it is the nature of these gods to be infinitely numerous and remote almost to the point of invisibility. Many of the deities are nameless, but, even, those that we think we can identify stand apart from us, at a great remove. What to make, for instance of the mother goddess Coatlicue with her writhing skirt of serpents and the severed hands dangling like pendants from her mighty torso – her ungrateful children have hacked off her head and twin spouts of arterial blood fountain upward culminating in symmetrical and opposed snake skulls? Where does she lie on the continuum from Baal to Jesus Christ? The advanced cultures of pre-conquest Meso-America represent humanity without Socrates and Plato, humanity without Christ and his saints and apostles, a paradigm for civilization entirely different from renaissance and European models. Here the polity was comprised of Eagle Knights and Jaguar warriors, men swallowed up by totemic animals, armies of the dead brandishing human femurs as scepters, grinning stone corpses squatting on puffy-looking volcanic thrones, couch-shaped Chacmools with conveniently placed rock trays on which to display human hearts, monkey princes and serpents with their spines serrated with flame-like feathers – it’s all heavy, impersonal, massive, an art of intimidation, at least with respect to the Aztecs and their allies. In one dim gallery, a temple facade occupies an entire wall, as big as cruise-ship prow, a reconstruction on the order of the great white marble altar in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, but here made from savage-looking pitted rock extruded from the earth, not so much carved as hacked from the stone with a gesture of contempt and cruelty, mere lava unable to prevail against the implacable will manifested in these things. If there is an esthetic to such objects, and surely there must be, it is concealed from eyes schooled in the smooth, diaphanous style of the Greeks or, even, the suave imperial sculptures of the Romans – there are no nymphs, no Venus pudenda or callipygian, no portraits of misers and philosophers, often no gender distinctions at all except for breasts sometimes carved like oblong masonry blocks on the torsos of some of the figures. In our world, beauty is a human face and the sinuous curve of a woman’s hip and breast – here the model for representation is the mask: you put it on and become something completely other.
We linger a long time among the raw and brutal-looking Aztec things. Of course, each culture in old Mexico was radically different while all sharing some of the same characteristics – market economies, blood-sacrifice, and the ceremonial ball-game. Only when we are sated with looking, exhausted, do we come to the lissome Mayan vases and the huge domino-shaped stelae, the baroque contrapossto style where lords and ladies with elegant almond-shaped skulls dance in coils of feathered regalia, blood spouting from their tongues and genitals to ascend in intricate floral clouds coalescing into the jaws of monster-centipedes vomiting forth the jeweled brow and pierced lips of revered ancestors. By the time, we come to the Mayan artifacts, which are irrevocably strange and alien but invested with the delicacy of Chinese calligraphy, we have been looking at these things too long and are half-blind to all the exotic beauty on display.
I insist that we end with the mother culture, the Olmecs, and we find their gallery just before the Mayan halls begin. A colossal head as big as a pickup truck and entirely spherical, round as a basketball, glares at us. In a small case, we see the elongated forms of the famous jade offering discovered near Vera Cruz, baby-like green men with bald heads arranged around dildo-shaped celts, a kind of conclave – what can this mean? The jade glints in the gloom like the eyes of a wild and half-hidden animal.
We know a culture denuded of its written testimony (the Spanish burned the Aztec books and, then, later denounced the Indians as barbarous because they lacked writing) through its monuments made of stone. Some of the stones still bear traces of the vibrant pigments once slathered over the sculptures – ox-blood red, marigold yellow, a creamy froth of lime-white. It’s like an object in one of the niche-cases set like reliquaries in the dark walls – a human skull has been covered with an elaborate mosaic of turquoise and jade and iridescent abalone: in the skull’s sockets, there are dark pieces of smooth obsidian inset in white shell. Once this culture was alive in its own sentient flesh, unflayed its bone armature concealed in the cotton robes that the nobles wore and the vast feathered capes and cloaks enfolding the warrior and priest-kings. (In one case, there is a vast fan-shaped garment made of quetzal feathers, emerald green and glowing as if from within, as if each feather contained still some of the life-energy of the flying creature from which it had been extracted – the gold clasps glint dully against the dense impenetrable radiance of the feathers. Of course, these sorts of things are the rarest of all artifacts – like the few pre-conquest codices, infinitely fragile and, now, vessels of mourning for everything that has been lost.) The blocks of hewn stone left to us are just teeth from the jaw of a mighty skull – as large as elephants, these ungainly sculptures remain as mere traces of what once existed, broken shards of bone, a molar dropped from a smashed and bloody mouth.
You emerge from the museum blinking in sub-tropical light. At one end of the courtyard a column symbolizes a great tree, perhaps a ceiba, rising from the highland jungles, and water rains down from the spreading cement awning above, irrigating the concrete of the plaza – people are standing at the edge of the cascade waving their hands at one another: the water is cool and fresh and clean, come join me!
A few galleries at Anthropology Museum are devoted to changing exhibits. At the time of our visit, these rooms were occupied by texts about the Huichol Indians, dimly lit and reverently displayed in niches inset in the wall. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a brightly colored tapestry, about the size of a large table-cloth, depicting aspects of Huichol cosmology and religious belief. (The Indians believe that their people, as well as all life emerged from a sacred lake, that peyote is sacramental and that there is some relationship between peyote, maize, and supernatural blue deer said to inhabit their land – the texts were in Spanish as was the narration of a film about the Indians and this paraphrase represents the extent of my understanding.) A twenty-minute animated movie depicting the Indian’s creation myth provided the exhibit’s central focus, explicating the mythology woven into the tapestry. The movie was pretty, but vapid, a throwback to the Peter Max psychedelia of the late sixties.
The curious aspect of this exhibit was that nothing was exhibited. The niches in the wall seemed devised to contain shamanistic artifacts, fetishes and talismans, as well as examples of Huichol crafts. But, instead, the display cases presented nothing more than explanatory plaques – blocks of writing, apparently, illumining objects too sacred to be shown. (In several cases, gleaming tablets were on display, elegant artifacts, indeed, and invested with a certain sacred aura – but these tablets were simply versions of the writings comprising the exhibition rendered into Braille for the blind.) Thus, an entire exhibit about a remarkable culture, and one that has produced many beautiful and charismatic objects, consisted of text only. It was as if the museum had decided to pluck out its own eyes and present merely verbal descriptions of artifacts that would have formerly been displayed.
One can understand the reverent impulse, but, of course, this approach to comparative anthropology is theological as opposed to scientific and, therefore, ultimately self-defeating. I came away from the exhibit with the impression that the Huichol have an interesting New-Age flavored religion, that they are probably environmentalist or, at least, environmentally sensitive and that their belief systems are consistent with the wooziest and most sentimental excesses of the hippie era. Of course, these impressions are undoubtedly false or reductive – the outcome of an encounter with an exhibit that seems to punish the visitors for curiosity about a way of life different from that lived by educated, urban Mexicans. And this is part of a larger trend. Gradually, the great museums are being denuded of their artifacts – the corpses and the shrunken heads are repatriated and buried, the peace-pipes and the ceremonial regalia are sent back to their tribes of origin, the religious artifacts are returned to shamans to be kept in secret underground kivas or deposited in holy caves or buried at places where the nodes of energy crisscross in the barren land. Photographs steal the soul and are forbidden. Iconoclasm is the rule of the day. It’s as if the museums were to return all their altarpieces and gilded reliquaries, their sacred images of the Virgin and the crucifixion to provincial churches, sanctuaries almost empty except for elderly people, substituting in place for these things, descriptions written in self-consciously plain and empty prose.
Archaeologists no longer excavate at sites for fear that they will encounter something that is beautiful, profound, and meaningful. Far better, culturally safer and more correct, to spend one’s resources digging in the latrines and dumps of the peasants – better, it seems, to analyze petrified feces for DNA, utilitarian sherds, husks and ashes and animal bones.
A woman standing by the side of the road near the Anthropology Museum carries a wicker basket full of black, roasted grasshoppers. The insects are the size of crickets. Slung over her other shoulder, she carries a sack of garnishes for the chapulines.
GRH buys a baggy of the chapulines. The woman squeezes half a lime over the tangle of insects and, then, pours a tablespoon of hot sauce atop the black clot of entwined legs and heads and crinkly wings. We share the grasshoppers as walk toward Polanco, a well-to-do colonia a few blocks to the northwest of the museum.
The grasshoppers have tasteless exterior that crushes readily between the teeth. They are mushy inside, without much flavor as you chew them but with a faintly fishy aftertaste. I am uncertain whether the aftertaste is mildly pleasant or profoundly awful. The more chapulines you eat, the more intense the tang that follows when you swallow their shattered husks, a dry bolus of smashed and chitinous exoskeleton that would be painful to the esophagus but for heavy cream consistency of the grasshopper innards.
Although it’s not fair to this comestible, one might characterize the experience of eating chapulines as like devouring a cockroach taco filled with macerated earthworm.
Along side the busy road, under the leafy trees, there is a life-size bronze statue of FDR. The president looks disheveled and, curiously, he is standing upright and, even, seems to lunge toward the cars passing him. It’s as if he is attempting to hail a cab. Either the sculptor did not know that FDR was crippled and, in fact, couldn’t really walk or he has suppressed that fact in favor of depicting his subject as vibrant with masculine energy. The surface of the statue is rough, even expressionistic, like the later work of Rodin.
The bronze beside the heavily traveled road has no path leading to it. The statue seems forlorn and abandoned.
Polanco looks like the Via Venuto in Rome: high-rises the color of an expensive and conservative Brooks Brothers suit nodding together in solemn conclave, tuck-under garages where chauffeurs are loitering to smoke their cigarettes, coffee-shops with silver expresso machines with seating spilling out onto the well-maintained and smooth sidewalks, uniformed doormen guarding the gates to the condominiums lining the street. The older buildings seem to have been transplanted from Paris, four or five story structures with wrought-iron balconies that would not be out of place on the Boulevard des Capuchines in the 9th arrondissement.
GRH’s sensibilities are Marxist or, at least, populist and egalitarian and he frowns upon the display of wealth in Polanco. We pass car dealerships trafficking in BMWs and Jaguars. Sleek-looking chrome-framed cars peer out onto the sidewalk. Women are walking fans of little, agitated dogs, three to a hand, and girls with long black braids push baby strollers, perambulators, I suppose you would call them in this neighborhood.
We stop in sidewalk café and order tortas made with ingeniously spiced pulled pork. With the tortas, we have red tea, a drink made with hibiscus blossoms. It is sweet, a little like the sugary tea that you might get in an old-style Polish or Russian restaurant in Chicago, very scarlet so that the light shines through it casting an impressive red glow on your table. At the end of our common table, a very attractive girl is finishing her lunch. The upper-class girls in this neighborhood have lustrous black hair that is styled to fall in a straight cascade over their shoulders. Their faces are pale as a piece of unblemished typing paper and they have beautiful lush figures. This girl is wearing tight slacks and a shirt that her breasts push out in an exuberant display. She seems to be about 25 and I observe that, out of the corner of her eye, she is examining GRH with more than a little interest. I murmur something to him about this, but he discounts my observation.
Across from where we are sitting, there is a great mirror, something that displeases me since I dislike my appearance and find it particularly unappetizing to watch myself eat. A young man enters the torta place and stands directly across from me. He glares in my direction indignantly. Kids with mopeds are pulling up curbside to pick up delivery orders and the street flashes with shiny metal passing in the mid-afternoon sunshine. The young man is very skinny and wears extremely tight pants without a belt, the clothing hugging his slender hips. He sticks out his jaw at me and, then, sullenly shrugs. I assume that he is questioning my presence in the restaurant with the very handsome young man at my side. Perhaps, he thinks that I am some kind of predatory Gringo, pale and fat and sweaty, wearing suspenders to keep my trousers from falling when they slip down and off the moist prominence of my protruding belly. Why should I have this cute young fellow all to myself? Love and lust are for the young and old chickenhawks are nothing but an embarrassment and, so, I think, he turns to the mirror and primps for a moment and, then, tries to catch the gaze of GRH, a gaze that he could return, I think, through the mirror. The young man approaches the mirror, then, smooths his hair, then, shakes his head and his mane of hair to dislodge it again and force his locks to fall into a position of natural repose – then, he pats his hair back into place and strokes it, caressing the soft bulge over his ears and the humped-up hair over his occiput, shaping the hair sometimes with swift knocks, even punches, and, then, at other times, coaxing an errant strand into place between his long and delicate fingers – if it were possible for him, he would extrude his long pink and serpentine tongue and, literally, lick his hair into place. I can see his tongue flickering between his penciled-in lips. His eyes are dark and continue to threaten me as he postures before the mirror, thrusting out his shoulders and his hands flapping like wings and, then, aiming his pelvis at the reflecting glass and flexing his buttocks. It’s an extraordinary display, but the only eyes the boy finds watching him are mine and, after five minutes, he tires of the exhibition and leaves the restaurant, casting a single barbed and midnight-dark look at me over his slender shoulders.
Immediately thereafter, three men appear, dressed in business-casual with expensive watches and shoes that shine with menacing import. The men sit between the beautiful girl and GRH and they have the temerity to talk to the young woman: Bon apetit, one of them says saluting her when her pulled-pork sandwich arrives. She nods slightly, quickly eats her sandwich, and, then, with a flirtatious glance at the men, prances out of the restaurant. The men are suitably impressed by her. GRH hears their speech. He says: "These are despicable guys." The puffed-up fellow closest to us, wearing a sweater and a little goatee, uses the word "dude" (‘guey’) all the time. It’s like this GRH says: "Dude, did you see that girls’ tits, dude, and, dude, her ass, dude and the rest of her rockin’ body, dude." "He is using the world "dude" that is, guey, about ten times in every sentence," GRH tells me. "It’s such a nasty cliche for how chilongos of a certain class talk."
We leave the restaurant and walk back toward the subway station in the green park. "They are fresas," GRH says, "that means ‘strawberries," an insulting term for someone who is preppy, pretentious, arrogant, a Mexican who is not a real Mexican, but trying to be something else."
GRH says that the "strawberries" were fans of the Americas soccer team. "Very, very fresa,’ he says. Nueva Polanco, a gleaming colonia only a half-dozen blocks away, is where Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican tycoon who is the wealthiest man in the world, built the glittering, sequined torso of his Museo Soumaya – towering structure that simulates a woman’s hips and waist and bust, legless and armless, a decapitated and glittering Venus de Milo amidst the million-dollar condominiums of the Plaza Carso. Carlos Slim, as GRH calls him, owns Walmart in Mexico, various newspapers and TV stations, the telecommunications network, and a number of chain restaurants – TOK, VIK and the ubiquitous Sanborn’s. Needless to say, my young friend does not approve of the plutocrat or his malign influence on Mexican society. The Museo Soumaya was built by Carlos Slim, the son of Lebanese immigrants to CDMX, as a tribute to his wife, Soumaya (she died in 1999), an avid collector of art of all kinds. I suppose the place must be like Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art endowed by a Walmart heiress in Bentonville, Arkansas except that Slim has collected not only Mexican art but also European old master paintings, canvases by Titian and Cranach, impressionist works by Renoir and Monet and others, and, last but not least, a whole garden full of Rodin’s bronzes including the complete Gates of Hell with the famous "Thinker" poised above the writhing mass of the damned. The top story of Slim’s museum is all surrealist work by Dali interspersed with a few of the more delicate sculpted objects made by Renoir and Rodin. In addition, Slim is supposed to have acquired 66,000 PreColumbian artifacts, a questionable collection since such objects are supposed to constitute the patrimony of the Mexican people, not to be held by private individuals.
We make haste away from these glittering towers and the floods of expensive cars at their feet, hurrying back to the subway.
"Do you think he really wept?" GRH asked me. The tree’s remains were fenced from the filthy sidewalk. The official historical marker was besmirched with a thick, muddy-looking graffiti and the smaller monument posted among the pale buttress-like roots was also scarred with red and black spray-paint tags.
"Yes," I replied. Amplified mariachi music throbbed from a nearby car dealership.
"I don’t think so," GRH said.
"No," I responded. "Cortes was very cruel. Cruel people are, often, sentimental. He had seen many of his brothers-in-arms killed before his eyes. So I think he did, indeed, weep."
GRH blinked at me dubiously. The world went around, spinning and casting off sparks of light. Two-thousand miles to the north, a hog barn had exploded while manure was being pumped from its pit. A cause-and-origin investigator had tried to call me several times, but I was underground, deep in the subway and the connection failed. Now, I sat on a bench and the ruined tree was behind me, haggard-looking and pale as a ghost. The sun was warm but seemed remote behind the dome of smog. For a while, I spoke on the phone, covering my other ear against the noise of the traffic whirling by. Appliances were sunk in the manure in the pit and the pit could not be evacuated without the threat that its compromised sidewalls would collapse and, complicating the situation, were the charred carcasses of 800 hogs littering the debris field, each pig interrupting the blizzard sufficiently to raise up as a monument a white sepulcher of drifted snow.
Hernan Cortes entered Tenochtitlan in November 1519. Bernal Diaz records that the men thought that the city was some kind of enchantment, a magical vision conjured by a sorcerer. It was at that time, perhaps, the most beautiful city on earth with lime-white temples rising over hundred-room palaces on an island at the center of a large, glittering lake. Terra-cotta aqueducts carried spring water from the heights of Chapultepec over the brackish lake-waters, graceful, angled structures like the legs of a water-strider and a long levee impounded fresh water into lagoons surrounding the island and piercing its interior. Floating chinampas or isle-gardens detached from the mainland and temple-district blossomed with flowers and lance-groves of maize stood on the barge-shaped promontories cast adrift from the water-girt city and a thousand brightly painted canoes moved among them, floating markets offering their wares to noblemen on the causeways connecting the city to the mainland, all bridges broad and white as well, everything plastered with milky-white crystals so that the smears of black blood atop the pyramids and the inlaid friezes of gold and gemstones shone all the more brilliantly against bright and blinding ramparts.
Cortes took Tenochtitlan’s Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, hostage. He occupied his palace and garrisoned the place with his Tlaxcaltecas allies, warriors from a rival city under one of the volcanoes. The Spanish, like the soldiers sewn in the earth by Cadmus as dragon’s teeth, were so fierce and relentless that they fought among themselves and, without an external enemy to battle, would have destroyed one another on the basis of their own vaunting and bellicose ambition. So an army had been sent from Cuba, a Spanish force to clip insubordinate Cortes’ pinions. The conquistador marched out of the royal precinct of Tenochtitlan in the late Spring of 1520, leaving a small force to hold Moctezuma hostage. Cortes fought the Cuban expeditionary army, defeated it, and began his march back to the Aztec capitol. But all was not well at Tenochtitlan – an insurgency had arisen and the Spaniards were learning a lesson in which all conquerors up to those of the present-day in Iraq and Afghanistan have been schooled: it is relatively easy to seize a place but difficult to hold it against determined opposition. The Spaniard garrison orchestrated a massacre of Aztec nobles and, then, there were riots and streetfighting and when Moctezuma was enlisted to quell the disturbances someone flung a paving stone at him that crushed his skull. Cortes made his way into the city center, again the Indians yielding to his horses and armored men, but, then, found himself besieged in the palace.
On the night of July 1, 1520, Cortes’ troops silently filed out of the palace and, flanked by their Indian allies, hurried through the dark streets toward the western causeway connecting the capitol with the village of Tlacopan. Aztec guerillas had torn apart several sections of the floating bridge, but Cortes’ men hauled with them a replacement bridge, dragging the wooden lattice through the streets. Some say that a woman washing clothes near the causeway raised the alarm. Others claim that the priest Huitzlipochtli, the fierce Humming Bird of the Left, saw the Spaniards streaming through the streets westward to the long causeway from atop a pyramid where he was performing a sacrifice. Conch shells sounded an alarm and drums boomed and the Spaniards found themselves under attack, Black Hawk Down, fighting their way through the narrow streets to the floating bridge. As they crossed the bridge, the Aztec jaguar and eagle-knights attacked them, launching forays against the Spaniards from canoes paddled up to the causeway. A solid wall of Aztecs from the mainland blocked the bridge and, at first, there was savage fighting between the Tlaxcaltecas warriors and the phalanx of men obstructing the causeway. Trapped on the causeway, the Spaniards huddled under their armor and shields, clouds of arrows and lances raining down on them and the sides of the bridge burning as Aztecs tried to destroy their avenue of escape under them. At last, Cortes mounted a cavalry charge, trampling through the Tlaxcaltecas and, then, smashing down the ranks of Aztecs blocking his escape. After several hours of intense combat, the conquistadors staggered into the tidy white village of Tacuba. All of them were wounded and many hundreds of men had died. (As they fled the city, Cortes allowed his men to take as much gold as the soldiers could carry and the greedier troops were now drowned at the bottom of the lake, salamanders sniffing their corpses and the bags of gold still entangled in their battered armor.) At the center of the village, there was a noble cypress, an ahuehuetl tree – the Nahuatl word means "upright drum in water’ or "old man of the water." Cortes is said to have cast aside his armor and sat under the tree weeping for the men that he had lost.
This moment, the wounded Cortes’ shedding tears under the ahuehuetl, has been called la triste Nocha ("the sad night") and it is one of fulcrum points in history. If the Aztecs had summoned that last reserve of energy to attack Cortes at that moment, he and his men would surely have perished. And if the conquest of Mexico had failed, then, the wealth of that nation would not have flowed to Spain and both European as well as Latin American history would have developed in ways that are unrecognizable to us, probably, even beyond any reasonable surmise. But, as happens in human affairs, everyone was exhausted and no one wanted any more blood to be spilled at least that night and early morning and, so, the Aztec nobles retired to their palaces confident that they had repelled the strange, pale invaders and the Spaniards counted their dead, bound their wounds, and marched away from Tenochtitlan only to return to destroy the city a few months later.
The tree under which Cortes wept stood in the colonia of Tacuba in the Popotla neighborhood. The tree was very old and fragile and the concrete city encroached upon it in all directions and, so, at last in 1994, it collapsed. What remains are the root-buttresses, a shaggy, pinnacled fortress of broken wood spires hollow at their center where there is a sort of dark grotto or cave. The root-buttresses and the remnants of the barrel-shaped trunk are white, perhaps, painted against termites or ants that might otherwise carry off the famous and monumental tree sliver by sliver. The wreckage of the ahuehuetl is the size of a small house and has a vaguely Gothic look and all markers explaining the place’s significance are tattooed with graffiti.
The neighborhood is gritty. From the Metro to the site where the ahuehuetl once stood, the sidewalk is entirely blocked by street vendors and to pass along that way, one must walk in a tunnel made by their green canvas tents and awnings. In this area, the vendors aren’t selling food, but rather household items – cleansing agents, batteries, cutlery, and there are many booths featuring pirated CDs and DVDS, everyone calling out the virtues of their merchandise and their uniquely low-prices. At the end of the tunnel of vendors, the sidewalk opens out in front of a car dealership. Twin speakers on the sidewalk blast out Mariachi music that is so loud as to be a kind of physical assault – the roar of the music literally forces you off the sidewalk and, into the gutter, although swarms of trucks and cabs threaten you there. Inside the car dealership, there are forlorn-looking balloons and a hideous clown is importuning a small child who sobs with hysterical terror.
I am not a blithe and carefree traveler. Some people flit about the world as if it were their backyard. I approach travel as travail.
Invariably, on my first night in a foreign city, I am afflicted by terror. My surroundings seem utterly grim, hopeless, a vast malevolent labyrinth filled with worrisome afflictions, misunderstandings and confusion. To put it simply, I feel utterly lost.
In CDMX, the water is poisonous and the streets deadly. Everyone that you meet is a potential mugger or kidnaper. The darkness of the night has a particularly malignant hue. These thoughts, obsessively tracing and retracing their way through the worry-centers in my brain, embedded themselves in my dreams and made my sleep exhausting. As we dragged our luggage to the AirBnB, GRH said: "Lots of times, they don’t even mark the streets," and, indeed, I looked up at several intersections and saw that this was true – there was no street sign and no writing on any of the walls to tell me the names of the streets that crossed in that place. So, as I slept, I found myself harried through dark alleys and darker sidewalks and, then, coming to intersections bathed in an sepia-colored light. Each intersection posed itself as a riddle to be answered, a mathematical equation requiring solution, the site of some vaguely calamitous event that required amelioration except that I didn’t know what answer to give and the solution eluded me and there was no remedy for the crossroad other than to stagger away from it tormented by the knowledge that there would be another intersection and another, an infinite series of urban intersections marked by squalid little shops and long, ragged sidewalks under forbidding walls shaggy with razor-wire. And, so, it went all night, a hike that left real blisters on my soles and heels and that exhausted my calves and legs to the extent that when I stood up, I felt dizzy with exhaustion.
Then, it was dawn and, with my eyes burning with sleeplessness, I rose and, hoping to overcome the malaise from my dreams, showered and dressed and, then, went outside. The sun was rising and long, graceful shadows decorated the sidewalks. School children wearing uniforms were hurrying to their classes and the major intersections roared like waterfalls with traffic, people going to work, and a block and a half from the apartment, trucks were lining up to unload food at the market and street vendors had shoved their way between the idling vehicles to sell tamales and plastic cups full of fruit and whipped cream to the truckdrivers. One of the trucks had a rack of longhorn horns belligerently decorating its front grill. The same truck featured a small cloth toy shaped like a spider monkey, the little creature climbing up from beneath the vehicle with one hand wrapped around the hood ornament.
A couple of women wearing overcoats and stocking caps were walking small dogs. A tree stooped down to bend over the sidewalk was covered with wads of gum pressed into the bark. The different pastel colors of the gum made the tree trunk seem festive, imparting a pointillist appearance to the bark. Sweet aromas filled the air. Somewhere corn was being grilled over a charcoal brazier.
As we walked downtown, GRH spoke to me about Mexican identity. He had been reading books by sociologist Roger Bartra and a German linguist, treatises about the indigenous people in the country, particularly the Maya. GRH told me some interesting things about Mayan grammar – it is impossible to say "I spoke" or "I ran" in Mayan; rather, a well-formed sentence must always express some form of reciprocity – that is, "I spoke to – someone or something; I don’t merely "run" but I run to or from some place or person. GRH explained these grammatical structures to me as imposing a world-view in which no one can act or think in isolation – all activity is embedded in a web of reciprocal relationships. For this reason, GRH said that he believed that there was a secret book, a compendium of the knowledge of the ancients most likely composed in Mayan and that this book contained the lost wisdom, a way of making the world whole and coherent once more, a pathway back to the lost paradise.
In the naturally occurring waters of Mexico City, there lives a strange creature, GRH told me. This is the axolotl – a kind of amphibian that remains perpetually juvenile and that does not develop into an adult form. According to GRH, when these creatures are taken from Mexico City’s lagoons and swamps and nourished on north American or European water, the oversized tadpoles with their gaping mouths and bulging eyes grow adult limbs, develop lungs and become full-fledged amphibians, animals like salamanders equally at home in the swamp or on land. But, if left undisturbed in the murky waters of the lost lakes of Tenochtitlan (Texcoco and Xomilcho, Zumpango and Chalco), the axolotl doesn’t assume an adult form – rather, it remains a plump, even bulbous, kind of giant tadpole. The ancient Aztecs, who seem to have eaten everything, regarded the axolotl as a delicacy. It was also thought to be a manifestation of the water god, one of Tlaloc’s avatars – a fat Buddha-like tadpole with goggle eyes and crooked vestigial limbs. GRH told me that axolotl is a symbol for Mexican identity – a beast that is neither adult nor infant, an intermediate form that lives in the muddy water but aspires to walk on dry land, a creature caught in a perpetual form of becoming, that is, the emblem of a stalled transition to modernity, part way there but still entrapped in a pre-modern mode of existence. (GRH’s zoology is only partly correct – the axolotl can be successfully raised in captivity and, indeed, as the amphibian becomes extinct in the natural world, it’s habitat has become, increasingly, research laboratories throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Axolotls are much studied because of their neoteny – that is, the fact that the animal retains juvenile characteristics throughout its life-span. Axolotls are also valuable in the study of embryology because their embryos are very large, easily dissected, and readily visualized. Furthermore, the creature has the curious attribute of being able to regenerate lost limbs – if you shear off an axolotls vestigial leg, the oversized tadpole will promptly grow another; this characteristic is much admired by zoologists and medical doctors who have long wished to develop similar regenerative powers in the higher vertebrates. When exposed to small amounts of iodine in their water, axolotls develop lungs, lose their gills, and grow longer and more effective legs – in other words, they develop into something that looks like an adult amphibian. Since most water in the world contains some trace of iodine, axolotls will, in fact, cease to be neotenic in aquariums outside of Mexico unless their habitats are purged of that element. But if the animals are bred and raised in water without iodine, as is the case in most research facilities, they will preserve their juvenile characteristics and morphology.)
We were walking along pedestrian mall under a bright sky among brightly clad multitudes. At the end of the mall, I saw a tall, pointed tower, something that looked at big like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. GRH pointed out particularly beautiful buildings as we walked, structures wonderfully clad in gleaming Moorish tiles, delicate columns supporting a dome like something you might see in a Persian or Mughal miniature. GRH told me that those buildings were owned by Carlos Slim. Indeed, one of them was occupied by both a TOK cafeteria and a Sanborns.
"Mexico," he said, "is the most intimate country in the world." I asked him how this was so. "When you go into a Sanborns to take a dump in one of Carlos Slim’s toilets, the attendant asks you whether your visit is a two peso or three peso use of the facilities. Two pesos is a urinal without toilet paper. Three pesos buys you access to a stall and a half-dozen squares of toilet paper."
The pedestrian mall ended at the Zocalo. The pointy thing at the end of the lane was a six-story tall Christmas tree held up by guidewires and overlooking a great skating rink. People zoomed around and around the huge skating rink muffled against the January cold – they wore mittens and stocking caps and covered their faces with blue and green woolen scarves and their coats were bulky and some of the skaters seemed to be wearing sweaters under their coats.
"But it’s 65 degrees," I said.
"It’s January," GRH said. "As far as they are concerned, it is very, very cold."
Star-shaped spatters of vomit decorate the sidewalk leading into the Palacio Nacional de Mexico. The sentries have the lower thirds of their faces covered by mask-like scarves worn around their throat against the cold and their gloved hands clutch small, green machine guns. GRH has to surrender his Mexican passport to gain us admission to the building so that we can admire Diego Rivera’s murals decorating one of the several courtyards in the vast complex.
Occupying an entire wall over a grand stone staircase, Rivera has painted a pictorial history of Mexico. The mural is huge and has, no doubt, resulted in many admirers plunging down the steps to their serious injury – you certainly can’t look at the thing and attempt to ascend or descend the rather slippery alabaster stairs. Instead, you find yourself perched on one step or another, gazing upward but not moving, or crowded onto the first landing perusing the great fresco. Rivera is nothing if not ambitious and it seems that his commitment was to cram the maximum information possible into the picture – every inch of the mural vibrates with meaning and, I suppose, you could spend a week studying the thing without grasping all that is offered to the eye. This sense of plethora, of over-abundance taxing both eye and mind, also makes you unsteady on your feet and, therefore, prone to the maximum homage that the mural allows (or requires) – that is, a bad fall on the steps with the colored faces and torsos and vibrant, luminous landscapes revolving vertiginously in your mind’s eye.
Marx and his captains rear up over modern Mexico (at least so Rivera imagines) and, below them, Frida Kahlo, her breast decorated with a small yellow star of David, offers a peasant a tract, the Communist Manifesto – she is flanked by her sister Christina, painted in flamboyant red with glowing blue eyes like a Siamese cat. The image is uncanny and, perhaps, explained by the fact that Rivera was enjoying an affair with Christina at the time the mural was painted. Violent battles between conquistadors and Aztec jaguar and eagle warriors convulse the bottom of the painting, just above the landing, and to the right, and up the steps there are various iterations of the myth of Quetzelcoatl, the god polymorphous and appearing as a white warrior, sometimes as a plumed serpent, even as a kind of zeppelin kiting across the sky.
The corridors above show the Mayans, the Aztecs and Zapotecs, each occupying a vertical pillar of a wall as wide as a house. Frida Kahlo appears again as a cannibal princess – someone is offering her a severed limb as an appetizer. A last big mural shows the coming of Cortes – the conquistador appears as part of a triumvirate of white men, seemingly engaged in some kind of transaction. The King’s emissary is deformed and hideous – he has a face like white vole. A sinister-looking priest, imagined as a figure from the Marquis de Sade, stands between Cortes and the royal ambassador and Malinche, the conquistador’s Indian mistress, is behind him, her face turned away from the viewer. On the woman’s back, a round-faced infant glares out at the spectator – the child seems to be an idiot with the corrupt, dead features of a drowned and bloated corpse and huge staring eyes that are like the headlights on a truck. The baby’s eyes are lapis lazuli as a symbol of the mixing of the races and the infant’s unsettling glare is penetrating and, yet, also uncomprehending – the look means everything and nothing at all. Above the child, the landscape is being raped – huge trees are cut down and those that remain are festooned with hanging corpses. A negro slave is being branded between the eyes and the bottom of the painting is a congealed heap of naked corpses.
GRH has a good eye and he points out the various color schemes that are meaningful to him. "Rivera wants to show how the conquistadors ravaged the people and destroyed their culture," he says. This is indisputable. But to what effect?
"It’s part of the divided consciousness," I reply. "You can’t attack the Spanish element without denigrating the European aspect of Mexican heritage. Yet that aspect is also an important part of the culture."
GRH looks skeptical. But he agrees – "that’s true enough," he says.
There is nothing controversial about these vast paintings as far as Mexicans are concerned. The pictorial program is truncated not because of censorship or due to a shift in ideology. Rather, Rivera bit off more than he could chew, the ultimate scheme for decorating the Palacio Nacional was so immense that even this painter, a colossus of mural-making couldn’t complete the work. It’s curious to consider a nation that has at the center of its levers of power and influence life-size images of Karl Marx leading a peon revolution against the Porfiratos, a revolt that never exactly occurred and that probably would have been catastrophic had History suffered it to happen. Mexico was born of savage oppression; it suffered a false consciousness under the Porfiro regime – and it has now been reborn, Rivera proclaims, in the fires of the 1910 revolution. If we want to understand Mexico, we must consider that these images are as iconic in that nation as the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware or, for that matter, the Statue of Liberty in the United States. Thus, Mexico will always regard itself as fundamentally insurgent.
The Metropolitan Cathedral’s interior is unsightly and disproportionate. For some reason, a block of extravagantly gilded retablo screen has advanced toward the front entrance, pushing its way through the nave to fill up the church as if a cruise-ship covered in gold leaf had docked in the middle of the pews. You walk around the prow of altar-screen, a tangle of niches holding saints and columnar-shaped pulpits at various heights above the cathedral’s tilted floor – the place is slowly settling into the lake-bed below – and see that there is nothing really behind the big boat moored in the middle of the church. The side chapels are underwhelming and no one has bothered to paint the ceiling overhead so that the structure of columns and buttresses supporting the vault appears linear and schematic as if on a construction diagram. Outside the church, mad men are ranting about the end of the world and more sinister figures come close, insinuating themselves into your confidence, whispering something.
"What are they offering?" I ask.
GRH says that they have "papers for sale."
"What kind of papers?"
"Anything – passports, visas, driver’s licenses and vehicle registration cards, certificates of emission tests required by CDMX on all vehicles, notary public licenses as well as official authorizations to practice law or dermatology or, even, ob-gyn. Anything at all you want. And he says the licenses will be authentic, fully authentic and conferring all rights that such document is supposed to confer as mandated by law."
"But how can a forgery be ‘authentic’?" I ask.
"Perhaps, they are authorized forgeries or, maybe, even real documents just issued irregularly," he tells me.
We walk down a noisome alleyway to the ramps and masonry piles constituting the Templo Major. The Spaniards leveled the complex when Tenochtitlan was destroyed by Cortes and his triple alliance of Indian allies. The ruins are the pyramids that were once inside larger pyramids – Meso-Americans built around and on top of existing structures, encapsulating old holy places inside new and larger facades and this site is unprepossessing, blocky ramps and short step-pyramids hacked off a couple meters above grim, moist-looking grey moats. Some cartoonish-looking serpents with waist-high jaguar heads sprawl between dismal-looking walls, some of them faced with stones cut to resemble human skulls. It’s a cemetery containing cisterns full of the heads of decapitated infants, other pits clogged with masks represented flayed faces and shattered pottery. Compressed into these ruins, the Templo Mayor, once the wonder of the world, is desperately uncommunicative, more like the remnants of an industrial site than the high, white pyramids that so impressed Cortes. (On the Trista Noche, the grief of the Spaniards was increased by the knowledge that their comrades, soldiers captured in the desperate battle were being tortured to death amidst smoky fires and the thunder of drums atop those sepulcher-white towers.)
Walking the next several blocks toward the oldest Spanish structure in the City, we encounter more shabby-looking men offering papers for sale. It is a characteristic of Latin American economy that all vendors of a particular type congregate in one place – this promotes efficiency of shopping and customers can readily compare prices and services offered. For instance, all hair stylists in a given colonia will occupy a single lane; all bakers offer their wares side-by-side in a particular quadrant of the market. The underground economy, apparently, operates the same way – if you have papers to sell, you gather in this part of the city, northwest of the Zocalo to hawk your wares.
GRH buys a cup of spiced fruit (mango, watermelon, cantaloup) in a spectacularly squalid courtyard, a rainy-looking hole in the wall opening into a half-flooded airshaft in a building, mopeds chained to the wall and some children gathered around a grill where meat is cooking and looking down on the people an impassive Virgin in blue and white trapped in a vertical glass casket.
The oldest building in CDMX is, characteristically, too dangerous to enter. A grey, smog-ravaged facade runs along the side of a small plaza and I can see that the second story is perched on ancient beams, huge wooden trusses half-exposed where the stucco has fallen away from the front of the building. Small penetrations to the upper level look like vigas to me, but, in fact, they are stabilizing stanchions inserted into the structure after it was almost toppled by earthquake in 1985. Since that time, the building has been too unstable to enter and, so, its elegant lower-level arcade, something like a cloister walk in a monastery, is empty. In the small chaotic square in front of the building, people have set up booths to sell wedding and quincenara invitations – again, every merchant in this kind of ware in this part of the city has come to this plaza to sell their goods. Girls and older women sit on camp-stools between wagons full of different sorts of invitations, some of them quite elegant in design, others flamboyant and impressively ugly.
We find a subway dropping down to a train that will take us to the northern edge of the city where the Basilica housing the Virgin of Guadulupe is located. On the train, I sit next to the ugliest man in CDMX. Somehow, this fellow, who feigns sleep, has managed to grow his bony and lance-shaped nose so long that it extends over his mouth and stabs into his lower lip. The man’s chin is part of the same forward-thrusting skull-structure – it also is pointed outward like an arrowhead.
"Does he look like Sylvester Stallone?" GRH whispers to me.
"Sort of – but something else too," I say.
But I can’t come up with the comparison. Brooding about this in retrospect, I now think that the man’s head and strangely shaped skull reminded me of a sturgeon with a long bony snout or, even, the coelecanth, the archaic fish whose gristly muzzle wraps down and over its toothy mouth.
A vendor announces that he has some kind of electro-magnetic card that, when held in proximity with your cell-phone, "greatly enhances the number of bars available to you" – that is, somehow improves receptions. How this is supposed to work is unclear, but you can acquire the card for a mere 25 pesos (that is a dollar and quarter).
We ride to a stop one short of the end of the line. This is "Basilica" and, so, indicated by pictograph on the wall. Everyone gets off the train. Whatever lies beyond this place maybe isn’t worth visiting. A large family of short squat Indians, presumably Mayans, gathers together on the train platform while a sharp-eyed granny takes count – I count as well, identifying about 30 people in the group of pilgrims, most of them women comprising three, or, even, four generations, children in arms, an old man who walks with a gnarled cane, and a couple of reluctant-looking son-in-laws or sons. The granny wants to make sure that no one has been left on the train and that all of the smaller children and adolescents, prone to distraction and wandering, are within arm’s reach. Satisfied that the entire family group is intact and gathered around her, she mutters something and the pilgrims march single file to the escalators and, then, through the busy streets to the Virgin’s Basilica.
The neighborhood in the vicinity of the Tepeyac hill, the site of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe is horizontal and hard-bitten. This northernmost part of the city has been punched in the jaw hard and lies sprawled on the ground, a barrio of small shack-like businesses with living quarters perched above them, nothing built up higher than two stories, concrete huts and corrugated metal sheds spreading out to the horizon. The Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe occupies the center of this place because this is what you have come to see, this is your destination, and so your way over the thronged sidewalk is toward that structure. From a distance, the big new church seems like a woven thing, a basket tipped over so that its wicker sides and bottom are piled-up in the sky like coolie’s hat. It’s a considerable hike from the train-station and the last eighth mile is over the triple-lanes of surface highway where buses seem to be butting one another in competition to deposit their passengers as close as possible to bleached white walls surrounding the church compound. I have been here before and recall that, for some reason, this part of CDMX always seems very hot, sun-struck, prostrate under the smoggy glaring sky.
The Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe is a very holy place for, at least, three reasons. First, the church celebrates a rather questionable miracle, the visitation of a dark-skinned Nahuatl-speaking Virgin Mary to a disenfranchised Aztec nobleman, baptized as a Christian and named Juan Diego, something said to have happened in December of 1531, The Virgin’s apparition was confirmed by several miracles – the appearance of Castillian roses not native to Mexico in the middle of the winter and the acheiropoetic image of the Virgin embossed on Juan Diego’s tilma or cloak made of maguey fiber. The Church has not authorized any close forensic or technical analysis of the famous tilma and, so, it remains unclear how it was made or when. A sermon preached in 1556 refers to an object of cult veneration at Tepeyac, a painting made on a cloth – indeed, the local priests were skeptical as to the origin of that image and concerned that its adoration might lead to idolatry. Although the folk story about the Virgin’s apparition and the image she left on the cloak features the intervention of famous Mexican clergymen, including Bishop Zumarraga, there is no written account relating to the visitation to Juan Diego until 1648 – in that year a Nahuatl-language tract the so-called Nican Mohopua ("It is recounted...") was published narrating the story for the first time. (No reference occurs to the visitation in the diaries or writings of any of the prominent clergy in Mexico City who were contemporaries of Juan Diego and, indeed, there is no evidence for the actual existence of Juan Diego either.)
The second reason that the Basilica is very holy is because millions upon millions of people have agreed to regard it as thus. This veneration is not something to be lightly dismissed.
The third reason that I think that the place is sacred relates to the wonderful character of what happened there – regardless of the veracity of the folk legend of the tilma and the roses. I refer to the development of a sustaining mythology, an imago arising in the face of cultural devastation, the invention of a banner, as it were, that gave shape to the aspirations of a people and that dramatized a way to progress away from the nightmarish and abject humiliation inflicted upon the native people by their Spanish conquerors. In this regard, I rely upon Jonathan Lear’s seminal book about the great Crow Indian chief, Many Coups, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.
Lear defines "cultural devastation" as a condition that renders meaningless even the most fundamental impulses necessary to maintaining existence. After the White onslaught, Lear says that Crow women, who prided themselves on making nutritious meals for their families, faced this dilemma: men ate so that they were strong and could prove themselves in war. Women supported the men in this role and derived prestige from their husband’s military prowess and courage. Once inter-tribal war as a way of life was forbidden, there was no reason for women to make meals for their husbands – the entire basis for the culture, the pursuit of glory in warfare, no longer existed: in effect, the raison d’etre for even the most essential, life-sustaining tasks had vanished. Lear says that it is not as if one morning the Crow Indians woke up and found that there were no longer any restaurants at which to eat; rather, Lear argues that the Indians literally had no reason to eat at all, no reason to live. This circumstance is "cultural devastation" and, in his book, Lear identifies a dream-vision that sustained the great war-chief, Plenty Coups, and that showed him a way forward, a vision that was ultimately the salvation of his people – if warriors could no longer be stern, stoic, and cruel, they could no longer follow the way of the wolf or the bear or the hawk; rather, Plenty Coups said that the men must model themselves on the least of creatures, the sparrow. And to that end, he carried the legs of a sparrow in his medicine bundle until the end of his days.
Facing similar cultural devastation, the Virgin of Guadalupe provided a new paradigm for belief. Appearing on the site of the Temple of Tonantzin, a mother goddess, the Virgin offered a dispensation that showed the Indian peoples of Mexico a way forward, a path away from cultural devastation toward a new identity. For this reason, the place and the image shown there are to be venerated.
Coming up from the snarling arena where the buses are contending, the visitor is guided inexorably into the Basilica – its doors are huge and open – and immediately beyond the Entrada, three moving walkways, pedestrian conveyors as at an airport, whisk the pilgrims through a dim gallery where the miraculous image hovers on a wall high overhead. Unlike some of the museums and the National Palace, there is no security – no one would dare besmirch the Virgin.
It’s anti-climactic. There is no "path of discovery" leading to the holy image. No sooner do you set foot inside the cool and dim Basilica than you find yourself funneled onto the moving walkway, conveyed into an encounter with the Virgin before you have any chance to prepare yourself or to access the properly reverent state of mind. There is no reason to linger in contemplation of the Virgin and this is disallowed by the moving conveyor. The picture is high above, entrapped in columns of icy, greyish light, muted illumination intended, I think, to better preserve the vivid colors on the tilma. From the first of the three conveyors, closest to the wall, you perceive the image as steeply foreshortened – it’s like looking up at a tree with your chin touching the tree’s trunk. Certainly, the people farther away from the image can see it better and not from this peculiar angle. The air sizzles with flashes as cameras detonate taking pictures. At the end of the conveyor, you are in a different room unable to find your way back to the entrance, funneled in another direction to a place within the great dome of the amphitheater, a small image of the Virgin flanking the wooden pulpit, music sounding and a great multitude spread throughout the basin of the church.
The Virgin has not always looked the same. In the late 19th century, someone noticed that the Queen of Heaven’s gold-leaf twelve-pointed crown had vanished – apparently, the gold-leaf peeled away, leaving the Virgin without her lid of gilded rays. (Someone confessed that he had tried to retouch the damaged crown and that it simply fell away.) Our Lady changes with the needs of those who have come to venerate her. Everyone sees a different lady standing like a sentinel on the banner high on the wall. To me, she is a maternal blur of blue and gold, featureless, a sort of mummy suspended in space. The man next to me sees that she is trampling on the head of Donald Trump and his little son imagines her to be like one of the Three Kings who will come with gifts on Saturday. From a distance, the shape of the figure and her mandala are unmistakable – the image is shaped like a vulva, the exterior lips of the vagina glowing with an orange-yellow intensity around a steely blue interior. A woman sees her mother’s face in the Virgin. An old man sees his childhood village. Students imagine the Virgin cradling an AK-47 in her arms instead of an infant. The Zapatistas show the Virgin wearing a gas mask with her cloak decorated with images of flaming Molotov cocktails Narcos imagine her with bony jaws and naked ribs – a variant on Sancta Muerte. To the poor, she is the Mother who brings meat, the one who oozes milk like pulque.
Beyond the Basilica, a row of old churches flanks a vast plaza. In CDMX, where everything is intensely crowded, open spaces signify grandeur and power. Here the sun strikes down mercilessly on a great white expanse and the ancient churches lining the square are all vertical, narrow steeples pointing like stone fingers skyward. The old churches, including the gothic pile that once harbored the sacred image, are backed up against the shaggy bluff of Tepeyac, a steep mesa shaped like the plinth of a statue and wild with jungle-like forest, vines and big trees crowding the top of the little square mountain. More chapels line the bluff-top, small white columnar structures like lookout towers or fortresses. At the opposite of the plaza, a Brutalist concrete bell-tower rises similar to the structure designed by Marcel Breuer at the Abbey of St. Johns in Collegeville, Minnesota – that is, cantilevered raw concrete urged into a blocky cross-shaped mass, hung with bells like Christmas tree ornaments. One one side of the amphitheater a priest is issuing blessings.
We walk along the row of old churches, all of them with doors open showing interiors hazy and dripping with gold, and come to a bronze statue of Juan Diego. He has opened his tilma before Zumarraga to shower the Bishop with Castilian roses. In derogation of the miracle, a couple of rose-bushes planted alongside the statue droop pale pink blossoms – apparently, it’s not difficult to grow roses in this climate in early January. Beyond, there is a Moorish church with a dome covered in tiles that glint in the sun – this is the chapel of the posita, that is the sacred spring or well, now gone dry because of the precipitously falling water table.
The subterranean toilets are white and look clean but they smell of urine fermenting into some kind of yeasty broth. I dispense enough pesos to enjoy a bowel movement in the Virgin’s toilet, buying a loop of toilet paper, but I’m unable to go – my guts are frozen-up and the foul air makes me swoon. For a moment, I feel like I am falling into the lap of the Virgin. Flocks of sparrows rise over the plaza and the light rebounds from the marble blinding me.
On the wall in the Basilica, Spanish words say: "Am I not here, I who am your mother?"
Our quest is for the best pozole in Mexico City and, therefore, the best pozole in the entire world. This venture takes us from the Basilica in Tepayec across the city from north to south on the subway and, then, by bus into a neighborhood called Picacho-Ajusco. It is a long trek, about ten kilometers, GRH says beyond the belt-line freeway looping around the city.
Somewhere a little north of UNAM, we leave the subway and walk to a place where the roads widen around traffic islands so that buses of all shapes and varieties can take harbor there. The sidewalks are crowded with vendors conveniently located to sell travelers food to sustain them on their bus trips which may be long or short depending on their destination and, of course, on the crush of traffic. The food stalls require electrical power and so the vendors blithely scale the poles supporting transmission cables and, somehow, tap into the lines. Each pole wears a medusa-like nimbus of pirate-electrical lines and I watch as one vendor climbs a foot-ladder up to the live wire, rummages among the cords, and, then, hooks up, somehow avoiding electrocution on his perch above the sidewalk. The air is sweet and tangy with the smell of food being prepared, an omnipresent odor of meat of various kinds cooking on grills.
The bus fills up fairly quickly and, then, departs, snagged in traffic and motionless for about a half-hour and, then, slipping through a series of crowded neighborhoods, a zone of hospitals where ambulances are coming and going, none too swiftly because of the traffic jams, herds of people standing in the sun outside radiology offices and ob-gyn places, high-rise towers overlooking the traffic stalled on the highway. We cross under the belt-line freeway – the highway is riding above us on stilt-like piers of concrete, very high in the air with another lower cross-street also raised up above the surface roads, three tiers of road stacked up on pylons that seem precariously slender. The bus, then, traverses a zone of construction, a few kilometers where the land is cleared down to huge foundations, big pits from which towers are rising, a dozen slowly spinning cranes looming over the building sites bearing huge Mexican flags. Then, the neighborhood becomes more humble and the road climbs into what seem to be the foothills of mountains – there are steep winding ascents, laborious with speed-bumps and the little concrete houses and shops are perched along canyons filled with garbage and flowering vines and jungle hibiscus. The small vertical rain-forests are inserted among the little villages all entangled so that one place flows into another without any discernible boundaries.
After a long ride, we exit the bus and find ourselves in a silent residential neighborhood that is all up and down, crumbling sidewalks that buck and plunge down steep grades, vertical driveways slashing across footpaths, steep hills that tax your lungs at this elevation. The streets are humble, lower middle class with tiny shops opening onto the sidewalk – beauticians, insurance agencies, fingernail parlors, places selling oil and auto parts, a jumble of commerce along the main streets that are mostly empty even though it is rush hour. GRH is not quite sure where the pozole place is located. We ask at a street café featuring gyros-style meat, plump and glistening with fat, turning on a rotisserie. "No, no, no pozole anywhere around here," the chef says.
We go down some side streets, the city tilts around us, dropping precipitously from the crest of the hill. GRH asks at another place: no, no pozole on this street but if you go two blocks and, then, turn left. We follow the instructions but they seem to be wrong – the pozole place might be down this avenue, sure enough, the same as the other streets on which we have walked, but how far away, a mile, two miles, five miles.
"They don’t want to answer," GRH says, "because we are not eating at their place."
But, at last, we find the restaurant, a nondescript place on a street corner, a sort of plastic tarp pulled partly down over the two or three tables that are half-outside the open cubby along the street, half-inside as well. The family that owns the place is eating a late lunch at a table on a stair-landing a yard or so above the concrete floor of the café and, on a back wall, there are photographs of Mexican movie-stars from the fifties, singers as well, glossy black and white pictures in cheap frames. Piles of hog cheek meat, hog maw, as they would say in the American south, are heaped next to a blackened grill and, beyond, on a blue blossom of propane flame, there are big pots of pork stock simmering. Chopped vegetables are lined up in plastic bins along the grill and the stove where the stock is brewing. The smell is dense: rendered pork fat and roasting chili peppers.
We order and, after ten minutes or so, the pozole is brought to us in big ceramic bowls. A waitress sets on the table various brightly colored salsas as well as a cup of thinly sliced radishes, some cilantro and celery and a shaker full of oregano. (There is also a stack of tostados that you eat smeared with sour cream.) In this way, you can make the pozole as hot or mild as you wish it to be. GRH is right – it is the best pozole in the world, a radiant stew that seems to fill you with fresh, new and vivid life. GRH eats with relish, seasoning his pozole until the heat makes his cheeks and forehead glisten with sweat. He quotes his father: "You’re not eating right unless the food makes you sweat."
After our meal, we have to find a way to get back into the city. I have no idea where we are located, but there are wet-looking and hairy green mountains overlooking these streets. Of course, no end to the city is in sight in any direction.
We stand on the street to hail a taxi-cab. Taxis are so cheap in this barrio that many of them pass us occupied only by canine passengers. Here dogs are sufficiently well-paid to hire cabs to take them from one place to another. One cab passes with a shaggy sheepdog half-reclining in the back. In another cab, the dog, a German shepherd, has declined to ride in the back seat. He sits in the front next to the driver. A third cab drive past us occupied by a brace of nervous-looking chihuahuas.
At last, a cab stops, picks us up, and the driver, a young man with a mohawk, hurtles down hill toward the city.
The cab driver is distracted. He talks on the phone while weaving through torrents of traffic. Adhered to his dashboard is a small ceramic sombrero. It is an aspect of Mexican culture that GRH finds embarrassing – Mexicans themselves embrace many stereotypes about their country and its inhabitants display them without shame, even, proudly. The man’s rosary hangs from his rear-view mirror. He has ear-buds that make it impossible to speak with him and, somehow, talks on the phone without removing them. For his customers, he plays mariachi music at a volume relatively tasteful for CDMX – that is, only about thirty percent louder than would be acceptable in most other countries.
GRH has heard horror-stories about kidnaper cab drivers and so he watches the mohawked young man at the wheel carefully. The man takes a couple phone calls. The cabbies in CDMX are plotting a demonstration over PEMEX’s decision to raise the price of gas 3 pesos per gallon. This cuts into the already fragile profit-margins of the taxi-drivers and has enraged them to the point that they are coordinating stall-outs on the freeways at crucial interchanges – three or four-hundred cabs and trucks all blocking access to the roads and bringing traffic to a screeching halt. GRH is concerned that the cabbie will take an unexpected turn, whirl us off the freeway and into the midst of a cacophonous bumper-to-bumper demonstration. But no such thing happens. We cut through a pleasant woodland, the forests around UNAM’s autonomous zone. Cartilaginous masses of black lava, tense as sinew, extrude between the trees and we can see students riding on their bicycles on paths in the dusty-green forest.
The cab-driver does as instructed – he stops directly in front of the complex of bright towers in the center of the University. It is 87.50 for the ride – twenty minutes in the cab for about $4.35.
It is early evening at UNAM. The sun is sinking downward through smooth, milky clouds of smog and the shaggy range of hills overlooking the campus seems tropical and mysterious. Students have occupied one of the low-slung buildings near the Bibliotek for almost 50 years – a raft of demands is scrawled on white curtain-like drop-cloths suspended from the building: Exigamos this and Exigamos that, rows of names punctuated by some red hammer-and-sickle insignia. A half-dozen book sellers have seized nooks in front of the occupied building and they are selling manuals for revolution by Mao, Fidel, Lenin, and Stalin. On a low knoll, the library rears up glistening with mosaic murals depicting with cascades of allegorical figures the contrast between the Copernican and Ptolemaic world views. The mural is huge and covers the entire wall of the library – GRH who has studied in the building says that the uppers stories hidden behind the chain mail of mosaic are dark and shadowy places because there is no exterior light, no windows to disrupt the design on the facade of the building. From the round hill where the decorated block of the library rises up over the campus, I can see several other facades, also glowing with murals as big as freight trains – stylized people struggling to pass a torch through the darkness, Jason and his Argonauts bending to their oars. Little puffs of marijuana are rising from the glades where people are sitting in half-circles passing around joints. Of course, people are also playing soccer in a cleared spot in the woods that are now going grey in the blue-yellow evening. Small hatchback cars, Hondas, perhaps, marked with the emblem of the UNAM security forces are cautiously lurching over the open meadows – security doesn’t have much authority but it can politely urge the pot smokers to go somewhere more discrete. No one is policing the lovers who are lying like statues, the women stretched atop men who rest flat on their back in the trampled grass, nose to nose inhaling each other’s breaths and, otherwise, not twitching a muscle. Dogs romp in the distance – the dogs are supposed to be on leash and, so, I suppose the Honda hatchbacks are also patrolling to assure that this rule is being obeyed.
It all looks very peaceful. By law, the regular police and D.F. Federales, as well as the army, must remain 8 miles away from the center of the campus – hence, the use of the term "autonomous" in the name of the University. GRH tells me a story about this: in the late sixties, his uncle was involved in a demonstration downtown at the Palacio Nacional. After the demonstration, GRH’s uncle returned to UNAM. There he was summoned to his advising professor’s office. A Mexican professor has authority akin to a German professor – they are respected and feared figures. The professor said that he understood that the young man had been at the demonstration. He further noted that he had been told that his student had even been one of the organizers. "I won’t deny it," GRH’s uncle said. The professor asked the young man to approach him and, when he was close, he punched the boy as hard as he could in the stomach. The student crumpled and fell forward. "I’m not going to have you expelled," the professor said. "I will pass you from my class. But I never want to see you again."
We walk through a zone of small coffee shops and bookstores, a typical campus neighborhood, and, then, stop at a big bookstore alone a busy avenue called Michel Angelo de Quevado. We plan to take a bus back to the outskirts of Coyoacan, but the bus is delayed, trapped in the snarl of traffic on the avenue and so we walk along the street, hiking a considerable distance past BMW dealerships and elite-looking malls where security guards with flags are herding expensive cars into tuck-under shopping malls, high-priced restaurants also lining the large avenue with its median planted with flowering bushes and trees – the street could be located in Scottsdale or Santa Monica. We come to a narrow street called "Three Crosses" and I walk back to the apartment on that road. GRH calls a girl who lives in the area and says that he will stop by her house. I see the big plazas, the church with white confectionary domes, the spray of fountains making a halo around the two bronze coyotes standing in the midst of those dancing waters. Somehow, we have come from mountains down to the plain. It’s the evening of Three Kings Day and people are hustling about with big boxes containing a special kind of pastry made for that holiday – it’s a round hub-cap sized loaf of gooey dough painted with different-colored frosting in which hard candy is embedded. (A tiny plastic baby-Jesus or a coffee bean is also inserted into the dough – you win if you are the lucky one to find the bean or the baby, although in some cases winning means that you must agree to supply the Three Kings’ cake next year). Here and there, we see men in long robes bearing gifts, the three wise-men laughing and waving bottles of mezcal or tequila in the air as they march through the festive crowds.
The restaurant has white linen on its outdoor tables. The waiter is obsequious. These are bad signs, indeed disqualifying indicia, if my young friend, GRH, were dining with us. But he has contacted a girl that he knows somewhere in our neighborhood and has gone to her house. So we are on our own and must fend for ourselves in the garishly lit carnival where the streets disgorge into the plazas filled with people.
On the menu, I see offered the food that GRH recommended to me on the first night. I check my Moleskine and, although the spelling is slightly changed, this seems to be that item: a deep-fried tortilla layered with refried beans, then, goat or mutton, sauce, queso, and a sour cream. It’s shadowy at the outdoor café with the white table-cloths. Some upright torches are sizzling with blue flames that cast no light and the strings of Christmas tree bulbs draped over the embattled trees in the park are also dim, more shards of color than light. I point at the menu and the waiter squints and nods his head. We have beer and bottled water poured into goblets sin hielo.
The waiter brings me some tortilla soup. The presentation is impressive and pointless. The tostada chips in the bowl are arranged in a stack like wood at a campsite fire and a thatch of sour cream for flame. The waiter pours the steamy broth over the little campfire-shaped heap of chips. Then, the waiter brings a slimy flank-steak, cooked to leathery texture, some nubbin-potatoes with butter, and a couple of long, sinister-looking peppers. I think you are supposed to chop up the peppers and eat them with fragments of the sheet of flank-steak. I cut off the lower quarter of a pepper and pop it in my mouth. The heat is blinding and my eyes foam over with tears and I can’t taste anything for the rest of the meal.
"This is certainly not what I ordered," I tell Julie. She is eating pink shrimp with linguine in Alfredo sauce.
"I suppose he didn’t see what you pointed at," Julie says.
Pablo, the host at our AirBnB apartment, suggests that we purchase tickets to visit Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul on line. "There is a always a long line waiting to enter," he warns.
Indeed, on a Saturday morning, at 11:00, two lines snake away from the breach in the blue stucco wall entering the compound of rooms and the courtyard where Kahlo was born and lived and, ultimately, died. One line is for ticket-holders such as us. The other line, longer and more boisterous, is for those who have simply shown-up this morning and hope to gain entrance to the artist’s "Blue House" without a wait that is too painfully long. There are a couple of Germans in the line and a British boy and girl, but, otherwise, the crowds outside are all Spanish-speaking, presumably middle-class Mexicans. It’s sunny and the people in both lines wear straw hats, berets, or stocking caps against the blaze of light overhead. Three or four girls of the species internationally known as the Earnest Museum Volunteer and Art-lover patrol the lines waiting at the door, keeping the queues orderly and answering questions. The girls have dark eyes and long black hair and they are very pretty, wearing stylish leather boots and silver and turquoise chokers around their throats. The rule seems to be that one of the non-ticket-holders is allowed into the museum courtyard for every two advance ticket-holders admitted – in this way both lines move, although the ticket-holder line moves twice as quickly. The principle is that every time a person or group leaves the museum, a person or group of similar size is granted entrance.
The wall is blue and the sidewalk, like all walkways in CDMX, is shattered and constitutes a trip-hazard in a dozen ways. Everyone is cordial. It’s a nice morning and the sky is cloudless and, even, the traffic a couple blocks away seems vaguely repentant and, therefore, restrained. Many of the people are holding cups of Starbucks coffee.
Kahlo’s house is excellently curated, a world-class museum with very carefully phrased informational placards in Spanish and English posted next to the art works and domestic artifacts. Both staff and visitors are attractive, cosmopolitan, soft-spoken. Everyone is courteous and happy to be in this place, the house very attractive with small galleries full of small paintings, then, the rooms and spaces that Kahlo occupied, all of this poised around a garden where pre-Columbian urns and masks and small Colima figurines of dogs and laughing babies are displayed among flowering trees and ocotillo cactus. Benches invite you to sit and small fountains are tinkling and, in one of the little courtyards, you can buy a beer or coffee or a glass of wine and eat tortas with pastry.
As is the case will all really carefully curated museums, there is a path of discovery that the visitor is supposed to follow. First, some rooms displaying Kahlo’s orthotic equipment, her crutches and body-casts and grim-looking corsets, then, galleries with small lapidary paintings hanging on spare white walls, and, at last, her studio with its great, curved greenhouse windows, her day-bed in an alcove next to the studio, and, then, the sancta sanctorum, Kahlo’s bedroom perched on a sort of adobe pedestal overlooking the flowering courtyard. You can watch a film about the artist – it’s over long, possibly a half-hour, but intelligent and very moving in a low-key sort of way.
The house is only three blocks from the apartment where we are staying, near the twin town-plazas at the center of Coyoacan and the neighborhood harbors great spreading trees hidden within the courtyards of the houses turning their incommunicative walls to the street and looking inward. Some upscale cantinas mark the intersections and the quiet streets here are named after European cities, London, Vienna, Berlin. In this place, Spring is eternal.
If you have read this far, I assume that you know something about Frida Kahlo. Her colorful, if grisly, self-portraits are undoubtedly familiar to you and, perhaps, you saw the movie about her, slick as a copy of Vogue or Cosmopolitan and starring Selma Hayek. Kahlo was a great character, quarter Jew and half Oaxacan indigenista, who affected a uni-brow and carried a small turtle-shell comb for her moustache, an actress who played a role so effectively that, in the end, I think, she forgot that she was acting at all. She vanished into her own persona, contradictions and all – a committed, even fanatical, Communist, she was also addicted to Coca-cola and lived lavishly (presumably many of the rooms now devoted to the museum were once occupied by armies of servants.) Like Georgia O’Keefe, Kahlo invented a style that encompassed not only her paintings, but also her imperious gestures, her wardrobe, and, even, I think, the kinds of food that she ate and the booze that she swilled. Addicted to painkillers that she washed down with gallons of alcohol, Kahlo suffered from a host of horrific afflictions – it made me feel vaguely woozy to hear the catalogue of mutilating surgeries, amputations, and quack remedies that she endured. If you pay too great attention to Kahlo’s medical martyrdom, the bright sun will swarm with purple in your eyes and you may find yourself, knocked out, fainted dead away among the staves of belligerent-looking ocotillo and jagged asterisks of the agave plants. Kahlo was married to the monstrous Diego Rivera and although Kahlo confided to her diary that he was "the ugliest son-of-a-bitch in Mexico", the 300 pound painter and self-proclaimed former cannibal, was absurdly successful with women – he seduced Mexican starlets by the score, and, not content with those adventures, engaged in a torrid romance with Kahlo’s sister. Kahlo retaliated in two ways – first, she engaged in counter-campaigns of infidelity, sleeping with dozens of men and women to avenge herself on Diego and, also, possibly out of a sense that her own exorbitant desires were every bit as worthy of consummation those motivating her husband; second, she painted gory images of herself as a sexual victim, her naked body flowering with rose-colored wounds, stigmata signifying her status as a sacrificial offering to shadowy Lustmoerder-figures, expressionistic depictions of the injuries inflicted by her unfaithful husband.
Visitors start their tour of the premises by entering a small cabinet-shaped room where the instruments of Frida Kahlo’s torture are reverently presented. We see her twisted and tiny body-cast decorated with bright red hammer-and-sickle, her prosthetic leg, appliance she wore after her gangrenous limb was amputated – it’s also decorated with small bells that would tinkle when she limped about. There are crutches and cases of painkillers in ugly administrative bottles, various corsets bristling with punitive-looking snaps and latches – all of this is shown in dim, hushed rooms where people whisper to one another and cameras flash. In the adjacent galleries, thirty or forty of her pictures are exhibited. These include a painting of her mutilated feet inscribed in Spanish: Pies para que los quiero, si tengo alas pa’ voler – that is, "feet what do I need you for when I have wings to fly." Other cases show the Tehuano traditional dresses that Kahlo wore, part of her strenuous and effective costuming. (These garments were stored in a cupboard in an upstairs bathroom and, consistent with the terms of Kahlo’s will, only displayed 50 years after the artist’s death.) The last painting that Kahlo made, a flamboyant, crudely smeared image of a split watermelon hangs on one of the walls – the picture is gruesome, but undeniably vibrant, the torn flesh of the watermelon labeled with a slogan Viva la Vida!, the words slashed into the red fruit along with her name among the black slick seeds: the watermelon is a swampy womb, not a still life, nothing nature morte about this image – rather, everything is vibrant with bloody, wet life. (You can buy a refrigerator magnet of this famous painting – its been reconfigured as a souvenir: Viva la Coyoacan! the watermelon now proclaims, a rewriting of the motto that misses the whole point.)
Kahlo’s studio is full of specimens in formaldehyde, skulls, and a morose-looking gas mask among her books, many of the English volumes appearing in late forties, early fifties Book of the Month editions that I recognize from my Nebraska grandmother’s shelves. A large canvas poster showing the in utero development of a fetus adorns one wall and there are racks of paint tubes, brushes, elaborate easels, some designed so that Kahlo could paint while bed-ridden. Her studio is airy and bright, a wall of glass windows overlooking the flowering courtyard. Next to the studio, Kahlo’s day bed, a small, but comfortable-looking cot, occupies a sunny niche. At the head of the bed, there is a 19th century memorial painting of a dead baby, the little corpse served up like a roast piglet on a tray covered with flowers. At the foot of the bed, Kahlo displayed photographs of the shape and format that movie-stars used to distribute to their fans – but these pictures show Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and a young chubby Mao. Kahlo’s bedroom is beyond, the room where she died – a large iconic picture of Lenin addressing a multitude from what appears to be an iron-clad railway car hangs on the wall. The artist’s ashes occupy an urn shaped like a toad – Kahlo called Rivera the "toad-king." This was the bedroom, presumably, where Kahlo entertained her lovers – among the women, the great dancer, Josephine Baker, Georgia O’Keefe herself and Jacqueline Lanha, Andre Breton’s longsuffering wife; she slept with Isamu Noguchi here and, of course, Trotsky. (The film shown in an alcove in the courtyard tells this story: Rivera appeared unexpectedly and Noguchi had to escape by climbing down a tree. He left a sock in the bedroom and one of Kahlo’s chihuahuas took the garment in its mouth and pranced up to Diego Rivera. Rivera expressed disgust – "I don’t want anyone else to share my toothbrush," he supposedly snorted.)
Frida Kahlo thought of herself as exemplary. She embodied Mexico and her biography is that of her nation – at least, this was her self-understanding. (She claimed to have been born in 1910, that is the year that the Mexican revolution – the first mass socialist movement of the 20th century – began; in fact she was born a few years earlier.) She died in July 1954, aged 47, possibly a victim, in a circuitous way, of American imperialism – Kahlo dragged herself to a rain-sodden rally against the CIA’s Guatemala intervention, caught pneumonia, and died 11 days later. Photographs show her casket covered by a pall decorated with a huge hammer-and-sickle. I think it can be stated that she does symbolize certain trends in Mexican thought, a pervasive inauthenticity and bad faith afflicting the Mexican intelligentsia and obvious in their flirtation with Communist regimes like those formerly in Moscow and, presently (albeit in superannuated form) existing in Cuba. Despite her fan-photographs of Communist luminaries, Kahlo seems to have regarded the accoutrements of international Marxism more as fashion accessories than a coherent ideology – probably, an attitude preferable to that of a "true believer." It is unclear exactly how (or if) she reconciled her affection for Trotsky, who shared her bed, with her reverence for Stalin, the man who ordered Trotsky’s bloody murder by ice-pick. (Rivera had to beg forgiveness from Stalinist party chieftains for his brief flirtation with Trotskyism.) Both Kahlo and Rivera aspired to fame in the United States, although Frida repented of that desire once she actually experienced the place – her distaste for the U.S. was also, probably, induced in large part by her miscarriage when she was living in Detroit. Rivera consorted with Hollywood types, limousine liberals, and enjoyed the patronage of the Rockefellers, at least until he offended them by putting Marx among the figures lurking in the corner of one of his murals. In my view, Rivera’s famous spat with Rockefeller was primarily contrived to establish the painter’s bona fides as a revolutionary communist. The history and economic forces at work in Mexico oppose communism in fundamental ways and, it seems, the most of radical voices in the country are, and always have been, political dilettantes.
More importantly, I hypothesize that Frida Kahlo is on her way to becoming the secular equivalent of the Virgin of Guadalupe. As Mexicans lose their religious fervor, they substitute adoration for Kahlo for reverence previously accorded the Virgin. Art is the new religion. And, in the popular mind, art is related to suffering. Frida Kahlo’s primary attribute is her ability to transmute suffering into artistic accomplishment. Kahlo is a virtuoso of suffering, a mater dolorosa – she suffers bodily, her flesh crucified by various afflictions that twist her spine and destroy her uterus; she suffers emotionally and psychologically at the hands of Diego Rivera, the husband that she adores but who betrays her again and again. There is a lunar aspect to her suffering that is poised against the blazing and specious solar disk of Rivera’s art – he is huge, overpowering, bellicose; his art shrieks at you from the acres of mural splayed across the public buildings in Mexico City, Detroit, and, as far north in Pharaoh’s empire as Dartmouth, Vermont. Frida Kahlo’s work is tiny, small canvases on intimate subjects, resolutely personal and, therefore, ahistorical. In the end, the Communists were forced to denounce Kahlo, their most fervent admirer, as "too intimate," solipsistic to the extent of implicitly rejecting the very politics that she used as her preferred personal adornment. When your eye becomes accustomed to the torrent of Mexico City, you see Frida Kahlo’s picture everywhere – she is as ubiquitous as the Virgin of Guadalupe, a personal icon of suffering that promises that pain has a meaning, that to be afflicted and humiliated is redemptive. This is an important theme in Mexican thought – affliction and humiliation are, ultimately, the warrants of a kind of racial superiority. The "bronze race" as it was defined by the theorist Vasconcelos, is mixed, mestizos despised by those of pure blood, but, fundamentally, superior to those that look down upon them – they alone have the capacity for redemptive suffering.
Trotsky’s house is a few blocks away. The structure occupies a half-block along a roaring thoroughfare, Rio Churubusco. In every respect, Trotsky’s fortress-like refuge is the opposite of Kahlo’s Casa Azul. Both compounds are walled, but Kahlo’s stucco is the color of the Gulf of Mexico at Cancun, a limpid, profound blue and the rooms where she lived and worked are bright and airy. Trotsky’s house is a blind appendix, a linear diverticulum of grey and brown rooms forming a dead-end suite inside medieval-looking brown stone ramparts. An eerie, mud-colored darkness hangs over the little courtyard into which the barren and cold living area extends and the trees seem to be afflicted by the gloom so that they are skeletal, leaf-less, and ruined. Stalin had the place attacked repeatedly – in one half-hour assault thousands of Thompson-gun bullets were sprayed into the ragged masonry palisades: the great mural-painter rival to Rivera, David Siqueros, was involved in the siege and served time in prison for his role in the attempt to assassinate Trotsky. A grim tower, squalid-looking and haphazard, looms over the compound and the living quarters embedded in the fortress ramparts, dark and wet as a cave, were occupied by squads of bodyguards engaged to defend the aging Bolshevik. The tower is not a look-out – it’s windows are slits, designed for defense: you can shoot out of them but you can’t really see. The place looks like the kind of fortification that men dressed in chain-mail would defends with pots of boiling pitch.
A little white-walled museum flanks the hidden entry to the compound and you can see pictures of Trotsky’s corpse, his skull pierced by Ramon Mercader’s icepick, laid out on a slab of ice. The sun in Mexico is hot and bright and Trotsky had a couple of straw hats that he wore – these are displayed both in his dark office with his tiny typewriter and shelves of gangrene-colored books (none of the Book of the Month offerings that my Nebraska grandmother purchased) and in a glass case in the little museum. Nowhere is there any real mention of Trotsky’s political affiliation – it is simply said that he was a leader in the "international worker’s movement." In case you miss the point, however, there is a six-ton monolith of grey granite in the center of the courtyard, inscribed with a precision-cut hammer and sickle, a huge red flag draped mournfully over the stone that marks the place where Trotsky’s ashes are interred. A smaller plaque inset in the compound wall names an Irish or American body-guard who was killed in one of the Stalinist attacks on the place.
Like Frieda Kahlo, Trotsky was photogenic. He cultivated his beard and moustache to be unruly and chaotic, an offset to the steely squint in his eyes. Trotsky wears the same granny glasses as the demonstrator shot through the eye in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. (One can imagine Eisenstein also at Frida Kahlo’s salon, too gay for the hostess to seduce.) Trotsky’s appearance is a costume or, better said, under the volcano and pyramids, an elaborate mask no less contrived than that of Frida Kahlo. Her suffering was authentic and, I suppose, his was as well – Stalin set out to kill everyone in his family and, except for a grandson, succeeded. A poster in the bunkhouse for Trotsky’s bodyguards shows the members of the Bolshevik central committee in 1917 – there are 31 faces, revolutionaries of whom 29 were dead on the eve of Trotsky’s murder, almost all of them victims of Stalin. One suspects that he was an icy and callous lover, although who knows? Kahlo slept with him to revenge herself on the fat man and sexual pleasure was never her motive at least with respect to that liaison.
Trotsky’s rooms are chilly and they echo. His hot-water heater hangs like a howitzer shell in the corner of his bathroom – in a separate room, his porcelain toilet looks uncomfortable, set on a grey slab of concrete in a concrete-walled closet. In the courtyard, trampled by Maoist students, no bird sings.
No doubt Trotsky’s beard stirred indignation among his Mexican hosts. Mexican men are clean-shaven. The only exceptions are students and beggars. Machismo is important here and one of the most significant secondary sexual characteristics of the Mexican male is his rugged, square jaw. Mexican men have noble, out-thrust jaws, hard as iron and shaved so closely that the skin seems burnished. Everywhere you look, you see jaws that are like weapons, bone covered with taut, carefully groomed skin, tomahawk-jaws, war-club jaws, the jaws of 1950's film noir heroes that, even, in bright sunlight always seem to be seen in the shadowy grey flicker-light of an old movie.
Next to Trotsky’s house, a post-modern structure built in the style of early Frank Gehry, all corrugated metal and cyclone fence, announces that it is the "Cinema Canadiense" – a movie house that shows only Canadian films. Not surprisingly, the movies on the double-feature are by David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. (Guy Maddin’s most recent picture is showing a dozen blocks away at the Cineteca Nacional). I suppose the place is a rebuke to Hollywood movies and their admirers. Properly chastened, I gaze at the place in wonder.
When I visited Mexico City a number of year ago, Julie and I took a bus to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. The bus stopped at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe as well. I recall that it cost us $70 dollars each to make the hour-long ride to the pyramids. There was a tour-guide of sorts, but he was an old man and not too spry and, at the ruins, he left us to his own devices – the sun was shining brightly and it is always hot and dry and blinding in the barren courtyards beneath the oven-hot grey pyramids and the guide made a wry joke, something like, "as you walk along the long street, the one that they call the Avenue of the Dead you will see why it is named that way." This was the same guide, a retired High School teacher wearing a brown suit and tie, who said at the Basilica: "The Mexicans are very religious people. 85% of us are good Catholics. The rest are priests."
GRH and I rode the subway for quarter each to the end of the line on the north side of the city. We walked through a Correspondia to another line, rode for only one stop, and emerged into a white and gleaming structure built like a face of a clock, radial with beams extending in various directions across the flat, murky-looking city, a sort of time-piece for arrivals and departures. This was the north bus station, organized like an airport with surly guards at metal detector portals and large parking lots, with diesel fumes blowing like mist, snorting and puffing. On the bus to the pyramids, the round trip ticket cost us each $7. The bus was crowded, but everyone had a seat. It was a holiday and admission at the pyramids was free for Mexican citizens and, so, large family groups, carrying picnic lunches were making the trip out into the country to see the ruins and, perhaps, make the obligatory climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.
The trip isn’t long, an amble along freeways that run through flat land at first filthy with endless suburbs and, then, clearing to spatters of white and grey concrete villages, clusters of featureless buildings that seem to have fallen great distances out of the grey sky. It looks as if it will rain and there is a tarpaulin of ground-hugging mist slumped between two conical mountains. At the pyramids parking lot, the driveways are flanked with low, prickly groves of nopal cactus, industrial gray and rising like palisades from the stony volcanic ash tufted here and there with sage and yellow topknots of grass.
It’s a long walk among uncommunicative low walls and small, flat-topped pyramids made of grey and black field-stone. The temple courtyards are full of families, the little kids rebelliously kicking at the pebbles next to the squat, eroded altars. The pyramids are swathed in chilly mist and the big mountain behind the Pyramid of the Moon looms over the landscape, a stony, opaque destiny dimly glimpsed through fog.
The small museum near the entry way is crazed with cracks in its concrete and the display cases are empty and the air in the corridors smells of sewage. The Mexicans are cold, wearing stocking caps and snowmobile mittens and the children spherical with scarves and muffs although it is probably about 50 degrees. GRH disdains the toilet in the museum, a place with the fishy stench of an ancient, dirty aquarium. In the third courtyard, he clambers up one of the irregular heaps of stairs leading out of the enclosed plaza and, then, makes his way around to the back of the forty-foot high temple platform, incomplete because whatever crowned the place has been knocked off – at the outside of the temple platform, under the remote height of the Sun Pyramid, there are neat little cubicles of retaining wall built into the back of the platform. A "no trespassing" sign marks this as an ideal toilet and, indeed, some of the cubicle are already in use when we reach this warren of small stone pits and cells. A mother is anxiously watching her children piss against the ancient wall and a little girl is squatting in another of the niches in the old temple platform. Where GRH pisses, there are some neat coils of turd displayed on flat rocks with a bouquet of soiled toilet paper.
The sun smashes through the clouds and begins laying about the ancient masonry plazas with hammer-blows. Vendors are selling little ceramic masks shaped like hawks and jaguars and fanged boars. When you put the mask to your mouth, you can blow through a kind of pottery throat to produce a feral bellowing sound. Hundreds of these masks have been sold and the plazas with their grim twenty foot walls are echoing back and forth with tropical roar of enraged jaguars, hawks crying as they swoop down from the sky, boars bellowing in the bamboo thickets. The sonic landscape is lush and enigmatic as if a jungle had sprung from the bare rocks of the enclosed plazas.
All paths lead to the hot plaza under the Sun pyramid and the steep, endless steps to the platforms above. Hundreds of people are climbing the pyramid and gingerly descending it, great vertical crowds swarming like ants on wide stone steps. It looks too hot and arduous for me and, so, I tell GRH that I will climb only to the first terrace, perhaps 80 feet above the courtyard. Some cable lines slung between stakes embedded in the pyramid’s slope lead upward. The steps are numerous, irregular, and generally quite high – you have to raise your knees to the middle of your chest to climb this thing and the altitude and thin air make the ascent painful. At the first terrace, a maze of red fencing, something like the snow-fences you see at freeway exits or interchanges in Minnesota, guides the climbers through a queue that reverses itself every few yards – it’s a boustrophedon maze that leads, at the end, to the next ascent. By the time, I have navigated through the people-corrals to the ascent, I feel sufficiently rested to attempt the next climb up to the platform just beneath the flattened peak of the pyramid. I reach the second platform, a place that is less crowded, although there are still fifty or sixty Mexicans crowded onto the ledge, all of them talking excitedly. A mangy yellow-brown pyramid dog ambles up the steps to this last platform, inquires of the crowd whether anyone has anything to eat, and, finding nothing, makes his way up the tall steps to the top of the structure. I’m too tired to attempt the final ascent and content myself with leaning against the sloping talud, gazing down at the barren succession of courtyards below, each flanked with truncated platforms, at the end of the processional way the smaller, but still vast Pyramid of the Moon, almost exactly the blue-grey color of the sierra behind it, a faint roar of jaguars and boars below, hawks squeaking as they make their rabbit-slaying swoops from the empty blue heavens. Some colonnades and flat-topped buildings, not significantly different from the structures we passed on the highway loiter in the shadow of the Moon Pyramid – these are palaces and religious structures, possibly monastic cloisters, utilitarian slabs of cement with roof intact in some places, other areas spiky with pillars and open to the sky.
GRH climbs the rest of the way to the top of the pyramid. Later, I ask him whether he could see the infamous Walmart from the top of the structure. "I’m not sure," he said, "there were some big buildings along a road." In 2004, Walmart de Mexico, part of the Bodega Aurrea chain, proposed a retail outlet near the village of San Juan de Teotihuacan about a kilometer from the archaeological site. Ancient Teotihuacan was sprawling – all the territory that you can see from atop the pyramids was once city and, when the eye is acclimated to the landscape, a visitor can easily pick out rows of unexcavated platforms, small prism-shaped mounds extruding worked stone and covered with scraggly vegetation – scuffed clay heaps mark places where adobe has melted back into the chaparral and there are crisscrossing domains of low, shattered walls, ditches where water was once diverted from a tiny river cutting across the site, ancient brick lanes here and there emerging from the soil. The people in San Juan de Teotihuacan protested the building of the Walmart and said that it would encroach upon ruins, an argument more than a little hypocritical since they had been silently building for generations on parts of the site under their village. (The villagers main concern was the effect of the Big Box Retailer on their small family-owned businesses.) INAH, the National Anthropology institute, surveyed the proposed site and announced that there was nothing of significance within the footprint that the Walmart would occupy. Local politicians and officials blessed the transaction and INAH said that this was a case, rare in Mexico, where objective economic reality had prevailed without the interference of extortion and bribery. As soon as the first foundations were sunk, however, a small altar was found, the walls of a temple, even, perhaps, some mortuary items – this led to more demonstrations, then, more protestations that the intelligentsia opposing the store were acting in bad faith, more confirmation that no bribery had been involved and that nothing of any significance was at stake. The dispute got ugly enough to end with a welter of hunger strikes. Once the opposition embarks on a hunger strike strategy, you can pretty much wager that the protesters have reached the end of their tether, something that was true in this case – the local cops arrested the sit-in protesters, weakened by their fasting, and the bulldozers returned to work. A couple months after the Walmart was up and running, investigative journalists revealed that this was Mexico after all and that more than a quarter of a million dollars (American) had been paid to various officials as the bribes necessary to implementing the project. Even the incorruptible INAH was apparently involved in this wrongdoing. In the final analysis, there was nothing unusual about this Walmart – every Walmart in Mexico is accompanied by its own unique tale of bribery and corruption.
On the way back to the buses, we walk over a little bridge spanning a ditch. The ancient river has dried to potholes of muddy water fringed by reeds. Frogs are singing in the muck and the air resounds with the cries of the tropical beasts.
In the parking lot, GRH buys a styrofoam cup of jicama. The white slices of the jicama are peppered with chili powder, cayenne, brown sugar and cinnamon. GRH gives me a couple of slices – it’s fantastic, the tuber’s flesh as moist and juicy as a watermelon and almost as sweet. "Mexican yam," GRH says.
Lasty year, I read a scholarly book about Teotihuacan by George Cowgill, an Arizona archaeologist who has spent his long life working at the site. The book was organized into chapters explaining the history of the site, how one structure supplanted another and how the city expanded and, then, contracted as well until it was a scarcely inhabited ruin with dust infiltrating its springs and wells and the thatched sanctuaries atop the pyramids roofless and decaying, burnt in some instances so that the temple platforms were like mourning women with their hair set afire. No one filled the potholes in the streets and trash wasn’t collected and, when houses were abandoned, their adobe bricks eroded into piles of clay and, at last, the city was mostly empty. In the popular media, one might proclaim that the people had vanished – but this is false: they merely moved away to other smaller villages dotting the plain beneath the conical peaks of the volcanoes.
At the edge of the site, near the entry, a small pyramid has been bisected to reveal what it contains. You look into a crevasse fissuring the structure and can see that the older temple platform was ornate with cornices carved like startling and savage beasts, roaring felines and serpents with gaping jaws. It’s all very elegant, not really miniature, but intimate – the sculpture flanking the ladder-like steps ascending the smaller pyramid very carefully executed, naturalistic if that term can be applied to vigorously imagined chimeras. Cowgill undoubtedly explained this place in detail but I can’t recall what he wrote and I am confronted with an uncomfortable paradox – the more scholarly material you have read about a place, the less you understand it. I can’t recall a single phrase Cowgill used except for one – he wrote that a certain mural seemed painted to show the patterns that water in a swimming pool (or an impounded reservoir) produce in bright sunlight: Cowgill says: "I have verified this myself with observations in my swimming pool at home, tough work but someone had to do it." I don’t remember anything else that he said about Teotihuacan although I read his long and carefully objective book with interest only a year ago. I would like to be an authority on this remarkable place and read a book for that reason and, now, it seems that I know less than the holiday crowds of Mexicans hooting and roaring in the hot courtyards.
Between bus stop and subway, we witnessed something unpleasant. (Is "unpleasant" the right word?) On the crowded sidewalk between bus stop and subway, we saw something disturbing. A middle-aged man, not exactly old, but, certainly, older than the majority of pedestrians – Mexico is overwhelmingly young, no country for old men – collapsed. We were walking behind the man and I saw that his gait was a bit spastic; then, suddenly, it became blind and staggering so that his every step was an accomplishment in itself, determined, dared, done, putting one heavy and awkward foot ahead of another, a process winding down on itself and spiraling inward until the middle-aged man, not exactly old, but, certainly, not young either, fell forward, crumpling into a sodden-looking, shabbily dressed heap of himself in the middle of the sidewalk. The man collapsed directly in front of us and we were obliged to step over him, other people walking along the sidewalk instinctively averting their eyes. As I lifted my leg to step over the fallen man, I noticed that he had dropped two 16 ounce bottles of Bonafort agua pura in shrink wrap onto the pavement next to him. I had not seen the man’s face and so I glanced over my shoulder to look behind: he was sprawled on his belly on the cement, motionless, a black thatch of hair standing up over his skull like a rooster’s comb.
No one did anything to help the man. In fact, as far as I could determine, most people simply increased their speed, swerving a little so that they didn’t have to experience the indignity (and shame) of stepping over him. No one did anything to help the man, but this is immaterial – I didn’t do anything to help the man, didn’t pause to assay his condition, didn’t offer a hand to raise him off the dirty pavement.
We walked a half-block before I mentioned the incident. "I suppose I can’t call myself a Christian," I said. GRH shrugged. "It was my duty to help that man," I said, "and I did nothing." GRH shrugged again: "You see that thing all the time." "But I should have helped?" – A dangerous and disingenuous remark since we were only a 200 feet from where the man was lying on the sidewalk. Nothing prevented me from reversing my path and going back to his assistance.
GRH said: "You can’t stop to help someone like that because it is probably an ambush." "An ambush?" "Yes," he said, "he has a confederate concealed somewhere nearby and when you stoop to help him that bandit swoops onto you and picks your pocket." We were at a stoplight. The presence of the fallen man behind me on the pavement throbbed like a torn muscle in my right shoulder. "Or you pick him up," GRH said, "and he claims you knocked him down and threatens you somehow. Or you help him get up, and he, then, says that you injured him when you assisted him in rising. There are lots of variations. He might claim that you picked his pocket and threaten to turn you into the police unless you pay him a 100 pesos. Who knows?"
"Do you think so?" I asked. "I don’t know," GRH said. He cited to me Roger Bartra’s book The Garden of Melancholy, the essay that attributes to the Mexican people some of the attributes of the axolotl. "Bartra says that Mexicans have an inferiority complex that makes them always think that people are trying to trick them, to get the better of them – this makes them very distrustful of others." We had advanced a couple of blocks. The afternoon shadows were lengthening.
Mexicans are connoisseurs of tales involving deceit and corruption. Upper class Mexicans, it seems, vie with one another for the privilege of telling the most spectacular story about extortion or bribery or official corruption. GRH shared with me the best story of this kind that he had ever heard: A half-dozen people were riding a bus at night. The driver was drunk and he lost control of the vehicle, flipping it over on the sidewalk. Police were called and the first thing they did was cover the wreck with a canvas tarpaulin so that no one could see inside. Instead of rescuing the injured people bleeding inside the smashed bus, they guarded the accident scene and, indeed, even shoved victims who were struggling to extricate themselves back into the inside of the vehicle. "Just stay inside," the police said. "Help is on the way." After a half-hour or so, a couple of shabby panel-trucks arrived and the wounded people in the bus were told that the ambulances had arrived. A lawyer or, at least, notario publico was present as well. He told the injured people that they would receive excellent free medical care at the best hospital in town but only if they agreed to sign a release waiving all rights against the owner of the bus and his driver. "What if we don’t sign?" the bleeding victims asked. "You will be left inside the bus," the lawyer said. Of course, everyone signed the releases and, then, a couple of burly men, more like stevedores than ambulance attendants, loaded the injured people into the panel trucks. Cell-phones were confiscated so that no one could take any photographs. The panel trucks looked like something in which prisoners might be transported and smelled of urine. The injured acci
dent victims were brought to a store-front Clinica Analytico, a place where poor people can buy x-rays or have medical tests done. Everyone’s complaints were written down and x-rays were made. A man in a white coat who claimed to be a doctor indicated that no one required hospitalization and that everyone should be treated with muscle relaxants, splints, or neck collars and could be released. The cell-phones were returned so that the accident victims could call for rides to take them home. The police had vanished and, later, when inquiries were made as to an accident report no such record could be found. GRH’s informant told him that she went back to Clinica to pick up her x-rays a week later. In the crash, she had broken a bone in her left ankle, an injury verified at another legitimate hospital. The x-rays bearing her name at the storefront Clinica showed a shoulder and someone’s upper spine – although her name was on the x-rays, they bore no resemblance to the radiological studies made of her left ankle at the clinic. Of course, the bus company whose license was posted above the driver’s dashboard turned out to be fictional. GRH reminded me: "You can buy licenses of that kind for a few pesos downtown by the Zocalo."
Stories of this kind blur into accounts of all sorts of official and semi-official savagery. Guidebooks tell you to use Sitios, that is, radio-dispatched cabs. This is not a good idea, GRH told me, because the Sitios simply use their radio connections to plot, and coordinate, all sorts of skullduggery. He told me that Sitios acting in wolf-packs had surrounded Uber drivers near bus and train stations and beaten them badly as a warning to stay off their turf. A hapless lorry driver who crowded a Sitio off the road was hunted down by a pack of taxis, cornered in dead-end in a warehouse district, and shot ten times.
In the province of Guerrero in September 2014, 43 students at the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College vanished. According to rumor, the students had fallen into the hands of the Unidos Guerrero, a drug cartel. The body of a young man found near where the students had vanished had been mutilated – the man’s eyes were gouged-out and the flesh of his face peeled away down to his skull, signs that the corpse was the victim of narcos. Investigators went to a dump where drug-cartels were said to dispose of their enemies. Almost immediately, a pit was found crammed with the corpses of 28 people who had been tortured and burned alive. The press announced that the missing students had been found. In fact, these corpses were collateral damage in the local drug wars, not related to the missing students at all and never even identified. "What kind of country," GRH asked rhetorically, "investigates a mass murder, finds a grave containing 28 bodies, and, then, ignores that discovery because the dead people are not the ones that the authorities are searching for?" (In fact, between September and December 2014, forensic researchers in Guerrero came upon more than 500 unidentified corpses, most of them victims of the violence between narco-traffickers.) In mid-December another charnel pit was found, also packed with burnt bones – testing showed DNA matching that of two of the "disappeared" students. The other bodies have not yet been identified.
Every Mexican mansion has a "safe room", a fortified retreat into which the people in the home can withdraw if kidnapers attack the compound. GRH mentioned this to me in passing. The safe-room is a metal-plated redoubt, windowless and with limited access to the rest of the manor. Because of its solid impenetrable walls and climate-controlled interior, safe rooms are a good place to party. Music can be played at top volume in the safe room and the thick walls and heavy door insulate the rest of the house from the sound; loud disco music doesn’t necessarily disturb those in the house outside of the panic room. GRH said that wealthy Mexicans, particularly their decadent adult children, occupy those safe rooms after midnight to continue their partying in a place where no one can see what is happening and where no disapproving person is likely to venture – if you pull the door shut and lock it, the rest of the world can’t enter the suite. GRH told me that he had heard of after-hour parties lasting until dawn conducted by the glitterati featuring fashion models and transvestite strippers dancing the Frug to loud music, the people gyrating on the big sleek table in the middle of the safe-room taking care not to trample on the neat lines of cocaine, sleek as highway markings, with their sequined spike heels.
GRH took us to a cantina a few blocks from the apartment where we were staying. The place was called La Bipo and, earlier in the week, I had seen crowds of smartly dressed people standing outside, either smoking or awaiting admittance. First, we walked a dozen blocks to a restaurant featuring Oaxacan cuisine, the restaurant wedged into a storefront between a Starbucks and a Carl’s Jr. The Starbucks and the Carl Jr. were open but not the Oaxacan restaurant – the tables with their white table-cloths floated in the green darkness like cubes of ice in an exotic drink. We reached La Bipo by walking along a narrow fortified street, more like an alley than a public lane, encrustations of broken bottle glass glinting atop the walls. Sometimes, German shepherds on the roofs looked down at us and barked plaintively. The walls to the compounds had been painted with slogans denouncing PEMEX or images of one-eyed aliens, their praying mantis jaws slavering with yellow saliva, UFOs like halos hovering over them and the fields of psilocybin mushrooms portrayed against a background of blue, pointed mountains.
La Bipo was windowless, the walls gruff with concrete masonry unit constructions and the cement floor smooth as a mirror. A couple rows of picnic tables were separated by a broad aisle. At an open grill, some tough-looking hombres were cooking meat and jalapenos so that the gusts of steam stung your eyes. Appearances notwithstanding, this was an upscale place and the decor was wrapped in quotation marks, a system of signs that urban Mexicans with white-collar jobs can read – something about haciendas, ranches, old movies from the fifties featuring pale women in fringed shawls mourning for lost love, vaqueros riding the blue and shadowy canyons, the tough kids from Bunuel’s Los Olivados darting through an urban wasteland. GRH said that the place had a juke box famous throughout CDMX.
The waiter poured the mezcal into our glasses through a tiny slit between the container and a slice of lime. He poured from an unnecessary height to demonstrate the unerring steadiness of his aim, not missing with a single drop of the booze. The waiter’s jaw was set in a grim line and he was wearing ostentatiously ragged jeans and a tee-shirt that also had seen better days and his impressive array of tattoos were visible on his biceps and muscular fore-arms. We ordered hibiscus-filled quesadillas with fish tacos.
GRH took out his phone to illustrate his words and told us the saga of Rubi XV anos. In late November, a family living in a rural village called La Joya (in the mountainous province of San Luis Potosi) posted a video on Face-Book announcing the quinceanara (XV) of their daughter Rubi. You can see this video on You-Tube – an earnest-looking man wearing a cowboy hat speaks to the camera; his attractive daughter stands next to him flanked by the man’s wife, also a handsome woman, wearing a stylish blouse. Class and regional distinctions are vibrantly alive in Mexican Spanish and there was something about the cowboy’s dialect that urban Mexicans found exceptionally humorous. Apparently, the man’s diction was peculiar, laden with rural slang, country-fied, readily parodied: "have a heapin’ helpin’ of our hospitality, you’all come back here, you hear," to quote the Beverly Hillbillies. The rancher announced his daughter’s quinceanera and invited "everyone to come." He also said that there would be a Chiva – the Spanish word literally means "goat", but is used in the boondocks to denote a horse race – with a 10,000 peso prize (about 500 dollars). The man phrased this as "there will be a $10,000 first prize and the rest will have to arrange themselves" – the latter expression was also something that urban Mexicans found irresistably comical. On the first day, six- or seven-thousand people read the posting – about a thousand people said they planned to attend. After a couple days, clicks on the posting had exceeding two million and several hundred thousand people claimed that they were going to attend the festivities. Rubi IX anos or simply "Rubi XV" had become a thing.
GRH showed us some of the memes posted on the internet parodying the hapless family’s posting. In some of the images, family members stand impassively facing the cell-phone camera holding turkeys with raw red necks and glaring eyes or small goats. Mexican movie stars including Gael Garcia Bernal made their own versions. People posted pictures of famous outdoor concerts – Metallica playing somewhere on a barren plain to a sea of people, an aerial shot of Woodstock, and, below, far vaster and more magnificent, a million or people gathered somewhere, the image labeled Rubi XV. An image shows the Pope presiding over a vast assembly, a crowd of people extending into limitless space – the captions says that the Pope was celebrating Mass at Rubi XV. Other pictures show motorcycle gangs comprised of goats riding Harleys, cowboys galloping the plains with goats packed on their backs. In one picture, a tree is decked with goats incongruously standing on the branches and boughs – the Spanish words under the image read: "The rest will arrange themselves." One meme portrays a surly, red-faced Donald Trump bellowing at someone in slow-motion – the text claims that Trump was issuing an executive order that all Mexicans in the United States would be allowed free passage over the border, with return guaranteed, so long as they were traveling to attend Rubi XV. Another posting shows Donald Trump’s thatch of orange hair peeping over the top of a great wall – "Why didn’t anyone invite me?" the billionaire politician plaintively exclaims.
In Mexico, fathers still rule. Rubi’s father felt that the vast attention bestowed upon the quinceanera was unseemly and that his family was being mocked. He made front-page headlines by canceling the party – this was in early December. Several local politicians paid the man a visit and they offered lavish gifts to Rubi if the quinceanera would be rescheduled. Rubi’s father reluctantly agreed. Mexican airlines offered discounted flights (30% off) to San Luis Potosi to those planning to attend Rubi XV. Bus lines followed suit. All major TV networks, including Univision, broadcast the quinceanera live. The provincial governor attended and a politician in a nearby city bestowed a new Cadillac on the 15 year old girl, followed by the inevitable controversy about the source of funds used to buy the car. The top musical acts in Mexico appeared and sang to the crowd. Estimates vary as to the number of people that actually attended Rubi XV – GRH said that he thought that 200,000 might have been at the party. Wikipedia’s estimate was 30,000. Whatever the number, this was a vast onslaught on little La Joya (pop. 200).
At the climax of festivities, the Chiva was conducted. Vaqueros spurred their horses into the twilight and You Tube video shows racers streaking past the camera, the men riding toward an orange sky with little puffs of yellowish dust detonating under the horse’s iron-clad hooves. It is dark and the plain seems to have been charred. The unsteady camera recording the race (which has passed in the blink of an eye) picks out a scrap of something, blue with tinsel like a discarded candy wrapper lying on the trampled chaparral. As the camera approaches, we see that man is lying on his back – he is dressed flamboyantly, like a gaucho in an old movie, his baby-blue clothing elaborately fringed and his soft-looking leather boots also decorated with tassels. Someone shouts and the crowd gives the fallen man wide-berth, no one venturing too near to him for fear, I suppose, that the interloper might somehow be blamed for the catastrophe or, at least, alleged to have picked the dying man’s pocket. An ambulance appears and there is a gurney pushed through the dust by a couple of grim-faced ambulance attendants and history will record, if history deigns to consider such events as Rubi XV, that a man was trampled to death in the Chiva and that another man was seriously injured as well amidst the tumult of straining, frenzied horses.
GRH is bitter about Rubi XV. He says: "It’s typical that the Mexicans couldn’t get this right, that someone would get drunk and wander into the horse-race and end up dead." And he notes that all of the lavish media coverage devoted to Rubi XV was a distraction, bread and circuses aimed at deluding the hoi-polloi, a bagatelle staged as an indirection, a media frenzy diverting attention away from President Pena Nieto’s misguided summit with candidate Trump and his complicity in raising the price of PEMEX petrol 3 pesos per gallon.
We walk home under a remote moon swathed in smog and tinted the color of Donald Trump’s hair. The infinite city coughs and moves a little to remind us that it is still there. On the corner of our street, the Jesus Pharmacia is closed. An alcove in the wall across the street where a girl sells French bread and pastries in the morning is chained shut. On the opposite corner a store named after Malinche, the Malintzin (employing Nahuatl spelling for her name – zin is an honorific meaning "lady": that is "Lady Malinche") is still open, an old woman drowsing under the dim light of a single 40 watt light bulb amidst her merchandise. We buy another big bottle of water. The old woman hands us change as if she has not fully awakened from her slumber. Six or seven blocks down the street, a large and squat stone structure is reputed to have been the home in Coyoacan where Malinche lived between 1522 and her death with Hernan Cortes. The house is ancient and sits at a busy corner – it’s wall are covered with big lozenge-shaped scales, a curious kind of adornment imparting to the facade the appearance of the bas relief imprint of a cyclone fence except that the individual scales are more cartouche-shaped than diamonds, each scale a yard across on a wall that juts into the intersection like the prow of a battleship, immensely heavy and immobile. Most remarkably the house, Malinche’s Casa de Colorado is the deep red of tomato-based salsa, blood red, clotted and impenetrable, windowless except high above the street where openings in the wall are clogged with spikes of cast-iron.
The red house, at the corner of Higuera and Presidente Carraza is a place that you can find only when you are lost. There is no marker. An article about Malinche says that you would not expect a monument in Hiroshima to the man who invented the atomic bomb, so similarly, you would not expect a memorial, here on the old south shore of Lake Texcoco to woman who betrayed her race to massacre and humiliation. Of course, Malinche would not have recognized this criticism. She had been the daughter of a cacique ruling villages in the mountains between the valley of Mexico and the Yucatan and didn’t think of herself as Aztec, or even Indian generally. Captured in a raid and a slave traded to the Tobascans, Malinche would have regarded Cortes as her benefactor, as the man who rescued her, just as she would have seen the Tepanec Indians living in the villages where Coyoacan is now located, stilt-towns on the reedy Lake Texcoco eight miles south of Tenochtitlan as allies against the overweaning might and cruelty of the Aztecs. We must remember that the "Indian" is a fiction, an invention of the conquistadors – before Cortes there were only "Indians", that is, separate tribes speaking different languages paying tribute to the Aztec emperors amidst their lime-white, bone-white palaces and pyramids on the island in the center of the lake.
History has not been kind of Malinche. She is rumored to have participated in the murder of Cortes’ Spanish wife, something claimed to have happened the Red (Colorado) House. Cuahmetoc, the last Aztec emperor, was said to have been tortured to reveal his reserves of gold treasure, also in the Red House, or, perhaps, nearby in the administrative buildings Cortes built – Coyoacan was his capitol after Tenochtitlan had been reduced to smoking ruins, pits and cisterns filled with carrion. After her death, Malinche’s rest was uneasy – as a corpse with bleeding eyes, she wandered the plazas at Coyoacan weeping inconsolably for the native people slaughtered in the Conquest, la Llorana ("the weeping woman") crying either because her children had been drowned in the lake or, perhaps, because she had drowned them herself to spare them the misery of enslavement.
Malinchismo is the condition of being a race-traitor. There is a life-size statue of Malinche hidden in Coyoacan. I looked for it without success. It is hidden somewhere.
We walk to the subway, ride a couple different lines, and, then, take the light rail (el Tren ligera) that crosses the city to Xochimilco. Everything looks alike, an endless expanse of three and four-story concrete buildings vibrantly alive at street level, all intersections congested with trucks making three-point turns and buses and street vendors scrambling to keep from being crushed.
It’s still early when we reach Xochimilco and the plaza with its neat topiary and hedges of flowering plants looks moist with the morning dew. There is a big church, of course, occupying one side of the plaza and we step inside to admire the paintings on the vaulted ceiling high above us. The church is cool and seems to be filled with cream-colored light. In most Mexican churches, a wax Jesus lies in a glass coffin, horribly dead, inert, mangled like someone trampled to death in a horse-race – the savior’s cheeks are sunken and his eyes locked shut under grey eyelids. In this sanctuary, another life-size image of Christ, carved from wood that has been carefully painted to resemble human flesh, looks down with infinite sorrow on the confession booth – Jesus is clad in a humble, brown cloak and his hands bear the marks of the nails and his brow is lacerated by a crown of vicious-looking thorns. Standing on a little ledge like a truncated diving board above the confessional, he looks down sadly on human folly and sin.
On the church’s facade next to the front door, a blue-green banner has been unfurled. The banner shows the Virgin of Guadalupe hovering in the middle of a pleasant woods; a small lake shines behind her and flowers decorate the grassy sward where she is suspended. Spanish words says: "Will you not care for it as much as I care for you?"
GRH says: "This is interesting. The Virgin is used here as an admonition about the environment. She supports environmentalism." Generally, GRH doesn’t demonstrate much affection for the Virgin – in his view, her veneration supports the false consciousness that afflicts many modern Mexicans: she is a symbol to him of humiliation and defeat. But this banner interests him and he takes a picture of it with his cell-phone.
We walk along the wall enclosing the church’s garden. "I will say this," GRH remarks, "you never see any graffiti or any vandalism at any shrine where the Virgin is displayed. In this country, people will dig you up after you’re buried to steal your clothes, but no one dares touch anything associated with the Virgin." About every two or three blocks, there are glass niches with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe or elaborately decorated tile mosaics showing her. And, it is certainly true that these places are surrounded by a kind of cordon sanitaire, an inviolate space in which there is no graffiti and, certainly, no sign that anyone would dare to lift a finger against the image. "I suppose that’s something to be said in her favor," GRH admits.
Xochimilco is ground-zero for concern about environmental devastation. Once the city was an independent settlement, the terminus of one of the great causeways that led across Xochimilco to the sacred precinct on the island of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec glyph for the place shows spongy soil with two flowering plants erupting upward signifying the fecundity of this area. The town was built in a great marsh and was comprised of innumerable islands connected by sweet-water lagoons. In 1950, guidebooks called Xochimilco the most beautiful place in the world, a Mexican Venice where gondoliers carried travelers between artificial islands, chinampas, fragrant with flowers. Stately houses stood on half-acre meadows of high ground and tall trees lined the major canals, casting shadows across the limpid water. The place had its own unique aquatic culture, its own totemic beast, the fat and ghostly axolotl, and many movies were made here, melodramas featuring swooning Indian maidens in love with handsome gondoliers. Church steeples rose above the quiet lagoons and the bells sounded over semi-tropical forests where huge cottonwood trees were shrouded in flowering vines.
Of course, this idyllic precinct couldn’t survive urbanization. The city overflowed into the neighborhood and, one by one, the shallow canals were drained and turned into roads and, now, there are only a few spectral fragments of old Lake Xochimilco tucked in between the labyrinthine alleys and tenements in the neighborhood. Now, everything is polluted, the water foul, and the last wooded and swampy zones threatened by the city’s growth.
But we are momentarily indifferent to this, searching the congested streets for a Pulqueria. It’s still early and the street vendors are selling breakfast fare, dense, steamed tamales stuffed with spiced corn-meal as heavy as a brick and they seem slightly scandalized that GRH is asking for directions to a Pulqueria – it’s too early to be drinking, particularly the sad and turgid syrup of melancholy that is pulque, a sort of fizzy beer made from fermented maguey. Pulque is an ancient beverage – it was brewed by the Aztecs and their predecessors and its consumption is slightly disreputable. Easily and cheaply produced, pulque was, often, home-made, sometimes of questionable provenance, and considered a rustic intoxicant consumed by poor people, goatherds and campesinos and the disenfranchised urban refugees from small, desolate villages in the hinterland. Pulque’s relatively low esteem was manufactured in large part by the beer breweries, German-influenced industrial operations that derided the fermented maguey drink as both uncouth and unhygienic – a complete sea-change from pulque’s renown in the pre-Columbian world when the drink was forbidden to common people and, indeed, enjoyed only by Aztec royalty. (The only commoners allowed pulque were elderly people and pregnant women.) The people on the street blink curiously at GRH when he asks the way to the local pulqueria, cast oblique looks my way, and, then, send him on various goose-chases down various rabbit-holes, narrow lanes and through markets pulsating with amplified mariachi music, up one street and down another until, at last, an old woman nods her head censoriously, shaking off what she must regard as my Evil Eye, while directing us kitty-corner, across an intersection to a concrete block building windowless and with a battered tin door. This is the place and she shrugs her shoulders scuttling away like a black beetle – I imagine the woman hurriedly crossing herself – and we make our way through the traffic, a flood of small cars and mopeds and vendors carts whirling around like flotsam to reach that door, shining like a knight in armor’s shield, glistening in the fore-noon sunshine, lighter than it looks to push open and plunge inside.
Overhead florescent lights cast a cadaverous gleam down on floors and walls made from slippery looking Moorish tile. The tiles were only intermittently visible under a layer of saw-dust strewn on the floor. The air is chilly and there was a curious sound like a babbling brook. Three men are working behind the prow of the blue-tiled bar – the bar is tall and encloses the workers as if it were a pulpit, lifting them above the floor thickly covered with wood chips. The cold air refrigerated by the icy tiles and the sound of the brook leaping and cascading through a meadow and the men, wearing stocking caps and gloves perforated around their fingers, make the place feel like it is outdoors, as if we are on the slope of a mountain at a high altitude. A fourth man, much older than the three guys behind the bar, leans against a broom as if it were snow shovel, pushing piles of sodden wood chips across the tiles, and two patrons, each sitting alone, are at little cast-iron tables – the men are old and melancholy, formless in the way that sometimes afflicts chronic alcoholics, blurred themselves like smudges on a daguerrotype in which the sitter has moved and, thus, confounded the camera. The uniform florescent light falls everywhere precisely equal and perfect, beams from the eye of God, and, in the corner of the tiled chamber, there a wedge of tin is bolted to the wall, forming a little niche in the corner where patrons can piss against the wall. Flowing water sings in the air and the patrons seem to be sleeping with their eyes open.
Two big buckets of pulque rest on a sill behind the bar. A tupperware pitcher sits between the wooden buckets. Fruit is heaped in plastic bins. We come up to the bar and feel its cold tiles and GRH orders. The water-music in the pulqueria is made by a stream plunging along the bottom of the bar, a sluice of water rippling against the base of the tiles transparent and flashing with reflections of the overhead lights. The gutter is about six inches wide and pours its steam downward, defining a slope to the sawdust-encrusted floor that I would not otherwise have noticed. Turning the corner at the edge of the bar, the water vanishes – I couldn’t see where it went.
GRH orderstwo drinks, one regular and the other a curado made with strawberries. The head bartender mutters orders to his crew and one of the men producedsfrom beneath the bar a plastic bag colorful with bright red strawberries. The other man takes a tin of condensed milk from the shelf and uses a can-opener to split it open, dumping the lumps of milk into a blender. The head bartender dips the tupperware pitcher into the bucket and lifts the pulque upward – the fluid is syrupy, the consistency of mucous, and it resists a little, a web of viscous slimy threads connecting the pitcher to the pulque below, enmeshing the tupperware jug in the pasty cream-colored stuff. The bartender fills one styrofoam cup with raw pulque and, then, drizzles another 16 ounces of the sticky liquid into the blender – the stuff pours like unstirred white paint. (We were drinking canones "cannons" – that is one-liter cups of the stuff; the next smaller size is a chivito – that is, a "little goat.")
"You can have the fresa," GRH says.
I see the clots of condensed milk in the blender and the fat, soft strawberries and I think that if I drink this stuff, it will turn my bowels to water and I will have a hard time navigating the chaotic streets and alleys of CDMX. "I’ll just drink the regular," I say.
"It’s an acquired taste," GRH warns me.
The bartender is soft-spoken and exceptionally efficient. He slides the slop of crushed strawberries and sweetened milk with pulque into another liter-sized styrofoam cup, puts lids on both drinks and, then, perforates those lids with the spear of a straw. The man studies the two drinks carefully and, then, carefully wraps them in transparent plastic. When the drinks are fully enclosed in the plastic, he weighs them with one hand to assess the balance – these drinks are "to go" and he isn’t about to let his merchandise out on the street before it’s properly dressed, each cup exactly suspended in equipoise so that it would not tip or tilt and, therefore, spill. The man lifts the two cups, holdsthem up to his eye and inspects them to verify that they are both equally balanced and, then, carefully setting the two cups on the counter, he ties a knot in the plastic above them, sealing the deal as it were, so that GRH could take the pulque in one hand and hold it easily, both cups exactly upright, as we walk through the streets outside. Next to us, a little man is wrestling with a tombstone-sized slab of ice.
I lookto the side and saw a mosaic on the wall depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe. The mosaic is about half life-size on a flat tile column. The Virgin’s eyes are downcast onto her brown praying hands. Below her little feet perched on the yellow crescent moon, there is a stainless steel table, a tray with wheels and large hunks of raw, bloody meat displayed there, the size of my forearm and leaking fluids onto the cold shiny metal. It seems odd to me that a religious icon would be displayed this forcefully above the tile floors speckled with wet sawdust, the elderly drunks staring thousand of miles into the distance at their solitary tables. In fact, the Virgin is an important part of the decor. Before the conquest, pulque was associated with fertility goddesses – the aguamiel or nectar of the agave flower, the chief component of pulque, was thought to be the heart’s blood of the goddess as embodied in the maguey plant. Fermentation of the aguamiel was once triggered by putting a small pouch of human feces, the muneca, in the fluid. (Dispute exists as to whether this recipe is a calumny invented by beer brewers or whether the practice really existed.) Brewers were forbidden sexual intercourse while the pulque was fermenting – sex would cause the pulque to sour. After the conquest, pulque was dubbed la leche de Virgin, that is, Virgin-milk – the milk produced by the Virgin of Guadalupe to feed her children, the Mexican people. There is sawdust poured over the floors of a genuine pulqueria because it is customary to begin a session of pulque drinking by pouring a small libation to the earth mother, or Virgin – the sawdust is supposed to keep you from slipping in the viscous puddles of the stuff poured on the tiles.
So what does pulque taste like?
Sole le falta un grado para ser carne. This famous description – "it’s only a bit shy of being meat" – describes pulque’s texture. The drink is slimy but not fibrous. The texture is a bit like thick creme or the Creme de Mexica that you can buy in most supermarkets. The taste is bland and flat, like a wheat-grass smoothy but with a sharp tequila finish. It’s not good. It’s not bad. (GRH’s fresa curado is much brighter tasting, a big like a strawberry milkshake, but also with a sharp tequila finish like the rattle in a rattlesnake’s tail.)
At the end of an alley, brown water lies supine in an oblong tray of canal. The canal extends between some businesses built around the waterway toward a channel that runs between wooded islands an indefinite distance – the lush trees garland the waterway and the light is soft, impressionistic: it is a landscape by Corot dissolving into golden radiance in the distance where a few torch-like trees, smeared by mist to green blurs lean over the motionless lagoon. A half-dozen boats are for rent at a concrete dock. The boats may be had for 350 pesos an hour, complete with a burly, taciturn man who shoves the flat-bottomed barges across the water with a rough-hewn 20 foot pole. (The gondolier lets us heft his pole – it’s shockingly heavy.) The boats are brightly painted in reds and yellows and greens, named after girls, and each of them has an arch-shaped roof shielding a long wooden table that runs along the center of the little barge. Small wooden chairs are built into the sides of the boat so that a dozen or so people can sit at the table, facing one another. The vessels are designed for floating picnics – a company of people will rent the boat and bring food with beer or tequila aboard for a party.
The waterway expands a hundred yards beyond the concrete dock and, at intervals, there are channels branching to the right and left. I feel a little foolish riding alone in the big boat with GRH, idly sipping my pulque through a straw as the ducks paddle through the limpid dark water – it seems absurdly decadent. Walled houses on islands lift their turrets over the waterway and many of the islands have battered-looking greenhouses on them – flowers are grown here and some vegetables. The water sloshes under the boat and the barge glides over the brown surface liquid with sunshine and, sometimes, we encounter old women in smaller rowboats, pushing poles into the water to drive themselves to the businesses on shore. Another boat laden with a full mariachi band steers close. The mariachis wear sunflower-colored suits and black hats with tassels. We agree to pay them to play Mexico Lindo, handing the bandleader 100 pesos across the gap between the two boats now floating side-by-side in the middle of the channel. In Mexico, mariachi music is played at an ear-splitting volume. The trumpets shriek and, as GRH observes, they are almost a quarter-tone flat. ("Much better mariachi bands at Garibaldi Square," GRH says.) We are the only customers in sight and the eight member band floats nearby soliciting us for another tune. We demure and they reluctantly nod to the oarsman who paddles them over to a place where trees shadow the water so that they can tune. A couple hundred yards down the channel, another mariachi band on a brightly painted boat is becalmed in the waters. The oarsman leans into his pole and we skim forward, passing a small shrine to a movie filmed on this waterway – some yellowing lobby cards from the film are displayed in cheap plastic frames affixed to a sort of bulletin board between two trees. (The name of the movie is something like Maria Candelaria starring an pale, sorrowful actress who looks like Dolores del Rio.) On some steps that run down to the water, a kid sits stroking a silky albino python. The python is draped around the boy’s mid-section. He asks us if we want our picture taken with the snake. "Not me," I say. A tranijera (gondola) occupied by an old man and woman ferrying a Weber grill across the water paddles up to us – they are selling tortas. On the other side of the barge, a man in a flat-bottomed boat has come close to shout that he can sell us beer or soda pop.
The highlight of any tour of Xochimilco lagoons is a trip to the Isle of the Dolls. But the doll island is two hours away, somewhere on the other side of the maze of canals and, then, the swampy lagoons extending into a nature reserve that abuts the city. We’re not willing to hire the boat for four hours and so pay 1400 pesos (about 70 dollars American) and I’m concerned about the gastro-intestinal effects of the pulque that is now churning in my belly, inducing a faint and pleasant haze of intoxication, a certain pleasing slant to the light decorating the riparian landscape with all sorts of ancient and immemorial associations.
There’s a facsimile of the Doll Island about a half-hour from the concrete dock in Xochimilco, fifty or sixty battered and mud-smeared dolls impaled on posts and tacked to trees alongside the water. A mannequin strangled by a noose hangs above the quiet lagoon and the masks of some demons and devils are mounted on the bushes. Some of the dolls have their eyes open and they glare down at us as we look back at them, taking cell-phone photos. It’s a curious display – the globular naked bellies and pink arms and legs of the baby dolls inorganic and, therefore, impervious to the general rot around the waterway, a brown channel that is, of course, really nothing more than raw, untreated sewage in this part of the canal-system.
Floating adjacent to the Doll’s Island mock-up, we take some pictures. From another chamber of the canal system, mariachi music sounds like a protracted "hurrah!" The gondolier signals that we have come far enough and slowly turns the boat to return to alleys of the city and the concrete pier. Behind us, the canal extends indefinitely, a stately corridor lined by tall and gracious-looking trees like royal retainers – the waterway is a like processional path that marches to the floating islands or chinampas made by the pre-conquest inhabitants of this area. Green and blue haze mingles with the salmon-colored smog and the distances are radiant with watery colors that are hard to define.
Pre-Columbian Indians cut logs and brush to anchor their gardens in the swamp. Then, they filled the area impounded by the wooden barriers with muck dredged up from the bottom of the swamp and dirt hauled over the water from fields near the lake. They fixed the mud and dirt with the roots of growing plants, working the same aquatic plot year after year until it became a permanent island, a chinampa. The far reaches of waterways divide into hundreds of slivers of island surrounded by lagoon. In this maze, de Isla de Munecas (the "isle of the dolls") is located, apparently at the far reaches of a narrow and overgrown channel – the boat must glide beneath vines to enter the lagoon and people who have visited the place say that it is always very still in the grim, watery corridor leading to the island. The waterfowl that you see in the nature reserve nearby, the herons and cranes and darting birds, don’t venture near the enchanted lagoon and the wind that caresses the trees and reeds doesn’t dare enter that place as well and, so, the only thing you hear upon approach is your breath, your belly rumbling with the bacterial onslaught of the pulque, the sound of the pole breaking through the silken texture of the still waters, and, then, there are the dolls, hundreds of them, strung along clothelines or crucified on trees, the oldest of them all, the progenitor doll discolored and mildew-blemished in a sort of crude of reliquiary made of unpainted lathe. Don Juliana Santana occupied land near the island and he began constructing the site in 1950, allegedly after he fished the corpse of a little girl out of the channel. The day after he found the body, Santana discovered a doll floating where the corpse had been – this is the decomposing doll in the peaked open cupboard of the reliquiary. As a monument to the dead child, Santana collected dolls from garbage and ash-heaps and displayed them on the island. Tourists came and he gave them guided tours of the site for a few pesos each – photographs show a little man who looks like mummified monkey grinning at the camera. According to the story, Santana drowned in the same place where the child’s body was found – other accounts say that he died in 2001 of a heart attack. At night, the dolls are said to come alive – they whisper to one another and exchange one position for another and their plastic eyes blink and stare into the moist darkness. In the mist at dawn, their disembodied legs dance and frolic.
In the far reaches of the swamps, nothing is solid. One thing melts into another. Over the haze of humidity, the apparition of the city, white and insubstantial, a mirage, stretches to the horizon. Great snow-capped volcanoes tower over the valley, but the smog hides them from view.
Back on terra firma, a mural shows an Aztec priest caparisoned in feathers, a conquistador in armor, and, at the edges of the fresco, a little zeppelin-shaped tadpole wearing a fringe of pink coral-shaped gill stalks (rami). This is the axolotl, the totemic animal in Xochimilco. In 1998, 6000 axolotl were counted per kilometer of lagoon water. The population had decreased to 1000 per kilometer five years later. A survey made in 2008 detected only 100 of the amphibians per km. The last time anyone looked for them in the wild was 2013, a exhaustive four month search of the waterways, lagoons, and swamps in the Xochimilco reserve – no specimen were discovered and the consensus belief is that the animals are extinct except for many thousands used in research laboratories around the world.
Roger Bartra uses the axolotl as his metaphor for Mexican identity in his book The Garden of Melancholy. His argument is complex but can be summarized is this way: axolotls represent a form of life that is intermediate to all categories – the creatures display neoteny (that is, they show juvenile characteristics throughout their entire life), their straitened ecological circumstances, that is, the poverty of their environment, keeps them from fully maturing; the animals inhabit a twilight domain between water and land – they can walk on the land with their vestigial legs but retain gills throughout their life span; curiously enough, all axolotl were thought to be female in that their cloacal opening simulates a woman’s vulva and was claimed to periodically discharge some kind of bloody fluid – in other words, the amphibians were thought to menstruate. Thus, the axolotl’s gender was also problematic. Bartra claims Mexicans retain juvenile characteristics because poverty, and the intervention of the United States, has kept the country from maturing. The Mexican is a Catholic without being a real Catholic. He has European traits without being European. He is an Indian but not a real Indian – an indeterminate being existing within a chaos of conflicting identities. Mexican sexual ambivalence is signified by figures, personages, that generate shadowy counterparts in which the opposite characteristics are embodied – the Virgin of Guadalupe’s dark double is Malinche, the traitor to her race: every virgin generates a whore as her doppelgaenger. The more machismo shown by a Mexican male, the more his anxiety about his own sexuality. A writer that Bartra resembles is Camille Paglia, particularly in her book Sexual Personae, although Bartra seems to me to be more parochial and less aphoristic than the American critic – but his concern is narrower, the vagaries of Mexican identity.
Central to Bartra’s essay is his exegesis of Octavio Paz’ Labyrinth of Solitude. In the fourth chapter of his book, Paz explicates Mexican "hermeticism" in light of this motto: Viva Mexico, hijos de la chingada! Although this phrases is shouted on Mexican Independence Day, and, also, the unofficial slogan of the Mexican Army, its meaning, like just about everything else in the country, is contested. Literally, the words mean "Long live Mexico, sons of the fucked!" Some interpretations of the phrase claim that the ejaculation Viva Mexico is thrown in the teeth of enemies described as "sons of bitches" – that is, hijos de la chingada. But Bartra, following Paz, admits that the appellation hijos de las chingadas is, in fact, a self-description – the phrase describes the Mexicans celebrating their independence. But how are Mexicans "sons of the fucked." Paz discusses the etymology of the words chingon and chingada. He claims that the terms originally had something to do with brewing pulque – that Nahuatl words for the lees or the sediment residue when maguey is fermented has been transliterated in Spanish as something like chingon. If you are served a big cup of pulque that is primarily maguey residue, you are said to be "fucked" – this is doubly true if the maguey was made, accordingly to traditional legend, with human excrement as a fermenting agent. In other Latin American countries, words similar to chingada mean "one who is crooked and bankrupt" or "a business failure" – again, another variety of way of being "fucked." There is no doubt that Mexican Spanish uses variants of chingada the way Germans describe something as kaputt – that is, something broken in Mexican Spanish is fucked. Similarly, the verb form of the word means to rip, to tear, to violate aggressively. On the basis of this analysis, both Paz and Bartra claim that hijos de la chingada refers to the Mexican people as the product of Cortes’ rape of Malinche – Malinche is the one who has been "fucked’. Paz applies Jungian analysis to assert, as does Bartra, that Malinche’s sacred avatar is the Virgin of Guadalupe – the one who was fucked by God. Thus, Mexicans see themselves as tough and beautiful losers – those who are always "fucked": the heroes of citadel of Chapultapec who hurled themselves from the ramparts rather than be captured by the Americans, the first great mass movement of the 20th century, preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917 by seven years, a Goyaesque nightmare, Saturn devouring his own children. Frida Kahlo’s virginity was taken by a steel stanchion in a street car – the steel rod pierced her side and emerged from her vagina. She was chingada – that is, both fucked and ruined simultaneously.
GRH has finished his pulque and I am done with mine as well and, so, we need to find a toilet. We’ve each consumed about a liter of something like beer and this can have dire consequences. Next to the mural showing the priests and axolotls, there’s a cardboard sign, handlettered to read BANO, a squiggly mark above the "N". The letters "WC" are also traced on the sign. It’s opportunistic – the toilet is only 30 yards from the embarcadero and exploits the fact that people come off the trajineros (gondolas) with their bladders bursting from the beer they’ve consumed on board.
A hapless-looking seven year old sits behind a counter where sticks of gum and individual cigarettes are for sale. The floor is snaky with battered-looking power-cables. Across the child, granny is posted on a plastic folding chair, doing some kind of piece-work – her hands repeatedly tie a knot, or untie it, tossing something into a cardboard bin when she is done. The entrance to the bano is through the exterior wall, here only a few feet thick, and, then, through a tiny, squalid courtyard where a couple of teenage boys are loitering near a charcoal grill. Meat sizzles, some kind of seasoned pork cutlet, a pleasant enough smell were it not for the boiled cabbage stink coming off the toilets. It’s two pesos – a thirty-year old woman wearing a hoody takes the coins and, then, unravels from a pouch over her belly some limp, questionable-looking papel higienico. She takes my measure, assumes that I shit big, and gives me an additional loop. The sun pierces through the debris on the roof, a scatter of satellite dishes and discarded tin and lumber, and a wan light illumines the courtyard – behind a door a baby cries, and a young woman emerges from behind some bins full of junk, discarded clothing it seems and rags. The toilet is a plywood box, split into a couple of cells, hombres to the left and mujer right. Hombres has a bleach bottle cut in half and rigged to the wall as an improvised urinal, a squat toilet is to the side half-hidden behind a murky-looking shower curtain. If I had an inclination to use the toilet with the papel higienico, the slimy squat dissuades me. I carefully conserve the paper, putting it in my breast pocket, and emerge. GRH is engaged in some kind of remonstration with the denizens of the courtyard. Another hulking teenage kid has come from the shadows and glares at us indignantly. The price for using the WC (the places doesn’t deserve the term Sanitario) has just increased – it’s now 5 pesos a head. Some kind of compromise is reached and the toilet-proprietors are paid off. We emerge blinkng at the sunlight rolling down in a ceaseless cascade onto the shabby roofs and the black Rotoplas water cannisters above Xochimilco.
GRH says: "it wasn’t worth 10 pesos."
It’s time to eat and so we buy tacos made with a barbacoa of goat. A young man with glasses askew over his eyes sells the meat from his pushcart. The etiquette is that he puts the meat on your plastic plate atop some tortillas. You wolf the food down standing next to the cart and, then, pay him for the barbacoa. There is a sort of side-bar on the cart equipped with three different colors of salsa, pickled onions, shakers full of cayenne and oregano, and pickled jalapeno peppers. (Four tortillas of barbacoa cost 32 pesos – that is about $1.60.) The kid’s pushcart is well-located, at an intersection where buses, most of them shabby and unlicensed, are picking up patrons. The bus drivers patrol the crowd shouting out their fares and destinations and there’s too many people and vehicles for the place – when a bus grumpily starts up, choking and coughing-out foul-smelling diesel fumes, the street vendors squeezed between the vehicles are nudged and they have to adjust their position and, in this crowd, I can’t move unless someone next to me moves, and so each bus breasts the crowd as if it were a wave on the sea, nudging folks out of the way, and everyone is bellowing at everyone else, shouting out good-natured curses and threats. Men are wrestling with slabs of filthy-looking ice and there are puddles all over the pavement and power-lines in knots and coils and, between a parked truck and a wall, a man has fallen over or passed out or died – it’s too crowded here for him to drop to the pavement so the man, who seems comatose or dead, is suspended half-upright, wedged into place by the chrome fender of the truck. It’s not something you want to see so its best to avert your eyes.
We take the light-rail back to the subway line. The walk between the light rail and the subway requires that you plow through huge, festive crowds, people buying trinkets, bandanas and hats, toys and candy from street vendors. Buses are waiting in disorganized queues around the place where light-rail passengers descend the steps from a concrete overpass that leads to the ticket-booths for the trains. The pulque has confused by my guts and my stomach is rumbling. I see a fortress-like Sanitario built into the wall of the overpass and tell GRH that I should use that facility.
A fat girl is monitoring entrances to the Sanitario and I use my last coins, 3 pesos, to acquire the papel higienico. The toilet is a little intimidating and I sit for a while, brooding over my bowels which refuse to move. "Here I sit broken-hearted / Tried to shit but only farted." The air is a little bad although a window is open to CDMX’s perpetual spring and there is a winsome-looking flower in a little vase on the sill – a civilized touch, I think. After a couple of minutes, I rise, re-compose myself, and exit into the narrow hall between the toilets. The fat girl behind the counter is indignant. She mutters at me and, then, waves her hand. Agua agua, she says. I am puzzled. "Flush!" she cries. I’m sure she is horrified – what kind of barbarian uses a toilet and doesn’t flush it. But, of course, I didn’t use the toilet. The loop of toilet paper that she gave me is packed securely in my vest pocket. There is no way to explain to her and, so, shamefaced, I go back into the water-closet and dutifully flush the empty toilet. She ignores me when I exit past her – we should build a wall, she must be thinking, a high, big beautiful wall to keep out these non-toilet-flushing gringo motherfuckers.
In the lurching subway car, a woman hops on from the platform. She is selling straight razors, singing out the virtues of her wares in the rhythm required for such performances. The woman is dressed in ragged clothing and her face looks dirty. She holds up a straight razor and, then, opens it to show the lethal cutting edge, a long, fearsome and tapering blade glinting in the florescent light. For a moment, my eye catches hers and she shows her teeth, white in her red mouth, and, then, hurriedly, I look away.
So – I am communicating too much, "too much information" as is sometimes said. There’s no moderation to my writing, no classical sense of proportion or decorum. I have some kind of compulsion to translate into words every one of my impressions without establishing any hierarchy between what is important and what is unimportant.
This is my curse: it will take readers longer to navigate this prose than I spent in CDMX. Every experience dilates in my description – I am unable, it seems, to leave anything out, although when I look at my journals from CDMX, I am, in fact, omitting all sorts of things, it just doesn’t seem so to me.
In German, the critic and essayist Alfred Polgar is accounted a master of brevity. He wrote: Das Leben is zu kurz fuer lange Literatur, zu fluchtig fuer verweilendes Schildern and Betrachten, zu psychopathisch fuer Psychologie, zu romanhaft fuer Romane, zu rasch verfallen der Gaerung und Zersetzung, als das es sich in langen und breiten Buechern lang und breit bewahren liess.
That is: "Life is too short for long literature, too fleeting for tedious description and analysis, too psychopathic for psychology, too novelistic for novels, too swiftly decayed into rot and dissolution to allow itself to be preserved in its breadth and length in broad and long books."
Here is what I cherish about Mexico City and, indeed, Mexico itself – you can’t spend a half-day in the place without seeing something that is wonderful and totally inexplicable.
Why does a ragged man parade down the center of the streets in Coyoacan ringing a bell? He walks straight ahead and the traffic yields to him, parting on both sides, and he is ringing a bell that he grips by a wooden handle in his fist. With abrupt choppy motions, he causes the bell to sound. Everyone ignores him. It is an hour after dawn and sleepy-looking teenagers are walking to school and, at the busy intersections, the buses are huffing and puffing and growling. What does this mean?
Why is a there a vast concrete angel, or, perhaps, some kind of winged demon, squatting between the lanes on the highway to the pyramids? I glimpse the creature for just a second – it seems to have vast cantilevered wings made of reinforced cement. GRH says that he has seen the angel before and that it may mean that you are entering an angelic place, that is, CDMX compared to the ferocious and lawless State of Mexico – the angel is armed with spears of righteousness and it warns the denizens of the State to not bring their crime and violence into the city. But he admits that from some angles the house-size winged creature seems monstrous, a fierce gargoyle. In that case, he says: "It means that you are entering the demonic zone – that is, the State of Mexico, where anything goes."
Why is a pale full-size sailing ship, complete with white unfurled sails, perched on the green hill above the Bas plaza adjacent to the Virgin of Guadalupe’s basilica?
Why did someone dump a thousand perfectly good tostados against a wall in Xochimilco? The bales of tostados block the sidewalk. Their yellow discs are stacked in collapsing piles against a mural that shows an Aztec eagle warrior in full regalia, a conquistador with a ruddy beard, some temples bearing calendar stones, and, wriggling around the margins of the image – small grey and green axolotls.
A truck comes down the leafy lane on a weekend afternoon in Coyoacan. The truck is a pick-up and it carries in its back a refrigerator and mattress. A loudspeaker is mounted on the truck’s roof. A voice cries out in English: "You can’t come back. You can’t come back. No, no, no – you can’t come back." The voice is recorded in a loop, a high-pitched voice that is almost falsetto, and the cry seems midway between a sneer and a plea.
GRH and I are eating at Cocina de Mamas in the Coyoacan market. It’s mid-afternoon but it doesn’t matter – Mexicans eat at all times of the day. We are seated family-style at some long picnic tables and a few yards away there are women laboring over grills and fire-pits, buckets of sauce simmering over blue and yellow flames. On all sides of the restaurant, there are closet-sized booths where people are selling things – sea-food, fireworks, pirated CDs and DVDs, native pots and ceramics, lingerie and hardware. The food as always is fabulous.
A life-size costume of a Star-ship trooper, made from glistening white plastic is encased in a glass box. Light bulbs poised around the trooper make his armor glow with a supernatural radiance. The star-ship trooper’s visor is black and he is faceless and wonderfully, hygienically white.
"Do you see that costume?" GRH asks. I nod to him.
"That’s not just a costume," GRH says, "it’s a career, a vocation." "What do you mean?" I ask.
"A guy scrimps and saves to buy that costume, then, he works out a routine, some tricks, and goes to Garibaldi Square every afternoon and every night. He gets people to pose with him for their pictures and they pay him each 10 pesos let’s say. He does his routine and earns another thirty or forty pesos. He can make 300 pesos a day – you can live on that easily. It’s hot in that costume, probably, stifling, but it’s a way to make a living."
A day earlier at the pyramids, GRH made me a business proposition. "Let’s invest a couple thousand dollars in a half-dozen xoloitzcuintl hounds," he said. These are the bluish hairless dogs bred by the Aztecs. The breed was essentially extinct in the fifties, but has been restored and, occasionally, you see one of the dogs (cuintl is Nahuatl for "dog") tugging its master or mistress along the streets. The animals are still rare enough to inspire interest and so GRH sees a way to earn some cash off the animals. "Here’s what we do," GRH says. "We bring the dogs out to the pyramids. We set up in one of the courtyards under the Sun Pyramid – have to pay some bribes of course to avoid harassment – and, then, let people have their pictures taken with an Aztec dog, a real Aztec pooch. They can pet the dogs, hold their puppies, pretend to walk them on a leash, anything they want for 15 pesos a piece."
"That’s a good idea," I tell him.
"We’d have to get muzzles," GRH says, "those are high-strung dogs and they can get a little aggressive."
"This is Mexico," I tell GRH, "it’s 15 pesos to pet the dog, 25 pesos if you have the good fortune to be bit by the xolo."
He looks a little skeptical. "I don’t know if that’s a good business model," he says.
"And, then, when the dogs get old and worn out," I told him, "we have them put down and sell tacos with dog meat. I know the Aztecs thought the dogs were very good eating and, in fact, salubrious – xolo flesh has medicinal qualities."
"That’s a good idea too," he admits.
So we formed a limited liability company, had all the papers duly notarized – in truth, just bought some neatly made counterfeits near the Zocalo – and, then, acquired a brace of hounds from a dealer in Oaxaca. The business is flourishing as I write. Our dogs are young and healthy and we’ve had no occasion, yet, to offer xolo-meat tacos.
An Aztec god made the dogs to be companions to men. When the owner of such a dog dies, the xolo is slaughtered as well. The dead dog uses his sharp nose to guide the soul of his owner along the secret and fragrant paths to paradise.
A block away from the apartment where Julie and I stayed in Coyoacan, an old man and his wife occupied a street corner. A greyish tree with a twisted trunk also occupied the corner and the old man sat under it on a small, folding stool. Although he tried to stay in the shade, the sun moved as the day progressed displacing the shadow and, so, he wore a straw hat to protect his head. The old woman, dressed in drab gingham, sat next to her husband on top of a plastic cooler. The old man had a ferocious temper. Several times when I passed, he was hurling insults at young men and, indeed, threatening them with his fists. The old man’s rage made the young men ashamed and they backed away from him, cursing under their breath. On other occasions, I saw the old man rush out into the street to batter a passing car with his fists. Between battles, the old man’s wife rose from the cooler on which she was sitting like a hen, opened it, and gave her husband a bottle of orange or pineapple Jarritos. In the early afternoon, they ate tortas and drank more soda pop. Around sundown, the old man folded up his camp stool and his wife tilted the cooler upright so she could haul it over the uneven concrete. They crossed the street and passed through the sidewalk café tables of El Jardin del Polpo, vanishing in the crowd in the downtown plazas.
While I was in Mexico, the old man’s sallies and threats made no sense to me. I think I now understand what I had seen. (This is a common occurrence – when we travel, something happens to us, but we can’t make sense of it until much later: once I was mugged without knowing it New York City, a block from the 42nd Street Port Authority Bus Terminal – I didn’t realize what had happened until three or four years later.)
Coyoacan is beset with franeleros. Franeleros are young men who patrol the streets with red or blue bandanas tied to foot-long pieces of stick. The young men flag down motorists and herd passing cars into parking places that they have found on the side streets. Once you have parked, you have to pay the franelero who has located the space for you a commission of 20 or so pesos. The franelero promises to lurk near your car and make sure no one vandalizes it or attempts to steal the vehicle – for this service, you pay another 10 pesos an hour. There is not enough public parking in Coyoacan and the lots that do exist are always full and, so, parking on the shady residential streets is at a premium. In Mexico, where there is a need, there is someone who has developed a business plan to meet that need and the Coyoacan franeleros manage on-street parking in a manner that is efficient enough, but, also, extortionate. Of course, the wealthy people who live in Coyoacan are the sworn enemies of the franeleros, hoodlums as far as they are concerned who mar their cars if protection is not paid and monopolize the scarce parking spots with the vehicles of tourists and outsiders. Every car placed, and protected, by a franelero means one less on-street parking place for the people who reside behind the walls in this neighborhood. The old man, as I now understand, was apparently an employee of someone, or, perhaps, several households in the neighborhood and his job was protect adjacent curb-side parking from being expropriated by the franeleros – hence, his fierce sorties against the young men, his threats hurled at them, and his assaults on cars occupying places that he had not approved.
When I was in High School, I worked weekends at a truck farm. My home was in Eden Prairie and this village, really just a notional place name for some isolated housing subdivisions, an intersection with a gas station and a general store, several lakes and artesian springs and dramatic hillsides, was the closest place to Minneapolis where you could still farm. The dairy farmers in the neighborhood, old pioneer families with Bohemian names, owned 160 acre tracts and, although the ground was stony, people grew raspberries, melons, cherry tomatoes, and other produce in the fields. The worst land had been drifts of gravel tucked into the slopes of bluffs by the glaciers and these places had been carved into gravel pits full of flooded craters that were later converted to cheerless suburban neighborhoods. But in the late sixties and early seventies, the middle-class white-collar housing enclaves were still surrounded by lonely country lanes, marshes where red-wing blackbirds nested, and ancient farms that always looked sodden and half-decomposed, as if the rains of a hundred years had ruined them. In the summer, I hoed fields and harvested for one of those truck farmers. In the spring, I spent six or seven hours on each weekend, carefully transferring tiny vegetable plants, grown from seed in trays into individual peat-dirt pots. It was tedious work, but, at least, we all sat together and could talk, the old farmer with his missing teeth and fingers holding court in the middle of the group. Sometimes in the afternoon, the old man made a run to a off-sale place down in the valley and came back with bottles of beer that we drank. The beer made the old farmer fart and the close, hot air around him in the greenhouse smelled like rotting flowers.
The greenhouse where we worked was a ramshackle affair, sprawling across a half acre. The walls were two-by-four at best, in most places, merely lathe pieces nailed across wooden stakes and there were low tent-like areas in the house where the plastic ceiling was only four or five feet above the ground. The greenhouse was not equipped with any glass panes – truck farming didn’t pay much – and the warmth in the building was focused and kept inside by thick transparent plastic stapled to the two-by-fours and lathe structure. The plastic was ripped in many places and birds had nested inside remote and abandoned parts of the greenhouse and the floor was slippery with mud with a few plank walkways among the crates that served as tables where we sorted the seedlings. There were many small rooms in the greenhouse and everything was falling apart – in some places the roof had caved in and the plastic was herniated inward under the pressure of stagnant water hanging in its folds. The work involved peat that smelled like horse manure and, if that potting soil was left unstirred, it immediately sprouted dense, white growths of mushrooms.
One Saturday afternoon, while working in the folds of the plastic greenhouse, I had a vision. I imagined the whole earth covered with a series of ruinous and dilapidated greenhouses of the kind in which I was working. The population of the planet was immense, so great that no one did anything but transfer seedlings from small plastic trays into larger pots and, then, into wet fields sweltering under a sky of hot, mostly opaque plastic, some of it sun-melted and slumped down to caress the ripening tomatoes and melons. This was what we had made of the world. The workers slept on pallets of crates between their shifts and it was always humid and very warm so that you could scarcely breathe. Only night brought respite and, then, it took hours for the plastic shrouded structures to cool down. Big spiders spun webs in the darkness, nets across the low frames of the doors through which you had to stoop to move and the long tunnels of pale, white plastic stretched over muddy plank ways extended forever – you defecated in the peat pots, you pissed on the rows of growing seedlings and one greenhouse was linked to the next and the next and the next ad infinitum with ragged people bending over their trays and pots all across the world.
On the road returning from the pyramids at Teotihuacan, this vision returned to me, embodied in the landscape next to the freeway. The sun had ignited the smog over the city into a brilliant, formless golden radiance, a halo hanging over the vale of Mexico. Everywhere, you looked the sky was featureless and flooded with bright light, the sun diffused by the smog so that it no longer shone as an orb, but rather as a great blinding radiance that dissolved the white piles of concrete and the metal roofs into ephemeral, hovering mirages. The concrete altiplano was studded with shaggy skull-shaped mountains jutting above the stagnant-looking sea of houses and businesses – there was a kind of high-water mark on the mountains, a place beyond which the incline was too steep on which to build, and the ladders of cement walls interlocked and scaling the hillsides became brighter the higher and more precariously perched on the mountains they were: robin’s egg blue, dandelion yellow and neon pink, hunter green and Pompeii red. An aerial gondola floated above the tumultuous lagoons of tightly packed structures and between the closest mountains, their crania capped with luxuriant jungle, there were causeways built on slender concrete stilts. In the gaps between the mountains, I could see that the city extended farther than any eye could grasp – orangish pillars of smog rising in the air, beyond which could be dimly discerned hazy reefs of pale apartment buildings, cranes like instruments of medieval torture, the remote glint of rivers of chrome on freeways suspended above the teeming neighborhoods, and, far away, vast ominous mountains lifting their tangled, tropical canyons high into the air, lofty mountain passes veiled in acid fogs.
Behold! the eye said to the mind: behold CDMX! And the mind resisting all the time, fighting back, arguing that the scale was simply too vast and confounding.
Horns of traffic sounding at the narrow intersections, water trucks creeping through the slums, concrete ditches buried in garbage, everywhere a vibrant, disorderly life as if a nest of social insects had been violently disrupted, crossroads swarming with street vendors, people everywhere scrambling to make a living, energetic, whistling and shouting to one another, pickups full of produce and cars making deliveries of provisions to sidewalk cafes from one end of the city to another, soccer fields and arenas, bursts of Comex cabs roaring away from traffic lights – Behold! The eye cries to the mind. Behold!
A thunderhead rose over the Gulf of Mexico. The oil rigs in the greasy waters below twinkled like stars. The thunderhead was shaped like the Virgin of Guadalupe except that instead of standing on a crescent moon, she was perched on the hammer and sickle of the Communist party. As the plane angled toward her, she rose as high and broad as a wall. The jet pierced the Virgin where her womb would be.
It was 8 above zero in Minneapolis and snow had fallen over the weekend. Indeed, snow was still pelting the traffic and streets from the cold sky and a wind was stirring up chaos all around the edges of the city. The highways were closed due to glare ice and blizzard conditions and, so, we were unable to drive the hundred miles south to Austin. We stayed in the hotel overnight, the place where my car was parked.
A shuttle bus lurched over the drifts and ice-dams on the highway and brought us to the hotel. Julie took the luggage and left the bus while I rode through the windy darkness to the remote lot where my car was parked.
It was very icy in the remote lot and the snow was knee-deep, clutching at my ankles to unsettle me and knock me over. The wind was lacerating, toothed with flecks of biting ice. I got the car started but, then, had to shovel snow off the windshield. Beneath the snow, there was ice glazed on everything. The shuttle bus hurried on its appointed rounds, passing me and, then, hustling away. The darkness closed-in.
The route between the remote parking lot, a bare patch of snow-covered concrete near some anonymous office buildings and a complex of windowless, deserted warehouses, was unclear to me. I drove to the edge of the parking lot, but couldn’t find the way out – snow covered all the lanes and I didn’t want to drive accidentally into an open field or a drainage ditch. At last, I found the narrow pass out of the lot and into some larger adjacent lots. Frowning fronts of warehouses glared at me in the icy darkness. I seemed to be going in circles, repeatedly arriving at a single light suspended on a metal pole that wobbled and shuddered under the impact of the cold.
I was lost for a long time. Perhaps, I had frozen to death in the parking lot. My feet were numb and I couldn’t feel my fingers and my bowels were still disorganized by the pulque. The long walls of the warehouse stretched out away from the narrow snowy lane on which I was driving. A single light trembled overhead and, then, was gone and I was alone, the car churning through deep snow in a wasteland.
A bluish dog appeared ahead of me. The dog trotted in the beam of my headlights and showed the way to lane hidden in the drifts. The lane opened under my car and led to a broader street that had been plowed sometime in the past hour – ramparts of snow rose on both sides of the roadway. The dog had vanished. I could see the hotel standing in a pool of white light wild with falling ice.
January - February 2017