Two Weeks in the Capital
In Mexico, not even the oligarchs are happy
The rainy season is late this year, which means the exhaust of millions of cars remains in the atmosphere. The air tastes of metal — it burns your eyes, stings your throat. Mornings are filled with rituals: Vaseline for your lips, small doses of antihistamines, a saltwater spray for your nostrils. The government issues frequent advisories against outdoor exercise. Jogging for an hour in Mexico City, a concerned voice repeats on the radio, harms your lungs as much as a pack of cigarettes. That last claim seems dubious to you, but you never liked running anyway. The absence of rain also implies the absence of clouds, which in turn implies it’s 90 degrees in the shade. This gives you two choices: close your windows and stew in your own sweat or open them and drown in your own mucus. Either way, you suffocate.
CAFÉ GRATIS CON SU DESAYUNO
Most of the drug lords who wanted to kill you are now dead or in prison. A decade ago, a generation of cartel bosses would have given their firstborns to dump your body on the steps of the ministry of justice. But your father doesn’t work there anymore. Still, the government assigns you bodyguards as a matter of protocol. The new guy is called Moises; he’s a midranking officer of the Federal Police. One day, you buy him breakfast. You discover he’s going to night school for a graduate degree in political theory. You ask who his favorite thinker is. He answers without hesitation: Gramsci.
Over café con leche, he tells you about his previous assignment: guarding a senator in a northern state. Once, he says, his team escorted their principal to a party at a hacienda deep in the desert. On the way back, their convoy was stopped at a military checkpoint. It quickly became apparent that the men in uniform were not in fact government soldiers. The car with the principal sped off, but Moises and his partner were unable to get away. Dozens of armed men surrounded them. His partner wanted to hand over their weapons and surrender, but Moises knew better.
“I figured we were going to die no matter what,” he says. “If you surrender they’ll just torture you for information and leave your body somewhere in the sierra. And if they don’t find your body, you’re presumed missing, and your wife doesn’t get her widow’s pension. So it’s always better to go down right away. Besides, that way you can take a few of the fuckers with you.”
One of the men then walked to Moises’s side of the car and tried to open the door. Moises kicked it as hard as he could, hitting the narco in the face.
“¡Ya te cargó la chingada, hijo de tu puta madre!” Moises yelled, his gun to the man’s head.
The narco laughed. A large man in a military uniform appeared behind him and pointed a revolver at Moises.
“Do you know who we are, oficial? We’re the Zetas,” the man said. “But who are you? Intelligence? Judicial investigations?”
“I’m a bodyguard,” Moises replied, pulling out his ID with his free hand and waving it at the man.
“Who’s your principal?” the fat narco asked.
“Your whore of a mother.”
The fat man laughed again. “Ah caray oficial, ¿si estás bien pinche loco, verdad? I’ll tell you what, if you put down your gun, I’ll do the same.”
“No fucking way.”
There was a moment of silence. Then, to Moises’s surprise, the man put down his revolver.
“You can go,” he said. “But tell your principal not to come back here without permission.”
Moises asks you if he can have another coffee. You blink in disbelief. You ask him, point blank, why he thinks the Zetas let him go.
“No clue,” he answers. “Maybe they wanted to send a message to the senator? We never told him, of course — he woke up back home with a bad headache and no idea what happened. Anyway, I’m happy to be here now. I’d much rather talk about Gramsci and drink café con leche than shout at fat narcos. Police work’s a bitch, let me tell you.”
SE VENDE: CASA PORFIRIANA
Your father has bought a new house at the edge of downtown. The neighborhood has become fashionable in recent years. It was developed in the late 19th century, when the owners of a successful circus decided to get into real estate. Emboldened by the improbable prestige of their most famous performer — an English clown who somehow managed to earn the esteem of General Porfirio Díaz, the dictator who ruled for thirty years before the Mexican Revolution — the impresarios bought a large tract of land on what were then the city’s outskirts. They commissioned a group of well-regarded architects to build elegant houses designed to appeal to the city’s elite. Betraying their colonial anxieties, they christened the new development after a fashionable European city: Colonia Roma.
Much of the neighborhood was built before 1910, when the outbreak of the revolution tempered the high-end real estate market. Your father’s house, however, dates from 1917 — the year when the victorious rebels promulgated a new constitution. The date helps explain the house’s reactionary architecture. Unlike most buildings in la Roma, which take their cues from the town houses of London or the grandes maisons of Paris, your father’s house evokes a Spanish colonial palazzo. It was built for a man who made a fortune speculating on rubber, the kind of guy who gets a kick out of pretending he is an hacendado paying his respects to the viceroy before returning to his acreage in Durango. Every detail, from the tile pattern on the floor of the courtyard to the molding on the edges of the balconies, seems designed to incite nostalgia for New Spain.
You tour the house for the first time, carrying your laptop and enough clothing to get you through the weeks you’ll spend here trying to get your United States visa renewed. You see a familiar volume on one of the shelves — a stuffy anthology of English-language poetry that someone gave you when you were 16. You realize that the shelf holds the books you left behind in the house where you grew up, far away from la Roma, at the western edge of Mexico City.
That neighborhood was called el Contadero, because it used to be a small town where farmers would count their livestock on the way to the city’s markets. Early in the morning, heading to school, you could see old men driving mule-drawn wagons piled high with firewood. Oyamel forests surrounded the neighborhood on three sides. The air smelled like tree sap and wet dirt. In the weeks leading up to the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, white and blue garlands appeared over the main avenues, almost forming a canopy.
You last saw el Contadero on August 5, 2009, when you left for college in America, relieved to escape the black SUVs with tinted windows that sometimes tailed your bodyguards’ car for miles. Then your father’s political fortunes took a turn for the worse and he left for a diplomatic post in London. You remember getting a short email late in your freshman year: We’ve sold the house in el Contadero, but don’t worry, we put your books in storage. Sitting in a filthy apartment in New England, you were devastated by the realization that the tree sap, the wet dirt, the garlands, the bonfires, the oyameles, the mule wagons, and the patch of sunlight that fell on the floor of your bedroom between ten in the morning and noon were lost forever.
“Everything all right?” your father asks.
You realize you’ve been standing in the middle of the living room for several minutes, staring at the furniture in silence.
“Yes,” you say. “The house is beautiful.”
“Thanks,” your father says. “It was a bargain.”
On your second day in the capital, you walk out of your father’s house to visit Santiago, the only friend from Mexico with whom you’ve stayed in close contact. He lives nearby, about fifteen minutes by foot. You looked up the route on Google Maps. You don’t know this part of town well — in fact, you don’t know it at all. The truth is you’ve never walked around Mexico City much. Before you left for college, you were not allowed to go anywhere by foot. The bodyguards drove you everywhere, even the few blocks to your godfather’s house. You saw the city through plates of armored glass.
When you wave Moises away, saying you would prefer to go on your own, you harbor the secret hope that he will protest. If he refuses to let you go out alone, you will at least be able to say that you tried. To your surprise, he seems unfazed by your request. He waves back and returns to the armored car and his photocopies of Ernst Bloch.
You head down the avenue, take a left onto a side street, and begin counting the blocks to the boulevard that separates la Roma from la Condesa. One, two, three, ten, twelve. Shouldn’t you be there already? Did you overshoot? Could you possibly have missed it? You decide that you are panicking for no reason, that this is just your childhood paranoia flaring up.
You walk for ten, twenty, thirty minutes before you are forced to admit that you are lost. You feel enfeebled, as if you have regressed to childhood. You take out your phone to look at Google Maps again but your American telecom company does not provide service in Mexico. You look around, searching for a familiar landmark. Nothing in this city is familiar to you. You seem to have wandered into a working-class neighborhood — the paint on the houses is peeling; some of the windows are broken. At the corner, under a streetlight, a group of homeless teenagers stares at you. By the time you show up at Santiago’s place, he’s been waiting for you for more than an hour.
Later that night, as you try to fall asleep in the polluted heat of this awful rainless season, you think of a story a friend told you about a young situationist architect from Valparaiso. She would wander aimlessly among the hills of the city, carefully noting each turn that she made, and then make maps, immense maps the size of walls, marking her routes with different colors of string. At significant points, wherever the lines intersected, she pinned photographs, newspaper clippings, note cards scribbled with street signs, graffiti, overheard conversations.
This is what you need, you think: a map of Mexico City that extends to accommodate memory and fantasy. The next morning, you walk to the stationery store on the corner, a tiny establishment that caters to elementary school students. You ask the clerk for a map of the city, the biggest she can find. She disappears into the back of the shop and rummages for several minutes before coming back empty-handed.
“I’m sorry,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “We don’t have any maps. It’s been years since anyone asked for one. Don’t you have a smartphone?”
ANTE TODO, CLARIDAD EN LA PROSA
The sun of Mexico City was once a cliché as tired as the bright lights of New York. Your city, you read in book after book, was once drenched in the most glorious light to be found on earth. The Mexican sun, the writers insisted, didn’t just illuminate — it enlightened. Alfonso Reyes put it best when he compared the Mexican highland with the southern rain forests:
Our portion of the earth, the valley of Anahuac, is better and more salutiferous than the equatorial regions, at least for those who seek alertness of will and clarity of mind. . . . Here, the air is a luminous ether, through which objects seem to step forward, as if highlighted individually.
You consider this equation of sunlight and thought as you read a battered copy of Reyes’s essays on the roof of your father’s house. Today, the city has ten times as many residents as it did in 1917, when Vision de Anahuac was published. Nearly 5 million cars crowd the streets. There are factories and garbage fires. The sun is pale and sickly — a terminal patient hiding behind the curtain of a shared hospital room. Anahuac is no longer la región más transparente del aire.
You head inside. Who can think clearly in this light?
. . . Y AGARRASTE POR TU CUENTA LA PARRANDA
One night, your father insists on throwing a party in your honor. He invites your cousins and high school friends, orders catering from a hip taqueria, and buys several cases of mezcal. He asks the staff to line the roof garden with narrow tables crowded with votive candles.
The guests arrive at sundown. They ask what has become of you. You try to explain. They seem uninterested.
You drink. They drink. Your father drinks.
Music blasts from hidden speakers. You try to lower the volume, but the others laugh at you and turn it back up, louder. Before long, everyone is dancing. Only you remain at the table, clutching your glass in embarrassment.
In the bathroom, you splash water on your face.
When you come back, your father has gone to bed and the music has gotten louder. A friend asks you to dance. You try to decline.
“¡Ven!” she insists. “Chance hasta te doy un beso.”
You spin around a few times, take a theatrical bow, and flee.
At three in the morning, your oldest friend, Serrat, staggers up to you.
“C’mon, Nicky!” he slurs. “Why so sad? This is your party, man!”
He reaches for your neck and tries to kiss your mouth. You turn away, and as you reject his love you are overcome by memories of chasing rabbits and riding horses and hiding from stray dogs in the acres of forest and prairie that surrounded his house at the foot of the mountains of Mexico City. You remember playing guitar by a campfire. You remember watching westerns dubbed into Spanish. You remember his father, your godfather, the handsome heir who grew less handsome and less of a millionaire with each year and each drink, until one day he died of liver failure in an outhouse near the edge of the land he was about to lose to loan sharks, in the arms of your oldest friend, who once again attempts to kiss your mouth.
“No,” you say.
He stumbles to the dance floor, corners one of his brothers, and tries to kiss him. His brother punches him in the face.
You intervene, and with Moises’s help drag Serrat downstairs. You call an Uber for your friend, who can barely stand but insists that walking home would do him good.
And then, deep under the earth, immense rocks shift. The seismic alarm begins to blare. If you remember your grade school drills correctly, you have about thirty seconds before the ground begins to shake. People pour into the street from houses and bars. Their faces have the fatalistic calm that comes with choosing to live in a valley surrounded by active volcanoes. The alarm continues to sound. When it quiets, the silence is heavy with expectation. Then, after half a minute, nothing. The quake was so weak you didn’t even feel it.
“Ay, so much drama for no reason!” a man yells as he files back into the cantina across the street.
The car arrives and you persuade Serrat to get in. Upstairs, the party has gone on uninterrupted. The music is louder than ever.
“It’s just too much,” says the friend who asked you to dance, tears running down her face.
“What’s too much?” another friend asks.
“Everything,” she says. “Everything is too much.”
¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN? ¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!
You take a walk with Santiago through a park in la Condesa. It’s noon, and you can’t breathe.
“This is where that scene in The Savage Detectives takes place, isn’t it?” he asks. “You know, when Ulises Lima finally meets Octavio Paz and they have nothing to say to each other.”
You walk in silence for a while. Then he picks up as if he’d never stopped.
“I always thought it significant that he named the character Ulises. Everybody ends up coming back.”
Instinctively, you reach for your jacket pocket. You are relieved to find that your passport is still there.
TASA DE CAMBIO
In the capital, five American dollars will buy you a three-course meal and a beer. You are told that high-end sex workers charge $150 per night. With the rent you paid for your two-bedroom in Crown Heights, you could afford a luxurious apartment downtown. And yet some people here have as much wealth as the bankers of Manhattan. The result is that Mexico has tiers of inequality that would be unthinkable in America.
“What I have never understood,” you say to Moises as he accompanies you to a bookstore, “is why the poor haven’t killed all the rich already.”
Moises smiles. “I wouldn’t know, sir,” he replies.
MEXICANO, CONTEMPLA AQUí TU HISTORIA
On a cragged hill, three miles west of the Cathedral, at the end of a winding road flanked by diseased elms and flowering cacti, high above Reforma Boulevard’s corporate skyscrapers and incongruous palm trees, over the fault line that will one day swallow the city’s million street dogs and 20 million souls, there stands the Castle.
The site has a long history, stretching back to Aztec times, when the hill served as a ceremonial retreat for the rulers of Tenochtitlan. Since then, it has been known as Chapultepec, “the hill of the grasshoppers.” But for three short years, between 1864 and 1867, the palace at the highest point in Mexico City had a different name: Miravalle.
The name is ridiculous, saccharine, like something out of one of Byron’s worst poems. The couple that came up with it — Maximilian von Habsburg-Lorraine, the younger brother of the emperor of Austria, and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium — possessed the sort of temperament that retains late into adulthood an affection for adolescent romanticism. They had the kind of wealth and status that results in an overdevelopment of the imagination. They came from a world enamored with storm and stress, where a novel about a lovesick young man’s decision to end his own life could trigger a suicide epidemic among university students. Before they took possession of Chapultepec, they had Miramare, a hideous building evoking a second-tier novelist’s idea of a Gothic ruin. The palace sits perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic, just outside Trieste. Today, the port is part of Italy, but at the time it was one of the jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In that other castle, on October 2, 1863, a delegation of Mexican aristocrats arrived for an audience with the couple. Their purpose was to make an offer worthy of Coleridge’s opium dreams: Become the first emperor and empress of a restored Mexican monarchy. The people of Mexico, the aristocrats claimed, were tired of their ill-fated experiment in democracy. The peasants clamored for the return of the king. The House of Habsburg no longer ruled over the diminished Spanish Empire, but the first European rulers of Mexico had been the couple’s ancestors. Maximilian and Charlotte were the legitimate sovereigns of Mexico by divine right.
This was not the first time that Maximilian and Charlotte had thought of Mexico. For years, a network of exiled criollos had haunted the capitals of Europe, looking for a suitable royal to rule their troubled nation. Consummate conspirators and flatterers, they had grown close to Napoleon III’s wife, using her influence to make sure news of their plans reached Vienna and Miramare.
At first, the archduke and archduchess had hesitated. Mexico was far away, not so much a place as an idea. But they began to grow restless. They went on long trips aboard their yacht, the Phantasie, visiting exotic locales. They attended royal weddings, royal baptisms, royal funerals. They advised their relatives on minor matters of state. The idea of Mexico remained in the back of their heads, growing more defined as their fantasies filled in the blanks. They began to imagine what it would feel like to be the protagonists of their own epic rather than secondary characters in the empire’s soap opera.
By 1863, when Napoleon III occupied Mexico and his criollo supporters offered the crown to Maximilian, the couple was ready to accept. They renounced their European titles, packed hundreds of trunks full of paintings and silver, and set sail for Anahuac. Along the way, they changed their names, becoming Maximiliano and Carlota of Mexico.
They arrived in Veracruz on May 28, 1864. The Mexican aristocrats had promised the couple adoring crowds waving white handkerchiefs, but they disembarked to find the harbor empty. The country they had agreed to rule was in the throes of a bloody civil war — a decades-long conflict between rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, light-skinned criollos and dark-skinned indios. Veracruz was nominally controlled by the criollo conservatives and their French allies, but most of its people supported the Republican government of Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian who had been elected to the presidency in 1861 on a platform that included redistributing the wealth of the church and abolishing the legal privileges of the landowning minority. Struggling to keep their composure, the emperor and empress headed for Mexico City, where at least there was a parade.
You try to imagine that scene as you wander the Castle, which has long been a museum. You walk through endless corridors, past cellars, kitchens, libraries, dining rooms, sitting rooms, drawing rooms, music rooms, servants’ quarters. You walk through gardens in the English, French, and Mexican styles; across ballrooms hung with portraits of bishops and viceroys. You try to imagine what it must have been like to play a part in this make-believe imperial court, knowing that a few miles away a growing army of furious peasants led by an indigenous saint was defeating your diminishing supporters, that it was only a matter of time before the barbarians entered the city and climbed the hill and began to batter the gates of the Castle, which you had foolishly and at great expense transformed from an impenetrable fortress into an architectural version of your yacht.
The criollos were few, but some of them commanded large numbers of pious mestizos and indios, for whom Juarez, a foe to the church, was an enemy. The problem was that Maximiliano did not prove enough of a Habsburg for his Mexican supporters. In his formative years, the future emperor had had nothing to do but read political philosophy and fantasize about how he would make a wiser ruler than his brother — you picture him wandering stately hallways, muttering fragments of Hegel, imagining a state where the Geist would finally become aware of itself. From the moment he landed in Veracruz, the emperor set out to enact liberal reforms, many of them indistinguishable from the progressive legislation that Juarez had tried to pass before the French invasion. The aristocrats thought they had imported a reactionary traditionalist; instead, they found themselves prostrated before an aspiring enlightened despot.
When Napoleon’s army left Mexico to focus on more pressing concerns in Europe, the aristocrats deserted their emperor. On May 15, 1867, Juarez’s forces captured Maximiliano. After a cursory trial, the emperor was found guilty of capital offenses against the Republic and condemned to death. If the museum’s romantic captions are to be believed, the emperor then proved himself an honorable man by accepting his fate and walking calmly to the firing squad. He is said to have given his last few pieces of gold to his executioners, asking them to shoot him in the heart rather than the head, so that he might have an open-casket funeral for the benefit of his beloved mother.
Maximiliano died, but the Habsburgs never left. Mexico’s rulers have all shared an Austro-Hungarian temperament: a congenital vulnerability to zealous passions, a predisposition to the fevers of ambition, an inability to see that the only hope for the country lies in their destruction.
¡QUE VIVA CRISTO REY!
A still from a YouTube video: five teenagers sit in a row of formal chairs, wearing dark suits and flanked by two uniformed servants. Improbably, the boy on the far left holds a live jaguar on his lap.
The boys are seniors at the Cumbres Institute, a Catholic school associated with the quasi-fascist Legion of Christ, an even more reactionary institution than the one you attended. The video is an ad for their graduation fête, the conceit being that the boys are holding auditions for their dates. One after another, tall and slender models dance before the teenagers. Each time, the little princes reject the women with a thumbs-down reminiscent of Imperial Rome. The film mercifully omits the implied conclusion: the boys’ jaguar devouring the spurned models.
Instead, the viewer is treated to a montage of women chasing the boys around Mexico City, begging for the chance to wash their pubescent feet. The whole thing is baroque and grotesque, the sort of cultural document that future historians will cite as evidence that early-21st-century Mexico was on the verge of a violent convulsion.
And yet every time you watch the video you can’t help but notice that the boys are running away from the women. They look at them in disgust, preferring instead the company of their classmates. The video suggests another tape — a porno in which five Catholic boys succumb to long-repressed desires and spend their graduation night fucking one another under the watchful eyes of their pet jaguar.
But of course, the Cumbres boys will never make that other tape. In Mexico, not even the oligarchs are happy.
OTRA VEZ ESTA MALDITA FELICIDAD
The best mezcal is made from tobalá, a type of agave native to the mountains of Oaxaca. While some producers have devised methods to cultivate this particular varietal, the process is expensive and difficult. The cactus flourishes only in the wild. Unlike its more famous cousin (blue agave, the kind used to make tequila), tobalá is a very small plant, which means hundreds of specimens are required to make a batch of liquor. Every bottle of fine mezcal implies that an indigenous laborer spent days wandering around the sierra foraging for tender desert plants.
The recent mezcal craze has dramatically increased demand for tobalá, to the point where the cactus is becoming harder and harder to find. The situation is so dire that scientists have warned that the plant is in danger of going extinct. The laws of supply and demand have transformed mezcal into a nonrenewable resource, like crude oil, bluefin tuna, and youth. In the course of the two weeks you spend in Mexico trying to get your visa renewed, you drink virtually nothing else.
CALLE DE AMORES
You drop by the house where your father grew up and find your grandmother surrounded by a crowd of small children. She offers you whiskey. She tells you she doesn’t like to sleep in the bed where she conceived her offspring anymore, preferring instead a comfortable reading chair.
The chair faces a large window that opens onto a courtyard near the back of the house. The courtyard is full of an indiscriminate profusion of plants: ferns, roses, orchids, dahlias, sunflowers, bougainvillea, and an immense rubber tree. The roots of the tree, you observe, have broken the tiles that pave the courtyard’s floor. In those cracks grow other plants.
“Each morning,” your grandmother tells you, “I take note of every new petal.”
This, you realize, is the proper way to wait for death.
NO SEAS BASURITA, RESPETA A TUS VECINOS
The city is never quiet. On any given night, you hear:
Indistinct conversations under your window. (Why do all the women sound like your sister? Why does the verb “to die” come up so frequently?)
Shot glasses shattering on barroom floors. (Not accidents but exclamation marks after emotional toasts.)
Water droplets falling on the pavement. (Not rain but housewives waging futile battles against dust.)
Twig brooms scraping sun-softened asphalt. (The street sweepers never pick up the trash; they simply push it farther down the street.)
Stray dogs barking. (Why are there no stray dogs in New York? Are they all dead? Were they all shot?)
Feral cats moaning. (Why do street cats sound so mournful? Are they all hungry, or in heat? Are they all ghosts?)
Gunshots. (Or were they fireworks?)
OFICINA DE NATURALIZACIÓN
Some time ago, a married couple of Mexican writers granted an interview to Vogue. The novelists spoke at length about how much they loved living in Harlem.
“New York,” one of the writers said, “offers a bubble out of the literary life.”
It’s a joke, obviously, but a telling one. The citizens of every metropolis — Mexico City first among them — take pride in the fact that they live at the center of the universe. This is why a pair of Mexican writers can think of New York as a charming northern backwater, away from the world-historically important feuds between narco-realists and Mexico City existentialists.
You find yourself thinking of the interview as you wait for an Uber outside your father’s house. At what point will you cease to be a Mexican writer? When the IRS begins to consider you a resident alien for tax purposes? When you stop imitating Alfonso Reyes and start copying Joan Didion? When you memorize the questions that Customs and Border Protection likes to ask at the airport? When you trade the cronica’s artificial persona for the personal essay’s mask of sincerity? When you get a green card?
MIRREY, QUIERO IR AL ANTRO
One day, walking around la Roma, you pass a nightclub that once enjoyed the patronage of your more stylish high school classmates: Club Rhodesia.
The name stops you in your tracks. Suddenly you are in Charleston again, your reporter’s notebook in your hand, just hours after the massacre. You see, again, the photograph of the killer: the scowl, the bad haircut, the flag of the Republic of Rhodesia stitched on his breast.
They must have had no idea, you say to yourself as you continue on your way, thinking of the wealthy, light-skinned Mexicans who founded the club. They must have just thought it was a cool name.
“Oh, but they knew!” Santiago’s girlfriend tells you later that night at a different nightclub. “Do you know what they did for opening night? They wanted black waiters. You know, as a stunt. The earthquake in Haiti had just happened, so they went to Port-Au-Prince and hired a bunch of people and flew them to Mexico City for the night. The funny thing is that they made the black waiters wear safari attire. Which, of course, is what the white settlers would have worn.”
DEJA UNA EVALUACIÓN PARA TUS HUÉSPEDES
One morning, while you’re having coffee at a sidewalk cafe in la Roma, a young and attractive white couple sits down at the next table. They order breakfast in good-enough Spanish, but there’s no mistaking their nationality: she carries a tote bag emblazoned with the logo of a New York magazine; he wears his blond locks in a man bun. They’re arguing, in English, about the relative merits of two long-term Airbnb rentals in a beach town in Oaxaca.
You stare at them from your table, pretending to read the newspaper’s daily tally of atrocities. For some reason, their presence makes you angry. You begin to daydream a backstory for them. She’s from Portland; he’s from the Upper West Side. They met at Brown and then moved to Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at freelance journalism and he made minimalist sculptures. They subsisted on her barista’s salary and his trust fund. At first they lived in Williamsburg (south of Grand Street, mind you — he insisted on referring to the neighborhood by its old Boricua name, Los Sures), but then their landlord sold the building and the new guy hiked the rent, and besides, the Burg had been overrun by junior analysts at GS and MS, so who would have wanted to live there anyway? They found a spot in Bushwick — OK, Ridgewood — but the bankers eventually found their favorite bar, and she wasn’t getting any bylines, and he hadn’t sold a sculpture in months, and they were getting tired of going to magazine parties and gallery galas where they disliked most of the people. And then one day he stumbled on his old copy of The Savage Detectives and found himself thinking: Why don’t we just move to Mexico City?
And so they moved to la Roma just like they’d moved to Los Sures and Ridgewick. Mexico City was for them the last urban frontier, Brooklyn’s ultima Thule, a new New York waiting to be discovered and colonized. Or perhaps it was a third-world version of the old New York, the one that they’d missed simply by virtue of being born too late and too comfortable: the gritty, half-deserted city of edgy bars and spacious lofts, of cruising spots and black-box theaters. Or perhaps it was their century’s version of Paris, the foreign metropolis where Americans could finally overcome their provincialism and become modernists.
Or perhaps it was none of those things. Whatever they imagined it was, it wasn’t. The water made them sick. The landlord scammed them. The rich kids who ran galleries grew tired of them after two months; the poor kids who made art hated Americans on principle. The magazine editors in Manhattan were too busy panicking about the rise of fascism in their own country to bother with the destruction of a mangrove forest near Acapulco. He started drinking too much; she started eating too little. They began to fight. Then, in a desperate attempt to salvage their relationship, they tried moving once more — this time to Oaxaca. If they couldn’t be hip urban expats, then at least they could be beach bums, right? The sun and the sea would do them good, plus they would surely meet other Americans, and it would be so nice to be with people who understood.
The man-bunned gringo summons the waiter and asks for the check. You’ve been staring at them for a long time. By now your coffee is cold. What the hell is wrong with you? You don’t know anything about these people. Even if everything you imagined about them were true, they would be the kind of people you’d sought out for the past eight years. Had you encountered them in New York rather than Mexico City, you would have been predisposed to like them. Aren’t you their negative image? Did you not go to New York looking for the same things you imagined they sought in Mexico City?
But there is a difference. They didn’t have to worry about not being allowed in, or not being able to stay, or being forced to go back. Your peers in the ruling classes of the first world cross borders without friction, gliding from one country to another like free bloody birds. It doesn’t matter that you have mastered their language and done well at their schools and paid all the applicable taxes, followed the rules and jumped through the hoops and danced when they told you to dance — you remain a colonial subject, un maldito criollo.
MODERNIDAD Y JUSTICIA SOCIAL
On TV, a late-night talk-show host is interviewing a neoliberal politician about the American President’s threats to cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement. The politician gesticulates wildly as he speaks, his eyes wide with disbelief. You cannot help feeling sympathy for the man, even if you find his politics loathsome. He’s a member of your father’s generation of Mexican statesmen — people who bet all their chips on a worldview in which the United States and Mexico were partners, and who were gradually proved to have been mistaken.
The Mexican elite once shared the left’s hatred for the United States. To your grandfather’s generation, the American ruling class was a coterie of barbarians, crass in manners, crude in taste. Their rulers were tradesmen — either avaricious bourgeois who’d soiled themselves with an occupation as myopic as finance, or opportunistic parvenus who’d leveraged a picaresque gift for social climbing into a moguldom in Hollywood. And so they sent their sons to schools where French was the main foreign language, which — of course — made English the subversive choice.
Tired of their forebears’ piety, your father’s generation embraced American culture. They revolted against the staid Hegelianism of their university teachers, looking for inspiration first in Chomsky and then in the Chicago School. When the Soviet Union began to show signs of collapse, they felt vindicated. History had ended. America had won. Their fathers had been proved wrong.
They then applied for student visas just like yours and flocked to the great universities of the United States. There, they discovered the lucid beauty of quantitative economics. What a rush it must have been to realize that the alchemical secret to turning shit into gold was written in the language of interest rates.
When your father’s generation returned to the capital with their doctorates, they began to lobby furiously for economic integration. They envisioned NAFTA as the first step toward an economic partnership that would eventually resemble the European Union, with free movement of capital, commodities, and labor. That last point was crucial: if Mexico was going to sacrifice its autonomy for the sake of trade with the United States, it needed the guarantee that its citizens would eventually be allowed to go wherever the market called them. Otherwise, the alchemical spell would misfire. Some people’s shit would be turned into gold, but what little gold most Mexicans had would be turned into shit.
The socialists, the nationalists, the Zapatistas, even the old-school reactionaries — they all warned your father’s generation about the dangers of striking a bargain with the devil. The neoliberals replied earnestly that they believed that Mexico and the United States could work together as friends. As evidence, they cited their personal experiences. Their classmates, teachers, and wives were American, and these people seemed to love Mexico sincerely. Why would the United States as a whole be different?
The debate was never in good faith. Democracy was still a decade away; the left was marginal and toothless; the old Francophiles had begun to retire. The three countries of North America signed the treaty with great fanfare. The Mexican economy grew, but not at the pace of the neoliberals’ projections. The richest man in Mexico became the richest man in the world, but the poor remained as poor as they had always been. In a sense, they were poorer than ever. Their corner stores now sold American cigarettes, but their young people were gone. Many were never seen or heard from again. Those who returned came back broken, telling confused stories about predawn raids and freezing detention cells.
As the years passed, even the neoliberals began to suspect that something was wrong. Again and again, your father’s generation of politicians called their US classmates, who by then had become senators and governors. Had they not sat through the same seminars, listened to the same exaltations of the laissez-faire virtues of open borders and freedom of movement? Hadn’t they made a deal? The Americans would demur, misquote some Burke passage about gradual change, and say they were actually just stepping into a meeting.
You sit in your father’s TV room, your temporary bedroom, watching the economist all but tear out fistfuls of his own hair. You look at his face, at the large, deep-set eyes that are the marker of your people. Looking at him, it occurs to you that the problem was that his generation of criollos refused to see themselves as colonials. They did not realize that their classmates at Harvard and Chicago treated them nicely not because they saw them as equals but because they were light-skinned curiosities in well-cut suits, distinguished guests from a quaint but insignificant country. With indios and mestizos, it was a different story. The Chicago Boys’ belief in individual freedom did not extend to people with dark skin. Their economics was not the objective science they claimed it to be, but rather a political instrument designed to justify imperial expansion — a postmodern American equivalent of 16th-century Spanish Catholicism.
You turn off the TV, surprised by how personal all of this feels. The Americans let you go to New England because they wanted you to become a translator, a go-between. You were supposed to go back to the capital, leverage your last name into a position in the highest levels of government, and advocate for American interests. Instead, you held on to your work permit as if for dear life. And now here you are, stranded in your father’s house with no visa.
You lie down on the couch but can’t sleep. Your earliest memories are of watching American films, coveting American toys. Your high school band played covers of American songs. For better or worse, you are a child of NAFTA, the product of an era that is coming to an end. As you lie in the reddish darkness of a city that you barely know, wondering what judgment awaits you now that you have become a foreigner in your own country, you realize that you are talking to yourself in English.
FAVOR DE LLENAR SU FORMA ANTES DE FORMARSE
At the American Embassy, you wait in a hangar-like building lined with rows of plastic chairs. Around you, thousands of your fellow citizens fidget in the limbo between hope and fear, fanning themselves with their immigration documents and making small talk.
“How many times have you been rejected?”
“Ay, man, I can’t even remember.”
“And where are you going?”
“Louisiana, to work in a seafood-processing plant.”
“And are you coming back?”
“Not if I can help it.”
You move down the row as the next seat becomes vacant. Eventually, you reach the end of the line and are told to wait while a consular officer interviews the person ahead of you. The officer is a few years older than you and clearly hates her job — this is not what she had in mind when she joined the State Department. Her voice drips with condescension and suspicion.
“Have you ever been to the United States? Did you have a proper visa at the time? Did you overstay? Why are you not answering my questions? You can’t speak English. You said in your application you spoke English. You’re denied.”
Then it’s your turn.
“It seems you have lived in the United States for eight years at this point. You are aware, I’m sure, that the student visa you are requesting is not a path to permanent residency. Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever bought or sold drugs? Have you ever helped anyone who was in the United States illegally? Have you ever advocated for the destruction of the United States government? OK, just one second. You’re approved. Have a nice day.”
PRUEBE NUESTRA SALSA HABANERA
The morning after the party your father held in your honor, you walk to Serrat’s house, a spartan apartment above a row of filthy taquerias. There is no door on the ground floor, so people walk in and out as they please. As you climb the stairs, you dodge a pile of human shit.
You knock. He answers with a dazed smile. He tells you he doesn’t remember the previous night. You give him an unsparing summary. He offers you coffee and says he’s sorry. You tell him it’s OK. Then you say what you came here to say:
“I think you have a problem.”
He lowers his head. “I know,” he says. He rubs his rib cage.
“You OK there?” you ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “It just hurts for some reason.”
You notice that a coffee table by the door is broken in half, its slab of solid wood cracked near the middle.
“Oh, shit,” your friend chuckles. “I must have fallen on it.”
You head out to get breakfast. You sit across from each other in a cheap eatery. You order pozole and quesadillas. Then Serrat tries to order a beer.
“Oh, come on!” you say.
“You’re right, you’re right,” he says. He tells the waiter he doesn’t want the beer after all.
The soup arrives. You add a few drops of a salsa heavy with overripe habaneros. You eat in silence. When Serrat finishes his bowl, he cracks a tostada and slathers it with a whole tablespoon of the salsa. You watch in horror as he swallows it whole. And then he swallows another. And another.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
His face is bright red and his hair is soaked with sweat and he is crying.
“It’s the only way to beat a hangover,” he says.
When the waiter comes back, your friend says he would like the beer after all. You pay for the meal and excuse yourself.
SU AMABLE DONATIVO LLENA LAS CALLES DE MÚSICA
The city center is home to a small army of organ grinders. They stand in corners, at major intersections, near tourist attractions and terraced restaurants, tirelessly turning the wheels of their instruments. They wear a distinctive brown uniform, halfway between bellboy and traffic cop. They are organized in a union. They are very polite when asking for tips.
They are also in dire straits. Many of their instruments were made in Mitteleuropa in the late 19th century. Replacement parts and other refurbishments are difficult to find. The result is that Mexico’s street organs have been slowly falling out of tune for more than a hundred years.
Some grinders have fared relatively well. In certain streets, you can hear mechanical renditions of Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” that are perfect save for the fact that the two high notes that mark the end of each phrase are conspicuously missing. But others have not been so lucky. Their organs have ceased to sound anything like music. They serenade Mexico City with the sonic equivalent of an unrestored fresco, a half-collapsed temple — the dissonant death rattle of an empire that refuses to die.
MISTERIOSO ASESINATO EN LA UNAM
One afternoon, you accompany your father to a birthday party. The host has gone all out. There’s an open bar, a quesadilla buffet, and a cover band playing Buena Vista Social Club. The crowd is illustrious: television executives, celebrity academics, esteemed newspaper columnists, and a whole generation of folklorist poets. There are also politicians, both firebrand leftists and a former president of the Catholic party. You spy the owner of the telecom monopoly, the sometime richest man in the world. He wanders around the party, holding an iPhone above his head, trying to find a signal.
You order a drink. Here they are, the Habsburgs in all their glory. What’s funny is that they are supposed to be sworn enemies. They call one another names on the senate floor and in the pages of the metropolitan dailies. They go on television to denounce each other’s ill-gotten wealth. They demand investigations, they appeal to commissions, they take principled stances in public debates. Some of them even have the gall to protest in the streets.
The scene reminds you of an incident you read about in the paper. After an administrator at the National University was stabbed to death, a group calling itself Individualists with a Tendency Toward Savagery published a document claiming responsibility for the crime.
“We executed this man to show we have no respect for hypercivilized life,” the Individualists, clearly Russian majors high off their first misreading of Dostoevsky, wrote in their manifesto. “We do not believe in a ‘better tomorrow.’ We are not ‘revolutionaries.’ We are individual terrorists with egocentric, amoral, and indiscriminate objectives.”
You begin to fantasize about what would happen if the Individualists decided to strike at the party. You imagine them bursting into the courtyard, armed with Uzis and wearing matching black T-shirts emblazoned with portraits of Mayakovsky.
“Party’s over, fat cats!” one of them would shout, shooting into the air.
A Spanish-language cover of “Blitzkrieg Bop” would begin to play through the loudspeakers. There would be a glorious moment of chaos as dozens of heavyset oligarchs trampled one another in a futile attempt to escape. Near the end of the rampage, one of the Individualists would point her gun at you. You’d raise your hands, but nod.
“Shoot me,” you’d whisper. “I deserve it.”
You share your fantasy with the other guests at your table. They don’t find it nearly as funny as you do.
SE OFRECEN: TUTORÍAS PARA EL GRE Y EL MCAT
It’s been two days since your sister, the artist, locked herself in her bedroom. Your father asks you to summon her to breakfast, because, you suspect, he doesn’t dare to do it himself. You knock; there’s no answer. You put your ear to the door and whisper, in the most cheerful tone you can muster, that her food is getting cold.
“If I eat,” she says, “I’m quite sure I would throw up.”
She’s been like this since she returned from Portland last week. You don’t blame her. The mail room at her college lost her application for a work permit, which meant she missed a crucial immigration deadline, which meant that sixty days after her graduation she was on a plane to Mexico City with all her worldly possessions and no exit strategy. This wouldn’t be such a terrible fate, but she hasn’t lived in the country since she was 15 years old, when your parents moved to Britain.
You used to think she was lucky for leaving Mexico so soon. She was spared the cruelties that private colegios reserve for intelligent women: either an ostracism so intense it verges on torture or an anxious popularity bought at the cost of an eating disorder and the constant performance of idiocy. She is aware of this, of course. For her undergraduate thesis, she made an installation in which a set of bulletproof-glass panes hung from the ceiling, suggesting a ghost SUV like the one your bodyguards used to drive. On each of the windows she etched the contours of British pastoral paintings: rolling hills, peaceful steeples, a country house overlooking a moor. She called the work Both/Neither, but it was clear which of the two terms she found more welcoming.
But now, as you listen to her sob, it becomes clear that you were the lucky one. You stayed long enough to make a true friend — Santiago — such that if you ever were forced to come back for good you would have someone to call, someone to take you to a cantina and drink with you until the sun came out, listening patiently while you repeated variations of the same question: What the hell am I going to do now? Besides, you are a man. There are myriad Mexican roles available to you. For her, the menu is less appealing.
“Can I come in?” you ask through the door.
“Sure,” she says.
You find her pale and sickly, her thick duvet lifted halfway up her face.
“It’s going to be OK,” you lie. “We’re going to get you out of here. Have you thought about going to art school? That would get you a visa.”
“I’m already working on an application for an MBA,” she responds. “I figured it’d be my best bet. You know, for a company to sponsor me.”
“Of course,” you say, forcing a smile.
VUELVO AL SUR, COMO SE VUELE AL AMOR
Two days before you leave, you invite your old friends over for breakfast. As you make salsa in the gray light of the morning, you nearly cut off your index finger.
They arrive on time and freshly showered. At first the conversation is punctuated by uncomfortable silences, but soon an easy familiarity settles over all of you. You had forgotten the intimacy that comes from growing up together and staying together because nobody ever moves away. Except you.
Around noon, when they’re about to leave, you take Serrat aside.
“How are you doing?” you ask him.
“Better,” he says. “I’ve got a plan. I’m moving to Australia, to work in the outback. The permit only lasts three months, but I’m pretty sure I can figure out something more permanent once I’m there. I think it’ll do me good to go away.”
He pauses for a second. Then he goes on:
“You know, like you did.”
He hugs you.
“Take care, Nicky,” he says.
He walks out of the house and turns the corner and then he’s gone.
Among your father’s books is an anthology of Nahuatl verse. It’s a useful volume: a generous selection with a scholarly introduction and literal translations of each poem. On your last day in the country, as you wait to head to the airport, you decide to kill some time by “translating” something into English. Foolishly, you pick a lament from 1521, the year when your ancestors destroyed the old Aztec metropolis and began building Mexico City:
Our arrows lie broken on the ground Their horses roam freely
Our houses no longer have roofs The walls are dyed red
Maggots roam the streets The walls are splattered with brains
The water is red When we drink it tastes of salt
We beat the walls in anxiety We make holes in our refuge
Our shields were once our refuge No shield could stop this desolation
We’ve eaten rotten bread We’ve gnawed on salt
On chunks of adobe On lizards
On mice On crumbled dirt
Even on maggots
Weep O my friends Tenochtitlan is lost
The water is rotten The food is rotten
Such was the will of the Giver of Life in Tlatelolco
By the time you finish you are rattled by guilt. You close the book and open it at random. You land on some verses by Nezahualcóyotl, the poet-king. They begin:
Ica xonahuiyacan ihuinti xochitli
Ma on te ya aquiloto
You try to make sense of the poem without looking at the translation, but you recognize only one noun, xochitli: “flower.”
The plane takes off at midnight. The moon shines through your window, big and blue over the clouds. Below are millions of light bulbs, smaller than fireflies, brighter than stars. For several minutes they fill the horizon, spilling from the valley onto the slopes of the volcanoes. No matter how many times you fly in or out, the sheer size of the city continues to amaze you. It grows every year, swallowing landfills and villages, forcing rivers into plumbing. One day it will cover the whole of the earth.