Among Friends

Spiral City
Melanie Smith (in collaboration with Rafael Ortega), Spiral City, 2002. Stills from Video/DVD, 5.57min in a 60min loop. Courtesy of the artist and OMR Gallery, Mexico City.

Juan Villoro, born 1956 in Mexico City, is one of the finest Latin American writers of his generation, though little known in the United States. Author of three novels, including the internationally renowned El testigo, and numerous short stories, as well as criticism, memoir, travel-writing, screenplays, and several works of children’s literature, his full-length books have not been translated into English. He is perhaps as much admired in Spanish for his journalism as for his fiction, and his story “Among Friends” displays Villoro’s talent for combining journalistic detail, comic invention, and personal drama with an acute portrayal of his home country in a time of violence and disorder.

The telephone rang twenty times. On the other end of the line someone was thinking that I live in an estate where it takes a long time to get from the stables to the telephone, or that I hesitate a lot before picking up the receiver. The latter, sadly, turned out to be the case.

It was Samuel Kramer. He had returned to Mexico City to write a report on violence. On his previous visit Kramer had traveled on the New Yorker’s dime. Now he was writing for Point Blank, one of those magazines where advertisers perfume their advertisements. It took him two minutes to explain that this constituted an improvement.

“Mexico is a magical country, but it’s also a confusing one. I need you to help me figure out what’s horrifying and what’s Buñuelian.”

Kramer pronounced the ñ luxuriously, as if he were sucking on a silver bullet, and offered me a thousand dollars. Then I told him why I was offended.

Two years before, Samuel Kramer had arrived to write the nteenth feature on Frida Kahlo. Someone told him I wrote screenplays for tough documentaries, and he paid me to accompany him through a city he considered savage and explain things he called mythical. He’d read a lot about the unhinged painting of Mexicans; he knew more than I about the Communist Party, the attempt on Trotsky’s life, and the tenuous romance between Frida and the exiled prophet. In a pedantic tone, he revealed to me the importance of “the wound as a transsexual notion”; the paralyzed painter was sexy in a “very postmodern” way. Needless to say, Madonna admired her without understanding her. Kramer had meticulously researched the archives; now he needed a contact who was ruggedly familiar with Frida Kahlo’s true country. In the days Kramer and I spent together, he saw Mexico as a nightmare devoid of folklore. He could not understand why the painter’s famed regional dresses could now only be found on the second floor of the Anthropological Museum, or why today’s Mexican women waxed that honest mustache that, by his lights, made FK a suggestive bisexual icon. It was of little help that the city contributed an environmental disaster to his report: El Popocatepetl renewed its volcanic activity, and we visited Frida’s manor under a shower of ashes. This allowed me to speak with very calculated nostalgia about the lost “region with the most transparent air.” I admit that I barraged Kramer with commonplaces and kitsch. But the fault was his: he wanted to see iguanas in the streets.

Mexico City was as disappointing to him as if he’d traversed a ceremonial site buried in trash and neon signs. When I introduced him to an expert in Mexican art he wanted nothing to do with him. That was when I had to quit: I could not continue in the company of a racist. Eri Morand is a black man from Senegal; he came to Mexico on a grant when President Luis Echeverría decided that our countries were very similar. He wears fabulous necklaces and gorgeous African tunics. “I have no use for this informant,” Kramer looked at me as if I trafficked in mistaken ethnicities.

I decided to put a stop to him: I asked for twice the money. He accepted and I had to scrounge for adjectives that would bring the deeper Mexico to light. I also introduced him to Gonzalo Erdiozabal. Here in Mexico, Gonzalo resembles an arrogant swashbuckler from 1940s Hollywood. In Austria, he had people revere him as Xochipili, presumed descendant of Emperor Moctezuma. Every morning he would arrive at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna dressed like an Aztec dancer, light tree resin incense, and collect signatures to help recover Moctezuma’s headdress. He obtained NGO funding and the unrestrained devotion of a mutable harem of blondes. Obviously, it would have been a tragedy for them to give him the headdress. He enjoyed the Moctezuma grant until nostalgia defeated him (“I miss the air that smells of gasoline and pork rinds,” he told me in a letter). During Kramer’s first visit, Gonzalo organized a rooftop fertility rite and took us to the hut of a fortune teller with vitiligo who made us chew sugar cane to scrutinize our destinies in the pulp.

Thanks to Gonzalo’s improvised traditions, Kramer found an authentic environment for his feature. The night we said our goodbyes, he drank one tequila too many and confessed that his magazine had given him enough money for a month. Gonzalo and I had let him investigate everything in a week. The next day he wanted to keep skimping: he decided the hotel van was too expensive and stopped a parakeet-colored Volkswagen on the street. The taxi driver took him to an alley and held an ice pick to his jugular. Kramer kept only his passport and plane ticket. His flight was cancelled, though, because El Popocatepetl erupted again and the ashes got in the airplane turbines.

Kramer spent his last day in the airport hotel, watching news of the volcano, terrified to go out into the hall. He told me to come see him. I was afraid he would ask me to return the money, but mostly I was afraid I would offer it. I pitied Kramer from a distance until he sent me his article. The title, of a dermatological vulgarity, was the least of it: “Eruptions: Frida and the Volcano.” The author described me as “one of the locals” and transcribed, with neither quotes nor scruple, everything I’d said. His article was a complete plundering of my ideas; its only originality lay in having discovered them (I only knew I had them when I read it). The piece ended with a sentence I’d spoken about salsa verde and the aching chromatics of Mexicans. They could have asked me for the article for half the price. But the magazine needed the award-winning signature of Samuel Kramer. Plus, I don’t write articles.

The star reporter’s return to Mexico put my patience and dignity to the test. How dare he call me?

“Sorry for not having mentioned you,” said Kramer at the other
end of the line, politely. I paused, as if I were thinking about something important.

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