In Mexico City, noise, like smog, means people, commerce, signs of life. There is safety in noise as there is safety in numbers. This is not an easy concept to embrace. On the block of my new apartment in the Centro, ambulantes, street vendors, blast music through stage-grade speakers from their enclosed market, from 11 in the morning to about 9 at night. Every day. The speakers are on the concrete sidewalk, facing the open air.
Early on, I debate whether I should go down to the guys who sell Shania Twain and Beyoncé, cumbias and reggaeton, Vicente Fernández and an audio English-learning program, and tell them, “Yo, guys, can you turn it down a little?” This is one option. My other option, I think, is to complain to my borough government, a very American gentrifier thing to do. But then, at the delegación they’d probably ask for my name, my address, and who knows what they might do with that information. I picture it somehow getting back to the mafias that run the street vendors—the D.F. government negotiated to get them into their new indoor spaces, off the sidewalks—and then somehow, in a not-so-nice way, it getting back to me.
My third option, the most winsome of all, would be to write them a clear, direct, handwritten note calmly asking if they would please not play their music at full blast all the time, maybe just downscale it a bit. I would sign the letter and slip it under the grates of their market in the middle of the night and wait for something to happen. It’s like something I would do if I were thirteen years old, but I’m desperate.
Shortly after I move in, I go next door to meet my neighbor, Osvaldo, an architect. With a simple hello he walks past me and heads to my apartment, just to check it out. It is empty except for my bed and desk.
“How do you deal with the noise?” I ask Osvaldo. “From the ambulantes?”
Osvaldo looks at me flatly. He says he read a book and took a course on how to disconnect himself from it.
I’m having a hard time disconnecting. The noise comes in every day as I settle in, invasive, unapologetic, mocking me. I ask the landlord, the licenciado, what he thinks about the noise when I go downstairs to pay my first full month of rent.
Well, he tells me, he tried to go over there to tell the guys there’s a lady in the building who is sick, and they don’t care. They just say they have to play it loud or else they don’t sell anything.
“It’s just the way it is,” Osvaldo says.
My friend Uriel concurs. “It would be like talking to a window.” It’s noisy, he admits, but at least it’s good noise. At least it’s decent music most of the time. I mean, music that when it comes on, you don’t 100 percent mind having to listen to it. Even “Feel Like a Woman.” At least it’s not nineties high-energy Mexican techno on loop or “Dance with the Devil,” or something awful like that.
Uriel is right. I have to learn to live with the noise. I have to realize that something about the racket is nourishing.
After smog, noise is the most prevalent pollutant in Mexico City’s air. Both have their obvious drawbacks but both also have their magic. When I lived in Los Angeles, the toxic coastal smog created some of the most spectacular and psychedelic sunsets I have ever seen. Here, in the high, landlocked capital, the smog sits on you but it also makes for dazzling skyspaces. Neon orange, electric gray, brilliant purples, and slanting pinks. I begin to consider the noise as a security blanket.
Silence is not to be trusted, because in Mexico City silence is insincere. The city never wants to be quiet. There is peace to be made with the noise. I now try to picture my square, little apartment as a magical, urban tree house hidden above a really exciting river of people and energy. There is magic on the streets, I tell myself. The hustle! The raw kernel of big-city life! Listening to Beyoncé or Wisin y Yandel blast through my bathroom window every day reminds me, of all things, that I live in Mexico City. That means a place in the world with too many people, too much pollution, and too much noise. It is a place, like so many others in the world, that runs on illegal street commerce, on pirated content, on pirates, like my fantasies of cities in Africa and India and the Middle East, and the borderless barrios that those places share with neighborhoods in London and New York and Chicago.
It is a truly cosmopolitan place because here, in the orbit of Tepito, every kind of film, concert video, or album, no matter how obscure, is within grasp, expanding our boundaries and influences.
More than extravagant parties or roaming mariachis, life in Mexico City means an English lesson on fruits and vegetables booming in my ears, supersize and out of my control, during my morning shower.
“Loco, you like Sublime, loco?”
I am in a living room above a busy lateral avenue in Mexico City’s Colonia del Valle, listening to Mexican and U.S. MCs on a two-turntable sound system that belongs to a graffiti writer with a few central interests: tagging, dogs, hip-hop, and maintaining anonymity. The graffiti writer is suspicious of any phone call and prefers that his name—even his tag—not be disclosed. His insistence makes him a bona fide graffiti fundamentalist, one who sees tagging as vandalism and vandalism as a form of anarchic resistance, one who moves about the city like a phantom, furtively leaving his markings in the night. When his friends drop in, they flip through magazines—about dogs, about weed, pornography catalogs—and discuss music, skating, and the North. A potbellied Rottweiler lies about, inhaling a cloud of sweet marijuana smoke.
Andrew, the graffiti writer’s friend who has just asked about my musical tastes (yes, I admit, I like Sublime), lived in Southern California for six months. He went north to skate and made money working at a Japanese restaurant and other odd jobs around Orange
County. “The skating over there!” he exclaims.
But even though Andrew wears a 2005 Dodgers opening-day T-shirt (bought at a tianguis in Mexico City), he says he’s glad to be back in Mexico.
“It’s crazy over there, vato!”
Andrew addresses me with cholo diminutives—vato, loco—terms of endearment and respect among the urban warriors of California’s barrios. I am not a cholo, but I am a Mexican American. My heritage is something people can almost smell on me here. It is a skin I cannot shed.
After three years in Mexico City, strangers on the street still call me güero—white boy. To capitalinos who know enough about what a U.S. upbringing produces—our manner of walking, for one, quick and exasperated, and our tentative Spanish, that pocho accent—I am a gringo regardless of how dark my skin might be. I am a Mexican gringo.
Güeros are regarded with some level of suspicion in Mexico City. Native capitalinos see us as cultural bastards. In the city of swindlers, people might also presume pochos pose an easy opportunity for some extra pesos. And if a Mexican gringo wears the uniform of a cholo, he has it even harder.
There’s a guy I run into a lot in the Centro, for example, who used to live in Compton. Let’s call him Joe. He has a single teardrop tattoo below his right eye, a symbol in some barrios that he has killed someone in his days banging. He says he was in the L.A. gang Florencia 13 and spent six years locked up in prison at Chino. He lost his girl and his kids and now lives here “in la Guerrero.”
Everywhere Joe goes looking for work he is turned away. He walks into businesses in the Centro, asking to speak with the owner or manager, and workers respond with fear upon their faces. “What do you want?” they ask.
Joe, who wears a long, gray sweatshirt with a fat, blue L.A. on his chest, says he doesn’t want to “fuck it up again.” He has a new lady and tells me he doesn’t want to be like those “fools” who get deported, as he did, after serving time in California, and just get right back into it—banging in Mexico, becoming transnational gangsters.
For a few months I see Joe work the entrance at a cantina, the only place that will hire him. He holds the doors open for people entering and leaving, making sure no one takes off without paying. He breaks up fights when necessary.
Outside the door of the cantina, I tell him that I used to live in L.A., and that I know his area, Compton, Inglewood, Long Beach.
“Cool, cool,” Joe says, and then gives me the handshake. The barrio instinct. Two hands clap, knuckles lock, one arm grabs the opposite elbow, opposite shoulders meet in a friendly bump.
I run into guys like Joe all the time. Booted from their homes in the U.S. to Mexico—a place where they might have been born but which has become foreign to them—they wear close-fade haircuts, baggy jeans, and L.A. caps and sweatshirts. Prison tattoos are often visible. Sometimes they end up selling candy on the metro.
Their presence in the D.F. is not exactly new, but their numbers have grown as deportations from U.S. prisons have risen sharply in recent years. And the cholo look predated the present wave of deportations.
Beginning in the 1980s, young guys in the outskirts of the city were drawn to the styles and cultures represented in popular U.S. movies about pachucos, gangsters, and life in the barrio: Zoot Suit, Colors, American Me, Mi Vida Loca, Blood In Blood Out. The cholo subculture then flourished in nearby Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl in the 1990s, when migrants began returning home after time spent in California, bringing their influence unfiltered by Hollywood directly to the streets of Mexico City. They formed Mexican copycat versions of some of the most fearsome pandillas from the North: Barrio Logan, the Mara Salvatrucha, Sur 13, the Latin Kings, and Florencia 13.
“These guys are responding to the binationality we are living in Mexico,” photographer Federico Gama tells me one day. “The border is no longer Chihuahua, Tijuana, Reynosa. The border is now all of Mexico. The border [came] to Mexico City, the heart of the country, and now there is a strong relationship with Los Angeles, with New York, with Chicago.”
In Cholos a la Neza: Another Identity of Migration, a photography and essay book by Gama and Pablo Hernández Sánchez, Gama’s images show a self-contained world populated by guys who look exactly like guys in California barrios—gang tattoos, Dickies slacks, tough poses, gang signs—in settings that appear completely transplanted from north of the border: Chicano murals, lowriders, tricked-out bikes.
“For them the American dream is not the same as you guys understand the American dream to be,” Gama says. “The American dream is coming back with Nikes, Dickies pants, jerseys, with caps, with tattoos. When they see someone like that, they go, ‘Orale, that’s a real gringo.’”
For those of us who are back and forth in our cultural stance and worldview, we can feel each other when our paths cross on the streets of D.F. No words are necessary. We move about Neza, Iztapalapa, Tepito. We sense and spot each other on the street, on the metro. We share a quick nod, a mutual regard, less amicable than respectful, vaguely competitive. Anywhere in Mexico, I know another barrio guy from the U.S. Southwest when I see one, even from behind. This is how Mexico City is making me more instinctively aware of my Californianess.
“What part of the U.S. are you from?” a girl asks me plaintively one night.
She is making a deep and accurate assumption; until now, not a word has been shared. I am with my friend Susana at our downtown bar in the alley near the mound of garbage. I tell the girl where I am from, and she just starts crying on me, there in the middle of the cantina, by the jukebox. She cries about how she misses her man on the other side. She holds on to me tight, clutching my shoulders, feeling for my California skin.
“There, there,” I say, holding her. For a moment, I am her transmitter, connecting her to her migrant husband, the man who left her behind.
It takes a tall Scandinavian woman with lanky features and a rough tenor of a voice to break down to me, finally, what it means for me to live in Mexico City.
It is early 2008. I’m wandering the desolate, gloomy streets of Colonia Roma, hoping to fight the wave of depression that comes with the dusk of Sunday, every Sunday, without fail, no matter what city I’m in. I meet up with Josh, a twenty-one-year-old student from Louisiana, and we talk about home, about graffiti, and our parents. We sit down for tacos on Álvaro Obregón, then find our way to his friend’s apartment, to sit around on leather couches and watch the TV show Dexter with subtitles on, except for the parts where the Cuban police officer throws Spanish into the dialogue.
We sip tequila and have popcorn and packaged chicarrón chips doused in lime and chile. When dusk has passed and I can walk home without too much Sunday gloom, I thank the hosts and get up to leave.
“And what’s with the English?” the tall Scandinavian woman, Josh’s friend, asks suddenly.
“It’s very good,” she says.
“Oh,” I respond. “I’m from California.”
“You’re not Mexican?”
She is genuinely confused.
“No, no, I’m Mexican American.”
“Ah! Well, you’ve come home,” she concludes happily.
“Well, no one in my family has been here,” I reply. “I’m the only one who’s made it here.”
Made it here. The words roll together and fly away. The girl smiles big, and when our cheeks meet in the customary good-bye kiss, she tells me, “Welcome home.”
Back I go to the sidewalks, toward metro Hospital General. The night is chilly, crisp, and still for January. I listen to the streets and walk steadily. I had been trying to communicate to Josh’s friend that I am not “home” because my family is not native to central Mexico, but to her it doesn’t matter. To her I am in my epicenter, the belly button of my ancestral homeland. She is proud for me.
I stroll down busy Cuauhtémoc, past the door at number 226, where I lived for a few weeks in summer 2002, three stories above the roaring boulevard, with two Scots and a Mexican from Torreón. I peer in. It looks the same, the heavy glass-and-metal door, the tiled art deco passageway, the box elevator and narrow staircase. I’d go up every night and sit on the porch and watch the river of traffic below and wonder what exactly I was doing here. Tonight everything is the same. The Scotiabank branch downstairs, the Sanborns café down the block, the stark hotel across the street, the Benidorm, still somehow in operation. The city has miles and miles of “passing-through” hotels. For lonely businessmen, hapless tourists, lunchtime trysts between married men and their mistresses, married men and their male lovers, drug deals, dying.
Walking to the metro station, I feel the flash of familiarity. The torta and taco stands, the homeless people begging for small coins, the reeking steam rising from vents leading to a subterranean nowhere.
This is home, the impossible megacity. Some find it in New York, some in Los Angeles, for some it is in Europe or East Asia. For some it is Mexico City. Walking here, I could be anywhere. Streets and people and sounds and bad smells. Sidewalk obstacles and sex shops. A new jetliner cruising down to earth on the established pathway overhead.
Megacities do not pretend to be pretty or picturesque, do not pretend to deny that ours is now a planet overrun by humans, and that humans are filthy and destructive creatures but are also prone to romancing one another. The megacity is the perfect place for romance. Romance between two people, between strangers exchanging quick looks on a platform. Romance for the entire tenuous proposal that is a global society.
On the platform at metro Hospital General, two teenage couples ravenously make out. On the train, an African man in hip-hop gear who must have teleported onto Mexico City’s Line 3 from the subway in New York or Paris nods in my direction. Easy listening plays softly from a few strategic speakers in the transfer corridors of metro Centro Médico. Then, in the Tacubaya station’s main transfer passage, three deaf people, one man and two women, happily chat to one another in Mexican sign language. They have found each other.
It is Sunday, so more love, more couples making out on the escalators up. Back on the surface, a costumed clown, in full makeup, heads home after a long day’s work. Clowns work parties, then drum up extra earnings performing wacky skits on the trains. The clown and I nod to one another when our paths cross. Everyone leaving the metro tonight is going along to the humid little boxes that we call our bedrooms, home, aware
that in the modern megacity the walls that separate our homes are membranes that only temporarily keep apart the millions and millions of people who must, at all times, breathe the same city air, eat the same city food, share the same treacherous city sidewalks, and
greet the same city clowns heading home on Sundays in red plastic noses and long floppy shoes.
Copyright @ 2011 by Daniel Hernandez. From the forthcoming book DOWN AND DELIRIOUS IN MEXICO CITY by Daniel Hernandez, to be published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Photo by Adam Wiseman
In the Heart of the Homeland
Jan 23, 05:48 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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