I’m staring out the window of descending flight six sixty seven. The enormous city below could be no other. Mexico City, El Distrito Federal, Tenochtitlan, DF, a chaotic collage of color and concrete that swallows the desert floor, a seemingly endless improvisation of architecture, a hyper metropolis slowly sinking in a lake, even from above one can recognize the contrast between developed and undeveloped worlds that inhabit this place. A Famous blanket of smog hovers like the shadow of an Aztec priest. I’ve come seeking words for a city that defies description. I’ve come to dance with twenty million strangers. I’m only here to meet the monster. I’ve come to see if it wants to give me a name.
The violence and ingenuity, the faith and generosity, the challenges and rewards of people living here provide an endlessly inviting canvas for the most vibrant paints of imagination. From the first steps out of the airport and into the streets I feel a palpable sense of struggle both familiar and foreign to my understanding of the human condition. I reach for my notebook to scribble this naïve observation, “it’s only dangerous because it’s so fucking sweet. Dangerous only because the balance of power has to be redefined.”
Navigating the metro system in a city of twenty million inhabitants can be a dizzying prospect. Riding trains at rush hour is like being at a maximum capacity punk show. The moment the door of an approaching train is opened I am pushed inside by a stampede of hopeful riders, all of us maneuvering and contorting our bodies to conform to the mosaic of humanity already inside, no one with an inch of space to call his own. If a passenger absolutely does not fit into this comical jigsaw puzzle, he is pushed out of the car back into the station to await the next train among a curious cast of characters, cops, cripples, beggars, buskers, children selling chocolates, inconspicuous pickpockets, overly conspicuous mariachis and always a pair of teenage lovers, entwined in hopeful embraces, soaking up hours of promise before submitting to the madness around them, all the necessity and absurdity of being, No one with an inch of space to call his own.
Stepping out of the catacombs of the station I become absorbed in the labyrinth. Crooked hunchback buildings tattooed with catholic saints surround me. The cacophony of solicitations from an informal economy, certain as a sunrise. I am anonymous in a sea of secret brown faces. The delicious scent of onions and chorizo mix with the acid odor of exhaust fumes and sewers. Although my Spanish is limited, I read the language of the streets. With our eyes, we all must learn to speak the language of living things. An amputee juggles oranges for a few pesos at a stop light. Three business men exit a limousine outside an immaculate 4 star hotel. Street dogs rummage through the trash. This is the language of living things.
In the Plaza de Garibaldi, mescal runs through my brain like a polluted river. I float passed an army of sequined mariachis toward a cantina, so dimly lit, it appears to be in black and white. I stumble to the bar and trip over a few rehearsed lines. Mescal. Even among the laughter and drunken congeniality there hangs the unmistakable essence of sorrow. I move like a shadow into the corner to watch the life in front of me. Every 15 minutes or so two heavily made up working girls with bodies shaped like tamales come into the cantina and attempt to lure one of the patrons into the back room. Soon it comes my turn to receive the invitation. She introduces herself as Marta Elaina and feigns a seductive smile which aside from the insincerity is even less effective due to the absence of several crucial teeth. I decline as politely as I can and head back into the night. The streets of the centro are silent. Ive forgotten what silence is like. Looking around, there is a still a profound sense of the old city. Some history refuses to be buried. I walk through the night. I buy a black rosary from the last remaining street vendor at the Zocalo.
April 14, 2015