Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category
How on earth did I ever end up in, of all places, Tijuana? A question I ask myself all the time. But what else could I do? I can hardly walk except for a few steps, and this is the one place where I may find an inexpensive cure.
Before, I’d heard Tijuana described as “a hellhole” and “a den of vice,” a city of whores and drug dealers. Now, I’ve discovered the real Tijuana. Apart from being a tourist spot and red light border town, it also has a burgeoning middle-class with the same family values as any others. Just don’t get mixed up with shady characters and mind your own business. And better pretend not to know what your neighbors are up to.
In the afternoon, I rest on the balcony that runs around the building. On one side, shacks cover barren hills and, on the other, the elite inhabit white condos in a residential area way out of my league. Next to our building, a junkman has his yard piled with growing mounds of trash. I keep the window shut so that the giant cockroaches climbing up the wall don’t get in, but they drop off the roof at night onto my balcony and I have to sweep up their smashed corpses.
A burning odor from the mechanic’s shop hangs in the air adding to the stew of gasoline, tar, dirt, and fried food. In front, two neat little yellow middle-class homes stand side-by-side to the house where a drug dealer – a narco – plies his trade. I know because my neighbor overheard men knocking on the door and giving the password, “Es el mero-mero,” meaning, “It’s the big boss.”
I watch the goings-on in the drug dealer’s house below. It’s intriguing to have such a neighbor, almost as if I’ve become part of a secret and dangerous clan – if only by proximity. What does a Tijuana narco look like? A normal person? A gangster? A corrupt politico. No way to tell.
He’s had a busy afternoon; Friday is good for sales. By my count, the two men knocking on their door are numbers ten and eleven, and it’s only four p.m.
A car tears into the street and comes to a shrieking halt in front of his house. The driver jumps out and runs to the front door, making it inside just before another car zooms to a stop. Four men leap out brandishing shotguns and splatter the house with fire. Windows shatter behind iron bars. Someone inside retaliates and I hear bullets thunk the assailants’ car as they crouch behind it.
I have a balcony seat to the Wild West, Mexican style. A rival drug gang? No, probably cops. Maybe a raid. Like in a TV series.
“Salgan, hijos de la chingada!”
The men outside regroup and shred the door with gunfire, then use brute force to break it down. No more return fire from inside. From my vantage point, I see two narcos emerge behind the house. One jumps over a fence and disappears into the maze of backyards while another zigzaggs sideways and crosses into the junkman’s yard. Four attackers enter the house followed by shouts and gunshots.
Not a sound on the street and nobody sticks out a head to see what’s going on. Let the gangs kill each other or the cops catch the narcos; they don’t want to get involved.
I hear a scuffling sound at one side of the balcony. Next thing, a skinny young man is climbing over my railing; he’s managed to get up to my second floor. Looks like a teenager, trembling, tears in his eyes – one is bruised and half-closed, a finger across swollen lips for me to be quiet. Not scary enough for me to scream. Anyway, I’m not the screaming type. So I just watch as he crouches at the end of my balcony. A smell surrounds him in the dusty air, a smell of fear and sweat.
He looks too young to be a narco. But are they ever too young? Rather, he reminds me of those mangy curs that roam the city, stalking food, growling if you get too close or groveling if you give them something. He could be armed and dangerous, only he doesn’t look dangerous, more like vulnerable, standing in the shadowy part of my balcony so he can’t be seen from the street.
Maybe that’s why I don’t scream at him to go away or maybe it’s because I’m rarely afraid of anything. Not of bomb scares, or life-threatening accidents, or earthquakes, or machine gun assaults – I’ve experienced them all and more – and he’s just a narco teen on the run. Though for all I know, the young ones are the worst. Probably has a weapon tucked under his shirt.
He hangs back while two men from the car yell at each other, glancing up and down the street and no, please not at my building. Then their cohorts reappear dragging a couple of drug dealers. My mouth opens, in surprise that they caught them so fast.
The boy whispers, “Please, Señora, don’t you scream.”
I’m not about to. Those men are busy taking turns kicking the dealers though they are huddled over on the ground. Crunch, howl, crack, yelp. Cuss words. Screams, moans. I’ve seen scenes like this on TV, and they are bad men, but I scrunch up my body as if they were hitting me. When, finally, the men pull-drag the narcos into the car, I close my eyes and rub my head in relief. What will happen to them? Prison? Or bodies left in the desert for the vultures?
The boy sits on his haunches, back against the wrought iron railing. “What’s happening?” he asks, in the jerky voice of a nervous teenager caught in the act.
“You heard.” Why should I play lookout for a narco? Because he’s young and scared or because, in a way, he threatens me and I can’t move to help myself. “Looks like those men are taking them away. Who are they?”
“Cops – drug squad,” he said. “Bad men, cruel. Find us, hurt us, our families. Say they know things about us. I don’t want to tell them, Señora, but they force me.” That explains his swollen lips, half-closed eye and bitter fear odor. “They tell me if I not help them, they kill my sister – rape her first, my little sister, she only twelve.”
“The cops would do that?”
No expression, and his eyes are so dark that they aren’t giving away anything. “The drug squad. They all threaten, make you do what they want. No choice. I must get to el otro lado, los Estados Unidos, and hope they never find me.”
“What about your sister?”
“To save her, I tell them what they want. If I go away, they not hurt my family. I will pray to la Virgencita every day that they will be safe.”
“What if you get caught as an illegal and sent back?”
“They will kill me.” He glances around, up and down, reminding me of a trapped animal. “Senora, how I get out from here and they no see me?”
“Only through the front gate. Or the way you got in.”
“Perhaps over the roof and across there.” He points to the junkman’s yard and beyond, the mechanic’s shop.
We watch for about twenty minutes while the cops probably tear apart the drug house, finding or not finding whatever they are looking for. Obviously, they do because they haul out another man, and at last, take off in a swirl of dust and screeching tires.
“They’re gone,” I tell him. “Now, you can leave.” If he wants money, I don’t have much. Nor much of value here.
He must sense my thoughts. “Don’t be concerned, Señora. You save me from those hijos de puta and for that, I am in your debt. Before they arrive, we have a good day. I have cash.” He shows me his wallet, stuffed with bills, and pulls out, counting them, five hundred dollar notes. “Here, for your trouble.”
I stare at the money, speechless, then shake my head. No way. It’s drug money, blood money. Don’t even want to touch it. “Thank you,” I say, “but I can’t,” wishing for all the world that I could accept them. Get another cartilage shot. And another pain relief one.
“Are you sure, Senora?”
I manage a smile. “When you get to the other side,” I tell him, “no more drug dealing. If they catch you, they will send you back here.”
“I promise,” he says. “My cousin will give me a job in construcción.”
Maybe he just tells me this to please me. I’ve heard that once a narco always a narco and, as he turns to leave, I notice the gun – tucked into the side of his pants.
“Normal is in the eye of the beholder.” Whoopi Goldberg
My cultural heritage has certainly influenced my life. And I think most people would agree that their own has been important to their shaping and development, enriched their lives and often, led to their life decisions. However, sometimes having a mixed or multi-cultural background can be confusing and even disrupting.
Since I know it well, I’ll use my own life as an example.
I really don’t know where I belong.
The U.S., where I live now, is full of bi-cultural and multi-cultural people. I should fit in. Right? However, I have yet to find a demographic group where I do. My problem may be that I have a foot in each of my three countries, both ancestral and from living in them.
I’m a foreigner in all of my three countries but conversely, I also feel at home in all of them.
On the surface, my English side predominates. I was born there and my father was staunch middle-class. However, I only lived in England for fifteen years, in my childhood and as a young adult. I’m fair-haired (well, these days it’s L’Oreal) and blue-eyed. I speak English with a British accent that Americans think is “posh”. It opens many doors for me would be a great asset if I decided to be a con woman.
My mother was born in New York and her father came from a long line of New England stock, some of whom came over on the Mayflower’s fourth voyage while others were Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. Two of my ancestors fought in the War of Independence on the American side, which makes me a DAR (a Daughters of the American Revolution).
Actually, the country where I lived longest was in Mexico, during my adolescence, married life, and for years after I was divorced. My children were born there. My mother was half-Mexican, on her mother’s side. Two of my ancestors signed its Constitution.
I love telling people that I’m part Mexican and watching their reaction: some draw back in surprise (or horror?) and their next comment almost always is, “But, you don’t look Mexican.”
Another reason why I’m confused is because of my chronological back-and-forthing between my three countries:
• Childhood in a seaside village in Sussex, England – easygoing, quiet, Sunday afternoon tea and cake at English Granny’s.
• Switch to Mexico City at ten years old – Culture shock, different language, customs, large, noisy, dirty, Sunday afternoon lunch/meal at Mexican Granny’s.
• Fell head-over-heels for Mr. Blue Eyes and landed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Marriage and quicky divorce, college, sharing apartment with friends, summer in Maine.
• New York City – Lived it up every moment of the year I was there – Camelot, Moon River, The Fantasticks. Began career in advertising.
• London – Swinging Sixties. Settled into career as advertising exec with a stint as airline PR. Lots of travel, booze, and craziness.
• Mexico City again – Marriage to a Mexican, two kids, divorce, career flourished, forced early retirement, failed food business, broke.
• Santa Fe, New Mexico – House sitting in the mountains, writing book.
• Tijuana, Mexico – How the hell did I end up here? Couldn’t walk, stuck in son’s flat, writing book.
. Mexico City again. Operation made me ambulant. Happy to be home but decided to go to U.S.
• San Diego, California – Accidental landing. Became one of America’s working poor. Phone room researcher. “Just want to ask you a few questions. Please, don’t hang up!” New career in Hispanic research. Wrote book about making new start to be published late 2011. Economic slowdown. Currently pursuing new work paths.
I’m not Mexican though given all my years there, it’s a force to be reckoned with.
I can’t count myself as truly English anymore since I left many years ago.
Although I’ve adapted to the U.S. – more or less – I still hanker for Mexico.
So where will I spend the rest of my life?
Each of my three countries calls out to me. Maybe I’ll return to what I know. Or end up somewhere entirely different.
What about you? How has your cultural background influenced your life?
“Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” Mexican proverb
(This is a true story, excerpted from my, as yet unpublished, motivational memoir “Don’t Hang Up!” This piece appeared in the “Baja News” newspaper, in Commonties.com, in “On the Border” newsletter, and in this blog as “Incident on the San Diego-Tijuana Border.”)
“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
The border shuttle bus from the U.S. is crammed with Mexican housekeepers, schoolchildren, and construction workers exuding the odors of physical labor and exhaustion.
Three men jump on and stand in the aisle. Muscular, clean-faced, with shaven heads, easily recognizable as American service men. One, older, has the bellicose eyes and stance of a soldier who’s seen too much action. Powerfully built, though more flab and gut, he lets out a huge belch.
Their voices are so loud that everyone can hear them. They’re marines on a Friday night outing to Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana. One, surprisingly, has a Scottish brogue, and he addresses the older man as Captain. From what they say, I gather the subordinates are accompanying the Captain for an obvious reason: he’s been drinking – heavily.
As the shuttle makes its way through jammed border traffic, the Captain blares, “Can’t wait to get my hands on some big Mexican titties and f… a couple of cunts.”
The Scottish marine says, “Captain, please, there are women and children here.”
“Who gives a f… for the shit suckin’ bitches? They don’t understand nothin’.”
As he continues in this vein, the Captain’s befuddled mind and clouded eyes fail to notice another Anglo passenger. Me. Or would it make a difference?
The woman beside me asks, “Señora, you speak English, try and calm him down.” The one in the seat behind says, “Please, he’s frightening my daughter,” and she covers the little girl’s ears.
Others turn, as if expecting me to tell him off. Because I’m Anglo? Or because most of them. dependent on hard-to-get U.S. work permits and bullied by authority figures on both sides of the border, have learned to turn the other cheek.
Why should I have to be the one to confront the Captain? I don’t want to enrage him more, and I doubt that anyone here would support me against what they must see as as a mad-as-a-rabid-dog gringo. How to reason with a big, drunken bully, frothing with booze and contempt? His men should handle him. I catch the eye of the Scottish marine and mouth, “Please do something.”
He tries. “Sir, you’re scaring the passengers. The women and children.”
The Captain glares at us. “These lousy sacks of shit? They can go f… themselves. All Mexicans are good for.”
My image of the military was forged by my naval commander father. A captain is someone to respect. Not a rowdy, foul-mouthed, offensive individual. His behavior would get him evicted from American public transportation, but not from a Mexican shuttle, though technically, we’re still on American soil.
Heat rises in my face as I fight the urge to stand up, tell him to mind his manners, and uphold the honor of his rank. Why bother? He’s not actually threatening anyone, and this ride will be over in ten minutes.
Then he mentions one particularly nauseating thing he intends to do to a Mexican puta. Something so unmentionable that I’ve never heard it uttered out loud before.
The words fly from my mouth before I can hold them back. “Captain, stop insulting Mexicans.”
He turns, his eyes filled with anger as he marks me as the one who spoke. The passengers huddle against each other or back into their seats. I’m on my own, facing this Goliath on a rampage.
“What did you fuckin’ tell me to do?” His bellow is a challenge.
“Stop insulting Mexicans.” Armed with bravura, I tell him, “And get off the bus before we cross the border. Who wants you in Mexico?”
“Who do you think you are, the fuckin’ high-and-mighty Queen of England bitch?”
Fueled by alcohol and marine machismo, he advances on me, arm raised to punch me. I brace myself, tightening my fist. If I have to, I’ll whack him first, right in his gut.
In a blink, the two marines grab him and shuffle him up the narrow aisle towards the front.
“C’mon, Captain, let the lady be,” Scotty says.
“What lady? That dried-up old bitch,” he yells.
His men have him corralled at the end of the shuttle so rather than Mexicans, I become his verbal target. His stream of abuse falls with the impact of invisible stones crashing against me. I sit ramrod straight, not daring to contest him again, as he continues without letup until we reach downtown Tijuana.
The marines are the first off the shuttle. Several passengers say, “Gracias,” to me as I get down. The Captain staggers away with the two service men in tow.
So I’m surprised to see Scotty come back and tell me, “Sorry about the Captain. He’s not himself today. Just suffered a big personal loss.”
“He’s out of control,” I say. “I’d like his name to report him.”
“I can’t do that, ma’am. They’d have me balls for breakfast.” He pleads like a kid barely out of school. “He’s an officer and it would mean big trouble for us for not keeping him in order.”
“Isn’t it your duty?”
“I wish I could help you, ma’am, but it’s not my place.” And he hurries after the lout, his senior officer.
Next day, I ask a co-worker, a former marine, what can I do to report the captain for unseemly conduct.
“Stay out of it.” He warns. “The marines don’t like civilians getting involved when an officer’s misbehaved.”
I’d like to believe that sooner or later, the Captain will get what he deserves – lose his men’s respect and tarnish his image – but things don’t work that way, and I rather doubt it.
I do have one weapon that I could use to get back at him. As the saying goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Let’s see if that’s true.
I’d love to hear from you. How would you react in a similar situation?
“I speak of our public history, and of our secret history, yours and mine,
I speak of the forest of stone, the desert of the prophets, the ant-heap of souls, the congregation of tribes, the house of mirrors, the labyrinth of echoes.” Octavio Paz
The home where I’m staying in San Angel in Mexico City is filled with memorabilia and antiques – a blend that makes me feel as if it’s inhabited by figures of the past. I’m surrounded by colonial religious icons and antiques as well as a wall collage of photos of ancestors. Six generations of brides, from my great-great grandmother to my niece, gaze down at me. Proud mothers oversee small children long grown and gone.
The echoes of their lives seep into me and fill me with nostalgia for when they were here.
San Angel, a former colonial village in the southern part of Mexico City, is reminiscent of a bygone era, with narrow, cobbled streets lined with town house fronts that often disguise stately residences. However, modern day has leaped in with a vengeance on the main street, Altavista, dotted with exclusive restaurants and designer name boutiques. One jewelry store, in a mansion surrounded by a large garden, reeks of wealth and splendor. What kind of extraordinary jewelry is sold in such a setting?
“I speak of the markets with their pyramids of fruit, all of the flavors and colors, the smells, the tide of voices – water, metal, wood, clay – the bustle, the haggling, the conniving as old as time.”
The two sides of Mexico are evident where, just a few blocks further on, I walk into the San Angel market, selling everything from cheap clothing to stinky, highly flavored, cooked meat taco stands.
It took fifteen minutes on foot to scale the socio-economic ladder.
“I speak of the buildings of stone and marble, of cement, glass and steel.”
I walk along the 19th century boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, towards downtown on a Saturday afternoon. Both sides are like small parks, tree-lined with spacious walking paths.
Some sights, such as the bicycle lane with families cycling down it, are new. (On Sundays, this main street is closed to all traffic except for cyclists.)
Other sights such as the high-backed, carved stone seats, have been there over a hundred years. My great-grandparents would have passed them in their carriage. My grandparents probably sat on them, as did my mother, and my younger self as a child.
Sadly, one by one, the gracious Victorian mansions on this avenue have succumbed, and been turned into 30-50 story financial and bank buildings. I count seven – maybe a couple more – of what I think of as the “old ladies” left, and these have been turned into banks, real estate offices and – horrors – an Oxxo store (similar to a 7-11).
Echoes follow my steps. Mine – as a child, an adolescent, a young woman walking along this avenue.
All the streets on one side of Reforma are named after rivers. I lived in four: Rio de la Plata, Rio Nilo, Rio Tigris, and Rio Guadalquivir.
My mother’s friend, a former Italian countess, owned the red, Moorish style house on the corner of Rio Nilo. A gracious house with marble floors, intricate curves and steps, and sudden specks of sunlight darting across mosaic walls, it was hushed and gloomy except for the garden, a place of enchantment out of the Alhambra.
Now it’s a Uruguayan restaurant, confirmed by boisterous voices and the smell of roasting meat. This former residential street is also home to restaurants of all types and ethnicity, even a Bread & Cie.
I glance at my former apartment across the street. What used to be the bedroom that I shared with my new baby is now a candy and soda pop store.
Echoes of our laughter follow me as I walk away.
On the corner of Rio Guadalquivir street is a slightly shabby building, a remnant of the 1950s.
The first condominium in Mexico.
How my great aunt sniffed at the idea that her close friends, Mexican film director Fernando de Fuentes and his wife, Elena, had bought one. “They won’t even own the ground they live on.” There, I gave my first English lessons to their granddaughters. It was two-floor splendor with all the latest in architectural advances. Today, it’s been divided into offices.
Further along this street is the ground floor apartment where I lived as a young married woman. The door is open so I glance inside. A real estate office.
Flashes of faces. Newborn baby. Little boys. Working mother. Days of wine and roses. All of us feasting on our youth. Where are they/we now?
All echoes of this city.
I have become the past, a walking relic of this city’s history.
Or have I?
On to Sanborns at Reforma and La Fragua, the second in this restaurant chain to be built after the traditional “House of Tiles” (1903) downtown. A hangout for young people in the 1950s and 60s. It always reminded me of my secret dates here with my first husband, Mr. Blue Eyes. I used to know my way around it, blind. Now, the whole layout has changed and I scramble to locate my friends. They, like me, are former high-flying professionals. Now in their sixties, they have found new opportunities in Mexico. They tell me what I’ve heard from others: there’s a big demand for bilingual, bi-cultural people like us with our skills and experience.
“Come back, Pennie. This is where you belong,” they say.
Do I want to become part of this city’s present and then of its past, again?
What do you think? Would you return to your past to make a new start?
“Is that music coming closer or receding, are those pale lights just lit or going out? Space is singing, time has vanished: it is the gasp, it is the glance that slips through the blank wall, it is the wall that stays silent, the wall.”
Excerpts from “I Speak of the City” by Octavio Paz
A honk, a shout, and I turn to see a car hurtling straight at me. One second and two steps back, and the car brushes by me.
What the hell? The light was in my favor. That car ran a red light and didn’t even slow down when I stepped off the curb.
I stumble across the street, thinking in Spanish, “No me tocó” – “It’s not my turn.”
A few more paces and I stop, tears in my eyes.
God, I’m angry, but at myself.
Here I am in Mexico City, where I lived for most of my life, acting like a blind tourist.
I’ve been away too long and become used to American ways.
Before, I knew drivers here don’t give a damn about pedestrians. People on foot, considered the lower order of beings, are the ones supposed to watch out. In those days, I always had a car. The only place I ever walked was to the supermarket two blocks away, and my high heels were a major impediment.
These days, I don’t wear heels, and I walk everywhere I can. For me, walking in Mexico City is both entertaining and a chance to revisit old haunts and renew memories.
I look up and see that I’m standing in front of a house that I once knew well. There, I met my first husband, an American who looked like a young Clint Eastwood with startling blue eyes. At seventeen, I was no match for his brash come on. We were married and I went to live in the U.S.
Then I found out his export business was not Mexican curios.
Bye, bye youthful dreams, but at least I’d got away from Mexico City, a place I’d wanted to leave almost from the day I arrived.
I first came – or was brought – to live in Mexico City when I was ten years old. Even in the fifties, this overcrowded metropolis was a shocking contrast to my seaside village in England. An ocean away, another continent, another culture. From a cool, clean climate to a hot, smelly one.
That move cost me my home, my father, my school, my friends, and my cultural identity. Letters from England took three weeks to a month to arrive, phone calls were too expensive to consider, and a trip “home” cost a small fortune.
I hated the food, the dusty odor that hung over the city, my grandparents’ home with its marble floors and high ceilings – the complete opposite of our comfy abode in England. I hated the kids at school, and the school, and Spanish – those yammering sounds – so much that I refused to utter more than the most basic words for one year.
If I didn’t learn to speak Spanish, for certain I’d be sent back to England.
All that happened was I got poor grades in school and nobody wanted to be my friend. Not that I cared. I didn’t want to make friends anyway.
After a year, my mother divorced my father and found a poor choice as a replacement.
Mexico became the home that I couldn’t wait to get away from.
After discovering Mr. Blue Eyes’ true occupation, I returned to England to find myself a foreigner in my own country. But I regained my father, my British accent, and even a former school friend, and in time, became a true Londoner of the sixties.
I’d have remained in England all my life, but circumstances drew me back to Mexico City. I meant to stay for two years, make a lot of money (in dollars vs. a low wage in English pounds), and get ahead in my chosen career – international advertising. Instead, I met my second husband, had two kids, and stayed another thirty years. While my kids grew up, I had a wonderful life, a high-flying career in a top ad agency, a beautiful home full of laughter, and many enduring friendships.
In those years, Mexico City became “home” for me.
Despite this, I missed the English-speaking world, one where I’d not be a foreigner.
So, in my fifties, after a forced early career retirement, I moved to San Diego, California. Ten years later, I had a comfortable existence with plenty of freelance work and time between jobs to pursue my writing.
To my surprise, I was homesick for Mexico. I missed my many friends, my Mexican family, the food, and even its craziness. Then I’d come to Mexico City to visit and I’d miss my easy going lifestyle, newfound friends, and my family in the U.S.
“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” Maya Angelou
Am I like my half-American mother who grew up in Mexico, went to college and lived in New York until she met my father who took her to live in England? She was always saying how much she missed Mexico. After she returned, she hankered for anything English, missing everything except for the weather. For the rest of her life in Mexico City, she complained about “this country” and how much she wanted to return to “her” country, the U.S.
Mexico contains many of my memories, and much of my past.
In the U.S., I’ve carved out a new life, I’m forging new memories, and a future – but I miss the warmth of the familiar.
Or is home wherever I am?
What do you think?
I’d love for you to give me your opinion in the Comments section below.
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