Chilangolandia is slang for Mexico City, one of the largest urban centres in the world and my second home. I love this city as much as it infuriates me, and in this travelogue I want to share my fascination and frustrations as a traveller, researcher, and resident of the capital. The following reflections are based upon my mental, visual, and written “field notes” between 2003 and the present. My aim is to capture how Mexico—its people, food, customs, and material culture—has transformed me as an individual together with my understanding of the past. Encounters with everyday objects, getting married, working on construction projects, taking public transportation, observing religious and civic festivals, obtaining my son’s birth certificate, and entering the interior of Catholic shrines have all forced me to reconsider my vision of history and what it means to be human. Mexico City is indeed wonderfully layered in “thick description” for the attentive ethnographer and rich in culinary pleasures for the weary traveller.
I. THE TIGER OF THE NORTH
My first experience of Mexico was a border crossing on a family road trip through the American Southwest. I was only twelve at the time, so there are only a few things I remember about the drive. My father parked his 1987 Pontiac Grand Prix in the parking lot of a shopping centre and the four of us—my parents, my brother, and I—walked over the Mexico-US border. I do not remember exactly where we crossed, but I do recall being bombarded by vendors trying to convince my mother that she needed some new jewelry. I was fascinated by this experience, thrilled by both the material objects up for grab and the men and women trying to sell us things.
With a few dollars earned from my paper route and masonry work with my father, I set my sights on a porcelain souvenir: a statue of a tiger that, for some reason, I have been unable to part with. I had it in my room as decoration for a time and then my mother used it as a door stopper. When I finally got married and moved out of my parents’ home, the tiger accompanied me to our apartment on Garnet Street where it watched over the garage and collected its fair share of dust. And then when we finally bought our first home on Dolphin Circle, the beast escorted us to the north end of St. Catharines. It now stands on guard in the shed, shinning its teeth at me every time I take out the lawn mower to cut the grass. The dictator Porfirio Díaz, as he departed Mexico for exile in Europe, is claimed to have said that “Madero has released a tiger, let us see if he can control it.” I am still trying to control mine.
II. FORTY-FIVE TOPES
There were 45 topes (speed bumps). I counted every last one of them as I travelled from Mancha III, my colonia (neighbourhood) in Naucalpan, to the first metro stop on the blue line, Cuatro Caminos. Every five metres, give or take, we passed over a heaping mound of asphalt. The eleven of us, packed into the back of a combi (small compact van), unceremoniously swayed back and forth like disoriented cattle, holding on for dear life to whatever we could find: windows, handrails, the ceiling, our seats. At times we allowed ourselves to be gently propped up by our fellow travellers to softly take each rickety blow, caused by reckless gear shifting, winding curves, and potholes.
It took thirty minutes to get from la base (the beginning and ending of a route) in the State of Mexico to the metro station on the edges of Mexico City, a swerving road of only 11 kilometres through rolling hills of concrete, cinder blocks, and squalor. I took this same route on a daily basis for 9 months in the early 2000s, and since I needed to return to my place of residence I had to pass over those 45 topes all over again, bringing my daily total to 90. This number, however, only reflects my short commute from home to the metro system. After I got off the metro to get to my next destination, I needed to roll over several more of these unnatural and poorly painted protrusions on the road. Every day I did battle with perhaps 150 topes, which means that in a given week I felt 750 beneath my feet. At the end of each month my count was up to 3000, and when I finally left Naucalpan for the southern part of Mexico City my grand total was 27 000. I am only talking about my weekday experiences of Mexico City and the surrounding parts of the capital.
Topes are omnipresent in Mexico, stretching from the southern parts of the republic to the northern regions along the borderlands. Throughout my travels I have encountered topes in parking lots, side roads, major roads, alleyways, and even in the middle of highways in the countryside. In every major city and small pueblo there are topes of many sizes and spread apart by varying distances.
Very shortly after my arrival to Mancha III, I began to ask several people why there were so many topes in Mexico. Actually, it would be more truthful to say that I complained about the inordinate amount of these pesky bumps. The answer that I invariably received was that without topes the roads would become reckless and lawless zones of anarchy similar to parts of the Mexican countryside in the nineteenth century. Regardless of age, class, and gender drivers would pay no heed to traffic signs and limits of velocity. As I witnessed several combi drivers racing their vans to be the first to touch the next tope, dangerously passing one another as if they were at the Indy 500, I began to understand some of the replies I received to my early inquiries.
Topes are an entry point into big city life in one of the largest urban centres of the world, but they were also a key entry point for me into the cultural history of Mexico. Nothing but asphalt inelegantly plopped onto the ground, but each tope has an important story to tell about the Mexican past. I am glad that I had to pass over 45 of them, and even more thankful that I counted every last one of them.
III. SCRUBBING INTO THE PAST
Doing laundry is not much of a chore for me. It is the folding that I hate more than anything. Chucking a heap of sweaty, smelly, and dirty clothes into a white machine; adding a bit of detergent and fabric softener; slamming the lid shut and spinning that clicking dial is a piece of cake. Thanks to modern technology I no longer need to take out a wooden scrub board and homemade soap to wash my clothes by hand as my ancestors did several generations ago.
Living in Mexico made me feel as though I had stepped back in time. Instead of arriving to a laundry tub and washing machine, I encountered the lavadero. Most homes, restaurants, places of business, and markets have lavaderos for cleaning purposes. They are used to clean hands, brooms, rags, and, of course, your clothes. On the one side sits a basin of water with a drainage hole; on the other is yet another drain at the bottom of a piece of slanted and smoothly polished corrugated concrete.
During my engagement to Cynthia, I had to use my mother-in-law’s washing station to clean my shirts and pants. That there was a lavadero there did not surprise me. I understood its practicality. That there was a washing machine there did not surprise me either. But when I discovered that this machine only did one cycle, forcing me to finish the rest with the lavadero, I was not amused. I did not have to suffer this unfortunate situation for too long. Cynthia and I finished our place relatively quickly, and I made sure that we had our own washing machine that did not need my unwilling services.
At first it was difficult for me to understand why my mother-in-law, who could clearly afford another machine like the one Cynthia and I had purchased, continued to use this outdated model which forced her to scrub away on the lavadero. But after watching her in action over the years, I came to see the lavadero in a new light. When my mother-in-law washes her clothes it is an entire ritual in which the sacred and profane converge; the past and the present seamlessly merge.
Like many of her generation, she came from a large family and as a result was forced to move from her pueblo in Durango to the capital. She arrived as a teenager to Mexico City and made a life for herself. Owning property was among her greatest ambitions, and so together with my father-in-law she purchased a small home on a substantial lot in the south, transforming it over the years with several additions and surrounding it with a wall of volcanic rock. Her washing station sits at the bottom of the patio with a large window overlooking it, providing her with a view of her flowering bugambilia and colourful garden filled with cactus, trees, and flowers.
In front of this oasis, perched in the middle of a concrete and volcanic desert of Coyoacán, my mother-in-law washes her clothes on her lavadero, similar to the way she would have when she was younger. With every dip of her bowl and stroke of her clothes she sings. At times she belts out a popular corrido and at others times she sings a chorus from church. Every so often, when she pauses for a well-deserved break, she gazes out into her garden and, I presume, is transported back to the pueblo she left behind in the 1960s. Modern technologies are faster, but they are by no means “superior.” My washing machine is more efficient, but it does not have the power to take me anywhere.
IV. GOING HOME
I know the route pretty much by heart. When I leave our casita in the colonia Ajusco, I need to take Avenida Aztecas to División del Norte, merge onto Tlalpan, and then follow the calzada along the blue subway line until I reach the Avenida Rio Churubusco. This avenue, through various bends, turns, and name changes eventually leads me to the airport in the northeastern part of the city. Without traffic I can make it there in roughly twenty-five minutes, but with traffic my time is doubled.
What is fascinating about this route is that there is an airport sign on Avenida Aztecs in the southern part of the city. It is the only sign of its kind on the aforementioned route until one draws closer to the airport itself. On this sign there is no indication where the airport might be, how many kilometres to get there, or if the airport is in the northern, eastern or southern part of the city. In fact, the green airport sign on Avenida Aztecs only says the word “Aeropuerto” in capital white letters with an accompanying arrow.
This sign puzzled me greatly. I asked a few of Cynthia’s relatives if the sign served a specific function, and they all agreed that it didn’t. Then, after taking a picture of the sign at a red light on my way to the airport, I needed to explain my actions to my taxi driver. He agreed that the sign only helped those who already knew where they were going. But some urban planner felt the need to put up a sign that is of no help to anyone, both foreigners and locals.
After years of travelling in Mexico I have come to realize that the four cardinal points are not regularly employed in the country. Mexicans, at least according to my experience, generally like to give directions using physical cues and the number of blocks (cuadras) to lead you to your final destination. Outside of Mexico City, the capital is often the principal point of reference for travellers. One can find a sign pointing to the capital in the middle of cities (not the highways) such as Taxco, Guerrero, situated 174 kilometres away from the District Federal, and Guadalajara, Jalisco, which is as far away as 537 kilometres. My sister-in-law told me that there was a sign pointing to Xochimilco, a delegation in the southern part of the capital, on the highway close to the toll booth for Tepotzotlán, which lies to the north of the capital in the Estado de México.
When I was in Chihuahua, I remember an Old Colony Mennonite noting how signage on American highways was guided by points of the compass, something that, according to his experience, was not the case in Mexico. This may be true, but most people in both countries always find their way home.
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