(Note: This first appeared in Under Hwy 99 issue 1.2)
I had gone to Mexico to become Mexico.Gorged on novels and histories, I caught a bus heading out of Tijuana to the real Mexico, as I saw it, armed with a pack, an unread guide book, and one idea: get yourself to Mexico City. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there; the city was a place I only knew at a distance, but which I was sure I belonged, a place of promise. Mexico City, too, was an act of penance, a travelers debt, for I had lived in Mexico for six months when I was fifteen and learned little more than restaurant Spanish. Sure, I knew how to get a Coke, but I wanted more.
I had actually been there once before, not that I’d seen much of it. It was the same trip when I was fifteen and we were driving through the city pulling a twenty foot trailer—I don’t know why we couldn’t go around, but through it we went. To be fair we were supposed to be on the periphery road, but it had long been swallowed by the ever growing neighborhoods, so we quickly found ourselves amongst neighborhood streets. It was then the panic set in and my parents, as they tried to head south, became like scared tourists. Every little curve in the road that seemed to suggest we would no longer be going South, but some unknown neighborhood, sent them into a tizzy. Apparently, where we came from roads don’t curve, because they didn’t appreciate it much when I pointed out that the road might be making a slight adjustment. If nothing else this trip, I could see if roads do curve.
It was a two day trip by bus that occasionally stopped at the lonely, rural truck stops, but otherwise it was a dull and dry journey. The ride did give me enough time, though, to meet Ling, a woman from Singapore who was an avant-garde poet that loved William Carlos Williams and carried a pack that must have had twenty-five pounds of books in it. I think she had more books than clothes. Also on the bus was a Filipino, Jo Jo, who was serving in the US Navy to get American citizenship and had come down for a few days of leave. When we finally did get to Mexico City we decided to search for a hotel together and share rooms to save money, and after a half hour of guidebook lead searching we found a hotel in an old colonial building a block or two from the Zocalo, the heart of the city.
We didn’t waste much time in our rooms before we headed down to the café next door for something to eat. It was a big but narrow place that snaked back and up into crevices of tables. In the front window were the rolls and pan dulce I had eaten so often when I was younger and I was instantly flooded with memories of sweet rolls covered in lattices of brightly colored sugar. This was what I had been waiting for, the enchiladas, the tamales, the café con leche, all those dishes I knew so well and had eaten all through Mexico and whose flavors had so little to do with those abominations in the states that served up the greasiest, cheese laden insult to Mexican cooking. I was starving. I hadn’t really eaten during the ride—just a few crackers I had bought in San Diego and what a young Mexican (with whom I foolishly later turned down an offer to stay at his home) had offered me out of pity: perhaps I had been exercising a little too much caution with my food. I ordered tamales oaxaqueños and a Coke—one of hundreds yet to come. I still savor unwrapping the pale green banana leaves, still slightly moist from the steam, and piercing the soft and tender masa that tasted rich, impregnated with the dark chicken filling, neither spicy nor burning, but with a slightly nutty flavor. Maybe it wasn’t the best tamale, but I knew I had arrived and there was only more to come.
The next day I awoke as Ling was pounding on the door, shouting for Jo Jo and I to wake.
I was slow to rise—it might have been 10:30—but already I could smell the dry, almost dusty air, and the ever present diesel. We got up and followed her to the room of an older Mexican woman whose windows overlooked the street below. As I approached I could hear cheering and clapping and shouting coming through the large sun filled windows. When I got to the window I could see the head of a great parade that was making its way towards the Zocalo. All along the route, in windows, on balconies, on roofs, people were watching the parade pass below, and the streets were filled with families and kids and hawkers and people intent on catching every last detail, some dressed well, some not, but all crowded on to the narrow and warn flagstone sidewalks.
I’d never been much for parades—they’re usually celebratory of things I don’t care about—but this one was different. It had the feel of a home town parade in a small city, where the clothing is Sunday best, the cars were loaned for the day, and the celebrities would, at the end of the parade, slip back into the ordinary. Except, of course, this was in the biggest city in the world and they were celebrating the most important holiday, el vente de Noviembre, the anniversary of the 1910 Revolution. So instead of a half an hour of waving at those you know, a seeming endless procession of people came by. There were the school kids in their clean uniforms, marching seriously, eyes forward, well drilled in the importance of the event; marching soldiers and smartly dressed cavalry, and more kids, and, of course, flags. What fascinated me the most, though, were the boys dressed in black boots, dark blue pants, white shirts, and carrying 8 inch bayonets. They marched in formation as if they were from a military college. When the parade paused they broke formation and setup to do stunts while holding the bayonets. In one instance two boys lay on the ground and held crossed bayonets above their chests while others would jump over them, landing on their hands and jumping up after a complete 360 on the pavement. I couldn’t imagine students of even the most martial school in the states doing that.
We watched this for a good couple hours, drinking in the immensity of it and when the streets had cleared we walked among the litter: snack wrappers, hand bills, political fliers, straws and empty plastic bags that the soda vendors hand out. It was not long, though, before the taxis overtook the streets again and life returned to normal.
I’m not sure what time it was but we were coming back from the direction of Parque Alameda, heading towards the Zocalo and our hotel, when we heard chanting. As we walked it grew louder, but it wasn’t sitting still, it was moving, and as we passed through intersections it grew even louder so you had the impression you were right amongst it. It was obvious it was just one block over and at the next intersection we took a cross street that dropped us in front of a great rush of people coming at us. It was exciting, surprising, and slightly unnerving as I didn’t know what it was for. The lead group was carrying a banner with the PRD logo, but this was the first time I’d heard of them. I knew the PRI, the ruling party, and PAN, the conservatives, and I’d even seen communist party logos in Baja years before, but I didn’t know this one. The marchers had massed across the street so it was impossible to walk with them without getting swept up in their rush of shouts, the signs with the PRD logo, the hand written slogans, and the images of Zapata, usually just the black silhouette against a red back ground that carried a Che-like aura. Everyone seemed to be dressed in white, or maybe just the front group, but no matter the number you had the sense of continuity between the followers of Zapata and those in the street. Between the quick march and the passionate chanting I felt an anger and a desire for action, a desire I had never seen before. It was exciting just to be in amongst the mix and I must have known they were against the PRI somehow and it made the march all the more exciting since the PRI stood for everything bad in a one party state.
As we walked along with the marchers I explained to Ling and Jo Jo what the banners meant, who Zapata was, and Ling, the good socialist she was, was instantly excited by the struggle. When the last of the march roared by we fell in behind, not chanting (what could we add?) but following in spirit, in young solidarity, tasting the excitement and adventure, smiling at each other and knowing this was something—only our second day in Mexico City and how much better could it get? We didn’t know where the marchers were going, but anywhere would have been okay. We were alone with the marchers, so we weren’t alone at all: we had entered the vast politics of history.
The marchers poured into a now darkened Zocalo. The Zocalo is a huge square ringed by the cathedral which was built on the ruins of the great Aztec temple of Tenochtitlán, the National Palace, and a few other colonial buildings. In each of the entrances between the buildings were large, lighted portraits of the four great heroes of the revolution: Madero, Carranza, Zapata and Villa. Made of colored bulbs, they overlooked the square with the detached formality of official icons. I’m not sure what excited me more, that they were there, or I could explain to Ling and Jo Jo how Madero was murdered, or Carranza had been instrumental in writing the new constitution at Aguas Calientes, whether Zapata would have had a chance with the new government, or if Villa hadn’t been defeated at Celea, what the shape of Mexico would have been.
The marchers made their way towards a stage set up opposite the cathedral and had filled up at least half of the square if not more, moving, and standing, all faces looking forward. The people chanted and waved banners in the air and someone had made a coffin and painted it black and had written PRI on it and had given it to the crowd to pass among themselves. And like a talisman it was passed over the heads of the crowd and swirled like a dream through the rally. It was like something I had seen in so many movies about unnamed Latin American countries, but instead of parody it was serious. On the stage was a red flag with a black portrait of Zapata and on the other side a portrait of Miguel Hidalgo, the fiery populist priest from the Mexican war for independence from Spain. A banner with the PRD logo hung over the stage where the one microphone and maybe six to ten men stood waiting for the crowd to fill the Zocalo and settle down to listen.
I don’t know how many of the men spoke; it was irrelevant—I couldn’t understand a bit of it. The three of us made our way through the crowd mingling among the ordinary people of the PRD’s base. This was more than just a political rally or a campaign stop, it was a rally of the cheated, and it didn’t matter what it was really about. The immediate politics of the PRD were just a reflection of the long history of political corruption and broken promises. Between the speeches were chants and during the pauses were cheers and the crowd moved with the milling excitement that keeps the people moving closer to the stage and pulses through their bodies with each statement. We kept moving closer and closer to the stage, parting the crowds that would look over at us with a kind of distracted curiosity. I’m sure Ling and I stood out. I explained all the symbols to Ling and Jo Jo with pride and it made me feel I was part of the moment, not as a tourist, but as someone who possessed and, therefore, belonged.
Then a man came over from the edge of the stage. He moved slowly. A dour faced man, without much smile. He was introduced: Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. The crowd was ecstatic, cheering and waving their signs in the air, and you couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment too, as we all looked on at that always sad looking political contender, the looser of the last presidential election. On election night in 1988 he was ahead in the ballot count, but suddenly the computer crashed and when it restarted the candidate for the governing party was leading, and naturally won. Here was the man who should have been president, the man whose very presence spoke of hope and disappointment, the 70 years of Mexican politics, the son of the famous president Lázaro Cárdenas who nationalized the oil industry. And here he was in his son, the mix of the Pre-Columbian and the revolutionary standing right there. He took the microphone and spoke for sometime. It was not an inspiring speech, at least in tone, but the crowd loved it anyways.
All along we had been moving closer and closer to the stage. I don’t know who was more excited to get up front, Ling or myself. Since we didn’t know Spanish we kept moving to the front, and as we moved up closer to the stage the men looked tall and powerful, although there was an air of the victim and the speeches just didn’t have, no mater how much I wanted it, fire. Yet the crowd was still excited and when he stopped speaking the crowd cheered and he waited on stage to take the adulation. Ling saw a VW van near the back of the stage and said we should get near it. We pushed through the crowd as they focused on looking up at him and we drew closer to the van and as he began to step down the stairs to get away, the crowd surged towards the van and we moved with it, too. The whole crowd seemed to push towards the VW and we all saw him quickly take his seat and now the crowd was suddenly swarming the van. It is a moment I’d seen so many times on TV and I’m there: the crowd pushes in, the VW van—is this the only vehicle possible?—the look of calm, triumph, disorder in the politico’s face; all the people pushing in—couldn’t an assassin be right next to me? The crowd was pushing in on us, their hands out. I was right there in front of him staring at his slightly apprehensive but campaign savvy eyes. I put my hand out. He grabbed it. He shook it. It was a brief hand shake—he had many more to go—and then it was over, the door slammed shut and they drove away.
Ling looked at me and Jo Jo and we smiled at each other and walked laughing with excitement at what we had just done. It was only our fourth day in Mexico. How could it get any better? We went back to the hotel as the crowd dissipated in all the directions of the Zocalo. There was an excited buzz to it all. The people had heard what they wanted, what they needed, and I, with my imagination fired by history, was moving back and forth between our hotel room and the past.