Jonathan Revusky and I were in Mexico City for eight days. Though Jon had been there twice, this was my first taste of this extremely complex, exhilarating and sophisticated metropolis. For $85 a night, we had a spacious two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Cuauhtémoc. It was cheaper than, say, Spokane, yet here we were in a world-class city.
Prior to this, my only experiences of Mexico were limited to border-hugging Tijuana, Juarez and Ojinaga. At Candelaria, Texas, a town of 70 people a good 257 miles from El Paso, the nearest city, I also crossed an illegal footbridge into San Antonio del Bravo, but all I saw were a few dusty cars and trucks, so I walked right back. It was certainly not a good idea to putz around a well-known drug transit point in the middle of the ChihuahuanDesert, but there was no bar in Candelaria to park my ass. Since I had no cellphone then, I would have been literally toast had my rented car broken down coming or going.
Modeled after Champs Elysées, Paseo de la Reforma is actually more elegant, with several magnificent monuments. Crossing it from our apartment, we ended up in Zona Rosa. There in 2005, my friend Ian Keenan saw “two guys breaking into a car and trying to start the transmission, alarm blaring, while two female cops were at the street corner, with their backs turned.”
In 2007, another Philly buddy, Steve, was lured into a Zona Rosa bar with another American. Promptly, two sweet-voiced, pretty ladies appeared to keep their company, and you can guess what happened next. The bill for a few drinks came to over a thousand bucks, and when our gringos refused to pay, a couple of beefy guys “as big as Samoans” wrested a $5,000 watch from Steve’s friend’s wrist, as the victim screamed and bled. Back out into the cool, pleasant street, festive with drunken carousers, the two Yanks found a cop who smilingly told them to go back in to retrieve the Cartier themselves.
Shit, man, the above scam is also practiced in Istanbul, Budapest and, well, hundreds of other cities. If a foreign knockout suddenly finds you irresistibly sexy, just remember you’re not all that, you beer-bellied loser. Zona Rosa is certainly not that bad now. Though touts still offer “Chicas?” or “Lap dance?” at night, the neighborhood is solidly middle-class, with an upscale mall and plenty of nice restaurants, including 15 Korean ones. With a thousand Koreans in Zona Rosa, this Pequeño Seúl boasts all sorts of businesses, including a famous hair salon patronized by many Mexican celebrities.
In Ukraine last year, I was surprised by how popular sushi was, and it’s big in Mexico City also, with sushi being sold from street stalls even. Sushi Itto is a Mexican chain of 120 restaurants in nine countries, with 16 in Mexico City alone. In the US, Mexicans make every sort of ethnic food because they can quickly grasp and appreciate its complexities, subtleties and appeals. I find this openness truly remarkable. In California, I’ve seen many Mexican families at Vietnamese eateries, but never vice versa. In Tijuana, there are four Vietnamese restaurants owned and operated by Mexicans.
Just South of Zona Rosa is La Condesa, a hipster haven and home to many American expats. Walking through, Jon and I did hear more English spoken, but it’s striking there were so few white faces in Mexico City, even in the most touristy areas. Last year, 23,000 Mexicans were killed in its drug wars, and perhaps it’s this perception of Mexico as an insanely violent and chaotic place that has scared away many visitors and immigrants. In 2016, nearly 60,000 Americans also died from drug overdoses, so our inability to endure life without pills, powder and dope is causing war-like casualties on both sides of the border. Without its sick northern neighbor, Mexico would be a much healthier place.
On my first visit to Juarez, I saw soldiers perched on a tank at the foot of the international bridge, a sight that didn’t alarm as much as charmed me. Walking into town, the city’s bustle and colors reminded me of my birthplace, Saigon. At a restaurant, a girl of about nine, in her school uniform, went from table to table to beg, quite matter of factly, without obsequiousness. Perhaps out of pride, she skipped me, the only foreigner. In baby Spanish, I burped a few mangled words at the friendly, middle-aged waiter, who advised me to be extra careful. I was in Juarez.
Wandering around Juarez before dawn, I saw tired prostitutes resting on couches in darkened doorways. Though I was starving, the city was just waking up. Like a dream, a large, bright eatery appeared that was filled with customers. “Comida China,” it advertised. I waited for the goat and tripe vendor to open.
Home to legendary drug lords Manuel “The Viper” Carrasco, Shorty Lopez and Pablo Acosta Villareal, “The Ojinaga Fox,” Ojinaga made the news in 1976 when its entire police force and their families fled to the US to escape being killed by Pedro Avilés Pérez, the Sinaloan kingpin. In 2006, I found the town pleasant if sleepy, with excellent caprito in its restaurants. Returning stateside once, my car and I were thoroughly inspected by a very suspicious officer. He did everything but peer up my exhaust pipe.
In Tijuana, I was hosted for a day by an American Jesuit priest and fellow Philadelphian. At the beach, he showed me the border fence where illegal immigrants to the US could talk to their relatives. The tall and tightly meshed metal barrier was even painted and decorated on the Mexican side. At dusk, I saw Mexicans dressed like ninjas, all in black to avoid detection, as they prepared to cross. If caught, they could try again another night.
In Mexico City, the only daily signs of the drug wars are the horrific photos in Alarma!, the gore tabloid. After much walking, Jon and I popped into El Péndulo, as civilized a bookstore as you’ll find anywhere. Among the books prominently displayed were editions of Borges, Céline and Bolaño, and two monographs on the German Neo-Expressionist, Georg Baselitz. Nursing a fine wine, one could sit on the balcony, a couch or at a table, and there was also an area for full-course meals. The softly played music ranged from Billie Holliday to Chet Baker, to the Catalan Joan Manuel Serrat.
In Italy, the biggest book chain was founded by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who also created the militant Gruppi di Azione Partigiana. Feltrinelli accidently died from his own explosives while trying to cut off electrical power to Milan. In Mexico, Mauricio Achar believed that many of Mexico’s problems resulted from its citizens’ lack of reading, so he founded the first Gandhi bookstore in 1971. Now there are 36. Judging from the many well-stocked newsstands and packed bookstores, Mexicans are devouring the written words. Borrúa is another thriving chain. My only poetry collection that’s been translated was handsomely published in Mexico City in 2012.
I visited the Borrúa in Bosque de Chapultepec and found that it catered to the most serious readers, not just casual ones, with plenty of art books, and a large section for kids. The space itself was high-ceilinged, bright, cheery, with vast views of trees and a lake, just outside. Over its entrance, “all the flavors, all the mysteries, all the passions are in Porrúa.”
On Donceles, I ran into a charming mural advertising a dead bookstore, “TEACH THE SPIRIT WITH THE TRUTH. You want to be wise? Read daily! You want money? Read and work! Reading provides knowledge and is power / And wisdom that gives you freedom. READ!” A finger points at you.
Yes, I know that Mexico City isn’t just bougie cappuccino sippers, sushi aficionados and Argentinian steak connoisseurs. There are underage whores in Buena Vista, armed muggers in Barrio Norte, expert burglars and car thieves in Saint Felipe de Jesús, no-nonsense kidnappers Los Kinkones in Chimalhuancán, not to mention the universally-feared drug-pushing, truck-jacking, mostly illiterate and quite young Los Rappers in Desarrollo Urbano Quetzalcóatl, but dude, I dwell in Philadelphia, where the murder rate is twice that of Mexico City.
Ignoring advices from several locals, including an Uber driver who laughingly assured we would be mugged, Jon and I decided to visit Tepito. It can’t be worse than, say, Camden, New Jersey, I figured. From The Zócalo, we began our 1.3 mile walk, and on this sunny Saturday, Aztecas Street was flooded with downscale shoppers. Midway, we paused for blasé cups of coffee at a sad Chinese eatery, then in Lagunilla, we descended four concrete steps into a tiny and signless neighborhood bar for bottles of Indio.
The walls were butter-colored and a not-too-garish red. A bluish print showed a hovering angel comforting a kneeling Jesus. Eight pinball machines had names like Rumbo a Sudafrica and Futbol del Elefante. From an eyehook dangled a horseshoe. Creed, with an old, bulbous-nosed and muttering Sylvester Stallone, was on TV and mostly ignored. Not counting the two foreigners, there were nine men and one woman, the waitress. Four of the guys sat at a table, intent on dominoes. One wore a faded beige T-shirt, “The difference between style and fashion is quality.” The place’s casualness, cheapness and slight seediness reminded me very much of Vietnam.
In Tepito, you can buy guns, hire hitmen or recruit foot soldiers for your embattled pharmaceuticals enterprise, but most Mexicans merely go there to purchase knockoff clothes, shoes or purses, as well as pirated CDs or DVDs. I saw many copies of Cómo ser un Latin Lover, but also, rather surprisingly, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, la ira de Dios. Particularly enterprising was a thumb drive with 3,000 songs, on sale for only 50 pesos ($2.75). With such a deal, you can groove nonstop until somebody shoots you in the head. Here and there was a death shrine, just like in Philly, but usually more elaborate, if not tacky. I chanced upon a miniature two-storied castle, complete with turrets and battlements. Through an arched doorway, the deceased scowled at me from the second floor, while Our Lady of Guadalupe radiated from the first.
After plowing through so many bodies in Tepito’s endless flea market, Jon and I were glad to rest our respective blubber in Micheladas Route 66, a ramshackle beer joint blaring banda. Packed in among the smiling faces, I thought of a Mexican hangout in my Philly neighborhood. With so many men and no woman, fights often break out, thus the place is nicknamed “Stab and Grab.” How miserable it is compared to even the worst Mexico City bars.
On different days, Jon and I met two Mexicans who had lived illegally in the US. One spent 14 years trimming trees in Atlanta, Tallahassee, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The other worked various jobs for 11 years around Concord, CA. The first man’s wife, a kitchen worker, had also returned to Mexico.
A 2012 Pew study reported that net migration from Mexico to the US had fallen to zero or less since around 2007, and the trend continues, with 89% repatriating voluntarily. Mexico’s unemployment rate is only 3.5%, and whether in Mexico City, Toluca (pop. 819,561), Tepotzotlán (pop. 39,374) or San Juan Teotihuacán (pop. 21,577), I saw help wanted signs everywhere.
The American Southwest was robbed from Mexico after a war Ulysses Grant considered “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” The gringos got their foot in the door when Mexico allowed them to settle in Texas.
Crossing the Rio Grande, Mexicans now find their former land a debt-financed paradise of strip malls, vast parking lots, better plumbing and state-of-the-art kitchens. According to a 2014 Pew survey, 65% of Mexicans would not live in the United States.
We asked an Uber driver, a man of about 27, if he had relatives in the US, and he said no, unfortunately, for this prevented him from having access to the latest sneakers, “They arrive here three years later, and cost way too much,” Manuel lamented. Like most Mexicans we encountered, he came off as very relaxed and assured.
Arriving in San Jose, CA in 1978, I was introduced to cholos, those well-tattooed real or pseudo gangsters wearing a bandana, buttoned-up flannel shirt and oversized Ben Davis Gorilla Cut pants. Aping these Mexican-American toughs, cholos are popping up in Japan, Thailand and even Vietnam, incredibly. Roaming many miles through Mexico City, I didn’t run into a single cholo, however. It’s an American phenomenon. Similarly, the most obnoxiously aggressive Italian I met during my two years in Italy was a guy who had spent 25 years in Brooklyn.
The owner of our apartment, Noel, spent a semester abroad in Boise, has visited many other American cities and even has a house in Florida. He’s perfectly happy in his hometown, “This is twice as good as New York for a visitor. In New York, you visit Times Square, Central Park, Broadway, Wall Street and then what? We have so much more history and so many more monuments. Plus, we’re Latinos!” His wife added in perfect English, “Mexico City is like New York, London, Paris and Rome, all in one place!”
Since 1995, a year after NAFTA, Mexico has racked up a steady trade surplus with the US, so it is, in fact, the more productive economy. Our empire status has masked our true poverty, but as our racketeering ends, a flood of American refugees will try to escape the capsized ship, with Mexico the likeliest destination. With its relative social cohesion, pride in a shared heritage, family values and work ethics, Mexico is much better prepared for the future than us seething, bickering, smug, self-absorbed, alienated and righteous dopeheads. Do tell your kids and grandkids to learn Spanish immediatamente.
A million Americans already live in Mexico. A vast majority of them are illegals. Mexico will need a border wall more than we do.