Twenty-five months living in Mexico City can do something to one’s sense of empathy, compassion and sensibility to the suffering and violence of city life.
When I first moved here I went into a sort of physical, emotional and spiritual shock. Meanwhile I completely fell in love with the city for its grandness and sublime beauty, discerning the smallest details and a specialness that set it a apart from any other city I had ever visited, I was overwhelmed by its class divisions, extreme poverty, discrimination against indigenous peoples, love for the foreign but disdain for otherness (rooted in a love for eurocentrism), and blatant arrogance of many of its denizens. This I discerned in every pocket of public space and in an endless array of social settings.
I remember joining all of my study abroad friends in nighttime outings to posh neighborhoods and witnessing-and participating in-a culture that completely ignored and looked down on the sleepy-eyed vendors who sold gum packs and cigarets. For many people the indigenous mother sitting on the sidewalk with her children blended into the building wall she leaned against: invisible only until you had the urge to take a drag from a Marlboro. I also recall sitting in a cab or squeezed into a city bus parked on a major intersection and playing spectator to children and adolescents performing as jugglers, fire eaters, clowns and mimes. And the language one speaks here is riddled with sexisms, classisms, and racisms. Even in the marches-at this point I’ve attended so many, from #YoSoy132 to the year anniversary of Ayotzinapa-are vehemently misogynist and anti-gay.
All of these nuances and realities were so fresh and thus so shocking that they bombarded my senses, overwhelmed me emotionally, and deeply angered and confused me. Unfamiliar with this social and culture way of being, I learned to navigate the city, adapting what I admired and needed, challenged and tried to ignore what I didn’t.
These first few months were overwhelming yet in a sense also exhilarating. Experiencing everything the first few times was incredible, and twenty-five months later, I still love riding the metro, still love peseros for what they are-an affordable tour of overpopulated D.F.-and I still love this city for the unforgiving beast it is. But it was just a few days ago, coming out of a film in Cineteca Nacional, that I realized that the city has physically and emotionally exhausted me.
This realization was probably inspired by the film: seven brothers detail the joys and anxieties of living enclosed in a New York City apartment for eighteen years. It was a light-hearted look into the lives they constructed within the four walls of the apartment, the 5,000 films they’ve watched and recreated, from entire films like Reservoir Dogs to recreating Halloween seances, burning effigies and enjoying and ultimately questioning the liberty of seclusion. Entering that space heightened my sensitivity to life outside once I left the theater. Thoughts on how despite the endless promise of creativity, love, and connection, many of us engage in unfeeling, self-centered and uncreative lives.
Once sitting in the Metro car, wedged between two drowsy darling viejitas, I closed my eyes and listened to the murmurs of those around me, the life, the laughter, and the deep and heavy drowsiness cradled by the rumble of the train. I saw that many people, including myself, refused to exchange a glance, a smile, a hello. The Metro, has and will always be a perfect metaphor for Mexico City. It is an overwhelming and extreme example of over-population, frustration, noise, alienation and humanity.
In the past few days I have been more observant, more receptive, and intuitive to what people and the city have to express to me. Today, on my way to my favorite cafe in Downtown, I was again reminded why the Metro is a perfectly furious and intense expression of life in the city.
As the train zoomed northward toward Cuatro Caminos, the rain hit the window and the bright cloudy sky illuminated the faces of the row of people sitting across from me. Today, on a Monday morning, everyone was alert, eyes dashed from right to left, following each vendor as they hollered their sales pitch and made their way down each train car.
As I peered above a man’s head and watched the cityscape zoom past me I could hear the vendor with a stereo strapped to his back approach my car. His selection today: 100 MP3s of classic rock n’ roll. As David Bowie faded away the vendor skipped three tracks and there the sweet guitar of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord began to fill our car. My heart rejoiced because it happened to be one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums. Overwhelmed with this happiness that fell like a kiss, I closed my eyes to take it in, smiled and felt grateful to enjoy such a sweet song on such a sweet day. I fluttered my eyes open and saw the man across from me smiling as well. This mobile melodic morsel lasted a few seconds as the vendor made his way across and disappeared into the next car.
A few seconds later the next vendor came bustling in. His performance: backflipping onto shards of glass arranged on a piece of cloth. As soon as people saw him approach they winced in disgust, uncomfortable, and avoided eye contact even with each other. A mother hurried her children to the other end of the car. Instead of running down one extreme of the car and onto the glass he begged passengers to give him change, appealing to our repulsion and disdain. He walked past us, his elbows torn and bruised from a previous work day, and made his way onward after not receiving any change.
Mexico City is this. It’s ugly, it’s painful, it’s beautiful and human. It’s deep deep apathy and indifference. It’s a struggle for survival. It’s moments of pure performative poetry-both painful and uplifting.
I don’t think I can ever become completely desensitized to this. Because the city finds ways to remind me of these struggles for survival while allowing me to experience moments of pure poetry. Moments that sweetly and brutally remind me that I am here, and that I’m painfully alive.