Saturday, August 6, 2011

People #5: Rodrigo and Genaro

When I arrived in Mexico on a warm night in the spring of 2010, the city felt frighteningly large. I knew the streets, but the fleeting familiarity of darkened corners hardly dispelled a creeping sense of isolation. That is, until I arrived at a particular corner where orange light and sweet charcoal smoke spilled out of a small door onto the sidewalk. I had been a regular at this taco stand in 2008, when I lived a few steps away. As I stepped inside, Rodrigo looked up and paused, recognition flickering across his face. 'Güero!' he exclaimed, 'where have you been?'

Over the next sixteen months I again became a weekend regular at Tacos Nena, often arriving at 7:30, just as Rodrigo began to slice chorizo and pile the grill with chicken thighs. Behind the facemask that he grudgingly wore, a knowing smile glimmered in the corners of his eyes. Usually, we discussed fútbol, since he had convinced me to become a Pumas fan, as he was. Genaro, his father and a Chivas fan, frequently sniped--in nearly incomprehensible Spanish that moved through my ears in a blur--that everyone knew which team was really the best. On evenings when the anonymous loneliness of the city closed around me, it was a fluorescent-lit refuge.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Corn is Mexico's foundational food, its primordial sustenance. Ground into masa and formed into tortillas, it was a meal for humble and high. Outside the city, cinderblock slums fade into rolling cornfields; within its asphalt moat whirring machines spit out warm, even disks to wrap as tacos or fry as chips. Tamales are hawked on corners, grilled or steamed cobs are slathered in mayonnaise, chile, and cheese and sold whole. Elsewhere, cornmeal is spread thin for Oaxacantlayudas, or fattened into Queretaro's gorditas or Tepoztlan's itacates.

A blur of weathered hands flatten balls of dough into thin patties, the lime turning metal comals white. According to the Mayan origin myth, the gods had formed people from maize. In Chiapas, green shoots spring from small plots of dark, humid earth, bringing the promise of a harvest in the fall.

Agroindustry corn and cheap ramen noodles have slowly eroded traditional subsistence agriculture in Mexico. Tastes change slowly but economics race past the ancient rhythms of the milpa.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

People 4: Juanito

Juanito wove nimbly amid the chaos of the fruit stand, rearranging piles of mangoes and replacing papayas as fast as customers picked them off. Don Isidro's right-hand man, he was an energetic yang to his patrón's fatigued yin, all infectious smile and easy laugh. As I said goodbye, his eyes compulsively darted back along the stall, and, with a hearty handshake and a "cuidate mucho güero", he was gone, reabsorbed into the chaos.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Leaving

A damp gloom has sat on the city all day; charcoal clouds, laden with fat raindrops swirl in the sky above. Tomorrow, my 16 month stay in Mexico ends, and I return to San Diego. Yet no small part of me will remain here, bound by the friendships I have made and the experiences I have lived. For the people who have made my time here special, some of whom have appeared in this blog, I can offer only profound gratitude and a promise to return. For myself, it is harder. For the past seven years, Mexico has been a huge part of who I am. After living here, my love for the place is undiminished, and my pain at leaving all the more acute. The fear of losing the relationships and knowledge I have cultivated over the past year and a half gnaws at me as I zip closed my overladen suitcases.
Leaving is hard, leaving behind is harder.

Yes, for those of you who are fans, I will continue the blog until the sizeable backlog of Mexico pictures is exhausted. I greatly appreciate your support with this venture and I hope the blog can continue to be a source of enjoyment.

Monday, June 27, 2011

People #3: Butchers



For the past 16 months, I have spent my Sunday mornings strolling through the market near my house and plucking the week's supplies from the claustrophobic labyrinth of stalls. Over time, I came to know many of the vendors, none better than the ever garrulous butchers who never failed to greet me enthusiastically with the name of some famous Michael--Corleone was a particular favorite. We chatted about travel, soccer, places to visit in the city, and often about life in the States. I watched as they skillfully trimmed steaks and roasts from unwieldy slabs, sharp knives flashing over worn wooden blocks, waiting until the conversation ebbed and they would ask what cut of meat I wanted that week. On my last Sunday, I again wandered through the market, looking more for goodbyes than for groceries. Yet my butchers were nowhere to be found. Perhaps the impending rain kept them away, or perhaps their stall had been moved far from the usual spot where I could not find it. Either way, the day had an air of incompleteness, of a closure that remained suspended among the heavy falling raindrops.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

In the Valleys

The labels dot the map, strewn across otherwise blank white patches, a clutter of Saints' names and Zapotec words marking the existence of the small villages tucked into the Oaxacan hillsides. Sometimes, a faint trace winds off the thick yellow line of the highway and leads to the pueblo, other times there is nothing. Defiant thick green spines of agave spring from the russet loam of the sierra; this is the land of maguey. And of mezcal.

The palenques, as household distilleries are known locally, hide behind cinderblock homes and split-wood fences. Their presence is announced only by the sharp sweet smell of fermenting maguey mingling with the pungent smoke curling from smoldering fires. The work of the palenqueros is solitary and difficult, cultivating patches of agaves, cutting and hauling mature plants to roast in open earthen pits, grinding, fermenting and distilling the cooked piñas. Their mezcal is intimately tied to the place, its flavors shaped by the soil and water and hands of the palenquero.

In the campo it is not, in many regards, a refined drink. Stored in large plastic containers in side rooms, and dispensed via rubber tube into empty soda bottles or five liter jugs, there are no pretensions. Even the rituals of mezcal suffer alteration. The traditional bamboo tube or carrizo used to test for quality can be replaced by a copper pipe, the dried half-gourd jícara replaced by a cheap bowl. Yet there is a distinct pride here, in the knowledge that eso es lo bueno, that this is indeed "the good mezcal."

Back in Oaxaca City, this liquor is packaged in elegant glass bottles, meticulously labeled by region, producer, and type of maguey. Mezcal has been commercialized, artisanalized, and by recognizing the quality of what is, fundamentally, a product of the pueblo this process ineluctably changes it, complicates it, defines it.

Don Leonardo Sanchez, Yegachin, Miahuatlan district

Don Jose Garcia, Yogana, Ejutla district

Don Nabor Hernandez Reyes, San Baltazar Guelavila, Matatlan district

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

People #2: Ivan

During my first months in Mexico, I often spent my weekend afternoons wandering the arts and antiques market that sprawls along the median of avenue Alvaro Obregon. I rarely purchased anything, but it was a pleasant enough means of dulling the loneliness. Amongst the brightly painted boxes and burnished copper bowls, Ivan's photos of rural street scenes stood out. They were, in many ways, the classic picturesque images of a Mexico far from the city, yet they were somehow more real than the glossy insert of a Lonely Planet guide. Eventually I asked if the photos were his, and we began chatting about photography; conveniently, we both shot Nikon cameras. Over time, I came to visit more frequently and chat as he sat and chain smoked and watched over the large assortment of obscure DVDs that was his primary market business. Yet it was his photos, and enthusiasm for traveling, for exploring small towns and capturing images of life there, that inspired me to search for my own adventures beyond the concrete ramparts of the city.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

San Diego la Mesa Tochimiltzingo

San Diego la Mesa Tochimiltzingo is literally at the end of the road. Wrapped in the folds of the low sierra on Puebla's high plain, the town is reached by a winding road patrolled by lethargic cattle and skittish burros. It is in small towns such as San Diego Tochimiltzingo that mezcal is not a question of chic cachet and slick marketing but of daily life and trickling tradition, of knowledge passed from generation to generation and sold in tired two-liter soda bottles.

At the base of the town, a small salmon-colored cinderblock building is home to Don Braulio's mezcaleria. Here, agave hearts are roasted on a stone fire pit until their flesh turns dark orange and acquires the caramel sweetness of a candied yam, then chopped and mashed by hand before being loaded into heavy wooden tanks for fermentation. Pungent smoke from wood fires under the imported copper stills wafts through the building. The clear, strong distilled liquor that flows from a spout on the side of these tanks is collected in plastic jugs to be bottled under the label 'Milagro de San Diego' or sold within the town. Periodically, Braulio or one of his workers check the strength of the liquid by pouring it into jicaras, dried squash husk drinking vessels, watching for the distinctive pearls that signal the strength of the alcohol.

Braulio's children and nephews flit in and out of the building; he expects that by age 15 they will know the entire process. The rhythms of mezcal production seem embedded in the family, as well as the town. In a few weeks, regular rains that chill the air and slow fermentation will bring work at the simple cinderblock factory to an end. On the hillside above, Braulio's uncle, Don Gerardo, offers visitors to his home sips of last year's batch from a small mayonnaise jar.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Mexico's indigenous present, as opposed to its indigenous past, sits at an odd juncture of guarded tradition and inexorable change. In the state of Chiapas, deep in the country's southern reaches, many of these communities remain nestled in the hills and able to keep a watchful distance from many of the trappings of modernity. Around the bustling mountain town of San Cristobal, this is more difficult. It was here that Zapatista rebels made their shocking debut onto the international stage in 1994, proclaiming "enough!" to the exploitation and abuse of indigenous groups. Today, the city is a busy tourist hub for visitors drawn by the promise of glimpsing both exotic past and revolutionary present.

In reality, San Cristobal is a much more muddled place, at an odd nexus between tourist-driven modernity and tourist-infiltrated heritage, surrounded by a commercialized revolution and a marketed culture. It is not without irony that the indigenous women who walk in front of the city's gorgeous churches are there to hawk shawls, blouses, belts, and bracelets to passing tourists. And the Zapatista revolution? A few autonomous villages are scattered throughout the state, proclaiming the benefits of more enlightened self-rule against the incursions of neoliberalism and the Mexican government. Their locally produced products are sold in several small shops along the main tourist street.

In the hills around San Cristobal, indigenous Tzotzil Maya villages struggle with the city's gravitational pull. San Juan Chamula, fiercely independent and unabashedly standoffish, sees a wearisome flow of organized tour groups visiting the markets in its main plaza and observing syncretic religious ceremonies in its no-longer Catholic church. Men clad in heavy woolen tunics watch with wary eyes, while women crowd to offer handicrafts for sale. Children tug at shirtsleeves asking for pesos.

Nearby Zinacantan is less hostile than San Juan Chamula, though its residents share a language. Known for both the elaborate floral embroidery worn by both men and women and its commercial flower growing industry, it does not feel worlds apart from the rest of the country. Weddings here mingle Catholic rites, local ritual, and civil ceremony. Corona is served alongside posh the traditional local sugarcane liquor, electronic banda style dance music spins a whirl of floral tunics. Guests snap photos of the blonde-haired bride and groom plastic cake-topper with cellphones.

The forces that sustain also transform.