The crosswalks in Colonia Roma Norte in Mexico City are painted with dapper gentlemen in fedoras walking terriers. Maybe that’s why the cars don’t stop for the rest of us. So we mind the traffic when we cross the street, watching as drivers lean into their turns as they peal around the rectangular corners of Plaza Río de Janeiro like Formula One racers. Or maybe they’re just elated and relieved to be released from the traffic on Avenida de los Insurgentes.
If a driver makes a wrong turn in Mexico City they might spend the next twenty minutes inching through a busy intersection. Or maybe it’s inevitable. Snarls seem impossible to escape. Cars block intersections, drivers’ arms hanging out of windows, free hands disengaging themselves from steering wheels only to snap horns in frustration. A traffic light turning from red to green invites a yammering of horns, but it’s the sound of this city. Impatience is the conversation. Everyone’s got a hustle to get to.
Walking, we tripped along the ups and downs of Roma’s sidewalks, the driveway berms and broken pavement from half-forgotten earthquakes. The woman who rented us our apartment warned us about them. “Leave everything,” she said. “Go out. Go to the middle of the park.” I liked the earthquake signs in all the public buildings: Sismo! It sounds like a dance, a cross between a salsa and a rhumba. Come sismo with me! The land around Chicago, where I write this, is bland glacial till. Up here, we look to the sky for change. The heavens are cranky with snow and rain, tornados. We watch the weather with hope and dread, but there’s no forecast for an earthquake. The earth shakes, like a dog with fleas, but it can’t rid itself of Mexico City.
When we couldn’t walk we hailed cars on our phones. Uber has invaded Mexico City. The Uber drivers there shuffle around their cars to open doors for you, like chauffeurs. They offer bottles of water and play American rock music. They keep their Nissan Tildas and Renault Logans spotless. I’m uncomfortable in cabs, and make a point of conversing with my Uber drivers in Chicago in an effort to hedge that feeling that I’m invading the driver’s personal space, like I’m settling beside them into bed. There’s something whorish about picking up a cab, the way we share our intimate spaces but no intimacy. I could only toss a few Spanish words at our Uber drivers in the DF, make primal, international hand gestures. There was one phrase we shared, though, when our driver nearly hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk before promptly missing our turn north toward the Museo del Chopo and tossing us back into the slog of traffic we’d just spent twenty minutes squeezing through. He turned to me and said: Oops.
At the Museo del Chopo I watched slides depicting street scenes of Mexico City and Chicago. It was startling to see my city as a place onscreen, distinct, a kind of cousin to the DF. The slides were summery scenes, sunshine and weeds, like the DF in February. From Mexico, Chicago was a place distinct from my routine, all the worthy details I refuse to notice living here. A place worth visiting and loving for its imperfections. A place so unlike drained and desiccated Mexico City. A place with so much water that it stores it in tunnels miles beneath its tepid earth. But each a city of neighborhoods and hustlers and workers and dogs.
Back in the Plaza Rio de Janeiro it’s Sunday evening and we sip mezcal and wine as we sit on a curb and watch the dogs. Dogs with balls. Dogs in dirty, sagging people-sweaters. Dogs getting along. Dogs circling the dry concrete bed of the fountain where Michelangelo’s David poses ignored. The sun is setting on couples sitting on benches, couples alternately kissing or fighting. It’s a splendid night, a splendid neighborhood. I’m fortunate as an American to be able to enjoy a neighborhood in a city in a country that so many inhabitants had to flee because they couldn’t afford to enjoy a place like Colonia Roma. Beneath the conversation, my mind drifts to globalization, NAFTA, narcotics exports, exchange rates, hydroponic produce, war. The American marines won a decisive battle in the Mexican-American War up on Chapultepec Castle, only a few miles from where we enjoy the evening. It won us Texas. Woohoo.
I don’t claim to know much of anything about the DF. Or Mexico, for that matter. One history reveals another layer beneath it, like the map I found myself transfixed by outside the Catedral Metropolitina, the one that superimposed Mexico City on top of the water city of Tenochtitlan. I’ve been to Mexico before. I’ve driven back and forth across the Yucatan a few times, did the same in Oaxaca, but the country remains a mystery, and not just for my minuscule Spanish. I’ve learned one thing from my travels, though: the border isn’t a wall or a fence or a line on a map so much as a curtain that we sweep our most ignorant fears beneath. But the same could be said about Chicago to the rest of the States. Each news report tallying murder statistics pushes my home further from their consciousness, safely out of view.
We don’t know much about Mexico, but how could we when we struggle to understand Chicago?
Jim Kourlas is an MFA candidate at Roosevelt University in Chicago, a MAKE intern, and Lit & Luz Festival attendee.