Tag: living in Mexico

Why We Leave, Why We Left

On Leaving America, Elena Poniatowska, and Janet Blaser’s Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats

I’ve done this before, in fact, many times over the last twenty years. Leaving what used to be home in northern California and returning to my new home in Mexico. I look at faces in the airport, each time younger. Each time more distant.

I’ve never really known how to bridge the gaps that separate us. The biggest one being America’s brand of alienation, the one I grew up in. Moving through the world in a car, getting out, brushing shoulders with others. But then, not really brushing. More like glimpsing from the side while standing in the Pete’s Coffee or the Starbucks pickup line. What are you like, my fellow corporate customers? I ask silently. We are conjugated, that is all. I consume, you consume, he she it consumes. The Latin of separation in this corporate meeting place. Would you ever even be interested in what I write and think about? Novels about events in Mexican history? Events much like those in US history. Genocide, slavery, civil war—the motives for what are not taught in school or discussed at the dinner table. Should we call it Deep America?

“What has fiction got to do with it,” you ask, as you stir your coffee, without looking at me, without speaking. One moment, please, while I consult my inner muse. The one that dictates the next sentence. The one that is listening to something in my brain. And so, well, aren’t we all living out the plots of our own lives, our own stories? The ones about conflict and struggle, love, cruelty suffered and forgiveness given and received? Aren’t we all protagonists, flawed yet still trying to do the right thing? Trying to find our place.

I am heartened by the children, on this morning, traipsing along behind their mothers, carrying their little stuffed-bear backpacks and their fuzz blankets, trudging along bravely, as if the snow were two feet deep, for the moment protected by the same glittering airport bubble that I too inhabit.

At the same time, as I drink my coffee, I’m holding Janet Blaser’s wonderful Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, the testimonies of twenty-seven women, including Janet, on why they moved from the U.S. to Mexico, looking for a better and more satisfying life. If only I had had this book in my hands twenty years ago, when my love and I took a deep breath and crossed the border at Nogales, Arizona.

If that had been the case, we would have had much insight into what we were doing. But we did not have her book and had to learn everything ourselves and, in the end, over the years, became permanent residents of Mexico, the place we call home.

In her book, before the Preface, Janet quotes from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. “I have an idea that some men (change the man pronoun as appropriate) are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace…Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends them far and wide in the search for something permanent to which they may attach themselves…Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”

Several years ago, Elena Poniatowska, Mexico’s grande dame of letters, gave a keynote speech at the San Miguel Writers Conference, where she read from a long list of foreigners like herself, who came to Mexico, wrote, painted, sculpted and composed and added to the country’s vast cultural richness. Each one of their stories of why they came (and some left) are part of the same kind of testimony you will find in Janet Blaser’s anthology.

Still at the airport, I am going where most of my fellow airport coffee drinkers aren’t going. I am leaving “we” once again and joining “them.” Already, I have to start saying “they” again, referring to my fellow coffee drinkers. If I told them where I was going, they would pause for moment and then politely ask, “Why?” And I would tell them, in order speak a different language and live in a different culture.” And then after another polite pause, and with concern in their voice for me, they would ask, “Is it safe?”

I am familiar with being afraid of Mexico. Years ago, when I was in my early thirties, I flew to Puerto Vallarta—my first time in Mexico—and found my way to the old hotel. I went to my room and closed the shutters, got in bed and pulled the covers over my head in the middle of the afternoon.

It was another thirty years before my love and I crossed the border. The women Jamet Blaser’s anthology are far smarter and braver than I was. They knew something was missing in their American lives, and they wanted to change that. They saw through the mirror that reflected their American culture assumptions back at them. That is not easy to do. We are the dominant culture or, more accurately, the dominant country. As the Mexican saying puts it: “So far from God, so close to the United States.” Dominant cultures tend not to be able to see into other cultures.

I sip my Pete’s Coffee. I guess I could say I’m going to a place where some of the coffee beans that fuel Peet’s and Starbucks are grown and are picked by people whose day wage would not buy even a quarter of a cup and whose lives most of us are not even aware of. They do not figure in the corporate algorithms. Except, perhaps, that you may think they are dangerous. They are not. They are poorly paid workers and kind people.

Truth in advertising: There is a Starbucks in the very historic center of my colonial city Guanajuato. Clearly, corporations are not put off by Otherness and simply hire locals. But there is a choice here. The best coffee in the Western Hemisphere is a few steps up the street at Greg’s Café Tal.

My one recommendation? Begin learning Spanish now. It’s like having a diving bell that lets me sink into the culture. My Mexican writing partner always argues that I have not immersed myself deeply enough, that I don’t always find the precise word I’m looking for. That happens to me in English, too. I started Spanish when I was fifty. He may be missing the point somewhat. There is no bottom to culture. Your intent and persistence is key to communicating and respecting the wonderful people we live among. And so: begin your Spanish and buy Janet Blaser’s book: Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats.

Guanajuato and Katyn

What is a day like in my little Mexican city? I stretch my spine, put on a jacket and go into the kitchen. I get on my hands and knees to light the fake wood stove in the corner. A modest gas flame surrounds modest fake logs. I switch on a small silent fan that hangs in back of the stove and pushes warm air out into the room. There are two folded cotton blankets, multicolored, in front of the stove. This is where our two cats take their positions. My position is in front of the refrigerator. I take the homemade loaf of bread out. I cut a slice and put it in the toaster. I pour Mexican Alpura corporate yogurt into a glass bowl and, on top of that, ladle out homemade, crude applesauce, spiced with nutmeg and Vietnamese cinnamon. I add seven Costco home-roasted almonds. I find a treasured implement. An inexpensive Czech butter spreader purchased in Prague, serrated on one edge. I pluck the ready slice of homemade bread out of the Chinese toaster. It is the miracle food, depending on what you read and what your culture is. We import the Winter Red Wheat berries from California in sealed three-pound plastic bags. Larger quantities are vulnerable. There are critters here that, given enough time, can bore through thick plastic and reach the rich, organic, whole-wheat egg-laying environment. I am still using the same Seventh Day Adventist or some other survivalist kit electric stone mill that I put together at least forty years ago. With the Czech butter spreader I lift old fashioned peanut butter out of a Laura Scudder’s jar we scored in the larger gringo community an hour and twenty minutes to the east of us. San Miguel de Allende. To the locals there, SMA.

 

Our black alpha cat Lilus Kikus comes up the stairs. We took the name from Elena Poniatowska’s first novel. She is the grande dame of Mexican literature. One of us has released her from her room. She wears a cat cone so she can’t lick the treated abscess on her rear end. She bumps into things. Today, we take her to the vet’s, where she will be in shared solitary, hopefully with similar species. I suppose it is like going to prison, where we have been five times since August, to visit our friend, a Mexican who loves his two horses and who might destroy himself if the false charges stick. In other places, I have written about the Mexican justice system.

 

Alpha cat used to be invisible in the dark. Now she advances like a small bull elephant with white warning ears.

 

My made-in-China iPhone dings. My dear friend and writing partner’s mother has died. It’s a Spanish I’m not familiar with. “El donde hoy falleció mi mamá.” It is sad but not entirely unexpected news. There is always the end of life waiting for us.

 

As I eat my yogurt mix, I utilize my made-in-China, slave-wages mini iPad to read my Kindle version of Phillip Kerr’s Les Ombres de Katyn, The Shadows of Katyn. I read it in French translation to maintain my contact with the language. It is riveting in a sad sort of way. I am a child of the Holocaust in the sense that, when I was eight years old and in the thrall of a couple of Walt Disney movies in Norwich, New York, the News Reel divided the two movies with footage from Dachau, or some other KZ, in black and white of an American or German bulldozer pushing white, flopping skeletal Jews, Russian prisoners of war or gays into a massive pit, with German citizens forced to look on. My fellow witnesses to something inconceivable.

 

The Phillip Kerr novel is about the circumstances and intrigue surrounding the NKVD’s, Stalin’s secret police’s, execution of 4,000 – 5,000 Polish officers, along with 18,000 others, so that no organized resistance would ever arise on the Polish flank again. A single German bullet—to throw off possible future forensics—to the base of the skull, wrists wired in front, a loop of wire around the neck, being forced to the edge of the pits. How is an eight-year old supposed to understand this? Or the man who is now seventy years older? As you can see, there has been little progress. But now I test the gravity-fed water in the bathroom sink, after running it for a while. It is solar-heated. Barely. I decide to risk it and step under the miserly shower head. I am grateful when the clouds have spared me  their presence, when the water is warm enough to comfort the base of my skull.

 

In the cafe where I am writing this, an impoverished indigenous boy drifts my way. He is selling chicle, chewing gum, in tiny packages. He goes past my little table and me for some reason. He is more interested in the young woman giving haircuts in this my favorite writing cafe. The cafe is some sort of a collective of educated, bright young people, gentle and smart. Its customers are mostly students, including French, German, Japanese and Americans studying at the university or at one of the several language schools. The Indian boy with the chicles does not go to school. No one sees to it that he does. He belongs to a marginalized, forgotten group. There are adults that run him 19th century Dickensian style. He is one of many faces of poverty and neglect in a land full of billionaires. He stands close to my small, open backpack. I wonder whether my attention should be on him or on my writing. But he glides away from me and closer to the object of his interest. The twin sister of someone I know in the collective is visiting from Mexico City and is cutting hair nine feet away from me, like a visiting country priest dispensing blessings. She is capable and conducts conversation as she cuts and snips. Neither the boy nor I will need a haircut for some time, but both of us I think were imagining her gentle hands touching our hair, the comb on the back of our head. A series of her friends and their children are taking advantage of her visit. None of them marginalized. They are Mexico’s best, invisible to the largely self-serving national leadership. They are young people who want a better Mexico. I feel lucky to share their lives. This scene, this stage, is the very opposite of Katyn. The forest just east of Smolensk.

 

After a brisk shower, I dress, gather my knapsack and writing things, including a little notebook, and descend the 203 steps from our house to the Old City on the canyon floor. My love has delivered Ms. Alpha Cat to vet prison, where her abscess treatment will continue while we are at the beach on the Pacific side of Mexico. At the bottom of the stairs, I turn left and then enter what we call the Vegetable Alley. I see Pilar’s boy-like frame in front of me. Her face is strained. She is too thin. She takes something like a qigong stance and holds her hand out to me. She’s very dark, very dirty and beyond bi-polar high.

 

“Un peso!” she shouts, her voice hoarse.

 

And I always say, “Solamente tengo diez!” and hand her a ten-peso piece. I try not to touch her hand, because I don’t think she washes. She takes the coin, whirls around and spits out a curse at someone thirty feet down the alley. Someone who has mocked her. I think she’s saying, “Eeh, cabrón? Chinga a tu perro!” Or more like the plural: “Chinga a tus chingados perros!” I’m pretty sure she’s using the masculine ending. I say, “Cuídate, Pilar.” Take care, Pilar! To show her and others that I recognize her as my friend. I touch her on the shoulder to show friendship. People catch my eye, as I proceed. Crazy, dirty lady, say the grinning eyes. I smile back, betraying Pilar. But these mockers are also part of my world. It is a rare day that this exchange does not occur. Sometimes when she is more coherent and her mind is racing less, Pilar asks, “Hey, do you want a sexual?” That’s the expression, a sexual. An adjective with no noun, sort of like what she is. I thank her and say no.

 

I pass the young woman and her sister with the comal who sell warm tacos. The younger one always wears a wool cap, no matter how warm it is. She is smart. I know their names. I always make some joke when I pass. They are generous with their laughter. I think they will live out their lives selling tacos. That idea used to bother me. It no longer does. There is much to be said for work that does not shower Hellfire missiles down from your country’s drones. Their food is not popular. Even I do not eat there.

 

I enter one of the city’s few busy streets. The traffic is one-way, the sidewalk narrows to the width of about fifteen inches. You have to be aware. There is a curve and when the buses that are too big make the turn their rear ends swerve to within twelve inches of the building touching the sidewalk. It is fairly exciting unless you are someone who is both wide and  not paying attention. It helps that the buses are probably not exceeding five miles an hour.

 

I duck into the pedestrian alley where the cafe is located. Mexican and South American New Years tourists stroll toward me. They are in no hurry and don’t worry about approaching me five abreast, as if family takes the right of way. I step up into the cafe. I see the young woman cutting hair. I am surprised, but not very. I say hello to a few of my young friends. They greet me warmly. I sit down and begin to write. It is what I need. Being surrounded by these gentle people. Watching the hair cutting. Smiling inside, then also on the outside. So far from Katyn—if not from the missing and still unaccounted for 43 students of Ayotzinapa.