Day 6-7

I said goodbye to my hosts and started walking.

Some of the Best Street Art I've Seen Yet

Some of the Best Street Art I’ve Seen Yet

By now I’d realized that my original goal of walking the entire outskirts of Mexico City was impossible.

Streets often crawled far up mountains and terminated in dead ends. Often there wasn’t a way to get from one of these streets to the next dead end because of the walls that surround much of the city to stop urban migration. As I hiked, these walls reminded me of the same ones that now rise up on most of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Walking the entire outskirts of Mexico City requires going up and down sometimes hundreds of streets just to cover the periphery of one mountain. It would take months to walk every street, maybe even years. But there was one ultimatum in trying to complete this trip: I could try to climb every mountain surrounding the city. That still seemed pretty hard core.

I got an early start on Day 6 and made it up and down three mountains by noon. Ahead of me loomed the mountain of Chiquihuite, for anyone who lives/has lived in Mexico City its that big mountain you always see at night that has about 10 glittering radio towers on its top.

Chiquihuite

Chiquihuite

Unfortunately, the summit to Chiquihuite was closed to hikers. No doubt I was probably the first person in some time who had arrived there to try and hike it.

My intention was to stay on the true outskirts of town for the duration of my hike to get a better sense of what life is like for the city’s most marginalized residents. But as the sun went down, I hiked up and down two more mountains and headed back into Mexico City proper to visit a very special family who live on Cerro Tepeyac, a tall hill in the city’s northern end.

You Know You're Getting Out There When the Windows of the Local Police Stations Are Abandoned and the Windows Are Smashed Out

You Know You’re Getting Out There When the Windows of the Local Police Stations Are Abandoned and the Windows Are Smashed Out.

Cerro Tepeyac was once a lonely hillside rising from an empty floodplain. Beginning in the 1960′s, rural farmers from throughout the country began flocking to Mexico City in search of work. These urban migrants often moved to poor shantytowns at the base of hillsides like Cerro Tepeyac, but several families actually settled on top of this hill.

Climbing Cerro Tepeyac on Day 6 of the Hike, Right Before the Daily Afternoon Deluge

Climbing Cerro Tepeyac on Day 6 of the Hike, Right Before the Daily Afternoon Deluge

As Mexico City’s population skyrocketed to over 20 million, and the urban sprawl spread around Cerro Tepeyac and continued on for miles, the families who settled on top of the hill have watched these changes and continued their traditional village life as subsistence farmers, growing crops on this isolated hillside which rises from the city.

I first hiked Cerro Tepeyac one afternoon, in search of some fresh air and a momentary escape from the city after finishing up one of my numerous research trips to the outskirts.

I almost never climbed Cerro Tepeyac because a sign at the entrance warned visitors not to go up the hill because local robbers had assaulted locals. Instead of the bad guys, I met people brandishing flowers, and a kind man, named Roberto Juarez, a farmer who lives on top of Cerro Tepeyac with his wife and six daughters.

Roberto Juarez With His Children, Holding Bunches of Squash Flowers Which They Sell at a Local Market Below the Mountain Each Morning

Roberto Juarez With His Children, Holding Bunches of Squash Flowers Which They Sell at a Local Market Below the Mountain Each Morning

Roberto Juarez comes from the coastal state of Veracruz. His parents died when he was just nine years old. Roberto’s sister married a man who had family living at the base of Cerro Tepeyac. When she married, she took Roberto to Mexico City to live and this family of rural farmers settled on top of the hill.

Roberto in his Milpa

Roberto in his Milpa

Today, Roberto raises sheep on top of the hill and grows his milpa, the traditional farming method in Mexico of growing squash, beans, and chile below rows of corn, which acts as a natural fertilizer.

“When I arrived here on the hill, I felt like the richest man in the world,” Roberto once told me. “All I knew how to do was farm, and here there was plenty of land. But today, I can barely make a living. It’s a struggle just to survive. And now I wish that I had settled below in the city like everyone else.”

Roberto lives in some of most striking poverty I’ve found yet in my journey. The family lives in two one-room shacks with dirt floors. The walls are made of scrap wood, sheet metal, and old mattresses.

One of Roberto's Two Small Houses Made of Rusted Mattress Springs, Scrap Wood, and Sheets of Fiberglass

One of Roberto’s Two Small Houses Made of Rusted Mattress Springs, Scrap Wood, and Sheets of Fiberglass

They have access to water just once every one or two weeks. When the water comes, they fill up several large buckets. They steal electricity from a line below in the city by running a wire up the mountain connected to trees. Roberto says that thieves often cut the wires to resell the metal and he has to restring the cables again all the way up the mountain so they can turn on their lights at night.

Each morning, Roberto uses the family’s two horses to commute from the hill down to the city where he sells the vegetables he grows at a local market. Roberto and other farmers on Cerro Tepeyac say that yearly rainfall has decreased, which has lowered the annual yield of their crops, and thrust them into deep poverty.

Boiling Water at Roberto's Over a Woodfire to Purify it for Drinking

Boiling Water at Roberto’s Over a Woodfire to Purify it for Drinking

Throughout the developing world, rural farmers have migrated to cities in search of jobs and a better life. Cerro Tepeyac is a time capsule within one of the world’s largest metropolises where a traditional way of life is now fading.

When I arrived at Roberto’s, rain poured down upon me and the family welcomed me inside. We sat together and ate hot chicken soup. Roberto’s son, who previously lived at the base of the mountain, had now moved in with the family in hopes of shaking off a severe addiction to what locals in Mexico City call activo, a solvent used for cleaning PVC pipes that when inhaled produces a strong high with vivid hallucinations. Use of this drug is epidemic in the city’s outskirts.

Roberto's Wife Loads the Family Horse With Nopales on a Makeshift Saddle

Roberto’s Wife Loads the Family Horse With Nopales on a Makeshift Saddle

Roberto pulled out an old mattress and I slept on it in the family kitchen, a small wooden shack near the houses. Roberto’s son also slept in the kitchen, and he spent most of the night pacing around the room, inhaling activo, and cackling madly.

Let’s just say it was a really long night.

The next morning I helped the family prepare for the market. We cut nopales, wild cactuses that grow all over Mexico and are cooked and served with most Mexican cuisine. Afterwards, we used knives to remove the thorns from the cactuses so they would be ready to sell.

Each Morning Roberto and His Daughters Rise at Sunrise to Cut Nopales and Prepare Them for the Market. They Earn About $20 USD a Day.

Each Morning Roberto and His Daughters Rise at Sunrise to Cut Nopales and Prepare Them for the Market. They Earn About $20 USD a Day.

I really loved cutting nopales, but by the time noon came around it was time to get going again.

I spent the day hiking up and down ridges covered in lower class neighborhoods. The mountains fell into wide valleys covered in city. Instead of walking all the way around the ridges and into the valley, I found holes in the walls that surrounded this new urban environment and bushwhacked up through the mountains to get to the next communities.

From my vantage point alone in the mountains, this is some of what I saw:

Tall  Mountains Rise Along Mexico City's Northern Perimeter that Fall into Valleys Covered in New Communities No More than 30 Years Old

Tall Mountains Rise Along Mexico City’s Northern Perimeter that Fall into Valleys Covered in New Communities No More than 30 Years Old.

That night I was taken in by a wonderful family who invited me in for a cup of tea and then offered to let me spend the night with them.

Jose and his wife, Sara, also come from the coastal state of Veracruz. They moved to Mexico City in their teens in search of a better life and worked for years to buy a small plot of land in the mountains of Tlanepantla, just outside Mexico City.

Jose and His Children

Jose and His Children

Today Jose and his wife run a small business out of their two room shack making children’s suits. In one room, a line of sewing machines runs along the wall. Heaps of cloth and string cover the floor. The family all sleep together in a small twin bed in an adjoining room.

Three years ago, Jose and his wife invested all of their savings in a coyote who would bring them to the U.S. They hoped to work in the U.S. for a few years to save enough to finish their house and expand their business.

The two left their children with family, walked through the Arizona desert with a coyote, and made it Phoenix where they were apprehended by the Border Patrol and deported just two days after entering the U.S.

In an instant, they lost everything.

The Line of Sewing Machines in Jose's House

The Line of Sewing Machines in Jose’s House

This family had lost so much during their short-lived journey to my country, and it amazed me that they still welcomed me into their home with open arms. We spent the night talking and laughing and ate a wonderful lentil soup for dinner.

Jose heated up some water for me so I could bathe in the bathroom, cardboard shack out back behind their cinderblock house. Jose had rigged up an electric wire from a nearby line and ran it near the bathroom. He connected it to another wire which produced a flurry of hot sparks. Then he put the two hot wires in a plastic bucket of water. A half hour later, the water in the bucket was boiling. This is how the family heats up water and how most people in Mexico City’s outskirts heat water.

I spent the next morning giving English lessons to Jose’s nine-year-old daughter, Adriana, probably one of the coolest and smartest kids I’ve ever met. It was an amazing time with an awesome family who showed me so much kindness.

By noon the next day, it was time to get these itchy feet moving again back on the road.

Back into the mountains.

Saying Goodbye to Jose's Kids

Saying Goodbye to Jose’s Kids

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Day 3-5

I See This Guy Quite a Bit

I See This Guy Quite a Bit

As I set off on Day 3 of my journey, I thought I had it all figured out.

There were many mountains before me, each of them covered in tightly-packed, lower class communities. Streets often had no signs and roamed over the pages of my map in curlicues that often terminated in dead ends.

Concrete stairways leading up the mountains became my chief means of transit. These didn’t appear on the map so you just had look in the distance for them and try to remember the general direction.

In Mexico City’s outskirts, few people have cars. And these stairs, most of them made by the very people whose houses cling precariously to the sides of the mountain tops above, provide the chief access to these communities.

These Stairways Provide Some of the Best Access to Mexico City's Surrounding Mountain Communities

These Stairways Provide Some of the Best Access to Mexico City’s Surrounding Mountain Communities

I started Day 3 by setting down some of these stairs. At the bottom another mountain immediately rose before me, equally steep to the one I’d just crossed.

This was barranca, or ravine, land. Small mountains rose up and down all around me, each plunging down a deep barrana centered at the bottom by a stream polluted with wastewater from the informal hill communities above.

IMG_0219

You Have to Get Pretty Out There Before You Start to See the First Tin Houses

I crossed the stream at the bottom of the day’s first barranca and headed uphill on a main road. At the top I entered a very new community, probably just ten years old at the most.

On top of the mountain, I realized my mistake. It didn’t connect to the nearby, and much wider mountain, I was ultimately headed for. Instead it was separated from it by a barranca that plunged deep into the earth below.

I decided to head down the barranca instead of walking all the way down the mountain. On the mountain top, dirt roads led down past a few half-finished houses towards the barranca below.

On each dirt street, a group of menacing dogs chased me out. I held up my walking stick to thwart their advance, which a woman had given me several months ago when a dog bit while I was working on a story in the mountains of Michoacan state. I had grown well-accustomed to fighting off dogs during my research in Mexico, but these often five strong groups of snapping jaws were too much.

Angrily, I stormed off the mountain and followed a road that led around a dried up former reservoir below.

The Resevoir and the Next Mountain

The Reservoir and the Next Mountain

Out here, finding a place to go to the bathroom was a constant problem. So is the heat. The sun beats down on me all day and sweat pours from my body. You have to constantly drink water to avoid heat stroke, and I find that nothing keeps me walking faster and more focused than the ever-constant need to pee. Here, there’s no supermarkets or gas stations. The only stores are located in the front room of family homes. Most have bars over the entrances.

Out here, the concept of a public bathroom still hasn’t been invented yet.

No Bathrooms Out Here, Buddy!

No Bathrooms Out Here, Buddy!

Heading down a bank in the reservoir seemed like the best chance I might get all day. I noticed a few houses had been built down around the floodplain. A menacing black dog soon barked me out. I backed up a set of stairs leading out towards the road, stick in hand to keep the dog a bay.

I couldn’t believe it. Here I was in one of the biggest cities on earth and I was practically fighting with a dog just for a chance to use the bathroom.

My destination that night was Lomas Verdes, a ritzy suburb in the north of the city that resembles an upper class part of LA. Unlike most parts of Mexico City, here there is regular garbage service, electricity and access to running water. It was an ideal stopping point on the walk, but it was the area that I’d struggled with the most in making a connection.

Cerro Coalcoaya in the Distance, the Mountain Where I Experienced the Most Difficulties

Cerro Coalcoaya in the Distance, the Mountain Where I Experienced the Most Difficulties in Planning This Trip

Several mountains covered in small working class communities rose up around Lomas Verdes, and I’d even found some illegal settlements there. I spent almost two weeks wandering the mountains here hoping to make a friend with someone. I interviewed countless residents in the several poor communities hidden in the folds of the mountains around Lomas Verdes, but people here were just more skeptical and less inviting than anywhere else I’d been.

Finally, I found a community of construction workers from the southern state of Oaxaca who came here thirty years ago to build the upper class enclave of Lomas Verdes. The construction company eventually gave ten of the families involved in the building project a small plot of land to live on. Today their ten houses sit at the end of a dirt road beside a drainage canal across from some of the cities wealthiest neighborhoods. They still have no regular access to water or electricity. And they are one of the few extant communities I’ve found that doesn’t appear on the Guia Roji, Mexico City’s official, 154-page, map.

Lomas Verdes, Home of Mexico's Super Wealthy

Lomas Verdes, Home of Mexico’s Super Wealthy

I met a guy here named Cepriano, a young man who was born here, a descendant of some of the first construction workers. He was fairly intoxicated when we met, and insisted that I spend the night with him and his family. Cepriano had spent two years working construction in Atlanta before he was deported back to Mexico, and he really wanted us to hang out. I promised him I’d be back in a few weeks.

As the sun set, I called Cepriano and he met me at the end of the road. He smiled and was happy to see me. I explained what I was doing, expecting him to erupt in joy that I had finally come back to stay with him.

But sober Cepriano was a much different man. He was shy, soft-spoken, I discovered. And he explained that he lived in a one room house with his wife and two children.

“I’m sorry,” he said, apologizing profusely, “but there’s just no space.”

Concrete Walls Topped With a Chain Link Fence Surround Most of Mexico City. They were Put up by the Government to Stop Urban Migration

Concrete Walls Topped With a Chain Link Fence Surround Most of Mexico City. They were Put up by the Government to Stop Urban Migration

I thanked him and headed off into the darkness. I’d left on this trip fully expecting that some of my potential hosts for the night might not work out. Most were definite, but I always knew this night would be a wild card.

I started looking for a hotel, but there were none. Eventually, on the Periferico, a nearby megahighway, I found a few four star hotels. It didn’t seem worth it to spend $100 on a room, when I could hop a bus home to my apartment, about 40 minutes away. So that’s what I did.

Day 4

I took the bus back to where I left off the next morning. Before starting my hike that morning, I did a little stretching out by the Periferico and the seat of my pants ripped a few inches. They were old pants and this had probably been coming for awhile.

El Tanayo Hill, Near My Walking Route, Is One of Mexico City's Oldest Hill Communities

El Tanayo Hill, Near My Walking Route, Is One of Mexico City’s Oldest Hill Communities

What followed was a long slog up and over mountains, with each step my pants ripping further. I hiked mountains through Atizapan and Tlanepantla, two of the many cities that surround the capital, and then crossed back into Mexico City.

Here the mountains were divided in half. One one side, I’d hike up past lower-class, one or two generation old blocks of concrete houses. On the other, I’d enter picture perfect suburbs with tall fences topped with strands of electric fence or razor wire where the super rich lived. My hike had become a journey through a striking and constant divide between extreme wealth and poverty.

By 5PM, I was almost near Cautepec, where some of Mexico City’s most visually stunning urban sprawl descends up into a dramatic stretch of green mountains.

The Sprawl up Chiquihuite Hill Looks Over Reclusorio Norte, one of Mexico City's Largest Jails. Notice the Rocks Holding Down the Tin Roof in the Foreground

The Sprawl up Chiquihuite Hill Looks Over Reclusorio Norte, one of Mexico City’s Largest Jails. Notice the Rocks Holding Down the Tin Roof in the Foreground

By now my pants had ripped so much that I was pretty much walking in my underwear. I’d cut my middle finger on my walking stick and it was covered in blood.

I sat down to catch my breath around sundown, just a quick walk away from my host Gonzalo’s house. My body ached and I felt destroyed after the first days of walking. The next day was supposed to be my first rest day, kicking it with Gonzalo. Then Gonzalo texted to say that he had been called in to work the next day.

It seemed like fate. I looked down at my tattered pants and bloody fingers. I wasn’t really in a fit condition to even show up at somebody’s house. It seemed there was no point in spending the day in the hills while my friend was working, so I hopped on a bus back home and slept for 11 much-needed hours.

I Got a Lot of Awkward Looks Hiking Around Town in These Bad Boys

I Got a Lot of Awkward Looks Hiking Around Town in These Bad Boys

Day 5

I took the bus back to Cuatepec the next day and met my buddy Gonzalo, an awesome guy who was deported from North Carolina a few years ago and separated from his girlfriend and young son.

Hanging With Gonzalo in Cuatepec, the most nortern corner of Mexico City

Hanging With Gonzalo in Cuatepec, the most northern corner of Mexico City

Gonzalo’s parents brought him to the states when he was just a few year’s old. He crossed into Arizona with an American woman of Mexican descent who had a son who looked like Gonzalo and whose passport he used to enter the U.S.

After growing up in North Carolina, Gonzalo discovered a passion for auto detailing, more commonly known as pimping out cars. Now he drives a city bus, hoping to save enough to one day go home to the States with a coyote.

“A lot of days, I feel like the past few years since I’ve been deported were all just a bad dream,” he told me that night before I crashed in anticipation of the long walk the next day.

“I see the pictures of my son and he’s so big now,” Gonzalo said, “I just have to find a way to be with him.”

Near Gonzalo's House in Cuatepec, Mexico City

Near Gonzalo’s House in Cuatepec, Mexico City

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Day 1-3

So I started walking.

I left my house in the city center and began hiking up into the mountains which surround the city. After walking out my apartment, I headed towards Parque Chapultepec, one of the largest city parks in the world.

Parque Chapultepec

Parque Chapultepec

After crusing through the park, I exited through one of the tall iron gates in the wall which surrounds it and took a right on Avenida Constituyentes. Trucks spit exhaust in the air, and I quickly took a right off into a large ecological reserve at the eastern edge of the city park.

One of urban hiking’s greatest annoyances is going to the bathroom. The sun beats down and your body begs for water. And oftentimes there’s no good place to find a bathroom.

My bursting bladder enticed me to begin walking down a muddy path into the ecological reserve. I carried a walking stick to fight off the stray dogs that I had battled to cross streets in the city’s outskirts during my research. Stray dogs seemed to loom everywhere in the ecological reserve. They barked at me from edges of the dirt path.

I left the woods and saw a plate of fruite placed in the grass, evidence of more odd activity here.

What Are These Doing Here?

What Are These Doing Here?

I turned towards Lomas de Chapultepec, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. I passed the ebassies of Azerbaijan, Austria, and Argentia, in that order, too, which was weird.

Then the mountains started. For a while the city entered a still nice zone that was more of a toned down version of Lomas.

Then the road dipped to a bridge. A stream below was stained gray from wastewater. A sign said, ‘Welcome to Mexico State,’ the adjoining state which surrounds Mexico City where millions of people live in satellite cities and where I would spent the next few weeks.

The Stream Where Things Start Changing

The Stream Where Things Start Changing

Hot sun beat down upon the pavement all day. I chugged water and scanned for bathrooms and walked quick. I’d left late and there was a lot of ground to cover.

As the sun set, I turned a corner and the upper class suburbs ended. The streets narrowed and people milled about their doors on a hot Saturday night. Some drank beer in chairs while their kids kicked soccer balls in the street. Others placed cardtables outside their doors and posted signs selling tamales, tacos, or hot dogs.

I was in the real outskirts now.

The Outskirts of Town

The Outskirts of Town

I started walking down a steep hill out of the first mountain community. Ahead of me loomed another mountain covered in city like some futurist vision gone awry.

The First  Walking Challenges

The First Walking Challenges

Six more mountains just like the one in the picture above lay before me. I won’t lie, the next few days were rough walking. Streets rarely had signs, rendering the map almost useless. Eventually I relied on asking people for directions and using the small concrete stairways up the mountains that locals do.

The picture below is of my host for the  first night, Margarito. He’s a wonderful guy and a recent widow who now spends most of his time taking care of mute, bedridden mother.

Margarito

Margarito

I met Margarito on the street a few months ago. We drank some coffee at his mother’s cramped two room house. I slept on the floor on an old mattress. Margarito’s son had left two weeks ago to cross the U.S. border in Arizona. Both had returned two years ago when Margarito’s wife died. Now Margarito planned to stay in Mexico to take care of his mother.

The next morning I went to the local flea market with Margarito and helped him set up his stand: a ripped black tarp covered in old plastic dolls, random sets of batteries, and several waterstained books including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which I almost bought.

At the Market with Margarito

At the Market with Margarito

I started walking late in the afternoon. The streets were very hard to navigate and I made it up and over three mountains before the rain started and I crowded into a small store with a bunch of locals to escape it. Outside the deluge poured on the earth. Hail battered the cars.

The night before Margarito and I went out on the street for tamales. We met two students, named Laura and Geovanna, who ran a small tamale stand. Laura had gone to highschool in the U.S. but returned home to study because of the cost of U.S. universities. She said her family had been one of the first to settle in this community. Her friend, Geovanna, later pointed to a tall tree on the street and told me that Laura’s grandmother had planted it. Before I left the tamale stand, Laura told me to call them if I needed a place to stay on my hike.

As the rain poured, I was still quite far from my next host’s house, so I hopped on a series of small buses and headed back to Laura and Geovanna’s neighborhood.

Geovanna Making Tamales

Geovanna Making Tamales

Laura and Geovanna welcomed me into their home for the night, where I met Laura’s father, a civil engineer who during the 2008 economic crisis took his family to San Diego after he lost his job in Mexico to work on construction sites in California.

I got a nice ten hours of sleep at Laura’s. The next morning Geovanna made eggs, I grabbed my walking stick, and got on an hour long bus ride back to the place where I had left off from the previous day.

An Amazing Breakfast Before Day 3 of the Hike Began

An Amazing Breakfast Before Day 3 of the Hike Began

The morning sun shone bright and I set off into the mountains once more.

And so I kept walking.

The Outskirts

The Outskirts

 

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The Last Chapter, or, The First Chapter

Mexico

Mexico

Almost one year ago, I moved to Mexico to study and start work on a book about Mexican migrants, chiefly guest workers who come to the U.S. on short-term labor contracts. What followed was a whirlwind year of people and places, countless interviews, travel, and some very fulfilling volunteer work I did at a migrant shelter in Mexico City.

Over the course of the year, I’d say that I accomplished about 78% of what I set out to do. I think that’s pretty good.

My interest in this subject began almost ten years ago. At the time I was 20 years old, had just dropped out of college, and flew to Mexico City on a one-way ticket with the plan of traveling towards South America and learning Spanish.

On one of my first days in Mexico City, I took one of the metro lines way out to the last stop in the poor outskirts of town. I saw a mountain in the distance and thought it’d be cool to climb it and take in some views of the city.

So I started walking.

A vast urban sprawl crawled up into the mountain. I followed a concrete staircase up the hill towards the end of the shantytown from where I could begin bushwhacking up the mountain.

At the top of the staircase a young woman nursing a baby addressed me in English. She was born in LA but married an undocumented Mexican man and ended up on this mountain outside Mexico City.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked

I told her that I’d come to climb the mountain to take in the views below. She asked me if I was crazy and I said, ‘Yes.’

“I think there’s a guy nearby that you would get along with well,” she said, ushering me towards a nearby cinder-block house. That’s where I met Lara, a crazy, eccentric, old man.

Lara

Lara

I’ve come back to visit Lara many times over the years. Slowly, things in his hillside neighborhood have changed. Houses gain another story or even a paint job. A new church was recently built in the community and many families now have gates or walls surronding their houses.

Many of these poor hill towns surround Mexico City. These are places most people would tell you not to go to. But over the years, I’ve met many people on Lara’s hill and been welcomed with more friendship than most places I’ve been.

On one of my first visits back to Lara’s, he told me that the residents of the hill had built all of the streets, installed the drainage pipes, and strung the first electrical cord. It was an informal city forged by urban migrants. The government hadn’t helped in any way.

I didn’t even believe this until people in similar communities around Mexico City started telling me the exact same thing once happened where they lived, too. I started becoming fascinated by these hillside communities. About 50% of the world’s people currently live in cities, most in poor outlying regions on the urban periphery of megalopolises in the developing world. Life in these shantytowns was slowly becoming the normal human experience. As an undergraduate student studying abroad in Mexico City, I wanted to get a better sense of this reality. And in 2007, I decided to walk across Mexico City.

The urban hike, from one end of the city to the other, took two days. By the end I was exhausted. Most of the walk took me through the inner city, not the poorer outlying regions where most of the city’s residents live. In order to understand that reality, I thought, I’d have to walk in a circle around the entire outskirts, at least a 10 day trip.

I love this idea of walking across the world’s largest cities, mainly because I see it as the last true adventure. A while ago, I read a National Geographic article about a guy who walked the length of the Amazon. It took two years. He said he did it only because nobody else had ever done it. “I mean, Everest has been done,” he said, “there’s just not many ‘firsts‘ left.”

We know so much about our planet now that these vast urban areas can seem like earth’s last true frontier. That’s an ironic statement because millions of real people acrually live in these places. But in many ways, these new urban areas are becoming the last unexplored parts of the modern earth. The places which nobody seems to really care about.

Mexico City Urban Sprawl

Mexico City Urban Sprawl

When I started work on my book this year, I wanted to at least make an attempt at showing a different side of migration story. That’s not easy, cause zillions of people write about this. While I’ll still be focusing the book on migration between Mexico and the U.S., I wanted to write a few chapters on what’s going on inside Mexico.

For the last four months, I’ve been heading out to different communities in the outskirts of Mexico City, trying to meet people, forge relationships with them, and get inside their lives.

Many moved to the city from small towns in Mexico seeking work and a better life. While it’s true that millions of Mexicans have illegally migrated to the U.S. in the last 50 years, it’s also true that at least just as many have stayed in Mexico, abandoned homes in peaceful small towns, and moved to chaotic city’s to seek work while leaving their fields and agricultural life behind.

I met a bunch of great people while working on this part of the book, but I struggled with how to link the stories of these people. A few weeks ago, I had a sudden epiphany. What if I tried hiking between each of these people’s homes, spending each night with them? It seemed a perfect adventure hook to get the reader interested in this subject and understand the many different sides to the migration story through the lives of my nightly hosts.

So this morning, that’s what I’m taking off to do. I’ll be spending the next 15 days walking what I estimate will be a 100-120 mile hike around the mountains that surround Mexico City. Part of the hike I’ll do in the city, part in the mountains. But at night, I’ll return to the city to stay with some of the people I’ve met over the last year.

Hiking in Tunnel, Mexico City, 2007

Hiking in Tunnel, Mexico City, 2007

I almost didn’t write this email because I hate saying that I’m going to do something and then have it fail. I’m afraid of really putting myself out there. But here goes. If the blisters get too bad in a few days and I have to drop out, then I’ll at least have done a few days. And I’ll be back in a few months to start the walk again where I left off.

You should know that this isn’t actually as dangerous as it sounds. I’ve spent most every day commuting three hours to the Mexico City outskirts and pounding the pavement in the last months and it seems that many of these communities are fairly poor, but they are also functioning places with shops, cafes, and bustles of people.

Writer David Lida calls Mexico City, ‘the capital of the 21′st century’ meaning that this place might have looked like New Delhi twenty years ago, but a lot of the poorer communities are slowly, very slowly, turning into real, functioning places. Lida’s idea is that in the 21st century, most of the poorest, most chaotic cities, like Delhi or Jakarta or Lagos, are slowly developing into these functioning places. They might never be perfect places, but over the course of the 21st century they will probably end up looking a lot like Mexico City, a place where most everyone has electricity and semi-regular access to running water, and while people might not eat well, the vast majority aren’t starving either.

So this next experience will be both the last chapter of my time in Mexico, but the first chapter of the beginning of the book I’m working on. I’m looking foward to it.

A few days ago, I went back to visit Lara. We rode bicycles around the outskirts and had a few beers together. One of the things I’ve always liked most about Lara is his shrine. It’s a wooden stand in his bedroom covered in Jesus statues, Aztec art, beaded necklaces, eagle feathers, and children’s toys which together evolve from an amazing mix of Christian, pagan, and indigenous beliefs.

Lara and Me, 2007

Lara and Me, 2007

Before I left, Lara went into his closet and took out a DVD. It was the Unplugged concert of the Mexican band, Zoe, which I’d describe as kind of like a Spanish version of Coldplay.

The opening track blasted from Lara’s TV. He took out a fresh stick of incense, lit it with a match, and with grand melodrama, whirled the burning stick in the air as if reenacting some Aztec ceremonyand and placed it on his shrine while bowing towards the figures.

Lara then invited me to pray towards the shrine, too. I humored him and we both turned towards the pile of plastic relics and bent our heads.

I hadn’t yet told Lara about my plan to do this walk. But this seemed like the perfect send off.

Follow the walk (when I have internet):

twitter.com/levi_bridges

http://instagram.com/levi_bridges

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New Collaborative Project Launched!

Border 019

Street Painting of Don Quixote, Bogotá, Colombia

Bridges&Borders is happy to announce a new collaboration with NACLA Report on the Americas and Global Voices!

Over the next few months, a group of writers will team up to produce a series of stories and podcasts, called Migrant Journeys, about migration between the U.S. and Latin America.

Robert Valencia, a contributing writer for the World Policy Institute, started the series off with a great story about the current immigration reform bill which passed the Senate and what people around the world are saying about it on blogs and Twitter.

The writer for this website, Levi Bridges, continued the series this week with a story about a former cop from Hondruas who left home because his coworkers tried to kill him.

También puede leer algunas de las historias en español!

Street in Rural Venezuela, 2009

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Bitch TV

The Man Behind the Mask: Diego Quintana

The Man Behind the Mask: Diego Quintana

Diego Quintana considers himself a harlequin performer, anarchist, and impromptu community organizer.

A 21-year-old from Valle de Chalco, an impoverished suburb on the southern outskirts of Mexico City, Quintana still hasn’t finished high school, but he speaks with more social conscience than most people twice his age.

“Here in Mexico, people are very hardworking,” Quintana says, “but most labor long hours for not a lot of money. Many people here never have the time to stop and analyze the reality in which we live.”

That’s where Quintana steps in.

For about five hours each afternoon, six days a week, Quintana performs different acts on the street, in city buses, and on board the metro, Mexico City’s underground transit system.

Quintana's Costume is Complete With a Frisbee Which Resembles a Satellite Dish

The Fake Television Set that Quintana Wears on His Head Even Has a Frisbee Which Resembles a Satellite Dish

His best act involves strapping a fake television set made out of nylon on his head to, in his words, “motivate people to develop a consciousness different from the one injected in them by mass media.”

The television set on his head is complete with a fake red satellite which reads, “Bitch TV,” a play on words of the satellite television monopoly, Dish TV.

 

Here’s Quintana at work on the train:

“Television is just a false reality created by the bourgeois class,” Quintana says. “I want people to unglue themselves from the great distraction that is television and actually think about the messages that come from the screen they watch each night after work.”

ACT II of Quintana’s routine involves strapping a green wig on his head and miming the act of being held in a straitjacket.

Check this one out:

“You know, they thought Copernicus was crazy,” he yells at the beginning of this act to onlookers sitting on the train.

The Red Satellites of Dish TV Adorn the Roofs of Most Mexican Homes

The Red Satellites of Dish TV Adorn the Roofs of Most Mexican Homes

Quintana believes that most Mexicans today are afraid to think or act differently than the status quo.

“This way of thinking holds us back from ever creating real social change,” he says. “I perform on the metro in an attempt to make people stop fearing what’s different. Losing fear of something new is the only way that we, as a society, will ever be able to organize and create real change in our country.”

After he finishes both acts, Quintana walks around the train with his hand out. Almost everyone passes him some spare change.

Each Day, Thousands of People Eke Out a Living on Mexico City's Metro by Busking or Selling Trinkets

Each Day, Thousands of People Eke Out a Living on Mexico City’s Metro by Busking or Selling Trinkets

Thousands of performers and vendors crowd Mexico City’s metro each day. I watched Quintana’s performance three times, and I’ve never seen anyone on the metro receive as much change as he did upon finishing his routine.

Quintana says that he makes about 250 pesos a day on the metro. And that’s pretty good, too. Almost four times the national minimum wage of $5-6 USD a day.

Quintana is an active member of a youth group in Chalco called the Student Anarchist Collective. He dreams of one day finishing high school and attending a university to study sociology.

Before we parted ways, I asked him if he ever thought of studying theater.

“Naw,” he said. “What I do is straight from the heart. I’m just trying to wake people up to the reality they live in.”

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Obama in Mexico Amidst Demands for Migrant Rights

Protestors Gathered Outside the U.S. Embassy, in Mexico City, During President Obama's Recent Visit to Mexico (PHOTO COURTESY OF ADAM GOODMAN)

Protestors Gathered Outside the U.S. Embassy, in Mexico City, During President Obama’s Visit to Mexico on May 2-3, 2013 (PHOTO COURTESY OF ADAM GOODMAN)

On May 3, 2013, President Obama gave a speech in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

Speaking to a small crowd of mostly Mexican students, Obama quoted from Octavio Paz, Mexico’s Nobel Laureate of Literature, as well as Mexico’s first indigenous president, Benito Juárez, while praising Mexico’s recent economic achievements, strengthening democracy, and increasing opportunities for women.

President Obama said that the time has come for the U.S. public to look beyond the “sensational headlines” of violence associated with the drug trade that dominate most news about Mexico and for the United States and Mexico to begin working together on “mutual interests and [with] mutual respect.”

Click Here to Read the Full Story, Published in The North American Congress on Latin America

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The Migration of Ideas

Mexico is a devoutly Catholic country, yet it often doesn’t seem truly Christian.

A Pyramid Rises From the Mayan City, Uxmal, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

A Pyramid Rises From the Mayan City, Uxmal, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

A friend of mine once told me they heard an older Mexican man say, “in our country, we have two memories.” The first memory he referred to was the wealth of indigenous culture, beliefs, and language that came from pre-Columbian civilizations like the Aztecs and Maya. The second is the Christian and European colonial heritage brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, whose influence permeates the architecture and everyday life of Mexico to this day.

I’ve found that in everyday conversation, Mexicans of both lower and upper classes are often as likely to recount, in a prideful voice, a mythic tale about the patron Saint of their small town, as they are to tell you a legend about the Aztec goddess, Coatlicue, the mother of the earth, often depicted in ancient sculptures at archeological ruins as a woman wearing a skirt of snakes and a necklace of human hearts.

“Ponte Coatli!”

Ponte Coatli!”

A good Mexican friend of mine, who happens to be a sixty-year-old man, often says, “Ponte Coatli!” or, “Be like Coatli,” when I look tired.

Once after saying this, my friend entered another room, kissed his hand, and then touched his forehead, chest, and shoulders to make the sign of the cross.

The ways in which many Mexicans reconcile their religious beliefs creates a strange, homogenous, wonderful part of Mexican culture that can signify myriad things to different people.

Earlier this spring, I spent a few sultry days in a small coastal town in Michoacán, a mountainous state in western Mexico.

The dry expanses of Michoacán’s mountains eventually descend to a rugged stretch of Pacific where wide sandy beaches lined by palm groves occasionally intersperse the otherwise jagged coastline.

Maruata, Michoacán at Sunrise

Maruata, Michoacan  at Sunrise

There’s lots of amazing things about the beaches of Michoacán, but one of the coolest is surely that sea turtles nest there throughout much of the year. At night pregnant females crawl up the shore to bury their eggs above the high tide line. While they do, other baby sea turtles hatch, dig themselves out of the sand, and crawl towards the pounding waves under the silver glow of the moon.

Landing on Maruata's Sandy Beach Poses a Challenge to Local Boaters

Landing on Maruata’s Sandy Beach Poses a Challenge to Local Boaters

I arrived in the small coastal town of Maruata, Michoacán on the day of its fiestas patronales, or Saint’s Day. Each year on a hot morning in March, three small motorboats appear on the horizon straight out from Maruata’s long stretch of sandy coast.

One by one, the boats form into a line and head straight through the pounding surf and maneuver around the many rocks near shore. Their captains steer them towards the best landing: a calm area at the end of the beach where a small stream drains into the sea. Once there, men must haul their boats up the sand to above the high tide line, just like the sea turtles.

The first boat brings a Mariachi band from Michoacán’s distant capital, Morelia, dressed in suits. They serenade a crowd assembled on the beach as salt spray dashes their trumpets and the captain lands on shore.

Next comes two boats full of locals, the first centered with an old statue of Maruata’s patron saint.

IMG_3707Several men jump into the shallow water when the craft arrives at the inlet, lift the statue, and carry it up the inlet towards shore.

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The men haul the statue up the stream and place it under a small frame adorned with yellow balloons.

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Afterwards several women standing over pots heated by charcoal fires begin serving out steaming tortillas and bowls of fish soup, complete with fins and heads, to the crowd.

As everyone feasts, a group of young boys dressed in all red, green, and white, the colors of the Mexican flag, come to dance before the statue of the saint:

When they finish the dance, two men lift up the statue once more and an impromptu parade begins into town. It ends at Maruata’s church, an open-air structure covered in just a tin roof with wooden benches and an altar underneath.

The Parade in Maruata

The Parade in Maruata

In the afternoon, there’s a rodeo complete with bucking broncos down near the beach. At night, musicians play Mexican banda music in the town square. Men and women slam down beers, or tequila mixed with cheap soda. Townsfolk dance as young men wearing cowboy hats, wide leather belts, and tucked-in shirts look on. For a moment, it almost feels like you’re in Texas.

A month or so later, on Good Friday, thousands of people gather in a sprawling suburb of Mexico City, called Iztapalapa, where locals reenact the Passion of Christ.

The whole thing takes about eight hours, during which the actor playing Jesus is whipped and sprayed with fake blood.

Later he’s hung up on a cross overlooking the city when the performance culminates with the crucifixion.

The Crucifixion in Iztapalapa

The Crucifixion in Iztapalapa

Its pretty intense, really.

The costumes of all the actors who take part in the Iztapalapa performance are so good, and the performance so painfully long, that after a while you really do begin to feel as if you’re watching humans interacting in the relatively slow pace of real time. It seemed like the perfect device to convert nonbelievers.

Each Year, the Actor Who Plays Jesus in Iztapalapa is Carefully Chosen

Each Year, the Actor Who Plays Jesus in Iztapalapa is Carefully Chosen

But there’s a whole other side to all this Christian stuff in Mexico. Here, Christian beliefs often intersect with the indigenous ones that have existed here for centuries.

The Zócalo, Mexico City’s sprawling main square, was a center of activity and hubbub well before the Spanish arrived. Then, it was the center of the Aztec city, Tenochitlan.

When the Spanish showed up in Tenochitlan in 1521 and started killing people, the center of Tenochitlan was a prosperous modern city with schools, markets, and towering ceremonial pyramids.

The Spanish tore down the pyramids and used many of the same stones to build ornate Catholic churches, like the Metropolitan Cathedral that looks over the Zócalo, in the historic center of Mexico City.

The Metropolitan Cathedral Looks Over the Zocalo

The Metropolitan Cathedral Looks Over the Zocalo

Today, the Zócalo still serves as the heart of modern Mexico City. The remains of the Templo Mayor, a pyramid that once stood at the edge of the Zócalo, were discovered in 1978 during a construction project. The base of the pyramid is now fully excavated and the archeological site has been cordoned off and turned into a museum.

On most afternoons in the Zócalo, actors don traditional dress and perform the same ceremonial dances in the shadow of the Metropolitan Cathedral that men and woman in Tenochitlan once did centuries ago in the same space.

While a lot of the pre-Columbian history in Mexico City has disappeared, the endless urban sprawl of the capital’s northern edge, where I spend most of my time these days, is peppered with archeological remains. Most were built by another Mexican indigenous group called the Chichimecas.

The Pyramid of Tenayuca Rises From a Busy Mexico City Suburb

The Pyramid of Tenayuca Rises From a Busy Mexico City Suburb

A curator at an archeological site, called Tenayuca, lost in the labyrinth of the city’s northern periphery, told me that locals here often found archeological remains while building houses on their properties when this region was converted from a dry desert to a city forty years ago.

“Many people have archeological remains in their backyards,” he said. “but they try to hide them and keep it a secret. If the government finds out, they’ll take over your land to preserve it as an archeological site. Nobody wants to move away from their property, so they don’t tell anyone.”

Before I left, the curator pointed at several display cases of Chichimeca and Aztec statues.

“Most of these were brought in by locals who found them while digging on their property. If you ask around, you might find someone willing to show you an archeological site on their property.”

A Young Actor at the Passion of Christ, Iztapalapa, Mexico

A Young Actor at the Passion of Christ, Iztapalapa, Mexico

I asked a bunch of people near the archeological site of Tenayuca, and another one nearby, called Santa Cecilia Acatitlán, but nobody I spoke with knew anyone who possessed such remains on their property. “Nobody would tell you, anyway, cause they’re afraid of losing their property,” was the common response.

One local I met did say that, according to local rumor, there’s still an unexcavated pyramid buried underneath a distant hill with a large Jesus statue on top, not far from Tenayuca. Local lore states that people who settled near the base of the hill uncovered part of the pyramid’s foundation. Afraid of losing their homes and properties, they pitched in to build the giant Jesus statue, a sacred object in a very Catholic country that not even the Mexican government would dare destroy.

During my ill-fated search for the hidden archeological sites, I did meet a middle-aged guy, named Francisco Arroyo, who sells newspapers not far from the site of Santa Cecilia Acatitlán.

Francisco Arroyo at His Newspaper Stand

Francisco Arroyo at His Newspaper Stand

Like many people in the Mexican capital’s outskirts, Arroyo moved to Mexico City from the northern state of Guanajuato in search of work and a better life.

Arroyo has light skin that has forever bronzed over many years spent under the Mexican sun. Locals who pass by his newspaper stall affectionately call him guëro, Mexican slang for ‘white guy’ or blondie.

Despite the fact that Arroyo appears more European than most Mexicans, he considers himself Catholic and culturally Mexican. More on that in a minute.

When he was younger, Arroyo says he never had much interest in pre-Columbian Mexican culture.

“But,” he says, “one day I read a book, called Azteca, by Gary Hennings, and it trapped me in an obsession. I started reading everything I could about Mexican indigenous cultures.”

Arroyo says that ancient Mexican groups like the Aztecs and Mexicas had complex traditions for naming their children determined by the position of the stars. He analyzed where the stars were when he was born, and studied the forgotten traditions of naming children to learn what his name would have been, had he been born centuries ago.

“I discovered that my name would have been Acamatliel, which means, ‘the tenth rabbit of the great cane groves,’ in the Mexican indigenous language, Náhuatl.”

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The Santa Cecilia Acatitlan Pyramid Stands Somewhat Out of Place in a Working-Class Mexico City Suburb

This discovery totally blew Arroyo’s mind because he happened to live right next to the Chichimeca pyramid of Santa Cecilia Acatitlán in Mexico City. In Náhuatl, Acatitlán means, ‘place of the reeds.’

All of these facts confirmed to Arroyo that there was a higher force, pulsating through Mexico, which was driving his life. And this energy was a mix of Christian and indigenous faiths.

I asked Arroyo how he maintained his faith in Catholicism, despite the fact that Christian Spaniards had destroyed most of Mexico’s indigenous culture.

Arroyo cites the story of Juan Diego, the young Mexican boy who in 1531 saw an image of the Virgin Mary on a hillside near Mexico City. According to legend, the Virgin’s image forever emblazoned on Juan Diego’s cloak. The boy showed the cloak to a local bishop who proclaimed it a miracle. Today, the woman that Juan Diego is believed to have seen is known throughout Mexico as the Virgen de Guadalupe. The image imprinted on the cloak hangs in a shrine built on the hill overlooking Mexico City where Juana Diego first saw the Virgin. Throughout the year, Mexicans make pilgrimages, on foot or bicycle, from their home villages and across the country to visit the shrine where the Virgin’s image is stored.

A Painting Depicts the Virgin de Guadalupe

A Painting Depicts the Virgin de Guadalupe

Arroyo justifies his beliefs in Catholicism and indigenous tradition through his research about Juan Diego’s life. Arroyo read every account he could find about Juan Diego, and stumbled across one theory that Juan Diego was the grandson of both Nezahualcoyotl, the ruler of another great city, called Texcoco, just east of Tenochitlan, as well as the great Aztec king, Moctezuma.

Arroyo doesn’t see Juan Diego’s familial ties with the great pre-Columbian kings and his sighting of the Virgin as coincidental. For him, its destiny, a commingling of beliefs that culminated with Mexico’s recognition of the true Christian God.

“The things that you discover when you look into Mexico’s past are beautiful,” Arroyo said. “In schools, they only teach us about European history. We’ve lost so much of our past because of the culture that dominated us.”

As Arroyo said this, I considered how absurd it would sound if a white American said, “our indigenous culture has become lost by the culture that dominated us.”

Arroyo With an Image of

Arroyo With an Image of Huitzilopochtli

But in Mexico, it seems people often identify less with race, and more with this rich, national history where Christian and traditional beliefs blur together.

Before I left, Arroyo gave me a neon blue paper printed with the image of Huitzilopochtli, patron god of war and the city of Tenochitlan. He says that he keeps these images on hand—tucked away behind stacks of newspapers and pornographic magazines which no doubt fuel the majority of his sales—so he can hand them out to curious locals, and tell them the stories of Mexico’s past so the next generation doesn’t forget.

Although Arroyo is an extreme example, I keep having conversations like this wherever I go in Mexico, both with people who come from indigenous regions of Mexico, and guëros, like Arroyo.

And with Mormon missionaries. During my current adventures looking for migration stories in Mexico City’s poor outlying regions, I run into a ton of these guys.

When I first started the urban chapter of my research in Mexico, I often thought I was the only foreigner out of my mind enough to ever visit Mexico City’s outskirts on a regular basis.

Turns out my level of insanity was only equal to that of the Mormon missionaries.

Elder Thompson and Elder Hatch (Left to Right). Mormon Missionaries Work in Mexico for Two Years and Must Save Money Beforehand to Support Themselves Abroad.

Elder Thompson and Elder Hatch (Left to Right). Mormon Missionaries Work in Mexico for Two Years and Must Save Money Beforehand to Support Themselves Abroad.

Mexico has well over a million members of the Mormon Church. That’s right, over a million. It’s the largest number of Mormons in any country outside of the U.S.

Elder Thompson, a 20-year-old Mormon missionary from southern California, spends his days traipsing through lower-class neighborhoods in the north of Mexico City teaching locals about the Mormon faith.

“We get positive responses from many Mexicans,” Elder Thompson said. “A lot of people tell us, ‘I was raised Catholic and was always just expected to believe without asking questions. Nobody ever took the time to actually explain the religious beliefs to me.’”

Even the Candy Land Style Churches in Mexico Exemplify a Mix of European and Indigenous Faiths

Even the Candy Land Style Churches in Mexico Exemplify a Mix of European and Indigenous Faiths

The missionaries willingness to take time and teach Mexicans about God ends in a high rate of conversions.

“I converted five people in my first month,” Elder Thompson said. “My brother, who served as a missionary for two years in Italy, worked an entire year just to convert one person.”

Elder Hatch, a 20-year-old guy from Idaho who has nearly finished two years of service in Mexico, opens up The Book of Mormon and shows me a page where Jesus appears standing on an Aztec ceremonial pyramid before a crowd of Mexican indigenous people in feathered dress who look just like the guys that dance in the Zócalo.

“The Book of Mormon says that Jesus also came to the Americas to preach the word of God,” Elder Hatch told me. “It doesn’t say when, exactly, Jesus came to the Americas, but some Mormons have theorized that much of Mexico’s indigenous religions, especially the beliefs associated with human sacrifice and ceremonial pyramids dedicated to different gods, are examples of how their practice of Jesus’ teachings became misinterpreted over the centuries.”

The Original Cloak Worn by Juan Diego Hangs in the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City

The Original Cloak Worn by Juan Diego Hangs in the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City

I spent an afternoon kicking it with the Mormons and I couldn’t believe that even the American missionaries, to some extent, had incorporated Mexican traditional beliefs into their own religion.

Mexico usually makes U.S. news because of the movement of drugs or poor migrants trying to cross the border.

Northern migration is a huge part of Mexican culture, but at home, many Mexicans define themselves and their country through a strange blend of Christianity, a religion that came from Europe, and traditional beliefs that have long-echoed throughout this part of the world.

Religious beliefs perhaps represent the greatest migration that has ever influenced Mexico. But unlike the physical migration over the U.S border that outsiders typically hear about, it’s this migration of ideas that gives life meaning to many Mexican living today.

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Camping at a Mexican Immigration Checkpoint

In July 2007, as the Mexican drug war was just beginning, I hitchhiked over 3,000 miles across Mexico.

Hitchhiking in Chiapas

Hitchhiking in Chiapas

My journey took me from the deserts of Chihuahua near the U.S. border south along the Mexican Plateau to Guadalajara and Mexico City. Hitching more rides brought me southeast across the steamy plains of southern Veracruz state and on into the Yucatan Peninsula and the Caribbean coast.

From the beach, my sweaty thumb and the kindness of strangers propelled me southwest through the mountains of Chiapas and Oaxaca in southern Mexico, before one last ride with a wealthy restaurant owner took me back to Mexico City.

Along the way, I was picked up by Mexicans who had spent years living in the U.S., and others who had never strayed far from their native villages, by German tourists and a Korean businessman, missionaries and the owner of a Mexican strip club who offered me $1,000 to sleep with him. When I refused, the offer went up to $2,000. When he offered $3,000, I asked him to stop and got out of the car.

But this story isn’t really about hitchhiking at all, it’s about census workers, cocaine, extortion, and the destruction of a country called Honduras.

Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, stretches over a lengthy wrinkle of green mountains. Near the end of my Mexican hitchhiking tour, I once found myself stranded in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital city of Chiapas. That afternoon, a Mexican census worker traveling in a VW bug with his mentally-disabled grandfather had picked me up somewhere in mountains. He told me about how difficult it was doing census work in the remote Zapatista-controlled towns, where revolutionary-minded locals were skeptical of anyone working for the government.

“We had to rescue a coworker of mine last month,” he said, “because the locals had tied him up and held him captive for five days without food or water.”

View From the Window While Hitching in Oaxaca

View From the Window While Hitching in Oaxaca

As the old VW sped around curves in the road, I watched women and children wearing  traditional, bright-colored skirts disappear up dirt trails into the mountains carrying armfuls of firewood. The driver kept yelling about the inequality in Mexico and his dedication to fighting for the lower classes. He told me about spending months in small towns doing census research, so officials in Mexico City could approve the funds necessary to install sewage systems. And then the local mayor stole the funds and bought a new car. “The injustice of it all!” he cried.

“But you know what?” he said. “If I ever have the opportunity to take advantage of the system, and take money from an open box like that guy did, I’m going to do it, because it’s the only way I’ll ever get ahead here.”

It was, far and away, the saddest thing I’ve ever heard a Mexican say.

The census worker dropped me in Tuxtla Gutiérrez at nightfall. I’d made one vow on that hitchhiking journey: not to try seeking a ride a night. I also really didn’t want to spend the night in Tuxtla. So I tried thumbing for awhile on the outskirts of town, the headlights of passing drivers illuminating me for an instant as they sailed past. A few drivers with their windows rolled down beeped their horns at me and laughed.

Eventually, I gave up and started asking people where I could find a safe place to camp for the night. Everyone I spoke with unanimously suggested I walk up the highway leading outside of town and try camping at the police checkpoint. This sounded like a horrible idea to me. But since every single person who I spoke with suggested this, and two guys I asked about camping possibilities at a gas station offered to drive me up the sloping mountain surrounding town to the checkpoint, I decided to give it a shot.

The checkpoint consisted of five armed men in uniform standing by the side of the highway under the ‘Bienvenido a Tuxtla Gutiérrez’ sign. A large blue tarp was strung over a sidewalk along the road.

Here's a photo I took when I arrived at the checkpoint that is completely ridiculous and I'm so happy I didn't delete

Here’s a Self-Portrait That I Took Upon Arrival at the Checkpoint That is Ridiculous, Scary, and Which Today I’m So Happy and Amazed That I Never Deleted

When I arrived the officers were pulling over buses and looking for illegal immigrants—in Mexico. This was one of many Mexican immigration checkpoints scattered around the southernmost corner of the country, places where officers scour every bus in search of non-Mexican nationals who they interrogate, deport, and, according to many Central American migrants I’ve spoken with, extort.

The Mexican immigration officers are so good at their job that most Central Americans hop freight trains that rumble across Mexico north towards the U.S. border. In the Mexican rail yards where they sometimes must wait for days at a time to transfer trains, the drug cartels, and even local police, commonly rob, kidnap, and rape them.

The first thing I saw at the immigration checkpoint was two officers interrogating a young man outside a stopped bus. One officer started yelling on a cell phone to someone who I guessed was a superior. I caught him saying something over the phone about ‘false papers.’ After some deliberation, they led the man to the sidewalk and waved the bus onwards.

I watched for a moment as the young man stood on the sidewalk shaking with nervousness.

A dark van pulled up beside the checkpoint a minute later. Two of the officers lifted the man up by his shirt, flung open the door of the van, and pushed him inside.

The van sped away. Just like that, he was gone.

Then the officers turned to me. I outstretched my hand and introduced myself.

“Name’s Levi.”

The officers instantly gave me permission to camp there. It was remarkable, in retrospect, how unconcerned they were about it. I pitched my tent under their tarp, unrolled my sleeping bag, and settled in for a long night of the big rigs rumbling by, the earth itself shaking as they did so, and the officers yelling at hopeful migrants they pulled off the bus.

“Where you from man? Don’t lie?” I heard the officers yell at another guy around 3AM.

“Cuba,” I heard him say. The conversation ended there, with the arrival of that mysterious black van, no doubt, and the slamming of its door punctuating the end of his sentence.

***

 That was six years ago.

Today, the drug war has been raging in Mexico for about as long. I rarely hitchhike in Mexico anymore—too afraid. An estimated 50% of the cocaine which reaches the U.S. now passes through the Central American nation of Honduras, often arriving at the Caribbean coast. And while yuppie college kids throughout the U.S. were no doubt having a great time snorting the stuff over the last half decade, the Central American gangs were becoming more powerful and starting to partner with the Mexican cartels.

Now the gangs, by many accounts, extort the owners of most Honduran businesses. Many Hondurans refer to this practices a ‘paying rent.’

One of their victims was Juana Obregón

Juana comes from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. She and her family worked for years to open a small store in the front room of their house. They’d only had the store for a few weeks before the local contingent of the Mara, or gang, started demanding money.

“There was just no way we could pay them,” Juana told me.

After missing the first payment, Juana’s family received the first death threat. Juana’s home town of San Pedro Sula has recently been referenced to in a lot of international headlines, such as ‘Murder Capital of the World,’ among other such gloomy sobriquets. San Pedro Sula currently holds the honor of being the city with the highest murder rate on earth; over three people are killed there each day. The city lays in the northwest corner of Honduras, the country with the highest homicide rate in the world; about two people in Honduras are murdered every hour and a half. So when Juana received the death threat, she left, along with her husband, father-in-law, two cousins, and her seven-year-old son.

Mexico City: Many Honduras Fleeing Violence in Their Home Country End Up Here

Mexico City: Many Honduras Fleeing Violence in Their Home Country End Up Here

The only family member they left behind was Juana’s elderly mother. She was just too old to make the difficult journey north, towards that distant beacon of safety: the U.S.

For reasons mentioned earlier in this story, when Juana’s family reached the Mexican border they had to start traveling by train, clinging for dear life on top of the box cars. The eldest member of their family, the grandfather, was in his mid-sixties. Juana’s son was seven.

They made it to a migrant shelter near the train tracks in the northern Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. That’s where they heard there was another migrant shelter in Mexico City that could put them in contact with a social worker who helped Central Americans apply for asylum in Mexico. Obtaining refugee status in Mexico is something many Hondurans fleeing death threats or worse try to apply for. Few are granted asylum, however. But the allure is often too good to pass up. After all, if you become a Mexican refugee, you’ll obtain legal permits to be in Mexico.

Then you can just take a bus all the way up to the U.S. border and keep going towards the real goal.

So Juana and her family headed south for the migrant shelter in Mexico City where I’ve worked as a volunteer for the past eight months.

Juana and I started spending a lot of time together. She was desperate to learn to English. So late nights in the shelter’s office we’d sit together, engaged in the slow task of translating long lists of Spanish words and phrases into English. Then we’d try to agree on the best way to phonetically write the words out so she would remember the pronunciation.

As we sat together one night, Juana admitted how unsafe she felt in Mexico City.

“You know, the Mara works in Mexico too,” she said. “I’m afraid to walk on the street here. What if someone recognizes me and discovers where the shelter is?”

“Well, you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world,” I said. “For that reason only, I can’t imagine a safer place for you and your family to be right now.”

Juana didn’t seem convinced. She was still just so traumatized.

I Snapped This Picture Last Summer During the Inauguration of New Migrant Shelter on the Train Tracks North of Mexico City. It Closed Three Months Later When Cartel Members Posing as Migrants Entered the Shelter in Search of People Who Would Make Good Targets to Kidnap

I Snapped This Picture Last Summer During the Inauguration of a New Migrant Shelter on the Train Tracks North of Mexico City. It Closed Three Months Later When Cartel Members Posing as Migrants Entered the Shelter in Search of People Who Would Make Good Targets to Kidnap

Late one evening, Juana told me that her father lived in Houston and was a permanent U.S. resident. Someone at a migrant shelter had told her that if she could just get over the U.S. border, she and her son could obtain U.S. residency through her father. I’d never heard of this and I told her so.

The next day I asked a lawyer friend of mine who specializes in immigration law if this was true. The answer was no.

“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” I told Juana the next week as we sat before a paper with a bunch of drawings that I’d used to illustrate the difference between a sweater and a sweatshirt (this is particularly confusing for Hondurans because a sueter—pronounced ‘sweater’—means sweatshirt in parts of Latin America), “but neither you or your son will qualify for residency, even if you cross the border. I understand if you still want to cross,” I said, “but I thought you should know.”

Later that night, Juana told me the following:

“I have no option but to try and go to the U.S.,” she said. “I left my mother behind in Honduras because she was too old to ride on the train. Now, she’s there alone and I’m so afraid they’ll kill her. If I stay in Mexico, I’ll never be able to save enough money to get my mother out of there.”

On this particular night, the last night I saw Juana, she had pages of Spanish words awaiting translation. She was happy because her family had just received asylum and obtained permits to live and work in Mexico. But it grew late and we only had made it through half of the words on her list, so I promised to return in two days to translate the rest with her.

The Only Way to Ride: View From the Cab While Hitching Into the Mexican State of Tabasco with a Trucker

The Only Way to Ride: View From the Cab While Hitching Into the Mexican State of Tabasco with a Trucker

True to my word, I came back to the shelter 48 hours later but Juana was gone. The rest of the family had decided to stay in Mexico for the time being to work. Juana, her husband, and seven-year-old son, took the bus north.

I was particularly worried because Juana admitted they had no money to pay for a coyote. Her father said he couldn’t help them, either.

“How are you going to cross with no money?” I once asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I have absolutely no idea.”

A Man Crouches by the Border Fence Between Arizona and Mexico. As You Read This Story, Juana's Most-Likely Trying to Cross the Border

A Man Crouches by the Border Fence Between Arizona and Mexico. The Day This Story Was Posted, Juana Was Going to Try Crossing the Border Again

When I found out she left for the border, I was terrified. Drug cartels have so much control of the Mexican border that coyotes must pay them just to smuggle people across. Oftentimes coyotes work directly with, or have been recruited by, the cartels. I’d heard stories of people trying to cross without coyotes being killed in order to strike fear in others attempting to do the same. Mexican drug cartels increasingly earn money from migrants. As they see it, any migrant crossing without a coyote is stealing from their business.

So I was considering this last weekend and thinking about just how scary it all was. When I heard about the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this week, I was of course equally frightened and upset. I got online that night and checked the Facebook pages of all my friends who live in Boston to make sure everyone was okay. I still feel unsettled.

Just a few hours after learning about the bombing, I started thinking about Juana again. And all the other Hondurans fleeing death threats from organized crime units funded, principally, by cokehead college students in the U.S. Prior to the bombing, I had held out some hope that if immigration reform passes, it might also contain new programs to address and solve the problems in Central America, especially those which force people to migrate, instead of just strengthening border security.

After the bombing, I felt like that chance might have disappeared. Nothing less than a 9/11esque terrorist attack could convince members of Congress, and the American public, that pumping billions more of defense money into border security, also known as the enforcement strategy, is a good idea.

Yesterday, the shelter’s director told me that Juana, her son, and husband had all tried to cross the border near Laredo, Texas the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. The Border Patrol easily caught and deported them to Mexico, from where they’d try to cross again.

I’m currently spending the year in Mexico on a Fulbright research grant. The Fulbright Program prides itself on sending Americans to foreign countries as ambassadors of sorts. When I sat with Juana, though, I didn’t feel like a proud ambassador. I felt ashamed to be from a country who’s cocaine consumption was inadvertently killing about one Honduran national every hour, and at the same time is doing almost nothing to stop it.

In the meantime, however, the U.S. will continue to be really good at stopping Hondurans from crossing the border. And if 9/11 is any indicator, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, we’ll probably become even better at trapping Hondurans in war zones, either at home or on the U.S-Mexico border, way before we ever attempt to end the conditions which force people to try and enter our country in the first place.

If the name, Juana, sounds like it’s made up, that’s because it is. Juana is a pseudonym for a real person currently risking everything for a chance to reunite her family outside of the world’s murder capital.

Posted in Chiapas, Honduras, Mexico, Mexico City, Migrant Shelters, Migrants in Transit, Places | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Like Walking on Broken Glass

Ernesto  Meñeta

Ernesto Meñeta

Ernesto Meñeta earns a living by walking on broken glass.

Well, that’s not entirely true. He also lays on shards of broken glass, collapses on a pile of it chest-first, and to really make a good show, closes his performance by picking up a handful of broken glass and slapping it against his face.

Meñeta is 27-years-old and lives in a makeshift tent consisting of several old pieces of tarp strung to nearby trees. He’s set the tent up in a tiny dirt lot behind The Plaza of the Composers, a small park lined with statues of famous Mexican musicians located in an odd, triangular plot of real estate where two busy thoroughfares intersect on the western border of Colonia Condesa, one of Mexico City’s most chic, high rent neighborhoods.

 The Plaza of the Composers: Meñeta and Miguel Angel Live in the Blue Tarps Hung Up on the Right

The Plaza of the Composers: Meñeta and Miguel Angel Live Under the Blue Tarps Hung Up on the Right

Meñeta was born in Toluca, a neighboring city just an hour west from the Mexican capital. He dropped out of school at age six. His older brothers used drugs and frequently beat him up. Meñeta recalls his brothers saying, “We don’t want you here. Get out of our house.”

So that’s eventually what Meñeta did. Like many young Mexican children who come from abusive families, when he was just nine-years-old, Meñeta ran away to Mexico City and started living on the street.

Miguel Angel

Miguel Angel

In the big city, Meñeta met another boy, named Miguel Angel, from the southern Mexico City district of Xochimilco. The boys joined a gang of street kids who often got in fights with other homeless youth.

Today, rings of scars extend from Meñeta’s left wrist about halfway up his arm. I asked him where they came from.

“A group of boys from a rough part of town near the airport cut me with a knife during a fight when I was 14,” he said.

The scars are so defined, it looks like someone held him down and carved out part of his arm as some sort of systematic torture.

“Look at these,” Meñeta said, showing me fresh cuts on the underside of his other arm. “Last week, a few guys invaded our campsite to rob us and they slashed me with a knife.”

Today, Meñeta and Miguel Angel attempt to lead a quiet life behind the statues in The Plaza of the Composers. They say all the cops who patrol the area know that they don’t cause trouble or commit crimes, so they don’t ask them to move the tent. Some officers even stop to bring them food. They know that Meñeta and Miguel Angel just want to do their glass act on the street for a few hours each day, make some change, and go back to their tent and lay down on the flattened lengths of cardboard they sleep on.

When I first past their tent last week, Miguel Angel was patiently using a rock to break some old beer bottles over a dirty rag. In the art of glass dancing, you want the broken pieces to not be too small, or they’ll easily become lodged in your skin. If they’re too big, however, they might break under your weight and you’ll slip.

For two or three hours each day, Meñeta and Miguel Angel take turns running out to a busy intersection a block from their campsite where they walk and lay on broken glass in front of drivers stopped at red lights. Just before the light turns green, they scoop up their collection of glass in a big rag and solicit the drivers for spare change. If they’re lucky, someone rolls down their window and passes them a few cents.

I could explain their act in more detail, but the following video of Miguel Angel does a much better job:

Anyone who frequently rides the Mexico City subway has probably seen this act before. Watch the video above again and you’ll notice how Miguel Angel has perfected appearing as if he’s hurting himself while barely making contact with the glass.

Many of the guys who do this act on the subway are even more hard core. They also perform their act shirtless, and most have long lacerations on their backs. Some even hold the bars inside the train, hoist themselves into the air, and do flips landing on their backs upon the pile of glass below.

Needless to say, it’s an awful thing to witness.

I worked with homeless adults in the U.S for almost two years, and the resounding complaint they often voiced to me was that the government doesn’t do enough to aid the homeless.

Meñeta Hands Miguel Angel the Large Rag Filled With Glass as the Traffic Light Turns Red

Meñeta Hands Miguel Angel the Large Rag Filled With Glass as the Traffic Light Turns Red

So it totally blew my mind when I asked Meñeta if he thought the Mexican government wasn’t doing enough to help people on the street and he said the following:

“Not really. I mean, there’s a shelter down the street where we can eat breakfast and lunch and take a shower for just seven pesos [about 60 cents]. I did always want to go to school,” he said. “It’d be great if there was some program where we could get an education.”

“And a real place to live,” Miguel Angel chimed in. “I’d love to have an actual home.”

On a good day, Meñeta and Miguel Angel say they make around 200 pesos, about $16 USD. But oftentimes, they only make 50 pesos. But it’s enough to survive.

And to get high. Meñeta says that he now rarely uses drugs, but Miguel Angel admits that he uses drugs everyday. He smokes marijuana and huffs what he calls ‘activo,’ any combination of glue or solvents soaked in a small rag or tissue. The cheapness of these chemicals, and the strong buzz they produce, has made their abuse by poor youth become a problem which has reached near epidemic proportions in Mexican cities.

The Plaza of the Composers

The Plaza of the Composers

The most surprising thing about sitting down and chatting with Meñeta and Miguel Angel is how approachable they are. They smile a lot and are easy to talk to. It’s obvious they’re really nice guys who’ve been forced into a difficult situation.

Miguel Angel would only agree to being filmed doing his act in exchange for money. Before I said goodbye, I handed him all of the change in my pocket: 22 pesos, less than two bucks.

In the U.S., I’ve often seen homeless men and women on the street scoff at receiving such a meager handout. But Miguel Angel gave me a big, semi-toothless smile when I placed the coins in his hand.

For someone who jumps on broken glass for a living, often earning just a handful of pennies, I guess this was a pretty good haul.

Posted in Mexico, Mexico City, Places | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment