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.
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.
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.
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.
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):