Wednesday, May 27, 2009

la llegada -- first few days in Mexico City

Since my last visit to Mexico City, when at the end of a month’s stay I escaped to rural Chiapas with bruises on my arms, neck, calf, buttocks, and soul after being mugged in the few sketchy blocks between Arena Coliseo and my hotel, I have insisted that México D.F. is a city of contradictions which remains my favorite and most despised city in the world. Though even when I say this, and whenever I thought about the city, I remembered waves of anxiety and fear much more than the city’s golden light and eternal spring. But in just a few days I have fallen in love again, with no qualms or qualifications, though certainly, like any real love, there is still and always a little fear -- maybe even a speck of hate -- which you just have to get used to in order to experience the depths and rewards of intimacy.

I stepped off the plane Friday afternoon, my mind slopping through rusty Spanish, my stomach trying to mediate between two clashing feelings: that I was on the verge of reunion with a true love; and that the perpetrators of the horror stories that pass for news (and somehow are the only news about Mexico printed in America and Europe) could be lurking behind any corner -- be they microbial or human in stature.
Popocatepetl, 'Popo'
As we alternately flew and crawled to the hotel, I hazarded a few sentences and struck up a conversation with a taxista who took my American-trying-to-speak-French-in-Mexican-Spanish accent in stride. Little by little, day after day, as I order tacos al pastor, guisados, tortas, helados de mamey, horchata, cerveza, and even pulpo (octopus “from the mountains” -- “pulpo de Popo” -- as I joked with my friend Alfredo) -- as I talk to waitresses and street vendors over jugo de zanahoria or elotes -- and especially as my mouth and stomach burn from the chile heaped onto even fresh mango, my Spanish is changing form: melting from rusty word chunks into a rhythmic musical flow that approximates, if not the Mexican accent, then at least my Mexican accent. It is as if re-feeling the tastes and other sensations of Mexico -- the golden sunshine, the cacophony of Norteño music, pop, rock, and jazz played by competing music vendors, walking in the beautiful parks and on the broken but remarkably clean sidewalks (oh how I prefer textural to fecal obstacles!!! I’m thinking of you Brussels and Paris!) -- is opening up not just linguistic memory, but also rhythms of thinking, of expression, of living and forming sound.

This time in the city I’ve been staying in the quieter, historically affluent (that is, 19th-century, not 12th, as far as I know), tree-lined districts of Roma and Condesa. Here you can still get tacos on the street for a few pesos, but you also have treasures like the Maison Fraincaise de thé, the most beautiful -- and hip -- teahouse I’ve had the pleasure to sit and sip in anywhere. I was a little skeptical of the trendy “Cupcakes” shop across the street from my apartment, but the carrot-cupcake I had was the best cup- AND carrot- cake I’ve ever tasted. Today I’ll have lunch at a taco stand that The New York Times and Saveur magazine rave about. The list goes on...

On Sunday I did wander back to my old haunt of El Centro Historico. Along the way I walked along the tremendous La Reforma, the main avenue in the city, which is usually a pedestrian nightmare due to its twelve lanes of bumper-to-bumper, honking, revving, CO2-spewing, macho drivers. But now, and every Sunday, La Reforma is transformed into what must be the biggest bike lane in the world.

At Laboratorio Arte Alameda I saw a sound sculpture exhibition that included David Tudor’s Rainforest, which I’ve always wanted to see and was just as delightful as I’d imagined. Another great piece was Mexican artist Manuel Rocha’s Toco la bateria con frequencia.
David Tudor's Rainforest

Later that day, my dear friend Alfredo and I returned to Salon Corona -- the place where we first met, just over five years ago -- for mugs of cerveza negra de la casa, tacos de pulpo, and tortas de adobado. His polling company -- which he started after working as a journalist for several years -- is doing remarkably well. It was great to hear his thoughts about the last presidential election. I’m glad to hear Alfredo say he believes that the country’s vast political divisions -- a congress that exercises power according to party-line rhetoric and political theatre rather than for productive policy-making (as in my own dear country, only somehow even more exaggeratedly); a presidential election where the runner-up candidate (who lost by just a few-thousand votes) insists he lost because of electoral fraud; and hundreds of thousands of people swarming the streets in protest -- are actually signs of a healthy democracy. And it really is incredible -- despite all the problems in the government, and in each party -- to think that less than a decade has passed since Mexico broke the (~80-year-old) shackles of oligarchical, single-party rule.

I’m now living in the second-bedroom of a lovely flat rented by a Pilates instructor / psychology student who is a longtime friend of Alfredo. It is perfect. This morning I walked out my door and had a quesadilla de huitlacoche for breakfast (fyi -- this is a Mexican delicacy that we barbarically dub “corn blight” North of the border; it is also my favorite food).

And wrestling. Yes, I saved the best (and, perhaps, the hardest to describe) for last.

On Saturday while exploring I happened across a hip little tienda chock-full of Blue Demon masks, t-shirts, photos and memorabilia. Blue Demon was a legendary wrestler who hailed from a campesino family of 12 children in rural Nueva Léon, and became (except, perhaps, for El Santo) the most beloved hero in the history of Lucha Libre. The store is the brainchild of his son, Blue Demon Jr., a wrestler who is apparently keen to both the kitch / hip status of Lucha Libre, and to the contemporary music scene that samples Lucha culture. Anyway, I started chatting up the guy working there, eventually talking about the (amazing!) Lourdes Grobet book of photographs, the fact that I met her, that I myself photographed Lucha Libre, and that I wrestled as El Gato Tuerto (he appreciated the metaphor). So then he started showing me his mask, his matches at Arena Naucalpan (the first D.F. arena I went to), the guy who made his mask, and so on. We kept talking and showing, myself still in stilted Spanish, but functional nonetheless, when he saw my photos taken at Bull’s Gym in 2001. Oh Bull's, he says. You know it? Yeah, I train there. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with Negro Navarro and his two sons.


Bull's Gym, 2001

Of all the places I photographed, none affected me as profoundly as Bull’s Gym. I remember it as a sort of dream -- everything was too good to be true, though my photographs did not do the place justice. Colorful stairs lead you up to a fourth-floor ring, which looks out on grids of gray, red, orange and blue blocks, where people live all the way out to the foot of the mountains that ring the valley of Mexico City. When I went there on Monday, to start practice, the sun was setting (just as when I photographed there) which diffused every orange and pink imaginable through the smog, behind the mountains, and around the gym. As we rehearsed several series of moves, the light faded -- though not the orange -- as lightning flashed all around.

Bull's Gym, 2001
The crowd was small this first night, but this was good for me as the brothers Navarro Jr. gave me a lot of attention. We were a motley crew: a 5’4” former boxer, a guy 6’2” and thick, a husky 12-year old, fearless and skilled, and me. They were excited to have a former “campeon de la lucha olímpica” in me, and before we started to warm up one of the brothers Navarro took me aside to ask “what do you want to learn? locks? leaps?” The movements unique to Lucha Libre -- the acrobatic tosses, and so on, I said, more or less. “How long are you here?” One month in the Distrito. “Okay, I know what we’ll do...”

I should say that just the day before I had bought Lucha magazines, then turned on the TV to find lucha programming, and both made me wonder why I came down here for this project. TV luchas have turned into soap operas just like in the U.S., where the drama is stupid and the acting is terrible, but somehow, I guess, it keeps people watching for an extended broadcast time, through more commercials. The magazines aren’t too different. But in Bull’s Gym, in the ring, I remembered.

In an intense hour-and-a-half session I learned several moves and series of moves. Many of them have common roots with the wrestling languages I know better (American, Greco-Roman, and Freestyle wrestling, or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu). Others do not. But I was startled at my ability to pick up these series so quickly: when we were starting out, the other wrestlers did a complex series of moves that I thought beautiful, spectacular, rhythmic -- a tender dance of machismo -- but which I had no idea how to execute. Our instructor said “just let me know if there’s something you are unfamiliar with.” Umm... yeah. Pretty much everything. “No problem.” We broke it down. I was bad. I was really bad. Then I got it.

And yes, it is very different than Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, American folkstyle, or Greco-Roman wrestling. But there’s something the same. It’s something in being absolutely present in one’s body, in moving and reacting to another, both of us exerted to our limits. And it’s more than that, but that’s a start. That’s my start. I don’t know where it’ll lead, but it doesn’t matter so much. It’ll lead somewhere, and I’m just trying to be in the middle of it: to experience, to act, and to be taken; to be.

2 Comments:

Anonymous josephine said...

oh my god. i can't wait what's next. (see... i can hardly speak!)

May 27, 2009 at 7:22 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Charlito, so amazing to read your words and live vicariously in that wonderful city. Happy to see and hear how excellent you are.

Re: huitlacoche, I was surprised last summer to see some of it for sale in our co-op here in Sacramento. Though "corn blight" is a sad testament to American (agroindustrial) food values, I like the alternative phrase used in some parts del Norte: "corn smut." It sounds dirty and forbidden, like something you want to eat but then not tell anyone about for fear of their judgment (or their mad rush to get some of their own). I picture young midwesterners hiding stashes of corn smut beneath their mattresses and surreptitiously making quesadillas de huitlacoche when no one is looking.

Stay well brother.

March 31, 2010 at 1:23 PM  

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