The four directions: Cuatro caminos of Mexico

Taking off from most U.S. cities, one can see the edge of civilization, the place where urbanity stops and the countryside begins. Leaving Mexico City, the airplane is surrounded by civilization on all sides. It takes a few minutes to reach an expanse of dry fields and a large canal, but still, settlements abound for miles, cutting through the omnipresent yellowish haze of exhaust and fire and ash and CO2. Colonias, or neighborhoods rise up along the Western Sierra Madre as they have for at least two millennia, their people descending into the valley for cheap Chinese goods and wi-fi and Sam’s Club condiments and returning home to pursue some kind of small trade, a hardware store, a taco stand, an ESL school. And then all civilization is obscured by cloud cover, at last beyond the smog.

Mexico City is an amazingly functional place for such an expanse of humanity. It is hard to comprehend 20 million people in one ancient valley—civilizations on this scale are supposed to fall, torn apart from the inside or invaded by conquering forces. But drive—or better yet, take the newish Metrobus from the southern reaches of the city, Xocimilco, or even Coyoacan, into the Centro Historico and the scale becomes clear. The long boulevards heading north and south along the valley floor take literally hours to navigate. Insurgentes Sur, like boulevards that lead into or out of towns anywhere, is blanketed with restaurants, hotels, dry goods stores, car dealerships, colleges and housing projects. But in most cities that pattern repeats only once or twice. Along Insurgentes, the evidence of urban development, waves of Mexico City’s growth, can be seen time and again, like shards of pottery in an archeological dig. There are even successive waves of Hooters and McDonalds and Burger Kings as the boulevard climaxes at La Paseo de Reforma.

Disembark at Reforma and it’s obvious that all roads lead here. One friend described it as the center of the Spanish speaking world, which is certainly true. But it also seems to be the center of many different universes, with a consciousness and vibration older and deeper than any to be found in the United States. It is at once New World and Old World, a mash up of the European sensibility for lifestyle with the American pursuit of progress. And the indigenous creativity is still alive here as well. This combination of old, new and really old is what makes the culture of Mexico so intoxicating and relevant. It is properly strong coffee (Europe), a million choices for lunch (America), and a stack of piping hot tortillas (Indigenous), to put it in culinary terms. It’s going to the grain mill in the morning to make masa for tamales and then going to Costco for butter and wine. It’s stamped on the music as well: European instruments, American rhymes and industry, indigenous storytelling. Even the language—Spanish was a European language once—incorporates the Indigenous sounds and descriptions of earthly things, and the American (in a broad sense here) drive to innovate, invent, improvise.

And politics here is at once democratic, pragmatic, socialistic and very tribal. Until recently teachers and other functionaries could pass on their civil service jobs to siblings and children (so I’m told). Wherever the increasingly potent battles over the drug trade lead, the solution lies in some combination of democratic bribery for all.

An unexpected benefit of this mission I’m taking is the experience of Mexico in her various forms. I walked across the border from Texas, where a legitimate cross-national mind exists, despite the fog of violence that has infected it in the last decade. I’ve crossed the interior cities and countryside, where generations of migrants have jumped over that border-space to the northern interior, to places like Chicago and North Carolina and inland California and Idaho, where they find fields and hills and dales much like the ones they leave behind, the same fertile valley to which they hope to return.

And now I’ve been to cosmopolitan Mexico, where people on the train bury their noses in their cell phones, commuting to who knows how many jobs in the new economy and the old economy. Where meals cost 6 pesos or 600 on the same block.

And now, I’m heading to tourist Mexico, the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula, where I expect to find a fourth sensibility, one imbued with dependency and caricature. I’ll try not to have too much fun.

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