Before wading back into research in Washington, I feel obliged to step in lest my readers come away with a bleak, violent image of Mexico City. When I made my unsteady way back to the house where I was staying, my hosts were stunned; in decades of living in DF, they’d never witnessed anything like what I saw outside the café. And my poor luck aside, the most lasting impression of Mexico City will be of the warmth that greeted me on that cold afternoon in Polanco. My four weeks in the capital were spent enveloped in hospitality, from the friend who stayed up until 3 a.m. to meet my taxi from the airport to outings for tacos and movies to a constant concern for my well-being and the success of the project, offering tips and contacts at a moment’s notice. So, as I return to the rhythm of investigation 2,500 miles to the northeast, a heartfelt thanks to my capitalino hosts, who, in turn, are welcome anywhere I may be living.
NB: I wrote this post a week ago, but, in an attempt to not alarm loved ones, I’m only publishing it now.
Mexico City’s Museo de Antropología has dedicated ample space to chronicling the history and culture of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, with case after case of religious and artistic artifacts, but the items that draw in lingering crowds are all too predictable. The stone images of Death, baring its teeth and with its hands curled as if about to pounce, its liver hanging naked below the ribcage. The heaped oval blades of sacrificial weapons, looking as delicate as fallen leaves. The smashed skull with a knife between its lolling jaws. The statues of Chac Mool, looking balefully upon schoolchildren and German tourists, holding out the empty plates on their stomachs as if to show their hunger. I found myself shivering and backing away from more than one display case: a statue representing the head of a dead man (“with the skin drawing close to the skull in rigor mortis,” a plaque noted helpfully), the agonized face of a god, or the icons showing the malevolent spirits of women perished in childbirth. Death was so close. One warrior statue held a sharpened bone and used it to gesture towards its heart, presumably for easier removal. I wondered if the ochre stain covering one pedestal was what I thought it was.
I spent a long while wandering through the exhibits — a cold afternoon, the newspapers said it was the coldest day of the year — and then walked against the wind over to a café, one of my usual haunts, to watch a bit of the match between Mexico and New Zealand. Most of the way along the avenue was closed off with yellow tape; workers were breaking up the sidewalks with sledgehammers. When I rounded the corner to the block with my café, I ran into more yellow tape.
Great, I thought, they’ve decided to take up all the sidewalks in Polanco at one go. As I skirted around, eager to get into the warmth, I saw that the sidewalk up ahead was intact. Well, there was some diplomatic branch of the New Zealand government in the building nearby; maybe they’d roped it off in case Mexico fans decided to take their post-game energy on the Kiwis. Continue reading
One day in Sunchales, I trudged back into the hotel lobby after an unproductive trip to various organs of municipal government. The perennially cheerful receptionist greeted me and asked what was wrong, and I reeled off a list of dead ends and frustrations. “Well, chin up,” he said, grinning. “You’ve got to have hope.” “I don’t have much,” I said in Eeyore-like tones, and slouched upstairs. I’d just set down my backpack and sat down at the little table when the phone rang. “It’s someone for you,” the receptionist announced in a tone of slightly smug excitement. “Someone who knew the Badariottis.” A friend of the family had heard me on the radio and called the hotel; I interviewed her, which led me to another member of the family, which led me to a half-dozen other interviews, which led to visits to the country and the screening of the documentary in Sunchales.
I was still displeased at the timing of the phone call, though — utterly theatrical. Continue reading
I feel I ought to apologize for a research phase spent only haphazardly blogging, and mostly posting photos at that. There are a couple reasons behind it, some better than others. First of all, I wouldn’t call Mexico a dead end, but I haven’t stumbled across any great troves of documents or come to any stunning realizations, which were infrequent but welcome highlights during my time in Argentina. It’s been more like my first month in Rio: slowly putting together more crumbs of information (from census records, press clippings, suspicious and distant relatives) and seeing more of a beautiful landscape in the meantime. I do feel that I’ve tried as hard as I can to make headway. My witnesses are days and days spent scrolling through newspapers from 1946-1951, weeks of bombarding strangers with plaintive Facebook messages (one stonewalling relative eventually told me that she “admired my tenacity”), dozens of wrong numbers and deactivated phone lines, and multiple interviews where I found that I knew more than the interviewee. This is what I expected research to be — painstaking, slow going, and reinforcing the sense that almost all has been lost to time.
In the absence of the slightest promising trail, then, I surrendered to the enthusiasm and curiosity of “los chicos,” the new friends-turned-film crew, and happily hitched rides across the city and outside it, to Mixquic, Cuernavaca, Cholula, and Teotihuacán. “This is mainly recreational, as you can see,” I said sheepishly to an American businessman in line for the pyramids at Teotihuacán who saw my red hair, perceived a compatriot, and was soon asking about my fellowship. “¿Recreativo?” The Director asked me later, with a tone of mock indignation as we stood before a faded mural of a puma, its coat worn down by the sun from scarlet to salmon. “This is part of your research.” Continue reading
An afternoon spent clambering through the sculpture garden at UNAM. “Don’t you feel as though you’re wasting time?” Sometimes, but I can’t help but feel that this is a valid part of the experience. Santiago would berate the tourist who spent all her time in Mexico in archives and on Google.
On one of my last days in Buenos Aires, every other street corner I passed in Recoleta had a person selling feather dusters. These seem like they would do.
Collateral decoration. Continue reading