Liza Monroy, author of Mexican High, shares her experience returning Mexico City for the first time since high school.

March 1, 2008

Revisiting the Past in Mexico City

I lived in Mexico City during high school, between 1994 and 1997, years when I was unconsciously researching my first novel, Mexican High. I wanted the book to accurately reflect this complicated, fascinating mystery of a city, a place where Rodeo Drive—like Avenida Masaryk represents a privileged microcosm within a largely developing nation. For a teenager—and my school more than slightly resembles the fictitious one my main character, Milagro Marquez, attends—Mexico City was a place full of temptations: classmates’ wealthy parents were often out of town, and drivers and bodyguards ensured safety but, as hired help, never refused to take us to nightclubs and bars, which were open all night. A common expression went, “If you’re old enough to see over the bar, you’re old enough to drink.” It was controlled chaos, a unique, surreal world I wanted to tell a story about ever since I moved back to the States.

At twenty-seven, I was revising the first draft of Mexican High and working as a freelance journalist in New York City when I read online that MTV and Frommer’s were collaborating on a guidebook series and seeking writers for the Mexico edition. I hadn’t been back to Mexico City; I was inventing the novel’s plot sitting in cafes in New York. I interviewed and several months later, I was hired.

1994, my first year in Mexico, had been a chaotic one in the country’s history: Zapatista revolutionaries in Chiapas, the peso’s devaluation from three to twelve to the dollar, the assassination of favored presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, and the volcano Popocatépetl’s near-eruption. How different would it be now? I wondered. It was an interesting time to return: the streets in the city center were shut down by protestors who’d flooded into Mexico City from all over the country to protest former mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador’s loss of the presidency to Felipe Calderon. My family was worried about my being down there while the protests were in full swing; news reports had described tear gas and riots in the plaza.
In my taxi from the airport to the Condesa neighborhood, where I was staying at cool colonial Condesa D.F. (www.condesadf.com), my new favorite boutique hotel, I thought, Even the air still smells the same. Memories rushed back and it immediately struck me why I had been consumed, haunted, and fascinated by the Mexican capital’s dramatic cityscape. One of the world’s largest cities still felt like my hometown, even though I had no family and very few friends left there.

In the morning, I wandered alone through Lagunilla, a crowded outdoor market where vendors sell everything from clothing to art, antiques to puppies (!). As I strolled toward Plaza Garibaldi, even though I’d been warned to take a cab because it was peligroso, I revived some of the old rebellious adolescent spirit by sampling pulque (an ancient alcoholic Aztec beverage made from fermented maguey, an Agave plant) at ten in the morning. As I made my way further to the majestic Zócalo to revisit Casa de los Azulejos, the house of tiles, which now houses a Sanborn’s department store and restaurant, I realized I was coming up on the protest and prepared to run the other way if I needed to. But I encountered something completely different than I’d expected from the news reports—a political protest, Mexican-style. The atmosphere was that of a carnival, with kids’ rides, tents, the smell of outdoor cooking, songs, and music. There was no violence. People were everywhere, but the magnitude of the protests, other than in size, had been exaggerated by the media.

Protestors also shut down Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main avenues. This caused major traffic calamities—getting from one place to another became a baffling challenge for drivers. I walked in the middle of Reforma, taking in scenes from the protest (a soccer match, plentiful beer-drinking in lawn chairs), and was glad I hadn’t rented a car for my time in Mexico City.

I did drive to Valle de Bravo, a verdant lake town three hours outside Mexico City that’s a popular weekend retreat for the city’s elite, as well as adventure-seekers. It’s one of the paragliding capitals of the world. While staying at adventure-sporting eco-lodge Rodavento (www.rodavento.com), I reported on the best paragliding schools (www.flymexico.com), hikes (my favorite leads to Velo de Novia—“Bride’s Veil”—a waterfall), and spas (www.elsantuario.com), but my real mission was to rediscover the points of reference I’d written about in the chapter of the novel set in Valle de Bravo. The restaurants and clubs I’d gone to in high school were still there, repopulated by a new generation of cute young revelers in designer outfits. For the first time, ten years felt like a lifetime ago.

Back in Mexico City, the day before returning to New York, I rode the subway for an hour to UNAM, the largest university in the Americas. In the vast field known in my novel as “Las Islas,” which looked exactly the same as I remembered, I sat under a tree and watched students walking to and from classes, playing soccer, sitting in groups eating lunch and talking, and thought of my own experience attending school in sprawling, wild, often-overwhelming Mexico City, and how it ultimately had come to feel like home. I wrote in my journal of the “smells and sounds of a city no longer mine,” my amazement at revisiting places of my past, years later and far calmer. I found that as much as I had changed, the city that had been my obsession for years really hadn’t.

Liza Monroy is the author of Mexican High, coming June ’08.

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