Although my last several blog posts were geared more toward current events, I thought I would take a break from writing about the pandemic (like I did here and here) and instead reminisce about the last trip I took prior to the WHO declaring what was once an Public Health Emergency of International Concern a full-fledged pandemic. I touched on this international jaunt during my first post on COVID-19; my trip was taken to attend a travel conference held by the company for whom I was previously employed. A large portion of the reason I attended the conference was to explore México City, México. As a Spanish-speaker and self proclaimed hispanophile, I had yet to visit our Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south and promptly jumped on the opportunity to take in the sites, sounds, and attractions of CDMX.
The conference itself was wonderful, but what most intrigues me about visiting a Latinx country is interactions with the locals. I count myself fortunate to have a decent level of Spanish and am able to converse fairly easily with native Spanish-speakers, which affords me the opportunity to travel to 20 countries without having to worry about communication (save for strong accents – the “ll” from the Río de la Plata region still throws me from time to time). Hispanic hospitality is not new to me – I spent five months backpacking solo around Ecuador and Perú a year ago – but being in the U.S. for a year had reoriented me back to the individualistic society with which I am so familiar. It was, therefore, highly refreshing and emotionally touching to have three specific interactions that strongly stand out in my memory. As it’s looking as if I won’t be travelling anytime soon, much less hopping on a plane, I’m taking the time to reminisce about the three Mexican boys/men who made an impact on a solita gringa like me.
The first interaction is the reason I had to specify above that not all of these individuals were men – in fact, I don’t know if he was old enough to classify as a teenager (I’m not a mother and rarely spend time with people under the age of 20, so identifying a child’s age is not my strong suit). For the sake of this story, let’s call him a 13-year old named Mario.
Mario and I met during my visit to Teotihuacán, an ancient Mesoamerican city about an hour’s bus ride outside of CDMX. I had taken a public bus without a tour group to reach Teotihuacán on my second day in México. It was a hot day consisting of lots of standing in the sun waiting to climb La Pirámide del Sol (fun fact – it’s one of the world’s top 10 largest pyramids!).
After climbing to the top of La Pirámide del Sol and then descending, I hoofed it down La Avenida de los Muertos, bypassing all of the other pyramids to get to the second most popular – the Pirámide de la Luna. Once at its base, I sped up the steep, narrow stairs, thrilled that this smaller, nonetheless magnificent, pyramid had no lines on which to wait. After lots of time in the sun and several minutes of climbing steep ancient pyramid steps, I took some time to
catch my breath explore the top of the pyramid and then settled myself down to sit near one of its edges.
Mario enters the story here – being the precocious teen he is, he separates from his family and sidles up to where I’m sitting. After only a brief interlude of niceties and introductions he begins asking me questions in rapid-fire Spanish. His questions are the kind only a teenager would ask a complete stranger – have I ever visited China? (at this point we all knew that the coronavirus had originated from China, although we were all grossly naive to the impact the virus would have on our lives in the coming months), what did I buy today from the vendors at the ancient ruins? and, most importantly, do I like the U.S. or México better?
I answered all of his questions to the best of my ability, and he seemed halfway content with my answers (and halfway simultaneously disappointed and uninterested in a way only teenagers can emanate). At one point he scooted closer to the ledge of the pyramid level upon which we were sitting, nonchalantly swinging his legs over the edge. Peering over the pyramid’s fence-less perimeter, which clocked in at about 65 feet high, I hazarded a wild guess – “You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”
Mario looked at me, tilted his head, and responded that he wasn’t. “If you’re afraid of life,” he added, “you’re never going to live.” So shocked was I by the profound knowledge this little boy had just dropped on me that I stuttered a response of “green” instead of “true” (…. I swear, guys, I do speak Spanish). Satisfied I had nothing further to offer him, Mario moved on to explore the rest of the pyramid. I turned to a group of girls sitting to the left of me who looked at me wide-eyed and knowingly, as if to say that they, too, realized Mario’s statement was wise beyond his years.
I don’t have to make up a fake name for my next Chilango (a demonym for México) interaction, as we exchanged not only names but phone numbers, and I’ve sent him numerous WhatsApp messages since returning to the States. Fernando and I met on the bus ride back to México City from Teotihuacán. I happened to sit down next to him on the bus, as it was the only free seat I could find. We started the bus ride in silence – I believe he was napping when I first sat down. However, at some point he woke up, turned to me, and started conversing in Spanish as if he knew I would respond back in his native tongue. Why he thought I understood and spoke Spanish is something I don’t know, as no one in their right mind would ever confuse me for a Latina. Regardless, we passed the hour-long bus ride chatting away. Fernando whipped out his Facebook profile and showed me photos of all of the Mexican sites I wouldn’t have time to visit this trip, but I stored them away in my mental Rolodex of locations to visit during future trips. He told me he was a student at the military academy in México City and had plans to spend this summer in Canada taking English classes.
Fernando was very kind in correcting my Spanish when I asked him to do so, as well as teaching me the Mexican colloquial term desmadre, which he described to me as meaning, among other things, “cowse.” …Huh? After a bit more probing I realized he was saying “chaos.” To show my gratitude, I figured it was only fair to teach him a colloquialism from the U.S. Ever the classy and distinguished lady I am, I reciprocated by teaching him the high-brow English version of chaos – that being clusterf*&k. I made sure to point out if he were talking to a respected individual he should drop the second half of the word and just say cluster – because class, obviously.
After our grammar lesson our bus dropped us off at CDMX’s northern bus terminal, Fernando and I realized we were going in roughly the same direction on the inner city metro so we decided to ride together. He had explained to me that, as a student at the military academy, he had a strict 8:00pm curfew by which he had to return to the base. However, since he had sufficient time before 8:00pm, he offered to ride to my metro stop with me, which would have meant riding past his transfer station and significantly out of his way. While flattered, I told him that was a very thoughtful thing he had offered but there was no reason to do this. Instead, we could ride together on the metro to the point of where he would transfer lines and then we would both get off – him to transfer to his other metro line and me to transfer to the women & children only cars (unfortunately México City’s metro is notorious for being the site of sexual harassment and sexual assaults, so the city government has instituted these cars as an added measure of safety for women).
Assuming we were on the same page with the plan, I hopped on a non-women & children train car with Fernando and chatted as the stations whizzed by. When it came time for his transfer Fernando had to help shove me off the train car, as it was so jammed with people that we almost didn’t make it out before the doors closed. I didn’t have enough time to move to the women & children car on the same train before the doors closed, so I decided to say goodbye to Fernando and then move to the women & children (from now on referred to as W&C) car on the subsequent train. After disembarking I went to give Fernando a hug so I could switch to the W&C car, but noticed he was not moving away from the tracks. After some clarifying conversation, it turned out that there was a miscommunication, and that he was still insisting on accompanying me to my final stop – so much so that he was willing to hop back on the all-sexes-and-ages permitted car while I switched to the W&C car, just to make sure I made it to my destination safely. This would be absurd, I told him, but I couldn’t talk him out of it. One thing you can say about Latinos is their hospitality is never-ending. So we both jumped on the all-sexes-and-ages permitted car when the next train came and rode to my final stop, where he walked me to the gate and we exchanged a hug and our WhatsApp numbers. I bid him farewell and made him promise to get back to base in time – I couldn’t have him getting kicked out of the military on my conscience!
The final interaction I had was with an elderly gentleman with whom I exchanged names at the time, but I have since forgotten his. For brevity’s sake, let’s call him Ronaldo.
I had taken the morning to explore El Museo y Zona Arqueológica del Templo Mayor, another archeological ruins site, this one located just a few blocks off of CDMX’s main square, Plaza de la Constitución, better known as Plaza del . As I was meandering through the archeological site, peering at pieces of MesoAmerican history, an elderly Mexican gentleman of at least 65 years wandered over next to me. He made a banal remark to me in English, and I smiled and responded in Spanish. His face immediately lit up. Delighted to hear I spoke Spanish, we bantered back in forth in a mix of the two languages. As we walked through the Templo Mayor ruins I learned he was from outside of CDMX and had come into the city for an appointment he had in about an hour and a half. Ronaldo loved the opera, and repeatedly implored me to listen to beautiful Spanish operas, the names of which he rattled off to me. Ronaldo explained he had never travelled to the United States, but had always wanted to. However, his wife was more of a homebody than he (can one call a 60-year old Mexican woman a homebody?) and had no interest in travelling to see their northern neighbor, so he still had not visited the U.S. We also talked about the archeological site itself – imagining what it would have been like to have discovered such an ancient site and how uncomfortable the archeologists we saw perched atop unforgiving rocks and working away in the hot morning sun must be.
We eventually meandered our way into the indoor museum portion of the site, fact checking each other as we went along (“Now this ancient stone piece is an altar to the mesoamerican god of what, again?”). We had made our way over to a stone wall into which was carved dozens of skulls. Ronaldo had been, once again, explaining the beauty of the Spanish operas he loved.
“Here, here, let me show you,” he said. Without missing a beat, the elderly gentleman I had only met an hour earlier opened his mouth and began serenading me with soft opera music, his voice rising and falling and the notes wafting through the museum. I stood there smiling, a look of a mix between amazement and bewilderment plastered to my face. When he stopped his song a few minutes later I clapped in awe.
“One more,” he declared, and broke out again in a different song. As I stood with a novice aging opera singer in the darkened corner of a Mexican museum at 11am one Monday morning, I thought to myself that this experience would never be replicated in the U.S. This, my friends, is the epitome of Latinx hospitality.
As quickly as it started, my dear friend Ronaldo’s song ended, and as I clapped heartily a second time I turned to see a European-looking female tourist with her camera around her neck, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. She clearly wanted to take a look at the skull wall in front of which we were standing, but she was trying to give us some space and not crowd the museum corner. I couldn’t tell if she had heard Ronaldo’s soft melodies, but as I turned to look at Ronaldo he declared it time to go to his appointment and scampered off. I moved to the side to let the woman pass me, standing dumbfounded for a minute and thinking about what had just transpired. As I looked around me for someone else to bear witness to this beautiful interaction, I was unable to find a single soul who could confirm it was not, in fact, a lovely musical dream.