Friday, January 23, 2009

Pero en Coyoacan, No

I have so far been very impressed with my experience in Mexico City. Its history is inspiring. The transportation accessible, the shopping to my liking and the weather agreeable. My school is beautiful and my home nearly perfect. The streets of Coyoacan, my neighborhood, are lined with trees and good places to eat. On the weekends they come alive with people dancing in the plaza, browsing the market, and eating ice cream with their sweethearts. I have even found a yarn shop and have begun to knit a hat for Sean. All in all, it is a perfectly fine place to live.

But what I sometimes forget is that even here, in a country that teeters on the brink between First World and Third, I live an incredibly privileged life. The comparably cheap ($2,500 peso/$200 a month) rent I pay is out of reach to many in the city, where minimum wage is barely $8 a day. I eat out every night (even if it's just at the corner taco stand) and I spend the weekends exploring the city or traveling to nearby ones. The 80 cents I pay for my daily fresh-squeezed orange juice would be a boon in a beggar's cup.

Coyoacan in itself holds a special privilege and is often counted as apart from the city itself. Before the 1970s, people dressed up just to come here, and today the wealthy middle class still stroll along the streets. The likes of Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Hernán Cortés once called this place home (the communist leader even stayed, with Coyoacan marking his final resting place).

The most obvious mark of privilege today, however, is in Coyoacan's exceptionality: "Pero en Coyoacan, no." Whether the city is affected by water problems, natural disaster, or deteriorating buildings, Coyoacan is always the exception.

This year, in the face of a drought, each of the city's districts will experience three non-consecutive days a month without water. "Pero en Coyoacan, no:" most of the residents run on their own private wells. The city has also been plagued by earthquakes, with the most recent sismos in 1985 toppling hospitals, apartment buildings and government offices. "Pero en Coyoacan, no:" here the buildings are sturdy and safe. In the rest of the city, neoliberal budget cuts have threatened public works projects. "Pero en Coyoacan, no:" the main plaza is currently undergoing an expensive government renovation.

Coyoacan is an illusive entity to those who try to essentialize Mexico. For them, it is all rural, or a clogged urban metropolis. It is poor campesinos and victimized maquiladora workers. It's violent and unstable. The food will make you sick and the water will have you peeing out your ass.  These things do exist in Mexico, but it is also so many things that my countrymen cannot imagine. Aztec ruins come alive in the center of one of the world's largest cities. It bosts carefully built architecture, a modern metro system. In all honesty I feel safer walking around here at night than I did stepping out of my apartment in Berkeley after dark. 

I realize that Coyoacan is an exception, not the rule. But what is the rule in Mexico? In a country with 32 states, in a city of 30 million inhabitants, all I can do is live one exception at a time. Each place with its charms, each place with its problems. 

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