It was crazy, hot, rainy, pretty, ugly, extravagant, poor, inebriating, exhausting.
Over the next month, I would routinely take out 1,000 pesos for my expenses. Looking over my bank statement, however, I soon realized that this was costing me even less than before. Starting at $76, by the end of my first month by statements showed that those 1,000 pesos were only costing me $69.
What I had considered a luxury at first, however, was now turning seriously sour for the Mexican economy. While a 20% discount rate is nice, in the last few days that rate has reached 35%. And I am willing to take bets that, unless some drastic changes occur, 100 pesos will be bought for $5 by the time I leave in June. That is a 50% devaluation.
Looking back, I suppose I was OK with profiting a little bit at the country's expense. After all, with the exchange rates down for the US, too, I figured it was a more or less "normal" part of the recession. And I think I was just happy to get the "discount." But as the rates continue to slip, Mexico increasingly sinks into hot water.
While exchange rates don't technically affect the prices of domestic products, it does change the prices of imports and exports. Mexicans are now getting less money for the things they sell abroad and are paying more for the things they bring in. And what are they bringing in at higher prices? eighty-five percent of their rice, 65% of their wheat, and 48% of their meat. Mexicans also import 15 million tons of corn from the US each year, a grain that makes up for 59% of their caloric intake, half of their energy, a large part of their protein and is a significant source of fiber and calcium. With the exchange rate getting worse and worse every day, the prices they pay for things are increasing by 20-40%.
Because so much is imported, domestic prices, too, are beginning to rise. Even a local shopkeeper or shoe-shiner needs to charge more so he can eat. And the currency is growing less and less valuable by the day, reaching an all-time low this month. As the Mexican Fed tries desperately to save the currency, there is not much they can do: lower interest rates too much and they risk stagnation, a combination of inflation and low to no growth.
Honestly, I don't understand why the exchange rates have changed. According to conventional wisdom, the US dollar began to drop during the mortgage crisis because foreign investors no longer trusted their American investments. Less foreign investment means less demand for dollars and a weaker exchange rate. As for Mexico, the best explanation I have heard so far comes in the form of a popular maxim: when the US sneezes, Mexico gets a cold. Right now, they are certainly worse off than their neighbors to the north.
With this in mind, I have concluded that the peso is weak because a) less people want to invest in Mexico (just as fewer are investing in the US) and b) the American economy is weak.
But in Mexico, as far as I can tell, nothing much has changed. The country still ticks along much as it did six months ago. There is no new president, no drastic new policies, no new domestic crises. They are still capable of producing as much as before and have the workers and resources to do it. The only thing that has changed is the amount of money available. And it is this that makes financial recessions particularly hard for me to grasp.
The porch door to my room sits open now, and the light of the moon seeps in threw the sheer curtains, which wave ever so gently in the breeze. Sounds from the street trickle in: whistles, cars, vendors, and passersby. But the dangers of the street seem far away; the courtyard is my oasis.
Mexican homes fascinate me. From the street, one only sees walls. Walls and doors and the occasional barred window. They are pretty walls--bright orange, deep blue, whitewashed stucco--but walls they are, hiding everything behind their thick construction. Sometimes, however, just before a gate closes or as a car drives through, you catch a glimpse into that world. And the results are always surprising.
The wall next to my friend's house hides a construction site. Protected by a tent roofing that arches into street view, the property has neither house nor yard. Another one, just around the corner, harbors an orchard on the steps of a white a stucco home. My neighbor, I believe, houses a bank or secret operation, the doors revealing a line of men standing at the entrance and several guards.
In my courtyard, however, I feel protected. While the busy city rushes by outside, my bedroom doors open up onto a tile patio with potted plants lining the sides. I open the window to let the warm breeze in, and no one can disturb me.
At first I, too, thought of sports--there's a volleyball team that practices next door, and I sent a letter to the UNAM track coach. But so far these desires have gotten me no further than the viveros for my weekend runs.
I have taken up a bit of a shopping habit, not only because the clothes are cute and cheap but because I'm convinced that by wearing them I will stick out less. But this is more of a curiosity for me than a way to experience culture.
It wasn't until I'd been in the country a little less than a month that I realized I had already found one of my passions, and one of my projects, in Mexico: sewing. While the actual knitting is no problem for me (and an activity I am nothing short of obsessed with at home), the cultural challenge comes in getting the supplies. To knit a hat, I needed yarn, and to get yarn I had to find a yarn shop. Finding a yarn shop requires meeting other knitters who know where one is, or searching for it online. While Google Maps, which is based in the US, offers a pretty little satellite shot of my borough, it is basically useless for my purposes. What followed, then was an hour long internet search in which I not only learned the Spanish word for yarn (estambre) but where I located a nearby yarn shop and plotted my route to the store.
Once there, which requires two short bus rides (or a long walk) and the navigation of my still relatively unexplored town, I walked past the entrance several times until I figured out how to ring the doorbell at the exclusive little site. Inside, I was confronted with an array of new vocabulary words, from the descriptive terms of each skein (alogodón, acrílico), to learning the gauges in metric and the difference between a gorra and a gorro. Even the checkout was an experience, where my name requires me to spell it out and the woman was utterly confounded by my "berkeley.edu" email address.
Finding time to knit has also been interesting. In the US, I usually knit in class, but I was cautious about trying this even in the Casa de California where we were studying for the first month. My intention to knit at UNAM was even the subject of an entire meal-time conversation with Conchita and her friends. But Tere, my Spanish teacher, was enthused by my work and even wrote down a place in the centro where I could get my yarn for cheaper. She also helped me translate words like pattern and took down my name in case she ever needed any knitting help. Lucia, my history teacher at the Casa was also tolerant of my knitting, and in fact liked my hat design so much that I am making her one for our reunion potluck this week.
I have been a little more cautious about knitting in UNAM. So far I have busted out sticks and yarn in my lecture series class, which has drawn some positive comments from the students. And in my social theories class, my professor used my knitting as an example of something that has become mechanized under the capitalist system.
My biggest triumph so far, however, has not been in knitting projects but rather in sewing. While outside of my mother's house and the occasional borrowed sewing machine from a friend I rarely get to sew, living with a family in Mexico has presented a unique opportunity. After I showed Conchita my yellow dress, she offered to let me use her own sewing machine, and has since passed on three sewing books and her own sketchbook of clothes that she's made. (Below, a sleeveless shirt.)
Sewing in Mexico is a whole other process. Tela stores are way easier to find than yarn shops (and occupy an entire district in the centro), with a variety of fabric in all patterns and materials. My favorite is the selection of stretch jersey knits, which are almost impossible to find in any sort of variety in the US. They have everything from t-shirt material to sparkly American Apparel-type spandex.
What surprised me, though, was the utter lack of patterns. While one of the bigger chains sells a few on a rack in the back, an owner of a smaller store told me that they didn't really sell any here. Conchita is going to inquire with her friend, but until then I will have to be a little more creative.
This is where her books come in. Written in Spanish, they lack patterns but have drawings and measurements to make everything from kid's pajamas to a wedding dress. I'm thinking of starting up a skirt or two and I have been carefully looking up words like pinza (dart) and ojales (buttonholes).
Even as I write this article, my señora and her friend poke their heads in my porch door and ask how my knitting projects are coming along. I show off my dress again, and the friend promises to return with muestros (directions) for her own knitting projects. Conchita invites me to learn a fabric-painting technique.
As my friends browsed the nearby booths I was left to fend off his attack, which took the form of a friendly conversation:
"We should go out dancing sometime."
"Oh. Yeah... sorry i don't know how to dance."
"No worries! I could teach you. When do you want to go?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"Tonight? Tomorrow night? Sunday?"
"Oh, well, I have plans..."
"How do I get in touch with you then? Do you have a cell phone?"
"No... not in Mexico. How much did you say this pair of boots was again?"
Each excuse left him unfazed: like a boxing match, he hit me strike for strike. Of course, my own answers could have been much more direct: "No, thank you." "I have a boyfriend." "I'm not going to put out for you." But in a city where I have relatively few friends, I often don't realize the situation until I am knee deep. And even so, I find it hard to give flat out shut downs to someone who is obviously trying so hard.
Like the victim of any sexual harassment, I wonder: is it my fault? Yes, it was hot today. Yes, I was wearing a dress. (No, it wasn't that short.) Yes, I did straighten my hair and powder my face. My intention? A cute summer look. But suddenly I feel ashamed of how I've dressed. I regret the ruffled hemline and the shaved legs. I pull my hair back and hug my purse tighter to my chest. My desire to be noticed turns in to a desire to disappear.
Rationally speaking, of course, I don't take the matter entirely personally--the other girls also fended off their share of men, with my bustier pal even complying with a request for a hug from a disgruntled-looking middle-aged shopkeeper. The problem was not with us, but with them.
As a lecturer in one of my seminars pointed out, gender equality often means teaching women self-empowerment. You hold up a chart of what men can do, and you teach women to do the same thing. You give them boxing lessons and business positions. The end result should be something akin to a bunch of men, some of whom just happen to wear skirts.
But the problem, he pointed out, is not the women. In D.F. I have the liberty to walk around the city, from the afternoon tianguis to browsing the fabric district in the early night. I wear dresses when it's hot and shorts to run in the park. I take economics classes at UNAM. All of these things (perhaps minus the dresses) most men do as well, and so on paper it would appear as if I have achieved complete equality. The differences, I always thought, were a matter of class or race or some other factor, not gender.
But if I am equal in all of these ways, then why do I still have problems in public? It is not just the man in the store, but the countless men we walked by in our trek through the city. We heard whistles, salutations, sighs of content: our gender affected the way we were addressed and the way we were served.
The problem then, is not women but rather women's relationship with men. This problem not only manifests itself in countless catcalls but has gotten so bad that we are given our own cars on the metro and our own buses on the streets. On the few occasions where I have failed to take advantage of these options I have been groped, rubbed and generally abused.
While men lust after women in all parts of the world, there are different ways this lust is expressed, and different levels of which this expression is tolerated. I believe this is what our lecturer was getting at: it is the culture surrounding men's sexual expressions that needs to change, not the women themselves. Not only do these certain men (and I am by no means implying that all men are this way) see it fit to treat women in such a manner, but it seems that they go generally unpunished by society. Yes women are given their own areas in public transportation, but what are the protections for those who choose to ride in the general cars? Yes we have the freedom to do so, but at what cost?
Another thing that bothers me is the question of what makes me attractive to these men. When I walk down the street, the most usual comment I hear is not that I am pretty or sexy, but rather than I am white. Literally. It is not uncommon for Mexicans to address a lighter-skinned person as a güerra--a blonde or fair-skinned person-- or more commonly güerita (Mexicans also love to add "-ito/ita" onto everything). This pertains to all light-skinned people regardless of nationality, and is even considered as a polite greeting for my darker-skinned Mexican friends. But hearing "Hola güerita," twenty times in a day makes me start to wonder: am I considered attractive because I am white?
The comment also strikes me as considerably unpleasant, and I imagine similar greetings in the same style: "Hola blacky." "How ya doin' slant eyes?" But even more so than these slurs, the comment strikes me because it is meant in a positive light, as if I'm valued for my race. Are they really saying they'd like to make little white babies with me? Surely not, but I wonder if an American of a different race in a summer dress would get the same treatment. She might be spared the harassment, but would also be less valued in such a society.
At the end of a long day, riding in the women's car back to Coyoacán, I did see one thing that gave me hope. There, on the eve of Valentine's Day, were two young men, each with a dozen red flowers for their sweethearts.
While I have long shared an affinity for the treat, in recent weeks it has turned into a craving, a necessity. All I have to do is walk through the door to my room and I am headed straight for the cupboard. Essay writing involves regular breaks as I paw the paper wrapping off my sugary infatuation. Even when I'm not looking for it, street vendors nuzzle up to me at the sidewalk cafe, offering three round tablets for 50 pesos. It is like a drug.
Of course, I am not the first European mesmerized by the confection...
The Spanish, arriving in Latin America in the early 1500s, were captivated by chocolate, which back then took the form of a drink. While its name comes from the nahua word xocoatl (with the x pronounced somewhere in between ch and sh), the plant itself is native to the tropical regions of South America. In Mexico, the cocoa bean was around as early as the Olmec in 1000 BC, and later on preserved by the Maya in hieroglyphs, documenting both its ceremonial and every day uses. By the time the Aztecs ruled the Valley of Mexico and were calling the drink by its present name (which was probably borrowed from the Maya), they cultivated it among the city's chinampas. Cocoa beans were so valued that they were even used as a type of currency: 100 beans could buy you a slave, or a high quality blanket.
From the Spanish conquistadors the chocolate was quickly shipped back to the crown, where it rapidly circulated through Europe. With it, too, spread the name, and some fellow foreign exchange students helped supply the modern-day translations--French: chocolat. German: die Schokolade. Korean: 초콜렛 (chokkolet). Persian: شوكولات، شوكولاتي، كاكائو (shukulât). All similar to the original nahua word.
In Europe, chocolate became so popular that people would drink it in church, refusing to put down their mugs even for the Sunday mass. In another case, cloistered nuns used the warm drink to quench their earthly desires--until it was banned by a curious inspector who questioned the sanctity of the beverage. To this day chocolate is still prized for its powers, as a replacement for sex (as in the movie Down with Love) or as simply a pleasant snack (believed to trigger the release of endorphins in the brain). "Watch someone take a bite of chocolate," said our guide. "He will automatically smile."
Whatever the fix I am getting, I just can't get enough.
Conversely, when Americans think of Mexicans, we think of big families: the quinciñera with two hundred relatives in attendance, the baptism that requires a cathedral, the anniversary that people fly to from all over the world. What I have come to realize, however, is that the difference between the typical American and Mexican families is not their size.
The Mexican family that I have come to know and love, my host family in DF, has but two grown children. Their son has one six-year-old daughter. The low birth rate is in fact a national trend, dropping over the last century from an average of seven children per woman to just over two.
The difference, then, lies in something beyond sheer numbers. It is found in the way they interact rather than the ability to procreate. It is not that we don't love each other any less in the US, or butt heads any more, but the way we see the family is strikingly different. "Do you really not come back to live at home after college?" was one of the first intercultural questions I received. Well no, of course not. Having to return to live with mom and pops is the fear of many a co-ed, a sign that we were not able to make it in the real world. Patty, the unmarried 30-something-year-old-daughter of my host parents, to this day lives at home. Why wouldn't she?
Their son Guicho, who by now has his own house, wife and daughter, is seen here I imagine more than at his own house. In the US this would be a sign of marital trouble (the classic "I'm going home to mother!") and I may have assumed such if his daughter wasn't here even more than he. Weekends are often spent with the whole family dropping in and out, and the typical school night involves Ana Sofia, the infamous granddaughter, perched on the sofa watching TV and ignoring her grandmother's pleas to come take a bath.
When social scientists study Mexican emigration patterns, they chronicle whole towns populated by kids and elders, the latter taking care of their own children's offspring while the adults are away at work in the US. This is also a typical description of poverty in border towns, with parents depicted as being forced to leave their babies at mom's while they work long shifts at factories. These descriptions, while striking, miss the dynamic completely of the Mexican family.
The family I live with is not rich. Ricardo is working into his mid sixties selling water and credit cards on his bike throughout the neighborhood. But they own their own house in a nice neighborhood, and their son owns one nearby. In the next year or so, Patty will also buy herself a home. They live well, if modestly. Yet still, when Anna Sofia is sick and cannot go to school, it is grandma who takes care of her. When Dad goes away on business to the border for six weeks starting next month, it will still be her grandparents who bring her home from school. The family lives together, works together, and shares responsibilities across generations. Their dynamic is not a sign of poverty or desperation, but rather the way the family works in Mexico.
Americans today love talking about the disintegration of the American family. They point out that we don't eat together anymore, that our daughters are getting pregnant and that our sons don't come home. I don't buy it. My family certainly doesn't operate that way. But we are more individualistic, determined to make it on our own before asking for help. The role of the grandmother is to provide candy, not co-parent. This does not preclude, of course the traditional asking of the parents for more money, or the rallying of the clan for the holiday dinner, but it comes as a different perception of what a family should be. We may not see each other every day, but we are just as much of a family as any.
What excites me most about sports in Mexico City, however, is the running. Not more than a few blocks from my house are the viveros, which is the nursery for all the plants in the city. There, in the middle of the city, is my oasis, the area's premier running ground complete with a 2 km dirt path bordering the entire park. There are meter markers, a clock with the time and temperature, and even a big sign advertising a race on Feb 15 (8 am, if anyone cares to go). You can see walkers, families with strollers, and between the trees are people picnicking, religious gatherings, and even karate (or whatever sport that is where they wave around sticks). The track itself is filled with so many runners that on the weekends one almost imagines they are in a road race, swept along with all the other runners. Truly, I have never seen a community quite like it.
Of course, I have been struggling a bit on my runs with the altitude, which is over 7,000 ft. The first time I went out I only made it about 2 miles. The next time, a little more determined, I did almost 5. But today, determined to conquer the altitude and pick up the pace, I decided to do a little AT (athletic threshold--fast running, if you will). On my second round of the park, I kicked it up a notch and was soon following a young guy. His pace was perfect--a good hard pace for me but not out of reach. Of course, noticing that he was being trailed by a girl, he felt a little competitive. The first few times he tried to surge on me, and almost got away, but I hung in there, my racing mentality creeping up. At the end of the 2k, I was breathing hard but pleased that I had done it. "Muchas gracias," I told him. And this is why, above all else in running, I love the runners. Competitive, hard working, but exceedingly nice, he turned, smiled, and we kept up a conversation until I dropped off near the clock to rest.
Of course, I do stick out as one of the few girls wearing shorts.