Saturday, December 8, 2007

"American Chamber keeps business booming"

(Published December 7, 2007 in The Guadalajara Reporter)


Guadalajara is fully integrated in the international business community, and its chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce is on top of the game.

Under the leadership of its respected founder Adolfo Horn, who died earlier this year, the chamber can claim responsibility in years past for attracting the likes of Kodak, IBM and Motorola to the city. The former tourism (now hospitality) committee has contributed such ideas to the local economy as the double occupancy tax for hotels, the Tequila Express tourist train, and the renovation of historic haciendas into “boutique hotels.”

The chamber’s fiscal committee in particular, whose meetings see the highest attendance by corporate members, has lobbied against double taxation for U.S. companies as a result of recent fiscal reform.

“We seek to support better conditions for businesses here in Guadalajara, with our eight active committees,” said Claudia Grossi, director of the Guadalajara branch. Grossi is an economist who has been involved in investment promotion in the state of Jalisco, within the academic realm and in connection with the chamber, for more than a decade.

The Guadalajara division boasts close to 500 corporate members. Its committees establish a forum for initiatives contributed directly by local business leaders.

The most recent business development committee, for instance, was held on November 27 and chaired by Eduardo Lafaire of Parque Industrial Guadalajara. The topic of the meeting was “Information Security in Technology Networks,” led by Salvador Ledesma of Internet Solutions de Mexico.

Ledesma showed a Power Point presentation, highlighting daunting figures of loss to fraud and viruses the Mexican economy suffered this year. He paused often to solicit dialogue from attendees.

“The culture of security right now is very narrow,” explained Ledesma. “The reality is that it’s important to us, but we want a quick and simple solution. It’s very important now to have a vision of security; we have to investigate our options.”

Rafael Farga, of Soporte Industrial, lamented this attitude. “It’s like a home alarm system – in what moment do people buy it? After they’ve been robbed.”

When asked how his company works to ensure its clients’ security, Benjamin Garza of BBVA Bancomer explained that they inform their customers how to avoid fraud, and provide them guarantees and alerts.

Ledesma emphasized the importance of maintaining a secure technological environment by preserving a system of checks and balances within each corporate entity so that the same department that designs the system does not control it.

A loss of security, he insisted, not only has an economic and competitive disadvantage, but will damage a company’s reputation.

While the Chamber’s Business Development Committee supports local economic efforts, the International Commerce Committee explores opportunities for Mexico in the global market.

On November 16, Alejando Sahagún of Jaltrade led a presentation on the Chinese market.

“China is here to stay, and we owe it respect,” said Sahagún, who sees a world of opportunity in Chinese trade and does not want Mexico to miss out. Not only should Mexico develop more business overseas, but should model economic decisions based on China’s approach.

Diversification of the Chinese market, for example, exempted the country from a global recession in 2001. According to Sahagún, Mexico would benefit from the same strategy.

Attendee Yuri Mariel, of AssaAbloy (Tessa), a hardware company, asked about how foreign companies “dumping” products into the market at extremely low prices might affect the local market. For example, a customer might choose a Chinese-made light fixture over the Mexican, albeit of lower quality, because it costs 20 pesos versus 100.

In response, Sahagún discussed quotas and new “anti-dumping” regulations Mexico should investigate to maintain fair prices and higher product quality.

“Don’t leave this only to the government,” implored Sahagún to the business leaders. “The American Chamber has a direct connection to the government and this is the place to go about discussing it.

“But this is our responsibility, we can create the links. Sell over there, open businesses – there is opportunity.”

Friday, November 30, 2007

"Exchange students thank hosts with a taste of home"

(Published November 30, 2007 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

Photograph by : Meredith Veto

    Laura Lomeli and Saron Hardin-Smith enjoy what’s left of two Thanksgiving turkeys.


It was a sight for sore eyes: a dazzling spread of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, cabbage and holishkes, pumpkin pie… and turkey. Two, in fact—razed to the bone in the delicious tradition that brings U.S. families together every year to celebrate gratitude for the harvest and one another.

The chefs in question were 14 students from Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina who study at the Universidad de Guadalajara’s Centro de Estudios Para Extranjeros. The students spend a semester living in Mexican homes, sharing the table each day with their surrogate families. And as their time draws to a close, what better way to express gratitude for their love and support than to offer a traditional U.S. feast.

The meal was hosted in the home of Roberto Gomez, director of the Intercolonias program in Lomas de Oblatos. More than 20 years ago, Guilford College established a relationship with the Mexican social justice organization, which is based on the teachings of Paulo Freire.

Approximately 30 colonias in Guadalajara are involved in the effort to improve infrastructure, build credit unions, and manage a youth sports league, among other community ties. Guilford College students maintain an ongoing dialogue with members, discussing current issues and cultural challenges.

But conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner strayed far from political discourse.

The house was so packed that people poured out the open front door, plates of food in hand; kids darted between legs and chucked tazos (Pogs) on the floor. Friends laughed and joked, lamented their imminent departures, moaned and patted their full bellies with satisfied smiles.

As the night wore on and the tequila ran out, folks drifted outside into the comfortable chill, and departed with extended hugs and good wishes. It felt like home and richly so, in the way that good food and company usually does. No tradition was lacking; in fact, a new one was added:

A dancing chicken. The holiday coincided with the birthday of a partygoer, whose friends hired a man in a chicken suit with a boombox to join the fun.

We’ll call it Mexico’s version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

La Noche Fea

Guadalajara, Jalisco – November 24, 2007, just before midnight. A friend was detained by the police (for reasons that remain unclear) and escorted in a patrol car to the dark outskirts of the city, where he was restrained and beaten brutally by five officers. The next day he recovered in the hospital and reported the incident to the Juzgado Municipal’s internal affairs office. A lawyer advised him that actions may be taken against the officers if he can recognize them in a line-up, but he will not recover damages.

My phone rings at 12:30 a.m., rousing me from a half-dream featuring Erin Brockovich, still playing on the television I forgot to switch off. “…So before you come back here with another lame ass offer, I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker. Or what you might expect someone to pay you for your uterus, Ms. Sanchez.” A friend is speaking to me from within the walls of a jail cell. He is crying and talking a fast, garbled Spanglish. They beat me, Meri, they took me fuera de la cuidad and beat me. Help me, go to the bank and bring mil pesos. Go to the Juzgado Municipal en La Calzada Independencia [he calls to someone outside the cell; a male voice yells a number], La Calzada Independencia 840. 840, Meri. Hurry. They beat me so bad.

I pull on jeans discarded two hours earlier on the floor, throw a sweatshirt over my blouse, step into boots and walk into the night, cursing my luck. You owe me one, cabrón. I make a pit stop at the Banamex up the street, withdraw 1500 pesos, and flag a taxi on Niños Heroes. The cab rides east and passes prostitutes lazing on corners next to hardware shops, doors locked and windows barred. Up Independencia to the eight-hundred block, dropped on the stairs of the central station.

The station’s lobby is empty and white, lit by fluorescents. A tired woman at a corner desk opens the registry and locates his name. She explains the fine will be 238 pesos. A man accepts my cash and handwrites a receipt, passing me a stamped copy of the citation. I cross the lobby and wait on a cold perforated metal bench. Time passes strangely, my eyelids droop. PUM pum PUM pum PUM pum PUM pum. A government drone down the sex offenders’ wing stamps documents, echoing like a dull heartbeat down the hall; a young woman shuffles in the same direction, weighed down by two bags of packaged copy paper.

He walks through the glass doors, hunched over and wearing nothing but a pair of corduroy trousers, and shivers like a baby whipped out of a bathtub. The tongues of his shoes, stripped of their laces, stick up and show his gray socks beneath. The corners of both his eyes are purple and framed by dark knots—there is a quarter-sized raspberry on his forehead still bleeding freshly, a blackened bump on the bridge of his nose, long scratches on his back, and circular welts on his wrists as if imprinted by shackles.

He collapses and sobs. I remove my sweatshirt and try to fit it over his head; he fails to notice my effort and grips his neck, rocking back and forth in a fit of shock. Eventually forced into a cab, he lingers before the door closes and cries at the rifle-wielding guard who keeps post on the steps, Hijos de puta! Pinches cabrones policia, que no hice nada! His tears flow and he repeats the same phrases like a broken record, he tells me he loves me and thank you I don’t know what I would’ve done… aaauuwwww, I hurt so bad…they beat me, Meri, they beat me bad.

As I squat to remove his shoes and socks he stands as stiff as a board, welts tightening his joints, and I gently lift his arms enough to slide off the sweatshirt. He still shakes uncontrollably. I feed him two naproxen tablets and put him in a hot shower, light a pot of water for yerba buena tea and set the table with two cups and a plate of pan dulce.

I was at a concert, and a cop took me and my gringo friends outside. He thought we were smoking pot. He let the pinche gringos go but when I told him I wasn’t doing anything and asked about my rights, he put me in la patrulla and took me away. He let me go at a 7 Eleven so I went in and got a coffee; when I went out I saw more patrullas and heard them ask each other, ‘Hey, is that the same guy?’ and that they were going to fuck me up. This time the cops handcuffed me and put me in the back of the car.

How many cops were there?

Five. They drove me in la patrulla out of the city, down la Carretera Chapala, and to a dark side road. I was handcuffed and pushed to my knees, and they started beating me. They hit me in the side of the head in my jaw and I blacked out a few times; I can’t remember it all. They stole my money, around 800 pesos—my whole week’s pay, it went to them!—and my watch and iPod. I looked into one cop’s face and asked him why doesn’t he take off his badge and gun, remove my handcuffs and fight me like a man.

You were cited for insulting federal authorities. That’s what the report says.

How dare they beat me! I worked the whole week, for them! And I didn’t do anything! …I wasn’t scared, but I felt completely impotent.

He doesn’t touch the tea or pan dulce, and breaks into tears several times again. I play Manu Chao to calm him, but the lyrics stir him and he sings like his heart is breaking: “Todo es mentira en este mundo / Todo es mentira la verdad…”

Human Rights Watch, World Report 2007, Mexico:

“Among Mexico’s most serious human rights problems are those affecting its criminal justice system. Persons under arrest or imprisonment face torture and ill-treatment, and law enforcement officials often neglect to investigate and prosecute those responsible for human rights violations.”

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Spanish-language theater thrives in Guadalajara"

(published November 16, 2007 in The Guadalajara Reporter)


The 2007 Theater Festival of Jalisco, an ambitious showcase of local talent staged in cafés, government plazas and theaters, comes to a close this week. The festival highlights the city’s blossoming theatrical innovation, bringing together 43 classic and original works presented by largely local groups: tales of mythical creatures, forbidden love affairs, and journeys through time and space.

One of the most celebrated plays realized during the event was Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” presented at the Teatro Experimental de Jalisco and directed by Jalisco native and versatile dramaturgist Guillermo Covarrubias. This year marks the 20th anniversary of theater group Palabra Viva (founded by Covarrubias), whose elaborate adaptation of the classic work played with fantastical images through costume and set design, intertwined with multimedia projections and dance pieces.

A choral ensemble supported the narration, and included original music by Jaime Mosqueda.

Covarrubias, who acts as director of Scenic Arts at the Cultural Secretariat of Jalisco, insists that “The Divine Comedy” has a message as communicable to a modern audience as when it was written seven centuries ago: the existence of a decadent society in crisis, and a struggle between political forces which oppress the people.

Alicia Yapur, director of “Relacion Perversa” (Dangerous Liaisons), an adaptation of Heiner Müller’s “Quartet” presented by local theater group Aquelarre, has been immersed in acting and directing since she packed her suitcases at age 16 and moved from Tampico to Guadalajara to become an actress. Her production of one of Müller’s most important works brought to life the explicit and quick-witted dialogue, energized by an extravagant set and “pop opera” music.

Unlike many artists struggling to shine on the silver screen, Yapur finds theater most rewarding and believes our fame-obsessed society has lost touch with the local stage. She believes as much money should be invested into local theater groups as is proportioned to visiting productions in order to support regional artists.

Audiences also enjoyed adaptations of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” a minimalist production about an old man, confined to a wheelchair, and his servant – in this production performed by two clowns – both isolated in a house in a nowhereland at the end of time (Thespis Teatro y la Casa Suspendida); Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” about the strange clinical methods two journalists encounter upon visiting a psychiatric hospital (Grupo Mascarada Teatro Independiente); and “Dakota,” a surrealist trip whose Spanish author, Jordi Galceráan, has gained commercial success in the film industry (Grupo INVERSO Teatro).

Audiences may still look forward to the Universidad de Guadalajara’s production of Johnathan Larson’s “Rent,” on November 16 and 17, 8:30 p.m. at the Teatro Diana. The large-scale musical, based on Giacomo Pucini’s “La Boheme,” centers on a group of struggling young artists in New York’s East Village, who fight against poverty and the emergent AIDS epidemic.

Business and Buses

As a native English speaker I was offered a job teaching for a company called ProEnglish in Guadalajara during the interview itself, not a week after I arrived. Industries with business ties abroad hire teachers to visit their companies to give small classes, normally before or after the workday. Among other benefits—a decent salary for Mexico, plus payment of transportation fees outside of the city—the position has allowed me to become one with public transportation.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the crack of dawn—the only time I ever put a scarf around my neck—I walk four blocks south to Washington, a few streets away from the looming Corona factory, and catch the 622 which makes a convenient loop west, sails north around the Minerva glorieta, and drops me a hop away from Nike’s administrative offices. There I instruct a peppy accounting executive from Chihuahua who begins every sentence with “Teecher!” and makes conversation at 8 a.m. (in any language) half enjoyable. She loves watching the slow-paced instructional DVDs that mimic American sitcoms, and makes me repeat a phrase ten times, noting it diligently in her idiom ledger.

“I talk HER out of it. I talk MY SON out of being a musician. SHE talked me outofit outofit outofit outofit.”

To reach Boehringer Ingelheim, a German pharmaceutical lab with a plant in the dismal industrial zone, I walk eight or ten blocks down to Independencia (which saves me a four and a half peso bus ride), and grab the 62A or 54, either route usually steered by kamikaze chofers who jet through tunnels and around cars a tenth their size like nobody’s business. They stop on a dime, the back door swings open while still in motion slamming hard into the side of the bus (Gabe, who in general disdains public transportation, said the bus door slamming is one of his favorite sounds; I prefer a screen door), and propel me down to the sidewalk, the sudden inertia stunning.

I teach the human resources director at Boehringer, a sweet, bright-faced woman who speaks English well and often walks me to the cafeteria and offers a strawberry popsicle, by far the most delightful fare of Mexican cuisine, surpassed only by pan dulce and tacos de pastor.

My saving grace is the least desired destination for traveling English teachers living in Guadalajara: El Salto, a town miles outside the city close to the airport, nestled in the surrounding dusty hills. The ride is 45-minutes on a gentle chartered bus that goes around Tlaquepaque and stops infrequently. I use the time to prepare for the class or listen to music; the air is fresh outside the city and feels divine on my cheeks. The mountains and housing developments roll by the highway, and the bus inches through small intermediate towns, clusters of poor roads and junkyards.

Because of the space many companies have plants out in the valley: IBM, Urrea (a Mexican tool manufacturer), Nassa (animal feed, I believe), and Wal-Mart’s distribution warehouse, whose loading docks stretch for miles. I stop at DSM, which manufactures nutritional supplements (animal and human) for Nestle and other food processing giants. The bus leaves me at a stoplight where the highway divides and I walk about a kilometer down DSM’s service road, flanked by electric fences and grazing cattle.

At the entry point I exchange my driver’s license for a visitor’s tag and sign the registry, and from there walk to a meeting room outside the plant’s storage facilities. I teach a group of four or five men, lab technicians with horrible social skills who supervise bi-monthly plant audits by their Swiss administrators. They are neither excited by the audits nor the English-language skills they must employ for them, so I generally spend the two hours trying to make them laugh.

One of the more garrulous technicians drives me to my bus stop after the night’s lesson, a man who, when asked to provide an example using the past conditional, once said that he met his beautiful wife as a result of sleeping in on the day of the entry exam for the prestigious university he wanted to attend, instead relegated to the lesser technical institute she attended (“If I had not overslept, I would have never...”).

I wait on the edge of the road next to a hotdog stand, flipping pesos in my palm until the yellow bus pulls up.

Coming back down the hills, Guadalajara at night is an infinity of lights and highways that flood the bus’s windows. Sometimes I can see tiny bursts of red and orange fireworks like little pinpricks in the dark sky, miles away across the expanse.

The bus is tired at this point in the night. The chofer keeps the interior lamp off unless someone boards the vehicle, and usually plays talk radio. I watch the sparkling city and rest against the window; I’m usually last off, and walk the eight or ten blocks back home down Niños Heroes, a boulevard choked with exhaust and home appliance shops. The Super Gigante grocery is the light at the end of the tunnel: a block later I turn down Bélgica, smeared with fallen oranges bulldozed by car tires, and walk up the stairs of my apartment building for supper.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

"An Urban Art Demonstration with a Twist in the Tail"

(published October 26, 2007 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

Photograph by : M. Veto

Swiss artist Severine Schlaepler assists riders with their improvised paint contraptions under the blue glow of Zapopan’s basilica. The urban art demonstration drew attention to the government’s lack of interest in bicycles as an alternative form of transportation.


The plan was like something out of a children’s fairytale: a caravan of kids on bicycles swarm through the city at midnight, leaving swirling trails of blue, yellow and orange paint in their wake.

The urban art exposition was the brainchild of Severine Schlaepler, a Swiss artist who has lived in Guadalajara for seven months and noted the city’s lack of support for bicycles as an alternative form of transportation. If the city will not install bike lanes, the project proposes citizens do it themselves.

Organizers instructed participants to bring their bikes and a few empty soda bottles to the Museo del Arte de Zapopan at 7 p.m. on Monday, October 22. The bottles would be filled with washable paint, secured with wire and inverted over the bikes’ front tires; paint would then drip over the tires and print the streets as the bikes were in motion.

After riding along the same route,” read a letter from organizers, “a multi-colored bike lane will snake through the city, showing the existence of an oppressed form of transportation in the city.” The cyclists would ride from the museum to the Agua Azul park.

By late evening, an estimated 50 to 60 cyclists appeared in front of the art museum, improvising their paint contraptions under the blue glow of Zapopan’s basilica.

“I think that more space is needed for bicycles,” said participant Rodrigo Zuloaga, flanked by a red and white bike. “I ride my bike a lot, as I don’t have a car. Vehicles in the city have no respect for cyclists or pedestrians.”

Schlaepler weaved through the congregation wielding a wire cutter, crouching to assist riders or pausing to answer onlookers’ inquiries.

“Guadalajara is blind to cyclists,” said the artist. She sees some movement towards recognition, such as the street-closing program every Sunday for bikes and pedestrians, but does not understand why streets must close to be accessible to bikes.

Mario Delgado, a participant who designs contemporary urban furniture (including bike stands), criticized city officials for not initiating urban planning in favor of bikes.

It was just after 9 p.m., and a cool breeze was giving way to a chilly sprinkling of rain, when a jolt was felt among the group of riders. Most stood poised over their handlebars when whistles and cries of “Vamos” erupted. Like a flock of birds setting off from their perch, the caravan took flight toward the fountain on Av. Americas and waited for command.

The cyclists took off, crossing over the avenue in a giant pack just as a cold downpour fell, washing away the make-believe lanes.

The convoy never made it to the Agua Azul. One hour later, at the intersection of 16 de Septiembre and Libertad, Guadalajara police detained Schlaepler and 19 cyclists for what they called “taking part in acts of vandalism.

Police Chief Macedonio Tamez told reporters that the cyclists had no permit and several motorists had complained about the convoy.

After lengthy interrogations, police released the detainees at around 4 a.m. without charge. Schlaepler took the incident in good humor and called it “a big joke.”

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Let's Build a Home

(Photographs included are views from inside my apartment, and outside on the building’s roof patio)

October 12th was the celebration for a precious ten-inch doll, who on arrival was secured upright in a glass keyhole shaped box and dressed in radiant blue.
Her residence is a two-tiered colonial sanctuary, the Basilica of Zapopan, a town that eclipses the west side of Guadalajara.
Lifted by the zealous palms of her worshippers, residents of the culturally rich Mexican state of Jalisco, the doll’s glassy eyes stared straight ahead, stoically, as she waded through muggy crowds from church to church. Her cheeks remained as white and sweet as baby powder as
her fans sweated and cried; her countenance was unchanged. The virgin, as I imagine, was resisting the onset of emotion at first sight of home and the glorious demonstration of love, prayer and appreciation her people exuded on arrival.
The virgin’s return to her basilica from her solemn months-long pi
lgrimage is the largest celebrated homecoming in Jalisco. By coincidence, my homecoming was destined for the same morning. My cheeks, however, were as flushed as the red tiled stairs I ascended to reach my apartment for the first time, pulling overweight bags, and if my expression was stoic it was only to avoid stares.
The apartment might be better suited for a person closer the size of the virgin statuette. It was, more or less, a capricious decision (based after all on a few aesthetic assets—a rooftop garden, being one) after an exhaustive search of Guadalajara. The city is like any other: expensive. It’s possible, of course, to find a one or two bedroom apartment for $1,000 to $2,000 pesos for a month’s rent, but only in the seedier neighborhoods, and not furnished. The same in a decent colonia might run $5,000 or $6,000 pesos a month. As a poor American immigrant with all her worldly belongings in two suitcases, that would not do.

My first home on arrival was the Hostal de Maria, which I reserved for two nights. I was pleased by my choice. The hostel is tucked in a small plaza shared by a waterless fountain and car repair shop, near Nueve Esquinas in the historic district.
I met there a wandering Canadian who did not know to drink only purified water, and became sick a few days into his stay. He nevertheless followed my tourism advice, and one morning set out for Tapalpa, a cozy, hilly town south of the city where three years ago I camped beneath a boulder on a freezing night.
I also met a brainy young man from Monterrey whose eyes bulged slightly and whose near-perfect spoken English reminded me of the interpreter’s narration in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (he said he learned English almost exclusively from reading books). Days later I received an email from him—a rather existential account of his life and misgivings, which also led me to believe he fell in love with me over a few drinks of tequila the same night the Canadian fell ill.

I was “rescued” from that home by the concerned mother of a Tapatia friend of mine whose children I looked after in Greensboro. Carmen was not as convinced of my safety at the hostel as I was. So, three days after coming to the city, I forced my pregnant suitcases into the trunk of a taxicab and was escorted to Carmen’s immaculate home in a neighborhood behind Plaza Mexico.
On the way I was probed by the chofer on my origins and purpose in the city, and though not in the mood to converse in depth, explained that I find the Mexican way of life quite nice and easygoing. The chofer enthusiastically concurred and began to lecture me.
“Here, I can do what I want. I have no reason to go to the States. If I want to work, I work. If I don’t want to work, I don’t. In the States, you have no freedom!” I prompted him to elaborate.
For example, the chofer explained, Americans cannot drink outside, in the street. In America the stores and bars close early, so you can’t buy alcohol when you want. He had a point, although I was tempted to counter his negative view of our Puritan tendencies with a certain Mexican stereotype he may have just confirmed.
Carmen was not home when the chofer dropped me off, and instead of sitting on my suitcases at her driveway for several hours, I knocked on the door of a convent across the street and asked if they wouldn’t mind me leaving my things in their garden until Carmen returned. After permission was sought and provided by the mother superior, I dragged the bags inside the door and onto a patio.
Carmen later expressed surprise at the nuns’ amiability, as she holds a fifteen-year grudge against them for uprooting a gorgeous old tree from the front sidewalk during renovations.

I had met Carmen a day before, when she cooked a pasta lunch (it made her unspeakably happy, as her grandchildren refuse to eat carbohydrates). Afterwards in Carmen’s silver Honda we went to investigate a room for rent ad in the online classifieds of El Informador, priced well and in an approved neighborhood.
The house itself was pleasant looking from the outside. But the interior was dismal, cast in shades of maroon and sepia, the walls gilded with faded portraits of a family photographed in the seventies.
Upon our entry, the disembodied voice of a elderly man guided us up the stairs and into the bedroom where he reclined on an ugly brown lazy-boy. The chair was situated dead center in the room against the foot of a tall bed and, rather disconcertingly, directly faced the door leading into the hallway. The old man, wearing only a wifebeater and a blanket, lifted his left arm weakly and tugged on a long cord to illuminate the room. Thick-rimmed glasses overwhelmed his blank eyes and pitiful face; sickly spots gathered on his shoulders and chest, and both feet, the size and roughly the shape of a pair of coconuts, were entirely wrapped in bandages.
The old man summoned his “wife” to show us to the room for rent. A woman no older than thirty drifted out of a steamy shower room, twisting her dark hair into a long ponytail that fell almost to the waist of her gray miniskirt. She shuffled in blocky high-heeled shoes back down the staircase. We followed her through a kitchen, opening into a sunlit foyer where dirty birdcages filled with unhappy creatures hung on hooks.
Up a staircase, then another until we stood blinking on a green roof. The woman pointed me toward a fearful, black spiral staircase. I climbed it reluctantly, and paused as she fiddled with a key ring and opened the door. The room was damp, windowless, and more dismal than I could have expected even at that point in the tour. Carmen remarked after our quick retreat that it would have been like waking up in a Kafka novel.

The first night in my apartment I spent immersed in Saul Bellow’s The Victim, spread out belly-down under a bedside lamp that leans at an unnatural angle, hardly necessary for the streetlight that filters a dim orange through nylon curtains.
At the exact moment that Bellow’s restless protagonist Leventhal, alone in his Manhattan apartment, paranoidly believes he has heard a doorbell ring (“Eagerly he pulled open the door and shouted ‘who is it?’ The flat was unbearably empty…”), I heard a bell myself and started. Then, a sharp, though possibly distant, tapping. My bedroom being directly under the rest of my apartment by way of a narrow spiral staircase, sounds originating upstairs are difficult to gauge.
Not two hours before I had been squatting on the staircase in order to better reach the outlet adapted for my hairdryer. I sat in a cocoon of white noise and warmth for three minutes, poofing my hair under the appliance. My focus was instantly shattered the moment I switched off the dryer and next to me, it seemed, a man released a sickly chuckle à la Beavis and Butthead, and a bit deeper: “Huh huh.” I sat petrified until I realized the voice was down on the sidewalk, directly below my stoop and separated from me by a solid whitewashed wall. (“What really concerned him was that perhaps his nerves were to blame and that he had imagined the ring just as he had imagined that he slept…”)
Like Leventhal, I kept the bathroom light burning all night.

The fact that I should feel disarmed has more to do with my choice of reading material since my arrival in Mexico than an actual security threat in my neighborhood. Up until 3 a.m. and my left side irreparably cramped from leaning sideways under the lamp, I read In Cold Blood till Capote assured my conscience that not only were Perry Smith and Dick Hickock captured and properly secured behind bars, but that their hearts no longer beat after 1965.
City living is not frightening, but it is colorful, smelly, crowded, and loud. There is a telephone somewhere outside my apartment building that rings on some nights religiously, without pause, from sunset until long after I fall asleep. It’s faint enough to be smothered by my radio or TV, but persistent enough to keep me up later than needed inventing scenarios related to its cause and intended recipient. Several dogs keep the night air on its toes, particularly one sullen, long-eared mongrel often leashed to my landlady’s stationary bicycle, who satisfies his vengeance against his captivity with an ungodly nocturnal howl.
In the daytime there are the gas and water trucks that announce their products with happy-go-lucky ditties spit out of double-mouthed loudspeakers, sounding like the refreshment ads that screen before a drive-in picture, the dancing popcorn boxes and hot dogs and soda pops. Unwieldy square buses jolt down the avenue like cement blocks on roller skates, careening around street corners in gravity defying lurches. Sometimes a man sings with an accordion a few blocks down my street, where people gather midday for fruit and a hot lunch at a taco stand.
Beneath the volume of the main avenue, there are softer city sounds that reach my ears: kids chattering, whining, street cleaners combing the sidewalks with bushy straw brooms, the bass echo of reggaeton blocks away. The sounds wash under my curtains, pushed aside by a steady cool breeze, and find me while I rest on top of my sheets. They wallow in my little room without a proper door through which to exit, and eventually drift upward over the spiraling steps.