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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Myth of the Northerner

Mexico City, Friday February 26, 1993

Amaranth - Spanish amarato is a grain used in soups, cereals, crepes, tostadas, tortillas. Pueblos in the U.S. used amaranth as a dye. Red pigments used in ritual ceremonies by the Zuni, and the Hopi, Rio Bravo indigenas. Relative biological value of the protein of different foodstuffs:

Amaranth contains between 14.5 and 16.0 percent protein.

No wonder the myth of the Northerner is structured around technology, that of Southern inhabitants around agriculture. Northern Gods, metals, atoms, molecules, subatomic particles, fuel and energy. The Southern human being worships corn, sun, moon, tides, soil, and rain.

Mexico City, Saturday February 27, 1993

An artist lives in Hell, Maybe he knew Heaven, is thus attempting to work his way back again. Heaven slams him down, each time he is furnished with a taste of what he lost. Renewed he works to regain it.

Three young girls dressed in red uniforms were working yesterday in the zócalo. They were busy handing out leaflets promoting the sale of some leather goods, at one of the nearby hotels. One of the girls spoke English, so I offered to buy them all a coffee after work.

When four o'clock rolled around met the three girls as arranged. We walked to a lunchtime spot that did an end of the day trade in tea, coffee, and donuts. Marisol, brought a friend, Jennifer, a vivacious fellow student with red hair. The third girl, the beauty of the threesome, was pale thin and quiet, and confused by all this foreign language. Her name was Erica.

We followed Jennifer to the market to exchange some shoes, and stood around in a street crowded with stalls, as Jennifer fitted and tugged at different sandals for her little feet.

Erika, turned suddenly, and blurted out that her father had died. She’d gotten a phone-call from her grandmother. I looked on, not sure how to say the right thing in Spanish, so I said something in English.

We agreed to go to Coyoacán, a ways south of the city center.

Each of the girls politely ordered tacos and a soda. Erika went to the ladies room but returned pale and shaking. She began to cry quietly. The others told me she lived alone with her grandmother.

We reached the metro, Jennifer and Marisol said good-night, and we made the usual silly exchange of telephone numbers. I stayed with Erika to walk around Coyoacán a little bit.

We talked for about three hours, sitting on an embankment, overlooking the busy avenues. She helped me translate some of the tougher bits of an old Aztec poem that I copied at the museum, and she told me a bit of her life story:

Erika's mother is American, her father Mexican. She took mother's English name, but both parents deserted when she was young, first her mother, then her father, but not after he molested her a great deal. She showed me scars, knife wounds, where he had cut her arms in different places. I was horrified, but was also caught in a suspicious state of disbelief, as if she were lying about something.

I noticed she was thin, and extremely fragile in build. I sensed her anger, her fear, her dependence and a very complicated love-hatred feeling about men. Her cute face froze as she told me all this. It made her cold and she started to shake. She had lightweight sweater which she pulled out of her purse and put on.

Her abuela was everything. Father died. She hung from my arm neither a daughter, wife, or lover, but just strangers. Perhaps she felt some judgement was due from a father figure. I held back.

We walked past Frida Kahlo’s house. The streets were dark, the purple-blue walls where Frida made great works of art, were just a black mass hung with vines. Another life, another time, Erika's Spanish was hard to understand. Everything else was as clear as one of Frida's paintings.

I understood the heat from her arm. We were creatures, walking through a city at night.

We really didn’t look much at each other. Another time I might have tried to give her a kiss.

I wondered what her father's death was doing to her. Did it make her feel guilty? More guilty? She’s now alone, dealing with what he did, responsible for it in some way. Maybe she cut herself, not him, because of things at home, though he may have driven her to it, and maybe now she lies about her scars to hide that. I felt guilty myself for thinking this way. There was pain and confusion, over everything like a low sky. Yet strength was there. I felt it, hanging, a warm precious parcel from my arm.

We scrambled over the hill and down the bank, leaving the cool of Coyoacán for the glare of highways and subway overpasses. A dull roar reverberated from vehicles we couldn't see.

She made promises to call. Grasping my hand, she led me like a child to the proper train. I wondered what she would do after this. She seemed desperate to place me on the right line, headed for the city center.

There was this closing moment. Something electric happened. We embraced but it could have been done at a distance of a mile. All that was needed was some signal, some synchronous pulse to time it. A wave of energy, exhilarating but terrifying. It picked me up then threw me down. I staggered toward the train door. She was twenty feet away and moving through the platform crowd - I was sitting in lighted car and the doors were closing.

I did call, and got through once. In faltering Spanish we arranged to meet at a museum. But she never showed. I thought she had gotten the day wrong.

Some weeks later while exploring mountain around Oaxaca, Erica deposited a note at my hotel in Mexico city, entreating me to get in touch, and apologized for not meeting me at the museum.

I called, spoke briefly with her grandmother, but with one day left in Mexico, was unable to phone again.


I’m remembering all this while listening to a man who runs a small vegetarian restaurant, at the edge of the zócalo. Vegetarian food isn't common in Mexico. The place is quite empty. The owner has a mustache, like the waiters in the places that serve big steaks, except this fellow is into beans, and lettuce, and strips of carrot.

I'm drinking a cup of coffee. We talked, and I wrote down what he said:

I worked for a family down by San Angel
Cared for their gardens I watered their trees
Every so often I chipped down some of the iron,
Made good work.
Put on red lead and then a coat of black paint
Pointed up some of the stones.
Kept the bougainvillea under control
Tightened the wires on the TV aerial.
Fixed whatever it was that broke.

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