With the help of some important little messengers of late, I’m beginning to see that Mexico did not treat me very well.
“As a single and childless woman, you’re an oddity. They don’t know what to do with you,” said Elizabeth, a new friend and client who’d lived and worked in Mexico for eight years. She regaled me with stories of her alienation, even working with the good guys in reproductive health, even in Mexico City, despite her fluency in Spanish. "Until I got married and had kids. Then, miraculously, I got some respect."
How could I know that the very untethered state that allowed me to wander off for two years to be of service would doom me?
I was a mala mujer down to the core. I lived alone in my apartment on Diaz and I bought wine at the Bodega Aurerra (Mexican Walmart) and I used tampons, which you could only get in boxes of 10, available only from behind the pharmacy counter, on the upper shelf, out of harm’s way, where a sales associate had to retrieve them for you. God knows what manner of shameful behavior was going on behind my closed apartment door.
According to Octavio Paz, the ambassador, poet, and Nobel Prize winner for his renowned book of essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude, “the mala mujer – the ‘bad woman’ – is almost always accompanied by the idea of aggressive activity. She is not passive like the ‘self-denying mother,’ the ‘waiting sweetheart,’ the hermetic idol: she comes and goes, she looks for me and then leaves them. Her extreme mobility…renders her invulnerable. Activity and immodesty unite to petrify her soul.” (Labyrinth)
Wow! I read his piece on Mexican Masks over and over, intrigued, mind-boggled, referring back frequently to my highlights and margin notes that bloodied the pages. But I could not, at the time, see how I how was fighting the unspoken label to curry favor with my counterparts and, in doing so, was losing me. I was too close to it. And if I had seen and acknowledged the kind of discrimination thwarting me at every turn, I would have had to surrender, take a Peace Corps ET (Early Termination), and head back across the border where I belonged.
Perhaps this was why, despite my ambivalence about being home those first weeks and months of my Returned PCV status, a cauldron of profound elation, at moments, was bubbling inside me.
I remember the first night I ventured up to Mount Pleasant Street for a glass of wine at the local watering hole. Glass of wine. Even the words filled me with a sense of other-worldly appreciation as I stepped in the door as was met with a rush of body warmth and din of merriment. I sat tall in my stool, like a big girl, as the bartender came right over and laid a coaster before me. I was mesmerized by the lengthy, laminated list of possibilities, Pinot, Merlot, Riojo.
I couldn’t possibly decide; so Will the bartender recommended the Rhone and gave me a taste before filling my glass to the rim. It was a late winter in Washington, and every time the door opened, a waft of frigid air swept in and gave me a shiver of exhilaration down to my frozen toes. After two and a half years in a desert, I felt profound thanks for the bone-chilling cold.
As I sipped my ruby wine, taking in bombardment of English chatter, a waiter suddenly appeared a flatiron pan held high over his head. He lowered it and lit a Bic lighter to it and the pan exploded into flames. The entire establishment erupted in applause; cheese flambé was cause for celebration in Mount Pleasant, USA. My eyes must have been popping out of my head as the waiter set the bubbling halloumi on the bar because the couple next to me smiled and offered me a bite.
At El Fenix, my local watering hole in Rioverde, other than Rita’s brightness and the merry mariachi music whining over the sound system, a solemnity pervaded, a sense that those of us there, sipping our cervezas and michaladas (only beer-based drinks served), were hiding our sins from the rest of the world, behind the smoke colored glass. We were the scorned ones. And I would not have been welcomed if it hadn’t been for the fact that the owner and bartender was a woman and fast becoming my best friend.
Now talk about a mala mujer. Rita was not only single and childless, but a cantina owner on top of it, serving up the diablo’s brew, and Dios only knew what else. But she didn’t care what they thought. She’d lived through the death of her father at age 12 and abandonment of her mother at 15. Left to raise her four younger sisters, she crossed the border, worked as a domestic, and sent the money back home. Even then the neighbors in her community cursed the Garcia girls: You’ll all grow up to be bunch of putas. They did not. They learned how to survive the small town fires. Pueblo pequeno, infierno grande.
Once I found Rita, and she found me, we did not let go. I became her protection – because “Nobody gonna touch me when I have the gringa by my side.” And she became mine, because nobody would or could explain the inner workings of the pueblito and make me feel better for feeling so useless as Rita. Suddenly I felt not so alone.
So can you see I’m only just beginning to understand all this? To survive my time in Mexico I had to stuff the fears down and put on my Mexican mask and carry-on. My ingrained American optimism, in the face of challenges, also served, or it suckered me.
A year and a half after I left Rioverde my friend Rita risked life and limb to cross over the border again. It took her three months and close to 10,000 dollars, money saved up for El Fenix and her sister’s house-cleaning business in Dallas going into the hands of the narcos, not just dealing in drugs anymore, but much more lucratively, in people. On her journey she was jailed twice, and the final time held in a motel room with 12 other migrants for weeks until the coyotes decided it was her turn, until her sister was so desperate that she would agree to a doubling of the fee upon drop-off or never see her sister again.
That’s how bad Rioverde was for single women.
As my writing partner, Julie Gabrieli, put it on a recent check-in call, “We’re good at talking about the lipstick, but what about the pig? There’s only so much you can do if you are forced into a system that is fundamentally broken.”
What IS ‘The Story of Sustainability from South of the Border,’ really? I’ve been getting closer to the truth, moving away from my initial yearning to make it a story with a happy ending and, thus, justify my 2 years and 3 months’ investment in PCMX at the peak of my career.
But underneath it all I’m still blaming myself. I was the demanding exijente gringa, pushing for change when they weren’t ready, not honoring the cultural norms, fighting the paternalism ineffectively, and even deeper, bringing my history and baggage of issues with the ‘father’ inappropriately into my Mexico service. "Life is a fight and I am alone."
I don’t want to put lipstick on a pig, and I don’t want to be a whiner. I want to share the truth of the experience: the good, bad and beautiful. I want to discuss the darkness of the culture and the experience and also the light. Because there was light.
I stuck it out and met Angelica and the Zama Mamas and we did something together that was pretty extraordinary. I don’t know if it was sustainable. I have not been in touch with them. I’ve been too afraid to find out. I stuck it out and met Rita and made a friend for life. And I cannot say I wasn’t at least an indirect influence on her decision to cross the border and make a more sustainable and happy life for herself with her sister on this side of the border. I stuck it out and met Professor Fernando Nino and had the opportunity to teach his engineering students about sustainability and innovation and open their eyes to what’s possible.
But mostly I stuck it out. Now coming on four years since the completion of my service, I may be just be getting glimpses of what it all meant.