I used to hang out at Lenora’s house before school and smell the fresh tortillas her mother made every morning. The delicious scent lingered in my hair and clothing while I sat in class…hungry, and day-dreaming about tacos.
In a Southern California middle school I was the minority—most of my friends were like Lenora, not me. Later in Texas, if I hadn’t been close to my match-making friend, Juan, I would never have met my husband of 13 years, Mr. H.
The top 3 states with the largest Hispanic populations in the United States are New Mexico, California, and Texas. I lived in two of them. Throughout my life, I was immersed in the Mexican culture by default. Yet, there were so many things I didn’t understand.
Why did men always sell oranges on the street while we were sitting at a stoplight? Why did all of my friend’s mothers decorate their homes with those candles in glass jars with religious decals? Why have I been welcomed as part of the family with all of those friends? Why is the food so damn good?
Over time these curiosities built up—as did the many misconceptions which unfortunately are so dominant in the United States on the other side of the border, the fence, the wall.
I had been to Mexico before. Like most American tourists, I played it safe back in 2007 in one of the party beach towns…Playa del Carmen.
Another time was back in elementary school, when we went to San Felipe to play baseball with the kids there then camped on the beach overnight. I still remember seeing the grunion runs, how shiny and magnificent it all was. I also still remember crossing the border in the school bus, how stern and terrifying it all was.
A few years ago, I decided to put Mexico City on my wanderlust list. It was high up there, so Mr. H and I decided to go. We had planned a trip to Holbox Island to visit my wonderful blogger friend, Julie, and we decided to bookend it with two places we were very curious about: Mexico City and Cuba.
When we left for Mexico City and made the usual “we’re traveling to…” status update on Facebook, the reactions by family and friends were very similar: “Be safe!” and “Be careful!”
I’ve traveled to a fair amount of places over the years, and never have I seen such worried reactions as a send-off. Like us, my family and many of my friends had never been to Mexico City. They only knew what they had heard or read.
It’s because of what we don’t know about another place that makes us fear. Travel is the best remedy for any of us who fear the unknown. That’s why we chose to see Mexico City, a city with over 20 million people, for ourselves.
I had the pleasure of being connected with a local, Mariana, through a friend/client of ours, Sada. She knew Mariana and I would hit it off, because we were both yogis and marketers around the same age.
(The world isn’t so different, is it?)
Mr. H and I met Mariana for some proper tacos al Pastor, where we grilled her about the real Mexico City.
It was our first night in the city, and we had yet to see visions of drug cartels roaming the streets, with ammo strapped across their chests like beauty pageant queen sashes. Because that doesn’t actually exist inside Mexico City.
When I told Mariana about the safety concerns so many Americans have, she completely understood. In fact, she said the same thing Mr. H and I always say about being in a city: “Yeah, it’s a city.”
We have plenty of cities in America with plenty of problems. You’re not going to walk around the worst neighborhood in Los Angeles by yourself at night. So, why do that in Mexico City In the end, Mr. H and I didn’t have any problems while we were there.
As we ate our way through most of Mexico City, the days passed quickly. We left no tacos unturned and found culinary treasures everywhere.
Even when you’ve only eaten ten minutes ago, mouth-watering scents smack you in the face while you’re hustling down the street. And, you ignore your tightening waistband to pull over at a nearby street food vendor to eat again.
I managed to skip this rather exotic cuisine…
…or, so I thought.
I found out later I had already eaten a healthy portion of bugs, since crushed up grasshoppers or crickets mixed with chili powder and salt rimmed the glasses of mezcal cocktails I enjoyed throughout the week.
Despite the bug appetizers and Facebook warnings I read before boarding the plane, I survived the magical chaos of Mexico City and learned so much about the culture and people I lived side by side with most of my life.
You know, there is something so magnificent when you’re standing before Diego Rivera’s fresco, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Alameda.
In 1985 a terrible earthquake in Mexico City killed thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of buildings—including the very hotel with Diego’s masterpiece inside. The painting survived, completely intact with a few cracks.
You can stare at Dream of a Sunday Afternoon for hours, but you’ll only catch a glimpse of the magic bursting through the colors. That was how I felt when I left Mexico City. Like I only scratched the surface, and I wanted more. And, I knew then that one day I would be back.
There are no easy answers. That’s why it’s so crucial for us to experience people, places, and cultures for ourselves. Even Mexico City won’t last forever. Like Venice, it’s sinking. And…there are earthquakes.
As with any place in the world, my experience in Mexico City won’t be the same as someone else’s. I went with a thirst for knowledge, to gain a better understanding of a culture and its people, one that was a part of me in so many ways. I went with a sense of adventure, not with fear.
I think that’s important for all of us, especially when we judge a place without truly knowing it. What we hear and read are one thing. What we see for ourselves is another story…most often, a better one.
A note…I visited Mexico City in May 2017. A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit a few months later in September, killing over 200 in the city and more in the surrounding area. My travel publications about Mexico City were delayed out of respect.
In case you missed it in December, here is my piece on Intrepid Travel…