Borders are manmade creations intended to draw lines in the sand: Us vs. Them.
We’re expected to choose a side and then to fight for the ones we choose. It’s all arbitrary, it’s all a social construct, and it’s all rather fucked up.
I travel because I believe it’s important to cross borders. I believe it’s important to break down the Us vs. Them mentality and get to know people not as an Other but as a human, struggling with love and life just like I am.
Many people, almost always white men, tell me I should explore my own country, stop going abroad all of the time. Traveling abroad is seen as a luxury, a flight of fancy even, something you only do when you’re young and naive or old and retired.
I see international travel as imperative, especially in these divisive times where presidents are calling for stricter borders and stronger nationalism, where racism and xenophobia are billed as patriotism.
When it came time to decide where to work on my next book, I consciously chose Mexico. I grew up on the border longing to get to know my neighbors, but my white family and friends warned me of the dangers lying just 20 miles away, people who will corrupt or kidnap you without a moment’s hesitation.
The same people that drove those 20 miles every morning to clean their houses, mow their lawns, and work their fields.
Mexico was a place you go to party when you’re 18, not somewhere you live and explore. Random strangers on the Internet warn me of traveling here, one even called it a cesspool. A recent report came out from the U.S. government warning of travel in Mexico, citing homicide rates that, when looked up, are statistically lower than major U.S. cities.
The truth is, Mexico is as horrible and wonderful as the United States, but while we are taught to applaud and praise Americans, we are taught to despise and fear Mexicans.
Since Trump ran on an anti-Mexico platform, I’ve promised myself to learn as much as possible about Mexico, it’s history, it’s politics, it’s language, it’s culture. It is at once familiar – my border hometown was 85% Mexican and most of my friends were first generation in the U.S. or born in Mexico – and completely new, and there’s a depth of knowledge here that you can’t get from newspapers or books.
I spent most of 2016 exploring Baja, especially the Tijuana and Ensenada areas, my closest neighbors, and I spent 6 weeks in Oaxaca in 2009, but this time I wanted to go right to Mexico’s heart, the center of its commerce and politics.
Whether you call it Mexico City, D.F., Ciudad de Mexico, CDMX like the local government is currently encouraging on billboards, or simply Mexico like the residents do, there’s no denying that this city is an important one, historically and currently.
Which is why I’m so excited to explore it and share those explorations with you.
The president of my country wants to build a wall between us and our neighbors. He says it’s for our own good – to keep out the bad men. What he really means is the brown men.
My country is ran by horrible, racist men, power-hungry narcissists who rape and murder the land and its people. I worry the wall will one day prevent me from leaving. I worry I am stuck with them.
Trump talks like there isn’t already a wall there, but here it is, dark brown like the people he fears. Today, I paid a private corporation $16 to cross over it.
Freedom has its price.
The Cross Border Express (or CBX) is new, shiny, easy. The goal is to make it effortless for Mexican tourists to visit California and American tourists to visit Mexico. Because even in these difficult times of fighting narco-wars and building walls, we care about the tourist dollar.
It probably isn’t fair for me to be so condescending – I am a relatively wealthy white tourist using the CBX after all – but it’s important to think about the futility of borders when you’re crossing them.
Decorate your suffering
The rains in CDMX are torrential at night, this year especially so. The airport was a river, so my plane diverted to Guadalajara and there I sat in my too-small-for-fat-asses seat for five hours. It was 4 a.m. before my hosts L., M., and E. and I got to their home, and only a couple hours later when we all woke up again.
It’s amazing what your body can still do for you when you’re exhausted. L. and I trekked all over town, visiting markets and museums, learning the history and importance of maize in Mexico, praying to the Virgen de Guadalupe in golden churches.
I’ve been really sick lately, my chronic illness flaring up, and loved ones suggested I stay home and rest, giving myself time to heal. But if I waited to feel well to travel I’d never go anywhere, so I pushed through and came to Mexico. As we walked miles along cobblestone roads, my body swollen and exhausted, I feared they were right.
And then we turned a corner and there it was: La Casa Azul, a blue heaven of inspiration.
I cried then. I am crying now. Crying is the correct response to seeing the home of Frida Kahlo.
Diego Rivera lived there too, but while I recognize his importance in the history of Mexico and art, his work has never moved me to feel more than appreciation. To me, Diego is a legend, but Frida is a deity, a Goddess who speaks to me from the grave, making me feel less alone in the world.
The house and its gardens are stunning, a work of art in and of itself, and I was inspired to surround myself with more color, more vegetation, more life. But what moved me to tears, what changed my life, was seeing the remnants of Frida’s perseverance.
The bed where she was held prisoner to her disease, fitted with a mirror so she could look at herself, into herself, and paint what she saw.
The cast she wore like a corset, adorned with flowers and painted to match her skirt.
The elaborate costume-like dresses she wore with purpose and pleasure, embracing her history while embellishing her crooked and scarred body.
Frida turned her pain into art, but more than that, she decorated her suffering.
It’s not that I want to see beauty in the pain – although that can be helpful at times – it’s that I want to see beauty despite the pain. I want to decorate my suffering like Frida did, surrounding myself with colors and art and life even if all I can do is lay in bed.
Jobs we don’t have in the States
There are people here who stand outside supermarkets carrying giant umbrellas helping you to and from your car in the rain.
There are people who help you get in and out of parking spots.
There are people who hold vigil over the pictures of 43 students disappeared almost three years ago.
Golden houses and tarpaulin roofs
This morning, my hosts and I watched Donald Trump proudly announce the start of his wall and the ending of NAFTA. He declared that Mexico has been getting rich off of America for too long.
This afternoon, we went to a party Iztapalapa, the poorest part of Mexico City, where many homes don’t have running water and those that do often run out. The house we came to was simple but nice, tall and thin, pressed between the other homes, all holding each other up.
The neighboring residences varied in size and condition, one was newer and painted bright yellow, another had a sheet for a door and wooden slats for a roof. Boys played catch with fireworks in a field full of trash next door. Almost every home used a tarp in some way to keep out the elements; a window here, a door there, and many tarpaulin roofs.
I was in the wealthier section of Iztapalapa. We had water and food and music and booze. We had fun and merriment. We had tarps. As we drove away in the rain, I glimpsed less fortunate sections, makeshift dwellings with water streaming through their cardboard walls.
Almost 2 million people live in Iztapalapa, most of them immigrants displaced by economic or ecological hardships. Humans looking for a way to survive.
Above these residences, loomed billboards of smiling happy white people selling products made by corporations in America with billionaire CEOs. They promise a better life, one toothpaste, car, or super-sized meal at a time.
Who’s been getting rich off of whom again?
Heaven is flor de calabaza quesadillas in a cloud forest.