(Español versión publicada anteriormente en rojo.)
Neighborhood: Colonia Lindavista/Barrio Tepetates
This is it, my last story. Warning: this is my longest post by far, but it is the finale and deserves the space.
I’ve procrastinated about writing this, because I am reluctant to finish this project. It has been a wonderful experience and I want to thank all my walking partners for their kindness and friendship.
Around one o’clock, I left the Metrobus station and walked up the stairs, over Insurgentes and back downstairs to the two-lane access road. I crossed over to the microbus stop and looked for a likely candidate for my last day of Walking Stories. Of course, it wasn’t certain that this would be my last day, but it seemed very likely.
A man with a backpack strapped in front of his chest came my way. When I asked him to walk with me, he seemed reluctant but intrigued. His interest won out and he agreed to walk with me a few minutes.
“How far do you want to go?” He said, as he slipped my card into his wallet and adjusted his backpack.
“Well, I’m going to the end of Insurgentes. I’m walking the whole avenue, but we can walk as little or as much as you’d like.”
“OK, I have an appointment with my lawyer in an hour, and I’m not in a hurry, so I can walk with you a little way.” He smiled and asked, “Why are you doing this?”
I gave him my standard answer about extending friendship to Mexico, wanting to get to know the country on a humble, human level, and hoping to share with people in the US an experience of Mexico that you won’t find on the nightly news. Then I smiled and added, “It’s also been a really fun project and people have been incredibly nice to me.”
We crossed a busy street, but stopped before reaching the curb to wait for a car that was determined to make a turn. He looked at me and said, “Watch out. People are really rude in this city.”
This seemed to refute what I’d just said about people being nice, but he had a point. On foot, people are incredibly polite, but behind the wheel, they seem to lose any sense of common decency. “Yes, I’ve noticed that the cars don’t seem to care about or even notice pedestrians or bicycles.”
He nodded. “You have to always be alert. People are just rude here.” We safely made it to the curb and he continued, “What should I tell you? What do you want to know?”
“Anything really.” I smiled, knowing that leaving it so open made it hard to decide what to say, but it also left it open for the unexpected.
“Have you been to the Zocalo? There is a lot of history there.” I nodded. “What about the archeological sites?”
Feeling a tinge of shame, I shook my head no and said, “I plan to go though…”
“Well there is just so much history in Mexico, I don’t know what to say. There is too much to tell you.” I smiled again, waiting for him to find a topic that appealed to him. He shrugged and said, “How long have you been here?”
For the next few blocks we talked about where I come from, where I live now, how long I’d been here, what I planned to do next, and why I chose to come to Mexico. He looked up the block, his eyes on the horizon, and said, “I am always interested in other cultures, talking to people from other places, learning about them.”
My smile broadened, “Me too, obviously. I like to get to know people one by one, on foot. What I’ve learned so far has been fascinating. Mexico City is so much more than violence, poverty and crime.”
He cocked his head and squinted at me, “That’s true, but I used to be a cop and there are some bad things that happen in this city. There are some bad guys out there. I was on the crowd control team.” He held his arm out as if holding a shield with other arm raised as if griping a baton. “It was strange, though. I put a lot of people in jail, but then they fired me. No pension or anything, just fired me. I was a good cop. There are a lot of bad ones and they seem to run things. But I was a good cop. So now I’m looking for work. But I hope to go back on the force.” I looked him over, remembering all the negative things people have said to me about the police here. Yet, he seemed to be a very decent person. He changed the topic, “Today, before meeting with my lawyer, I’m going to the Basilica of Guadalupe to ask for help from the Virgin. I am a catholic.” He glanced over at me speculatively. “Have you been to the basilica?”
“No I haven’t.”
“Would you like to go? I mean, do you have time to go?”
I thought a moment, and then decided this would be an interesting venture off my beaten track, and I knew from my map that it wasn’t far off of Insurgentes. In fact, I had considered visiting as part of my finale for this project, so I said, “Yes, please. That would be great. I’d really like to see it.”
He smiled in return. “The Virgin has helped me many times in my life. I go often to ask for help and give prayers. Do you know the story?”
I slowly shook my head, then said, “All I know is that she appeared as a vision to someone, but that’s about it.”
“Let’s wait until we get there and then I’ll share the story.”
For the next ten minutes, we wended our way through a collection of makeshift vendor stalls, down side streets, past taco stands and little stores, selling all the usual stuff, as well as religious paraphernalia. We chatted about our families and lives. For a moment, I wondered if I should be following a strange man off the main drag, but my fears were calmed when I sighted the Basilica. At least we were headed the right direction. The top of the church rose up above the low cement and stucco buildings of this neighborhood, its roof a swirling modern design with the green hue of exposed copper.
When we arrived and passed by the police guards at the entrance, he said, “I have such respect for these guys. They have a hard job. They are military police. It is tough, dangerous work and yet people hate the police here.” Without irony, he added, “I really hope to get back on the force. That is one of the things I will ask for from the Virgin.” He looked up at the church and explained, “This is the new church. They built it because of structural problems with the original one.” He walked a little to the east and pointed out the old church at the other end of the plaza, its walls obviously tiling to one side.
“Let’s sit over there.” He pointed to a low stone wall.
Once seated, I put my hands in my lap and straightened my back, trying to look respectful. He rubbed his hands together and his eyes shined behind his glasses. ”So this is the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous man, named Juan Diego. She appeared four times, asking him to build a church in her honor on this spot. He went to the Bishop, his name was… let me think a minute… it’ll come to me. Anyway, Juan told him about it, but he didn’t believe him. He said, ‘Why would the Virgin Mary appear to you? You are just a native. You are making this up.’ The bishop was spanish, you know. Ah, yes. His name was Juan de Zumarraga,” he said, raising his finger.
I glanced from him to the people going in and out of the Basilica, carrying crosses made out of flowers and statues of the virgin. Families gathered, tourists snapped pictures. It felt more festive than solemn to me. As he spoke, I alternated between watching him and the crowd outside the basilica doors. Remembering that this was about being present and listening, I turned back to my friend and gave him my whole attention, “So the Virgin Mary appeared again to Juan Diego and told him to go up the mountain and collect roses and bring them to the bishop. But Juan was skeptical. It was the wrong season. There were no roses at this time. However, he went up the mountain and, sure enough, there were the roses. He collected them, gathering them up in his robes.” He mimed the action of pulling the roses to his chest. “Just simple robes, peasant clothing.”
He raised his eyebrows and I could tell this was the crux of the story. “Now when he returned to the bishop and gave him the roses, there appeared the image of the Virgin.” He waved his hands down the front of his chest and I could imagine the roses falling and the image revealed. He rubbed his forearm and laughed, “I just got a chill. I am really inspired by this story.” I smiled and wanted to rub my arms too, even though I had not felt the same chill. He concluded with a dreamy look in his eyes, “Then the bishop believed. It was a miracle. And he built the church here as the Virgin had requested. Juan Diego became Saint Juan Diego, a sanctioned saint in the catholic church.” He spread his arms out, sweeping across the vista of the plaza. “People from around the world come to see the Virgin. It is the most sacred site in all of Latin America. Everyone comes here, even people from other religions.” He smiled at me and said, “Would you like to go inside now?”
With out hesitation, I nodded, but then asked, “It won’t bother you? I mean, you want to ask a petition. I won’t be in the way?”
“No, no. Of course not. Come on.”
We entered the huge sanctuary of the modern church. There were hundreds of people in the pews. He looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s mass. They have mass here every day.” He stopped and bowed his head and made the sign of the cross. Then he nodded and we headed down a ramp that went beneath the alter. When we got to the bottom, we were directly below the cross that hangs over the alter and there were four mini, automated conveyor belts, going both directions. People stood on the belts and moved slowly beneath the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging under the huge cross behind the alter above. They stood either in prayer or with cameras and cell phones extended for a photo opportunity, an odd but efficient way of seeing one of the most famous images in Mexico.
While waiting our turn, we read the signs that explained the story and admired the bas relief images of Juan Diego. My friend read some of it to me and pointed out the images that matched the story he had told me outside. Since childhood, I have enjoyed being read to and this was no exception, his excitement relayed easily by the simple act of reading out loud. As we passed beneath the cross, I took my photos, like a good tourist would, while my friend took a moment in prayer.
We explored the rest of the church, read more signs and people watched. Back outside, he pointed out buildings in the plaza, explaining the function and significance of each place. “Do you have time to see more? Or do you need to get back?” He laughed and exclaimed, “I thought we’d walk five minutes and it’s been three hours!”
I laughed in response and said, “Well… I do need to get back at some point. Or, could you show me more of the plaza and then take me to Indios Verdes metro station? That’s my last stop.” Then, feeling a bit like a mooch and remembering his appointment, I said, “Or if you are busy, I can try to find another participant. I don’t want to keep you.”
“No, no.” He shook his head dismissively. “My appointment is not set. I can go anytime. They can wait. It’s no big deal. I want to show you more of this. This is important. Unless you need to get going. It’s up to you.”
I swung my arm out to the side, feeling like the scare crow from the Wizard of Oz, and exclaimed, “Let’s keep going. I usually stop at four o’clock but that is not inflexible either.”
He showed me the old church built in the sixteen hundreds and then the very oldest which was they started building in the fifteen hundreds to honor the Virgin’s request. I also took a picture of the Pope-mobile, a bullet proof vehicle with glass viewing area, that was parked in the plaza. As we walked, he confided in me about some of his personal struggles this year. I felt instant sympathy and touched him briefly on the arm. He smiled and shrugged. Then we continued and explored the park, climbing the stairs to the midway point. By then it was getting late and very cloudy, so I suggested we head back.
He walked all the way with me to the train station, chatting comfortably. The train station was a confusing maze of vendor stalls, busses to outlying areas, the Indios Verdes Metro station, and the Metrobus stop of the same name. On the way to the station he had pointed out the copped-green statues of Indians that gave this area it’s name, but also mentioned that the park they stood in was dangerous with lots of homeless and drug addicts. It was nice to be walking with someone who had been a cop for years and new the city well.
In front of the turnstiles to the Metrobus, we said our goodbyes. As he shook my hand, he said, “I started today in a bad mood, on my way to my lawyer’s office. But it has ended on a good note. I am a bit of a hermit at times. This has been a wonderful experience. Thank you.”
I smiled back, and kissed his cheek, a standard goodbye but with true heart and soul. “No. Thank you. You have been so kind to walk with me all this way, to share your story and your faith with me. I really loved seeing the Basilica with you. You are my last participant, and a perfect end to my project. I am glad to have spent the day with you.”
As I rode the bus back, my mind was filled with images of this city, the constant crossing of class, race, religion and culture, the ways people negotiate their lives and find ways of coping with a chaotic, unpredictable world. Mexico City can be a tough place and so many people barely eek out a living. However, it is also a wonderful place, where determination and joy sprout up, coloring even the bleakest moments with a touch of hope.