Butterflies in the snow

monarch butterfly

In the late summer and autumn, monarch butterflies in eastern North America make an extraordinary long-distance migration. Butterflies weighing 500mg fly up to 4000km from breeding areas in the United States and Canada to wintering areas in the mountains of central Mexico.’ My sister glances at us as we mouth our amazement and flit about, stuffing clothes into rucksacks, already late for the bus. She continues, unruffled: ‘they spend much of the time quiescent in dense clusters on tree branches and trunks, but they periodically fly to water sources and reform their clusters after dislodgement by storms… but don’t worry,’ she looks up hastily to reassure us, ‘there won’t be any storms when we go, it’s meant to be nice and warm all of February and March.’ ‘Perfect,’ breathes Dolly, the first to be ready, ‘I need to soak up some proper heat before heading back across the pond. Speaking of heat…’ She eyes us both silently, smiling and holding up a travel sized bottle of mezcal. ‘Shot for the road?’ 

We knock back one each to help us with the ordeal of hailing a cab to Observatorio bus terminal. But, even at rush hour, it isn’t hard – as usual, Dolly stops the Mexico City traffic with her sunset hair and tall, willowy form. We pile in, the vehicle very cosy in the noonday mountain heat. My sister carries her magazine on shamanic animal connections, Dolly her guidebook and I my notepad and pen. We spend the cab ride envisioning the log cabin we’d booked for that night in the historical mining town of Angangueo, its crackling fire and toasty blankets. We anticipate what we would eat, when we would need to wake up the following morning, how we’d manage the buses back.

The state of Observatorio should have been a warning. There was a total powercut, the shadowy kiosks selling cold tortas being scoffed by candlelight. In our dash for the bus, we ignored the omen and snuggled into our window seats to dream of what thousands of glorious, flame coloured butterflies would look like, already hearing the whisper of their soft wings as the bus engine started.

About two hours into our journey, we jerked to an abrupt halt. ‘No hay paseo,’ announced the driver, explaining that the motorway along the final, measly 30-minute stretch to Angangueo was blocked by snow and fallen trees. Confused, my sister and I wondered if this was another of those bad comedy sketch moments we sometimes felt we were in here. Like when the plumber arrived two hours late because, apparently, he’d just wanted to let us have a lie-in. Or when we spent three hours wandering in hopeless spirals through the city centre having been pointed in the wrong direction by every single person we asked, because ‘they don’t want to annoy you by just saying they don’t know, they want to give you hope,’ our local friends earnestly explained.

‘No, it’s true,’ confirmed another passenger, ‘I just tried to get through to a relative of mine who lives there and they said the same thing, just before the signal cut off.’ ‘Well why didn’t they let us know back in the city?’ I wondered. ‘Because there was no signal,’ the driver patiently explained, ‘but don’t worry, maybe smaller cars can still get through.’ So we sat and waited. ‘Nope,’ said the driver, approaching us again what felt like aeons later, ‘we really can’t go any further, no cars either. We can take you back to the city for free if you want?’ My sister and I sighed, deeply and tragically, but Dolly wasn’t one for pessimism. ‘Isn’t it meant to be the warmest time of year for the butterflies, the whole point of their thousand mile journey from colder climes?’ she insisted, ‘surely if we just wait a bit it’ll warm up and we can keep going?’

It began to hail.

Dreams of toasty fires and glowing wings slowly began to fade as disbelief and then a general gloom settled on us. We sat in silence, just waiting, though not entirely sure what for as the bus was nearly empty anyway. ‘Hey,’ my sister suddenly said, flicking through the magazine, ‘in animal totem speak the butterfly represents the transformation of soul and self.’ Dolly and I look at her expectantly. ‘Just thought I’d put it out there.’ ‘Oh right,’ Dolly did not look impressed. ‘Does it say anything in there about being transformed into a snow mobile?’

Observing our low mood, the driver came over and smiled at us kindly. ‘You could always stay here,’ he said, waving a hand towards the window that had all but steamed up. Through it, we could just about make out piles of small houses, a roundabout melting in the wet and some electricity cables being thrashed into a desperate tangle by the storm. ‘Here’ was the tiny pueblo of San Jose del Rincon. ‘Don’t worry, there are a couple of little hotels,’ the driver continued, ‘just be warned they probably don’t have water or electricity now. But you’ll be fine and safe – nothing will happen to you.’ ‘What?’ Dolly asked, alarmed at my translation. ‘You’ll be alright,’ he repeated, smiling broadly, ‘nobody will hurt you or rob you here.’ ‘Well that’s great news!’ She looked at us anxiously, and we wondered if we should just give up. But no. The consensus was: butterflies. Think of golden, spotted, zipping butterflies. There was no going back now.  

‘Yes, we’d like to stay here,’ I said, ‘is there a taxi that could take us to one of the hotels?’ ‘No, no taxis at the moment, and no signal to call one with, but maybe these guys could take you the rest of the way.’ He motioned towards two young men in the front row. ‘Yes, alright,’ said one of them, his face barely visible deep inside his parka hood, ‘we can take you in our camioneta. Just give us a moment to bring it round.’ We scanned them and decided to go with our belief in chivalry and gentleness until proven otherwise. ‘It’s ok,’ hissed Dolly as we got off the bus and waited, again, ‘we could take ’em anyway. That is, if this hail doesn’t make total mush of us!’ We huddled together as it thundered onto our shoulders, gratefully clambering into the warmth of our new friends’ car ten minutes later.

Their names were Oscar and Pablo. ‘So you have two options,’ Oscar yelled to make himself heard above the deafening clatter of ice on metal, ‘either a small hotel right round the corner with no water or electricity, or one that should have both about 15 minutes drive away.’ The three of us immediately voted for the further one; our new friends looked slowly at each other and then at us. ‘You sure? We think they should have water and electricity but it might be different when we get there.’ My sister sighed. ‘Yes, that’s fine, let’s go,’ I confirmed. More looking and pondering of the three strange ones wanting to see butterflies in the hail. ‘Alright, we’ll take you there, but are you sure? And can you pay for the hotel yourselves?’ ‘Well yeah, obviously,’ I was getting a bit irritated now, ‘we’ll cover it and pay for the ride too. How much?’ This time it was an extra long consultation. ‘Well, just for the gas. So you want to go?’ They asked, again. My sister giggled at my slow pressure cooker build up. ‘Maybe count to five,’ she whispered, ‘after all, it’s nice of them to take us – they didn’t have to do that.’ I exhaled loudly and asked if we could go now.  ‘Yes, yes, of course,’ Pablo said, looking slightly wounded and turning to the wheel.

20 minutes later we pulled up at a bright pink, turreted enclosure, rising like a sultan’s palace from the roadside slush. Oscar ran in to check the essentials were working and confirmed that yes, there was water, electricity and a room for each if we wanted it. ‘Y comida?’ I asked, feeling our collective empty stomachs begin to growl. ‘Oh no, there’s no food here,’ he replied, looking at me as though I’d just requested to see dancing hyenas. ‘What the hell,’ Dolly protested once I translated the happy news, ‘isn’t this a hotel?’ ‘Welcome to Mexico,’ my sister replied as we trudged wearily into the enclave. ‘Do you think you could drive us into San Jose super quickly just to grab some food?’ I asked Oscar. Cue another time-bending consultation with his compañero before he nodded his assent.  

The manager himself greeted us and very cordially showed us to our room. ‘Oh,’ Dolly was the only one who made a sound, her single syllable bouncing off the  triple king-sized bed and the floor-to-ceiling mirror right opposite it. With a price list by the hour taped discreetly to one side. And no window in sight, only a discreet ventilation shaft near the bathroom. ‘Ladies, we are officially in a sex hotel,’ my sister announced solemnly. Dolly and I snorted with laughter as the hotel manager politely asked if we needed anything else. ‘Just the keys please,’ my sister said. His mouth made a confused ‘o’. ‘Do you mean like a key to go in and out?’ Maybe she should have asked for lube. ‘Er, yeah, we’re gonna go with the guys and get food.’ I pointed to our friends waiting outside and the hotel manager smiled again. ‘Ah, well that’s fine, don’t worry about your stuff – nothing happens here, and I can let you in when you’re back.’ ‘So no key?’ ‘If you really want one I can get it, no problem, but you can also just leave everything here, no worries.’ His lack of budging made everything clear. Another sigh, another count to five and a mental rehearsal of how to explain this to Dolly. She was surprisingly laid back about it, or possibly just faint from lack of food.

We dropped our bags and were just about to go back to the camioneta, when suddenly there was an almighty revving sound that crescendoed to an explosion. Our friends’ vehicle had made a small crater in the middle of the pink courtyard. The hotel manager and his assistant rushed to help and the four of them began pushing, sweating and cursing. We watched the prospect of food fade into the distance like a mirage as the freezing wind bit our cheeks. The hotel manager waved us back into our rooms mid-push. ‘Don’t worry chicas, I’ll bring you extra blankets – there’s a cyclone coming!’ ‘He didn’t just say “cyclone” did he?’ asked Dolly, indigo eyes merging with the increasing blue tinge of her face, teeth chattering. ‘Hopefully it’ll just be a bit of light rain and will clear by tomorrow,’ I tried, convincing no-one. We regrouped back inside our sex den, thanking the butterfly goddesses that at least we’d remembered this whole country is built on the assumption of heat despite bone-crunchingly cold mountain nights. We pulled on our hats, scarves and thermal leggings, and perched in silence on the massive bed, staring at ourselves in the mirror – no doubt the most dour-faced threesome this room had ever seen.

sex hotel

My sister is the first to break the inertia, taking out her magazine. ‘At least I can get some reading done,’ she says, perking up. ‘Good point,’ Dolly joins in, reaching for her guidebook, ‘I can plan where to explore next.’ ‘And I can catch up with some writing,’ I grab my notepad and pen. We each burrow into a small nest in three corners of the bed, busying ourselves with our new tasks. ‘Did you know that, in ancient the times,’ my sister reads aloud, ‘the shape of the open butterfly was considered to be the shape of the soul?’ We look at her, suddenly smiling again.

And then all the lights go out.

‘Noooo!’ We wail in unison, books and pens angrily thrown down. ‘I can’t believe this,’ Dolly says, ‘I mean, what do the old people here do in this cold and dark?’ ‘They probably just die,’ my sister replies. We fall silent. A knock on the door and then a bright light breaking into the darkness makes us jump – it’s the blessed hotel manager, bearing blankets and packets of freeze dried fried pig skin and corn. We pounce on him and them, and proceed to devour. As if on cue, the electricity comes back on and we all cheer. Dolly is particularly excited: ‘We may as well make the best of it all now – I just remembered that I brought cards!’ My sister and I hooray for time-honoured, simple entertainment. Dolly explains the rules, deals the first hand, and we begin to play. And then everything goes black again.

‘Oh for f***’s sake!’ We moan with despair, flinging down the cards and folding our arms across our chests in protest. ‘This monarch butterfly thing isn’t turning out to be much of a royal experience, is it,’ Dolly huffs, ‘unless the royal in question is Richard the Third.’ Nothing to do but sit still and wait, again. Time stretches out before us in the darkness like spaghetti (mmmm, spaghetti). ‘Have you ever seen that film Vacancy?’ Dolly pipes up. ‘Nope.’ ‘It’s basically about this couple who get stranded when their car breaks down and end up spending the night at this dodgy motorway motel where they get butchered to death.’ ‘Oh.’ My sister and I are not enthused. ‘Well,’ Dolly continues, ‘we may as well crash for the night. It’s so early and I already feel sleepy.’ ‘It’s probably just hypothermia,’ my sister replies, as we grope around for our rucksacks to find a few final, precious layers. I put on gloves and cocoon myself in five blankets. My sister goes in the middle as Dolly fidgets about, restless, checking all the corners of the room and moving a small chest of drawers in front of the door to block it. ‘Just in case there’s a Hostel scenario,’ she explains. I feel my sister shudder beside me as I burrow deeper into the giant bed, the three of us curling into foetuses in the coldest night of our lives.

We bolt upright with the first feeble ray of daylight pushing through the vent, stomachs screeching and extremities immobilised. ‘Don’t worry,’ I mumble, ‘the temperature usually just falls at night. It’ll be nice and sunny now.’ Dolly braves a peek out the door and grins at me dryly. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure. I think we’ve been teleported to Austria.’ I glance out. The hotel is nestled within a valley of gleaming, snow covered mountains, the frost-bitten pink of the hotel twinkling against a moody grey sky.

Austria

Pablo emerges from another room, grinning and walking excitedly towards us. ‘Chicas! Look at the mountains, it snowed! I’ve never seen it before – it’s the first snow here in 20 years!’ We stare at him balefully, cursing the butterfly goddesses and the caterpillar mush they twisted themselves out of.

But we are not to be deterred. ‘We’ve come all this way, it might still be worth a shot,’ my sister proposes, and we agree. Miraculously (many miracles of this kind happen in Mexico on a daily, hourly basis), our friends’ car is fully functioning again and Oscar agrees, utterly bemused, to take us to a smaller, more local butterfly reserve, La Mesa. But first we beg to be fed so he drives us back to San Jose, depositing us at a hole in the wall which, when we creep up the sinewy stairs within, transforms into a large, airy dining hall with hand-carved wooden furniture and indigenous masks on the walls. The dueña fusses over us, responding to our every vegetarian, vegan and sugar-free wish with a feast of beans, fresh tortillas, eggs, stuffed chnearly a butterflyiles, rice and thin noodle soup. We gorge and slurp and, by the time Oscar returns, are buoyed enough by the warmth to believe our mission will, at last, be accomplished.

We pile back into the now familiar camioneta. The drive takes us through numerous pueblitos with winding roads and impromptu galleries of fantastical snow creations. Classic snowmen with carrot noses perch proudly beside snow dogs wearing sunglasses and snow donkeys chewing on snow cacti. We see pine trees bent with the weight of last night’s fall dripping into streams of water, making them overflow and creating moats around the hillocks that appear at every bend, stopping us in our path and making us find another way around.

snow shack

winter fox

It is mid-week but all the schools are closed, with no life on the roads other than at the odd corner shop, where Oscar stops for directions. The people there look mystified at first, then indulgent as they spot the three foreigners of questionable intelligence seeking butterflies in the snow.

We continue on, taking in the living cinema around us in silence, until suddenly: ‘wait! Look! I see one!’ Dolly causes a great kerfuffle in the camioneta as we all strain to see what turns out to be a small bird.

Oscar is so startled that he skids off the steep, icy path. The camioneta sputters and stops, right at the tip of an incline, beginning to roll backwards so that Oscar has to jump out and physically block it with his body. We hurl ourselves out after him, tripping and sliding and getting in his way as the car rolls and rolls, eventually coming to a bumpy standstill at the bottom of the hill. Several people emerge from the seemingly empty houses and gardens in the snowy desert, concluding we’re well and truly stuck and can either a) hike the two hours back to the main road or b) stay in one of their houses to warm up and wait while the car is repaired.

We look awkwardly at each other and at the empty skies where the butterflies should be. For a moment, we are frozen in place, rooted in uncertainty and tiredness in the face of further struggle. But, as we continue to stand in silence, we slowly realise that is not actually the face looking back at us – not the face of this world we so nearly could have missed. Instead, we see sheer joy at the unforeseen fall taking shape in the bodies of the people around us, tightly wrapped in ponchos but with faces fully exposed to feel the snowflakes. We see it in the bright purple, yellow and red ribbons of the women’s hats, a vivacious defiance of the cold and hardship. And we see it in the children gathered round who look at us and begin to giggle, a wave of playful sound that calls the cold out of our bones and makes a strange warmth rise from our bellies to our throats, where it gathers and grows and surges until we, too, are open mouthed with unexpected laughter. Our collective sounds echo in the hollow at the foot of the hill, bouncing off the teal maguey plants and grandmothers’ thick manta skirts, diving into the evergreens and zig-zagging back up through the air, finally fluttering down onto the snowy ground like a thousand, petal-soft wings.

magueys

‘Those that make it through the winter are the ones fit to reproduce, go on, and enable transformation to take place.’

Lines of nation versus self: Independence Day in Mexico City

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15th September, 11.45pm

The crush of bodies squeezes the breath out of me. The crowd surges forwards and backwards and sideways, going nowhere. ‘Viva Mexico and then we all die!’ I mutter to my friend crammed in beside me, her skull being crushed between the back of the woman in front of her and the enormous belly of the man behind. ‘Christ’ she gasps, ‘if we can’t even sort out getting on and off the metrobus, what the hell do you expect?’

She has a point. I origami my upper body to look half an inch behind me, enough to see my cariño standing several bodies back; unable to move any of his limbs, he winks at me reassuringly. For a moment, I feel it’s all going to be ok.

And then there’s a sudden lull, a collective freeze of body motion as we all sense something is about to happen. Like twitchy, nervous animals we stare as it explodes, right there in the middle of no space at all – a fight. Several young men start throwing punches, snarling, grabbing each other’s shirts, collars and ears, teeth bared and territory being marked. Ripples of anxiety gather at our feet and begin to swell to a tsunami. I see babies crying in their crouched mothers’ arms, elderly people swallowed alive by the crowd. I feel my torso propelled forward even as my feet remain intertwined with all the other feet and we lunge and trip in crazy spirals together, drunk on panic, praying we don’t fall.

Now the ritual and fanfare are over, this is what we’re left with. Pressed against and within each other, depending on each other to move but each pulling our own way, wanting nothing else than to be free and to breathe, but not knowing how.

10.45pm

The build up is joyful, showcasing the best of Mexico’s entertainment and digestive systems: as the creaky neon rides flash and people trot past us wearing giant fake eyelashes and red, white and green wigs, the three of us gorge on pozole, enchiladas and giant-kerneled elote. Beside the cathedral, entire planets of people close in to watch the 90s Latin pop group OV7 play. We manage to grab a spot near the front of the town hall. At 11pm there is a solemn hush for the grito, the ‘shout’ of national Independence. We see the flag being passed, official hands placed on official chests, and hear a voice ringing out the cries echoed by the crowd: ‘Viva México!’ ‘Viva Hidalgo!’ ‘Viva Morelos!

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Viva indeed. The aliveness I don’t dispute. I feel tingles run through my body as the crowd shouts this word. ‘Viva!’ The strength and integrity of voice around me underpin a truth, a vibrancy that is as real as any love I’ve ever felt. It reminds me of the drink-clinks of ‘živeli!’ in Serbian, my mother tongue, meaning, literally: ‘que vivamos!’ – let us live. And this city does – it lets us live to the full, connected and ever, ever pressing against one another, searching for closeness and unity and health and laughter. There is no greater aliveness.

Unfortunately, it’s not actually our aliveness that’s formally being celebrated here. Neither is it independence or integrity of self. It’s something else – something far more prosaic we’ve come to internalise to be as much a part of us as our livers or little toe. Whereas, in fact, it may be better seen as our achilles heel.

What we are celebrating – what we are being sold – is fantasy. The fantasy of artificial lines that are Mexico’s borders, and the lies that accompany them. The lines that are the promise of education, health and security. The promise of glory and identity and decently remunerated work. And the lie that the promises have been fulfilled for all those complicit with the lines.

Overhead, the fireworks begin to crack and the Catherine Wheels to spin, covering us all with soot as they’re about five centimetres away – Viva Mexican health and safety standards! And the cry echoes in my head – the cry stating the artificial separateness of this space from others, masking deep fears it will someday be crushed and dominated again, with new lines re-drawn in the sand and a new geographer’s pen demanding new treaties and new surrenders. The lines are Tijuana’s wall of tears and recent blood spilled between the indigenous people and nation makers in Brazil. The lines are Yugoslavia dissolving in its own story and the exiting of Britain from its continental community. In so many cases in our world today, the lines we call country borders are no longer demarcations of sovereignty and the freedom that allegedly comes with them; rather, they have become demarcations of cleverly (or poorly) masked subjugation, fear-based thinking and forced identity-making that do not resonate with true independence of body and mind.

As the national anthem begins to swell all around me, I think of Miguel Hidalgo giving the first ever grito in Dolores Hidalgo to the local campesinos, who had just wrested their lands from the imperial forces. Who were beginning, like precious seedlings, to foment the sense of a nation that would honour their right to live and work without prejudice or exploitation. In this context, the original grito had nothing to do with nationalism and everything to do with justice and the freedom to live in peace with one’s labour and creative endeavour. Even though it wasn’t he who officially won and declared Mexico’s independence from Spain, Hidalgo is today held up as the ‘father’ of Mexico – man made myth, in whose image grandiose concepts are paraded around the country once a year, poorly concealing the complete vacuum of his original ideals and much less their practice; reinforcing, if anything, Mexico’s lack of authentic independence at any level.

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But what exactly is ‘independence’? It has been defined as: “freedom from dependence; exemption from reliance on, or control by, others; self-subsistence or maintenance; direction of one’s own affairs without interference.” As I look around the crowd, I wonder how much that applies to the average child, woman or man standing here today. Are the campesinos Hidalgo so passionately advocated for any less controlled by external forced today? Are the hard working people in the economically and culturally impoverished areas of Mexico’s cities any more able to direct their own lives with full recourse to the resources promised them by the ‘independent’ line? Are the children and elderly people selling sweets on the streets any less dependent on the charity of others than they were 300 years ago?

It stands to reason that national and individual ‘independence’ can be two different things, which would be perfectly fine if they weren’t increasingly in conflict. It’s one thing to give your voluntary, informed consent to a line proclaiming an independent nation which, while curtailing some of your desires in the name of the common good, actually provides you with that good, fair and square. It’s quite another when that line invades your free will and emotionally incests you, demanding it become one with your sense of self until you forget who you are without it and allow it to feed off you, draining you and giving you nothing in return but an artificially constructed identity and a stiff party once a year.

I watch the myth-carriers in the delegacion separated by a wall from the people they are adjudicating – the street vendors and the cleaners and the doctors and the builders and the teachers. And I recall another definition, from the field of botany, stating ‘independence’ to be ‘the abnormal separation of organs or parts which are usually united.’ Now that, for me, resonates a whole lot more with the honest truth of Mexico today than the glaring, sooty rituals would have us believe. Because, in the process of nation-creation following what was originally an impassioned plea for the right to be treated fairly in a shared, humane context, independence has become something abnormal, untrue to itself. Like Monsanto’s suicide seeds, the current government’s constructions of an ‘independent Mexico’ have done nothing but sabotage the sustainability of the very condition it professes to support, by dis-uniting the human roles and groupings essential to the maintenance of any line.

‘Death to bad government!’ went Hidalgo’s original cry. Why is that no longer pronounced at 11pm on 15th September? I turn to ask my cariño this same question, feeling his abdomen roll behind me as he belts out the anthem. He stops and smiles at me. ‘Yeah, I know, I learned the original words in school. But I don’t think those are widely taught anymore.’ Then he throws his head up and continues to sing. I look past him, into the night, where a red and green-lit drone is hovering overhead, taking pictures of all the happy, presumably independent patriots below.

I feel sad and left out. Not because I’m a ‘foreigner’ as the line would define me but because, as someone who has seen pretty much every single line in every single space I’ve lived in be subject to question, blood, or change, I feel weakened by the lie. I’m angry at its insidiousness – selling itself as shared aliveness when, in fact, it’s nothing but a ploy to control and to herd. And not very efficiently, either, as the eyeball popping 11.30pm crush would shortly demonstrate.

Ultimately, the question here isn’t even about the lies that have been sold on the basis of ‘independence’, but a far bigger one about the paradigm of the lines and the concept of the ‘nation’ itself. The question is, how far should we let this concept seep under our skin and define us? How far should we let is speak for us and tell us how independent we are when, deep down in that place where our first instincts emerge, we know that national identity is something constructed, not inborn? To date, scientists have not discovered a chile-shaped ‘Mexican’ chromosome. No – national identity is a story we’re told, for love, control, order, power. Be the reason what it will, the danger remains: that of conflating the national with the self. 

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In his time, Hidalgo needed the line. He fought for a Spain-free Mexico because it was the most effective tool available to delineate freedom and rights. And that’s what the lines are in their purest form – useful tools that can help us distribute our resources, form an orderly queue so we don’t get crushed moving around, and ensure we have a bit of land on which to create by day and lay our heads on by night. The lines only become problematic when we internalise what they’re trying to stand for; observe them neutrally and they lose their power to dominate us. For example, we can observe that once the lines marking out a particular country change, the story making engines go into overdrive to construct a new (or renewed) story of national identity that the ‘masses’ are then expected to ascribe too. And, let’s face it, the lines change quite a lot – you’d find more consistency and logic in the plot of the latest telenovela. While we may enjoy a good story and appreciate the usefulness of the lines constructed on their basis, let’s not confuse usefulness with being; let’s not confuse the tool we wield with our own hands.

I turn to my cariño again and shout above the singing: ‘if Mexico as a line, a nation, were wiped off the map tomorrow or renamed, would you be any less? Would you lose your ability to compose a piece of music or water your plants or love your family?’ He looks at me earnestly. ‘Of course not. But it’s not that simple. How can any of us disentangle our Mexicanness from the rest of ourselves when we’ve never been taught to do so? When we’re not even aware it’s an option?’

He has a point. Governments worldwide have made it their educational project to dis-able us from understanding that our constituent parts do not change, grow or wither away with any external lines. National identity making is an extremely powerful force… but, being a story, it is never more powerful than you. It is never more powerful than the realities of every person you’ve ever loved, every clear sky you’ve travelled under and every new something you’ve created, be it a brick roof, an abarrote or a piano concerto.

Midnight
As ever, the aliveness wins. People begin to shout directions, volunteer to part the sea of bodies, step back so the mothers can pass. The shouting is loud but calm, the words are steady and reassuring, and the swell of panic dies down. We breathe in and press on until we’re out of the crush and everyone is smiling with relief. The three of us inhale a giant, greasy churro each from a street stand to calm our nerves. As I wipe cajeta off my chin, I look onto the lights reflected on each face, freed from the herd, able to move and dance and wave, and I think – yes! Give me this Mexico. This Mexico with its fierce gentleness and diversity. These people who are much, much more than any flag wrapped around them that whispers it will keep them safe at night and give them their bread or a nice car. I want to shout to them: you are wilder, freer and bigger than any line and the lie it tries to sell you.

Because the lines are not delimitations of our souls, our aliveness, our shared human-ness. The problems and sadness arise when we convince ourselves they are. Administrative lines may be helpful as long as they never, ever try to tell you who you are or what you’re worth. Only you get to do that. You get to choose if you’ll join the circus and balance precariously on a man-made tightrope, with thousands of others dangerously teetering alongside you (many falling, screaming to their deaths), or if you’ll calmly, mentally walk away from the dominant story-making force which, without our complicity, will come to feel like a handful of angry feathers trying to bulldoze a rock.

unityThe answer to the lie of the line isn’t, I believe, to heave our way through another revolution that ultimately reproduces the same power structures (and draws new lines over the old). Instead, it is to start small, at home (or in a field or on the bus or in the bathroom at work), in moments of quiet when there is no-one to police us or tell us who to be. When with our eyes or hands or breath we can explore our faces and our feelings just as they are, unfettered by any markers of identity or performance other than our own true selves. Two minutes every day of feeling our own presence and knowing that is all we need in this world to define us.

Then we teach our children these two minutes, too – let’s not dishonour them by telling them they’re anything less. And at school, in Mexico and beyond, we can teach them to honour the real roots of the national grito; to distinguish, critically and clearly, between its origins and what is spoken today and by whom. Teach them distinguish between their selves and the stories simultaneously sold by, and creating, the line. If the school our children go to doesn’t do this, we can teach them ourselves.

Finally, on the streets, we can celebrate what’s true and authentically unifying within the liable lines: our shared aliveness. Our real, inherent identities. The reality of our creative, innovative, and connective power. Like during the Mexico City Marathon that happened just three weeks before Independence Day. This event, too, evoked a sense of unity and solidarity, but on an entirely different, more organic basis –  no rituals, herding or propaganda needed. All along the route, especially the last 10km stretch, and often individually, independently organised, people handed out whole crates of fruits and chocolates and drinks to the runners. They opened up their houses to let motivating music boom all around, clapping the runners on in spontaneous connection, celebrating human strength, endurance and a host of other, intrinsic-to-all-of-us qualities.

Why can’t such a day be a national holiday in itself? Or a day celebrating the everyday kindness and compassion so common here – of people who pay for your metro ticket when you’re running around like a headless chicken and don’t have any change, or those who speak up for the boy or girl who has been abused in their community and try to heal the abusers too. Or a day celebrating entrepreneurs across the land who are innovating the use and distribution of our natural resources – from the plant seller seeking to raise funds to build a ‘green wall’ for the youth of concrete Iztapalapa to the Cancun poverty developer determined to build a new, locally affordable resort made entirely of bamboo with its own solar power and recycled water. Or a day in which, ironically, Mexico comes alive like at no other moment – the iconic Day of the Dead – which speaks to our deepest, most mystical and yet simple connection with love. This is, so far, the only national holiday in Mexico celebrating something real inside us. But there are so, so many more authentic stories we can tell about ourselves at a collective level which, in place of intangible promises, bear fruit that we can touch and smell and taste in our everyday, independent lives. We can instigate land-wide holidays to celebrate each one of these, not seeking to obliterate the existing stories but ensuring they carry the same weight as them, offering people the choice as to which ones to resonate with.


free-spirit-and-authentic-to-be-yourself

And then, bit by bit, as the cumulative effects of our small private and larger public acts begin to flow into a stream, as we establish these identity-reflecting (not identity-imposing) rituals which signal the authentic presence of freedom to define who we are and live by that – maybe then we can truly cry, united, ‘Viva Mexico Independiente y Fuerte!

When we get home that night, I put the radio on to soothe the sounds of forced revelry still whizzing around my head. A song comes on, so poignant that I leave you with it now. It was given to us by a woman who consistently used her creativity to show us how much we hold within, and how much more sacred this is than any external marker of identity, no matter how powerful it may seem.

She sings: ‘I ain’t got no country… but what have I got?’

I’ve got my brains.

I’ve got my soul.

I’ve got Life.

New Year’s Eve, Mexico City

3am, 1st January 2015.

My IQ was leaving the building. It stumbled panic-stricken through the perreo-grinding[1] bacchanalia as the floor heaved and the bass beats thundered. 

club

But I wasn’t quite ready to let it go, not until I’d licked that astronauto[2] clean, sucking the lime dry of the brown sugar and slurping up every single coffee grain before tequila tore my tongue. I lunged between the karaoke kings and golden French legs, one last ditch attempt to grab my IQ by its sensible flat shoes before it abandoned me to the mirrey[3] of the night. Goodbye, it waved, as he twisted my pelirojo[4] in his grip and lassoed me to his face.

10pm, 31st December, 2014. ‘We vote for the party with free food,’ said the Chief and his main local man. The eight of us had been simmering in a low key bar, bouncing our feet until they came to a boil and were ready to boogie. We bought a boatload of booze and made our way, me tipsily snuggled in the cab with my big smoke brother, bohemian sister, an Argentinian queen and a recently arrived Hungarian.

Disembarking at the morgue-quiet house with queasy light coming through the window and a growling dog at the gate, I thought we must have the wrong place. But no. We’d simply arrived at the exact moment the inhabitants had sat down to dinner, cutlery poised, raising their eyebrows as we trudged in single file and sheepishly lined up in front of the hostess. ‘Deberían haber llegado más tarde,’[5] she scolded, nevertheless hastily laying out extra plates. ‘Bloody hell,’ whispered big smoke brother, ‘where’s the music? Did you know it would be like this? How fucking rude must we look? Right, we’re not eating anything, let’s get out the way.’ With profuse apologies, the two of us, the Argentinian queen and Hungarian dude backed away from the heaving table. ‘Hey, it’s ok,’ bohemian sister patted my arm, ‘don’t feel bad – you know how it is here, there’s always a bit of chaos, always enough for everyone!’ No use – foreigner inhibition levels were shooting through the roof and frantically activating our retreat buttons.

Back at the table, the Chief and local men plonked themselves down to devour. I wondered who were the more inappropriate idiots – the ones eating to their hearts’ content or the four starving foreigners scrunched up on the sofa. I drank more rum. Then some of the Hungarian’s tequila. ‘I’ve been here two months. Is this normal? Do you think they will talk to us?’ he asked, pointing at the diners. I elbowed big smoke brother, who was wooing the Argentinian queen: ‘You see, it’s like Brownian motion – sooner or later unexpected particles will collide and create a reaction in a way not even a nuclear physicist could model.’ ‘Are you talking about the meeting of like minds?’ I asked. ‘Nope, just assessing the chances of me singing banda[6] at the karaoke bar after.’ ‘The what?’ One of my apex phobias. Time to toast the new year.

We all piled out into the garage, 12 chocolate covered raisins substituting for grapes in one hand and plastic cups of cider in the other. ‘5,4,3,2,1!’ Someone shouted excitedly and we all cheered, drank and… ‘Hold up!’ someone else yelled, ‘it’s still too early, wait for the radio!’ I froze mid-gobble, a raisin melting in the rancid cider halfway down my throat. ‘Oh sorry, my bad,’ the second yeller retreated, ‘it’s already the new year. Didn’t you people hear the radio?’

‘Well this has all been very underwhelming, can we go now please?’ I tugged at big smoke brother as tables and chairs were cleared and several people jumped up to dance. I tightened my coat around me. ‘Just get some calories in you and you’ll be fine,’ he said, pelting me with olives and plotting karaoke hell with the Argentinian queen. After several failed attempts to call a cab, our original eight multiplied to 24 (that often happens here) and dragged me on an outdoor taxi hunt. ‘Now I’ve had my five-mile, freezing 2am walk, can I please go home?’ I begged for mercy and bohemian sister hugged me. Animo, amiga, animo![7] Big smoke brother fed me peanuts and coaxed me towards the highway, hustling me into a miracle cab as the Argentinian queen barricaded the door. ‘You don’t have to sing for fuck’s sake,’ he bargained, ‘just come for one dance.’ ‘You’ll love it!’ the queen reassured me as I sat there, aghast. ‘There’s just one thing you should know,’ she went on, ‘the bar owner, my friend – he really likes the foreign girls. So he’ll definitely come onto you. It’s fine if you just want a bit of fun, but… well, I’m just warning you!’

I rolled my eyes. ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m totally immune to that kind of guy. No chance. Plus I’m only coming for one dance. One dance.’

5am, 1st January 2015. IQ sacked, PQ (Passion Quotient) reigning supreme. Two hours in the karaoke bar had culminated with an alien specimen of life landing in my lap – surely it would be blasphemy to blast it away? Even though, obviously, there were some ethical questions to consider:

– Was it ok to accept an invitation to a clandestine VIP nightclub with recent strangers, karaoke bar owner mirrey and his wingwoman Golden French Legs?

– Was it ok to say nothing as mirrey’s socio[8] maniacally drunk-drove us in his faux gangsta car, chucking cigarette packets out the windowchica 1 and mowing down small animals?

– Was it ok to open my coat and flash my best NYE sequinned imbecile look to get into the club while my dear decent big smoke brother, bohemian sister and the queen kissed the door?

chica 6– Was it ok to pretend to believe mirrey when he said he’d confront the owner to make sure they’d get in, you just relax now and don’t worry about anything…

– Was it ok to let myself be plied with mystery drinks and prance around like a performing monkey as the other performing monkeys (women) looked coldly at me and the men exchanged no vestiges of conversation other than primal screams and sing-alongs?

And, the most puzzling one of all:

– Was it ok to believe myself so apart from this urban tribe even as they welcomed me in?

Once inside, mirrey was very attentive and presented me to the bouncers, the club owner and random passersby – all his best friends, brothers, compadres[9] –  who mostly nodded politely in the general direction of my face before giving me an all-over CT scan. It was only when he started saying ‘es mi novia’[10], and a couple of the more inebriated characters slapped his back approvingly while gurning at my cleavage that I realised what my role there was. Well. This was new – I’d never been anyone’s overt trophy before. Did it count if I knew the deal and didn’t care? Was I letting the side down or bravely taking one for the sisterhood in a covert anthropological op? I nudged mirrey and asked ‘What exactly does “novia” mean to you?’ He stared blankly at me as though I’d just asked him the meaning of Monday. Another best friend approached. They embraced, cracked shot glasses, chugged and guffawed. Apparently this one was a close relative of the president of Mexico himself. He scanned me more disinterestedly than the others – no doubt I was but a paltry bronze medal compared to the 20-carat diamonds he’s held in his hands – and promptly got back to the bromance while I stuffed my mouth with vodka to prevent it from asking how he’d felt when his kinsman’s effigy was being burned in the central square.

I moved away from them, lifting my head to watch the laser show splicing the predictable pop art collages, feeling the chemicals of joy slip deeper into my head. I thought of my man, my partner in20141122_232542 the crimes of honest love who was far from me tonight. I thought of him and glowed, transmitting pangs of desire onto mirrey who was back by my side. ‘Este lugar es chingón, no?[11] It’s the best place in the city!’ he recited. I observed the fixed grooves of his face, perfectly angled to showcase his indigo eyes and draw the gaze down to iridescent skin exposed by his unbuttoned designer shirt. I recognised that groove. It was me, five (I lie, two) years ago, vulnerable to the same mystery beneath ink-stained chandeliers. ‘And,’ he continued, kissing his fingers, ‘I love your dress. It’s perfect for New Year’s.’ I held his hand to show him I understood. The groove softened. We transcended the earthly tribe around us to one far, far older, the lasers catching the tiny vermillion lights of the fabric on my body and refracting us into a prism of PhD-level PQ.

And then Golden French Legs was upon us, as radiant as she was wasted, ping-ponging us madly into the crowd to dance until I was laughing and jumping and being held up by mirrey. His two female cousins approached; Golden French Legs muttered multi-lingual expletives in my ear. It’s true: looking at them was like having a little rain cloud piss just on you while they basked in impeccable sunshine. They greeted me with a disclaimer: ‘you know, we’re really jealous of any girl near our dear primo hermanito[12], we love him so much.’ I nodded and smiled and said my script to the elder: ‘I hear you’re getting married soon?’ For the next half hour I was regaled with dozens of photos of her dress, engagement party, hot superstar fiancé brooding into the camera and taking her on cruises, and yes you’re right he does need a strong woman like me by his side, I’m glad you understand – you must come to the wedding! I choked on my latest mystery drink as mirrey slurred his assent, listing all the expensive restaurants he would take me to in the meantime – the best! The most exquisite! They have delicious clams, you know those?

At the mention of molluscs, my stomach began to turn. Daylight was creeping in. And the moment of true choice had arrived – would IQ make a triumphant reappearance or would PQ trample it into the ground? ‘Could you give me a lift home please? I live close by,’ I said to mirrey and his socio as we piled back into the pimp wagon. ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll take you home,’ he said, shortly after pulling up at his place where they all lived. Golden French Legs charged inside, tottered back, hugged me, pushed me away, then backed into her room. I tried to back out too. ‘This isn’t my house. I want to go home. I’ll get a cab.’ ‘No, don’t worry,’ said mirrey, earnestly placing both hands on my shoulders, ‘estoy bien borracho, no te voy a hacer nada[13]. Just come up for a bit and we’ll lie down and sleep.’ My IQ was glaring uselessly at me from outside the window. A few minutes later we were indeed in his bed, me foetally curled in one corner as he stealthily approached from the other, battling the sharp sequins on my dress until he was sufficiently exfoliated and backed off. I watched him exhale, sleep, and felt like applauding. Designer shirt crumpled in his arms like a comforter, soft mouth slightly wet. Sweet mirrey. It really wouldn’t do to be ungrateful. I wrote him a note on some toilet paper with my eyeliner: ‘thanks for a fun night. [Name and number]. Kiss.’

An69279_10151292538817547_470419856_nd so it was that at 10.30 am on the first of January 2015, I crept out of an unknown house and into the mountain sun. It was hot and I slipped my coat off. I had no idea where I was. All alone on the streets, I wanted to leap into the sky with joy. I decided the best thing to do would be to follow the bougainvillea. Follow the flaming red wherever it would lead – for it could only lead home, in this magnificent monster of a city that had completely bewitched me.

Happy New Year.

Notes:

  • [1] Perreo: Rather sexual dancing style. Here’s an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FoxzVbXT18
  • [2] Astronauto: Alcoholic drinking shot. Not a human being.
  • [3] Mirrey: Mexican slang indicating socio-economically high class male; literally means ‘my king’. Here’s an example: http://laprimeraplana.com.mx/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Hablas-como-mirrey.-Seguro-conoces-este-Mirreyccionario.jpg
  • [4] Pelirojo: Bright auburn hair.
  • [5] Deberían haber llegado más tarde‘You should have arrived earlier.’ Seriously. Awkward.
  • [6] Banda: Mexican brass music. May sound utterly incomprehensible to a non-Mexican. Here’s an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXa8LjXNshs
  • [7] Animo, amiga, animo! Chin up, friend, cheer up/stop being a moody cow!
  • [8] SocioNebulous term denoting some form of functional bond, e.g. business associate or drug dealer.
  • [9] CompadreDeeply close friend – literally, ‘the godfather’.
  • [10] ‘Es mi novia’: ‘She’s my girlfriend.’
  • [11] Este lugar es chingón, no?’: ‘This place is da fuckin’ bomb’.
  • [12] Primo hermanito: Our little first cousin.
  • [13] ‘Estoy bien borracho, no te voy a hacer nada’‘I’m too shitfaced to shag you.’