Toluca Gringa

8,700 feet does more than simply turn you into a cheap date

Saturday, August 19, 2006

It was the German philosopher Georg Hegel who said that one can only live a moral life “By acting in accordance with the moral principles expressed by your own society…..You are a cultural carrier, a receptacle for the moral values which are embodied in the culture, in the political and economic way of your Nation-State.”

I don’t want to pretend to be a great Hegel scholar, but the little I’ve read (on the plane flying to Mexico, trapped in my window seat next to a snoring missionary, needing to pee) hit a nerve that I can’t shake. And it’s ironic, really, that I randomly turned to this chapter at the very moment that I was carrying all my belongings in 2 suitcases.

I am a cultural carrier. A receptacle….

A receptacle? Like a vase or a coffee urn (or in my case, a wine bottle)?

I started thinking about my many, many friends who are living in a country other than their own. Friends from South America, Eastern Europe, Africa…living in the U.S.; friends from the U.S. living all over the place. Are these receptacles, according to Hegel, amoral once they assimilate to a new culture? If that’s true, is assimilation like a crack in the vessel? Now, that makes more sense. We’re cultural vats with cracks -- some quirk that makes us want to leave our “Nation-State” to explore others. Oh jeez.

I’ve been in Toluca a few days now. It’s a great time to be here, with the buzz of the election and the massive protests just an hour away. I met an economics professor who joined the protests for a few days. He complained about the election, just as we all did in 2000 with Bush/Gore. He had a revolutionary air about him. He hated to see his country change and didn’t seem to care about international relations as long as the poor had food on their plate.
Yesterday, I watched a guy at a street-side hamburger stand melt the cheese on top of the patty with a hair dryer (ashes from the cinders below the grill blew into the air and they fluttered around his head like gray snowflakes). The woman waiting for the burger spoke a fluent Spanish, but her pale, freckled skin gave her away. She turned to me and my friend, Tray, and said hello. Her name is Rosemary. She finished the 7th grade in San Antonio, Texas, moved to Toluca with her parents and sisters nearly 30 years ago and never went back. She had no documents that claimed her in either country, with the exception of a birth certificate.

“I don’t got not nothin’,” she said. “No passport, no visa. Nothin’”
She grinned. Her remaining teeth were stained the color of rotten bananas.

Her English had morphed into her own pidgin, which is probably perfectly understood by her sisters and daughter. Still, she wanted to practice with us and said she tries to watch movies in English in attempt to preserve her first language. It’s withering away, though, just like those teeth of hers. She often forgot words and replaced them with Spanish false cognates. Her grammar was all over the place.

At some point, after the cheese had finally melted, she bragged about maintaining aspects of her Texas accent. She was especially proud of her proper use of “ya’ll.” Then, she began reciting a list of U.S. cities, periodically asking Tray and I if she should move there.

“What about Oklahoma? Do you think I should move there?”

Hmm. Well.

“I like peace and quiet. My mother told me that Rhode Island is the smallest state in America. Is that true? What about Maine? That’s a state, right?”

It was as if she were preparing for a 7th grade geography test.

She went on to name other cities, possible destinations for her to relocate… Austin, Dallas, Little Rock, a tiny Texas town called Poteet.

“My friend Molly is in Poteet. Molly was my friend when I lived in San Antonio. She gave me her phone number. She told me I could come stay with her anytime I wanted. She wouldn’t give me her phone number if she really didn’t mean that, right?”

It occurred to me that Molly probably gave Rosemary her phone number back in 1976 when they were in junior high and shared fruit cups and fish sticks in the school cafeteria.

“I have her number. Maybe I should just go there.”

It turned out, though, that Rosemary had no intention of leaving Mexico, no means to move back to the U.S., just an uncanny fear of dying in a county other than her own.

“I was born in America. I should die in America. I don’t want to die in Mexico.”

Why not? She couldn’t explain it. It was just a deep-gut feeling that told her she should be buried in the land in which she was produced.

We said goodbye to Rosemary and continued on. After all these years, she’s still a receptacle, I thought, and I laughed because until that moment I was sure that Hegel was full of shit. But Rosemary was still holding on to her U.S. roots even though she has no idea why. She was like a one-woman experiment.

If we’re all cultural vessels, I prefer the ones with cracks. It’s the cracks that allow us to be open and accepting of other cultures, no matter where we live. Tonight I’m pretty sure I’m going to fill my receptacle with smooth-as-silk tequila. We’ll see how that goes.

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” --- Leonard Cohen

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I'll be moving to Toluca, Mexico on August 15.

Toluca is about an hour west of Mexico City. It's the capital of the State of Mexico (pop quiz: How many states are in Mexico?) With an elevation of more than 8,700 feet, it's definitely the highest city I've ever inhabited. How my aging bones and shotty lungs will handle such altitude is yet to be determined.

I'll be teaching at Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Mexico as part of a partnership with University of North Texas. Here's the link for more info on that.

Check back for updates, photos, and general babble. Until then, here's a photo of the zocalo in Toluca.