Monday, February 06, 2006

from tucson: I mean, from mexico: like all good neighbors

Before this day, I had never been to a Mexican border town. Fly in to Mexico City, move around the central provinces, fly out. That’s it.

Want to go to Mexico?

Less than two hours from Tucson. Drive through National Parks with vast stretches of arid land and you’re there. Leave the car at the border and follow the signs:

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It’s not unimportant that this is Super Bowl Sunday. Nogales is crowded, but with almost no Americans. How do you spot an American here? We are the buyers. We come here to poke through stuff brought up to this border town by people who want a sale. More so on this day of no Americans than any other.

I take off on my own. I quickly leave the center and head for the hills, camera dangling. Can’t help it, I am these days so often looking at places through a lens. It is a bigger addiction than the Internet. You have to be a person of great patience to walk with me. I stop frequently. My friends are happy to let me go off alone.

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Music. Where there are people, there is music. At one corner, five radios on full volume. Not American music. Spanish lyrics, Latin melodies.

When I was in third grade, back at the UN School, we sang this song. I remember every word:

Let’s sing a song of the good neighbor
Til it echoes o’er the sea
Si si amigo, wherever we go
Good good neighbors we will be

So let’s extend a helping hand
Across the Rio Grande
And help each other too
Like all good neighbors do – oo - oo.

So what happened? …here in this poor poor border town of Nogales?

I stand at the base of a hill, taking a photo of a blue house. There are so many colors, most faded but some still bright, up there on that hill.

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A Mexican man leaves his girlfriend and comes up to me.
Miss? You want a good picture? Climb up those narrow (crumbling) stairs. All the way to the top. You will see everything.
Thanks, I will do that.

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All the time I am here, I pass groups of people hanging out. Perfect words to describe it. Hanging out. Young people and even younger. Babies on the way to childhood, on the way to adulthood. Sometimes I cannot tell which is the child, which is the adult. These girls, I was going to label them “sisters.” But when one gets up I wonder if she isn’t the mother.

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In a back alley, halfway up the hill I hear the racket of a machine. I pause at the doorway and look.

You wanna come inside to see?
I step in.
We are making tortillas. Did you ever see them made?

My camera, my curiosity tell it like it is: I have never seen tortillas being made and yes, I want to come inside. I watch, she explains. She smiles at my picture taking. She lets me taste the warm soft pancake. Good. How can it not be?

Neighbors come here to buy fresh ones for supper. Fresh baguettes for the Sunday supper in France, fresh tortillas for the Sunday supper in Mexico. She is happy when I tell her I want some too, even though I have no Mexican family to feed. I will feed myself.

Twenty five for fifty cents. Two pennies per pancake. American pennies welcome. American pennies. We can use American pennies here. All pennies welcome.

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I climb down again and rejoin the stream of people, Mexican people, no Americans, no Americans, they’re watching Super Bowl, that’s right.

I stop in front of a bakery, trying to understand the sweet inclinations of this community. Simple cookies and buns, puffed up, showing off their freshness. Someone comes up to me. It’s the camera. It is my question mark. People have figured out that I am asking, even as I say no words.

These, we like these, the person behind me prods my elbow to focus on the side of the shelf. He smiles as I turn my camera toward his choices.

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I cannot be like the Polish tourist that I half am. You know the Polish tourist in Venice? He comes with his family by bus. He takes pictures of his family on the main square. He enters the church, prays, goes outside. He sits with his family on the church steps and opens a plastic bag where he has packed (more likely his wife has packed) the breads and sausages (from Poland) for the afternoon meal. They eat. The plastic bag escapes with the wind. Ooops. He leaves, pushing the sinking city deeper into the lagoon with his tread, spends nothing, leaves his garbage and is out before sundown.

But I want nothing. No clutter back at the loft.

Still, as I dump my plastic water bottle in the trash can, the image of the Polish tourist haunts me. So I buy two green thick glass goblets. Simple goblets for simple country wines, the kind you might have with a baguette or a tortilla.

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At the exit point, the US official is old, kind-looking. Friendly. The stream of people returning to Mexico, WalMart bags full of toilet paper and who knows what else, move quickly. The stream of people leaving Mexico – less so. Our drivers’ licenses are inspected, but one look and it becomes a formality. What did you buy? I am asked. Two goblets. Two beautiful goblets.