The Metropolitan Cathedral, the majestic 16th-century church in the heart of Mexico City, tilted slightly to the left, pulled into the soft earth by the weight of its own stones. Twenty-five bells ringing inside two giant towers echoed off the palaces enclosing Zócalo square, which in the twilight felt too unoccupied for a New Year’s Eve. The bells sang their melancholy song, swinging between hope and dread. Dread and hope.
The year was 1994. The peso was tumbling, and the country seemed to be falling apart. Yet here I was. Ecstatic. Excited. Pumped. I was Mexican again, disguised as a full-time correspondent for The Dallas Morning News.
Thirty years earlier, in the 1960s, my parents and I left my native Durango, Mexico for California’s San Joaquin Valley. The powerful nation up north brimmed with opportunities, but I had left Mexico unwillingly. Yes, California seduced me, as did Texas, Utah, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts—states I later lived in. Yet Mexico always tugged at me. It called me home at night, at midnight when I could hear my mother softly mouthing the words to Javier Solis, proof that her nostalgia was greater than the promise of our new land. I would fall asleep wondering how I could ever find my way back.
So, that New Year’s Eve, I wasn’t just anywhere. I was in Mexico City, the iconic capital of culture, music, food, and drink. I had been gone for so long that my Spanish was poor, a mess of tangled verbs and mangled vocabulary. There, in the middle of the Zócalo, I inhaled deeply. The smog managed to smell like fresh air to a gleeful native son. I wanted to scream to anyone in earshot: I’m home!
But it was also foreign. Strange. Scary. Hmmm, 20 million Mexicans. Can a city actually function with so many Mexicans? What does it look, sound, operate like? Would nostalgia, romanticism prove right? Can you actually go home again?
The air was permeated with carnival smells: the rich aroma of corn roasting on a wood-fired stove, the greasy scent of pork frying with hot chiles toreados and blue corn quesadillas toasting on a griddle. Modernity choked the ancient city with pollution. Because of its location 7,000 feet above sea level, the city sits on a highland “bowl” that traps the cold air sinking onto the city and in the wintertime makes the smog, which can’t escape, worse.
I wandered around with the latest Caifanes CD soundtrack to mark my homecoming: The fanatical guitar solo of Caifanes’ Aqui No Es Así blasted in my earphones. Only the honking and loud engines of the lime green Volkswagen beetle taxis could make themselves heard over the music.
The city was spectacular, even though marks of destruction from the catastrophic 1985 earthquake were still visible. (The earthquake had delivered a jolt a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.) Yet something also seemed wrong. The nation felt uneven, hypocritical, and stuck. The rich locked themselves behind their large doors, and the poor used their creativity to work any job they could for a paltry handout. People couldn’t understand how I, a Mexican with a suit and tie, didn’t belong to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
I lived in one of the richest neighborhoods, Coyoacán. Wealthy neighbors would often ask where I was from or who my relatives were. What they were really asking about was my blood lineage. I’d tell them calmly and slowly, “I’m the son of a bracero from Durango.” I could detect their embarrassment. Leaving the country had allowed me to climb the economic ladder and become a correspondent for a major publication. It didn’t say much for Mexico’s own possibilities.
Recently, I retraced my steps along those same streets I wandered back in 1994, weaving through a narrow maze of streets like Donceles, where the stately Teatro Metropolitano stood, near the old Regis Hotel, through a jumble of colonial building to the corner of Avenidas Lázaro Cárdenas and Juarez, where Parque Alameda, built in 1592, began behind the Palacio de Bellas Artes, with its white marble walls and copper-tinted cupola. Couples sat on the theater’s stairs and kissed. Organ grinders known as cilindreros cranked their antiquated 80-pound German-made music boxes. The musicians, working in pairs, took turns passing the hat for a peso or two.
I swaggered back to Madero Street, where triumphant generals and revolutionaries once glided in on horses and wagons to the Zócalo, the largest public gathering place in the western hemisphere—almost as big as Red Square in Moscow. For sale were electrical parts on República del Salvador; toys on Calle Corregidora; jewelry on Brazil; sportswear on República del Uruguay, and musical instruments on Venustiano Carranza.
I saw the Templo Mayor, where the cries from human sacrifices once pierced the quiet of dusk during the Aztec times, and the stone palaces that were once home to Moctezuma and later the conquistador Hernán Cortés and his indigenous wife, Malíntzín. The union of Cortés and Malíntzín helped mark the rise of the mestizo, a mixture of indigenous and Spanish blood, although some historians insist the core of indigenous Mexico remained largely untouched by the few conquering Spaniards who arrived.
I stared, transfixed, at the colorful Orozco murals, followed by the cathedral, which the Spaniards constructed with stones that included those of the Aztec pyramids and temples they destroyed in their conquest. This was once Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital and crown jewel of Mesoamerican civilization. The Aztecs had decided to build Tenochtitlan on this swampy place, on the spongy clay of a shrunken lake, because, according to historians, they saw an omen: an eagle with a writhing snake in its beak and talon, perched on a cactus, the same image embossed on the Mexican flag today. Cortés once stood where I was now standing and praised the Mexican culture and architecture as the most beautiful and sophisticated he had ever seen—even as he planned to reduce it to ruin.
Since I first moved back to Mexico in 1994, I have tried leaving, only to return, and I will probably never leave for good. I suppose I have gone native, but I’m not sure what that means anymore. That day, as I strolled through much of the city, I found myself wondering whether any Mexican who has left can go native again. Around me was an array of U.S. franchises, and the sound of English permeated the place. The words didn’t seem foreign.
The old nationalistic wave is dying off, unless some politician tries to win instant points by punching the evil bully up north. Issues of sovereignty still resonate, but less so. With some 35 million Americans who trace their roots back to Mexico, separating the two nations is becoming more difficult. But one thing became clear as I walked those streets: Sometimes I need to walk both sides of the border to feel complete.