After a long journey begun at 3 a.m., one old people like us shouldn’t undertake, we slept nine hours in our Mexico City hotel. Dark. Quiet. Cool enough to want a blanket. No barking dogs like those that plague us at home. Nothing scheduled the next day. Bliss. It’s air-conditioned, isn’t it? Phil asked. No, it’s not. Air-conditioning and heat are mostly unnecessary in this temperate climate.
The monstrous city sits at 7,382 feet in a valley surrounded by mountains. If it weren’t for the 22 million people and traffic polluting its air, this climate would be heaven. July is rainy season, nighttime temps in the 50s, days in the 70s. “Ya comenzaron las lluvias,” a cabbie told me on my July arrival years ago. The rains have already begun. Daily showers let Mexico City recall being the place where the air is clear, La región más transparente of Carlos Fuentes’ first novel, and sometimes, it almost still is.
At noon white clouds scud across the blue and the air is a silky 72 when we reach the Castle at Chapultepec Park, where we see Cabrera’s posthumous portrait of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, the portrait I’ve seen on book jackets for decades. The real painting is enormous, fills the wall it hangs on, glossy with protective varnish as 18th century paintings often are. She was beautiful. She was crazy smart. For that she had to apologize: Yo la peor de todas. I, the worst of women.
Students from Universidad technológico interview us to practice their English: “how old are you?” The question is basic to first year language classes, along with “where are you from?” and “what are your hobbies?” I try to explain that it’s a fine student query, but could be rude to ask older adults. They giggle and aren’t sure what I mean. I say I’m older than my husband. “She robbed the cradle,” Phil offers. They stare blankly. I try “robar la cuna” with no results. The same expression may not exist in Spanish and I have no idea what its equivalent might be, although surely there is one.
We have excellent tortilla soup and a limonada of fresh kiwi and mint at the Rufino Tamayo museum restaurant. I enjoy the music they’re playing. “Remember,” Phil recalls, “when you went to Trotsky’s house in Coyoacán and the café was playing Buddha Bar II, which was how we discovered that CD?” I ask the Tamayo waitress about the music. She writes the CD title on a slip of paper for me: Buddha Bar XVIII. Apparently it’s been a long time since that Trotsky visit.
It seems everyone has been to the U.S. One of our cabbies spent a year in Virginia, where he learned a lot of English and another year in San Antonio, where he didn’t need English at all. One of our waiters lived in Chicago for five years and Phil observes that his English has a Chicago accent.
We had dinner with Cristy, translator and editor at Mexico City Lit and a fine example of today’s international youth: raised half here, half in the U.S., university educated in New York, her Mexican Spanish and American English both fluent. After her modern dance class, she meets us at a charming café and antique shop called Yume, front open to the street, four old men playing dominos, young patrons on laptops and phones. Free wifi. Coffee and hot Oaxaca chocolate served in large bowls. Cristy invites us to her poetry reading. The other poets will read in Spanish. She will read in both, because, por supuesto, her poems are bilingual. Outside, the evening rain falls softly.
We meet historian Mílada Bazant at Los Canarios on Insurgentes. They actually have canaries singing in large cages on the shady patio. A year ago, I translated Mílada’s biography of Laura Méndez de Cuenca. On arrival, she asks, “are we speaking Spanish?” and when I say Phil doesn’t, she smiles, “then we’ll speak in English.”
Mílada lived in London for two years and in New York for one. I told Phil that when we were working on the biography Mílada kept saying, “you’re the writer: word it as you think best.” “That’s right,” she affirms cheerfully. “Now some English journal is asking for an article on Laura,” she sighs, “and I’m working on another book and so over her.” “If you need a translator for the article…” I offer.
I complain that Americans know little about Mexico while Mexicans know a great deal about America. “We have to,” she replies. “You’re the giant next door: everything you do impacts us.”
We have a fine main meal rich with conversation. Mílada asks us, perplexed, “why would anyone vote for Trump?” We pass a couple absorbed hours, leave Mílada at the bus platform. “I don’t drive in this crazy city,” she says. As we’re hugging goodbye, she adds, “I hope you can write that article on Laura,” and laughs.