Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Finding Home: Six Years in Mexico City

I didn’t fly directly from Oahu to Mexico City, but spent two weeks couch surfing in LA before boarding another flight. Was it fear of the unknown, of starting over once again? I’m not certain and my old journals shed little light. What I did know was that I was flying into the most populous city on the face of the earth in 1979. The Federal District (el D.F.) had not yet hit its current population of 20-21 million inhabitants, but it was an enormous, polluted city at the top of a flat, dry plateau.
It took my body months to adjust to the elevation. The dizziness was at times frightening and the weakness debilitating, but despite the shock to my system – I mean what could have been more different from the North Shore? – I adjusted and stayed.

The city was overwhelming. Only taking it one colonia at a time made it manageable. Each colonia or area felt like an individual city with its own character. I lived in only two apartments in two neighboring colonias during my time there. The first was rent-free, much like the Caracas place, but only for a few months between lease-holders. The student who found it for me also helped me locate the apartment that remained mi casa for the duration of my stay.

Mi casa was actually the lower back apartment in a two-story concrete block of six apartments behind the main, street-front house. There was only one entrance. I had to unlock a metal door to the owners’ carport and pass their house, then follow a walkway to my own front door at the back of the property. The walkway was about three feet wide with the apartment building to the right and a concrete wall to the left. The cave-like apartment consisted of two small rooms – living room and bedroom – with a tiny kitchen off the living room and an equally tiny bathroom off the bedroom.

There was another walkway to the second floor apartments overhead. Tunnel-like but not closed in, there was enough daylight on the lower level outside my front door to grow small plants in terracotta pots. I pounded nails into the cracks in the mortar of the concrete block wall and wrapped wire around the pots to hang them. I was desperate for anything living and green in the city of concrete I claimed as my home.
I found work immediately and never lacked teaching positions. I taught in private language institutes, corporate offices, restaurant kitchens, and secondary schools criss-crossing the city by bus, pesero, and subway. I lived alone for three years, though there was often someone--between jobs or boyfriends, another ex-pat deciding to stay or go--sleeping on my sofa. I watched and struggled with the same decisions: Was this really home? Could I make this home? Did I belong?

I married a good man, a man who loved me, a man whose family accepted me. I'm not sure where I'd be today if I'd stayed, if tragedy hadn't brought me back to Seattle. But tragedy has a way of pulling family together, and when it struck, three years into the marriage, my roots proved stronger than the home I'd built for myself as an ex-pat. After six years convincing myself I must have been Latina in a previous life, I quit my teaching position, packed up our household and returned stateside with husband in tow.

But what is home? Was it my first family or this new husband from a place and a culture so remote from my own? Was it my large first family or my husband's family? Was it an either/or? Couldn't home be both? I had no idea. All I knew at the time was that an invisible cord allowing no dissent pulled me back to Seattle.  I left behind a life I'd built for myself without ever looking back. I returned only once after the earthquakes of 1985 to visit the in-laws who very soon were no longer family at all.

I wonder, even now, so many decades later, a lifetime later, what I was searching for, what caused me to abandon all I knew for the life of an ex-pat. It wasn't love--I'd moved to Mexico City several years before ever meeting the man who would become my husband of three years. It was an adventure, yes, but something more. I tell people I was fed up with U.S. politics and American materialism, and maybe that was true, but it was still only half the story. Something was missing. Home was missing. What I wanted or what I needed home to be was missing, and I spent my twenties and deep into my thirties searching for it.

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To read the prior posts in this mini-memoir series, go to the posts listing in the left side bar. If no longer visible, just click on "March" and "April" to select.

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