We live in a borderland.
No, no, not that border, sillies. A border between two Mexicos. We live in this netherworld of a neighborhood—Ayuntamiento, to be exact—that isn’t really a neighborhood. Even our utility companies aren’t sure where we live; each company sends our bills to a different address, although they all miraculously make it to us (you know, one day before they are due). And most people look a little askance when we even try to direct them to our neighborhood by name. We usually end up saying something like, “Ayuntamiento…you know, kind of between Providencia and Santa Tere?” We live in a barrio borderland.
While it’s annoying when talking to cab drivers, there is something special about living neither here nor there, instead existing on the cusp of other places—two very different places.
Turn right out of our gate, and you will quickly enter what our first visitor described as “yuppy Mexico.” Multiple Starbucks. Grocery stores with international food sections (and an entire American grocery store for homesick gringos). Botoxed wives who spend their days getting pedicures and working on their implanted booties. Swank restaurants and taco “stands” that feature air conditioning and four walls. Eateries where you can be sure ice and fresh vegetables have been properly handled with filtered water. Here, everyone drives a spit-shined SUV or German luxury vehicle. Here, you can almost forget you’re in Mexico—you know, except for the kamikaze left-hand turns and the yapping dogs. Here, you can find children’s bookstores and all-natural beauty stores and shops selling hand-crafted wool products and hand-printed wrapping paper—even (gasp!) the Superama. Churches are few and far between, but you certainly can find sushi and gastro-pubs and European cafes and Oaxacan restaurants and French brasseries and South American steakhouses and British pubs and creperies and even a wine bar. It is, in short, where we go when we want to feel like we’re still at home—just in endless sunshine, while wearing sandals in October, and speaking broken Spanish.
But if you turn left out of our gate, you enter a whole other Mexico. Your first tip-off is the neighbor’s son who spends his afternoons in the middle of the street, dressed as a caballero, practicing his lassoing. With his real, live lasso. The chain ice cream and paleta stands quickly give way to old men pushing carts of chile fruit and handmade ice cream daggers – in front of the block after block of churches. That air-conditioned taco stand with four walls? On this side of town, you’re more likely to find an entrepreneur grilling chorizo out of the back of his truck or a father-and-son duo who turn their front yard into an afternoon ceviche stand. Even restaurants with hip-looking signs end up being hole-in-the-wall tamale shacks where abuelas gather and gossip while stocking up on Sunday snacks. In this neighborhood, we have our neighborhood tortilleria, where we get a kilo of fresh, hand-made tortillas, pulled from the griddle piping hot while we wait. Here, the sidewalks are bumpier, the cars rustier, and the high heels flatter.
We love Providencia; we do. Our friends live there. We grocery shop there. We marvel at the tree-lined streets and the pleasant parks. (Because, oh yeah, the nearest park in Santa Tere is nothing but a dusty plaza covered in dog poop and broken glass. But the neighborhood kids love it, especially on Friday evenings when the adults lounge on benches and every age of kid runs wild across that poop- and glass-strewn concrete slab.) So we are glad we get to live so close to the little luxuries of Providencia, where we can pretend we are Mexican yuppies and not the least bit homesick.
But really, Santa Tere has captured our heart. This neighborhood with its weekly tianguis, with its vegetable market and streets lined with mom-and-pop shops (no Super-anything here…just plastic stores and hardware stores and tortilla shops and piñata shops and any other hole-in-the-wall you can imagine), with its street food and impromptu Sunday taquerías, with its neighborhood fiestas that always involve days and days of fireworks and leave colored banners strewing the streets for weeks after, with its murals and street art, with its middle-class vibe.
This neighborhood, this Mexico: This is why we’re here.
This is where I get lost on Sundays as I do our weekly vegetable shopping, where I’ve come to know our tortilla maker and our butcher and our favorite banana vendor. Where I ogle the cheap, trendy clothes I might one day buy post-baby and where I can stock up on bootleg DVDs. This is where there is always a church door open, sermon or hymn or celebration spilling out onto the street. This is where neighbors and shop owners patiently take the time to talk with me, broken Spanish and all, about where I’m from, how I like Guadalajara, when the next baby is due, and how my little girl is today. This is where multi-generational families wile away a Sunday brunch sampling taco stands and birreria and hand-made paletas. This is where women look like real women and not air-brushed, tummy-tucked, coiffed versions of themselves. This is where SUVs and Audis become ancient VW bugs, polished and lovingly tended to. This is where Anna sings with delight as we get lost amid market stalls and streetside chaos. This is where, despite our bad Spanish and our conspicuous gringo-ness, we actually feel like we are part of a community and a neighborhood.
I struggle with the part of our life in Mexico that asks us to pretend that we are more than we are—the fancy private school that caters to coddled and privileged youngsters, the American car that screams out “Wealth!” when it should really scream out “Hefty car payment!,” the full-time nanny who cleans and cooks and that we could never afford in the States. This is all part of our life here in Mexico, but we are fortunate to also live in another Mexico. One that feels a lot more like us—more down-to-earth, more grounded, more gritty.
We might officially live in Ayuntamiento, but Santa Tere—this is what I’m starting to think of as home.
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While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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