Canta y No Llores (Once Upon a Time in Mexico)

My eyes don’t know if they are blue or green

Había una vez, en una tierra lejana, una joven con ojos de camaleón.

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a young woman with chameleon eyes.

Today, Samara said she missed me. And the thing is, I’ve been writing. But none of the stories feel right; the words don’t sing and the pace doesn’t flow. So tonight, I’m going to surrender to what’s on my heart and tell you some stories about Mexico.

When I graduated college, I moved to Xalapa, Veracruz to live with a boy. There’s always a boy. Or a girl, or a man – which is what I was really dealing with. I moved to live with a man I loved, and to teach English, and to adventure. I won’t say more about that man, because there is another man now and he is the one I choose to love forever. But you should know that, back then, the man from Mexico was my world.

We lived several places. First, there was the apartment that topped an artisan shop like icing on a cake. It was in el corazón del centro, the heart of downtown, and shared one wall with a nightclub. On weekends after 9pm, the bass thumped so loudly that sleep was impossible, and we held impromptu midnight picnics on the living room floor.

My old street – Callejón González Aparicio

From my bedroom window, I could see into the yard of los ancianos, the ancient ones who lived across the alley. Somehow, a family composed of three decrepit but fiercely devoted siblings had held onto a tiny plot of land. Their ramshackle cottage and spit of grass were surrounded on three sides by an independent movie theater, a parking deck, and a fancy Italian restaurant. At street level, a high aluminum fence kept their lives a secret. From my perch three stories up, however, I memorized their movements like an intricate dance.

Of the two sisters, one was clearly the leader. She bossed the brother every which way and cut his hair on the first Sunday of each month. The younger sister had a more daunting task: she hunted pigeons. Yes, pigeons, in the middle of a bustling state capital city. Every day, the old man scattered crumbs around the yard. Then he disappeared inside and pigeons swarmed down in a grey mass to feed. They were so happy to receive this easy bounty that they didn’t seem to mind – or perhaps they merely forgot – that every few days, the younger sister would dart out of the house with a broom and club one bird into the ground. She never, ever missed. The other birds would scatter to the skies, the pulverized bird would be plucked and roasted on a spit, and every few days the wheel of food, trust, and death made another rotation.

I prefer mango to pigeon

I loved living in my orange castle in the Xalapan sky. From the rooftop of my building, I could see the very tip of a distant mountain called Pico de Orizaba. Every time I hung the laundry out to dry, the clouds that floated across Pico’s face made me imagine that the sighs of my fellow urban dwellers were drifting up to heaven.

Pico and her clouds of sighs

During my first weeks living in Mexico, I bought a refrigerator, learned which varieties of salsa to avoid, and walked countless miles to explore as many twisting side streets as I could. I found a favorite baker, learned the name of the man who – for a monthly fee – guarded the cars on my street from nighttime robberies, and I befriended the daughter  of the gift shop owner downstairs.

Then I began teaching English.


To read the next part of this story, click here.


42 responses to “Canta y No Llores (Once Upon a Time in Mexico)

  1. Jennie, Samara had the same effect on me, I’ve discarded a dozen half-hearted, half-finished posts, then today she reached into my heart and coaxed something out of me I had no idea was in there…spooky, hey?! I love this post, I was right there.

  2. I was going to correct you and say, “there’s always a girl, too…” but you beat me to the punch. A pretty redhead kept me in Phoenix, AZ a lot longer than I should have stayed.

    I love that street pic. Old world architecture accented with flat screen TVs.

    So funny…I was in a restaurant in the city last night and squab was on the menu. You can’t fool me! You can call it squab if you like, but I know it’s a pigeon. I went with the duck, all fatty and delicious with a plum sauce.

    When you were in the heat of all this, did you think it could last forever or did you know, deep down inside, that it would all eventually come to an end?

    • And have you written that story up, or am I doomed to wonder what sway she held over you? (Besides being a redhead, that is, because that appeal is obvious.)

      You would love that street. I think anyone would. There are balconies that jut out so far you could kiss from one to another, and when they put soccer on the flat screens, the whole street cheers or groans with every goal.

      Your duck dinner sounds amazing. I love duck because my grandmother made me try it when I was little, and it always seemed so elegant, like her. I got tricked into eating “squab” in Italy, and it was disgustingly oily yet dry at the same time.

      You know, your question really moved me. In retrospect, it all almost seems like a colorful dream, like a wedge of pie cut from my real life. At the time though, I was so caught up in the bliss that I thought it would never, ever end. This getting older and wiser thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

      • Talk about a doomed relationship! She was a Mormon and “pre-engaged” to a semi-professional weight lifter back in Salt Lake City who could have crumbled me into a tiny ball and tossed me over his shoulder. But I corrupted her. I didn’t mean to! It just happened! She was so pretty. I was too young and stupid to worry about a little thing like consequences. In my defense, it takes two for something like that to happen. Eventually, I had to leave town. I didn’t leave Phoenix as much as I fled.

        I miss those youthful, innocent care-free days when you think love can last forever. You get burned a couple of times and realize life is more complex than that. It can be full of nuance and disappointment, but the joy never goes away, does it? It’s always there bubbling on the surface.

        • Oh, buddy. We’ve all corrupted someone (SO much fun) but none of my protegees ever had a partner who could beat me up! Although… pre-engaged? Is that like wearing a promise ring? What does that even mean?

          All I can say about that second paragraph is thank you. I want joy to be like that, and you saying it is makes me feel like it might be true.

    • She was a force of nature! And Mexico… it’s so bountiful, so colorful, so overflowing with noise and favor and stories. I lived there long enough that I think it really is that way, instead of me just idealizing it.

  3. I am slowly subscribing to blogs via email instead of my reader, and I’m so glad I got to yours before this post. I’m going to enjoy seeing Mexico through your eyes.

  4. What a master of words. Jennie. Your narration carried me to Xalapa, and I could see the recently shewn locks of hair quietly tumble down the street among the pigeons. I’m waiting with bated breath for the next installment!

    • Ah, Katie! Thank you so much. But that vision (which was beautifully written as well) is as much about you being the best kind of reader… creative and invested… as it is about my words. I think we all bring something extra to the stories we consume, you know?

  5. I have had this sitting in my reader for several days and I’m so glad I finally found time to read. So beautifully told. I can tell you’re writing from your heart.

    • That’s so kind. I’m glad you’re enjoying the story. I found all my old photos over Christmas break, and am feeling very nostalgic for those hilly streets.

      • I’ve been quite sick since Mid-December… in the hospital for 6 days (they let me go home for Christmas), and home on oxygen for 2+ weeks… now daily rest and more complications. That is the short version. “It’s complicated.” :-p

        Your stories are just wonderful, Jennie! Really enjoying them… on to part 3 in a minute.

        • Oh, Dawn! I won’t ask you to share the long version, since health is personal, but I am so sorry to hear this. I hope the rest restores you completely. In the meantime, I am so glad you won the contest at Tipsy Lit – your writing just glows.

          • Thanks Jennie! I am honored; coming from you that means a lot, because your writing rocks!!

            Health stuff will not resolve easily, I’m afraid…. surgery, not rest. But that makes for a lot of time sitting her writing… so I can take on Duncan again next week. Be sure to check it out and vote! He has a whole “fan base” that votes for him every week. :-p Again, loved this series… I see a book here for sure!

          • I promise to come back next week. If that’s the way the game is played, you’ve got quite a fan base of your own! As for the book… thank you for saying that. Maybe someday! 🙂

      • Watching old people kill pigeons for food and living next to a literal discotheque where sleep couldn’t be achieved until the wee hours of the morning seems like a challenge. And your comment about “purchasing a refrigerator” gave me the sense that the environment was quite poor. (That, plus the image of people needing to kill pigeons for food.)

        • Ah, I see. I was young enough then that an excuse to play instead of sleep wasn’t unwelcome. As for the refrigerator, it’s pretty standard in Mexico to have to bring in new appliances to a rental; they leave when you do, and the next owners furnish their own, as well. Xalapa is very much a mixed bag – it’s a state capital with an international school, but it’s still in a third-world country. The coexistence of wealthy businessmen and politicians alongside beggars in traditional clothing never got less strange to me. Of course this happens in the U.S. too, but since I don’t come from a large city here, I hadn’t ever seen that juxtaposition so starkly before. It was also bizarre to see soldiers with automatic weapons guarding banks and government buildings, and I never liked looking them in the eyes.

          • I had very similar experiences when I went to India a few years ago (minus the renting a fridge [I stayed in a hotel]). I was genuinely shocked to walk off the plane and past armed soldiers.

  6. Hello Jennie darling… I am finally warming up to 2014 and knew that I wanted to read your Mexico adventures. Would you believe I once spent a summer teaching English — not in Mexico, but rather in Venezuela — but your description of your exploration, and the street economy was very familiar.
    I sent you an email — don’t know if you got it or not.

    • My Sharona… I mean Helena! It’s good to see you here again. 🙂 I did get your email, but have simply been very tardy in replying. But I will, absolutely because you made me laugh! Now the laugh has been fermenting for a week, so it’s nice and ripe and ready to be tossed back your way in the form of giggles… something like grapes turning into champagne.

      Also, of course I believe you worked abroad! You are clearly a citizen of the world, as my dad says. And now I want to know more.

  7. Pingback: Thank You Jennie! | Being the Memoirs of Helena Hann-Basquiat, Dilettante.·

  8. You pulled it off again. I felt like I could actually see you in some parts of this. “The other birds would scatter to the skies, the pulverized bird would be plucked and roasted on a spit, and every few days the wheel of food, trust, and death made another rotation.” With this sentence, you managed to make an old woman bludgeoning and eating a pigeon sound romantic, and totally not something I would watch like this:

    • You have just warmed my heart on this too-freaking-cold day! What you say I’ve done is exactly the reason I love magic realism novels: They make the mundane magical and the magical, mundane. They turn beauty into horror and ugliness into romance. Other cultures play with magic realism, but it could never have been born anywhere but Latin America. Thank you for giving me an excuse to step up on this soapbox of love. 🙂

      P.S. I totally made that face the first time I witnessed a pigeon bludgeoning.

  9. Pingback: BECAUSE GIRLS ARE COOL – JENNIE S | Hastywords·

    • Yes! Go! I want to live vicariously through you. 🙂 It’s not a very touristy city (so all the better), and I can tell you what streets are especially magical, which market is the friendliest, and how to get to the natural hot springs nearby!

    • I’m glad you’re on my line, baby! *cue cheesy reeling-you-in motion* Annnnnd now I have Blue Traveler stuck in my head.

      …I wanna know how the field trip went. Let me guess… Museum? Symphony? Farm?

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