A Lesson of Mexico In the wake of September 11, the author encounters an enduring Mexican trait that might serve America well
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In the weeks after September 11, with the sick odor of smoke still seeping through my neighborhood from Ground Zero, and ambulance sirens italicizing the nights, I began to yearn for my other country.
I'm a New Yorker, born and bred. I love my wounded American city more than any place on earth. But in those extraordinary weeks when we lived each hour in a jagged confusion of emotion -- shock, awe, fury, vulnerability -- I also longed for one of the continuities of my life. I ached for a special place and its special people. I wanted to walk out of my bedroom and see bougainvillea on a stone wall. I wanted to hear the laughter of uniformed schoolchildren leaping over schoolyard walls. I wanted newspapers and black coffee and mangoes glistening on a plate. I wanted a million vowels to soften my hard New York consonants. I wanted Mexico.
And so when it was possible to go -- all professional and personal duties satisfied for the moment -- my wife and I took a plane out of Newark to Mexico City, stealing a week from the ruined world. Security was brisk in the half-empty terminal. Three flights had been condensed into one, and there were only two visible changes. The Mexicans could no longer jam their groaning, oversized luggage bags into the overhead racks. And dinner was served with white plastic knives. Someone had decided that nobody would ever hijack a plane with a fork.
All the way to Mexico, while my wife slept, I drifted in and out of reverie and loss. I first saw Mexico in 1956, when I traveled with a friend all the way from New York on buses, changing in Laredo, then climbing into the mauve mountains behind Monterrey. That long night, a young Mexican man played guitar in the dark, crowded bus, singing the melancholy songs of home, he and the others all returning from time spent in the United States. The others joined him in the familiar choruses. We knew no Spanish beyond por favor and gracias. They were kind to us anyway.
During that first year (when I was trying, and failing, to be a painter on the G.I. Bill), Mexico entered me to stay for life. The bars were loud with the music of Agustin Lara and Toña La Negra and Cuco Sanchez, songs of betrayal and obsession, of life made worthless by the loss of a woman. We smoked brown-papered Negrito cigarettes, the smoke rich and pungent, bought for eight cents a pack at a tienda on the corner of Balderas and the Paseo de la Reforma. We danced with women with cinnamon skin. When the checks came from the Veterans Administration, we splurged on enchiladas suizas or tacos de pollo or a thin hammered steak and washed them down with Carta Blanca beer; when the money ran out at the end of each month, we ate onion sandwiches. In that lost city where I was young, a city where pollution had not yet stained the skies, I was as happy as I have ever been.
Over the years, I returned again and again, moving around the country from the beach resorts to the colonial cities, but always returning to Mexico City. I lived for a while in Ireland and in Rome; as a newspaperman I wandered to Vietnam and Lebanon and Nicaragua. But Mexico was always the other country in my head, and it was not always romantic. Over the years, corruption became endemic. The population of Mexico City tripled. The old style of good manners became more abrupt, more like New York. I was there for the slaughter of protesting students in 1968 and the Olympic Games that followed. I saw the devastation of the earthquake of 1985, where up to 20,000 may have died and hundreds of buildings collapsed into rubble.
On September 11, as I stood with my wife across Church Street from the World Trade Center, each of us scribbling in notebooks, the South Tower began its terrifying collapse. That immense cloud of ash and dust rolled towards us, 10 stories high, so opaque that it looked solid. Three policemen smashed me into the lobby of an old building. Another took my wife and hurled her, pushing her a block away to the safety of Broadway. Two hours later, washing the ash and powder from my hair and body, I thought of Mexico in the time of the earthquake. The pancaked buildings, the pulverized bodies, the forlorn relatives calling names at midnight and receiving no answers. That horror in Mexico seemed almost innocent; it was, after all, caused by nature, not by the hands of God-sick fanatics.
In the days that followed, I relied more heavily than ever on one of the gifts I had received from Mexico when I was young: a stoic fatalism. On one level, Mexico had affirmed the codes passed to me by my immigrant parents: the importance of family as the basic social unit (to be defended, if necessary, with violence); an insistence on the dignity of work, which was as important to human existence as food; the importance of ritual, as seen in marriages, births, deaths. But as an American child of immigrants, I also believed in the day after tomorrow. Tomorrow would be better, our parents said (laboring in factories or working as domestics). We, their American children, believed that even if tomorrow weren't better, on the day after that we'd go three-for-four. In those years after the Second World War, when we were so filled with limitless optimism, we were certain that the future would be long and bountiful. All we needed to do was work.
Mexicans knew better. They lived more closely to death. A beloved young wife might die of tuberculosis; a husband could be savaged with a machete for his week's pay; a child could fall into an arroyo and be swept away by a stream in a roaring flood. They knew better than we that the world was a dangerous, unpredictable place. Life was unfair. Life was often absurd. Life was a lottery ticket.
Knowing such things, they laughed at death. Many of their artists -- José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera were the most famous -- depicted dancing skeletons in their work, grinning triumphantly from beyond the grave. Their folk art is filled with images of death, often joyous. One of their finest writers, Juan Rulfo, wrote a great short novel called Pedro Páramo about a village where every character is dead, and continues to speak of life.
The United States has always had a genius for the absorption of "foreign" ideas and attitudes. Now, as we share the injured country with millions of Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking people, we would be fools to turn aside the lessons they can teach. About death. About life. About the whole enchilada.
Americans (when I first arrived in Mexico) seemed to think they would be young forever. Mexicans knew that death was around the corner or waiting in ambush over the hill. And so they went out each day (or so it seemed) as if accepting that it could be their last. Even today, they laugh at the gringos who grind their bodies into stringy gristle in gymnasiums, or snarl self-righteously at customers in restaurants who finish a meal with brandy and cigars. If you might die tomorrow, my Mexican friends taught me, why defer the pleasure of the day?
After September 11, as the knocked-down city of New York got up off the floor, that fatalism seemed the only intelligent way to keep on living. The fanatics who turned airliners into guided missiles had made one big point: no American city is now invulnerable. In that sense, our part of the world was changed forever. American life is now as fragile as it is in most other places on the earth. We shall live the rest of our lives knowing that death can come out of a clear, lovely sky, or out of an aerosol can, or arrive on your desk in the morning mail.
To which the stoic answers: yes, and we still must live. That is, like foot soldiers or firemen, we must live every day as if it's our last. In Mexico, I first encountered the attitude that was missing from the optimistic innocence of living in the United States: a tragic sense of life. Such a sense doesn't force us into a closed somber cone of depression and futility; it urges the opposite. The tragic sense opens a human being to the exuberant joys of the present. To laughter, carnality, the comical varieties of love, to music and art, to the small human glories of the day. It can urge one human being to read all of Dickens, and another to visit each of the capital cities of the earth. It can drive one person to marry a woman he loves, and another to seek a divorce. Today you might die, hombre, so hug your daughter or your wife, telephone a friend, read a poem. In my experience, all Latin cultures share that tragic sense of life.
Now, after September 11, that sense is part of American life, too. For a long time, we thought that sudden death was rare, caused by accident, or in random, isolated criminal acts. Sudden death in large numbers only happened to young Americans on distant battlefields. Now, like the Mexicans, we, too, know better. Sudden death can come while you are unwrapping a cheese Danish at your desk on the 84th floor of a gleaming skyscraper. Sudden death can come at the hands of fanatical strangers. But such knowledge teaches us a large lesson: acknowledging that every life must end in death is essential to living complete, full, rich lives. The stoic learns to shrug, enjoy the day, and laugh. In this life business, death is part of the deal. As my friend Malachy McCourt says, "I come from a long line of dead people."
When I arrived in Mexico City with my wife, a Mexican friend was waiting to drive us to our house. On the way, we talked about the horrors of September 11, and the war then unfolding in Afghanistan, and then, after a while, we talked about his family, and his son who had gone off to work in Chicago, and Mexican prizefighters, and the baseball playoffs, and the glorious weather after the end of the rainy season.
When I woke in the morning, I could hear mariachi music drifting from a distant radio, while bells tolled from the cathedral. In the garden, bougainvillea streamed on a stone wall. Through a window, I could see stout, blocky women with cinnamon skin hurrying to their jobs. I went to the corner to buy La Jornada and Reforma, and the newsdealer said, "Como estas, señor?" Good, I said. It was terrible, he said, the thing that happened in New York. We were all worried, he said. We knew you were there, he said. Yes, I said, it was terrible. "Y su familia?" he said. My family is fine, I said; and yours?
Then, engulfed in healing vowels, I passed the school where eruptions of laughter rose from the children inside the walls. I went to a morning table, to read the newspapers, to smoke a cigarette, to kiss my wife's cheek and talk about the glory of the coming day, to gaze at luscious mangoes on a plate.
Pete Hamill is an author and columnist for the New York Daily News.
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