While listening to Linda Ronstadt’s album, “Canciones de mi Padre,” I am transported into another time.
I was just a child, and I didn’t yet understand Spanish. But when I looked at my mom’s face, lit up as she sang along to the ranchera, I saw her in her own element. One that was from a different place; one that I sensed deeply when I spent time at my maternal grandparents’ house or when our family from Mexico came to visit.
Whether savoring a homemade empanada at my distant relative’s home or staring longingly at the beachfront homes in Mexico, this feeling would eventually make itself known to me as irrefutably important. Over the years, I have lived, traveled, and volunteered throughout the world. I have become fluent in Spanish and so-so in Portuguese. I have delved into the jungles of Borneo, shivered among the glaciers of Iceland, and stood upon the marble steps of the Taj Mahal. But nothing will ever compare to Mexico.
In a way, Mexico was my first love. It was my first step into the world beyond the self-contained existence of life in the United States. I consider the first, particularly spontaneous, night in Tijuana a glimpse of the strangeness of border towns. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I would begin to properly explore the endless, vibrant possibilities of this country, and ultimately fall in love.
While visiting relatives in the northern metropolis of Monterrey, as well as its surrounding, comparably barren, pueblos, I began to learn how much I didn’t know. I may have grown up noticing a distinct cultural difference between my mother and father’s families, and thinking that I knew what Mexican culture was based on what I’d witnessed through the years and generic assumptions. While certainly important, Mexico is much more than large families (my mother was one of nine children), unquestioned Catholicism, tortillas hecho a mano, rancheras, and- of course- tough love.
It took sitting side-by-side with long-lost cousins at the same dinner table, swigging back a few shots of tequila, struggling to communicate with my East Side San Jose public school “Spanish,” and crying the insufferable tears of eating jalapenos like green beans, to realize that this was my first rodeo. No amount of indigenous blood in my body could have prepared me for the wonders that I had yet to stumble upon. And perhaps this is why Mexico seems like home to me: it was my first great teacher. Of life, of love, of how the world can function in so many different ways.
Life in Mexico is kind of like its infrastructure- broken sidewalks, bright yellow and pink and blue houses with the windows always open, juxtaposed by enormous murals, and cathedrals practically dripping gold. Tall, handsome men with their black hair slicked back walk by in Armani suits while elderly, grey-haired ladies fry up blue corn tacos on the street corner. Buses and cars and pedestrians swerve around the streets in a frenzy, while not too far off in the distance, farmers spend their endless days bending their backs over fields of corn and a myriad of tropical fruits that will be loaded onto trucks for their wealthier, northern neighbors to enjoy.
Mexico is such a rich, complex place in part because it is everything that it shouldn’t be. Despite the Spanish Inquisition and many other times of war, remnants of Aztec, Mayan, and Toltec cultures still stand proudly. Traditions are clung to while modern technology is eagerly welcomed. A patriarchal, male-dominated society may still linger, but strong female figures like Frida Kahlo, Ana Castillo, and Sandra Cisneros continue to demand attention in the art world. (And, don’t let the word out, but it is the women who really head the family.) For as much daily strife many endure, there will always be a reason to celebrate. And no matter how small or humble one’s house is, you will be warmly welcomed. I learned here that it’s not how much space is in one’s home, but how much space is in one’s heart that matters.
With its landscapes ranging from copper desert canyons to white sand beaches to lush rainforest to towering mountains, just the topography of Mexico’s land is mindboggling. Add into the mix countless gravity-defying UNESCO sites like Teotihuacan, Chichen-Itza, and Palenque, and the blossoming of wonders seems limitless. Even Salvador Dali, the master of strangeness, stated, “There is no way I’m going back to Mexico. I can’t stand to be in a country that is more surrealist than my paintings.”
And so, no matter how many times I go back to Mexico, no matter how much time I spend with my Mexican relatives, how many Diego Rivera murals I ponder, how many states I backpack through, how many impossibly gorgeous sunsets I witness, there is still more. Mexico is a country that will never disappoint me, that will never cease to surprise me, that will never fail to feel like home. Whether I’m getting lost in the maze that is Guanajuato, swimming in the warm waters of Zihuatanejo, exploring the mines of Zacatecas, or simply hechando una chela with good friends in Mexico City, there will still be more to see and do. Mexico will always be evolving, construing surprises for the senses, and maintaining its ages-old charm. And each time I return, I will feel as if I am revisiting a place within myself that only can be known through love.