Letter from Mezcal City

¨Para mal, mezcal. Y para bien, también¨ – popular Mexican adage

 

 

Roberto Bolaño´s Savage Detectives, a great deal of which takes place in Mexico City, begins with this dialogue:

 

“Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?”

“No.”

 

The dialogue is taken from the end of Malcolm Lowry´s novel Under the Volcano, a novel that begins with mezcal. Not only does the protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, have a serious problem with alcohol, he has a much more serious problem with mezcal. It´s one of the novel´s key conflicts.

 

Throughout the novel, he repeats to himself, in his stream-of-conscious that blurs lines between dialogue and thought and characters, “Anything but mezcal,” but succumbs anyway to that cool liquid lava. Patching it up with his wife, who has come back to México just to see if the can work things out, doesn´t happen. Instead mezcal wins. It is the volcano, or the liquid within it, that he is under.

 

For those who don´t know, mezcal is a distilled liquor from Central Mexico. Unlike its better known cousin, tequila—which is made from blue agave and often sugar—mezcal is made entirely from agave, the most common being espadin agave. The maguey cactus is roasted then distilled. Technically, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. That is to say, tequila is a kind of mezcal, but what is labeled as mezcal tends to come from smaller distilleries. Its taste is very different from tequila. In Under the Volcano, Geoffrey allows himself to drink tequila and points out to his companions that it isn´t mezcal after all.

 

Wood and fire are the first things that come to mind with mezcal for me. Lowry, a better writer of a more romantic epoch, has his protagonist compare it to “ten yards of barbed wire fence” before adding that ¨it nearly took the top of [his] head off.”

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Like the craft beer scene some years ago in the States, mezcal has experienced a recent boom. While Oaxaca is the capital of mezcal, Mexico City now offers dozens of mezcalerías, where often they offer a house mezcal in addition to other varieties. Like craft beer aficionados, people tend to nerd out over them. Part of the variety could be attributed to the fact that mezcal can be filtered through nearly anything – plantain, chicken breast – opening the possibility of even great variation. The simple drink is traditionally accompanied by oranges and sal de gusano, an ashy mix of dried peppers, maguey worms, and salt. While those provide a nice break for your tongue, which will certainly tingle, the alcohol itself doesn´t really need a chaser. It´s to be sipped anyway.

 

There´s a moment in Under the Volcano when Geoffery´s wife Yvonn and half-brother Hugh try to convince him to eat. Standing (and drinking) in front of a great spread he hardly eats a thing, as if the food hurts him. When he wants to feel strong, like his foil Hugh, he forces down half a canapé. Mezcal has none of this effect on me. In fact, more than any other liquor I can think of, mezcal´s volcanic flavor matches dishes from Central México well.

 

The last few days in Mexico City, I’ve felt like an inverse of Geoffrey, about to gorge myself to death, eating five times in day and topping of the night with a visit to the corner taquería where I again marvel at the menu and try a new taco filling, in an attempt to divine the best possible plate. The way people have one more drink for the road, I´ve been eating three or four tacos there.

 

Maybe it’s not the food or the mezcal. Maybe I am addicted to Mexico City, although I’ve only been here a few days. I live in Colombia and while it’s not close (four hours roughly in the air) it is a relatively cheap ticket lately.

 

On my first week-long visit a few months ago, looking to get out of a heavy afternoon thunderstorm, I found myself in a book fair held inside the immense Auditorio Nacional. At the Fondo de Cultura Económica publishing house tables I found a discounted copy of Desde la barranca, a Mexican biography of Lowry. Naturally, it focuses mostly on his time in the country.

 

I learned that Under the Volcano is based on Lowry’s first trip to Mexico with his first wife, Jan, who left him in Cuernavaca, about two hours from D.F. by bus; on the second trip he retraced his steps with his second wife, Margerie. While today this seems like a scumbag move, it seems as though back then this was widely accepted, not to mention all the help his second wife gave him completing Under the Volcano, another widely accepted activity then.

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Like Geoffrey, the author also struggled with alcohol, and like his protagonist with mezcal in particular. According to this biography, Lowry thought that mezcal had hallucinogenic properties, confusing it with mescaline – a common myth. Of course, if you drink enough and long enough, you´ll hallucinate regardless of what you’re drinking. I have only the most mundane experiences with mezcal. It usually arouses my appetite for something preferably in a corn tortilla, although I’m open to ideas. Yesterday I had a birria, a dish from the state of Jalisco featuring roasted goat and a soft tortilla, almost like a thin pancake, very different from the kind you normally find in Central Mexico. Alongside the dish of tortillas and goat I had a bowl of consommé so spicy I could no longer feign reading the newspaper; I had to kind of absorb it and contemplate it.

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For a hard liquor it pairs with food well. So June and July for many regions of Mexico is the insect harvest. The culinary institute and gastronomical-center-slash-restaurant Los danzantes offers several dishes featuring creepy crawlies. This is not some gross out Food Network stunt. Keep in mind that indigenous groups in Mexico had eaten insects, as in many other places, for a very long time. Los danzantes also distills its own mezcal, which I found to be the perfect side car to a plate of wild rice with bugs (or arroz salvaje con bichos). The thin slices of chilies, the different textures of snails, crickets, agave worms and chinche de mezquite, or mesquite tree bug, and the earthy rice, combined with the smooth heat of the drink, had my full attention

 

I have done more than just indulge. When I went to the Cineteca Nacional, I didn’t think of food at all (at least not after eating the cochinita pibil torta with chipotle, avocado and onions I brought into the theater). Seeing a Mexican film while there visiting some friends, it seemed like a smart way to give them a break from me (and my eating). According to Google maps it was a simple twenty minute walk, and it was for the most part. I walked past the street where Frida Kahlo had her studio, and then where her lover Leon Trotsky, lived.

 

In the back of complex there is a parking lot five stories high, topped with white letters that read Cineteca Nacional. After walking through the overpass a jumbo-sized upside-down park bench appears. Had I walked in the official entrance I would have seen the ten foot high panels of famous Mexican actors that line the fence as well as the a green lawn where young people were spread out reading or lying down and talking, or smoking, or snacking.

 

To be honest I was looking to see any production, and the show-time that worked out for me lead me to Güeros, for the matinee price of 25 pesos, about $1.50.

 

The first Cineteca I ever went to was actually a Filmoteca in Madrid. A friend brought me and showed me the joy of cheap, curated film cycles. After that I´ve seen maybe a dozen, the most famous one the Cineteca in Torino, and the more recently opened Cinemateca in Bogotá, none of which hold a candle to this complex that felt like a megaplex for arthouse films. There were cafes, a bookstore, a gaming shop, and restaurants. Despite the fact this was the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, young couples, a few older singletons like myself, were strolling into or out of a film.

 

And while the Cineteca impressed me, Güeros changed my whole day. Maybe it was the familiar neo-realist techniques (or was it French New Wave), the black and white, the hyper-stylized shots seem to beg for approval, or the fact that the film revolves around students in the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM) where I wished I had studied as an undergrad.

 

I hoped the smell of onions and chipotle on the torta I snuck in didn´t bother my neighbors; after the Cineteca showed its didactic don’t-do-this animated video, which featured someone eating a hot dog in the movie theater (a popular and condoned practice in Colombia) and others bothered by the smell of mustard.

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Güeros begins when a boy, Tomas is sent off by his mother Veracruz to visit his brother, a student in Mexico City. His brother, Federico, who people called Sombra or “the shadow,” and his friend Santos are in their own words protesting the UNAM protest, namely doing nothing. They pilfer electric power from a young girl with downs syndrome in the apartment below them, until her parents find out. Tomas spends his time listening to an old rock star, Epigenio Cruz, on a cassette his father gave him, who according to Sombra could have saved “rock nacional,” or Mexican rock. After being chased out of their own apartment for stealing electricity, they set off to find Epigenio, as his younger brother insists, but on the way, stop by the occupied UNAM campus and pick up Sombra´s love interest, Ana, essentially the head of the protest movement, until her actual boyfriend, an activist, moves against her and takes over. In the end the four of them find themselves more or less on a mission, the adults taking it much less seriously than Tomas.

 

The title however continues to perplex me. When I told a Mexican friend I liked this film, she told me she read that Güeros was too güero. As defined at the beginning of the film a güero is “someone with light hair or skin.” In one scene, Ana takes the boys to a classy get together at a high scale bar. Ana and Sombra begin to argue and she shoves him into a fountain. He falls and pulls her along with him, then Tomas and Santos jump in. Horseplay ensues until a security guard comes over and tells them, “Hey, güeros, you can’t be in there.” Santos flips out, pointing out that Sombra (so dark he’s called sombra or “shadow”) is not a güero and that he isn’t either. The scene got some laughs and Santos’s tangent is funny, but it really made me question why the film was called güeros.

 

It stayed in my head on the way home. Everywhere I go here people call me güero, which aside from the chicano grindcore Brujería song I used to listen to in high school (¨Matando güeros¨ or ¨Killing güeros¨) I don´t find it offensive. Come to think of it, I don’t really find that offensive either.

 

But why name them for something they, as a group, are not? But then maybe this güero doesn´t really get the concept of güero. What if the definition at the beginning at the film was intentionally limited to a denotational meaning? I suppose there could be connotations of class as well in the term. But Sombra and Tomás seem to come from a relatively poor family. I was lost.

 

Then the film gave me an idea: if they can protest a protest, why not take a vacation from vacation? So I decided a better way to enjoy my visit was to quit acting like it was the last time I would be here, trying to bring home some piece of concrete to memorialize my trip. Instead, I would not make an itinerary or make any effort to see new places, I decided to do what I´ve been doing: drinking mezcal, eating five times a day, and going to the Cineteca Nacional a lo güero. I should say, drinking mezcal moderately; too much mezcal and I would have to use my camera to reconstruct memories.

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