Tag Archives: mexico

Making masa

One of the coolest things I experienced on my recent trip to Mexico was making tamales from scratch with Nicole. She’s already put together a really good description of the process on her website, so I merely add the video here, with a few comments.

1. Sweet tamales with raisins and brown sugar are really good.
2. I love the woman in the pink tank top. She was very proud of her masa and tried to school Nicole on cleaning the skins off the kernels better, but Nicole wasn’t having any of it.
3. I want access to a molino here in Boise … who’s in?
4. Sorry about my finger over the lens in a few spots.

John Ross in Mexico

While I was traveling in Mexico these last few weeks, an icon of Mexican foreign correspondency passed away. John Ross, 72, died of cancer around Lake Patzcuaro, the same weekend I passed by that absolutely stunning place on a bus through Michoacan State.

I met John once, in 2006, when I was in Mexico City on assignment for the former Knight Ridder newspaper chain. I was covering the Mexican presidential race for about a month and had read, most likely on Narco News, that Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista rebellion, was running an alternative presidential campaign, traveling around the indigenous heart of Mexico and making an argument that progress in Mexico would not be found in the mainstream electoral process (or the mainstream media). He had changed his name to Delegate Zero and was calling his effort La Otra Campaña – The Other Campaign.

I have been trying to reconstruct my meeting with Ross, an expert on the Zapatistas, and the story on La Otra that I eventually wrote, but I have not been able to find my notes from the time. I remembered meeting him at a restaurant near the Zócalo in Mexico City and after reading Tim Johnson’s post on Ross’s death, I recalled that it was Cafe La Blanca, pictured below. (Johnson is now working the job I was trying out for, as Mexico City correspondent—KR became McClatchy, the Mexico Bureau was left open for a few years, I moved back to Boise, etc.)

Café La Blanca
An empty Cafe La Blanca in Mexico City where John Ross ate almost every night. Photo from juliette_y_cristian_en_méxico on Flickr.

At our meeting, Ross and I talked about San Francisco’s Mission District, where I was living at the time, and a place where Ross wants his ashes scattered. We talked about Mexican politics and journalism a bit. I think he was testing me out a bit before giving me any info on Marcos, which I respected. I think that Ross then put me in touch with Al Giordano, a founder of Narco News, who sent me the schedule for The Other Campaign in rural Mexico State, with a harried note saying he didn’t really know where San Antonio Pueblo Nuevo was and that it’s near Atlacomulco, but that there were four San Antonios in the vicinity. I told him I’d see him there.

So on April 22, a Saturday, I hired a cab for the day and took my wife and one year-old daughter to find the Zapatistas. I think the map below shows where we went, but I’m not sure. The cabbie had no idea where Pueblo Nuevo might be and we drove west of Mexico City, onto dirt roads. We were trying to get there at 9 and I think we finally found it closer to 11, or later, as it was just about lunch time, which is late in Mexico.


View Larger Map

I thought of myself then—and think of myself now—as a journalist of John Ross’ ilk: rugged, independent, more interested in the people than the politicians, willing to go places at personal sacrifice for a story. But I was also in Mexico on an expense account with a major U.S. newspaper chain where I could do things like hire a cab for a day (oh to be on an expense account again)! Part of the Other Campaign was a fierce commitment to the alternative press and indeed, there was a caravan of lefty journalists from all over the world following Marcos across Mexico. We saw their ragtag caravan in the parking area and then walked through some brush to reveal a large tent, mostly full of Indians and campesinos, listening to speaches. In front, on a raised platform, sat a masked Marcos and several other Zapatistas. It was a surreal scene.

La Otra Campaña in rural Mexico State, April 2006

I asked for an interview with Marcos and was told he does not speak to the mainstream media, which was a bit of a bummer. I think I’d be more aggressive about it today … I’ll admit now that I really had no idea what was going on at that meeting, who was speaking, what the purpose was. Perhaps that came through in the article I eventually filed. I believe it was more of a listening tour, where the Zapatistas were building capacity in rural areas by listening to the complaints of the indigenous populace.

We stayed for a communal lunch (chicken, beans, sweet local mushrooms), I interviewed a few campesinos and snapped a few pics and then we loaded into the cab for the long ride back to La Zona Rosa, stopping for pulque along the way, real homebrewed pulque, which also made it into the article.

My family, eating lunch at Zapatista political rally, Mexico State, April, 2006

This is where the problems started. As I stated in the article I wrote, the mainstream press did not really care about Marcos anymore, but I was trying to get the mainstream press to run a story on his Otra Campaña anyway because I thought it was interesting, I thought he was a significant historical figure since the outset of the Zapatista rebellion on the eve of NAFTA’s inception and frankly, I sympathized with many of the values and ideas of the movement.

Unfortunately, none of that would come across in the final version of the story. The Zapatista sympathizers hated the story (the only archived version I can find online comes from a Chiapas web archive and is headlined: “Knight Ridder Trashes Marcos.” I’m pretty sure Giordano sent me an e-mail saying he regretted helping me get to the rally (he never found it), but I can’t find the e-mail anymore. And I fully admit the headlines sucked, and I won’t even use the excuse that I didn’t write the headlines. I wanted to emphasize the marginalization of Marcos in the Mexican and international press and the co-opting of indigenous issues by the other candidates and by Vicente Fox. But the final draft of the story does read like a marginalization of Marcos and indigenous issues, and for that I have felt badly for four years.

I never saw Ross again, but I’ve always been inspired by his willingness to write what he wanted, when he wanted and how he wanted, outlets for his work be damned. His vision of Mexico is part of mine. And whether he likes it or not, the mainstream media, in the guise of Knight Ridder and it’s wannabe foreign correspondent of the moment, bought John Ross dinner at La Blanca that night.


John Ross poetry

PS I did find an early draft of my story and it was much better and more balanced than the version that was eventually published. Too bad.

Blood on the streets

This could have happened anywhere, but last night it was in Playa del Carmen. It started with the rain. As I was strolling along La Quinta—Playa’s 5th Avenue pedestrian mall/boardwalk/Vegas Strip—with my friend Benjamin Reed, it began to pour. Most of the tourists and souvenir peddlers and locals ran for shelter in the numerous bars and restaurants along the Avenida. But we were engrossed in conversation on Mexican politics and Idaho politics and the intersection of Mexican and Idaho politics, and we just kept walking, allowing the warm rain storm to soak our clothes. The air and the rain were a perfectly matched tropical temperature such that it just felt like a warm bath. But eventually my pesos and iPod were getting soaked so we stopped for some beverages (ague de jamaica) and food.

The food was mediocre, though I did try some of Ben’s corn fungus enchilada (made with corn masa). Not bad.

I had a clear view of the street and at about 8:15 pm I heard screeching tires and looked up just in time to see a man going down, under a taxicab. I think he slipped off the center median strip, probably because the rain made the roads slick, and a pickup truck and then cab hit him.

Everything froze for a minute. Most people in the restaurant, which was opened up to the street, did not even notice. The taxi driver appeared to be yelling at the guy, but he did not get out of the cab and as the man crawled to the side of the road across two lanes of traffic, I started to realize no one was helping him.

He couldn’t stand up and was struggling to reach his cell phone as he swayed and toppled over again in the gutter along the side of the busy street. I grabbed a chair, went over and offered my hand, but he was not coherent and at first did not seem to notice me. His head was bleeding. He was wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt. Then he looked at me and said weakly, “ayudame.”

I pulled him up on the curb and got him sitting upright. Ben came over to help and spotted the number on the cab, which was driving off. Another lady came over and called the police and spoke to the man for a minute. I was not sure what else to do and could not really understand his Spanish, so I backed off.

Thankfully, the police arrived in a matter of minutes, the man’s wife or at least a woman who knew him arrived and burst into tears, and then the paramedics arrived and tried to treat him. By that time he was standing up, but he did not remember what had happened and he still had blood on his eyes and nose and did not look good. The authorities seemed to have it under control. Most of the patrons of the semi-busy taqueria watched with visible pain on their faces; one had gotten up to flag down the passing cops, but most just sat and watched the tragedy unfold.

I realized two things: 1) I had no idea how to summon the cops in Mexico. I now know you dial 066, at least here in Quintana Roo, though I’m not sure if it will work from my U.S. cell phone. And 2) I was under the perhaps bigoted impression that police and emergency response here was subpar, which I have heard many times. But here in Playa del Carmen at least, it seemed rapid and professional and I was quite impressed.

The incident left me a little shaken. These types of scenarios play out in my mind all the time and I always wonder how I will respond. I was disappointed that I didn’t jump up and run to his aid, that I didn’t really know how to help him and that the blood and gore made me a bit queasy. But I was glad I got him out of the street, away from further danger, at least.

I was still shaken when I got to my hotel, just a block away, so I crossed that same busy street very carefully—sometimes it is hard to know if the drivers here are turning or switching lanes or merging or what—bought a fifth of rum and drank half of it in my room. I hope the dude in the Bob Marley t-shirt has recovered today and that he never goes to that place for tacos, because they kind of sucked anyway.

The four directions: Cuatro caminos of Mexico

Taking off from most U.S. cities, one can see the edge of civilization, the place where urbanity stops and the countryside begins. Leaving Mexico City, the airplane is surrounded by civilization on all sides. It takes a few minutes to reach an expanse of dry fields and a large canal, but still, settlements abound for miles, cutting through the omnipresent yellowish haze of exhaust and fire and ash and CO2. Colonias, or neighborhoods rise up along the Western Sierra Madre as they have for at least two millennia, their people descending into the valley for cheap Chinese goods and wi-fi and Sam’s Club condiments and returning home to pursue some kind of small trade, a hardware store, a taco stand, an ESL school. And then all civilization is obscured by cloud cover, at last beyond the smog.

Mexico City is an amazingly functional place for such an expanse of humanity. It is hard to comprehend 20 million people in one ancient valley—civilizations on this scale are supposed to fall, torn apart from the inside or invaded by conquering forces. But drive—or better yet, take the newish Metrobus from the southern reaches of the city, Xocimilco, or even Coyoacan, into the Centro Historico and the scale becomes clear. The long boulevards heading north and south along the valley floor take literally hours to navigate. Insurgentes Sur, like boulevards that lead into or out of towns anywhere, is blanketed with restaurants, hotels, dry goods stores, car dealerships, colleges and housing projects. But in most cities that pattern repeats only once or twice. Along Insurgentes, the evidence of urban development, waves of Mexico City’s growth, can be seen time and again, like shards of pottery in an archeological dig. There are even successive waves of Hooters and McDonalds and Burger Kings as the boulevard climaxes at La Paseo de Reforma.

Disembark at Reforma and it’s obvious that all roads lead here. One friend described it as the center of the Spanish speaking world, which is certainly true. But it also seems to be the center of many different universes, with a consciousness and vibration older and deeper than any to be found in the United States. It is at once New World and Old World, a mash up of the European sensibility for lifestyle with the American pursuit of progress. And the indigenous creativity is still alive here as well. This combination of old, new and really old is what makes the culture of Mexico so intoxicating and relevant. It is properly strong coffee (Europe), a million choices for lunch (America), and a stack of piping hot tortillas (Indigenous), to put it in culinary terms. It’s going to the grain mill in the morning to make masa for tamales and then going to Costco for butter and wine. It’s stamped on the music as well: European instruments, American rhymes and industry, indigenous storytelling. Even the language—Spanish was a European language once—incorporates the Indigenous sounds and descriptions of earthly things, and the American (in a broad sense here) drive to innovate, invent, improvise.

And politics here is at once democratic, pragmatic, socialistic and very tribal. Until recently teachers and other functionaries could pass on their civil service jobs to siblings and children (so I’m told). Wherever the increasingly potent battles over the drug trade lead, the solution lies in some combination of democratic bribery for all.

An unexpected benefit of this mission I’m taking is the experience of Mexico in her various forms. I walked across the border from Texas, where a legitimate cross-national mind exists, despite the fog of violence that has infected it in the last decade. I’ve crossed the interior cities and countryside, where generations of migrants have jumped over that border-space to the northern interior, to places like Chicago and North Carolina and inland California and Idaho, where they find fields and hills and dales much like the ones they leave behind, the same fertile valley to which they hope to return.

And now I’ve been to cosmopolitan Mexico, where people on the train bury their noses in their cell phones, commuting to who knows how many jobs in the new economy and the old economy. Where meals cost 6 pesos or 600 on the same block.

And now, I’m heading to tourist Mexico, the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula, where I expect to find a fourth sensibility, one imbued with dependency and caricature. I’ll try not to have too much fun.

Exiles of the mind

I´ve been thinking a lot about exile during this trip and whether or not the term “exile” applies to couples who are not able to legally live together in the United States because of immigration problems.

One of the American women I visited here recoiled a bit at the term, thinking she did not deserve recognition as an exile. She moved to her husband’s hometown after they realized he would not be eligible for residency or citizenship anytime soon. They live in a nice house, are surrounded by family and have broadband, and she’s not sure that counts as exile.

But several of the Mexican partners I have spoken with have a different understanding of the term “exilio,” informed by a generation of bi-cultural and bi-national socialization between the U.S. and Mexico.

Today I went to see where Leon Trotsky lived in exile in Mexico City. It’s at the end Vienna Street in the Coyoacan neighborhood. Trotsky hopped around the globe seeking asylum after he was targeted by the same Russian Revolution that he had helped set off. He went to New York for a few months, then back to Russia, then to Kazakhstan, the Turkish island of Prinkipo (where he got a lot of fishing in), to France, to Norway (where he was later put under house arrest) and finally to Mexico, which offered him political asylum.

At first Trotsky and his wife took up with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who were, at the time, committed Trotskyites. They lived in the “Blue House,” which I also visited today. Apparently Trotsky and Diego had a falling out (over a woman perhaps? the museum failed to answer that question) and the Trotskys moved down the street to a fortified property which they soon filled with farm animals and barricades.

Trotsky’s life in exile consisted of daily chores with the chickens and rabbits, 10 hours of writing and reading in his bunker-like office and politically charged dinners with his guards, collaborators and colleagues (which he called The Family). But he was also under constant threat of attack from enemies and eventually, an infiltrator (posing as a Belgian journalist and committed Trotskyite) who did him in with an ice axe.

I’m a bit rusty on my Trotsky, but I’m quite sure he was my favorite Russian revolutionary in high school history class. I’m also a bit disappointed in the International Trotskyites for putting up such a lame display in his Mexican exile home. Walking along Vienna Street this afternoon I was having fantasies of discussing exile and revolution with a group of young Mexican Trotskyites over little glasses of espresso. But instead I had to sneak a picture of his writing desk with my iPod camera and step over disinterested Mexican teens making out while the docent reviewed the depressing Trotsky family tree (nearly all of his family was offed).

After my tour of the Trotsky house, I went back over to Blue House where Diego Rivera’s people have put up a really great exhibit of his and Frida’s life there. Strangely enough, while trying to read one of their love letters, a young guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “are you Nate Hoffman?” He’s a guy from Idaho who used to work at the Idaho Legislature and recognized me. We had coffee in Frida’s garden and he told me a bit about his “exile,” first in South Korea, where he taught English, and now in Mexico City where he is sort of learning Spanish, sort of biding his time and figuring out his next move.

This is a very different concept of exile, but I would apply the term to his case as well (I’m not sure if he would, but I’ll ask him tomorrow night). Particularly when one is from Idaho, but really where ever one is from, a voluntary exile, a separation from the comfortable and familiar environs of home for something new, different, interesting or even dangerous is a form of exile. It has many of the hallmarks of classic exiles: bohemianism, acquisition of new languages and customs and eventual yearning for those very comforts of home which one escaped.

Families who are not able to live together in the United States fall somewhere between these two examples of exile. They are not being forced to flee for their lives, though in some cases they are escorted to the border by armed guards. Nor are they sowing their wild oats. But they are experiencing rejection at home, finding their ways abroad and pining for the order and predictability of life in the U.S. while often reveling in the attitudes and customs of their life in exile.

I’m looking for some more reading on the concept of exile, if anyone has suggestions. And I’m plotting my next exile as well, since I’m taking such a liberal reading of the term.

Nato’s Michoacan diet

When you get off the bus in Zacapu—or probably in any of the small towns of Michoacan—the first thing to do is look for a place to get some carnitas. From the Zacapu bus station, turn right and about a block down you will see the place, Carnitas Lira, I think it’s called, owned by the same family that does tacos in Santa Gertrudis, five minutes to the north. I’ll get to Santa in a minute, but let’s stick with the carnitas. The pork is roasted on a wood fire every morning and delivered to the taqueria in buckets in the trunk of a late-model sedan. It’s piled up under a broken/off heat lamp, one cut of meat or organ indistinguishable from the next until you order and they start carving it into your tacos on a log-sized cutting board.

Order masisa and you’ll just get chunks of super-tender white pork meat, the outside of each chunk neatly browned. Ask for sortida, or con todo, and they will throw in some rind or some organ meat or some hooves, maybe. Ask for verdura: onion and cilantro and salsa. They will warm the tortillas on a steel, gas heated comal and fill them with the carnitas and bring you a plate with lime and more salsa and pickled cucumbers and jalapeños. And then they will ask you how many you ate, do a calculation and you’ll hand them a few bucks worth of pesos and you will feel extremely satisfied for many hours.

Later, back at the rancho, after watching an NFL game in a buddy’s half finished house and finishing off a bottle of Oso Negro vodka, you might wander over to Santa, down a side street lined with fancy houses built with dollars sent back from the States to find Tacos Loti. Loti has been selling these tacos from outside her gate for 20 years, they tell me. I went two nights in a row and had steak (asada) and tripe tacos, the last one on the house and almost a dare. The meat here is cooked on an inverted metal dome, the fat dripping off, a few juicy onions thrown on top for flavor. Loti will steer your gabacho ass away from the hot stuff, but you’ll take it anyway. You’ll take one for the team, to prove your gabacho ass can handle the heat. You might regret it later, but not while you bask in the glory of the late night taco, a warm little corn sandwich to get you through the silent, chilly Michoacan night.

Then in the morning you will have your Nescafe and walk into Santa again for a bowl of soup. Loti and Lira don’t tend to use the heads, but Rogelio does. The whole head: tongue, ears, brains, teeth. It all goes into his famous consome, or caldo, a giant pot of bubbling broth. Again, you can custom order the types of flesh that will grace your soup or you can get a bit of it all—brains and all, which you may as well, because you are in Michoacan and there are cows and pigs everywhere and nothing should really go to waste. If you don’t want the soup, get a tostada con cabeza—a giant corn chip loaded with head meat.

These country meals always seem to last a meal and a half. You can work right through lunch, but about 3 pm you might hop on a bus back into Zacapu and hit up the Pescadito, right there on the edge of town. Order up a ceviche with pulpo (octopus) and camaron (shrimp) and avocado and chopped chiles and a Modelo or mineral water or jugo. The seafood—sure it’s far from the coast, but it’s very fresh tasting—is suspended in a cold broth of tomato juice and lime and peppers and some secret ingredient and the attention from the family proprieters is top notch. It’s a place to linger on a Sunday afternoon watching people heading off to the baile.

There is one problem for me this time in Mexico. I can’t drink beer anymore due to a wheat allergy, and there really is nothing that goes with ceviche and late-night tacos like a Tecate. What I’d really like is some kind of carbonated tequila in a can with every meal, but I don’t even know if that’s chemically possible.

I did taste one more delicacy on my way out of town, a corunda tamale made and sold by Purepechan women at the market in Zacapu. They are wrapped in green corn husks and kind of a random shape and I have no idea what was in them, but it was spicy and peppery and tasted super healthy. Would have gone great with tequila in a can.

Ipod Touch as the new laptop

This is my computer setup for traveling in Mexico

I decided not to lug my laptop to Mexico for this reporting trip. Instead I´m working with my iPod Touch (4th Generation) and an external bluetooth keyboard.

It´s worked really well so far. I upgraded my iPod before I left so that I could make use of the on-board microphone and the bluetooth support that the newest iPods have. I picked up a Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000 the night before I left because I like the key action better than the Apple keyboards, which must have been made for graphic designers who can´t speal anyway. And I use a cheap plastic stand for the ipod while I´m typing.

I am using the PlainText app for typing up my notes every night and for drafting blog posts. I like the clean interface but wish I could figure out how to use bullets and maybe even embed hyperlinks. It also syncs with my Dropbox account, which is where I access all of my notes for the book anyway. That is really convenient (when I have wi-fi).

I´m using the WordPress iPhone app to blog, mostly, but again, it seems to be lacking in its ability to handle photos and links and character styles like bold, etc. Maybe there is a better one out there? I´ve had to go online to fix a lot of issues with my posts. (Right now I´m using a PC at a public library somewhere in Mexico City … I´ll have to geotag the post to find out where I am, actually.)

It also seems like PlainText screws up the hard returns on my blog posts, but I have to experiment more with that.

The new iPod takes really nice little videos, but again, I have not had stable enough wi-fi anywhere to upload them. I am using HootSuite to post to Twitter and Facebook, Skype to call home and now TextFree to send free texts (otherwise they cost me at least 50 cents apiece). I am also using SpanishDict, which does not require wi-fi and has proven pretty thorough and even hip to the times.

Oh, and most important perhaps, I use iTalk light to record interviews, though I might buy the full version when I get back.

I like the little plastic base for the iPod (from XtremeMac) but I think a sturdier one would help. There is alot of pushing on the screen even when I use the external keyboard. If I need to plug in, I just put the iPod upside down and work near an outlet.

There are only two problems: (1) A frequent lack of wi-fi and (2) the inability to transfer photos from my digital SLR camera to the iPod (computer). I toyed with the idea of using the Eye-Fi memory card in my camera, which can connect to wi-fi, but I could not figure out a good system before I left. I also found a card reader that fits in the iPod on Amazon.com before I left but I can´t find it again.

I know others are doing this type of thing, but it took me a long time to figure out all the peices in an economical way, so I thought this might help other reporters or travelers out there. Let me know if you have other suggestions or techniques.

Seeking experts and wi-fi in Mexico City

I am now in Mexico City, staying with a family friend in Xocimilco and looking for sources for the book. I´m trying to get interviews with some Mexican government officials about the two sides of the marital immigration equation: the presence of Americans here in Mexico because of their inability to legalize in the U.S. and the struggle for Mexicans in the U.S. to obtain visas through their American spouses. I´ve gotten much farther with the Instituto Nacional de Inmigracion, which issues visas to travel and work in Mexico, but I´m also trying to speak with the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which aids in the protection of migrants abroad, largely through the Mexican consulates all across the U.S.

While I´m here, I am trying to contact American clubs and associations in Mexico City and academics at the Universidad Nacional Autonomo de Mexico. The only problem I´m having is a lack of wi-fi (and figuring out certain punctuation on Spanish keyboards).

Wi-fi is everywhere, but many networks, both open networks and places like this library that provide passwords, do not have stable connections to the internet. I even paid for a month of Boingo wi-fi access but it has not helped me, failing in the airports in Juarez and Monterrey and Queretero, where I expected it to work.

I might have to go to McDonalds or Starbucks, even though I hate to do it. Sanborns, a chain of Mexican breakfast places/coffee shops also has wi-fi, which I am going to check out first. I went to a Pollo Feliz, which is owned by my host´s family, but no one knew the wi-fi password there this morning.

But more importantly, I´m still working out what I want to know about the Mexican perspective on bi-national couples. One thing is already clear: Mexicans “get it” much more rapidly than Americans when I attempt to explain the book. A few nights ago I was in the little town of Santa Gertrudis in the state of Michoacan [that is an awesome link, there, by the way]. We went to get tacos at 9 or 10 at night and there were a bunch of folks sitting around under the bright lights drinking beers and eating tripe. I just started talking about the plight of Americans who marry undocumented Mexican immigrants and they started gossipping about all of their friends. (While we sat there, trucks with license plates from Idaho, California and Illinois drove by.) The women all knew people with American spouses living here and there (acá y allá). They even told me to go out to an indigenous Purépecha village to find some mixed-status couples.

In the U.S. when I talk about the book, people are not aware that there are any issues with immigrating a spouse.

So I want to ask Mexican officials about options for spouses of Mexican citizens living here in Mexico, about the demographics of the returned Mexican population (through either forced of self-deportation) with strong ties to the U.S. and about Mexican foreign policy toward U.S. immigration affairs.

Last time I was here I was affiliated with Knight-Ridder and had some pull to arrange interviews. This time it´s like pulling teeth, but it is still fun to try.

My father’s vineyard

I spent an unexpected fourth night in Ciudad Juarez after AeroMexico canceled my flight out on Sunday. The airline put me up at the Quality Inn, which is a pretty nice hotel, also just north of the US Consulate, and gave me a voucher for dinner. I ate in a well-appointed, cavelike, smoky bar in the hotel compound where a young woman with a Mexican accent only a bit better than mine (there are many Mexican accents, but I’m just saying she spoke Spanish like a gringa) was holding court with the waiters, delivering a discourse on underground hip hop. She was smoking and drinking beers and entertaining most of the restaurant staff.

I was reading an English newsletter of the maquila industry I had picked up in the hotel lobby. The glossy paper referred to the region as the “borderplex” and offered various theories on how regional meanufacturing specialization in the developing world was going to pull the U.S. out of the recession (or some such bullshit). I was pegged as an international businessman—they kept asking me if I do international business. I just said I was writing a book.

The woman came over to talk and she was clearly American, from San Francisco. Just like the baggage handler at the airport was clearly American (Oklahoma) and many of the people in the hotel lobbies around the Consulate are clearly American, waiting here in Juarez to find out if they can get their visas and go home.

I say “clearly American,” but of course, this depends on definitions. Technically, any American who finds themselves in Juarez with business at the Consulate’s visa section has had some type of problem with his or her residency in the United States. But citizenship is not really how we define “American” on a day to day basis. The baggage handler and I had an instant rapport the moment he said, “Nah man, I’m American, I’m just hiding from my wife.” And then added, “They deported me.”

The young lady in the bar, well educated and upwardly mobile and, after spending a year’s exile in Mexico, perhaps too worldly for her age, had a similar take: I’m American, I’m just waiting for the paper.

Here’s what happened to her: She was born in Mexico but grew up in the U.S. speaking fluent English, ragging on Oakland from across the Bay, pretending to like football and leading student protests for immigration reform. All that time, she did not have papers. She says her dad, an American citizen originally from Mexico, could have conveyed citizenship to her while she was a minor but he put it off and she turned 18 and she was an adult without legal status in the U.S. So she turned herself in and waited out a one-year penalty in the city of Monterrey. Now she’s back in Juarez to take a quick citizenship test—she says the questions are totally easy—and get home to her family in S.F.

She seemed a little miffed by the whole thing, but kind of had a good time down here for a year and is eager to get back to college and to her previously scheduled, normal life.

What is an American really? Is it defined by food, language, music, culture? Or is it the aesthetic of Jazz—the combination of all of the food, language, music and ideas of all of the people present in the 50 states at any given time.

Or is America a pace? Several Juarenzes have told me they’d never go north because people just shut themselves up in their houses and don’t congregate in the streets to make Jazz. I think there is some truth to that, but there are spaces within America where we meet on the streets and create culture.

There is one question that comes up a lot here and is important for my research. Is life easier here or there? I suppose it depends on whose life. My life has certainly been fairly easy of late, living in Boise, with all the comforts and security of life there. Compared to Juarez, that life is relatively stable, easy, safe. But it’s stressful too in a sort of suburban, drive to succeed, juggle the kids kind of way, which is uniquely American as well. Time takes on a different urgency up North, an unhealthy urgency. But is it easy or hard? That’s a question many Mexicans seem to be asking themselves these days, perhaps calculating the risks and benefits of going north or asserting a type of Mexican cultural nationalism that holds the primacy of lifestyle and personal interchange over time and money.

I’m going to walk past the Cartier watches one more time here in the Monterrey airport before I leave for Queretaro … I’ll let you know what they tell me.