MEXICO CITY - Here I am in the famed global city, the D.F., México. Whatever you choose to call it, it's big, and I'm not sure when I'll fully have my feet on the ground (if ever). The reason for that is twofold: first, my living conditions, and second, the state of public security in the city.
My house: I am lucky enough to have a wonderful, warm, welcoming extended family that has opened its doors to me. I am being fed, watered and housed and on top of it all, every day I get a glimpse into the Mexican way of life. However, the comforts of my housing situation are sheltering me from the chaos of the city, which I have intensely mixed feelings about. Having familiar people to spend my evenings with and a quiet place to work is a rare gift in the field, but the feeling of dependence that it evokes is disconcerting. I've never been abroad before without having to find my own food, transportation and resources. This time is so different: delicious home-cooked Mexican cuisine makes its way under my nose; just as magically, the dishes slip from my sight; and the next thing I know, someone is driving me away from the quiet of the country-club suburbs toward the business of the city. What world am I living in again?!!
You might think that having escaped the safety of suburbia, I'd be out on my own, feeling the pulse of the city's 25 million inhabitants. Not yet. Safety is a major issue in this massive metropolis, particularly for those who appear to be middle and upper class. Mexico City has undergone a massive wave of kidnappings and violent robberies in the last year, many of them against women and children, who used to be off limits. The assaults are turning into an epidemic, so much so that many of Mexico's upper and middle class are beginning to flee the country.
Last weekend, in the largest protest the city has seen in decades, hundreds of thousands of people dressed all in white marched silently into the city's Zócolo district. Their message: "Ya Basta!" ("Enough!"). They were protesting against corruption and inactivity, demanding that the police do a better job of investigating the kidnappings and petty robberies as well as the many unsolved assaults and murders.
While buses and the metro are for the most part safe, many assaults are occurring in "freelance" taxis. This transportation problem shapes my day-to-day life. My host family lives far enough out in the suburbs that getting to the nearest subway station would mean a 30-minute bus ride, then another 20 minutes on the train. With time constraints, I'm stuck with taking cabs. Obediently following the advice of my family and friends, I can't take just any cab. I have to take only personal, publicly registered (and therefore traceable) fancy cabs. I call them, wait 20 minutes for them to show up at my door, then they drop me off at the entrance to my destination. By traveling only by registered cab, I'm watching as the real world passes by on the other side of the protected windows.
Honestly - just between us - I prefer traveling in the crowded, stinky subways and on diesel-spewing, jolting buses. The assumed companionship of the strangers accompanying me on the ride, the comfort of the many stops along a predetermined route, and the freedom to disembark at will bring a sense of independence and comfort. That comfort eludes me when I am whisked away on unfamiliar and quiet roads in the confines of cab, whether registered or not, at the driver's mercy.
Today, after cabbing it into the city, I shuffled from one place to the next for interviews and work. Finally, I took public transit. It was uncomfortable, traffic was bad, I got off on the wrong stop and had to board the next bus. On that bus there was a not-so-talented young boy singing ballads and playing the guitar while he was jostled around in the aisle. Then I almost went the wrong way on the hot and smelly metro. it was heaven! I felt like everything was back to normal. Of course, on my return home at the end of the workday, I was back once again in the protected cab.
Don't get me wrong, traveling by taxi isn't all bad. Taxi drivers are some of the most knowledgeable people in the world. They have an incredible wealth of experience - an ethnographic anomaly - and most refreshingly, offer a wonderful glimpse into the diversity of city life. Thanks to my conversations with cabbies, I now consider myself a much more credible source of knowledge on Mexico's political parties, Mexican opinion of U.S. foreign policy, the condition of the national education system, the car registration process, corruption in the police force, the best places to get ice cream . the list goes on and on. I love taxi drivers.
Transportation aside, I started working with my host organization, Sin Fronteras. They are an incredible group of people doing extremely difficult, honorable, and necessary work providing social services to migrants and refugees. Their services range from helping potential migrants file paperwork to offering job training for new arrivals in Mexico City, counseling, and women's rights workshops as well as fighting legal battles on behalf of those seeking refugee status. It's hands-on human rights work in the most pure sense. There's a lingering energy and sense of community in the air of the office - maybe it's the children's laughter as they play in the hallways that does it, but whatever it is, its amazing and makes Sin Fronteras a great place to spend time.
Sin Fronteras has helped me make connections and put my ideas into context "on the ground." They're also putting me to work! My first task is a report summarizing the relationship between free trade and migration. In particular, they want to know how economic changes induced by NAFTA have impacted and continue to impact migration. This is a daunting task because of the heaps of literature out there and the controversies around the findings. Throw this in the pot with the millions of interviews I'm conducting, the migration policy documents I'm reviewing, side excursions to museums and neighboring cities, and I'm one busy kid.
The work is coming along really well though, and I'm feeling super excited about everything I'm learning. I think I'll save my initial findings for the next dispatch. Until then.