THE GOLDEN CITY
BY KRISTELL MUCINO
The only similarity between a city like Paris and Mexico City is their relationship to the word light. Paris is called the “city of lights” because of the intellectual figures that have “illuminated” the rest of the world. In Mexico the only lights are those produced by the millions of houses that unfold up the skirts of our surrounding volcanoes, and so it is that Mexico is not a city of lights but a golden city by night. By day, Mexico’s colors are red, yellow, purple, pink, brown, and you can see them harmonizing in the typical Mexican garments. I saw these colors in every stop-light, in every corner, and in every drive way, where children, and crying mothers, extended their begging hands to every single car, because in Mexico, there are those who drive and those who crawl on the streets.
Christmas is a very nice time of the year, everybody is happy. The rich families decorate their houses: electric trains that circle the Christmas tree; Santa Clauses that sing and laugh; ostentatiously decorated kitchen-ware; and if the housewife is a good housewife, the family might even get hand-made towels for the bathrooms. The less fortunate (as they are called) are also happy during this time of the year because they get to sell (illegally on the streets) the trains, the trees, the Santas, and the towels.
Downtown Mexico, or the “center”, as we call it, is where everything happens, from the biggest fruit and flower markets, to the best poetry readings of the country, and the most paralyzing mass demonstrations against the government. Now picture all of these happening at the same time and in the same block: the colors of the mangoes and the watermelons next to the smell of meters and meters of extravagant flowers, next to the insistent screams of angry mobs that block the way pedestrians and drivers.
But at 12 o’clock at night on December 24 a once-a-year event takes place. All the toy-stores offer up to 60 and 70 percent discounts. Then, everybody, but I mean everybody, is really happy, as in a Charles Dickens novel. Storeowners go back home with a little extra cash for the break, and fathers can give each one of their eight kids a present. It is such a joyous occasion that even the government decorates the streets with those typical Christmas lights. On this night the centro becomes almost a carnival. There’s food, music, firecrackers, and millions of people moving around.
I didn’t grow up in the center. I can even count the number of times I’ve been there. That night was one of them. The smell of roasted corn and fruit punch led me to the gold boulevard, and I say this literally, for there is a street in which every store only sells gold jewelry.
I was a tourist in my own country, amusing myself with all those lights. But suddenly, overwhelmed by the red from the burning carbon underneath the corn, the multiple colors of the typical Mexican garments, and the shining of the Christmas lights and the gold, I looked down to rest my eyes. I saw two kids, the kind of kids that beg for money on good days, and that cry for food on bad days, and for a change, they were sitting down, staring at the ground between moving legs. They were so dirty that the color of their torn-clothes was undecipherable. Their short hair was cut in the most rudimentary way and it stacked together in bunches. But worst of all, they were shoeless on a December night.
For a moment I thought they were playing with something. I remember thinking what everybody thinks when confronted by this reality: “They don’t have anything and still they are happy, I should learn from them.” I even kept on philosophizing on how innocence leads to happiness, and therefore, how these kids were happy despite their situation.
I stared, figuring what game they were playing. The oldest one noticed me, and so he stared back with his black eyes. He had a cold. Mucus kept running down his nose, but he didn’t bother to clean himself up. The little one was doing something else on the side. Now I looked at the five year old. And this is what I saw. I saw him put his nostrils against the floor and then, from the bottom of his lungs, he inhales. Two seconds after, he raised his eyes and giggled in a dysfunctional way; his face had lost proportion and saliva smeared down his mouth.
Let me say this again: a five year old was sniffing glue, or cement, or I don’t know what. A five year old was born in the streets and was going to die in the streets. No collision can be found between Mexico’s two realities; it cannot even be faked for one night. In this world, some of us have opportunities. The very lucky ones choose their lives; they may choose to have an education. They choose their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These kinds of people have free will. The less fortunate, as they are called, are born predestined. Their life is written, and there is no way to escape it. From the moment they are left in the streets, they do no choose anything; they just struggle to survive, like animals. Most of them die by the time they are 14, and during their existence they are not entitled to a single thing. The government can’t help all of them because like these two kids there are millions just in the city. Individuals can’t help them. There is nothing to be done except perhaps give them a couple of coins to help them through the day, or at least give them something to ease their hunger with. And so that is what I did… I bought some French fries and I gave it to them, but as I took that next step the sounds of the street invaded me, and so did the shining, the shining of the gold and the little neurotic lights.
The oldest one thanked me, and encouraged his brother to do the same, but the five year old couldn’t even focus. Through the drooling a sort of gargle or laughter came out. The older brother must have been in pain. And to express his anger, he took his plastic fork and stabbed his brother’s head repeatedly in an automatic and numb pace. Anyway, the five year old was too gone to even notice.
I wasn’t hungry. I had that kind of lack of hunger that arises when your guts stick to your ribs, but still, I ate in the restaurant where I had made reservations. From the window I would see many street-kids running and playing around, but none of them was older than 14 years old. I ate my dinner as the lights dimmed out slowly.