Erongaricuaro, Michoacan. It is a warm time of the rainy season and I have been for a week; three more to go. Translated to English, mas o menos, it means the “Waiting Place.” Say it with me now. “Er-rohn-gahr-ri-cua-roh.” Cuaro means “place”, similar to “-ville” at the end of English-named towns. And on this particular tarde de Sabado, there was a tranquil quality to the small town. The central plaza has many trees bordered by cement benches, a fountain that I have not seen on, a one-way road circling counter-clockwise, small talleres and vendadoras along the sidewalk and, most surprising of all: a two story structure with almost ten trampolines being thoroughly enjoyed by kiddies. I was struck by the leisurely conversations happening all around the central plaza, and touched by public displays of affection among young lovers and between parents and children.
Right now, I am writing amidst an electric summer rain storm. I’m sitting at a table in this house that my family is taking care of while its owner travels, and I’m watching out a large window as the night sky crackles and ignites. Almost every day it is sunny here. And almost every day it rains as well. We are able to watch the storm clouds roll over the mountains across el lago and interrupt our sunshine for a period of time. The lake is really extraordinary: even though it doesn’t look enormous, the reality is that this whole valley was once a lake and what looks like a field is actually a barely concealed wetland. Bacas, or cows, are very common around here, providing milk, cheese, and protein for the small towns, or pueblos. The cows, donkeys, and horses seem to live rather tranquil lives – pausing casually in the middle of the road and halting traffic. Dogs are also very common, sharing piles of refuse for sniffing and eating as well as a complicated patchwork of territorial claims.
As I write this description of Erongaricuaro and the region in general, I find myself hesitant in how I talk about people that I barely know, wary in how I describe various settings. This is mostly because I am hyper-aware of my position as an outsider; an outsider with countless humble attempts at speaking the language and with an outsider with compassionate curiosity but an outsider nonetheless. In “Mexico and the United States,” first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1979, Octavio Paz attempts to outline some major trends that differentiate the United States from Mexico. In this essay, which I would recommend reading for anyone interested in US-Mexico relations as it does have some valuable insights amidst stereotypes and simplified histories, Paz cites Drewey Wayne Gunn (American and British Writers in Mexico) who said that these writers reveal less of the Mexican reality than of the author’s personalities. “In general,” Paz writes, “Americans have not looked for Mexico in Mexico; they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes, interestes—and these are what they have found,” (p. 358 in Labyrinth of Solitude, a collection of Paz’s writings published in 1985). This passage left me with big questions: why am I here? What obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes and interests am I projecting/finding? How can I travel with my mind clear and my heart open? How can I avoid romanticization?
This last question is interesting to me right now because I am so thoroughly relishing time outside of the belly of the beast. Is it romanticization when I admit that I love Mexico? When I am honest and tell you that I knew I would love Mexico but not this much? I sense that since this is such an important issue, especially when trying to learn from others in a new place, I will be considering it for a long time to come. I will say that I am in love with the land. I feel very connected to this continent, and I think it is in part because I have moved a lot in my life and know different areas of the United States, and have traveled three times now to Mexico.
I feel a passion for this vast, varied, and lucious land. It is precious and sacred and has been a point of contention between native nations and most obviously with the voracious appetite that was/is colonialism/imperialism/neoliberalism. I think saying that I love this land is different from romanticising the people that inhabit it. However, this is an important consideration with traveling and one that I will continue to self-reflexively investigate.
I suppose there is another danger that exists for writers in general which is the opposite of romanticization: critique and analysis that is unfounded or uninformed. Octavio Paz writes: “The rebirth of imagination, in the realm of art as in that of politics, has always been prepared for and preceded by analysis and criticism…We must cure ourselves of the intoxication of simplistic and simplifying ideologies,” (p. 398, “The Philanthropic Ogre,” in The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1985). This background of criticism and analysis that gives foundation for creation has helped me put my studies into perspective. Needless to say, I am having a lot of learning opportunities! Somehow being in “The Waiting Place” is strangely apt, since I will always be waiting/wanting more understanding of this place, of all of Mexico, of social dynamics, and myself.