We’re sitting on wooden bar stools with chipped paint at a downtown D.F. fresh food market. We talk among dead chickens, huge chilling fish heads, and fruits and vegetables that seem to be fresher, plumper and more colorful than the usual tianguis street markets you’ll find in the outskirts of the city where I’m currently living. Daniel Hernandez has introduced me to an incredible, fine cheese and deli meat stand that I’d soon become addicted to, saving my pennies for the once a month delicacy: a small disposable cup of red wine, a delectable baguette and light cheese and honey desert. It feels like a decadence to eat such a meal amidst the taco stands that surround the market, not that the meal is extravagantly priced by any means. The entire package totaling at a little under $6 USD. One gets used to eating well and eating cheap in a city, a country, who’s economy is still feeling the affects, and visibly so, from the recent economic crisis as well as the long since accustomed devaluation of the peso. For many locals, eating at 60 pesos a meal definitely would seem a wanted luxury. Most street vendors can hawk you an ample and filling meal for about $3 USD if not less. And it’s precisely this cost difference and economic inversions that has drawn me back to el D.F., and to this conversation with a fellow U.S. defector, expert-expat, Hernandez.
Armed with the blessing of a lifetime, a book contract, his youth, and an innate urge to push boundaries and defy conventions, New York Times T Magazine published journalist, Daniel Hernandez, set out to write about his experiences and observations as a Mexican-American, pocho in the motherland. Wanderlust struck, landing Hernandez in Mexico City once again after a hiatus in L.A. where he worked comfortably and quietly for sometime. This go around, his return would mark a daunting process of exploration, personal struggle and endless investigation into Mexico City’s abundant youth and street cultures, centered on issues of global gentrification to “urban tribes,” Hernandez calls them, in the remarkably clear work of non-fiction, Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the 21st Century. This collection of essays, part memoir, part journalism, and part non-academic ethnography subtly engage Hernandez’s concerns with bi-nationalist identity politics and the creation and demarcation of elusive, sometimes dated, and often overlooked subcultures, all while addressing the rise of urban immigrant culture-crossers in today’s ever shrinking global arena.
Talking with representatives of dismissed subcultures such as crusty punks, neo-indigenous movers, the fashionista hipsters and even emo kids, Hernandez guides his essays through the “cultural geography” of Mexico City, as an outsider-native. His Southern California upbringing and subsequent bilingualism and bi-culturalism sometimes serve as asset and often as impetus for inquiry and conflict at large.
It’s not surprising that a cultural outsider, a bi-cultural Latino, Chicano, Mexican-American, what have you, would be so apt and able to investigate and dialogue on the practices of other, fellow cultural dissidents. In his debut book, Hernandez takes all his experience as a journalist, blogger and human observer, transfixing his concerned gaze on how subcultures in Mexico City embody their cultural position. He delves into their manner of dress, how they produce culture, and how they inhabit their space. Writing about the 2008 emo bashings in Queretaro, Hernandez admits, “I even made fun of the emos in my first posts,” and not surprising, some of the emos were offended. His journalistic approach is humanistic and bilateral. His gaze, though privileged, he admits, is not permanent or perfect. He allows his environment, his subjects and the writing to reflect back, to ask questions and to change his mind. He confides, “I had to reexamine my own biases about these kids and what they were doing, being more careful and sensitive to their belief systems and practices.”
Hernandez has “no moral ambiguity about,” the deviant sexual behaviors, drug consumption, and other practices that he openly participates in. However, in a media induced narco fear-mongering México, one wonders how he balances his privilege and his place in the economy of cultural capital and racially classed politics.
Hernandez came to México for a lot of different reasons he describes, “First I was curious about my parent’s national heritage. Second, I was drawn to México because I’ve always been drawn to major scenes cities like New York, London, or Paris.” His attraction to the cosmopolitan mecca of Latin America, among the ranks of Bogota, Buenos Aires, and Rio, is not all together shocking. México has had a long appeal to clandestine youth and culturally savvy artists. Never having come to el D.F., Hernandez confides his parents are from Tijuana, while he himself was born in San Diego. With no personal heritage or connection to the city, Hernandez just came to “check it out,” the first time. Restless after college, he just wanted to check out the city, in search of a “a long vacation.” El D.F. is hardly a leisurely city, with no beaches or exotic landscapes for miles, it would seem an odd place to settle into for anything but a ruckus adventure.
“El DFectuoso,” a term a recent online-sex potential affectionately turned me on to, referring to his delightfully contaminated city, is the kind of city that doesn’t really invite you with its warmness or its hospitality. Amongst the money changers and penny pinching street vendors patiently awaiting any foreigners or beige and dark-skinned native passers with moderate incomes, eager to see your face, or ver te la cara – loosely meaning call your bluff and jack up the price on anything from a water bottle to a cab ride, all in the hopes of earning their honest daily wage, this city throbs and pushes. Hernandez accounts, “I would not say I immediately felt like I belonged. I would not say I immediately felt at home. But, I immediately felt an attraction to the challenge of trying to figure out where someone like me fits in an environment like this.”
And what is an environment like this exactly? I’ve asked just the right person. Hernandez takes a bite of his, “very un-Mexican but quiet Mexican baguette,” and aptly describes el D.F. as, “a dense, urban, congested collection of neighborhoods and streets, where a lot of daily life is improvised. Where there are huge social and economic disparities, and where there’s music and art and culture and visual stimulation all over the place. It’s an environment of intense sensory overload and of challenges,” Hernandez pauses, distracted from his thought, laughing at the inevitable example that life in Mexico readily offers. We both nod in agreement. “Sensory overloads like that Hari Krishna that just walked pass here in the market,” he continues regaining his thoughts, “and the real life and death challenges that come with living in a densely urban environment.”
D.F. is the kind of city that stimulates as much as it disgusts. It’s a hard place to call home, even for those born and raised here. Claiming to be one of, if not the safest city in the nation, despite soaring crime and inevitable violence, not withstanding recent narco-bust downs and the notorious police and government corruption, Hernandez questions the notion of home and security. “The meaning of home to me is a place you love and you hate, and a place that you love to hate.”
The roar of the market makes it impossible at times to hear each other speak. He continues eating his baguette basico -Gouda, salami, Serrano ham, olive oil, tomato- and I wonder; What does a person who leaves their own country and first world “privilege” grow to “hate” about a city like el D.F.?
“Sometimes the shit just gets to you, whether it’s the traffic, the bureaucratic red tape, the pollution, the contamination, situations relating to crime and inseguridad, social discrimination, stuff that doesn’t directly effect me in most cases, but is very evident to me: racial discrimination, class discrimination, sexual harassment, all of the ugly sides of human behavior are here. Like all the good sides are magnified, all the ugly things are magnified as well.”
It’s odd to hear a dark skinned, racially marked U.S. American refer to México as a place where racial discrimination might not affect him. I doubt this statement, but don’t press further. The affects of racism so deeply, subtly and subconsciously embedded in our post-colonial psyches, it’s hard to believe there’s any place on the planet where a dark skinned individual, of whatever class or nationality, might not be confronted with the burden of their skin.
Hernandez instead feels the weight of his privilege as a U.S. American, out weighing his “minority” lack of representation or sense of glass ceilings, in México. It seems his gaze as an “American” effects his reaction and perspective on daily occurrences. Hernandez takes an interesting stance on contemporary and historic constructions of race in the US, still however claiming the US as his country. “In my country, in the United States, we become racial subjects at a very early age, in this struggle over whether you’ll be a racial discriminator or liberated from racism […] eventually you fall on one side or the other. Either you enable discrimination or you release it, not let it invade you, invade your psyche, and just try to be like cool with everybody […] I think my gaze as an American is not only aware of that history in the United States, where notions of race are really part of everyday life, and everyone looks at everyone as a racial subject, where white people hate black people, and black people hate white people. You know all that shit you know about the U.S. allows me, here, to see a lot of things that many Mexicanos take for granted as a part of daily life.”
Hernandez starts to fumble his thoughts. You can almost hear his internal struggle with the roaring backdrop of the market and the contrast of his dark hands, his intellectual eloquence mumbled into his baguette. Our conversation seem even more highlighted by the business men and women who stop off at the crowded market deli stand for their daily lunch breaks, ordering among the European cheeses and meats, the smell of pork hooves, freshly feathered chickens, and cow tongues dripping just around the corner. Our high-stool interview corner seems to be in the way of everybody trying to crowd past. Hernandez continues, “My gaze as an American allows me to see class difference a lot more. I see race difference a lot more.”
My eyebrow raises, and I interject at the presumptuousness. “It is a presumption you’re right. I grew up in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-sexual environment, thankfully. I grew up lower middle class. My parents were immigrants from Tijuana who were really more like border subjects. I grew up with friends of every color. I went to a magnet school that thanks to previous era integration politics was fully integrated, and I lived for the most part, thank goodness, in what was an environment of workable racial harmony.”
Investigative dubiousness slips in again, racial harmony, really? “Racial tolerance,” Hernandez acquiesces, continuing the trajectory of his rising history, shocked from his privileged adolescents by the blatant reality of countless university campuses and segregated, working poor communities like the one I was raised in. “I went to college and everybody was talking about racism. I didn’t understand. Asians are taking over the university system, and there’s no black kids on campus, and lets get rid of affirmative action, and you’re part of the first class without affirmative action… And you get here [to el D.F.] and people don’t mind saying racial epitaphs about other people, usually in an ignorant way. I just have a different cultural up-bring that allows me to see things that people don’t normally see here. And also, more than not, it allows me to see things I’m curious about and to ask. That’s why I do what I do. I want to know why that’s ok?”
It’s doubtful racial consciousness began for Hernandez in the lectures and intellectual battle-grounds at Berkeley, as he clarifies. “From the perspective of a Mexican-American, we grow up in two cultures, you’re allowed to draw, to compare, to contrast and to debate the cultures within yourself.” The idea of bi-culturalism as an asset, “allowed” in the monopoly game of cultural capital, strikes me, though ever apparent, as just as equally understated. As much of a tool his bi-culturalism may serve him in the field, one question still remains. What of his obligation and any subsequent guilt that may arise from representing subjects from his privileged perspective as journalist, truth-sayer, cultural ambassador, etc?
“I understand completely that a journalists inhabits a position of contemporary power over the subject. I know full well the impact a piece of journalism can have. When somebody feels cheated or mistreated or betrayed by a piece, represented inaccurately […] I try to approach my subjects very carefully. I know far to many journalists who don’t care about the affect their words have on their subjects after they’re published. You have to understand that people will read what you write about them. And you have to be able to sleep good at night with an OK conscious. There’s a lot of shit that happened in the course of my interviews with people that I did not put in the book, that I would never publicize. Because really what purpose would that serve besides the writers ego, or extreme voyeurism. I want the book to have a clean conscious, to be morally ambiguous to be fare, direct and clear.”
Even writing this article, I feel the weight of Hernandez words, how do represent somebody? How do your implicit and explicit turns of phrase weigh on your subject?
Through our conversations about bi-culturalism and placelessness, I noted my own state of non-place of non-identification as the impetus for my exodus from Chicago. Hernandez often answers questions with a question. His own journalistic inquiry at the root of his response, at the very base of his being. You can hear the concern and the curiosity behind his words, his inevitably investigative nature shines.
Not fitting into the progressive, yuppy liberal Berkeley crowd, Hernandez admits, and feeling more at ease in L.A.’s bi-cultural, bi-lingual, bi-national, bisexual offerings, his return to Mexico was propelled by the urge to endure, to push and challenge himself and his environment. “Ok you’re 24, 25 years old, if not now when?” The exact same thought ran through my mind as I sold everything I owned and packed my bags for my own return to México. It’s like talking to a future version of myself. Hernandez’ story could be, perhaps is, my own. The uproar of like-minded spirits, represent a turning point in American history. A trend. A movement. A go-back-to-the-motherland movement amongst Mexican-American, queer, cool and savvy producers of culture. We belong to our own tribe.
One night after Hernandez shoves me towards a cab, trying to shake me of my own fear of getting kidnapped in the big bad D.F., I ignore his advice and decide to wonder the streets of downtown until the metro starts up again at 5 am. After stumbling into a rare and all night cantina for a beer and a bit of time spent doodling and writing, I find my way towards metro Insurgentes, in the gay part of town, La Zona Rosa. It’s a long hike from downtown and I’m tired. The night is cool but tolerable. My dark hoodie guards off any unwanted attention. I must seem more of a threat with my menacing pace and that hoodie, or so I like to delude myself into thinking.
Within moments of sitting at the entrance of metro Insurgenetes a tall, leather jacket and cowboy boot wearing gentleman sleeks up to me. Confusing me for one of the other street kids or prostitutes hustling the stop, he offers me some tequila and we start to chat. Turns out dude is from L.A,, here on a Fulbright, knows Daniel (however unaware of his recent book release) and equally as Latino and lost in the motherland as me. Months later I meet another queer Irish-Mexican from New York on a similar hiatus from the States, living in México for years now. The coincidences are uncanny. The prospect of such a wildly chaotic city bringing two, three, four individuals with similar narratives into contact is outlandish, if not providence.
And it’s exactly from that chaos that Hernandez writes, “Soft social chaos, chaos and anarchy breed cool shit. Conflicts, friction and tension is why I came here. Through I eventually did locate myself here. But, it could be anywhere. Well I donno actually.” Hernandez offers me the last bite of his baguette. In the interlude, my stumbling with the recorder and the styrofoam tray (there’s not counter space even to set anything down on) I understand Hernandez’ sense of longing, his urge for improvisation. I’m glad to be his first interview, his first practice for the speeches and conversations he’ll be holding on the book tour.
Hernandez, confides about the limitations of his recent publication. He admits, “The book is not meant to be a definitive portrait of Mexico City. It is not meant as a catalog of the urban tribes of the subcultures, some are in there, some are not, as I say in the beginning. It’s one person’s Mexico City in one moment. Told also through the lives of some of the people and their experiences living here. It’s meant to be an enjoyable read, relatable. I’m not isolating any reader, possibly, hopefully. And if some readers are isolated, that’s great too. It’s just not their book.”
It seems even as he’s answering the question, he’s thinking about future articles and perhaps a future book. “There were some things I wish I could have explored more. Race relations, the specter of the African, the Asian, in Mexican racial cosmology, or whatever you want to call it. I had drafted a chapter about that, but really it came down to deadlines. It was a really complicated topic. Same thing with sexuality, if I had had more time and resources I would have really gone deep into questions of female sexuality and transexual identity, the sexual lives of women in Mexico. They’re still so subjugated by Machismo. My suspicion is that the sexual lives of women are just as empowering and complex and self-made as men’s. Stuff like that, some areas I wish I could have gone deeper on. But, I’m happy with it.”
And we’re happy with Hernandez’ moral objectivity, his curiosity and his socially conscious journalistic approach. All too often one presumes that the very nature of a journalist implies their objectivity, forgetting the journalist’s own personal history of racial or economic privilege. As a young writer and reader, it’s the things that are often left unsaid, the realities, truths and subtle nuances of the lived, the understood and hard felt struggles of the subcultures, the underclasses and the deviants that are always dully missing from the dominant narratives. The mainstream media and even white-indie media provides plenty of smugly austere, poking reporters mascaraed-ing their privilege as “objectivity.” However, Hernandez posits an alternative, the real, the reality of a few in a particular moment, as a voice of the rising queer, educated, urban pocho movement, opting out of the responsibilities and weight of their birth nation, for the struggle of identity, place and placelessness provided by the motherland. Our “tribe” takes the back roads south, los caminos de la vida no less populated, and no less traveled.