An American Poet in Mexico

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The sixth and last installment of my series of articles for The Noise. Fotos by Bart Pogoda.

Poco a poco se anda lejos. –dicho mexicano

We’re practicing personal pronouns when it pops out of Yared’s mouth. “The fan writes a circle!” he cries, fully aware that in my fourth grade classroom, we raise our hands when we would like to speak. He just can’t help himself, and his little dark fingers fly to cover his mouth as soon as the last word leaves it. “Sorry,” he says, rolling the r’s.

“That’s OK, Yared,” I tell him, and it’s moments like this that “Teacher Logan” remembers that he is actually a poet, not the elementary school teacher he has been pretending to be for the last month. Soon the class is working on illustrating the English sentences they just made up, and my pocket notebook has found its way into my hands. The fan writes a circle above the head of Yared, I write, and its verses blow all across the schoolbooks.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

How did it come to this? School books, personal pronouns and starting the days by singing the super-popular “Good Morning Song”? In the eight months since leaving Flagstaff, I’ve felt myself blown from one continent to the other, waking up in strange cities where the shadows tilt at crooked angles and riding boats and motorcycle sidecars that always seem to take me farther from home. Then, it happened in late summer: the money ran low, the wanderlust overflowed the notebooks, and lonely became more than just an adjective. It was time to settle.

I arrived in central Mexico again after almost two years with a backpack full of slightly trumped-up résumés and the familiar, strong set of ganas to again see this country from the inside out. I didn’t plan on teaching kids. But the kids had my number, and the school had the envelope stuffed with peso bills.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

At this point, I’m just another undocumented American worker supporting the Mexican economy. The school passes me those envelopes every couple of weeks, no one asks questions, and I wade further into the Byzantine, murky and antigonizing world of Mexican papeleo, hoping to one day become legal. At least for me there’s the chance of becoming legal.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

I leave our house at that moment when the night just begins to crack with the lucid expectation of dawn. While walking the fifteen minutes to the freeway, I pass the milpa where the corn has now grown to its full height. Just above it, on clear days, Popocatépetl dwarfs an entire mountain range. Glaciers still somehow cling to its summit and steam wisps from the sleeping lava below.

The bus is usually packed, maybe fifty people steated and another fifteen standing in the aisle. We’re all clinging to our last moments of calm before the long hours of trabajo, and the sleepers’ heads fall and nod like heavy fruit on elastic necks.

Meanwhile, outside of the day-to-day life of most workers and children, the country has wound itself tight into a political crisis the likes of which it hasn’t seen since maybe the Revolution itself. After nearly seventy years of rule by the PRI, (the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party) Goliath finally took one to the forehead with the election of PAN’s Presidente Fox in 2000. Now, just six short years later, PRI came in a distant third in July’s presidential elections.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

The United States seems to be the global trend-setter in more than just movies and music these days: disputed, too-close-to-call elections now seem to be de moda the world over. The leftist PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador lost to right-winger Felipe Calderón of PAN by just 234,000 votes out of some 41,000,000. But as with everything, the Mexicans had to put their touches on the trend to make it their own. In 2000 in the US, Gore fought for his cause with one foot already in the grave, and in 2004 that strange flavor of American political apathy allowed the shifty happenings in Ohio to go by uninvestigated.

By contrast, Obrador and his supporters stormed the streets, occupying the center of Mexico City for over a month. Recently, after the PAN-influenced high court ruled against him, he vowed to establish a “parallel government.” Never mind that the taxista that I rode with today called him “out of his head” and that he continues to alienate many moderate voters with his extra-governmental manuevering, the man knows how to stand his ground. And further south, in the state of Oaxaca, police and government have fled the capital city under pressure from a peoples’ movement led by—who else?—schoolteachers.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

But somewhere in between all of that, la vida ya se ha normalizado un poco—what a miracle of human adaptation that a life like this could begin to seem normal. Walking into my tiny classroom with hardly any experience to teach English to kids born in 1998 felt like a running of the bulls—except that the bulls new the ring better than I did and were somehow capable of throwing spitballs.

But the weeks pass and Mexico swollows us—surrealist Mexico at its best: our neighborhood fills with taxistas and mariposas every afternoon. The taxistas drink Coke and piss in the bushes while they wait for fares and the butterflies look mostly like delicate pieces of fax paper folded in half and given the spark of life. The neighbors across our small valley burn trash while wildflowers laugh and bloom from the rough sides of the cement streets. The woman down the way makes the greatest gorditas de flor de calabaza you’d ever taste, and occasionally some men come by in a big truck to pick up the trash from our house.

It’s like that dicho says: little by little you end up walking far. You put your head to the grind, lay down ink when you can, and the next thing you know the fan over your head is writing circles, bringing everything together. The fourth grade class has a laughing attack, the teacher does a fan-dance, and the poems spill through the bars covering the windows.

We are raising our hands and not looking back.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.