Until we crossed the border the teenagers in our van -- a SKV they called it, which stood for serial killer van -- looked out onto a concrete Euphrates flowing south to Tijuana. They looked upon the fish. Chevies. Mercedes. Audis. Sonatas. CRV's. They looked out of the side-slanted windows, into the eyes of these animals. Carp. Guppies. Druggies. Warlords. Boreds. Gangstas. Smugglers. Mothers. The collective teenage consciousness in our white whale looked out on the paradise my husband saw and declared it rife with weakness and duplicitous motives.
North of the border boasted the best of human superiority. Grand villas. Manicured. Landscaped. Cultivated. Controlled. Balanced. South of the border broadcast the bildungsroman of humankind. On its way to civilization, greatness mashed against trash. Homes founded on piles of tires. Towers of hotels arrested a floor or two short. Rebar crowns and tin slips, pavement dying away to dust. Below the cat calling billboards -- autoplastía, anaplastía, abogado immigracíon, -- men walk down the dust between our highway and the eyesore of concrete and wire between us and them.
"Really?" I am flabbergasted. "Why do you think it's beautiful?" But the kids jabber too loud to answer and he's soaking up the vista. And calling it beautiful.
The square mile looks the same as it did when I saw it first four years ago. I drove a rented guppy with my daughter in the front passenger seat, two boys from our Midwestern church in the backseat. The guppy's transmission choked on dust. I prayed the white whale in front wouldn't race away from us, The white whale behind us would let us be a barnacle on its nose if this transmission failed. I divided my energy between observation, the art of a writer, and driving, the responsibility of a team leader.
To be fair, the first trip into Tijuana was 2011. Even our town in Indiana looked like hell. 2008 came, stole our bread, stole our factories. Thrifty scared and bored, people in our town built labs in their attics for cash and entertainment. Our century's version of a still, my generation's version of hooch kills as many of us, or more. Houses blow up, or burn. Back home our main street looked like an abandoned Western town. The saloons, the lawyers, insurance agencies, pawnbrokers, tanning shops and motley folks put out their wares. Mostly everything looked beautifully abandoned.
Imagine Tijuana in that. In Mexico during the crisis, the government made the Tortilla Act. Farmers south sold their corn north of the border. Corn for ethanol sold better than corn for food. The two room, concrete-and-chicken-wire houses we came to build protected a family's claim. They squatted in something more permanent than tin and tarp.
The tires that triggered quiet "ah's" and "that house is literally built on" from the teens, those were part of well-designed repurposed buildings. The longer we rode, the more I saw rows of white and vibrantly painted homes inside compounds. To me, Tijuana had burst forth. It was reaching towards beautiful. More like the pretty side by side compounds of Guatemala City's neighborhoods, which I'd seen only once.
I traveled to Guatemala City in August of 2011, a few weeks after we returned from Mexico. For both my husband and me, this was a first. Our first travels out of the US. When we disembarked in Guatemala City, we walked past armed soldiers across the tarmac. Guns and guards seemed to swarm. I thought of New Orleans after Katrina, images I'd seen, not experienced. Now I walked among guards who couldn't care if I spoke only English.
My husband says he found Guatemala hard to look upon with love. I saw its zoologico and the uniformed students, waiting to see if today the striking teachers would show up to unlock their schools. I saw uniformity, not graffiti and dust. I went to bed at night inside the twenty foot high cinderblock walls surrounding the Hogar Raphael. The shipping trucks rattled until late. They picked up Sears furniture from the factories nearby. Nightclubs on the four corners of the compound took over the noisemaking around midnight. I heard weeping and music, hollering and fighting.
"Once, we found a knife in the grass," said Madre Ivonne, the nun who supervised the hogar. A man had been murdered on the other side of the wall. I thought about that every night as I fell asleep. I felt safe because we had check in with the armed guard at the steel gate of the compound, even with Jorge driving. Jorge was Madre Ivonne's brother.
At four am, I woke up because no one sang, hollered, honked or cranked an engine. I heard clicking across my floor. I flicked on the switch. Large black beetles skittered under the crack into the jardín separating my room from my husband's. I shut off the light. They came back like that every night. I shuddered thinking of them ending up in my luggage, but what bothered me more was the wire in my showerhead. It heated my water at the spigot, but if it shorted I would be electrocuted. Our handyman warned me to take a cold shower before trying to fix anything myself. No worries, Joe, I thought. I would moan my way through a cold shower, wash away a little sweat and dust, and huddle in my covers. And flick on the lights if the beetles sounded too close.
Several nights in a row, I did just that. But one night, when I flipped off my switch at ten pm, light seeped through cracks above me. I'd never seen it before. A swishing sound and dust sprinkled down on me. Like a subtle hint, I understood that I had someone above, the older hogar girls or Madre Ivonne. My late night light defense against the beetles probably disturbed the sleeper above.
I loved Guatemala City, even Zona Una, even though the mothers said they had to get the kids out of there, it was just too ugly, too dangerous.
Coming home this summer, my husband told everyone he thought Mexico was beautiful.
"I thought Guatemala was more beautiful myself," I said.
"I didn't," I take his response as a bit defensive, a kind of retort, as if we a have passive resistance to the mystery of beauty we each see. It's not true but he sees something so expansive he has yet to capture the beauty, though he's been playing with lyrics and chords to get it across. "Whatever is lovely, whatever is true, think on such things," admonishes Paul, a writer, a saint and sinner too. We're all reaching to these mysteries, I think. It's no easy task wrestling with beauty. Sometimes it's easier to entertain with dust than mystery, with violence and ugliness rather that what is lovely and faithful.