Welcome to Iztapalapa

I know it used to be a dog. Ears, nose, body, tail—all clearly outlined. It’s been flattened by so many vehicles that it’s become a perfect wafer, a piece of urban collage that flashes by like one of those disaster scenes you see on television: entire populations razed by the vindictive fury of nature. But here on the eastern edge of Mexico City, cataclysm results from a different kind of disaster.

“Welcome to Iztapalapa,” reads a gigantic sign. Rising over what in pre-Hispanic times was a marshy Eden is the “Tianguis of the Towers,” a vast, itinerant market. Pieces of political propaganda, slogans about justice, progress, health and welfare blow away, meld into dust devils, and block the view of the volcanoes.

The place is a microcosm of not just Mexico, but of much of the world; a place where rural peasants who move to the city find themselves trying to participate in an economy that may not have room for them.

Three times a week the market appears and disappears along an enormous avenue known as “El Eje Seis.” Axis Six. It sounds like something from a sci-fi novel: When Axis Six overtakes us. I decide not to think about it.

The selection of merchandise—and its origin—is a mystery. The high-tension towers that lend their name to the market stand out in a sea of tarps, like masts in a sad and ragged fleet. Row upon row of stands give way to streets and alleys. A ferocious hurricane season has submerged the city in a relentless early morning rain, reminding me of something my high school biology teacher once said about Oparin’s soup theory, something about our primordial past. Here it is right in front of us. And yet somehow it doesn’t even make a dent in the crowd’s enthusiasm. Bara-bara! … Bara-baraaaaa! howl the vendors. Everything is “barato“—cheap, sold at a fraction of the regular price. That’s why the place is so jam-packed at such an early hour.

The Triumph of Chaos

There’s a man trying to sweep the ground, a seemingly impossible task. With one smack of the broom he pushes the water, but before he can smack it again, the murky liquid runs back into a puddle. He does this again and again, a hundred times. He’s so earnest, so diligent, you’d think he was in charge of a fancy hotel, that he was sweeping an imperial boulevard.

I trip over his enthusiasm and fall flat on my face, inches away from a small, greenish substance next to the broom. My idealism leads me to think that the forces of nature are so extraordinary that even in this muck, life triumphs over chaos. My sense of touch tells me just how wrong I am. That little piece of green? Just another piece in the collage, like the dog in the asphalt. A scrap of carpet stuck in the ground after all that trampling and sweeping. But it serves its purpose. I land right in front of a stand selling sports equipment and am welcomed inside. Weights, barbells—it looks like something from an old Charles Atlas ad. The man in charge (judging by his appearance he failed to complete Mr. Atlas’ body-building course) drops his broom and rushes to my aid. He calls me güerita, which I’m not. “Careful, güerita.” In Mexico, we’re all “güero” (meaning a fair-haired person with white skin) until proven otherwise. Say the word and you evoke a national fantasy that running through our veins are platelets imported from other, seemingly better worlds. I thank the man for his concern, for his genuine kindness.

Ballet Parking

I haven’t been here five minutes when I feel a sharp blow to my hip. Like everyone in Mexico City, I live in a perpetual state of alert, which leads me to imagine—stupidly—that if I am robbed, mugged, or worse, I’ll be able to do something about it. Enraged, I whirl around to confront my aggressor.

The man who begs my pardon is wearing a white shirt and jacket. Impeccable, despite all the mud. He’s a waiter, and his 180-degree smile disarms me. He pushes a supermarket cart filled with cereal boxes, fastidiously organized into rows. All kinds of cereal. In the middle row are complementary items: milk, yogurt, granola, honey, bowls, spoons, napkins.

“Breakfast, ma’am?” he asks, gazing at me with big, dark eyes under his arched brows. I say no, thank you, and change directions to put some distance between myself and the murderous cart.

The culinary selection is worthy of a pasha. In huge pots, large pieces of meat boil and dance. What kind of meat? Who knows? Everything is submerged and tortured in oceans of oil that can kill whatever microbes might be floating around. Everything is garnished with onion, chili peppers, lime, salsa. Stacks of tortillas; vast vats of atole; rivers of electric-colored soft drinks; oceans of coffee brewed with water of questionable quality. The aroma is everywhere. On the customers’ faces: unparalleled joy, the happiness of blind faith and innocence. How lucky.

At the far end of the market I see a series of black holes that look like caves. Portable caves, that’s what they are. Dozens and dozens of trucks have been parked with the discipline of a ballet troupe in a powerful choreography worthy of Maurice Béjart. Their back doors open wide like jaws. Even though the signs on their chassis announce “Dry Cleaning,” “Fresh Chicken,” “Movers,” “Home Gardening,” the mobile grottoes regurgitate bundles of clothing, crates of toys, boxes of sound equipment, bathroom furniture, tools, auto parts, tennis shoes: millions and millions of tennis shoes. New or used. They’ve got it all.

Opium Dreams

I’m distracted by the frenetic chatter, the language of rapid hand movements, as women pick and choose from great mounds of jumbled clothes. As soon as they get back to their own neighborhood, they’ll resell the same stuff in an endless cycle of selling and reselling that never ends (unless something—or someone—finally falls apart). “Special Offer”: That’s for items of clothing that cost one peso (one). The most expensive cost 150 times more. But there are bargains here for the trained eye.

Featured in the women’s lingerie section are gaudy polyester triangles in phosphorescent colors. Painful in more than one sense, they’re barely threads with feathers, lace, and rhinestones. They’re supposed to trigger lust, fire up the passion of a soirée superbe. But hanging there at the mercy of the wind, they merely suggest the kind of sexuality practiced at the nearby hotels—located so close to the Central de Abastos (one of the largest produce markets in the world) that a steady flow of lonely men is ensured.

Temptation Hotel, Pegasus Motel, Vitrales (tinted glass) Plaza, Monarch Plus Beauty Institute, Aztec Emperors School. Opium dreams to cloud over reality.

The Beginning of the End

I walk straight ahead looking for a way out. I hear an omnipotent, omnipresent voice over the hellishly loud music, the cries of vendors, the bawling children, the complaints of those who’ve been shortchanged, the quarreling couples who say “Sí, amor,” “No, amor,” with murderous resentment. Or in extreme cases, “amore.” “I already told you no, amore.”

I head toward the voice of salvation, which seems to come from above. (From an almost heavenly source, you might say.) I approach. A brilliant light blinds me. The tarps are gone. There’s nothing left. Only that dazzling, blinding glare.

I lower my gaze and find a golden slipper, sunk halfway in the mud. It’s a sign: the road to another dimension, the beginning of the end.

There, where the city of canvases and the parking lot of grotto-trucks end, another market begins. The mere sight of this god-forsaken wasteland is enough to cut through the varnish of political rhetoric. It’s enough to condemn the way wealth is distributed—and so much more.

Attached to one of the towers, climbing like a vine, is a loudspeaker. Pouring out of it is a narrative that verges on the mystical.

If you suffer from fungus, from skin rash, scabies, and other generalized infections that can cause itching; if you suffer from pimples and blackheads, let me recommend a cream …

It couldn’t be any clearer.

Men of Salt

I see a no man’s land filled with people who look as if they were made of salt. The force of a tsunami or the fury of a hurricane would have probably been more merciful. In this human salt mine, the vendors sell whatever is left over. In other words: the garbage of garbage, assorted more or less by theme.

Perched above the mudslide, covered in grime, hundreds and hundreds of “vendors” offer loads of loot that no one could conceivably want to buy: a single, worn-out shoe; two mismatched spoons; vials of serum that might cure you—or kill you; boxes of medicine of undetermined origin and effect; broken pieces of a board game discontinued in the ’70s. Dishes, toy parts, family photos. I’m impressed by a pile of dirty brushes, encrusted with paint. A major accomplishment for a conceptual artist. But seeing them here—like discarded workers—horrifies me.

A man who seems ancient, but probably isn’t, sits and watches over a tiny stack of boots. He still wears huaraches, a wide-brimmed hat, white muslin clothing. Not long ago he was tilling the earth, tending his plot of land. Guessing by his appearance, I assume he’s a recent addition to the world of chachareo (the buying and selling of anything, in any condition—every day, the job of more and more Mexicans).

An elderly couple inflates a wading pool. There’s no water. No problem. They sit on a sofa, kiss and fondle each other, and watch the misery pass by. Nearby, a makeshift pen shelters three handsome fighting roosters that seem to be under arrest. Otherwise, why would they be here? In the next rows: mismatched office furniture; old-fashioned dolls with matted hair and one eye; expired, dented cans; pornographic videos in Beta format. (Compared to what’s available in broad daylight anywhere in the city today, they seem almost innocent.)

For children who are weak, anemic, infected with worms; children who can’t learn, who don’t study; for these sickly children … give them a dose of an authentic vitamin with royal bee jelly ….

Tossed on the ground, among hundreds of empty bottles of fine perfumes, is a book: Why Chiapas? by the conservative ideologue Luis Pazos. I look up. I look around.

Two men are negotiating the sale of a suitcase that still smells of airplane turbines. The prospective buyer wants to open it and see what’s inside. The seller refuses: Take it or leave it. Behind them is another cart, this one a double killer. It sells fresh oysters even though the closest refrigerator—not to mention body of water—is miles away.

Pets: three white ducks, martyred by immobility in a cage that would be a tight fit for one. Parakeets on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Once green and beautiful, they’re now dehydrated and ashen from the dust. Instead of flying above the luxuriant jungle canopy from which they were kidnapped, they’re waiting to die in this hellhole. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, says the vendor, she can get you any animal in two weeks.

If you’ve got a splitting headache, If your lungs ache, If you suffer from dizziness, fainting spells; can’t breathe,If you’re nerves are on edge,If you can’t cannot fall asleep …Try a capsule of royal bee jelly.

Cuitláhuac on the Iceberg

The messianic voice nearly drowns out the rancheras blasting from old, run-down radios. Someone’s playing a melancholy Beatles LP (on this side of the tianguis, there are no CDs). The ground is infested with broken records. Let it be, let it be… I want out. I’ll have to retrace my steps. But can I?

A truck pulls up, and a man begins to empty its contents with a shovel, as if he were shoveling manure. They’re books. Hundreds of them, with damaged, torn bindings. There’s Tolstoy. Tolstoy! Scientific, leather-bound books, in Spanish, in German. Notebooks. Goethe. Werther. Wasn’t it Goethe who reminded us that the devil isn’t impersonal, but quite the opposite?

“Dangerous crossing,” warns the sign. A van with “Jail” written on the windshield brushes past me. It goes back and forth to the Santa Marta Acatitla penitentiary, not far from here. Taking my life into my hands, I try crossing Axis Six. There’s the dog-wafer.

I change my mind. Instead of crossing, I decide to climb up the pedestrian bridge. Poor Cuitláhuac. What would Moctezuma’s brother say if he saw what has become of the botanical gardens of his incomparably beautiful Aztec palace? Of its clear pools of water? What do we say?

I turn to look at the market one last time from above and suddenly am overcome by the sense that this is no mere tianguis: This is an iceberg advancing slowly, but inexorably, over the city. One day it will swallow it whole. One day the whole city will be incorporated into this collage that—like it nor not—we’re all part of. Meanwhile, I’ve got my bottle of royal bee jelly capsules. I was going to take one, but I better make that two. Let’s hope they work.

Laura Emilia Pacheco is a writer in Mexico City. This article was translated by Tanya Huntington.

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Published at 12:00 am CST