Once my Uncle Paco–the pain-in-the-ass Salvadoran revolutionary in exile in Mexico–saw how much books meant to me, he backed off. After I shook the novel Cien años de soledad in his face and swore I’d read it until I understood it, I holed up in his guest bedroom and started on the first paragraph, with a dictionary to one side. It must have impressed him. The next day he told me to get in the car. He had a whole culture to show me.
He dragged me from one corner of Mexico to another. It was tiring, listening to Spanish all those days, the conversations my relatives held, ones that excluded Monolingual-Me. My cousins rattled on with my mother as though they’d known one another for decades, instead of meeting for the first time.
I had translated a couple of pages of Márquez’s novel, and was in the groove. I didn’t want to run around the country. I wanted to study. But once he drove us to Teotihuacán, I finally stopped, looked around, and began to see. Uncle Paco knew Aztec culture, cosmology, philosophy, and architecture. With him as our guide, the dead city became alive in my imagination.
We spent a day in Mexico City’s main plaza, visited the government buildings and the cathedral, ate tacos from street vendors, and meandered. I was exhausted. The mind was absorbing as much Mexico as it could. The thick, constant swirl of Spanish around me whipped through my skull and coaxed out words, small phrases, ones that I had heard in childhood when we lived in San Francisco. Then the rest of the words swamped me and, once again, I was lost.
Which was a good place to be. Lost. Out of my environment, out of control. I had no control, over anything. I felt pummeled; but I didn’t want to run from it. It felt as though the weariness had a purpose, that it was putting me in a place where I could have a Come-to-Jesús moment, and give myself over to my culture.
It happened in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I stared at the giant, stone Aztec calendar while Uncle Paco took my family to other exhibits. All those details, cut into the stone five hundred years ago, with a symmetry I thought could only be created in modern times–How did they do that?
It was a slow day in the museum, quiet, with the few visitors talking in whispers. The
place drew me into quietude, as though I’d stepped into a monastery. I meandered through the Central American exhibit. The quiet. The quiet. Tranquility—a curtain in my pupils lifted, and the images of pre-Conquest ancestors rushed in. The Nahua people. The pipiles. The Lenca. Corn, sacred corn—displays of elote, the multicolored corn used in Mayan rituals; displays of women and men and children working crops centuries ago; pottery from the Olmec years, long before the Mayan dynasties. And writings: the Mayan people wrote in their own hieroglyphics, their histories and myths and kingdoms—into stone. Just like the Egyptians. Just like the Mesopotamians–the regions that I had been taught were the (only) birth places of civilization.
I broke. No one saw me crying, I stifled it as best I could. That night I studied Cien años de soledad like a madman searching for his lost soul.