Broken spears lie in the roads;
We have torn our hair in griefd
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
are red with blood.
An Aztec poem about the fall of an empire
Ethan was sitting at the sidewalk café on the main plaza of Coyoacán mulling over the implications of his unspoken declaration of independence from his wife, Guadalupe. The other tables were still vacant. The daily tropical shower had come and gone. And the sun shining through a thin veil of mist had turned the trees in the park vis-à-vis to silver. Something about being alone in the café reminded him of his youth when he would stand on the city square at the top of the hill under the shadow of Sunset Mountain and the same feeling of lostness came over him. He let the remembrance carry him back in the hope of discovering his original self in his first home; instead, the conceptual return to that past soured and turned into sadness; there he was only a blurred ghost on the empty square under the green mountain. Ethan disliked parting with the past.
Coyoacán. At over two thousand meters altitude the temperature was perfect. Then, as happened frequently, he had the sensation of being at the top of the world. He inhaled deeply. And though the air seemed the essence of purity, he knew the toxic air in this city dominated even the fleeting illusion of purity.
As every day Ethan squinted in the direction of where Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl were supposed to be. He scanned the horizon in the vain hope that the curtain of invisible pollution had magically lifted and revealed the magnificence of the two volcanoes. But not even the vaguest outline of a mountain was visible. Man-made impurity was greater than nature itself. And again his insistent memory wandered back to the air of an ephemeral world apart from Mexico City, a world in the Blue Ridge Mountains where Mount Mitchel was majestically present which brought back from his deepest consciousness his father’s simple feelings about nature: to him the mountainous curtain hanging between him and the flat country where he’d grown up was an obstacle to be overcome, not a magical geological giant. And so he too, the young Ethan, began to see the mountains as a wall separating him from the world beyond. But then after he broke through nature’s barricade and saw what lay in the beyond, he missed the mountains, which once more played a major role in his life. Oh, if he could only see ‘Popo’. The real top of the world where things would become clear. The great mountain would guide him in his relations with the world of Guadalupe, here, so far from their home together in Italy … and from his original mountain home.
The image of mountains cast the usual tranquility over him while he observed the approach of the distinguished man with two small children walking through the park toward the café. Every day the gray-bearded man came with the children and stood on the other street side under a big Ash tree and looked toward the café. Mystery hung over the man of about fifty with the children. Sometimes he treated the children to ices and they would stand there together under the great Ash tree looking fixedly toward the café. Though he never crossed the street, the usual café people knew him. Some would cross the street and speak a moment with the older man, discretely pressing something into his hand. The man was not a beggar and no one treated him as such. So Ethan had begun doing the same. Since he was still the only one at the café today he would chat a bit with the man he’d decided was a former university professor or had perhaps played a French horn in the city’s symphony orchestra, and was now down on his luck.
Ethan bought ices for the children and he and the professor sat on bench near the Coyotes Fountain and talked about Popocatepetl.
“But Professor, if Popo is invisible and no one can climb it, does the mountain really exist?” Looking in the direction of the mountains the idea again occurred to him that the end of time lay inside the toxic veil concealing Popocatepetl.
The man looked perplexed, then said in an erudite manner that he was not really a professor and that of course Popocatepetl existed. “It and its companion volcanoes, Iztaccihuatl and La Malinche, are always there. The Aztecs worshiped them like gods.”
“Worshiped mountains, Professor? Well, some people worshiped the mountains where I came from too … but not my father.”
The other stroked the head of the little girl and wiped clean the boy’s chin.
“Your children?” Ethan asked.
“My grandchildren. Their mother died of pneumonia, the father vanished into Bidonville.”
“Oh, how sad. Bidonville must be hell.”
“Who knows? No matter. Anyway, Popocatepetl means Smoking Mountain and Iztaccihuatl, the White Woman. According to an Aztec legend they were once man and woman, deeply in love and were transformed into volcanic mountains. The third and less important mountain is La Malinche—named for an infamous woman who betrayed her people and became the mistress of Cortés the conquistador. The worst thing you can call a woman here is Malinche.”
“Please tell me about it … by the way were you a professor of history?”
"If you insist. Maybe yes, maybe no. Some things you know, other things you can only guess. Like the unicorn for example. I believe it exists. Anyway, I can tell you some things. First of all I assure you that Popocatepetl exists even though we cannot see it or climb it as Fidel and Che once did. As we know in this scientific age of atoms and viruses, invisibility does not mean non-existence … as only simple-minded persons may think. Eruptions are eruptions. They happen. The most recent was last January. They too exist… like the diseases the Spanish brought that killed the natives.
“In 1519 the Spanish conquerors arrived and erased the ancient Aztec culture that had passed its zenith. Moctezoma and his predecessors had ruled with Dostoevsky’s three essential earthly forces: miracles, secrecy and rigid authority. Lacking however was the spontaneity of freedom, so that after centuries cracks had begun showing in its structure. When the Spaniards arrived its civilization was already crumbling. And Spanish victors then wrote the history that became the truth for all time ... a history that paints the dreamy Aztec civilization as mere myth in the Mexican pantheon.”
“Well, the Spaniards’ version has lasted. And that veil of fairytale and unreality still shrouds Western history of the Spanish conquest of what they found here.”
“Yes, but solid Aztec sources tell another story of the conquest: on the one hand, the breakdown of the Aztec network of uncertain alliances with the weaker peoples in its empire and on the other, a creeping rottenness in Aztecisn, by then a faith. But even though disintegrating at the roots, it was still an empire. Transitory in the passage of history, but an empire. Moreover, total misunderstandings marked the ambivalent relations between the Spanish imperialists and the quixotic Aztecs who believed they could dominate the strange foreigners by a show of power … and the usual bribery. But the Aztecs never understood that those men who didn’t paint their bodies and wore armor were there to kill, conquer and loot Aztec gold. Men who sat atop four-legged beasts. Men who took Aztec diplomatic gifts as weakness and killed the messengers. Men who had no honor and slaughtered women and children and destroyed whole villages. Men who had no city of their own so they had to take the sacred city of Tenochtitlan ...”
“They sound like my fellow countrymen!”
“Well, yes, the analogies are numerous. Anyway, though the Aztecs drove the Spaniards from the city the first time, smallpox—invisible to the visionary Aztecs—broke out and masses of people in Tenochtitlan died from disease and starvation. Before the year was out the Spanish rallied their forces here in Coyoacán and put Tenochtitlan under siege. Aztec subject peoples joined the Spanish foreigners to crush the Aztecs in their city of gold. Against all odds the Aztecs resisted so that the Spanish leveled the city with their cannons. And instead of a city of gold Spain took a city of rubble and the dead. The Aztec empire fell and its leader Moctezoma pulled down a nebulous civilization and its magical city with him. So has been the ultimate fate of world empires.”
“Professor, you have portrayed perfectly our shifting world today.”
“Oh, that is neither here nor there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean to say that it is a supreme example of the follies of mankind. But look what happened to our Mexico. We have never again counted. Not since the time of Tenochtitlan has Mexico mattered. The Mexican-American war was a war of America against a fragile and weary Mexico. The monster of this city we live in took the sacred city’s place. Poor Mexicans hung onto their old gods and today put together their ramshackle Bidonville while the rich white Spaniards live in great palacios and still crush the poor without ever having seen them. Gibbons wrote that ‘Such is the constitution of civil society, that whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honors, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance and poverty. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he wrote: ’A long period of distress and anarchy, in which empire, and arts, and riches had migrated from the banks of the Tiber was incapable of restoring or adorning the city; and, as all that is human must retrograde if it does not advance, every successive age must have hastened the ruin of the works of antiquity.’”
“Professor, you know my homeland well.”
“Alas, I truly do. The old saying about Mexico’s ills still holds: Pobre Mexico tan lejos de dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos. Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near the United States. In Old Mexico, the past is the future. Progress is a return to the pre-Aztec past. For Mexicans, the Golden Age is in the remote past before capitalist Yankees tried to take their lands. Utopia means a return to the original time of ancient civilizations. Yet if Mexico like Popocatepetl is invisible to much of the world, we are still here and Mexico exists.”
“Well, though the empire fell, it seems Aztecism remains. The Spanish world empire fell too, but imperialism remains. We keep repeating the same mistakes.”
“The things of man are indeed fragile. The Aztecs are gone but their sacred Popocatepetl remains, roaring and blasting its lava to warn us, and we can’t even see it … it has its lava but we have our pollution.”
Ethan pressed an envelope into the other’s hands. “Something nice for the children,” he said. “Uh, Professor, I just got the idea of looking for your son-in-law in Bidonville. Maybe he needs help. What’s his name?”
“He’s called Juan Carlos Morelos. About thirty-five by now. Looks older, I’m sure. Sickly type. Tall and skinny.”
“I hope to see you again tomorrow, Sir.”
“Tomorrow as every day. Coming here is our job,” he said with an embarrassed smile. Little children already working! It’s shameful."
“Maybe I’ve found a job too.”
Ethan’s taxi zigzagged through a web of streets, entered a traffic-packed avenue and pulled to the side in front of a block of structures covered in Coca Cola placards. Behind them spread rows of tin and cardboard shacks, each different in shape and material. One was painted pink, another ecologically green. This was it. Bidonville, Mexico City.
As night descended over Mexico City, Ethan entered an alley and stepped inside Bidonville. And a sudden blackness fell over the world. He stumbled through the darkness searching for a light. Ankle deep in slime and overpowered by the stench, he suddenly felt free. Freer here than in Coyoacán. He seemed to see himself. You need this kind freedom to find yourself, he thought. You need the courage to accept your freedom when you find it. If not, you feel death. He felt giddy. This was the total isolation from Guadalupe he’d needed. He felt like a hermit must feel. Still, he thought, it takes as much courage to be a hermit as to be, say, a heretic. Surrounded by European ghosts, he felt he was on the right path, maybe dangerous but the right one. Bidonville, in one of the world’s biggest cities. If I’m not careful my own mind and body and soul will transform into a Bidonville. In that moment he saw far down the alley a flickering of light.
Hesitantly he entered the shack. Candles were spaced around a big room. Mud from the earlier rain seeped inside. Mosquitoes buzzed around his head. Out of the shadows a young man stepped forward.
“Hola, I’m Marcos. I’m helping out here.” Ethan’s eyes swept around the room. Layers of cardboard covered the earthen floor. Along the tin walls, crates of milk, dried foods, labeled bags and stacks of big blue bottles of drinking water. A cot and red blankets.
“Donations,” Marcos said. The man in his middle twenties was white, European-looking, well-spoken, wearing mud-caked pants. “But never enough for the thousands of people here.”
“Did the city send you out here?”
“The city? Mexico City doesn’t know Bidonville even exists. That is, it knows … but it doesn’t know. The rich just get richer and never look this way. The good bourgeoisie doesn’t want to know of the existence of this other city. A parallel city, but invisible to the others. Bidonville City exists only because TV reporters film it from helicopters. And because police raid it every time there is a drug-related killing in the area.”
“Are there really drug gangs here?”
“People here are more likely victims than pushers. Say, you’re not police, are you? You don’t have that look. But drug cartels and their pushers? No, I don’t think so. Anyway, can I help you?”
“I’m looking for the father of some small children I know. His name is Juan Carlos Morelos. About thirty-five, tall and thin and sickly.”
“Everybody here looks sickly. But not many tall and thin men. Most squat and tiny. But wait a minute! We’ll see.”
From the opening, Marcos whistled sharply. A few minutes later two dark brown boys of eleven or twelve ran up the alley. Marcos confabulated a minute or two with them.
“My intelligence organization,” he said. “If Juan Carlos is here, they’ll find him.”
“Maybe you need some help here. I can contribute some supplies.”
“You want to help? Nobody dares even enter here. But of course, you’re …” A tall shadow dressed in baggy dirty brown pants and shirt suddenly filled the entrance way.
“I’m Morelos,” he said, eyeing Ethan suspiciously.
It happened so fast that Ethan said simply: “I know your children. They need you.”
“I have no children. I have no one … not in this world.”
“You have Nella and you have Juanito, a father-in-law, and now you have me. You have more people in this world than I do. I only want to climb Popocatepetl. Breathe some good air. All of us need it.”
The man stared at Ethan as if he were loco como una cabra. Dressed like a foreigner, visiting him in this hell hole and wants to go mountain climbing, he had to be crazy as hell.
“I couldn’t take care of them. My wife, Laurita … she died. She was real life. I had a job in our home … in Puebla. We had our children. The dirt, the dust, she got sick. With her gone, I began dying too. Los niños are better with Laurita’s padre.”
“Oh, he loves them. Everyone in Coyoacán loves them. But children need their father ….”
“Oh God, look at that!” Ethan exclaimed pointing toward a huge rat sitting on its haunches near the sacks looking at them with glistening eyes. “It’s as big as a cat.”
“Oh, that’s Caesar,” Marcos said picking up an iron rod and moving toward the beast. “No cats in Bidonville. The rats eat them too. Caesar thinks he lives here. I leave grain on a plate for him so he doesn’t attack the sacks of corn meal.” When the rat saw the rod, he watched for a moment as if to determine if Marcos meant business, then judiciously scampered toward them, passed just next to Juan Carlos and out the door.
All three of them then winced at the sudden whining of sirens. Red and yellow lights of police cars swept over the swamp of Bidonville where dark falls earlier than elsewhere. Leapfrogging searchlights from a helicopter swept up and down the flooded alleys separating the irregular rows of sheds and lean-tos and inundated the room with distorted pale shapes. They heard the police cars ramming random shacks. At each thud of metal against cardboard and tin, Marcos and Juan Carlos shuddered, waiting for the crumbling sound of another structure collapsing over someone’s head. People splashed down the alleys of the unmeasured sprawl.
“Lots of action today! Still, Bidonville is forever fugitive,” a depressed Marcos said, sitting down on a bench along a wall, his hands hanging between his legs. “It expands and shrinks like a dirty giant accordion according to the season and police interventions. Garbage and excrement bob on the black waters in the alleys steeped in slime. Mud crawls everywhere, cold and sticky at night, stinking and fly-infested during the day. Mud seeps under my cardboard door that I prop up at night. But it’s an uneven battle against the filth. Living here inside the reality of Bidonville, I fear I also forget real pity. Nobody pities anybody here.”
Ethan kept slapping at mosquitoes buzzing in his ears, nose and mouth despite the spirals burning in each corner. Juan Carlos stood near the entrance, expressionless as if he didn’t count. Marcos rambled: "Bidonville inhabitants get used to the mosquitoes and the smells but because of the dampness and the night chill at this altitude many are bronchitic or tubercular. Actually police invasions are not frequent. From here it’s hard to imagine that you are in gigantic Mexico City ... that you really exist. Here inside the labyrinth, reality is illusory.
"It’s not the noise and chaos of Mexico that’s remarkable here: it’s the quiet. Nights you can hear the grunts in the darkness of human beings making love. Early today an anonymous tip signaled two bodies dumped in a ditch inside the perimeter of Bidonville. A police journalist told me drug lords had assassinated two rival dealers. So police are imparting a lesson to Bidonville as if it were responsible.
“Bidonville is the bottom of the world. The rejects of the visible world gather here. But it’s an invisible world. Its inhabitants are invisible … or they exist only in their dreams. Though they might dream of a better life, day-by-day real life slips through their fingers. When I walk in the dark alleyways here, I flick my flashlight to scare away the very visible rats. Yet, though most people here are poor in imagination of a better life, a few are rich in a kind of innate brilliance. A few make it!”
Ethan and Juan Carlos taxied back to Coyoacán. New clothes and a shower in Ethan’s quarters, and Juan Carlos was a new man. Dressed in khaki and with clean black hair, though extremely pale there was something special about him. Curiosity had reawakened in his black eyes. Ethan decided Juan was a descendant of the Toltecs. Known for their immaculate ways, their wisdom, the clarity of their speech, Toltec peoples were artistic and great warriors. Bidonville had nearly eradicated those innate characteristics but the real Juan was reviving. Maybe, Ethan thought, he’s destined to be a great writer … or a realist painter.
Juan’s curious eyes swept over the café on the plaza. For the first time he was meeting the West. Ethan saw in the scene confirmation that Mexico is Western … and it is not. In Mexico City you see Western civilization. But in the dances of the Concheros on Plaza Mayor he’d seen reflections of the other Mexico to which Juan Carlos belonged. Though the indigenous people are numerous, nearly all speak Spanish. Mexico is a country between two civilizations—one Western, the other indigenous—and between two pasts—one Spanish and the other pre-Hispanic. In his El Laberinto de la Soledad, Octavio Paz writes that just as behind the Greeks stood the Egyptians or behind the Romans stood the Etruscans, behind the Aztecs and the Spanish conquerors that formed today’s Mexicans there stand millennia of peoples in a long and dizzying past. Mexico is different. People on this plateau have always been different. Aztecs emphasized their otherness—in their language and dress, and in their strange culture including human sacrifice. Ghoulish priests covered in blood cutting out human hearts on the killing stones at the top of their pyramids. They wanted to be different. Spartan people, they considered others inferior, stupid and comical.
“We’ll be here tomorrow when your children and father-in-law come,” Ethan promised. Juan smiled when Ethan added: “They always stand just across the street under that Ash tree.”
Lermontov wrote of flowers which the more you look after them, the less they respond to your efforts. Such had become Ethan’s relationship with his wife, Guadalupe. The more he loved her, the less she responded to his love. He had given up his old way of life and moved to her country to care for the woman he loved, leaving his job in Europe and accepting the minor role in their relationship. His new role in his still undetermined life was dedicated to his “Lupe”.
In their early years together in Italy, beautiful Guadalupe with her long dark hair was angelic. But back in her homeland she had acquired the bewildering capacity to transform into a demon. Maybe it had to do with the ancient history of the Mexico City suburb where they lived. Coyoacán—place of the coyotes—built on the site of a pre-Colombian settlement from which the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés launched that final attack on Tenochtitlan. The dream city fell and is now named Mexico City.
Ethan loved Coyoacán. And he loved Guadalupe. He loved walking by Frida Kahlo’s Blue House just around the corner from the café. Life’s satisfactions were no longer measured according to the same standards he’d known before. Life seemed to have reached a higher plane, even though he sensed that its finest qualities still escaped him. In any case, position and influence no longer existed. But he had his extended family to care for: Juan Carlos, two small children and their grandfather. Still, his life in this new Old World was frustrating and Guadalupe was no longer the loving woman she’d once been.
He was truly puzzled. It seemed less a question of place than he’d thought—whether in Italy where they’d lived, or here in her family house in the historic center of Coyoacán—but of the length of their time together and their proximity one to the other. And he recalled the old adage: ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’
Ethan’s existential situation was peculiar. He spoke the language but the country where he’d re-settled was a hazy unknown. He’d always spoken Spanish with Lupe and he’d been here with her on visits. But visits were one thing, permanent residence another. It was strange to hear what in Italy had been their somewhat secret language spoken everywhere.
Even the flight from Europe to Mexico several months earlier was different … this time a one-way trip. Ethan had perceived the approach to the triangle of Mexico as a metaphysical happening. After overflying the Rio Grande the earthen mass below rose upwards toward the heavens. Mountainous ridges swelled and tumbled forward from western skies like huge oceanic waves. And his past too skipped away across spinning gossamer clouds. Invisible worlds zoomed around him. Mexico narrowed and the sky retreated heavenwards. And the bluish mountains filling the triangular plateau called Mesoamerica formed a gigantic pyramid surrounded by the seas. It was the top of the world where time stood still. He’d felt a sensation of dizzying power and the mystery of the unknown.
Ethan too had wanted the move. It was time to go beyond Italy, beyond Europe. He thought moving to Mexico must be like going to war used to be for young men—escape from the dead-end-you of home when your hopes begin to decline and your dreams fade and you are ready to do almost anything to survive. He’d thought of their move as a move toward a new form of sanity in a disordered world, an attempt to get a handle on his life. To acquire a generalized awareness. But that, he now realized, was utopian thinking … in a way more terrible than his usual out-of-tuneness and solitude.
For his survival in this new life he had to change his whole existence. Undertake something new. Reestablish a healthy spatial distance between Guadalupe and himself as his work had done in Italy. A buffer zone could save them. He had to isolate a block of time and space for himself. A time during which he could become a separate entity, independent of Lupe and her world.
So he’d set about creating his space. He now had a lost Toltec in his charge. He had another family that needed him. But he still suffered disorientation. And anxiety. He felt strange new impulses like his fixation on Popcatepetl. He knew that in every couple one loved more than the other. And since he was the one whose love—and dependence—was the greater, he suffered more from the widening distance between them. She had her world; he still had to construct his. Missing in his lonely world was a genuine passion that was not Guadalupe.
Marcos in Bidonville had said that people in one district of this city never knew what people in other parts were doing—twenty-five million people? Thirty million? No one knew. A mystery. The city’s immensity truly merited a gigantic volcanic mountain with the fitting name of Popocatepetl or Smoking Mountain even if it remained hidden from view. Shy today, one day Popo will reveal itself.
An experienced urban walker, Ethan decided to plot this gigantic city—his new space. A challenging venture. He saw that people of suburban Coyoacán thought of the center of the Old City at Plaza Mayor as a foreign country. People in western parts of the city knew nothing of the eastern districts. Some days he just wandered around the city too huge to see whole. Mexico City-Tenochtitlan was visible … but not as a whole. Its peoples—battling traffic, assuring personal security, drunk on weekends and fighting for physical survival—showed no signs of knowing what life was about. The great Valley of Mexico seemed like the final stage of the madness of civilized man, Aztecan Tenochtitlan was suspended between the rich West and the Fourth World. He would unite this disunited city … conceptually: he set out to walk the length of Insurgentes, the great avenue that formed a 28.8 kilometer long north-south axis dividing the city into two halves like Broadway in Manhattan. Plodding northwards through the heavy mists: kilometers of slim colored glass skyscrapers, the vanguard of modernity even though Mexico itself was still a political caveman … a capitalist semi-dictatorship based on corruption and retention of power. Underpasses and traffic circles, carbon monoxide and incessant traffic. The white marble of the Bellas Artes Museum didn’t ameliorate the pollution or reduce the infernal noise or calm Mexico’s dust. Nor did the dainty delicacies of Sanborn’s restaurants or Starbucks or Burger King or the revolutionary murals of David Siquieros, Diego Rivera and Clemente Orozco make the water potable. The delightful spring temperatures didn’t freshen smog-filled throats. And the blasé rich in Zona Rosa restaurants ignored the withered women on the streets rationing tortillas to tiny children.
But somehow, Ethan thought, Mexico is not decadent as were the Aztecs at the time the Spanish arrived. Mexico can rise again. It’s a viable society of young ambitious people, a country on its way up.
At one point on Insurgentes Nord he was half singing, half reciting ’Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel, Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own…. when he heard jazz from a bar identified as Bar Americano. He stopped at the wide open window and heard another music from the past: Dave Brubeck. He hummed along to the end. The radio DJ announced they’d just heard Poor Butterfly … and then translated the title as Pobre Mariposa. Ethan thought Poor Butterfly was more romantically melancholy. He added the Bar Americano and the song titles to his notes where he listed names of streets and buildings and bus stations and museums and restaurants, accumulating a mass of unrelated raw data … but he never succeeded in linking in his mind the countless divisions of the city. Never reached the north end of the avenida.
Juan Carlos moved into the apartment with his children and father-in-law, Victor Ibarra Villalobos. It was the first floor of a two-story house near the Frida Kahlo Blue House Museum, an apartment that a Coyoacán social organization had awarded him years earlier for unspecified outstanding services to the community. Ethan still called Victor “Professor”, who although he never acknowledged that he was once a history professor, he knew a lot about many things ranging from ancient Mexico to the socio-political sciences.
Victor Ibarra’s contacts among the café crowd succeeded in creating the position of gardener of the communal park opposite the café for Juan Carlos. And there soon appeared posters and signs around the Coyoacán center announcing upcoming lectures by Professor Victor Ibarra Villalobos in the township auditorium.
“Well!”, Ethan exclaimed, suppressing a mild reproof of Victor’s reticence about his background. “Who are you?”
“It’s complicated,” Victor said softly, and spreading his hands as if in regret of a whole life … but without further explanations of his cryptic words. “We’ll see after the two talks I will present.”
“We’ll see what?”
“We’ll see where we go from here.”
Ethan’s relations with both Victor and Juan Carlos were close, their house his second home. When he came the children danced around him in expectation of the red and green ices he brought and they called him Tio Etan. And Juan Carlos always said: "Mi casa es tu casa.
Victor’s public lectures were sensational events among the people of Coyoacán. The auditorium was packed. Juan Carlos, Juanito, Nella and Ethan had the best seats in the front row together with communal dignitaries, academics and intellectuals eager to hear Professor Ibarra’s well-known lessons again. Ethan gradually became aware of a certain nostalgia pervading the front rows as if for the return from exile of a prodigal son. People were unusually attentive and little chatter was heard before Professor Ibarra stepped from the wings, greeted by a ripple of a hesitant applause.
Ethan was still mystified. Where had Victor been? What had he done to alienate himself for perhaps years?
“I will begin at the end,” were Victor’s first words at which someone just behind Ethan said softly: “Hurrah!” "But first I extend my gratitude to those true friends who made this my, umm, my return possible. You know who you are as do I.
"This evening however I have decided to risk all—again—and send an oral message to Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s President. ‘Despite many warnings—including mine—Amlo, as we call you, you made the pilgrimage to Washington and signed also in my name a meaningless trade pact. The first step toward another surrender. I warned you, dear President, many times: Do not go, Amlo. But you went. Do not go, Amlo, I warned. Do not drink the Kool Aid, Amlo. Do not eat the forbidden fruit, Amlo. But you went and drank and ate. Do not let yourself be branded with the mark of the beast, Amlo. But you did. And you are now branded, Amlo. Therefore the curse will now pour upon us Mexicans. Accursed by the Spanish, now accursed again and again and again by the Yankees. Doom hangs heavy over us. When the empire of all empires in Washington falls, so will our beloved Mexico fall, again.’
"Dear friends I cannot help but think of Tezcatlipoca that terrible eagle god of ancient Mexicans who is still alive for many of us. God of the gods, the unpredictable god of human destiny, who continually erupts in the lives of his creations. In his obsidian mirror Tezcatlipoca sees dreamlike images of the deeds of men on earth and obscure visions of future events. Like Yahweh, capricious Tezcatlipoca praises men one moment and punishes them the next. He makes life on earth a dream, and then from another dream creates another life. In the mad god’s vision we’re fleeting and insignificant.
“The Norteamericanos are today a vanishing people. An egotistic and narcissist people. But our history shows that we Mexicans are a universal people. On the other hand the reality of Mexican destiny makes you wonder if it’s positive to be so universal that you can accept anything philosophically. For no more than has its toxic proximity to the USA, universality has not brought great fortune to Mexico. It seems that only the most ancient peoples are capable of being simply men. Men who don’t strive for perfection and just lead good lives are universal without realizing it. It makes them free … but at the same time vulnerable to the claws of the hawks.”
Professor Ibarra’s two speeches stirred up considerable talk among the café people. He still came each afternoon, now to the café itself, as a rule with Ethan or the guest of one or another. An “Ibarra circle” was forming. There was an aura of mystery about him. Many words
were spoken about Amlo’s Washington trip and the expected long-range ramifications on Mexico itself. The border wall was still on people’s minds, which the more cynical believed Mexico would end up paying for. According to some of the café crowd Lopez Obrador had detailed reports on Ibarra’s dire forecasts for the homeland. Ethan was surprised to learn that Ibarra and the President were former “comrades”. Yet, while Ibarra vanished into oblivion Lopez Obrador went on to become the leader of the national center-left party and now President of the Republic.
One day as they sat in the café together chatting about one thing or the other Ethan realized that he had begun imitating Professor Ibarra. So elegant in spirit and movement, Ibarra had a way of sitting so composed and self-assured reflecting the unusual qualities that Ethan aspired to. When Ethan told him about the song Poor Butterfly he’d heard on Avenida Insurgentes, the Professor said that the song goes far back and that he too preferred the English title.
“The song writer had a real duende that you don’t hear in the title Pobre Mariposa.”
Ethan stared at him in surprise. “Is there anything you don’t know?” he asked, truly flabbergasted.
“I’ve lived a full life … in many places. What can you expect?”
For a change they were drinking mojitos. Victor lifted his glass and murmured, “a remembrance of times past.”
When Ethan asked which times, Victor told him all: “My father, Manuel Ibarra, was a leader of the student protests in 1968 against the huge sums spent on the Olympic Games that year in Mexico while its people lived in poverty. He penned the slogan No queremos Olimpiadas, queremos revolución. When the army opened fire on the ten thousand students gathered on La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, they killed hundreds of students including my father. The army stacked the bodies for all to see on the square, over a thousand, some said. Their only crime was agitation. I grew up with that memory. When I spoke about it in elections decades later against the same corrupt political system, they exiled me. I went to Cuba. Then to France and finally to the USA. And now I’m back! All of that is packed in my message to President Lopez Obrador … our dear Amlo.”
“Victor, er, Professor Ibarra,” Ethan exclaimed, “you should be the President of this country yourself.”
“Oh, so you have heard. In fact, a new Coyoacán Electoral Committee has been created and its most influential members want to propose my candidacy to the Party secretariat. Apparently I have the right skin color,” he chuckled. “Neither Spanish white nor indigenous brown. I’m the politically correct color. I have accepted in principle. So it’s now uphill work full-time.”
Weeks passed and Victor was mostly absent. October was ending. The mists grew heavier, nuanced, unreadable, taking at times eerie shades of yellow and green. Every day Ethan checked the skies with ever lessening optimism for a visible sign of the presence of Popocatepetl. One evening he and Juan Carlos were sipping Coronas at the café when Ethan again proposed a hike up the trails of the Smoking Mountain. “You have holidays next week. Let’s go now. Winter will soon arrive.”
“Popo is closed to hikers. Too dangerous. Eruptions are still predicted. You know that story.”
“Juan Carlos, you lived in Puebla, practically under Popo so you must know the secret trails … the uncontrolled ones. The crater is 5,426 meters high. The map shows we can drive to the Paso de Cortes and on to Tlamacas at about 3,000 meters. If we hear any rumbles we can just drive away. Hikers’ guides calculate it’s only a six-hour walk to the top. Think about it, Juan, the top of the world! And we’ll know it’s really there.”
“Oh, it’s there, Ethan. I’ve been there. It’s there. But it’s forbidden. Why don’t you just go with an organized tourist group.”
“What! Me, on a tourist jaunt! Anyway it’s not only to make sure Popocatepetl is there. Listen, Juan Carlos, amigo mio. I’ve just got to get to the top of the world. I have to. Just one time. Then we can get busy and help your father-law get back on the political ladder … and become the President of Mexico. You know he is already a candidate. President of Mexico, Juan Carlos! President!”
“They organize hikes in Puebla too,” Juan Carlos added weakly. “It’s the easiest. Uh, is Victor really a candidate?”
“Yes, but they won’t go up Popocatepetl. It’s forbidden. And yes, Victor Ibarra is the candidate of the Coyoacán Presidential Committee.”
“Yes, forbidden. But they will take you up Iztaccihuatl and you can see Popo perfectly.”
“And also La Malinche. But that’s not the same thing, you know that, Juan Carlos. Not the same thing at all.”
“No, de acuerdo, that’s not the same thing.”
“You have to understand that it’s not only to make sure it’s there. Listen, my friend, you’ve been there. Maybe many times. You’re a Toltec. You know many things. Maybe you know what the top of the world is like. Now I have to know too. I’ve just got to get to the top of the world. I have to. Just one time. Victor will maybe become President but I have to see the top.”
“No, looking at Popocatepetl from Iztaccihuatl or Malinche is not the same as climbing Popo,” Juan Carlos repeated.
Ethan looked at his friend closely. It was hard to remember that only a few months ago he’d been withering away in Bidonville. Now he was nearly convinced to go with him on this mad mountain climbing jaunt.
“Ok,” Ethan said. “You go as far as Tlamacas. Then I’ll walk to the top alone. I don’t mind going to the top of the world alone. Not at all.”
Ethan turned and waved at the Toltec standing now with his hands on his hips and a false smile on his pale narrow face. Juan Carlos lifted one arm in a weak salute and sat back down on the straight chair in front of the abandoned lodge. Ethan knew he would sit there to await his return in the tranquil immobility of which only ancient peoples are capable. He believed Juan Carlos had finally understood that it was a matter of existential significance: he understood that Ethan had to go to the top.
Ethan looked upwards: the dense pine forest was pleasant like a cool appetizer at lunchtime on a hot day in the Rome countryside. He zipped up the light sweater he’d started with. The traces of the trail worn by many feet before him were nearly erased by liberated vegetation and gray ash. He thought that even when the trail finally became invisible it would still exist and in some future would re-live and carry others to the top of the world.
When the trees began thinning, he felt a pleasant chill despite the exertion of the climb. When he passed the last trees of the timberline, vast Alpine meadows opened before him. And when he stopped for his first unobstructed view of Popocatepetl, he felt a slight tremor and heard the low intensity explosion above him. Aggressively though reverently he accelerated his pace upwards across the meadows. He smiled at the plumes of ash. The earth moved under his feet. The whole world was in movement. He was higher than five thousand meters. Much higher. He no longer felt the cold. He put on another sweater and a skull cap anyway. He looked up at the summit and felt ash falling on his shoulders. It was the ecstasy of the heretic singing glory to God while burning at the stake that made him insensitive to fatigue and pain. Subsequent explosions and smoke plumes only excited him more. He had reached the summit of the world; It justified, and destroyed, his life.