A little girl enjoying un helado in Chapultepec Park near the Paseo de la Reforma--D.F. in 1970s.
DOWN BUT NOT OUT IN PARADISE: SURVIVING ON STRAWBERY JAM AND RAW ONIONS IN MEXICO CITY
By Roberto A. deVillar
All photographs are by and under the copyright of the author.
I. Paradise Found
I loved Mexico City, el DF, as it was known in the mid-1960s. What was there not to love? Especially as I was a student at a private university on the outskirts of Las Lomas de Chapultepec, where I lived, and that had the unique cachet of being the residential zone to the wealthiest of the wealthiest in el DF.
Mario Moreno, better known as Cantinflas, lived behind imposing, yet decorative, walls in the style of most other residences in which ambassadors, bank presidents, entrepreneurs and other members of the stratospherically wealthy lived. Carlos Slim, the richest individual in Latin America and the eighth-richest in the world, lives there today.
Its main streets were tree-lined, with camellones—raised walkways that were cement-bordered islands in which plants, trees and flowers abounded and were religiously tended to, and where one might see the odd passer-by walking in the shade-laden paths—adding to their luxuriant serene beauty, sprinkled with glorietas, in whose mid-street roundabouts were planted combinations of stout palm trees, verdant plants and flowers.
The entrance to Las Lomas, at that time, served as a veritable causeway-cum-desembocadura—experiencing and benefitting from the cultural, economic, social and political vaivén-flow emanating directly from the Federal District’s center by way of the Avenida de la Reforma. La Reforma, earlier known as El Paseo de la Emperatriz during the historically important but temporal blip of the Maximilian period, a beautiful boulevard of literally monumental proportions, lined with elegant statues, iconic edifices designed for cultural and functional activities or historical significance, flowered camellones, fountained glorietas, the singularly magnificent golden Angel de la Independencia at its heart, followed by the sparkling fountain surrounding the exquisitely, sensually sculptured La Diana Cazadora, where both sides of the boulevard shared parallel, immensely wide, decorative sidewalks, seemingly limitless, in which islands of sunlit garden spaces in which children would frolic, nursemaids would stroll while leisurely pushing the prams in which their infant charges lay—and even where El Loco Valdez would lie on one of the many benches dotting the vast veredas, filming one of his many unpredictable, absurdly comic scenes.
Immediately at home along any part of La Reforma, as an undergraduate I would particularly delight in having lunch alone at a corner restaurant near La Diana Cazadora and the Cine Chapultepec, its covered patio entrance facing the boulevard, where, perhaps ironically, I would invariably order pollo a la cazadora, accompanied by bread and butter and a refreshment, and sit calmly eating, thinking, and watching la vida del DF go on about me—all for 12.50 pesos, or one US dollar.
Within a short walking distance from the Cine Chapultepec, there was the Cine Diana and, on the opposite side of the Reforma boulevard, the Cine Latino, where stylishly-dressed patrons, national and international, of all ages met and saw subtitled films mainly from Europe and the United States, all accessible at the same general admission price of 4 pesos, or 32 US cents.
As both pedestrian and automotive currents flowed steadily toward the last fountain, la Fuente de Petroleos, before entering Las Lomas, there stood solidly on the summit of a hill, the historically and culturally rich Castillo de Chapultepec—the same Castle within which the Emperor Maximilian and the Empress Carlota resided during their misguided, short-lived reign (1864-1867). The second emperor of Mexico, an aborted attempt at imperial pretentions that ended tragically due to Napoleon III’s empire-building arrogance and a duplicitous Mexican Conservative Party, who, Iago-like, whispered lies of popular adoration that initially rang true to the naïve ear of the young Maximilian.
A trio of young men at the park fountain
Maximilian, who at 34 years of age, would be abandoned by both France and the Conservative Party, and despite his actions, proposed and conducted, that adhered to the Liberals’ principles of the La Reforma, was summarily executed in 1867 by firing squad by order of Benito Juárez. Maximilian served as a warning to those countries with thoughts of invading its borders—there would be no mercy shown as Mexico, as a land and people, was an inviolate, proud, determined and glorious entity.
The Castillo, seated atop the Nahuatl-named Grasshopper Hill, was surrounded by the Bosque de Chapultepec, itself a favorite and exclusive area of repose and recreation for the pre-Conquest Aztec élite, with its more than 1600 acres. Since 1530—originally by decree of Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor, who was also King of Spain—the area was open to the public, and continues to serve as the putative “lungs” and week-end recreational life of Mexico City denizens.
The Castillo, functioning as a military academy as of 1841, from whose walls the mythic six teen-aged Niños Héroes leapt to their deaths, one with the Mexican flag wrapped around his body, rather than retreat, be defeated and taken prisoner by General Winfield Scott, leader of the US troops that also had, albeit earlier, invaded Mexico City. On September 12 and 13, 1847, US Marines stormed the “Halls of Montezuma” to defeat Santa Anna’s troops who were led by General Nicolás Bravo—14 years before the French invasion under the orders of Napoleon III.
The Reform platform of the Republican Party with Juárez at its head as President did not have the chance to stabilize as Porfirio Díaz, the General who successfully fought alongside the republicans against the imposition of Maximilian, now separated from the Party on the platform of no re-election. By 1876, Díaz had succeeded in a coup and in 1877 became President of Mexico until 1911—with a four-year hiatus (1880-1884)—at which time the Mexican Revolution had begun (1910-1920). Juárez died prematurely in 1872, but had changed the name of El Paseo de la Emperatriz to El Paseo Degollado and allowed open traffic, rather than the restricted traffic under Maximilian, along it. The next President of Mexico, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, from 1872 to 1876, re-initiated the architecturally-, horticulturally- and culturally-spectacular development of the boulevard and had the name changed to its present form, Paseo de la Reforma. But la Reforma’s greatest development occurred in the regime of Porfirio Díaz, which included 77 statues of famous national figures—all male and, except for the figure of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor (1520-1521), and one or two others, virtually no indigenous figures—along a 2.7 mile stretch of the nearly 9-mile boulevard.
Walking along the La Reforma was special to me in another, more personal way. During the30-year Díaz dictatorship known as the Porfiriato, Mexico City, as the Paseo de la Reforma itself, was fashioning itself along the lines of European arts and culture, fashion and modernity—even applying the term “París de América” as a promotional self-reference—as well as integrating US technology and opening itself to major investments from these same areas. It was during this heyday of the global and national élite, that my grandfather—a Basque who was a conductor of primarily classical music, composer of popular music, original arranger of Basque folk music, and pianist—arrived from Bilbao (Vizcaya, Spain) in 1905 to Mexico, where he would reside until September 24, 1914. He was accompanied by his spouse, my grandmother Basilisa, from Santander and two children, Julián and Guadalupe, born in Bilbao and Santander, respectively. Grandfather Julián made his way to Mexico City with a contract and faithful batuta in hand to direct the orchestra of the Teatro Principal in Mexico City, an iconic structure and entertainment venue since 1753.
By 1905, my grandfather, 34 years old at the time, had published 4 volumes of Basque folk music; numerous popular melodies with Spanish (e.g., A Orillas del Nervión; Lejos de Euskaria) and French (e.g., Rose d’Été; Quadrille Basque sur Motifs des Airs du Pays) titles; and a book on musical theory. He also had won competitive awards relating to original compositions of Basque music and founded his own musical academy, Santa Cecilia, in Bilbao. Importantly, he had traveled to the Holy Land, Egypt and the Vatican in 1902 from Bilbao with 228 other Basque pilgrims de ambos sexos to place the first Our Father prayer in the Basque language in the Convent of the Pater Noster at Mont Olive in the Holy Land.
The sad sight of un viejito making his way along a busy street
The 1902 Basque Pilgrimage included a trip to the Vatican to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Pope Leo XIII, the “Workers Pope,” where my grandfather directed choral performances and orchestral versions of opera, as well as performed classical pieces on piano. His compositions and arrangements reached 100, and more continue to be discovered, including The Texans Are Ready, which he composed during the US entry into WWI. He was religious, well-traveled, and a consummate composer-pianist-conductor upon his arrival to Mexico City, and ready to undertake his duties as director of the Teatro Principal orchestra, located on Calle Bolívar 30, a few blocks from el Paseo de la Reforma.
In my grandfather’s other hand, he held a musical piece he had composed and published that same year, 1905, titled Progreso y Libertad, by the publishing house with which he was associated: Sociedad Anónima Casa Dotésio, whose offices were in Madrid, Bilbao, Santander, Barcelona, and Paris. Progreso y Libertad had the following dedication on its front cover: Homenage [sic] al Ilustre General D. PORFIRIO DIAZ.
The colors of the cover represented those of the Mexican flag, and proudly displayed a black and white etching of Don Porfirio Díaz himself, in profile, within a brown frame that had at its top the founding symbol of the Mexican nation, el águila y la serpiente—the conquering eagle with the subjugated serpent held prey in its beak—nested within a laurel branch, the symbol of victory. The score’s cover was a deliberate, unequivocal tribute to the figure and works of President Porfirio Díaz, awash in the vibrant colors of the nation’s flag and its iconic, unique cultural symbol. Moreover, the score cover, title, and the composition itself was an offering to General Díaz, by my grandfather, not in an official status of an immigrant, as he was on leave from a teaching position in Bilbao, but as a formally designated contributor—specifically, as director of the orchestra at the Teatro Principal and as a composer—to the externally-based cultural trajectory and artistic ambience that characterized Mexico City and its immediate surroundings (Puebla, for example).
Throughout the Revolution and well into the mid-1960s, the beauty and function of el Paseo de la Reforma prevailed, sustaining and even enhancing its role as the main artery of the vibrantly pulsating DF. La Reforma virtually connected the heart of Mexico City, specifically La Plaza de la Constitución, but popularly known and referred to as el Zócalo—and before that, Tenochtitlán—to Las Lomas, the nucleus of mainstream developers of the City’s and nation’s financial and political life’s blood resided, together with a sprinkling of wealthy and influential figures representing other career pursuits. And exiting Las Lomas, traveling toward Toluca, at the kilómetro 16 marker, was the entrance to la Universidad de las Américas, previously Mexico City College, which was a converted country club, with a huge terrace overlooking mountains and woods under virtually perennially sunny Mexico City skies, and single-story rows of classrooms dotting its gently rolling landscape, together with a functional, non-descript auditorium, serviceable cafeteria, well-hidden administration offices, and a one-room, bustling post office. [Yes, there was that pesky “rainy season” each July, during which, as fact-mixed-with-legend had it—and I was witness to it--capitalinos could synchronize their watches daily at 4:30pm, as the rain would begin precisely at that time. A small price to pay for paradise.] This near-straight line trajectory from heart to nucleus to, if not mind, then surely a dreamscape, that collectively offered my welcoming senses, my still-fresh, moldable being, a paradisiacal ambiance akin to that which Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883) described in Quatrain XI of his famous translation of the Rubâ’iyât of Omar Khayyâm (1859, and modified to varying degrees by FitzGerald in four subsequent editions):
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness-- Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
But Paradise, as we have read in the Bible and in Milton’s poetry, can well be lost. And such was soon my circumstance as the unforetold cold winds of change swept through my unsuspecting body as the swirling dust of silent despair darkened my ambience, making rubble of my dreamscape and my direction difficult to discern. I did hold, albeit subconsciously, one essential key, clenched tightly to my being, which provided me with a semblance of strength and clarity in this daunting ordeal: I had not reached this stage through falling into temptation. If I had had sufficient prescience, I would have known that whatever I had to go through as a result of my travails, I was not to be damned by exile—although a memorable stint in purgatory might well be in the offing.
II. Trouble in Paradise
In March of 1965, I had met and begun to exclusively date a young woman, four years my junior, born in Mexico City of French and Spanish heritage, who still retained both French and Mexican nationalities. Her family lived in the Colonia Anzures, which was then a small, charming residential neighborhood within a short walking distance both to La Reforma, to the south, and to Polanco, literally up the street a couple of blocks in a westerly direction. Polanco in those days when compared to the serene stillness of Anzures, was also charming, but leisurely bustling and much larger and diverse as there were movie theatres, clubs, stores and businesses, although these served only to enhance its overall privileged residential quality of life. I had been living happily in Las Lomas and in order to live in Anzures, I agreed to move with three classmates, whom I barely knew, to a rented furnished apartment in one of the more narrow blocks of streets having rows of low-rise apartment buildings for renters who could afford the rather high monthly rent being charged and security deposit.
My sharing the apartment—a beautifully furnished, modern, two-bedroom affair with large glass windows—didn’t turn out well, as I found myself with three classmates who quickly would misspend their monthly allowances from their respective parents on entertainment and literally not have sufficient funds to eat well, or sometimes at all. It was a literal case of the grasshopper and the ants, except that they were three grasshoppers and I, one ant. I was not a spendthrift and was accustomed to making ends meet with whatever modest amount I had in my pocket that month due to a check of a fixed amount from my parents. I would laugh to myself at my modest economic circumstance living in the hyper-wealthy context of el DF and later quip that while wealthy young Mexicans would wear their key chains dangling from a pant pocket to show the emblem of the car they drove, I would wear my key chain dangling from my pant pocket to avoid it going through the hole in it.
In my family, while never economically constrained, my parents did not believe in giving their children allowances or even in having them work at odd jobs for pay or experience. I did have and exercise my own initiative and would do things without asking—such as sell packets of flower and vegetable seeds door-to-door when I was around 9 years old before leaving for Spain; however, that particular experience didn’t end well even though I did get to select a “prize” for having sold all my seed packets, and I chose to have them send me my first fishing pole—but that’s another story.
Thus, we—three brothers, three years apart—had grown up without ever having an allowance or even pocket money, which made me wonder throughout my young years how so many of my peers, regardless of their respective economic circumstances, would have money for refreshments, entertainment activities, and even to gamble with at cards, or why they had to undertake certain chores or attain certain grades in exchange for money. While at university, my tuition and books were paid for, as was my room and board—but it was what my parents thought was sufficient for board, and that started out at 20 US dollars per month—and that was meant to cover everything from food, to having my clothes cleaned, to transportation, and even entertainment. I learned to be judicious and frugal when it came to the choice of taking a bus, pesero (collective cab), or walk; what films to watch and ticket prices associated with movie theatre schedules; the night I could take my girlfriend out and where to go; and, on a daily basis, what to buy and eat.
Making flowers by hand to earn a few pesos a day
I remember vividly the occasion that the dramatically distinct modus vivendi between my classmates and me culminated in the near-violent altercation that finally led me to estrange myself from my three apartment mates and find another place to live. On that particular day, there was literally nothing in the refrigerator but what I had purchased to cook and eat that evening, which happened to be a flank steak and peas, along with a tomato, seasoning, bread and butter, and refreshment. There was nothing particularly special about the steak, it was common enough and reasonably priced in Mexico City, simple and quick to cook, and tasty. As I proceeded to cook my meal, which was at that moment relatively elaborate and exclusive, particularly as no one else had anything to eat for dinner, there was a tense, thick stillness in the apartment air. I remember distinctly reflecting that it was not my fault or concern that they had knowingly and laughingly squandered their funds and were now deprived of food, at least until they could call their respective parents and finagle more funds from them. Mine was not a malicious or self-congratulatory reflection, but a matter-of-fact, objective reflection, very much in keeping with my character, which was then, as perhaps now, very hard for many, even friends and family, to understand.
As I sat, under the faint amber light of the kitchen, from the corner of my eye I sensed a threatening shadow lunge quickly toward me, and the immediate, petrifying thought struck me that I was in danger and had no defense. Yet, as surprising and rapid as those two instances were, before a next breath could be taken, another figure leapt into the shadowed scene, who, having somehow grabbed a tool or heavy kitchen utensil with a thick wooden handle, simultaneously pushed the attacker roughly against the tiled kitchen wall to my left, his one arm extended ramrod straight, gripping him, vise-like, his hand’s fanned-out fingers firmly locked on the offender’s chest, and his other arm lifted above his shoulder, pulled back, ready to strike.
The world seemed to stop at that moment, yet there was a palpable trembling winding its way throughout the scene, holding us tautly together, in place, straining to snap, to explode. At that instant, my defender’s deep, hollow, staccato voice shattered the petrifying silence warning his pinned, startled prey that any next move on his part would be his last. And, as quickly as the threatening scene had arisen, it dissipated, with my attacking roommate’s body folding inward, deflated and spent, and the arms of my defender relaxing, dropping, and remaining awkwardly limp at his sides, the once-menacing handle precariously dangling from his loosened grip. The kitchen emptied, of roommates, of danger, and I stayed to consume my supper in silence, somehow sensing it would be my last.
As I calmly chewed my bistec, placed peas on my fork, buttered my bolillo, and sipped my refreshing drink, perhaps a soda, I resolved firmly to find a welcoming residence where I could study and eat in peace, and remain in the charmed context of Colonia Anzures. I was too young, too sheltered, too naïve, and certainly too in love with life and love itself, to have thought of the protective, cautionary adage: “Be careful what you wish for.”
III. Paradise Lost: If not a Loaf of Bread, Then be Satisfied Enowwith a Bolillo
The Descent to Purgatory: From Herodoto to Herschel to Hunger
The apartment in which I lived, and now felt the need to leave, was on Calle Herodoto (Herodotus), perhaps six short blocks from the residence of my girlfriend’s house at Lafayette 84. Her street was special in that it was part of a circle composed of six curved streets all named Lafayette, each curve separated by three respective straight streets—Gutenberg, Shakespeare, and Thiers that led to the roundabout at whose center was a fountain; thus, calle Lafayette and the fountained roundabout formed two concentric circles. Even in the vastness of Mexico City, the street’s design was sufficiently remarkable--odd may be a better word—to be well-known.
In pursuit of finding a new room to live, I browsed through the classified ads in newspapers and one day saw that a room with private bathroom and telephone—both unheard of in boarding houses, regardless of location—was available without contract. Even more enticing was the fact that it was located on Calle Herschel, a quiet residential street that was closer still to Lafayette 84. The houses in this neighborhood area were typically Spanish Colonial, white in color, two-story in structure, graced with decorative windows, even stained glass, red tiled roof, and, in between the structure and its protective iron front gate and fence, a very small yard and, commonly, lush bougainvillea crawling and flowing along its façade or fence.
Street corner on Calle Degollado on the Paseo de la Reforma
The houses were stunningly charming, serene and inviting. Adding to this overall charm was the fact that Mexico City neighborhoods such as these—Las Lomas, Polanco, Anzures—were unencumbered by dense traffic, be it foot or vehicle, or by noise. Of course, there were the ambulatory sellers who pushed carts or rode modified bicycles whose unique, strident sounds from their own throats or wooden flutes pierced the quiet air signaling that straw brooms and brushes were available for purchase, or that dull knives or other utensils could be sharpened.
I was, of course, immediately seduced with the captivating prospect of residing in a beautiful house and neighborhood setting that would allow me to have my own room—complete with a small desk—and private bath and telephone, and be even closer to my novia’s house. The downside was an economic one: the monthly rent was more—by $8 US—than what I would pay for a month’s room and board and washing and ironing of my clothes! Simply put, I could not afford it.
Somehow, in my dream-saturated state, I convinced myself that I could manage my finances in such a way that I could live frugally there a month, ride a second-class bus to attend my university classes, find a place to have my clothes washed, see my girlfriend whenever possible, and even eat regularly. I paid the month’s rent in advance, left my old apartment behind, and settled in my room, with the sunny confidence that as soon as a check arrived from my parents, all would go as planned.
In the meantime, I had to change my eating habits and I walked to the nearby tienda de ultramarinos where, with my planned budget in mind and the modest selection of dry goods available, I settled on a very large jar of strawberry jam to tide me over until my check arrived. My plan was simple enough: buy a couple of fresh bolillos at various times during the day and spread strawberry jam on them. I also had sufficient funds to buy a daily canned nectar juice, my favorite choices being durazno (peach) and pera (pear).
Before I could begin taking the bus to my university, the son of the widowed owner of the residence, introduced himself and, knowing that I was at the university and without a car, offered to take me early each morning as he passed by it on the way to his work location. I have to admit that I sensed something unsavory about him—the word slick came to my mind then and now—but I accepted his invitation, especially as it would save me time and money, although I would have to leave a couple of hours earlier than usual.
The next day, I was surprised as he didn’t take a direct route to the university, opting for a slower, circuitous path as he had neglected to inform me that he used his car to transport workers to the factory where he—a “suit”—and they—“obreros”—were employed. They paid for that service and he packed them tightly in the front and back of his sizeable American sedan. After two days, he spoke to me sharply, stating in an accusatory tone that I had been taking advantage of his politeness and it was now time for me to pay my share of the gas as it was not fair to the others.
As I said, slick. I knew that it was he who had set me up, but I did not want to argue with him, so I agreed to a week’s worth of transport, after which time I would find another way to reach my university. Thus, I actually depleted my limited budget rather than enjoy any savings. And in riding that one-way each day with the workers, the stark distinction between our respective upbringing, life-styles, and futures was obvious, even palpable as we sat crammed together, close enough to sense each other’s body aromas. I couldn’t help but feel that they, too, were in on the joke that the owner’s son had played on me, the young, well-dressed and groomed private university student, hapless foreign sucker—and that somehow their glances let me know that I deserved it.
Time passed, and the expected check did not arrive. I wrote my parents why I had moved and the expense associated with it, and they thought that I was actually living too well, spending lavishly, and essentially lying to them about not having received the check. I couldn’t believe that they would think that, but they did have one good reason for having done so: they had received notice from the bank that the check they had sent had been cashed at a bank and endorsed with my signature. I had to admit, that was a convincing case for not believing the contents of my letter. I of course responded immediately that I had not received or endorsed or cashed a check and that there had to be a mistake.
A week or so later, I received their reply, which included the cancelled check with some scribbled, illegible scrawl that was supposed to represent my signature. In other words, someone had received my letter, opened it, taken the check, endorsed it, and cashed it—and my parents thought that someone was me. Naturally, no replacement funds were in the foreseeable future.
I continued to whittle down the contents of the oversized jar of strawberry jam, buying my two bolillos at odd times of the day, and drinking my nectar. But as my funds depleted even further, I had to forsake the nectar juice. My weight began to decrease noticeably and, although I did accept my girlfriend’s invitation to dine at her house on two occasions, I neither shared with her my economically strained circumstance or the fact that I did not have anything but jam and bread to eat.
I vividly recall my stomach roaring, not growling, while I was chatting with her outside her house and her politely insisting, in visible yet mild desperation, that I dine at home with her—but my pride would not let me, so I made an excuse and left. There was a mirror hanging on a wall in my room, and I happened to see my reflection in it one day and was shocked that my facial shape looked like a skull. I was continually hungry, not eating properly, and I was reduced economically to eating jam and bread and drinking water, and no prospects for funds until the beginning of the next month. I remember that in this state I rushed to the corner grocery, which along with dry goods also sold vegetables, to see what I could buy with the small change I had. It is hard to believe, but the only item I could afford that would somehow help fill my empty stomach was a large, white onion—which I had hated since being a child. As a pre-verbal child, I had eaten a very spicy item that led me to not eat anything spicy—including ground black pepper, mustard, or onions—for decades. I remember feeling proud of myself when, at twelve years old, I found I could eat a radish without rejecting it.
Later, I also accepted the flavor of black pepper on food. And standing there in the corner grocery store, with only a few centavos, my hunger got the better of me and I decided to buy the large, white onion, which I took to my room, freed it from its paper wrapping, and, probably without washing it, took it in my hands and bit into it. The onion was juicy and fresh and I relished the new taste that was able to satisfy my hunger at that moment. Raw onions and strawberry jam on a bolillo were not as disparate a combination as one might think.
A horseman at right teaching two youths the art of horseback riding
IV. Paradise Redux Fortunes change from one moment to the next when one is young and time is quite a different dimension, appearing to last forever at one point, or to be over too soon at another. My fortune changed when I received an unexpected letter from my parents in which there was a check for $20, 250 pesos in those days. I sped, wings on my feet, to the bank that was a short walk from the house and cashed it then and there. Backtracking along the same major street, Gutenberg, a couple of blocks from Lafayette 84 and only a couple of more blocks from where I was still living, was a Vaca Negra eatery—a “hot dog and fries, student-friendly” outdoor establishment with a roof but no walls, and a huge circular sign atop the roof on which there was a smiling black cow that moved up and down. There, one could order any type of fountain drink, from Coke to milkshake, or select a sandwich, hot dog, hamburger, or just sit and drink a hot tea of manzanilla or café con leche while chatting comfortably with a friend.
The menu at the Vaca Negra included other plates as well and as I sat there by myself, after looking through its contents, I decided to order huevos revueltos con jamón, which also included diced tomatoes, onions (!), and green peppers—and, of course, a side of corn tortillas. I sat there, immobile and silent, waiting anxiously for my food to be served. And when it came, and as I looked down at my plate of scrambled eggs with ham, diced tomatoes, onion and green peppers, inhaling their combined aromatic essence, I was so grateful, so relieved, that, unexpectedly, and without reservation or sense of embarrassment, I broke down and cried. I literally chewed my food while tears flowed down my face and my eyes shone with near-mystical delight. Scrambled eggs never tasted so good.
It had been a brutally trying month and I had gotten through it, my pride and resolve shaken, but intact. I left the house where I had rented a room, understanding that it was targeting international business and professional clientele on short term assignment in Mexico City, not university students. I found another house in which to rent a room in keeping with my budget, which included breakfast, within a quiet family setting where one member was a working accountant and the young son was a medical student, and where I was the sole renter.
As chance or fate would have it, the house was on calle Bradley, literally around the block from Lafayette 84. And as difficult as it might be to believe, my bedroom window, at the back of the house, overlooking an empty lot that had yet to be built on, faced the front of my girlfriend’s house, and, to make my reality even more magical, her bedroom window.
My month in purgatory, my trial by fire, was over. I was once more renewed, my life in economic and social order, my sights again firmly set on study and walking to my favorite venues along my cherished Paseo de la Reforma. Beyond renewed, my life was actually enhanced as all that I had had before my strawberry jam and raw onion experience was made even more fantastical and delightful by my new residential setting, my room with its view. Yes, I now eschewed strawberry jam as much as I had for decades anything spicy and my parents still felt I had cashed the purloined check despite my protestations to the contrary. Yet, my everyday life as a university student, living en la Colonia Anzures, having resumed my spritely walks, always awe-inspiring, always instructional, por el Paseo de la Reforma, felt charmed, as el DF was once again sans doute paradise enow.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, has written and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs, from his life age 10 to 18 years in Seville, Spain, to this memoir of his days in Mexico City in the 1970s.