SITTING ON THE STREET in front of a display of bras, she caked on mascara with a delicate wand, repeating the motion until the inky black accumulated, clung to her lashes. The tits (for they were tits and not breasts) hung on display, a dismembered section of a female mannequin cut from diaphragm to neck. The tits were the size of bowling balls, as pointy as cones, and they floated independent of any body, covered in turquoise, red, pink, and orange lace — a bloom of some kind of feminine. The girl’s lashes were fortified and seemingly impenetrable, but they began to wilt under the weight of accumulated mascara. “Do you love me? Do you love me more?” she seemed to ask with each flick of the wrist as she continued to construct the dark scaffolding around her eyes.
I saw her as I was passing through la calle de belleza, the street of beauty, in the La Merced neighborhood of Mexico City. I was living with Bea, my second mamá mexicana, at the time; she was the best friend of my first mamá mexicana, Paty. Bea and Paty spent long Sunday afternoons drinking beer, telling stories, and laughing with wild abandon. I wanted to have what they had when I grew old.
But with whom? That spring, the love I thought I’d had fled my life. After he was gone, Bea saw me cry over my tacos, over my computer, even on the metro — for weeks. She knew that I was stuck, that I had lost my narrative, and so she invited me to La Merced, where she worked, to participate in a photography workshop. The neighborhood, the oldest in Mexico City, was defined by prostitution, poverty, and crime, but I had been there before with Bea, and I felt at home among the decrepit buildings that had housed seven and eight generations of the same families. There is no one story of La Merced. It is a suffocation, a demented tangle of bodies, voices, stories. That’s what I wanted to get at, the sea in which I wanted to drown.
On the first day of the photography workshop, I walked down the street of beauty with Mexican photographer Juan San Juan and a group of teenagers from La Merced. Juan San Juan was leading a photography workshop and had let us loose in the neighborhood to discover our photographic eye. According to Bea, I was a volunteer, but I felt more like a kid as I walked the streets with seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds and dove into the lives of others in the neighborhood for the first time.
On la calle de belleza, the dark eyebrows and eyelashes of women of all ages were covered in opaque tape, and some of them sat motionless as young women applied wax to their lips, chin, nose, stomach, or legs and then ripped out the hairs at their root. As I watched the women get waxed, Juan San Juan began to tell me a story.
- “A few weeks ago I was here, and in the distance, I saw a young woman lying on a table in the middle of the street. They were applying wax to the curly hair around her bellybutton. As I approached the table, I felt the soft flesh of feminine bodies push against mine; our sweat mingled. On the table I saw thin muscular legs, a tiny waist, handfuls of bellybutton hair, the swell of hard breasts, and the wide T of a man’s shoulders: The woman’s bellybutton turned out to belong to a transvestite.”
As we continued down the street, weathered old women, teenage girls in purple silk bras and see-through shirts, and middle-aged women in Tweety Bird T-shirts sat on the side of the street in groups chatting as tape was applied to their eyebrows.
- “What are you doing?” I stopped to ask them.
“We’re straightening our eyebrows. You should try it,” they said, laughing at my confusion.
When they talked of straightening, they used the verb planchar, which literally means “to iron.” They were ironing their brows down, making sure that not even one hair curled out of control. “You can curl your eyelashes permanently too. It lasts a month, but you can’t let them get wet when you take a shower.” I tried to imagine that, not letting my eyelashes get wet when I showered.
My eyes knew nothing but wetness and salt, the days and months of sadness that follow when something lifelong seems to vanish, without reason, without warning. I thought love was writing our own wedding vows, that it was traveling the highways like vagabonds in a turquoise Toyota Corona with a rusted hole in the floor, that it was flowers picked on the side of the road, letters sent in an age when they had become obsolete. We had lived out that love in all its glory.
The eyelashes on la calle de belleza made me think of the women on my daily metro ride who deftly slipped spoons out of their purses and pulled their lashes over the curved edge. They also applied lip liner and liquid eyeliner as the metro car jerked forward at an uneven pace, jarring to a halt sometimes even when we had not reached the next station. Other women plucked their eyebrows clean and drew them on in arcs that lent an expression of constant surprise. I spent hours sweating on the metro in my daily commute, hours standing as bodies crushed in, as the millions in the city attempted to make it to work on time. Often the doors shut on bodies, and people pried them back open. They were under the pressure to enter; the women, under the pressure to conform.
Back on la calle de belleza, women sat on stools in the street as extensions made of real hair were braided painstakingly into their own. I picked out a blue strand and asked the woman to braid it into my hair. I wanted to dye my hair turquoise, but I worried that the academic job market would be judgmental of my choice. Professors had told me exactly what to wear to job interviews: a classic suit, not a dress, and only professional jewelry (it was mentioned that my silver earrings, bought on the streets of Morocco, might not fit that category). One professor told me, “I know a woman who decided to wear a dress to job interviews one year. She was very smart, but she didn’t get hired.”
On display tables, the decapitated hands of mannequins lay in piles, their fake nails gleaming in the sun.
- “Can I take a picture?” I asked the woman behind the table.
“No,” she said, “I don’t want you to steal my nail designs.”
I let out a wild hiccup-like laugh and said, “I can promise you that I am not going to steal your nail designs.”
I stuck out my short, blunt nails, cut to the chase and polishless, as if in proof. I looked at the three-inch fake nails covered in rhinestones, painted in cheetah’s spots, with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with Betty Boop’s face — and I wondered how I would zip my pants, eat my “vitamina T” (tacos, tortas, tamales, and tlacoyos), make a telephone call, or play soccer with those nails. The woman behind the table seemed relieved at the sad sight of my nails, and she smiled and motioned for me to go ahead and take a photo.
His absence haunted me. When he left, I felt I had lost all my stories — of him, of us, of me. To escape the loss, I threw myself deeper into volunteering. I immersed myself in the lives of others. I got to know the youth, los chavos, in La Merced as they participated in filmmaking and writing workshops.
Iván wanted to be a filmmaker. His chubby eight-year-old brother, looking directly into my eyes, told me, “I’m going to be the owner of the cantina La Peninsular” — the place outside of which the boys’ mother, a street vendor, sold her wares. The twins Arnold and Arturo sat on the street corner with their sketchbooks drawing monsters from video games, faces from the neighborhood, and invented phantoms. Jasmin, one of the few teenage girls who participated in workshops, was shy and spent her days helping her family repair “the God children,” the religious figures of baby Jesus that are sold and elaborately clothed.
Luis, at sixteen, had already dropped out of school; like many kids in the neighborhood, financial obligations forced him into the informal work force. Many of the chavos worked as diableros using dollies (known as diablos or “devils”) to run merchandise around the neighborhood. La Merced, the commercial heart of the city, had thousands upon thousands of diableros who many people in the neighborhood said were controlled by mafias. Certain diableros were allowed to go down certain streets, and each knew their geographical perimeters, the invisible boundaries that separated one territory from another.
Erik, at twenty-five, was among the oldest, and he had almost finished high school. However, due to failing his English classes, he never received his degree. In October, at his request, I started tutoring him in English. He wanted to be a journalist and frequently asked me about how to apply to universities or get scholarships.
Ángel appeared at workshops sometimes, wore all black, and did not speak. During the writing workshop I organized, he hung around, but when I asked if he wanted to participate, he shook his head and looked down at the floor. However, later I saw him sitting on top of a desk in the corner of the room writing fluid pages in tiny letters. He handed me several pages, and as I began to read, I realized I was reading the story of how he witnessed his brother getting stabbed to death in a plaza in La Merced. It was a moment when my words would have been meaningless, so I didn’t speak. Ángel, though, spoke to me in a whisper, letting all his sadness spill out, all those pent-up words, all those silences. He told me that that was when he began to cut himself to numb the pain, and he showed me the tiny white scars running up his arm.
When I told a vendor at my local market in Coyoacán that I was going to spend my Saturday in La Merced, he replied, “¿Por qué, guera? La Merced never changes. There are always prostitutes, there is always commerce, and there is always violence.”
The chavos navigated these different tribes in La Merced: the “women of Saint Paul” who worked on San Pablo as prostitutes, the dangerous chineros, and the old men who lay sprawled in seven states of drunken sleep in the square la Aguilita on Saturday mornings. The kids watched out for me; on days when we walked the streets with our cameras, they pointed out los malos.
- “He is a chinero,” said Erik, pointing to a tattooed youth with a hard glassy look in his eyes.
“How do you recognize the threat of violence?” I asked him.
“Everybody who lives here knows what a look implies.”
It made me think of my friend Partam from Afghanistan, and a story he once told me of how he and his sisters fled the country. I retold Partam’s story to Erik as best I could, but I knew even as I was telling it that it was expanding, becoming a beast of my own invention. I told the story with the fluid beauty that I remembered it, not with the broken English Partam had used. Partam said he wanted me to write his stories of Afghanistan because he never would. But every time I retold a story, it was reshaped by my experiences, perceptions, and memories. Was I telling the truth? Was my retelling less a “true story” than the original? Was the truth that I found in it different than the one Partam wanted to convey?
He, the absence, had believed that the difference between fiction and nonfiction was black and white, that memory was a machine that recorded mathematical equations. I never managed to be a machine, to capture things exactly as they had been said, and I felt like a failure. My truth was never “the truth”; it seemed as if life had no room for interpretation, for the influence of the invisible, for the ghosts and hauntings and memories that weave their way into human interactions.
When I told him stories about Mexico City, about La Merced, I wanted to capture the way I experienced the chaos, the way I was haunted by the people, and the way they wove themselves into my imagination and my life. There was no single, clean narrative to offer up. In a world that demanded perfection, that asked for machines and mathematical precision and ironed-down eyebrows and perfectly manicured nails, my voice had no place. Truth had a value, but I was sullying it with my memory, with my failure to write down every word, to record every conversation.
Partam had witnessed the life-blood of our love. Partam was there when he stood barefoot before me and read his vows:
I remember thinking that his vows were more beautiful than mine, that they carried more meaning. Partam was there when I replied,
In his absence, I did not know how to reconfigure myself. All the music I had was actually his. Did I like that music, or did I like it because I loved him? I didn’t know what was of me and what was of him.
To get to La Merced in September on the day of the celebration of the Virgin of la Merced, I took the metro to Pino Suárez and then walked down the San Pablo. At 8:30am on Monday morning, they were already out on the streets. Mostly, you could recognize them by their shoes: They wore five-inch heels in hot pink, in black pleather, in turquoise, covered in rhinestones, with clear heels, with peep toes, with laces that crisscrossed up their calves. As it was cold out on the day of the Virgin, they were in black leggings and worn sweaters. Some were tiny and young, childlike, but with emotionless eyes. They lined the street, standing like statues while merchants and diableros ran by with dollies stacked with boxes of cheese puffs, Day of the Dead decorations, hundreds of pineapples, beer, Coke, and potato chips. Some of the women were old, their wide hips and dimpled thighs evident through thin gray leggings.
I thought of beauty, of love, and I was reminded of a series of photos taken by Mexican photographer Maya Goded. When I interviewed her, she discussed the moments of beauty and friendship the sex workers found in daily life, the relationship between the sex workers and the woman who sold tortillas on the corner, the jokes they told. Whereas I saw dead eyes when I walked down the street, Maya, who lived in La Merced for five years, saw a greater tapestry. Pregnant at the time she began her project, Maya spent five years photographing prostitutes in La Merced, searching to understand the lives of the women of Saint Paul. She said that with her pregnancy came the intense need to explore what it meant to be a woman, what it meant to be reduced to your sex, to be a woman in the least acceptable way. And, at the same time, she wanted to show the full humanity of sex workers.
One of her photos, a black-and-white image that I saw in Maya’s studio a year before I first visited La Merced, showed a rainy street in the neighborhood. When I looked at the image longer, I noticed hundreds of circular indentations on the pavement. Thin, light, translucent — the condoms were almost imperceptible. And yet they told a story, a story of wants and needs, of clients and prostitutes (as Maya called them, sexo-servidoras), of women and their relationship to their bodies.
When I finally walked the streets of La Merced, I discovered that those indentations, which seemed so translucent in the photograph, were in reality silver bottle caps that had been pounded into the pavement by the constant movement and weight of cars. The reality struck me as unfair. I wanted to see condoms piled in the street, to see the evidence of the daily abuse of bodies. I wanted everyone to have to witness it, to count the translucent waste left behind in the wake of the consumption of women.
In another photo, a tiny, gray-haired woman, eyes peering out of thick glasses, lay fully dressed on a bed. Beside her, a man, her client of fifty years, cradled her thighs. The man’s head was nestled atop the woman’s, his eyes closed. After I saw that photo, I thought about it for days, weeks at a time. It wasn’t until much later that I thought, That is love too.
When I interviewed Maya in her photography studio in Coyoacán, she pointed to a photo of a young prostitute in her bedroom, the walls behind her painted with a mural of Santa Claus and a large-breasted woman in white underwear. “There was a drunk who’d lived there for years, and he paid for sex by painting the walls,” she explained. I wondered, Is love a client of fifty years? Is love a drunk who makes love to you and then paints your walls?
Then she showed me an image of a prostitute with her ribcage encased in plaster, her breasts spilling over the white cast. “What is that?” I moved closer to the photo, as if proximity would lead to understanding. My mind went blank. I squinted. I tilted my head sideways. According to Maya, prostitutes sometimes encase their midsection in casts, thereby making it impossible to eat. For as long as they can endure the cast, perhaps a month or two, they consume all their meals through a straw. When Maya first saw the casts she said, “I don’t believe it. How the hell do they work?” However, the women continued to see clients, and between the sweat and the pressure from the cast, they lost weight. It was incredible to me — the lengths they went.
I wanted to talk to the women directly — to hear their stories from their own mouths. But I was told by people in the neighborhood that the women were controlled by a mafia. “You will never be able to talk to them. Even those of us who live in La Merced are segregated from them by the mafias and by the stigma attached to sex work.” Rafael Bonilla, a filmmaker from Mexico City, who made the short film Rojo y Blanco about a protest organized by the prostitutes to demand their human rights, told me that if I interviewed the prostitutes, they would ask, “What do we get for you writing this story and interviewing us? You get a story, your PhD, something, but what do we get?”
My need to communicate with them, to hear their stories, stemmed from an intense yearning to understand what we had in common, how the pressures to be beautiful, make money, and find love (or lust) have driven us to take unexpected measures, to compromise our values and our bodies in some way. Were we women, like the dismembered mannequins on the street, a collection of parts to be made beautiful? In order to communicate with them in an ethical way, I needed to live in La Merced, to spend years in the community, as Maya did, and to contribute to creating meaningful change. I had to ask myself: Did I think that through their stories I would rediscover my own?
There is no one story of love lost, no single, clean narrative to offer up. Sometimes love lost is more philosophical than physical, an unraveling that begins with how we define narratives, how we see the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and how we deal with the imperfections that haunt us all.
The next time I saw some of the sex workers was on that early morning in September, on the Day of the Virgin of La Merced. I arrived to meet friends in the plaza of la Aguilita, and it was cold. I had on my only sweater, some old jeans, and my black Converse.
When Erik arrived, he kissed me on the cheek and said, “You look too fresa. Why didn’t you wear your Saint Jude T-shirt?” He took off his worn brown hoodie with stains and holes all around the edges of the sleeves and gave it to me. I took off my sweater and hid it in my bag, knowing that he was trying to protect me from too much unwanted attention.
After I zipped up the hoodie, we were off to the football stadium–sized market of La Merced with a group of friends from the neighborhood who wanted to see elaborate altars constructed for the Virgin, listen to live music, and dance. At the market, Luisa, who lived in La Merced, asked for permission for us to climb up onto the roof of the market. We walked to the second floor and climbed up a rickety ladder one by one. We followed some teens with huge cups of beer who had a hard time climbing and drinking. The roof was expansive, and from the edge I could see two- and three-story-high walls of black speakers lining the streets, thousands of people dancing, and, in the distance, a sign that said “La lucha contra la trata sigue” (“the fight against human trafficking continues”).
The sex workers participated in a dance contest in front of a giant altar made of fresh flowers and dedicated to the Virgin of La Merced. The altar, which took a week to construct, was complete with a fish tank where goldfish swam beneath the feet of the Virgin. The two hundred meters between the stage where the DJ spinned reggaeton and the altar for the Virgin were packed with tattooed bodies and youth with Big Gulp micheladas (beer, lime, salt, and tomato juice) in their hands.
A group of transvestites was dressed in matching pink shirts decorated with Smurfs, and they danced in unison. Their names were printed on the back of the shirts, and as they twisted and turned, I saw “Chungo,” “Chuy,” and “Lola.” They were surrounded by hundreds of youth dancing with ferocity, as if death were chasing them. There was a frenzy of sweat, matted hair, and tangled limbs.
The music entered and left my body with such force that I felt my heartbeat modifying itself to catch up. When I tried to swallow the strawberry soda handed to me by a vendor, the sound pumped through my body, caught in my throat, and made me choke. I watched the long, tangled hair of a skinny chavo as he danced in his own world. His chest was tattooed with the image of Holy Death. When I looked around, I saw a sea of tattoos of Holy Death.
Where will all our stories go? I asked him in a letter, after he left. Will they disappear?
As I made my way through the press of bodies with Erik and other friends from the neighborhood, I trained my eyes on a guy with long, slicked-back hair and a red bandanna dressed in a giant striped shirt and pants that hung below his butt. He was dancing with a woman with a piercing in each cheek, jeans three sizes too small, and tattoos of devils that crept from her panty line up her back.
“He is a Mara,” Erik leaned in and whispered, referring to a transnational gang that originated in Los Angeles. Whereas I noticed the different street codes, Erik read them. Would I ever be able to read them, too, to feel at home in the community I had plunged into?
It makes me think of my childhood in Arkansas, I wrote, of summers spent walking through the woods, discovering the yellowed husks of insects and the papery, translucent skin of snakes. Perhaps we had to do that, to leave our collective yellowed husk behind and part ways to remember who we are.
I wanted to find out what group of transvestites would win the dance competition, but the crowds formed a wall around the dancers so that I couldn’t see them anymore. And then it was just me in a crowd of strangers, and I was left with my own heartbeat, changing.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]