No Hablo Español

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Graphic by Rae Shuman

by Mike Dole

MEH-HE-KO SÍ-TAY, MEH-HE-KO–– I plop my wilting carcass onto a Metro seat. I thank god that not only do I have a place to seat my ass this time, but that I don’t have to worry about clinging to the top of the car to avoid being pushed out when the doors open (an inevitable course of action during rush hour). I’ve ingested numerous cups of coffee by this point in the day––a necessary ritual to keep my body, still unaccustomed to the altitude and smog, functioning past 8 p.m.

I’ve survived four days alone in this megalopolis, and today I carted my suitcase from a modest hotel in the Centro Historico to the apartment of Andrés, the dude I’d be couchsurfing with for the next few days. His home is near Coyoacan, the neighborhood of Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and numerous other prominent culture figures that have lived in Mexico City. I’m accompanying my host’s roommate, Juan Carlos (a playwright himself who had discovered that I was a dramaturg), to a piece of experimental theatre––a solo piece created by one of Juan Carlos’s friends and funded by a grant from the Mexican government. He tells me that this particular performance will be for a small audience and that she wants notes on it, so she can develop it further. My problem?

I don’t speak Spanish.

Juan Carlos and I ride to the Universidad stop at the end of the Linea 3. He hails a taxi cab that will take us to the apartment of the woman performing the piece. We exit the cab and I fork over ten pesos (less than a buck) to Juan Carlos to help pay the fare. After ascending a few flights of stairs, we enter the apartment where a man who appears to be in his twenties greets us with a video camera propped on his shoulder. He utters something to us in Spanish. I have no idea what the fuck he just said. A plastic tarp covers the floor and as I watch Juan Carlos shimmy around it, I assume we’ve been instructed not to step on it.  Five to seven other people populate the room. Once we make our way around the tarp, we greet the women with a customary kiss on the cheek and the men with a handshake.

I nestle into my seat and begin to check out the room while everyone else makes conversation. Six pulleys hang from the ceiling. Each pair of pulleys has a rope strung between them with flashlights dangling from both ends of each of the three ropes. I stare through the threshold into the kitchen where a guy is preparing drinks. He directs a question to us and I turn to Juan Carlos on my left, who tells me that the man has asked us if we’d like a drink or some water. I nod my head and tell Juan Carlos, “Sure.” They hand us a half-full mug of mezcal to share. Juan Carlos takes a few gulps and then hands it to me. I stare into it for a second.

“Drink,” he tells me.

“All of it?” I ask stupidly.

“No,” he says through stifled laughter, “That’s what you do in your country, not what we do here.”

Slightly embarrassed, I take a few sips.

Juan Carlos continues to converse with the others. I sit and listen, only able to discern a few words here and there. I marvel at the sublime sonority of Spanish as my eyes dart back and forth from speaker to speaker. I hear the word “Chicago.” The woman directly in front of me with short, jet black hair, straight bangs, and ruby red lipstick turns around and gives me the up down. Then she goes, “Ohhh” starting with a high pitch and dipping into a lower one in a manner that says to me, “Well, aren’t you fancy?” I smirk at her and bashfully comb my fingers through my hair, unable to respond in any other way. Juan Carlos explains to me what just happened. She said she came from the north (of the country) unlike the other chilangos (residents of Mexico City) in the room, and he informed her that so did I––Chicago.

The chatter eventually diminishes as the fluorescent light illuminating the bare white room is turned off and the flashlights brighten the tarp. The performer emerges from what I assume is the bedroom of this tiny apartment with a suitcase in hand. She sets the luggage downstage left and begins to speak. I understand nothing. She pulls out a dry-erase marker and draws three small circles around the periphery of the tarp. In the center she draws herself into a larger circle. Upstage right she speaks to a teacup and interacts with it––the teacup becomes its own character in the story. She shouts “madre,” which is one of the few words throughout the performance that I’m able to understand. She returns to the center circle. Her speech drips out of her mouth more slowly, punctuated, and forceful. Her body begins to convulse and gyrate. She moves to the circle upstage center. She pulls a flashlight towards her, causing the one attached to the other end of the rope to fly upwards and shed light on a new part of the stage. She sits cross-legged and swings the flashlight forcefully. It begins to circle her and she counters its movement by circling with seeming ease and synchronicity, adjusting to its ever-slowing rhythm. She takes objects from the suitcase, placing them in different circles around the tarp. She pulls out black and white photographs of her body parts from the suitcase. The pictures are labeled with different words. She places the photos in front of her corresponding body parts (all clothed in performance, but nude in the pictures). There are three that resonate with me: “Amor” across her inner thigh, “Maternidad” across her bare breasts, and “Feliz” across her right forearm, which she extends upward in the air. She empties the suitcase and delivers a final monologue. The performance ends and the rest of the room engages in conversation about the piece while I remain silent.

Unable to understand the language, I was forced to create my own narrative. I had watched the story of a girl grappling with issues of maternity and womanhood, unsure whether she should stay where she was at or leave. As we returned to the apartment, I shared my interpretation with Juan Carlos. He told me the actual story was about two girls in a metatheatrical world in which one who had found the suitcase and the other initially owned the suitcase.

A week later I prepare my own suitcase to leave this massive city. I wake up at 5 a.m. in the hostel where I’m now staying due to the pitter-patter of daily Mexico City summer rain against the roof and the indigestion from the chorizo torta I’d devoured before bed. I lie in bed for a while and reflect on my two weeks here. I eventually rise and relieve myself of indigestion, and then decide to ascend to the roof, clad only in my boxers. I gaze at the vastness of this city in the soft morning sunlight that has just begin to peak over the mountains (and through the incessant smog), and I allow the place to hit me in all of its magnitude. It escapes comprehension––like the sweet sounds of Spanish that fall upon my unknowing ears, like the theatrical production I had seen a week earlier. I permit my intellect to surrender and allow the experience to course through my veins, content with what little I understand.

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