Sunday, August 17, 2008

Oooooh Mexico: Lida and Griest on Our Misunderstood Neighbor

'First Stop in the New World' by David Lida and 'Mexican Enough' by Stephanie Elizondo Griest: Fresh takes on an old country

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, August 17, 2008

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

You'll be robbed, kidnapped and probably murdered; the traffic is at a constant 24-hour standstill; the air is so bad that breathing it is like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day; you can't drink the water, the food will give you diarrhea ...

Those aren't slogans you're likely to see on any travel poster for Mexico City. Yet, it's what many Americans believe to be the truth: Mexico is just too dangerous to visit. Besides, isn't all the best stuff Mexico has to offer readily available in San Antonio?

Journalists David Lida and Stephanie Elizondo Griest disagree. The authors of a pair of new books (First Stop in the New World and Mexican Enough, respectively) challenge many of these hoary old clich├ęs.

Mr. Lida, a former New Yorker who has lived nearly 20 years in D.F. (short for Distrito Federal and a nickname for Mexico City), offers his services as an opinionated Virgil through its labyrinthine streets. Reflecting the "improvised, ad-hoc nature of life in Mexico City," he caroms from the enthusiasm of the Chilangos (a mildly offensive slang term for residents of the capital) for the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Mexican national soccer team to the city's poor urban planning and, yes, appalling traffic.

Mr. Lida's method results in a mosaic of life in the city. Highlights of his book are his many brief portraits of the city's cosmopolitan denizens, such as a Brazilian model, a would-be porn mogul and a hip Englishman who opens a Tiki bar.

In Mexican Enough, Stephanie Elizondo Griest describes how on Dec. 30, 2004, she, too, moved to Mexico, motivated by a need to resolve her conflicted feelings about her mixed ethnicity (her mother is Mexican, her father is from Kansas). A Corpus Christi native who rarely visited Mexico, Ms. Griest's goal is to learn Spanish and "Mexicanize" herself.

The result is nearly two-year journey of self-discovery during which she befriends gay activists, seeks out Zapatista rebels in Chiapas and strikers in Oaxaca, and meets countless women abandoned by men who've emigrated to El Norte. She also tracks down ancestors in the town of Cruillas, a place reportedly wiped off the map when its residents were hired by Richard King in 1854 to work on the King Ranch in South Texas. (The story's untrue. However desolate, the town remains.)

Where Mr. Lida's and Ms. Griest's books cross paths is illustrative of their differences: Both describe Aztec re-enactors in Mexico City's Zocolo who offer ritual cleansing through incense. Mr. Lida is cynical about the promised limpia; Ms. Griest finds herself crouching down before them, "Breathing in the blue incense. Watching the Templo Mayor burst out of the pavement. Meditating history."

Discussing Lucha Libre, the carnival-like Mexican form of professional wrestling, Mr. Lida interprets it using the theories of Nobel Prize-winner Octavio Paz; Ms. Griest interviews Bulldog Quintero, a half-deaf, gray-haired luchador who flips through his photo albums and reminisces about his 40-year career.

Where Mr. Lida is breezy, urbane and maintains a journalistic distance, Ms. Griest is earnest and full of wonder, befriending many of her subjects. Mr. Lida can sound like a spoiled urbanite when he bemoans the lack of jazz venues in Mexico City, while Ms. Griest's exertions to cover the "big" issues (immigration, the oppression of the poor) occasionally feels dutiful. And while Mr. Lida's agenda is sociological – he ultimately wants us to see Mexico as an example of a 21st-century hypercity – it becomes a personal paean. Ms. Griest starts on a personal mission but veers into sociological study.

The biggest difference ultimately lies in how the writers perceive themselves: Mr. Lida considers himself a Chilango; Ms. Griest acknowledges she will "never be Mexican, not even if I moved there for the rest of my life."

Each view has its merits, and both books are insightful and entertaining. Read together, they offer a panoramic portrait of our beguiling neighbor, one that will have you dismissing those old, misleading platitudes.

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