I chose to take the subway to Mexico City’s great annual book sale as an attempt to save money. It was only a small sacrifice to make in the quest for a deeper understanding of Latin American culture. I was driven to the nearest metro station: Camarones. I lived in the suburbs and needed a car even to get to where public transportation began. Specifically, I was one hour away, in a place called Satélite, which as the name suggests, orbited close enough to the city but remained excluded of all its vibrancy. With the confidence of having already used public transport once before—in Canada—I walked into the station and stared at the map. I stared for fifteen minutes trying to find my tiny shrimp logo (literally, camarones) along the orange line and looking for another station with the Auditorio Nacional. Finally, a middle aged woman with harshly outlined eyebrows, blue eyeshadow and a gray tailored suit offered me some help. She held a chuckle back when I told her where I was going and told me I had to switch to the blue line after a few stations.
I was led to a rather elegant spiral staircase, through which I descended into a complex network of fluorescently lit tunnels that smelled like piss. The walls spoke with melted graffiti slogans. “Ni una menos,” on one of the hallways in purple letters, protesting against mass female murders. Elsewhere; “Vivos se los llevaron vivos los queremos,” demanding the return of the 43 students whom the government (almost certainly) disappeared in Ayotzinapa. Light appeared at the source of a tunnel to announce the arrival of my train.
The woman beside me was on her way to work as an accountant at an office nearby. She told me to stand close to the women’s car (supposed to protect us from sexual harassment) and I did. In the few minutes that we waited, I saw people gathering dangerously close to the edge of the platform. As soon as the train doors opened, the behavior became even more absurd, as rivers of people flooded out of each car, pushing the waiting crowd who, in turn, attempted to propel itself forward into the train. The perfect recipe for groping and mugging. As a result, an inexperienced young man missed his stop and was forced to remain in the subway until we arrived at the next station. I was lucky enough to find a seat and then, off we went into the vortex.
As we moved through the dark maze of tunnels, I looked at the people around me and adapted a game that I also play at restaurants. Usually, I guess how people know each other and what they talk about, but here everyone rode alone and quietly, save for one mother and her baby. I tried guessing where she was going first. Given the large bag with a Winnie the Pooh illustration full of what looked like diapers, a meal and a blanket, I guessed she was going to drop her child off somewhere–maybe at her mother’s place before she left for work, or given that it was a Friday and she appeared to be a single mother, giving her baby for the weekend to the father. Next to her was a man about my age, wearing a wrinkled button-up shirt, headphones loud enough that I could hear a murmur of the rap he was playing, and a large backpack. He was either a university student, waiting to change the world, or someone on his way to a boring cubicle job. That is what I guessed from the passionate anger of his music and the items he carried.
On the next stop something rather surprising happened: a man carrying a gigantic speaker playing banda music jumped into the car and held out pirated music CDs to sell, but no one even looked up. One person, a middle aged man with a Chivas soccer team t-shirt did not wake up from his nap and I worried that he might miss his station—he didn´t, a few stops later he lifted his dangling head, opened his eyes and walked out as if he had never been asleep. I wondered if everyday passengers count stops restlessly in their sleep, like children are said to count sheep. The CD vendor moved from one car to the next, offering his music, and no one paying attention. Two stops later another young man walked in. This time, he was about my age but with a sloppy beard, ragged clothes and a notebook. He asked for everyone’s attention and introduced himself. His name was Juan Carlos; he was a philosophy student at UNAM and he was here to recite his poetry and wake the Mexican people up. But no one really woke up from the trance the journey had put them in. The woman tended her baby, now wailing at the disturbance. The man with a wrinkled t-shirt and loud headphones had developed a sweat spot under his arms and chest. And the sleeping passenger still had a few mores stops to count before he would be forced back into reality.
This reality was segregated from my private education and boring car rides. Nowhere was Latin American culture more palpable than inside our subway system. I was within the books I wanted to read before I had even reached the sale where I would buy them. That was exactly what I wanted. I’d imagined the books I wanted to buy as window from the isolation of my privilege to real Mexican culture. Right there, Latin America lived and breathed beyond imagination. It transpired through the walls of the metro and consumed every single traveler’s expression. I was thirty minutes and fifteen kilometers from Satélite. I finally felt at home.