9:22 p.m. July 3, 2013

El War Nerd en Mexico

It’s less than 24 hours since I reached Mexico City and already I’ve stormed the Heights of Chapultepec. Match that, Winfield Scott. Granted I got here by jet, but that has its privations too. Winfield Scott didn’t have to spend six hours in economy on United next to a hysterical old hippie who kept asking me if I wanted to change seats with him because he’d asked for the window seat I was occupying. I had a clever response for him: “No.” But he squirmed and fidgeted so much that the whole left side of my body is sore from leaning away from him.

The approach to Mexico City made it all worthwhile. We were flying through a lightning storm and it looked like the mountains across the Valley of Mexico were exploding from the inside, like giant geodes in the making. And then the city came in sight through a break in the clouds under us. I’ve never seen a city look like that from the air—like embers, like the floor of the inferno. It’s something about the color of the streetlights in the city’s suburbs. They’re not the rosy amber of most streetlights. They’re bright orange like hot coals, and since the suburbs roll over a series of ridges, it looked like we were crossing raked rows of old fire.

Then a little green gremlin light started winking at the plane. I looked out the window, my precious, strategic window seat, and it winked right into my eye. Some little bastard in the northern suburbs of D.F. owns a green laser like the ones the demonstrators were using in Cairo, and he was play-vaporizing our plane with it, “Nnnnnnnn, gotcha!” Can’t complain too much; I’d’ve done the same myself when I was little.

It was a rough landing. Not from the thunderstorm but because you have to fill out visa and customs forms, and like I always do I forgot a pen. When I finally broke down and asked someone if I could borrow one, this kid, a girl maybe 12, said I could have hers, and could keep it. That was the first of the amazing courtesies I’ve seen here. Today on the way to Chapultepec, I got my hat out of my pocket and my handkerchief fell out. A well-dressed man stopped, picked it up, and handed it to me.

Maybe it’s respect for the aged, because people here seem to think I’m about a hundred years old. I’m sort of used to that; when I told a Saudi student I was 56 he said furiously, “My FATHER not that old!” But here there’s a kindness to it that keeps catching me off-balance. The Saudi kid’s horror I understand; it’s not that far from the California attitude, which is basically, “You must’ve done something bad to let yourself get so disgustingly old.” This is something else.

Of course it’s easy to sentimentalize a new country, generalize from a few good apples. Nothing spoils the whole bunch like a good apple, shining you into disastrous mistakes. All I know is that the only hassles I’ve had so far have been with Customs and Visa clerks (they made me rewrite both forms at the airport)—and those people don’t like me anywhere.

The Metro crowds looked scary at first, but when I fumbled around with the ticket a woman stopped and showed me how to put it in—in English. Gringos may get dickish with this English-only crap, but nobody here has any problem using English when they know it, and a lot of them do. But then “English only” was never really a platform, just a confession: “I can’t learn languages, I got a head like a rock!”

And somehow, that high-school Spanish has popped up, in sympathy, after decades of hibernation. As long as the conversation stays in the present tense, I’m almost as fluent as, say, an eighteen-month old. I went into a stationery story, opened my mouth, and out popped, “Quiero comprar un cuaderno pequeno por el bolsillo.” Nobody was more surprised than I.

That’s not to say I can get the replies. It's the same as Russian here: I can communicate after a fashion, but the replies need to go back to the lab, where processing can take weeks. Much easier to point at the item she was rhapsodizing about and say, “Si, eso.” First day in-country and I’d single-handedly bought a notebook; could Cortez say that?

Notebook in hand I popped up out of the metro at Chapultepec to see where 400 Mexican troops, including 100 teen cadets, tried to stop Scott’s small but very lethal Gringo army on September 13, 1847.

Chapultepec Park (“The biggest urban green area in Latin America” as the signs remind you) spreads out around the base of the illustrious hill of the grasshoppers. And it is green, with 4,000 trees—another stat from the signs, which add, “Abundan los Fresnos.” (Little in-joke there for longtime fans.)

Chapultepec isn’t one of your ordinary dirt hills. It’s more like the kind of escarpments the French loved to put improbable castles on—a small, steep hunk of rock that look like it was designed to be the base of a fortress. You can see it from the hedonistic low-lying zone, as you weave down a path full of photographers ambushing people and then trying to sell them the results. Even there, tempted by the ice-cream vendors and bird-whistle sellers, you’ve got that reminder of grim, hopeless heroism glaring down at you. It’s like the whole park is designed as a nationalistic Stations of the Cross.

Stage two in the morality tale comes when you take a wide pedestrian overpass across a big freeway and boom! Staring you in the face is the monument to the six Niños Héroes, “Boy Heroes,” who refused an order to withdraw and died holding off the Yankees. One of them is supposed to have wrapped the national flag around himself and jumped off the bluff so it wouldn’t fall into the invaders’ hands.

It’s a huge white concrete mass, this monument. That seems to please the families who pose in front to have their pictures taken. After all, if you built the monument, you are in possession. You won the war, if not the battle. That’s the cheery side of a park like this, commemorating a defeat in battle that was not only glorious in itself but part of a larger story that ended in something like victory. Nobody seems to take Chapultepec in a gloomy way except the sullen teens whose parents force them to make the long spiral walk up the hill.

For me, the happiest part of the hike was at the base of the hill where you have the option of turning to the right, away from the spiral to military glory, towards the Museum of Modern Art. I am happy to report that in the long minute or so that I stood watching, exactly two people turned away from the path of virtue toward the skid row of Modern Art. And those two were wearing school uniforms, so I strongly suspect them of doing it under coercion.

The rest of us started the pilgrimage up the long spiral, to the citadel, only to stop while a platoon of Mexican Army men came jogging down the hill chanting in time. I couldn’t catch the chant, but it had a line something like “Y no puedo la servir,” “I can’t serve her/that,” some abstraction like “servility” or “surrender.” Those abstractions tend to be “la” rather than “lo” in Romance languages.

No one cheered when the platoon went by, but people seemed pleased. That was the tone on the Hill of the Grasshoppers: Calm, pleased, generally confident. Considering the history that’s waiting for visitors up there, considering some of the men whose portraits are hung in the galleries. Some of those faces, man—Carlos III, King of Spain, or the devotional series with captions like “Un terror religioso.” And they meant that in a good way.

There’s a kind of family happiness here you don’t see in a lot of places. There’s a downside to that, sure. Guy I knew married a Mexican woman and was pissed off to find out he’d married her whole family and was in for a lifetime of books about the occult and long talks about the evils of the clergy.

But what I saw in the park was the good side of it, teenagers not ashamed or embarrassed to be enjoying their little brothers and sisters. Tough teens, some of them, but not embarrassed at all or thinking they should be with the cool kids instead of their little brothers. Made for a lot of gloomy memories, sweating my way up that path.

As for imagining what the climb was like for the picked ladder crews from Scott’s army, the truth is that when you visit these sites you just realize in a second that those guys were a different species and there is no way on earth you could do what they did. The Americans brought so many ladders that 40 men were climbing at one time. But under fire, and after walking from Texas on short rations—after just reaching adulthood as a hardbitten Scots-Irish southern boy from those times—you wouldn’t even notice a little climb like that.

I did, though—enough to be mighty proud of making it, until I stumbled triumphantly to the ticket booth where the nice lady inside told me, first in Spanish and then, when I did my hit-on-the-head look, in English, “You can take over-60 price, lower.” Over 60? That hurt. Hey, I’m adjusting to puberty, lady; it’s just taken me a half century to make the adjustment.

So I paid full price, 57 pesos, and went into the air conditioning. The first galleries deal with Cortez’s people and Montezuma’s—and the truth is that it’s very hard for a critter from suburban California to understand either of them. The Spaniards…well, what do most of us war nerds know about the Spaniards? That their infantry once terrified opponents; that they hacked their way through Latin America outnumbered God-knows-what to one…and then what? They vanished. They were Teddy Roosevelt’s punching bags. It never made sense to me.

And the Aztecs—how do you deal with them, when the anthropologists are still too touchy to say whether the bodies that piled up at the base of the temples were food or just medical waste? The Aztecs exist in our muddled heads as these weirdos who went from an apocalyptic death cult to stoic peasant victims in one generation, with no recorded comments on the transition. When Cortez met Montezuma, chaos met chaos—maybe not in reality, but in my head, and that’s all I have.

The one part of Spain you can still get is the religion. All serious religions look alike. They wear black; they’re scary and unwelcoming unless you’re already inside; they make pain seem kind of interesting, worth checking out. There are portraits up on that hill showing Mexican nuns from the 16th century, women who were geniuses, some of them, polymath monsters—and their portraits compress the whole exploding torture of their lives into the oblong of face that shows, with everything else wrapped up in their Shi’ite black hijabs. Once you’ve seen the nuns’ portraits on Chapultepec, you’ll never be able to look at a goddamn Frida Kahlo painting without thinking, “You cheap commie middlebrow plagiarist, ripping off centuries of cloistered, wasted brilliance to tell us you had a bad night with Diego.”

Sometimes the exhibits don’t even need to show a face. There’s one that’s just a black cape labeled “Capa Sacerdotal Negra,” and it out-Vaders Darth Vader any day.

All that Spanish and Catholic Ashura comes to a head in one man, Fr. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, whose big angry eyes stare out of dozens of portraits. He’s bald, but not the way most men are bald. Hidalgo is bald like the heat inside his head scorched the hair off, and the leftover heat had to escape through the eyes. You know that scary portrait of Schopenhauer as an old man? Hidalgo looks like a skinnier, less smug version of that.

He had the classic beginning of every Catholic boy who ends up in trouble: They sent him to the Jesuits, who played a very dangerous pedagogical game, nurturing rebel brains in the hope they’d come over to the Order at the end. Hidalgo didn’t have the option of joining the Jesuits, the one order that might have contained him, because the King expelled them in 1767, when he was 14. He carried the Jesuit training for a long time, seething among priests of lesser orders, canine, unimaginative clerics. He was 57 when he made his big move. Remembering that as I looked at the white hair and bald crown in the portraits of him, I wanted to march back outside and tell Ticket Lady, “Hey, Hidalgo gets more space than anybody in there and he was as old as me when he got famous! Didja ask HIM if he wanted the Senior Discount?”

Hidalgo lived openly with a woman and got transferred around a lot as a result. The Inquisition, for a Creole priest, wasn’t a terror, but it was a reminder that he was ruled by dummies he knew from school, mediocrities who called him “Zorro,” “The Fox,” and didn’t mean it as a compliment. And when he looked at the bigger picture, it was the same dynamic on a much bigger, nastier scale: Mexico ruled by a handful of sleazy middlemen who got by on flattering the Spaniards and terrorizing the natives.

Hidalgo’s big bald head finally exploded when they sent him to Dolores in Guanajuato, to replace his brother who’d been priest there. Hidalgo tried to help the locals Peace-Corps style, teaching them every handicraft he could think of.

It didn’t help. There was always a dull, cruel crust of Gachupines (Spaniards) on top, a layer of sleaze below them, and what looked to Hidalgo in his rage like a united “true” Mexico beneath that evil crust, a Mexico that Creoles, Mestizos, and Indios shared. He was wrong about that, as it turned out, but at the age of 57—the prime of life, one might say—on September 16, 1810, he preached the big shout (“Grito”) and started a strange rebellion—very Catholic, very obedient, very conservative in all kinds of ways, but ready to fight the Spanish to the death, your classic jacquerie.

At this point the Chapultepec exhibits shift from grim portraits of Hidalgo to home-made flags and paintings of the Virgin of Chapultepec—from the man who committed arson to the fire itself.

The Virgin is gone from the Anglo world, but I remember her very well from the statue in my room, blue and white, merciful and implacable at once. I would much, much rather have died for her than for the mean dad Jehovah or the weird hippie Christ. It was clear to me they were Protestants, Dad types; it was repellent. She alone, with the fitful flame of the Holy Ghost, amounted to something worth dying for.

I’d forgotten all that, by which I mean “gone to a great deal of trouble to forget it,” until the Chapultepec exhibits showing the various flags under which the doomed rebels died. Units like “El Regimente del Muerte,” whose skull flag, with a black hole carefully sewn in the cranium of the skull—in advance, as it were—marched behind the main standard of Hidalgo’s ragged army: The Virgin herself.

It’s there, in the museum, the actual standard. Bigger than I’d imagined, but that made sense, really, because she was made to be carried, and the gigantic banner with its heavy wooden stand would have been very painful to carry. Again, the Shi’ites will understand; no one else now. This was where the Aztec and the rest of the indios had gone: Into waiting for the Virgin’s hidden imam, who turned out to be this furious bald libertine zorro of a priest.

Those indios weren’t ready to die for Hidalgo. He’s the patron saint of middle-class nationalist men, as far as I can tell. From what I know (and remember) of Catholic jacquerie thinking, if it can be so called, it was the Virgin they were willing to die for. She’s always dark—occluded, a Manichean deity. Jehovah, brassy and rule-bound, owns this world; the Virgin looks down and away, knowing very well—as some of the more level-headed men in Hidalgo’s army must have known—how it was going to end. It had been a few centuries since any force armed mainly with sticks and stones, literal sticks and stones, had won a major victory.

It was over for Hidalgo and the Virgin within a year. Allende and the other sensible men took over military command after a series of defeats, leaving Hidalgo as Imam but putting their trust in rational plans. Which, interestingly, didn’t work any better than necro-mysticism had. All those reasonable men were killed with Hidalgo, who cursed his killers in classic style, telling them he would endure after they were gone. Which, again, was literally true. The more you look at episodes like this, the more uneasy you get at the way the neco-mystics tend to have more accurate pictures of the world than the sensible moderates who try to harness them to a nice middle-class male goal.

As the Hidalgo/Virgen gallery comes to a close you can feel the uneasiness of the curator over what to do with all this. A lot of Mexican public art (and in Mexico “public art” isn’t oxymoronic or dismissive, as it would be for certain nations I could name) consists of trying to detach the apparently valuable part of the story, the heroic bald guy, from the creepy religious fanaticism surrounding it. That’s hopeless, of course, because it seems pretty clear that the dormant indios weren’t marching for Hidalgo or the creoles but the occluded and better universe implied in the Virgin’s sad downward glance. What do you do with that?

And that—here comes the segue—is what I’ll talk about when I make my next pilgrimage, once again on foot like the humble penitent I am, sort of—up Chapultepec to talk about the second half of the long Mexican march.