It’s a curious fact that for all the Mexicans in the United States and the geographic proximity of the two countries, Americans truly understand little about their southern neighbor.
Journalist David Lida does his bit for cross-border comprehension with the book First Stop in the New World.
It sounds like a book about the border but as the subtitle (“Mexico City, the capital of the 21st century”) suggests, it is a portrait of the country’s dominant center and its inhabitants, known commonly as chilangos.
The book is a bold look at Mexico City that is part history, part alternative travel guide, and part social commentary. Most interestingly of all, it is an explanation of how to understand and get the most out of those bits of the capital that can seem so indecipherable to visitors.
Food, drink, police, art, sex, and corruption – and the Mexicans’ complex relationship with them – are just some of the subjects Lida touches on. Even words and phrases that can appear straightforward to outsiders are examined and explained.
Take this example on the word, “No”: “A word most often avoided in Mexico City. If you offer a chilango a cigarette or a cup of coffee, and he doesn’t want it, he will raise his hand, palm facing inward (a symbol of respect) and say gracias – thank you. He will not specify, no, thank you.”
Such observations are priceless to first-time visitors and will bring a smile to the face of anyone who knows Mexico well.
Lida is clearly in the latter group, having lived in his adoptive home for 15 years. But while many visitors see the metropolis of 20 million people as a dark and daunting place, Lida sees a captivating city filled not with stereotypes but ordinary people struggling to get by.
The underlying thread in the book is the city’s social inequality and how that affects relationships here. Lida does a fine job of giving the underclass a voice. His matter-of-fact delivery is a welcome change from the patronizing works sometimes penned by first-world authors on developing nations.
In fact, the book’s strength is Lida’s first-hand account of his own eventful life in Mexico City. He tells of carousing in humble cantinas, riding in cabs with drivers high on crack, and even of being kidnapped.
Yet despite the darker moments, you will put this book down wishing for more.
Andrew Downie is a Monitor correspondent in Brazil.