..First Glyph

February 23
2:15 p.m.

The Basilica of Guadalupe is a shrine to the Virgin Mary built atop the hill of Tepeyac in the northern part of Mexico City. Tradition has it that the Virgin appeared to a young indigenous man on this hill in 1531, one Juan Diego. Four times she appeared telling Juan Diego she wanted a temple constructed atop that hill. Not until Juan Diego brought proof of her visit, however, did the bishop of Mexico accept the young man's embassy. Wrapping flowers in a cloak, just as the Virgin instructed him, Juan Diego bore the cloak of flowers to the bishop. When Juan Diego opened the cloak before the bishop and the flowers fell to the ground, there, on the inside of the cloak, flashed a striking image of the Virgin. The miracle convinced the bishop. The temple was erected. And still today, with thousands of others, you can visit the shrine and see that very cloak and behold that very image of the Virgin. For almost half a millennium this maguey fiber cloth has survived undecayed. It hangs behind bullet proof glass near the altar of the shrine.

This appearance on the hill of Tepeyac was the Virgin Mary's first appearance in the western hemisphere. The Virgin of Guadalupe is known, accordingly, as the Queen of the Americas. Pilgrims from across Mexico and Latin America come to pray at this shrine. Even on my way to Mexico City I passed a group of these pilgrims. They traveled as bicyclists with placards strapped to their backs announcing their intentions to pedal all the way to the shrine of Guadalupe. I passed them on the highway at about the Veracruz-Puebla border. Their caravan, stretching some ten miles at that point, was led by a pickup truck. The pickup carried a platform in its bed upon which stood a small elaborately adorned statue of the Virgin. It is a good four- hour bus ride to the shrine from where I saw these pilgrims. And that is a mountainous terrain. And this bicycle pilgrimage takes place every lent. These people are very devoted to their Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Basilica is a stirring spiritual space. I'm not sure I can explain why. The interior architecture has something to do with it, the way it pulls your attention upward and high into its brightest point. The mood of the people, too. The old women shuffling on their knees across the flagstone square toward the shrine. The bells. The mumbling of prayers. The singing. That quiet of sanctuary. That reverence. But also there is the psychological aspect. This image of the Virgin is ever-present in Mexico. It permeates the culture, transcends it even. Long before you arrive here, thus, the image has become to you significant. So long before you arrive here you have been predisposed to see the Basilica as significant, as holy. And then you arrive. And the Basilica really lives up to its ideal. And there before you is the venerated image. And so you are stirred. This is not to deny the possibility, of course, that the hill of Tepeyac and the Basilica that sits upon it are indeed a holy sight. I mean, perhaps all this transcendence and predisposition comes from the fact that it is indeed a holy sight. It sure feels like one.

Don't put it past humans to profit from such holiness. At the very gates to the large square that surrounds the shrine throng any number of venders. They peddle images of the Virgin, rosary beads, incense, mementos, crucifixes, and framed copies of Juan Diego's cloak. A few meters outside the gates more established businesses merchandise religious articles and books. Hotels, too, house the many pilgrims. And restaurants, like the one I'm sitting in right now, feed them. And then, of course, the suspicious characters. After I toured the shrine, I wandered through the grounds to find a concession stand at its rear. There, as I approached for a lemonade, a sharp-eyed young man accosted me. He asked me the time. I stopped. I withdrew from my change pocket my timepiece. My timepiece is a small plastic dashboard clock. He was quite disappointed with my timepiece. He didn't even pretend to listen to my answer.

My descriptions of the Basilica are the last I have to gather in Mexico City. I could gather others here, but these are not so dependent on locale. Of poverty, they are, mostly, and of more churches. I've considered staying an extra day to visit the city's contemporary art museum. I've considered taking off a day just to relax before continuing on to Queretaro. The problem is this rash. Still it bothers me. For three or four days now it's been bothering me. It seems to be worsening even. So many red circles. And I can't pinpoint their source. My sheets? But I don't think so. And I've concluded it's not those bugs I discovered. It's a rash, not bites. Anyway, the rash kind of prods me to continue on, as if leaving here might cure it. But I'm thinking it might be the detergent I'm using on my clothes in the bathroom sink. I don't know. I might have to take my clothes to a lavanderia and have them professionally cleaned. I scratchingly went to the pharmacy beneath the hotel to ask for "hidrocortisina." They didn't have any. I was so anxious for relief I bought the cream the man at the counter suggested. A whole night's rent I spent on a cream that only soothes the itch somewhat. I'm not sure what to do. In any event, I'll be leaving Mexico City soon--tomorrow or the next day. So I should tie up a few loose ends:


Mexico will let you die. Go to an archeological site and climb to the top of a pyramid and you will see that there is no rail to keep you from plummeting to your death. How many dangerous tracts of land are there in Mexico unfenced? How many cliffs of unstable earth unposted? If you want to enter a dangerous area, you can. And if you want to risk a climb up a pyramid, you are allowed. But if you injure yourself or die, it's your fault. You cannot sue anyone for your own carelessness here, or for your own inattentiveness, or for your own bad luck. Walking the Mexico City sidewalks, for example, you will often find prodigious holes. Manhole covers removed. Chunks of sidewalk gone. And if you are not paying attention and trip and crack a bone, you have no recourse. You cannot sue. You can only learn to pay closer attention. It feels a little liberating actually to face such pitfalls and avoid them, or even to twist an ankle in a chasm of sand where a sidewalk should have been. There is something more adult in it, more mature. There is no coddling and blame here. There are only people taking responsibility here for their own actions and safety. It seems more grown-up in that way.

Cosmetic surgery

Mexicans with bandages over their noses are a common sight in this city. Ten years ago I suspected the nose-job a fad. I see now that rhinoplasty is more of a cultural constant. On a daily basis you encounter these people. Today it was a well-nourished young man in a gray flannel suit, about twenty-five, proudly sporting his clean white bandage, his banneret for the retrousse. A mark of self- indulgence, maybe it is, of class. Like the expensive addition to the wardrobe. The nicer car.

Non-verbal communication

When I finish this entry I will raise my hand from the counter and scribble on the air with an imaginary pen. I might mouth the words "la cuenta" though they are made redundant by my gesture. The waitress will bring to me then my check.

If you wag your forefinger from side to side in Mexico you are telling someone "no."

If you gently bounce your open hand in front of you, palm inward, knuckles outward, you are saying to someone, "muy amable," or "that's very nice," or "you are very friendly." You see orator's do this to applauding audiences. You see men perched on curbstones do this to autos that let them cross. The white-haired desk clerk in Jalapa did this to me when I checked out of his hotel.

To make a tiny space with your forefinger and thumb, as if to measure something very small means "momentito," or "wait just a moment, please."

And you are not a Mexican male unless you can whistle through your teeth. A man whistled at a crowded street corner yesterday. I watched twenty heads turn toward his whistle. But then he whistled again. For the right head had not turned.

And "pshht pshht," Mexicans will enunciate twice, in quick succession, if they seek your attention. Unless of course you're a pretty woman in the street. Then its a wet kissing sound.

La Ambulantaje

When you come upon a sidewalk impassable for its tables of watches and magazines and pornographic videos and socks and CDs you have come upon la ambulantaje. La ambulantaje are the mobile venders, the micro-businesses of one guy with a card table and a hundred belts who today can be at the corner of Balderas and Madero, and tomorrow in the Chapultepec Metro station. Established business owners are growing more and more perturbed by these vigilante entrepreneurs. For la ambulantaje have taken to hawking their CDs in front of music stores. And their shoes in front of shoe stores. They siphon off customers with cheaper prices and buffed up poorer quality. And they pay no overhead. And they pay no taxes. Attempts have been made by municipal governments in larger cities to regulate them, to round them up and herd them into designated areas. But the ambulant venders are obstreperous. They resist. And with fisticuffs. To corral them is to profane their very spirit, it seems. For they get your business by getting in your way.


On day two of my visit to this city, walking back to my hotel room from the Zócalo, I saw a man standing in front of a restaurant with a full grown African lion. The lion lie on the sidewalk at the end of a very tight leash.

In Veracruz, during Carnival, a family went to the celebrations downtown and left two lion cubs frisking about in their backyard. Neighbors became afraid. They phoned authorities.

Yesterday a little boy was allowed near a caged circus lion in Monterrey. He tried to pet the lion. The lion clawed out one of his eyes.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers