Growing Up, Writing, and Moving
The first story I ever wrote, “The mole and the molehill,” was about a young girl who kept a diary filled with imaginings so amusing that one night an admiring mole creeps into her room and steals it. The girl confronts him and they strike a bargain: the mole would give the diary back and, in return, receive another for himself. The pages will be blank, she explained, you will have to author your stories. Moles have beaded eyes that make them extremely nearsighted–hardly the ideal animal to depict as a reader or a writer–yet I have grown to identify with this underground creature laboring in darkness, using very small claws to make sense of a bigger world. One week shy of my thirtieth birthday I find myself reminiscing about my hometown, carefully rearranging the earthly walls of my memory into words that allow me to revisit the beginning.
Monterrey is the city of mountains, its name means “the mountain king,” a proper adage for a town where people will incorporate landmasses to give driving directions: “You go towards el Cerro de la Silla , with La Eme on your right, and going opposite from Cerro de las Mitras…If you see Topo Chico, you’re lost.” To the dismay of many environmentalists, these mountains have been mined for more than a century by stone quarries to produce cement. In Mexico, most constructions, including houses, are made of this material, so demand has increased as the population grows. The wide craters resemble the scarring left on a face by chicken pox; the mark of an itch scratched against doctor’s orders. The empty spaces attest the city’s virulent struggle towards progress and industrialization. A similar drive, consumerism, has also lead the city to become heavily polluted.
These battered mountains envelope the everyday life of residents. My 90-year-old grandmother, María Elva, vividly remembers her childhood home shaking whenever there was a detonation. The windows rumbled as if in the middle of a small earthquake, echoing the belic cry of the Mexican National Anthem: “¡Y retiemble en sus centros la tierra al sonoro rugir del cañón!” When I was a child, lying on the bed in my pretty-in-pink bedroom, I daydreamed about the craters in Cerro de las Mitras. I imagined each as a gargantuan pool where I could dive and search for buried treasures. Or I would look for particular shapes in these punch-drunk holes like I did with the clouds that slid by, making nothing into something.
In spite of this repetitive looting, the mountains of Monterrey have continued to work as a natural barrier, breaking hurricanes into smaller storms, protecting its people with their long steadfast arms. Without them Hurricane Gilberto would have devastated the city many times over. It was a category five with winds of up to 183 miles per hour. Monterrey received more than 10 inches of rain in a day and a half, an unusual quantity for a mostly arid climate. I was seven months old when it hit, oblivious to the fear of losing a house or a loved one, and possibly cradled by my mother for most of the ordeal. As I got older, I would notice adults talking about it in disbelief as if the end of the world had come and then, at the last minute, decided to make a U-turn. “Por un pelo de rana calva,” they say in Mexico, meaning, “it was a close one,” although it actually means “short of a bald frog’s single hair.” The people who lived through it would continually point to streets, corners, or bridges and say “this or that used to be here. Gilberto took it with him.”
Years later a hurricane named Alex hit Monterrey. For those who had lived through Gilberto a shared wound had been reopened. Those who, like me, were too young to recall the first blow, finally understood the tales we grew up listening to. For sixty straight hours we were confined to our boarded-up homes hypnotized by the sound of never-ending rain. Everyone waited for an olive leaf that might announce the cease of the downpour, the beginning of a new world. My family was fortunate. We had electricity, provisions for days and our home had no structural damage unlike our neighbor who we helped clumsily hammer a hole in the outer wall of his garden to keep the water from rising. When the sun came out, 12 inches of rain had fallen, enough to permeate the concrete avenues until they slid into the usually dry Santa Catarina River.
Walking through what was left of the city the next day felt like having survived the apocalypse and, in a religious town like Monterrey, this was proof of god’s might and mercy. Catholics found a perfect symbol when a ten-ton 39 foot sculpture of the Virgin Mary positioned at the edge of the Santa Catarina was dragged away by the current and resurfaced five months later underneath the rubble. Once restored, the metal Virgin returned to its original place overseeing the river that had brought her down. The current also dragged many informal and formal businesses residing in the bedrock of the empty furrow. A go-cart track, numerous trading stands, several soccer fields, and the livelihood of the people who commanded them disappeared overnight. Destruction restored the wilderness of the river and reminded the industrial city of its volatile nature. Great civilizations have been born amidst two rivers. My provincial hometown’s recent history rests between Gilberto and Alex.
Birthed in June, Alex was a seasonal anomaly. There are usually no Atlantic hurricanes formed during that month. Likewise, my presence in Monterrey was out of the ordinary. I was there visiting for the summer since I had moved a couple of years before to Mexico City to pursue my undergraduate degree. I experienced the storm as a half-resident, half-visitor centaur. The mountains were not mine anymore. Although my past was solidly grounded in this land, my future was not intertwined with it. I was impacted in a different, lesser way. As if an old friend with whom I had completely lost touch suddenly died, I found myself moving on with less difficulty than expected.
Leaving the first place I called home opened the door to a particular kind of detachment that allowed me to travel light but heightened my sense of not belonging. Every brick I have crafted while building my place in this world is incompatible with the others. Every time, I break the mold and start over. My home is this collection of rickety bricks.