MEXICO CITY by Marc Olivier Hatzfeld

Mexico City 03

Photos - Marc Hatzfeld


OCTOBER 1974. I left my luggage at the railway station and looked for a bus going to Coyoacan. My train was leaving six hours later, so I had plenty of time for a quick visit to Hector and get back.

We had shared a finca - a farmhouse - with Hector and some others, near Medellin in Colombia a few years back. Then we had moved to Venezuela while he went to Mexico to teach economics. Camiones, they used to call the buses camiones; and they were indeed trucks, wildly loaded with people hanging from the rails, clusters of happy humanity crossing the city. Coming from South America, Mexico City seemed European with all its avenues, parks, taxis, and monuments.

The journey to Coyoacan was endless. The camion rode along Calle Medellin, Avenida Amores, then Avenida Coyoacan, loading and unloading at every corner. Where the hell else could you find a street dedicated to Loves in the plural? Then, in Coyoacan, no one knew the Barrio del Niño Jesus. Where the hell else could you imagine a neighbourhood named after the baby Jesus?

Finally there I was, but Hector had gone. He didn't live there any more. Where could I find him? We went to the UNAM, the huge central campus of the university; there we roamed for hours from classrooms to offices, leaving notes on the blackboards to Hector. Eventually I slept where he had lived for the past year and ended up staying there for five months.

Mexico City 01

I was travelling with my girlfriend and our little girl, aged two. We settled in this popular courtyard where Roberto y Marcela Díaz had welcomed us, happy to have someone living where Hector had stayed - in a small room loaded with family stuff and covered with a cardboard roof. The courtyard belonged to Otilia, Marcela's mother, a proud lady with aristocratic bearing and probably no more than two very selective dresses. Otilia had five daughters and one son. The son was named Kiko, who dangled his enormous, water-logged head and answering to the queries of Laura who attended him. « Kiko, Kiko, dónde estás ? » Kiko, Kiko, where are you? Kiko would answer instantly. Actually, he couldn't go too far since he was not only embarrassed by his terrible head but also blind. But he was a kind and sensitive boy and everyone loved him there. Everyone, that is his four other sisters.

Nancy was the eldest. She pretended to work in a beauty salon somewhere in town and, as a proof of her good, professional behaviour, she was painted, cheeks, lips, hair and nails, in so many colours that no one would ever dare question the money collected back home. Patricia was the youngest, still a tomboy, short hair and a defiant look in her eyes when coming back late from school. Laura couldn't go work since she was in charge of Kiko. Claudia worked part time as a clerk in a Renault factory to sustain her four year old child who spent his days with Otilia, Kiko and Laura. And Marcela had just married Roberto and had given birth to a new baby, Fabricio. Roberto was the only adult man, but in such a macho country, all authority remained with Otilia's word and grip. She invited us in. And so we settled there.

Zoë was attending the local neighbourhood school in nearby Coyoacan, right behind a fancy restaurant reserved for secret, high-level dinners, located in a 17th century convent called El Convento. I used to participate in the monthly parents' school meeting. Needless to say, I was the only male there. Most mamas were true indigenous ladies with high coppery cheekbones, a thick plait of hair hanging down their back and long dresses like you'd see in western movies; still half rooted in the semi-distant mountains, they spoke a mixture of Spanish and their indigenous language, probably Nahuatl. The lady schoolteacher was delighted to see me and, from time to time, interrupted the hubbub to give me a chance to utter a word. The mamas would smile at me with amusement, listen with respect then resume their chaotic global conversation. Everyone was talking at the same time, loud, sharp and clear. And everyone was probably listening to one another since at the end of the meeting, the school teacher, whose hair wasn't plaited, was satisfied with the result and thanked the audience with many gestures of head and palm.

The topic then, was not only pedagogy and organisation but also the preparation for the upcoming « Día de Los Muertos » when there would be a procession across Coyoacan. All the children were invited to dress up for the occasion and all parents were asked to participate. Our little girl, Zoë, crossed Coyoacan on the Day of the Dead, disguised as a gipsy child, proudly wearing her colourful dress and headscarf as she joined the procession through Coyoacan's central plaza, its Zócalo, the only fair-haired child.

Since the metropolitan police forbade foreigners to sell their crafts in the street, as we had done in South America, we had to find another living. At first we designed, cut and assembled a couple of leather jackets for a pair of cute middle class girls, probably distant friends of friends. One of those friends worked in Televisa, the private TV company. He introduced my girlfriend to his colleagues inside the Televisa building on Christmas Eve. My pretty lady had green eyes and had dressed in a zebu leather suit. She had even worn a pair of glamorous high heels. We had crafted a million bags, wallets, purses, and other handmade stuff in soft leather. She sold everything in two hours and came back with a paper envelope fat with banknotes.

We used the family kitchen where we learnt to distinguish, mix and enjoy all kinds of hot red or green sauces under the emphatic instruction of the local women. There, as all members of the courtyard, or condominium as Roberto called it, we had communal evening diners, sometime with croissants and chocolate, more often with tacos, chilli and avocados.

Hector eventually showed up. He had moved with his new boyfriend, somewhere in San Angel, on the other side of the Avenida Miguel Angel de Quevedo. Everyone knew about Hector's sexual habits and nobody cared. He was Marcela's newborn baby's godfather anyway and thus often busy in the family courtyard, mostly gossiping with a couple of sisters.
Patricia zoomed in every direction as soon as back from school. Laura and Kiko were rolled together by the same constant wave: « Kiko, dónde estás ? » and the same soft answer. Claudia was so exhausted by her many factory-working hours that she only appeared on Sundays like a juicy mermaid just spit out by the Ocean. As for Otilia, she used to dress in the late morning, hair tightly twisted into a bun and depart for some mysterious travels throughout the enormous city. On Saturdays afternoons and Sundays, Roberto worked from dawn till dusk, building his house, stone after stone, with his hands, a spade and a bucket. All day long, neighbourhood women used to come along and chat with one or the other, often one after the other.

On Christmas day, kids were screaming and running throughout Calle Violeta amidst the assembled mob. All the Sunday-dressed adults talked softly with one another in what became a loud murmur. Above their heads, hanging twisted among the garlands of bright papers, large clay jars, the expected piñatas, were waiting for the poles. Marcela introduced me to the neighbours - here is such and such from number 45, here are our cousins from number 16, just round the corner. Tamales were served and we quickly had one stuck into our mouth and another in our hand, our baby girl already familiar with most kids and some big sisters. Many inhabitants of the Calle Violeta had grown up together and knew each other intimately from school and various juvenile entanglements. The Barrio del Niño Jesus was a village that most people didn't bother to leave, even for a ride into town, the journey on the crowded camiones being too much of an exhausting experience. Everyone knew everyone else in the barrio, including us. There were no possible secrets, no hiding places.

Nancy was going from group to group, smiling with her bright cheeks and eyes as if in a make-up demonstration. Kiko remained in Laura's arms, smiling at the chaos. Being the only one daring to build vertically in the vicinity, Roberto played an open minded Niño Jesus bigwheel, his baby cradled in his arms. Kids were running and screaming and getting into mischief until the time came to break the piñatas. Everyone had one go, banging a pole onto the flank of a terracotta jar until it crashed onto the ground with a loud noise and the excited shrieks from adults and children together, all rushing for the sweets and toys spread out on the pavement.

Sometimes a scream would resonate throughout the courtyard: "Basura, basura!" meaning the garbage truck was in sight. The garbage truck had been expected, then awaited, then prayed for so long, while smelly bags and ugly piles accumulated under trees and behind walls. In a second everyone in the street was at work, carrying weeks of leftovers to the truck. On top of the tipper, half a dozen men were catching the bags thrown to them, stamping the content down to gain space and sometimes discovering little treasures that they claimed for their own. The truck didn't stop its slow drive, carrying in its wake a scattering of late cleaners from the previous street running to dispose of their loads of crap. Back in the courtyard, we had the same feeling of cleanliness and relief one gets after having been healed by the dentist, a kind of newly sanitised start, a rebirth.

Mexico City 04

The Calle Violeta had already lost half its length in 1991 when I came back to meet Mara. Probably due to diplomatic reasons, the other half was named after one of the early heroes of the American decolonisation, Toussaint Louverture, the famous general of slave descent who had been foolish enough to believe the emancipation promises that Napoleon had given Haiti. Anyway, only Toussaint was remembered by the new inhabitants of the street, as it could be interpreted as a Dias de Los Muertos (all saints) remembrance; Louverture (the Opening) being paradoxically lost in the celebration process. The other half of the street, to which Roberto belonged, had remained Violeta. In the courtyard where he welcomed me back, he told that Otilia and Kiko had both died. Laura had married and had moved to the other side of the D.F.. Claudia had been married here, had four children but only the drunken memory remained of her long departed husband: no more Ocean for the still juicy mermaid, only a tiny muddy pond. Nancy had opened a small beauty salon in the courtyard. Some tenants were staying where I had lived, except now the roof wasn't cardboard any more but tin.

Roberto's house had gained a full floor in two decades and he, himself. had converted from a distant Roman Catholic faith to the dancing ritual of some mysterious sect. Zipping across the city in his small but serviceable WV, he drove me to meet his dancing master. There, in front of a dusty altar adorned with plastic flowers, Roberto and his mates resurrected some Maya feathered rituals, dancing and dancing for hours before, exhausted, congratulating each other for their recovered indigenous pride. Back in the car and driving slowly to Coyoacan, Roberto wasn't so sure of the authenticity of the ritual, neither was he certain of its healing or political efficiency but, at least, it was a change from fucking colonial priests stuff, he said.

When I went back to the Barrio del Niño Jesus in 2013, the Toussaint and Violeta halves had confusedly intermixed and were now decidedly affluent. Street numbers were carved in brass or enamelled. A servant was cleaning a SUV with profusion of foam and elbow gestures. Generous Bougainvilleas and Bignonias hung from the high walls of some gardens. The street was clean as a crisp copy of a fashion magazine. A couple of well-dressed gentlemen were chatting by number 52 where I thought I would find Roberto. I wasn't sure though, as I didn't really recognise my barrio - all the more so since another floor seemed to have been added to the original house of my memory. None of the chatting gentlemen had heard of Roberto. Roberto? Roberto? asked the cleaning man, he died last month. Yes, after a long disease. No, I don't know which disease. Yes, most of the Diaz Family still live there. Then I noticed that a brand new Nancy Beauty Salon displayed a bright promise of curly hair and shining nails next to number 52. I rang the bell but got no answer. Roberto's time had passed.

Walking back to Coyoacan Zócalo, I stopped in the Coyoacana, a nearby market turned restaurant, to find solace with a couple of tacos. A sexy waitress had me seated in her table area and, when distracted from her fast gestures and smiles I glanced at the customers, many of whom seemed to be middle class buddies out for a good time, some foreigners too, a young blond pair with a baby girl in the next stall. Prices were still low, tortillas tasted of maize and the cooking was perfect. One still had to scribble their order on a sheet of pad handed by the cook in charge. Fanta and Cola were advertised on the walls with the ordering procedures to be followed. Next to me a clean and fat couple were answering calls on their respective cell phones. I switched Coyoacana for Guadalupana, the good old cantina half a block from the Zócalo, a better-suited place for nostalgia. Atop the bouncing entrance of the Guadalupana, the "Entrada prohibida a perros y uniformados" sign had disappeared but the dark atmosphere had remained and Mezcal savoured tough tropical Oaxaca. Behind the bar, the mid-aged, dark-eyed waitress was not sexy but far more attractive to me than the Coyoacana girl and, on my side of the bar, only men, mostly Indian by appearance, sat silently sipping.

On the Zócalo, I couldn't find a Faros cigarette, they had long disappeared; I had a Camel for four pesos, the filtered kind, an extravagance. The merry-go-round was spinning a fresh crop of kids while colored balloons made into loving hearts and Mickey Mouse heads were surrounded by gentle bunches of kids and parents holding hands. Most of the cast iron benches bearing the Coyote arms of Coyoacan were hosting pairs of lovers, lone men or families. Two bronze coyote statues in the middle of the plaza had an air of domesticated wilderness. A shoe-shine boy tried in his best German to convince me that my boots needed a good polish, then gave up on my joking. The front page of the Jornada newspaper had a story of corruption and police abuse regarding a shooting which had left two dead bodies in not so distant Estado de Mexico, close to where Mara had her restaurant now. A pair of neatly dressed Jehovah's Witnesses girls addressed me in German again, offering the opportunity to save my soul. Then, as I dared not throw my Camel butt on the ground, I walked to the bin and lost my bench. My bus took me to Avenida Coyoacan, then Amores, eventually Medellin back home.

Back in the early seventies, Coyoacan market was reputed to be one of the finest in town for mole, the relish sauce often based on chocolate, a national pride. A line of at least two dozens stalls displaying a number of varieties each, ranging from fresh green to dark brown and yellowish maroon, was awaiting the customers throughout the morning. Mole had stirred up this melting pot market, attracting women from all background. The poor and middle class resembled the vendors by their composed attitude, indigenous features and long clothing. The wealthy whites didn't hide their affluence, holding leather wallets full of notes tight in their hand and followed by a helper, often male, carrying their bags like a mule. Marcela saluted and gossiped with many a vendor at this Coyoacan market while trying to introduce me into the subtleness of such distinctive tastes. Of the fruits and vegetables, bananas, oranges and tomatoes or nopales were on offer all year round, but mangoes, guanabanas, goyabas, papayas, durianes, tamarindos and many more were seasonal, the colours of which, in neat piles, gave an impression of wealth and order. As Coyoacan was a city in itself, no one ever had the idea of going to a central market to purchase food. When I went to La Merced with Joani and Dagmaris in 2013, it was the very first time.

Newspapers had had short hazardous articles about how fire had almost ravaged La Merced and bold headlines about which kind of hoodlum had probably done it. We took our time to enter. First we visited the tiny La Merced church adjoining the long disappeared eponymous convent. The church court was filled with silent groups seated on mats, probably peasants waiting for a mother or a friend busy selling inside; a couple of crippled wanderers with crutches in one corner, no carts, no baskets. The surrounding streets dating before the 1985 earthquake were all devoted to the very poor, some with blinded windows awaiting a probable expulsion. The last concentric circle before entering the covered market was dedicated to small, made-in-China artefacts supposedly a reminder of a forgotten industrial Mexico: shining kids' toys, school items, basic electrical stuff, cheap music electronics, cell phone covers, plastic cutlery, fake medicines and the like.

Then we were inside the huge grotto. The recent fire had blackened the walls and ceilings only allowing a mean light. Yet the stands pulsated with business. The vendors, perched high on stools, overseeing customers and merchandise in a single glance, shouted out to the passers-by. Customers filed by through narrow corridors, crossing huge loads carried on the shoulders of invisible bodies. There was a kind of calm hurriedness in the vendors' eyes and questioning glances, a kindness of offers, an indefinite but insistent patience. After the guanabanas and goyavas, we headed towards the fish to purchase flesh for our dinner. We relied on our nostrils and on Dagmaris' memory to guide us through the live pets section and the maize kingdom up to the fish. With swift gestures including a risky two knives juggling above customer's heads, the fishman prepared a couple of cod filets that Dagmaris was eager to fix. I played the mule this time, my plastic bags struggling their way through the narrower lanes.

Daylight appeared from time to time in the distant promise of a tunnel's end. Midday was near and, among such civilised people, it was a continuous thus indefinite negotiation to let the oncoming walker pass first. Outside at last, under the noonday tropical sun, the kitchen ustensils waited for us, wooden ladles and buckets of different size, enamelled blue spoons, sharp knives of all kinds and purposes, hand-sewn cotton clothes for one peso, five for four pesos, sparking plastic yoyos, kids' play cars, jars and more jars, the sidewalks jammed with vendors and buyers, the steady and busy crowd that the Mexican government was in such a hurry to eradicate in order to turn the megalopolis into a civilised global city according to IMF standards. But there was not a beggar in today's crowd, not a single beggar: everyone was working, making a living from their mini business; not even one of those distressed looks that confronts you in the streets of New York, London, Casablanca or Delhi. Neither misery nor pride, only an active survival struggle like in the not-so-distant hunting and gathering forests. And right round the corner, a bus to take us back to La Roma Neighbourhood, two blocks from home.

We are now flying in the blue above the city. Driving to JRD's house who lives in the distant Barrio de San Francisco in Magdalena Contreras. We left Calle Tlaxcala, took a right on Monterrey, then dived into the Viaducto Miguel Aleman, the nearest highway. We could be in LA or in Bangkok, anywhere in the cosmopolitan concrete auto network, above gridlocks and street vendors, above driving worries since we paid for this peace of mind, above the dense fumes creeping down below; we now fly on the Circuito Bicentenario, here called Periférico, then catch Adolfo López Mateos to the well-named "Segundo Piso", the "second floor", for its ability to glide high over the trivial urban crowd. Here, blonde, sexy advertisements are celebrated in English for beauty creams and Rolex watches. What we embrace under the long concrete ribbon that carries the happy few, is but a faint memory of the city as it used to be. Forty years back, I was hanging outside a brave furious camion along avenida Universidad up north to the huge Zócalo, Mexico City's main plaza, in a dark cloud left by the exhaust fumes in this megalopolis of already fifteen million inhabitants. Flying now is a privileged delight, the distant Popocatepetl volcano turns round on the horizon as we follow the ample curves of this dream flight. Flying is a gift, we can appraise the Ciudad Universitaria on our left, the very green streets of Coyoacan, its own Zócalo and even the small Conchita plaza where I used to live first in 1974, then in 1992.

Mexico City 02

La Conchita, usually described as a chapel, is one of the oldest churches in the city, probably dating from the 16th century. Its delicate vegetal stone-carved façade reminds me of the Moresque influence on the aesthetics of Nueva España. This is the real heart of old Coyoacan where Cortes is said to have lived with his wife and mistress in two different houses. I had lived on the southeastern corner with Calle Fernández Leal with a green-eyed girl friend and a baby Zoë; then with Mara on the northwestern one with Calle Vallarta. On the northeastern corner of the Plaza de la Conchita with Calle Arturo Ibañes, back in the seventies, a lady cooked a carrot soup with a pair of huevos estrellados and tortillas for the price of three metro tickets. Now a clothing and souvenir shop suggests that you rather buy indigenous necklaces or Guatemala style shirts. But the red concrete benches in the labyrinthic garden of la Conchita still offer a quiet shade and shelter to a pair of enthusiast lovers. Let's leave them alone and zip off to the Centre, El Centro, the metropolitan Zócalo.

If you want an idea of what we call "bueyes" (oxen), said Marcela, go to the Zócalo at eight in the morning and watch the men climbing the metro steps. Only men climbed those stairs then, I went to check, men already tired of so many years and decades of hard work in the nearby workshops, men of pain and courage wearing washed out clothes and solitude. They didn't even glance upon the magnificent rectangular piazza where the Cathedral is adjacent to the Sagrario and joins at a right angle the National Palace to form a jewel of colonial wealth and pride. The workshops where the workingmen used to sweat their days off are now dedicated to modern trades of electronics and plastics made in China, spread out on adjacent streets. For the Día de la Bandera or Flag Day, a military exhibition is deployed on the huge square, hectares of machine guns, helicopters and rockets launchers today visited by school children in this strange country which has not been very much involved in foreign wars recently and whose nearest civil war, if we skip the Zapatista uprising of 1994, dates back from the early 20th. Some tall buildings have been erected to open this city to the global skyscraper competition, the most famous being the pristine Torre Mayor on avenida Reforma, a proud 223 meters high vigil. But Mexico City has little hope of reaching the top ten, even the top fifty. Contemporary Mexico City is well-designed and clean but, except for its demographic figures, it doesn't compete in the neck-to-neck urban race where Rio, New York, Tokyo, Shangaï or London watch you from atop. Anyway one cannot struggle with both the mud of an ancient lake and an earthquake-prone reputation then dream of upper skies. Like Amsterdam and probably obeying similar water pressure arguments, Mexico is a gigantic and subtle eye level city.

I wait for Mara in the Casa de los Azulejos where a coffee shop and restaurant and bar activity spreads tables under the central walkways that run on four sides and two floors, all decorated with magnificent colonial blue tiles. Then we join another party to have lunch in the famous Opera bar. The room is covered with carved wainscoting, golden arabesques and red velvet; it is criss-crossed by obsequious waiters who serve you with silver cutlery and ironically silent smiles under their thick moustache. Afterward, Mara takes me to have a look at the Correos, the 1908 ample copper and marble temple dedicated to the early communication deities, now outpaced by computers, fast parcel deliveries and cell phones thus almost empty. Riches from opulent centuries are everywhere to be marvelled at at ground level: chapels, facades, gardens and statues. Cinco De Mayo Street is crowded with nonchalant walkers as night falls, a middle class good-humoured ramblas. Within a blink it will empty when the last shops close. We'll then catch the Metrobus.

For a twenty million inhabitant megalopolis, Mexico City is seldom plagued with congestion. Mexico metro is the fastest, cleanest, cheapest and most secure underground. The price of a ticket, whatever the distrance, is so low that if you don't have a ticket in hand while approaching the turnstile, ask the next person in line and he will eagerly offer you one. Peseros are not peseros any more as inflation raised the fare well above one peso, but it probably is the most civilised transportation system. As soon as you enter a pesero, you are part of the family. Have you a baby in your arms? Someone will take it on his lap. Did you sneeze? Someone will wish you "salud!" And whatever happens in the paper, you may discuss it with your neighbour in the adjoining seat. Sometimes a deadly fight bursts out for no obvious reason, but it is fairly rare. Better not take sides in a Mexican quarrel. Of course, if you are in a real hurry you can catch a cab, the two passenger seated green WV almost disappeared to be replaced by gold and scarlet Japanese cars that drive almost anywhere fairly safely.

I almost forgot the Ecobicis, the city cycle transportation for short trips and middle class young urban environment-minded professionals. But the transportation network that brought Mexico City straight into 21st century is the Metrobus. Metrobuses are just buses, but they behave like high-speed trains. They ride smoothly in dedicated lanes and you enter the carriage at platform level. That is the trick. Another trick is that the Metrobus forbids entry to street vendors, the first and only globalised "clean" public space in the city. You refill your plastic card in a shiny machine for a reasonable banknote, and then push your plastic in the slot when asked. Above ground you enjoy your ride across the city for this virtual plastic fare and are deposited in one of those chaotic urban hubs that connects the DF (Districto Federal) with its mysterious distant periphery.

Take Taxqueña for instance. Stepping out of your civilised transportation carriage, you are disgorged into a thick mob of millions of commuters. Luckily you don't have a car because you wouldn't know how to get out of the parking lot. Say you take another bus. You can have a respite in the huge Soriana mall and devote a few minutes to your favourite commercial activity. But if you are to be back in your suburb for dinner, don't waste your time. And, following the crowd, rush to your bus where you'll probably be squeezed between brothers and sisters of a similar suburban fate for the ride may last the stops, twists and turns reserved for the poor.

Now we step out of the Metrobus at the crossing of Insurgentes with Tlaxcala. It is almost night but the crossing is still vibrant. On our left, since we were riding south, the Santander Bank is closed, but the Internet café buzzes and Sanborns gulps its share of hurried late customers. On the sidewalk of the other side, we pass several made-in-China clothes stalls and sun glass vendors. A Xerox machine powered by a small overzealous man offers, from morning to dusk, a clean copy of whatever paper you need. On the very corner with Tlaxcala, the kerb disposes Hamburgesas a la Parilla, Quesadillas rusas or a ticket for the Loteria Nacional. The tiny, shiny convenience store lines up refrescos, bottled water and more behind its window. We pass the chicle or chewing gum street stall, ignore the juice stall and sit down for a coffee where the lady knows us well since we met here every morning for the past ten days. The fragrance of Jacaranda flowers competes with coffee aromas. The woman is fast, amiable and precise, the coffee delicious. On the corner with Manzanillo, Tlaxcala street offers a gentile oasis with a pharmacy, a phone booth, a newspaper kiosk and a tacos stall delivering its relish to customers who sit on the bench next to the pharmacy, enjoy, watch and chat.

On Medellin crossing, the bus-stop shelters a feathered danzante, fake Indian comedian probably back from a begging day, wooden bells round his ankles and wrapped in a bedecked indigenous jacket adorned with plastic ribbons. The middle-aged danzante is weary and busy eating a solitary sandwich. Electro mecanico Ocaña is closed, so is Oxxo. The Hamburgesas shop is empty but open. On Monterrey, Benedetti swallows customers and throws out pizzas. The lady tailor who is now my friend since she fixed my trousers last week waves to me from across the window that promises renta smokings. The Puertas y cocinas integrales workshop is closed. Then we are home.

Home is at Joani's, on the second floor of number 21 Tlaxcala. Dagmaris has come back a few hours ago from her sweets and pastries selling afternoon in the Parque San Martin or the Parque México toward the Colonia Condesa, her stall facing the school exit door. She is now fixing dinner with the fish that we bought yesterday in La Merced. Joana and Paulina came back from school at three in the afternoon, finished their homework here with Joani's help and now wait for TV time. But school day started at 6AM and Paulina, 7 years old, fell asleep in an armchair while Joana, 12, rests her pretty face on the table. A visitor is sitting at the table too, chatting with Dagmaris. Joana is a very gifted student, but she also has a pocket money business going, selling plastic bracelets and images of TV heroes. Being a writer, Joani types on his computer, totally oblivious to conversations and kitchen rows. Mara and I sit at the table where some space is cleaned for us, open our computers and resume our translating job. Paulina wakes up and offers to make a drawing for my grand children. Dagmaris serves us tea and fruit. Felipe, the visitor, reads the La Jornada newspaper aloud for us about some bad news concerning bombings in Syria. Joana turns on the TV to catch Tarantino's Django Unchained that everyone wants to watch tonight. Joani asks Mara for a word in Spanish. The kitchen lets the smell of chilli sauce tickle our nostrils. The night is young and so are we.


Marc Hatzfeld is an anthropologist living in Paris and working (both as a researcher and a consultant) on subjects such as homelessness, juvenile delinquency, immigration, suburban life and respect. His recent books include Petit Traité de la banlieue (2004), Les Dézingués (2006), La culture des cités (2006) and Petites fabriques de la démocratie (2007).