We’d been watching, and Terence was photographing, a riotous demonstration by university students on the square. Terence had been getting a little too close for (my) comfort to the burning public buses the students had commandeered and set alight. It was definitely one of the more dramatic events we’d witness on the square over the years.
Hearing our foreign accents (me pleading with Terence to please step back from the bus before it blew up), Fernando, a student of economics at the time, approached us and warned us not to get too close.
“These kinds of things can get out of control in Mexico,” I remember him saying. Really? I asked. Just as a group of students upturned another bus and set it on fire. “It’s not the students you have to worry about,” Fernando said, glancing nervously in the direction of the police, kitted out in full riot gear and looking a bit antsy.
Sensing it might be time to leave, we let Fernando steer us to safety and ended up strolling Cinco de Mayo with him for a while, chatting about the city, life in Mexico, and life as a student in Mexico. A day later, Terence and I left to backpack around Mexico and didn’t see Fernando again that trip.
A few years later, when I returned to Mexico on my own at the end of a yearlong period of postgraduate research in Latin America, I looked Fernando up. We met, we clicked, and we hung out together. He took me to Lagunilla markets, to his university campus, to bars and clubs only locals would know, and to a family gathering way out in the suburbs.
We lost touch for a while during our years in Dubai, but thanks to Facebook we recently reconnected. Naturally, when we returned to Mexico City for Grantourismo, Fernando was the first person we looked up.
In the interim years it turned out, Fernando had abandoned economics, gone off to do some travelling – around Mexico, to Paris, and to Canada – and pursued philosophy, literature and languages instead. He worked in the Mexico City bureau for a prominent US newspaper journalist for over a decade, until the crisis hit, the bureau was downsized, and he lost his job.
Now, Fernando works as an interpreter, acting as a go-between to assist Latin Americans living in the USA whose English language skills aren’t sufficient enough to understand legal jargon, government documents, and insurance claims. It’s a job that frequently breaks his heart.
This trip, we got to hang out again, experiencing a few adventures in a short space of time, from kicking back with the mariachis on Plaza Garibaldi to meeting one of Mexico City’s famous transvestite performers.
We also got to put our friend’s interpreting and fixing skills to the test when we had him help us gain access to some major Mexican sports figures… but more on that adventure in another post!
Q. So what do you most love about your work as an interpreter?
A. I get to help Spanish-speaking people communicate what they want to say in an all-American environment and also that I get to work from home.
Q. Why should people come to Mexico City?
A. For the fun, for the history, for the food, but most importantly for the warm, friendly people.
Q. 3 words to describe Mexico City?
A. Overwhelming, contradictory, and horribly beautiful.
Q. And the people?
A. Warm, joyful, and kind.
Q. Your top recommendations for visitors?
A. 1. Explore the downtown area or Centro Histórico, which is basically the old city, built pretty much up until the early 20th century. Mexico City has an abundance of museums and most of them are in the downtown area. Visit the Opera house, the National Museum of Art, and the Cathedral.
2. Take it easy at Chapultepec Park, which is twice as large as Manhattan’s Central Park, a whole forest inside the city, with a zoo, lakes and a mountain with a castle on the top. There are several museums there, like the Anthropology Museum. From downtown you can take the Mexican version of the Champs Elysées, the Paseo de la Reforma, to reach the park.
3. Visit University City in the south of the city, a whole city-within-a-city campus, with its own electric transportation system, Olympic stadium and swimming pools, institutes and schools, and a forest reserve. The main complex was built in the 50’s in a modern, functionalist, Mexican-international style. It’s fantastic!
Q. Best souvenir?
A. There are these handmade papier maché devils. They are anatomically correct and are put in the most obscene positions. Remember, this is a country that celebrates death. I think they express much about how we see life in a way: we can be devilishly free, a little careless, and we like to play with fire. Something less risquée would be a handmade silk shawl from Santa María. I got one from my granny and they are wonderful.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. Beef head tacos – they’re the best! Eat fresh, simple Mexican food at any market. And anything with corn – we ‘invented’ it.
Q. Essential thing to know before coming to Mexico City?
A. Keep in mind that this city is not as warm as you might expect. It is located high in the mountains, up to 2 kilometres above sea level and it can rain a whole lot during summer, our rainy season. Mexicans don’t like to get wet in the rain – we hide!
Q. Most important phrase to learn?
A. I don’t want to say the obvious that you can learn in any Spanish speaking country like “gracias” (thank you) or “por favor” (please), but instead I will suggest “chido”, which in Mexican-Spanish means “cool”, and “órale” which means “all right” or “ok”. Everybody will smile when you say it.
Q. Any other advice?
A. It doesn’t matter if you have a green light, always look both ways when you want to cross any street in Mexico City.