As we got close to landing, I looked out my window and saw an endless black expanse dotted by clusters of light. I assumed these were cities, but as the plane got closer to Monterrey, I realized my mistake. Those were only small towns, and the lights of the real city of Greater Monterrey went on for miles and miles; I couldn’t tell where they ended. A few monstrous dark spaces broke up the lights, and I learned in the morning that these were the famous mountains of Monterrey.
Landing in a foreign country was not as scary as I had expected it would be. As I waited to go through customs in the line for extranjeros, foreigners, I struck up a conversation with an American couple behind me. I was glad I had because when it was my turn to have my visa stamped, the man asked for the address where I was staying.
“I don’t know the address,” I told him, “I’m staying with my grandparents.”
“Sorry,” he said in a thick accent. I stood to the side and asked the American couple if I could borrow a phone. I called both my grandparents, twice, but neither answered.
“Thank you,” I said to the couple, returning the phone and holding my breath to keep from crying.
“I don’t think they check the address,” the man told me in a low voice as he left with the woman. I crouched down to fill out the visa, and as I balanced it on my passport on my knee, another man finished at the counter and whispered down to me, “Just make it up.” I filled out 231 Garza Calle, Garza Street, and cut back in line. My visa was stamped without comment. My relief intensified as I walked out and saw my Grandma and Tata, arms outstretched and smiling. I now had people I knew, who lived there, to take care of me.
I told Tata what I had practiced with my mom on the car ride to New York City, “Háblame solamente en español, por favor.” Speak to me only in Spanish, please. He half-nodded, and on the ride home, the only English spoken was to clarify Spanish. My semi-fluent American grandma did her best, too, for what she lacked in her accent, she made up for with confidence. But for the rest of my two-week trip, the three of us mostly spoke English; after living in the US for two-thirds of his life, my Tata now found English easier to speak than his native language. Unless I asked questions or we were having a mini-lesson, English reigned.
The house we stayed in had belonged to my great-grandparents before my Papande died, and it was now the temporary home of my grandparents while my Grandma earned her Mexican citizenship. The marble and stucco and terracotta of the house made me feel I was somewhere foreign. A wrought-iron gate enclosed the meticulously swept marble-floored garage. My grandparents’ neighborhood was full of concrete, flat-roofed houses that were built into the gradually steepening hill. At night, through the window of my room, I could see miles of lit-up Monterrey, and I imagined I was staying at a romantic hotel overlooking Paris. But by day, the distant buildings looked dull and gray, and the randomly strewn mountains rose up as dark, looming masses. Monterrey is characterized by concrete and mountains. From my window, I could see farther-off mountain neighborhoods that were brightly painted: aquamarine, strawberry ice cream pink, lime green, and banana yellow. My grandparents told me these were poor neighborhoods that had been painted to add more art to the city. I never got to experience those neighborhoods up close, but I wondered what life was like around those cheerfully-colored buildings.
Most of the city is not safe. Nearly everyone has alarm systems, including my Tata, and I found out on the last day of my trip that a group of boys had been robbed at gunpoint by men in a passing van, two doors from where I was staying. The Mexican police have been known to be corrupt and to abuse their power, so the billionaires of the city have hired a private civil guard force that patrols the city and has purportedly increased safety.
I felt safe with my grandparents, though. They took me to many fun places in the city. We went on a boat tour along the Paseo Santa Lucia, a bright aqua, man-made river that runs through the more touristy area of downtown Monterrey, and is overlooked by the Fundidora, an abandoned steel foundry. We walked along the streets of the Barrio Antiguo, the old neighborhood, where the wind funneled through the streets and blew dust into our eyes. One rainy day, my grandparents and I went to the movies to see the new Star Wars movie, El Acenso de Skywalker. The mall’s movie theater was clean and new and fancy, and almost all of the movies were American; out of over a dozen screens, perhaps two or three were playing Mexican movies. We went to a Spanish-dubbed showing, though they also had English with Spanish subtitles, and I was impressed by how I hardly noticed their lips not lining up, though I was not that impressed with my comprehension. The rest of the mall was almost exactly like an American mall, and I recognized most of the store brands.
I visited my grandparents in January, and the coldest it got was the low sixties. One day when it was in the mid-seventies, my grandparents took me to Chipinque, a park near the top of a mountain. We drove up a steep and winding road and passed openings to forest trails, seven-foot-tall insect sculptures, and several woodchip playgrounds. We passed tenacious bikers, sweaty runners, and strolling families. At the top we got a beautiful view of the enormity of Monterrey, and my grandparents kept marvelling about how clearly we could see the mountains, including the Cerro de la Silla, the giant saddle-shaped mountain that is the symbol of Monterrey.
The food was the highlight of my trip, and I gained seven pounds in just over two weeks. I learned how to make some of my Tata’s signature dishes, including machacado con huevo, or eggs with dried meat. We went out for lunch nearly every day; we ate at the mall, at fancy restaurants, and at little authentic places. We stopped by a roadside stand to buy ripe mangos and orange juice that we watched them squeeze. I drank agua fresca de jamaica, a sweet hibiscus drink. My first day, we ate at El Rey del Cabrito, King of the Goat Kid, one of the most famous sites of Monterrey, where they display the cooking carcasses on their menu and in their windows. We feasted on pierna de cabrito, goat-kid leg; queso fundido served in a burn-your-hand-hot pan; and frijoles con veneno, refried beans with “venom,” a spicy sauce and bits of cabrito. Everything was served with hot corn and flour tortillas, a staple at every Mexican restaurant.
The food options were as endless as New York City, as Greater Monterrey is the third largest metropolitan area of Mexico with over five million people. Also like New York City, Monterrey has a wild variety of wealth; there are beggars that go from door to door for alms and there are neighborhoods that are as expensive as Manhattan. In our driving, we passed dirty, broken-down homes and Ferrari dealerships. Driving around Monterrey was frightening, though. The traffic laws are not as universally accepted as they are in the US, and the roads felt hectic. We drove along multilane highways and around sharp corners and roundabouts, and I winced as my Tata narrowly missed the lines of raised metal bumps that marked lanes. Everywhere we drove, there were people trying to sell things. There were solicitors at every red light, peddling flowers, peanuts, balloons, toys. There were men with dirty rags to dust off your even dirtier car. Once a pair of boys ran out in front of the stopped cars, and one stood on the other’s shoulders and juggled oranges that they then tried to sell.
During my trip, I visited much of my Tata’s family that I hadn’t seen since I was little. We went to see my Mamande, my 88-year-old great-grandmother, who lives in a nursing home. She only spoke Spanish, and she told me I looked like Blancanieves, Snow White. I spent some time with my Tata’s sisters, my tía abuelas, who wore patterned shawls, high-heels, and heavy make-up over their tattooed eyeliner. I learned more Spanish during my limited time with them than I did with my grandparents. My Tía Yeya brought me to the Paseo at night for a light exhibit called Luztopia, my Tía Diana took me out to dinner, and I went to my Tía Tina’s ladies-only sixtieth birthday party, where everyone wore fancy, glitzy outfits. At that party, there was a DJ that blasted music, a photographer that shadowed my Tía Tina, and tables for the over one hundred guests who were divided up by social circles. Extended family and friends are central to the social fabric of Mexico in a way I’ve never seen in the US.
I enjoyed getting a glimpse into an unknown city and culture that make up so much of my heritage. I was both disappointed and comforted by its similarity to cities in the US and I was delighted by the authentic North Mexican differences. It opened my eyes to the effects the US has had on global culture, while also teaching me that every place has something that makes it unlike any other.