I spent the weekend in Mexico City with my housemates, but I almost didn’t go at all. I told them I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money and maybe I should use a quiet weekend to get some writing done. Both of which were true. But also, I must admit, I was secretly harboring negative thoughts about Mexico City.
“I don’t know,” I told my housemate, Marico. “Maybe this is a stereotype, but in my mind it’s just this big, loud, crowded, polluted city. I mean, I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but…”
But I wasn’t actually sure that there was. I didn’t know anything about Mexico City other than the fact that it was huge.
“Well,” Marico said, “maybe that’s reason enough for you to go — so you can dispel those stereotypes.”
And that’s when I realized what an ignoramus I was. I knew next to nothing about Mexico City, and yet I’d been willing to write it off completely due to a few stereotypes I picked up from god-knows-where.
So I told Marico yes, I wanted to go, and then I sat down to read part of the Wikipedia page about Mexico City, or DF (Distrito Federal). I learned that Mexico City is the oldest capital city in the Americas and one of the richest metropolitan areas in the world. The current local government has passed many liberal laws including strict ones to reduce and monitor pollution. The more I read, the more it seemed like DF was the New York City of Mexico — an important cultural mecca.
On Saturday morning, Marico and I rode a very luxurious bus (wifi, bathroom, free snacks) from San Miguel de Allende (where I’m living as an artist in residence for the month) to DF. We took a cab from the bus station to an airbnb apartment in the neighborhood of Roma to meet up with our other housemate, David, and his friend, Dacus. We then had approximately 26 hours until we had to be back at the bus station.
In that time, we ate at three very hip and very delicious restaurants. (I had one of the best beet salads of my life on Saturday night, at a place called Rosetta.) We also went to three different (free) art museums, two of which were located in a lush public park, Chapultepec, which happens to be one of the largest city parks in the Western Hemisphere. The whole set up (museums, parks, monuments, a zoo) reminded me of the national mall in Washington, DC. Funny how, when I thought of Mexico City, I assumed there would be traffic and heat and crowds, but I never once wondered about what art and culture that might be there. As it turns out, there’s a lot.
We didn’t have time for much else, but we did see some pretty parks and squares, along with a street that is closed to traffic every Sunday so people can bike through the city. How pleasant! And as we wandered through the cosmopolitan neighborhood of Condesa, I marveled at something: it was so quiet!
“Where are all the people?” I asked as we strolled down a tree-lined street of 1920’s era apartments mixed with more modern buildings. This was certainly dispelling my stereotype of a loud and crowded Mexico City.
Of course I’m not the only one to fall prey to stereotypes, and of course stereotypes often have their roots in reality. (Later on, we visited a crowded public square near Frida Khalo’s house where there was traffic and people and noise, Let’s not pretend that DF is not a giant, heavily-populated city because it certainly is… But that’s not all it is.)
The point is, I need to be willing to look past the stereotypes I’ve picked up over the years. I also need to be mindful about stereotypes in writing. It’s so easy to reach for that stock character (a fat cop with a donut in his hand, a ditzy blond cheerleader with a too-short skirt). As we build characters and stories, we often use stereotypes without realizing it. (I recently wrote a story with a minor character — a butcher — who happened to be a fat, middle-aged white man with a red nose. I didn’t realize until someone pointed it out to me that this was “such a stereotype.”) And the problem is, using those clichés only serves to perpetuate stereotypes. Stereotypes about police officers and cheerleaders and butchers, but also more damaging stereotypes about race and gender.
There’s been a big push lately for diverse characters in literature, especially by the We Need Diverse Books campaign. At a panel on this subject at The Loft’s Children’s & Young Adult Literature Conference, one of the panelists said something to the effect of, yes, as a white writer you should have a black character in your novel, but please don’t make him a drug dealer — there’s no need to perpetuate stereotypes if we can help it.
As fiction writers, we have the luxury of making our cops and cheerleaders and drug dealers whatever we want them to be. We have the power to break stereotypes… so why not do it?
Perhaps one of the things my housemates and I will remember most about the trip to DF is what happened when we were having a late lunch at a restaurant in Roma.
Dacus wanted a coffee, which, in Mexico, is a café Americano. The server came to take our order. She looked to him, and he said, “Americano.” She didn’t seem to understand so he leaned towards her and shouted “Americano!”
A panicked look crossed her face. “Un momento, por favor.” A moment later, a male server came to our table. “You are Americans?” he asked. “You want for me to speak English to you?”
We realized that the poor girl must have thought that Dacus was screaming at her: “I’m American!” We laughed raucously and ordered drinks, and I felt like we were perpetuating a stereotype: the loud, obnoxious Americans, being difficult and insisting that everyone speak to us in English. I wished we could tell the first server that Dacus had actually been trying to order in Spanish, but in real life we don’t always get a chance to explain.
All-in-all, it was a whirlwind trip, and I’m glad I went. I’m happy to have dispelled some of my misconceptions about Mexico City. And I’ll be on the lookout for ways to break stereotypes in my own writing. You should, too.