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Debut Book Explores Mexico City

In <i>Down and Delirious in Mexico City</i>, the son of Mexican immigrants confronts his heritage

En español | It takes a certain amount of courage to return, particularly alone, to the land of your ancestors and claim some part of this past. But the old Mexico, the one of family legends, of history books, of movies and mythology, exists only on the fringes of Daniel Hernandez's compelling new book, Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century. Instead of dwelling on the city his Mexican parents may have encountered, Hernandez, who was born and raised in Southern California,wants to show you the Mexico City that exists today. So perhaps it's no surprise that he ends up presenting an oftentimes sprawling narrative that in many ways reflects the unwieldy nature of his subject matter, the largest city in the western hemisphere.

Just out of college in 2002, he realized that as a Mexican American, he feels "still somehow excluded from the national narrative in Mexico." Hernandez wondered: Would he "forever be banished to a state of ambivalence, or could we be two things at once?" Answering this question of whether he could be both Mexican and American, maintaining his identity between two distinct cultures — the same question asked so often by immigrants and their children — became the impetus for his first stay in Mexico City.

This one summer led to moving there for three years and writing a book that is part journalism, part memoir, but ultimately a coming-of-age story, which is what makes several of the early chapters of Down and Delirious so compelling. We are asked to discover, or rediscover, as the case may be, the Mexico City we thought we knew. Through the metro system, endless neighborhoods, unabated crime, smog, religions, music, subcultures, fashion, drugs and hipsters, we are able to see the city from the eyes of both someone who knows his way around and someone who is seeing it for the first time. One of these striking moments occurs one night after Hernandez has just moved to the city 

and joins a long procession of pilgrims who are celebrating the anniversary of the apparition of Mexico's patron saint, the Virgen de Guadalupe. "We are now within a kilometer or two of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe," Hernandez writes. "I know this because up ahead I see the bright double arches of a McDonald's restaurant, a sure signpost in many places in the developing world that you're approaching a significant cultural or historical site."

The majority of Down and Delirious places us right next to Hernandez as he traverses the city. "We are riding on swooping, speedy overpasses crowded with traffic that seems to have no use for lanes. Cars and trucks flow with the instinct of blood cells … It is a landscape of scratchy urban flatness, then rolling hillsides of structures that disappear into a white horizon of haze — the smog."

But through that haze we see the city, from so many perspectives and neighborhoods that we are left either dazed by its enormity or feeling a bit of whiplash from the constant shift in settings. Hernandez is at his best, though, when he slows down enough to focus on some of the charms and contradictions that obviously make Mexico City such an evocative place to describe. Take, for example, the trendy Condesa neighborhood, where the privileged class lives and plays: "On weekend nights, cocaine dealers in discreet automobiles prowl the neighborhood's leafy streets delivering drugs to thumping apartment parties … the sort of people who see recreational cocaine use as a matter of social entitlement. Not everyone does it, of course, but it is everywhere."

Although he never fully enters the "national narrative of Mexico" he seeks, Hernandez does include himself throughout Down and Delirious, at first sharing his exuberance for the city and later facing the remaining questions of his identity. "After three years of living here, I am still referred to as güero — a white boy — by strangers on the street ... I am a gringo regardless of how dark my skin might be. I am a Mexican gringo, if you will."

Try as he may, Hernandez remains in a world neither here nor there, reflecting perhaps the more sobering reality that for the immigrant — regardless of which direction he may be traveling — it is the journey itself that becomes the more crucial narrative.