Not my mother's Mexico City

Centro Historico of Mexico City PhotosOur Artist Development Fellow went to Mexico City to write documentary poetry about her mother's history. She found a way to blend the past with her own observations and insights about the magical metropolis.  

By Guest Blogger Daniela Muehleisen ’19

Daniela Muehleisen ’19, a resident of Mather House concentrating in Government, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to write a collection of bilingual documentary poems and stories based on her mother's life growing up in Mexico City. During spring 2017, Muehleisen worked as a research partner for Kathleen Ossip, translating Ossip's poetry book, The Do-Over, into Spanish. Her own poems can be found in the Summer 2016 and Winter 2017 issues of The Harvard Advocate. She has worked extensively with civil rights organizations including Physicians for Human Rights and the Harvard Organization for Prison Education and Reform. Muhleisen plans to pursue an MFA in poetry and a career in human rights law.

Centro Historico of Mexico City
Centro Historico of Mexico City. Photos by Daniela Muehleisen ‘19
The Mexico City I know is nothing like the Mexico City in which my mother grew up. Since my mother left her city in 1994, it has witnessed a plethora of changes. A new metro line (la Linea 12) runs from Mixcoac to Tlahauc. The former dangerous colonias of La Condesa and La Roma have been gentrified. The threat of Los Sex Panchitos (a gang from the 1980s) is nothing in comparison to the threat that people face from the narcomenudeo and everyday violence. The murals on the street are no longer dedicated to the students from the 1968 protests and Tlatelolco massacre; they’re for the 43 disappeared students from 2014. Of course, tortas are still tortas, fresas (snobs) are still fresas, and el trafico is still as bad as ever.

I went to Mexico City to write documentary poems and stories based on my mother’s life growing up there. I interviewed family members I hadn’t seen in years – some of whom I met for the very first time – and asked them to tell me stories about growing up with my mom. I uncovered parts of my family history that I had previously been unable to piece together. However, I also learned about the Mexico City that is a reality for so many people today – one that, albeit beautiful, is filled with insecurity and violence. This reality – along with the current political environment of the presidential elections – is one that I felt was necessary to weave into my poems and short stories. I believe that the power of historical documentary is that it is not constrained by everything that once was; it can blend what was, what could have been and what is.

Besides writing about my family history and the realities of the city today, one of my favorite layers to the documentary work involves researching the history of the Mexicas, or the Aztecs. Living in the city allows me to influence my stories and poems with the stories of the Mexicas that once ruled el Valle de Mexico. For example, el Centro Historico – where you can find el Zocalo (the largest plaza in Latin America), el Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), el Palacio Nacional (National Palace), cathedrals and artisanal markets – was built on the ancient civilization of the Mexicas. Part of el Centro Historico actually rests on what was a former lake called Lake Texcoco. In the early 14th century, a prophecy told the Mexicas that they would build a great city when presented by an eagle with a snake in its mouth perched atop a cactus. They found this eagle in Lake Texcoco. Thus, the Mexicas built the capital city of Tenochtitlan on an island in this lake. Tenochtitlan means place of the nopal, or place of the prickly-peared cactus.

This is just a bit of the magic that you find in my mother’s city.