Illustration by Matt Weismantel
Brujeria | Andreas Bass
Nothing is more rock n’ roll than death, skulls, and magic, and nothing more painful than the loss of culture. Let’s sing a corrido for the lost, say a prayer for the heartbroken. On any ordinary day, Capitalism and Catholicism crash into the brittle pyramids of the Azteca. In the wreckage, crossed bones and skulls dangle around the neck of Christ and the poor clean windscreens as the passengers look back at them with indifference. Today is the second day of November, the Day of the Dead, when the flaming hearts of the dead dance in the light of scented candles. I am on my way to Mexico City, where brujeria flushes through streets like rain through gutters.
Fourteen hours on the plane from Heathrow Airport. We’ve all lived in the sanitised belly of this 747 for far too long. But now the symbol of a plane edging along a dotted line on monitors throughout the aircraft suddenly becomes exciting; Mexico City is only centimetres away. People are sleep damaged, yet awake, and increasingly animated as they peer through the small windows of the plane.
My mind’s naïve images of tumbleweed, black sombreros and pointy leather boots fade as we fly above the Sierra Madre Occidental into Mexico City from the west. A spectacular sunrise in a crisp morning sky reveals snow-covered Pico de Orizaba, Nevado de Toluca, the active volcano Popocatepetl and its sleeping brother Iztaccihuatl. Black mountains and snow, pristine and untouched as far as the eye can see. Popocatepetl, like a magician, spits white vapour and spreads a blanket of mist across the entire mountain range. I let out a chuckle, blown away by this beauty and relieved the torturous flight will soon be over. The view reminds me more of Switzerland on steroids than Central America.
The scenery below rapidly changes from alpine landscape to an over-populated high-rise mega city. Through the oval window of the plane, this city seems endless, hazy and absurd within its natural boundary. A valley completely engulfed by mountains, plagued by regular and sometimes deadly earthquakes. My ears pop as we descend. I recall television images of the devastation wrought by the 1986 earthquake, when thousands died here, a memory I did not anticipate. The passenger next to me seems to read my mind, as he tells me, unprovoked, that the Spanish word for earthquake is teremoto. I nod in response as my mind continues to wonder what motivated people to cross these unforgiving mountains and settle in the valley beneath. Later, I learn it was the vision of Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec warrior, to bring his people to the shores of a lake where an eagle feasts on a snake; an event that now marks the birthplace of the biggest city on earth. As we traverse alongside skyscrapers, Cuauhtémoc’s vision becomes unimaginable. Below, snake pit movements of human traffic submerged in concrete and steel. Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, my heart beats fast.
This trip to Mexico is another of many geographical attempts to outrun the complexities cluttering my life. I welcome the invitation to join a popular Mexican band as a bass player, with the promise of steady work. It’s an easy decision, given that all I leave behind is an East London flat, rainy weather and a band with no future. It could be called irony that I trade gridlocked Stoke Newington for a congested San Angel, a suburb in the south-central district of Mexico City. San Angel translates to "Holy Angel", yet it is un-holy like Dante’s Inferno, the sharp edge of a knife that separates rich from poor.
Avenida Insurgentes, the main street, is much like an old man’s heart, clotted and out of rhythm. As Insurgentes swallows traffic, so the old man swallows fermented cactus juice in the cantina, and both know that soon they will not swallow anymore. Insurgentes is a part of the Pan-American Highway that stretches some thirty thousand kilometres from Canada all the way south to Chile. Here in San Angel, the highway is a fat stream, thick and pulsating. You can hear the street vendor shout "Viva Zapata!" and it feels as though Emiliano himself walks past you, his head held high with piercing eyes, unaware of his assassination in 1919.
The front of our house has no windows, which is not unusual. A large gate keeps the outside out; behind it a black ’79 Ford LTD Coupe, the patron de la casa, a reminder of how things used to be. There is a small door inside the gate. It opens and closes with a screeching cry of metal on metal. Outside, there are thousands of light globes like angels dancing, the market of San Angel, famous for counterfeit Nike and El Santo, the king of Lucha Libre, Mexican wrestling. El Santo is legend to the poor and was never de-masked, proud to represent La Raza, the mixed race. Inside, hidden away from all the hustle, is my new home and my new band Culebra, the snake. We seldom leave the safety and comfort of the house, immersed obsessively in rehearsals and recording. Here inside the house, reality is filled with a high decibel mix of Mariachi meets heavy metal. Our ignorance shields us from the world outside through the odours of weed and tequila and visible layers of privilege. Most of the time, the world comes to us. On the rare occasion when we do leave the house we wade through skin, stink, and motion, as the angels disappear one by one.
"Hola Maricella!" We respectfully greet the Bruja, the healer, the witch, the spiritual authority. Comfortable behind her tiny herbal medicine stall, she rubs her chin as if she is scratching a beard. Her eyes are yellow and black, her hair grey at the roots and black at the tips. Her mouth opens as her lips slowly form a smile and her tongue licks through the gap in her teeth. "Buenas," she replies, inhaling a long drag from her cigarette. Buenas what? A thought that wakes me in my dream, but not from my sleep. I begin to walk in circles, slowly increasing radius. Then, I jump and fly straight to the moon. "Hola Maricella!" I shout. Now I can see that underneath every church is a pyramid. It would take the slightest effort to destroy this planet we live on, instead the Gods are watching it unfold, curious and kind, with patience and love and maybe even some humour. I feel myself drift away from fear towards the divine being. The gods tell me that I might see the mysteries of the universe very soon.
We order mole poblano from the market kitchen. My teeth bite the tender meat buried in a thick, dark chocolate and chilli sauce, as I begin to understand brujeria. Maricella, I am told, only shares truth with the ones willing to pay attention. We are in a crime scene, wide-eyed and silent.
The next morning I dare the city alone, passing through the screeching gate, through the dense market stalls and across the road, dodging traffic and people’s judgments because I am tall, white, and easily mistaken for a gringo. I muster the courage to hop onto a minibus. These buses stop everywhere when signalled. I join the crowd of commuters heading towards the city centre: Aztec Indians, maids, cleaners, office workers and a few tourists. People mind their own business while in transit, just the occasional lo siento–sorry–if someone steps on a foot and a swift te nada–it’s nothing–in reply. One peso buys a ride for as long as you like. The bus weaves elegantly through lawless traffic. People cooperate in limited space without much fuss. Everything flows. A green light does not mean go, it means stop, look, then drive if it’s clear. I like that common sense prevails here in the biggest city on earth. It resonates with my sense for taking responsibility for my own safety, though it isn’t me but Jesus that drives this bus.
As we enter the city’s centre, I bang loudly on the window to signal the driver to stop, then make my way down to the Metro at Centro Medico station. Inside the underground train station masses of people are rushing, following signs and colours to the many platforms. Mexico is a very poor country, but Mexico City is wealthy, the train system is state-of-the-art. Trains glide along their tracks on rubber tyres, entering and leaving the station in silence, announced only by a ghost-like jet of air and white noise from the electric engine. The doors open with a gush of exhaled air, spitting out clouds of human movement and inhaling them in again. Centro Medico station is elegant and clean, proud with displays of contemporary art installations to entertain commuters on the walk between platforms.
As I walk amidst the crowds, we pass through a digital projection that sparingly illuminates this darkened underground tunnel. We walk deep underneath a city built on sand. We are in the centre of teremoto when we become brujeria. Maricella’s eyes are warm when she whispers in my ear "everything is right!" The projection covers us all in a layer of magnified cellular matter. Suddenly, everything that isn’t pinned down begins to float, constantly dividing and shifting, gaps transmuting into new and larger cells, unpredictable and too fast to anticipate. The thuds of boots and clicks of heels are now muted on the marble floor, but it is no longer a marble floor. I look down at my hand, but it is no longer a hand. Everything is transparent, multi layered and connected. My blood flows visibly underneath paper-thin skin. I am afraid I might dissolve completely. But I don’t. I can see the other commuters are panicking but there is nothing I can do. Not for myself and not for those around me. What is this? My last rational thought before fear clouds my mind completely. The projection changes to something that looks like skin: detailed pores, creases, palm lines, scars, scratches, sweat pearls and dirt under fingernails.
We are solid again. Some people are crying. Others are still holding onto the walls or each other for anchorage. We are uncertain. Vulnerable. The projection shifts to an aerial view of the city, high up in the clouds, feet dangling, stalled by vertigo. Breathless. Then further up into outer space, showing the planet earth, blue and lovely, dwindling to the size of a tennis ball, a pinball, a pea, and finally a microdot. Undisturbed endlessness. We float like astronauts, free from gravity. Wonderful. The people are completely immersed in the freedom to flow in the silence of space. I see smiles on their faces and feel my own cheeks relax. In the distance, Maricella’s cheek crinkles as she gives me a friendly wink. We receive her gift. She allows us to see the universe for what it truly is.
Andreas Bass is a Southern Cross University student undertaking the Associative Degree of Creative Writing.