Miming Mexico

A street artist unmasks the hard realities of daily life in Guanajuato.

Published December 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

For a mime, Manuel sure said a lot. On the streets he was a classic mime, following people around, swinging his arms and lifting his legs in a mocking stride. But off-duty, Manuel was full of stories. He told tales of Mexico's past, the people he'd known and the places he'd seen.

"I was robbed in Mexico City," Manuel began one afternoon as we sat on a shallow stone wall, overlooking the colonial streets of Guanajuato. "Because I travel with my work, my possessions are scattered all throughout Mexico. I had gone to visit friends and pick up some of the things they had stored for me. When I ran into someone's apartment to pick up a painting of mine, the taxi waiting outside with all of my bags took off and left me without a peso in my pocket. All I have left is my make-up box, so I'm working in the streets, earning the money to travel to the next town north until I make it to my home in Matamoros."

It was my first week on the road and I was already nervous about something going wrong. And Manuel's stories were not helping. Each morning, I joined Manuel, who would be sitting alone in Guanajuato's main plaza, beneath the Indian laurel trees, leaning forward over his crossed legs, reading the daily paper. Manuel was a bizarre-looking man. His long, straight hair grew back from his face in dramatic recession. It was severely fastened into a ponytail, throwing attention to his prominent forehead, wide, gaping nostrils and small, black eyes. His frame was slight and thin, as if he were weak and vulnerable to illness. But he was cheerful and charismatic, and, good or bad, his stories were always captivating.

"That's terrible," I said, shading my eyes from the midday sun to better see his face. But Manuel didn't seem bothered at all. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

"Believe me, it could have been much worse," he said with a smile. He went on to describe other mugging experiences he had suffered, speaking without bitterness or anger, as if they were a natural and unavoidable part of life. As I listened to Manuel, more terrified than amused, I silently considered taking Mexico City off my itinerary.

"The worst," he went on, widening his eyes, "are the pandillas de chamacos. They're enormous gangs of homeless children that terrorize the city every day. They run like wild animals down the streets, 50 or 60 young boys with nothing to lose but their lives, which no one seems to think are worth a damn anyway. People who fall in their path are beaten down and stripped of everything. They raid buses and pillage stores and restaurants. They are as unrelenting as a lynch mob."

He grew serious when he saw the expression of horror on my face.

"Will you always be traveling alone?" he asked.

"Well, that's the idea."

"Diana," he said, crinkling his brow, "why don't you travel with someone else?"

"Because I don't want to," I responded flatly.

I was tired of the chorus of voices protesting my decision to travel alone. My family and friends had cringed at the mere thought of it, just as they had when I was planning a solo trip to Europe years before. That time they had won, convincing me to take along my then-boyfriend. It was a relationship on the brink of ending, and he made for terrible company on the road. He commandeered the maps and my guidebook, and we spent a miserable month getting on each other's nerves and arguing in the streets. Now I wanted to spend a year traveling from Mexico to South America, but this time I was going to do it my way.

"But you're so innocent," Manuel said, gently touching my arm. "Anyone can tell just by looking at you. I'm afraid of what will happen if you do it alone. Aren't you afraid for yourself?"

I became defensive. Stumbling over my words, I insisted angrily that I wasn't so oblivious to the dangers around me, and that I was hardly innocent. But my sudden lack of eloquence betrayed my insecurity and I seemed to be proving him right.

We sat in silence for a while, looking at the city below. The stark desert
hills pushed up in the distance, nestling the crowded community in their
shadows. Houses spilled down the lower flanks of the hills, then condensed
in thick clusters of white, pink and blue.

"Forget it," Manuel said at last. "Let's go, before it gets dark."

That evening, Manuel and I ventured out to a late-night pizzeria. Along the
way, we ran into a group of students he knew and stopped to say hello.
One of them was a young man with a long ponytail carrying a guitar, and the
two of us began to walk absent-mindedly down the middle of the road, talking
quietly together.

The streets were dark and mostly deserted. Our footsteps echoed on the
stone walls around us, creating the sensation of eerie isolation, and our
voices seemed too loud in the stillness of the air. As we approached the
well-lit pizzeria, there was a sudden shout from the shadows to our right,
just beyond the line of parked cars. We stopped and saw Manuel emerge into
the light. He had provoked a verbal confrontation with another man, though
I couldn't hear what they were saying. The stranger hurled obscenities at
Manuel as he made his way up the street to catch up to us. I said
goodbye to the young musician, and Manuel and I entered the restaurant.

The place was empty except for a young couple, just getting up from one of
the plastic tables inside. A woman was sweeping the floor as if she was getting ready to
close, yet said nothing when we entered and found a seat. We were both
famished, and Manuel, who wanted to treat, ordered the largest pizza on the

"What were you arguing about out there?" I asked him when the waitress had

"You didn't even see it, did you?" he said incredulously, shaking his head.

"What?" I asked, oblivious. "I didn't see what?"

"My God, Diana, you were almost robbed at knife-point!" he almost yelled. I
had no idea what he was talking about but felt a shiver crawl up my back.
I sat in stunned silence.

"There was a guy with a knife between two cars who was waiting for the two
of you to come up the street. Up ahead there were two more guys. That's the
way they work. One holds you up and, if there's a problem, the others come
running in to back him up. I came up from behind and distracted him so you
got away. Now, what will you do next time?" He picked up the salt shaker
and rolled it between his hands, shaking his head again. "You are out of
your mind for doing this trip alone. You'll never make it." His voice was a
gruff whisper, yet I felt myself shrink back as if he were yelling. The
doubt he had expressed earlier in my ability to travel alone now seemed

"I was almost robbed?" I said into the air, as if to myself. "Just now?"

Manuel looked at me and sighed a deep, exasperated inhalation and release
through the nose, as if preparing to give me a lecture long coming.

"Mira, Diana ..." he began. "You see how you are innocent? It's like this ridiculous bag you Americans strap around your waists, announcing
yourselves to the thieves. Look at this. They could have taken everything
you have. What sense is there in carrying all of this with you anyway?" He
lifted up my black leather fanny pack, dangling sheepishly from my waist,
and let it fall in disgust. He stopped for a moment, and we sat there in
awkward silence. I began to feel ridiculous. Ridiculous for ever believing
that I could survive such a trip on my own. I sat quietly, looking down at
the table, humiliated. My eyes burned, wanting to cry, and I could see
Manuel's hands trembling with emotion. Something that had been dormant
inside of him was now coming to life, and he was shaken. He began again.

"Do you have any idea what it's like to grow up on the streets like a dog,
too young and angry to beg, but too hungry to keep your dignity?" His voice
began to quiver with indignation, and his eyes glazed over with bitter
nostalgia. Our worlds had suddenly polarized. My head was throbbing, and
the air felt oppressively thick with emotion. But all I could do was sit
paralyzed at his side, waiting for the diatribe to roll over me like a

"When my father died, we had nothing. My mother had nothing to put on the
table, and my brothers and I had to go out and fend for ourselves. You
don't have any idea what that's like!" His words tapered into a flat,
muffled whisper that shuddered with the convulsions of his lungs. I watched
his face loosen and fall apart like melting wax. His eyes were blurred with
tears, which made me break down and cry. We sat weeping helplessly

"I know what can happen to you because I've done it to others," he said at
the edge of his breath. "I can see that you're a target because I used to
look for them. I don't justify their violence, Diana, but people have to
eat. I know what it's like to be desperate. I know what it's like to take
from others. I know enough to tell you not to try to fight them. They will
use their knives, you know, even if you are a woman. They'll probably do
worse. Without dignity, people lose their sense of humanity. But, my God,
you've got to understand what it's like on the streets." His face was
soaked and shiny with tears, and his mouth was stretched back and
contorted. The force of his sobs shook his body, and the bulging veins in
his neck trembled as he heaved at the air.

The waitress approached us in halting steps, confused by the two late-night
clients who had happily ordered a pizza and now sat wailing at the cheap,
plastic table like something out of a Mexican soap opera. We both pulled
napkins from the holder and began to dry our faces and blow our noses as
she placed a thin, frozen-style pizza in front of us. The intensity around
us had been stirred and began to dissipate slowly. We sat quietly for
several minutes, looking down at the pizza that neither one of us really
wanted anymore. Manuel's strange confessions seemed to vibrate in the
silence, and we shifted awkwardly, still sniffling and hiccuping and wiping
at our eyes. Manuel took in a long, deliberate breath through his nose,
released it slowly through his mouth, and began to speak in a calm,
rational voice, as if he had suddenly changed characters in a one-man
street performance.

"Don't tell anyone that you're traveling alone," he said. "Buy a ring to
wear and show proudly to others. Speak loudly about your husband being on
his way so that everyone knows a man is close by. Know who is in front of
you and who walks behind you at all times. Know that the police will not
help you any more than the thieves. Understand the poverty of my people and
the temptation of the tourists with their expensive clothes and money
belts. Just try to understand. Try to see."

That night, as I lay in bed in my closet-size hotel room, I felt farther
from home than I'd ever been. I listened to music on my Walkman and cried
quietly in the dark. Manuel was right: I was careless, and the incident had
created a chasm between us. He saw me as hopelessly removed from the
reality of his past and his people, and I saw him as unnervingly real.

Although only a few days had passed since I'd left home, I had already, in
some way, been drastically changed. I now pictured myself alone and
vulnerable, teetering gracelessly through a land of hungry people who
would never see past my white skin and money belt. And for the first time I
wondered if I would ever make it home.

The next morning, before 6 o'clock, instead of preparing to go down to the
plaza to meet Manuel, I crawled out of bed and packed my bag. I turned in
my key, paid my bill and called a cab. At the terminal, I bought a ticket
for the first bus going toward the Pacific Coast, hoping to find my
strength by the calm of the sea.

As the bus lumbered onto the highway and began to pick up speed, I felt a
draining sense of relief, as if fleeing a place of madness. I turned to
watch the towering domes and spires of Guanajuato shrink in the distance
until they were swallowed up by the hills. Though my self-confidence was
badly bruised, I would have to recover. Innocent or not, I wouldn't go home
until the trip was over, and the wedding ring would have to wait.

By Diane Weipert

Diane Weipert is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Diane Weipert

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Latin America Mexico Travel