Returning to a Homeland That's Not

After having lived in New York for a few years, curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy accepted to direct an art museum in Mexico City. A report on the differences between one metropolis and the other.

For better or worse, by 1998, the year I arrived in New York, Mayor Giuliani had cleaned up the city, and a dozen years later almost every corner of the city had passed through a process of urban gentrification. The conversation pieces that filled our lives – findings from everyday archaeological digs that had made their way home, inherited furniture from sidewalks, books from used-racks and second-hand clothing – turned into signifiers of a lifestyle. Such was a new form of bohemia, some critics remarked. I had been living for the last handful of years in some freelancers’ haven – in a neighbourhood packed for the most part with entrepreneurial thirty-something foreigners turned locals who brought with them organic foods and stylish cafes that operated like public offices. Financial crisis or not, things remained pretty nice. And yet, I decided to leave.

The move was in June 2009. Earlier that spring, I was offered the directorship of a contemporary art museum – the Tamayo, as it’s commonly called – and after much thought and months of personal deliberation, and, needless to say, much institutional negotiation, I concluded it was an invitation hard to pass up. It’s time to give back, some colleagues expressed, in hopes that a patriotic sentiment would get me moving, would get me down here. It’s time for significant change, I thought, as I watched Obama videos online. Impossible to determine at the moment what tips the balance, and better not to think what was most influential. Point is, I agreed. I took the position.

Returning to Mexico was not exactly swift. True, it’s just across the border. True, I had visited Mexico twice, sometimes thrice, a year while living abroad. And true, both contexts were familiar to me, for growing up in a US-MEX border town had given me the skin and tongue of a chameleon. Cultural adaptation was business as usual. But, ultimately, neither family nor familiarity was able to predict or shield the culture shock that came with moving to Mexico City. Even as New York had trained me to love ceaseless production and the tension that comes with it, never was I prepared to experience the kind of nerve that’s triggered in D.F., the country’s capital.

I found my new home in an apartment building in Zona Rosa. The flat is in the third and top floor of a slightly leaning 1938 deco-style building. The façade is painted pink and over it is a dusty yet sheer gray lining that no doubt comes from years of car exhaust fumes. The street is called Burdeos (Bordeaux), and the cross-lanes are Tokio (Tokyo) and Hamburgo (Hamburg), where, I later found out, teenage hustlers get picked up at night, every night. Critical to choosing this apartment above others I’d scouted was the fact the building survived the 1985 Mexico earthquake, which had devastated many neighbouring homes. It would keep standing if another quake comes, I thought. The apartment was also compelling for its proximity to the Central Park of Mexico City, Bosque de Chapultepec, and thus a walking distance to the Tamayo. The apartment pros, however, were surpassed by the cons quite quickly.

During the apartment search, it never occurred to me to inquire about the water system. Or electricity. Or gas. Or trash pick-up. Or mail. Nor anything else of that kind – things that, in retrospect, I never even thought about in New York. They just existed. In Mexico City, I assumed these were common services, things that would come with the package, and that I would learn about when someone knocked at the door or when the bills arrived. I was wrong. I am not a bohemian, I found myself saying to my disbelief, while convincing my Burdeos neighbour that we had the right of having these simple things. But no, nothing is common here. Let me correct that: Here, nothing is really regular. From the yuppie landlord no help, not a word, except, this is how it is here, he says. Here, my homeland, Mexico. The place I left twelve years ago for a reason – or many – as I suddenly remembered.

The City – and with capital ‘c’ it meant the local government – had to administer the water in times of drought, and so from Friday to Monday there was not a drop. The gas: once a month, tenants rotated the task of reading everyone apartment’s gas meter, collecting the money from each, and calling for the tank refills. The not-so-super-intendent, as she is known in the building, helped by keeping the meter notebook. She also turned on the hall lights, when she remembered. That was that. The trash pick-up as a public service: none to be heard of; instead, a 66-year-old man who came every Thursday at 11 AM did us the favour of collecting our trash for a tip and taking it… somewhere. The mail, good luck if it arrived. And the electricity? Well, I had to bring in a team to change all the electric cabling in the apartment, seeing as when I plugged in the first appliance the power went out.

To get settled, to get things rolling, in my first couple of weeks here I had hired over a dozen services that are part of Mexico’s informal economy. Parasitic agencies, mom-and-pop businesses that are known by word of mouth and accept cash only. It’s been half a year, here in Mexico, D.F., and my street suaveness and negotiating skills are at their best. My cell-phone address book can pass as a survival kit. My supposedly bohemian lifestyle in New York can be described as Mexican petite bourgeoisie, and, while it makes me noxious at times, it’s at least a choice I made, with consequences I can bear.

The American DIY philosophy that I had once contempt for – the one that relieves the consumer from depending on the American private sector – has become my preferred modus operandi for getting Mexican public services. Needless to say, my institutional environment is by far more challenging than any situation I find in my Burdeos home. And the lessons, even critiques, of the curatorial practice of New Institutionalism [flexible, self-critical, experimental art institutes – ed.] are much welcomed. For here, working creatively within systems and changing processes, when convenient, lead the way to making a cultural project viable.