photo by Joy Morgenstern

Our neighborhood, Colonia San Antonio, is pretty working-class, and residences and businesses are all mixed together. (Actually, this mix is typical throughout the city; only some new, built-for-gringos neighborhoods follow the pattern of US suburbs, with tracts of housing uninterrupted by anything as useful as a grocery store.) Add to these factors a relaxed attitude toward time and a welcoming attitude toward children, and you get a walk home from school that is utterly fascinating to a three-year-old who loves to watch people making things.

Her favorite stop is a carpentry/cabinetmaking shop two blocks from school, where the whine of machinery tells us we’re getting close, and then the smell of pine tells us we’re there. Munchkin wants to know everything: What are they making? What is he doing? What are these curly things on the floor? The man who seems to be the chief carpenter always stops his saw when he sees her and squats down to talk to her, and to give her some of the wood shavings.

A few doors up from the wood shop is some kind of metalworking shop; we haven’t seen it open that often, but one time someone was welding inside, throwing exciting sparks, and we always hope to see it again.

If we take a different route home from school, we pass a mechanic who is just as willing as the cabinetmaker to stop and explain what he’s doing, and whose work is just as fascinating to the munchkin. She thinks it’s very cool that he can put cars together. I tell her maybe one day she’ll be able to do it herself, and she’s pleased by that idea. It will probably still be a useful skill in 20 years–or, if we dare to hope that private cars will be rarer than today, there will still be some kind of engines to repair.

On the street just by the San Antonio church, another mechanic shop seems to be right out in the street. It first caught our notice when there was a taxi out front in a sad state. We walked by it a few times, not realizing it was there to be repaired (I thought it looked like a car by the side of a New York City highway after the chop shop has gotten to it), and then one day a man was working on it and we realized that the whole street is the extension of a mechanic’s yard on the same block. Munchkin wanted to watch him work on the taxi, so we sat up on a wall next to the sidewalk for a long time and talked about what he was doing, which was soldering new parts onto the inside of the hood. He didn’t mind at all. The munchkin was very interested in all the things wrong with the taxi; I was impressed that with broken windows, no wheels, and a devastated front end, it was still going to be fixed up and put on the road again. It has long since left the mechanic street, so who knows, maybe we’ve ridden in it since.

We pass two tortillerias on the way home, one of which is right around the corner from our house. There are plenty of places where you can see women making tortillas by hand, or more often, gorditas (thick tortillas that are cooked, cut in half, and filled like a pita), but the tortilleria has a machine. If it’s running, we’ll stop and watch the tortillas come out of the machine onto a neat stack, just like the kids in a book the munchkin loves from the San Miguel Biblioteca, Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup – Caldo, Caldo, Caldo. I think it looks like a big improvement over making each one by hand, but still a really hot place to work on a June day. The lady at the counter always gives the munchkin a warm rolled-up tortilla, even though we’re no one’s dream customers, the way we buy tortillas by the paltry quarter-kilo.

Munchkin loves to watch people work. So do I. Usually I’m shy about it except in the few situations where the workers expect an audience, such as at a crafts fair where someone is throwing pots on the wheel, or a factory tour. When I was a little girl, a big attraction of going to Pepe’s Pizza was how I’d spend the time waiting for the pizza to come: I’d watch the guys in the big open kitchen ladling sauce onto the dough, slapping down the mozzarella like they were dealing cards, and then sliding the pizzas in and out of the brick oven on their enormous wooden spatulas. When I went back as an adult and stood there watching, the nearest cook kept looking up in a disgruntled way. I hope he isn’t like that with kids, just with adults. Maybe the people in our colonia wouldn’t be so comfortable with my standing there if I didn’t have a three-year-old holding my hand, but all I know is they always seem happy to see Munchkin and to take a moment to chat.

Most of the places we’ve lived, this kind of work takes place behind closed doors and we don’t get to see it in action. Walking through this colonia makes me feel a little like Shevek, in one of my favorite chapters in one of my favorite books, The Dispossessed, when he first comes to Abbenay, and walks through the courtyards where people are building, dyeing, and doing all the other work of a city: “nothing is hidden.”

(#3 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

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