South Centro | Mérida, Mexico
The neighborhood is colorful. Dusty, empty, but filled with life, both past and present.
Women carry sombrillas and preach the Gospel of Jesus door-to-door.
Men build and sand and reshape the gentrifying frontier.
Kids, with limited access to resources, make up games by diving into their imaginations without abandon.
Guard dogs with curious eyes and shifty dispositions.
Steeples and palapa-thatched roofs and En Venta y En Renta signs sloppily hung on every other building on this crowded, one-way boulevard, Calle 64, a curvy stretch of metropolitan sprawl known as Centro, the southern portion, a once undesirable area whose expatriate floodgates have been opened, a tsunami of foreigners descending upon the City of Mérida, rapidly, a bum rush of gringos bombarding the Yucatan Peninsula from all directions.
As far as I’m concerned, Mérida and the surrounding areas stole the title of “Most Abandoned Buildings Per Square Mile” from Route 209 that stretches north to south in New York’s famed Hudson Valley. The only difference, though, is Calle 64 bursts with so much color amidst the dust and emptiness and creates a fullness that prevents that gloomy feeling of decay I so often experience in abandoned spaces in the United States (at least before I step into my imagination and transform any given space into my private world). It’s a long stretch of ruins, to be sure, but for some reason it doesn’t feel ghostly.
It makes sense, I guess, based on Perla’s assessment of the homeless and unhoused populations in Mérida (compared to somewhere like San Francisco where class warfare is at an all-time high). Perla says that homelessness isn’t an issue here in Mexico because the concept of family is so different from what we’re used to in the States. It’s primary, first, foremost, and the American ideals of independence don’t line up with it. “That’s why so many houses are fitted with many, many indoor hammock hooks,” Perla says. “So if you don’t have a place to sleep, you just go to your cousin or your sister’s house and hang up a hammock, no problem.”
As I walk slowly south on this hot Wednesday afternoon, all I see is love, woven through groups of people gathered up and down the cragged boulevard. Though these small tribes are overshadowed, physically, in the shadow of South Centro’s many ruins, the atmosphere is overcharged with love and plenty of it, and it balances any feelings of decay or dread. It’s a far cry from how millions of humans co-exist in the United States, the land of boundaries and walls and locked doors, despite the erroneous claim that our country is the Land of Opportunity.
I poke my head through various windows and scan the inside of all sorts of abandoned structures: day care centers and community centers and churches and private homes, both finished and unfinished, and a vast assortment of merchants, including a fish market that, if I close my eyes hard enough, I can see and hear and smell and taste and feel the life that once reverberated inside this store, the echoes of laughter and whispered conversations and impatient, loud phone calls and bargaining and inquiring and the purr of small commerce in a democratic republic with enough problems of its own without having to add the threat of war from a orange ghoul who lives across the pond, a man who has never thought about anybody but himself — and maybe his youngest girlfriend Ivanka, I mean his oldest daughter Ivanka, excuse me.
I open my eyes and scan the cleared shelves, cream and seafoam tones that, in part, mimic the palette of golden hour on the Yucatan Peninsula, paintings of fish and a sturdy cutting and register counter bursting with memories.
They are not my memories, but for whatever reason, they make me happy. Indeed, someone lived here. Or maybe someone lives here.
It’s hard to say in Mérida.
Either way, you can feel it.
And as I continue to wander down Calle 64, I ask myself, “Have we gotten it all wrong?”