January 27, 2021KR OnlineNonfiction

A River Passes By Here

At the start of the COVID-19 quarantine, I moved into my girlfriend’s apartment, a renovated garage in a triangle of blocks where three Mexico City neighborhoods come together. We share it with Lázaro, a handsome, anxious, black-and-brown half greyhound that Mariana adopted four years ago after a friend found him curled up under a truck.

We quickly took on a slower, quieter pace of life. We spent long mornings reading in bed, drinking coffee, and snuggling with Lázaro. We made the small space ample: I at my desk in the garage, Mariana in her woodshop on the roof. Every meal home-cooked. But more than anything, Lázaro’s need to go out, daily—something that Mariana said had, in certain other seasons, kept her out of the worst depths of depression—structured our quarantine.

On an evening walk ten days in, Mariana led Lázaro and me to the intersection where Avenida Insurgentes, the longest street in Mexico, crosses the Miguel Alemán Viaduct. She showed me that the traffic divider is actually a concrete and metal tube that has encased a river, the Río de la Piedad, since 1942. On top of the divider is the ecoducto: a 1.6-kilometer walking path lined with plants that help filter the water before it drains into the tube. Aquí pasa un río, reads a placard. A river passes by here. I noticed the smell first: herbs cut through the smog, sewage, and burning trash that otherwise overwhelm Mexico City’s air. The path was lined with lavender, rosemary, citronella. Mariana broke off a piece of lavender and stuck it through the buttonhole of her shirt.

The following Friday I joined a Zoom call, replacing a biweekly meeting of women in leadership positions serving Mexico’s deportee community. The NGO that hosts the group sent its psychologist to join the call. She told us to bring paper and markers. We turned off our cameras for ten minutes to draw something that gave us peace.

In the shrunken world of lockdown, I was missing California, where I was born: the trees, the hills, the way tendrils of the natural world weave themselves into the urban grid. Before moving to Mexico City, I had lived close enough to San Francisco Bay that when the wind blew east, my apartment smelled like salt water—close enough to convince myself that the constant sound of treads hitting asphalt (580 runs along the water there) was waves lapping. Despite the fact that shallow San Francisco Bay has virtually no waves. From the room in the Escandón neighborhood where I had lived before moving in with Mariana, I could hear furious freeway rushing from the viaduct, as well, but there was no water to trick myself with. Or so I had thought.

We turned on our cameras and held up our drawings, one by one. Everyone had drawn trees, grass, their stick-figure selves in nature. Most of us laughed at the similarities. But one woman, separated by deportation from her sons for three years, started to cry. This is what gives me peace, but it isn’t just what I can’t have right now—it’s what I lost three years ago. So it’s what I think of to bring me peace, but then it gives me this painful nostalgia.

Every megalopolis erases its natural environment, but Mexico City especially. The city is located in an endorheic basin that originally held five lakes. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlán stood on a man-made island within the largest, the salty Lake Texcoco. In the middle of the salt lake sits the metropolis, like an immense flower of stone, wrote Mexican writer and diplomat Alfonso Reyes in 1915. When Texcoco’s floods jeopardized the property of the Spanish colonial elite, they began to drain it, reducing its surface area from one thousand square kilometers in 1519 to two hundred in 1850. During the dry season, wind lifted soil from the dry lakebed and filled the city’s air with dust; during the summer rainy season, the lake returned and overflowed.

Life here is filled with rituals that have to do with water. Kneeling on the patio in front of the water heater, opening the gas valve, lighting the pilot light. The whoosh when it catches. Waiting twenty minutes before showering. Adding three drops of iodine to the tap water, then boiling it. Always ending up drinking it warm. The tap water here was delicious before they started adding the chlorine, Mariana says, a minority opinion.

After a major flood in 1886, seven-term president Porfirio Díaz initiated the Gran Desagüe del Valle de México, the Great Drainage of the Valley of Mexico, to finish the job. Between 1878 and 1906, his engineers drained 66 percent of Texcoco’s remaining surface area. Drainage was accepted as the surest option for flood prevention—as well as the “modern” option, looking to California’s Central Valley. Opponents raised concerns about increased dust and damage to building foundations. They weren’t wrong. In 1923, scientists counted an average of seventy-four dust events per year, blocking out the sun, stopping traffic, and covering residents with brown, dried-up lake soil. And in contemporary Mexico City, people describe the centro’s colonial-era buildings the same way they do crooked teeth: son chuecos.

Mixing in hibiscus and sugar and still calling it water. The bikes welded with platforms to deliver carboys. The harsh buzz of the pump that brings water from the underground cistern to the tank on the roof. Planning summer days around the afternoon downpours. The altitude that makes the dishes dry so quickly. My skin so dry it feels too tight.

On another quarantine evening, Mariana, Lázaro, and I returned to the ecoducto. A new health department billboard told us to stay home. AT&T and Netflix had bought space, trusting that we would. Other billboards were abandoned; their shredded white backgrounds fluttered. I noted that the buildings that overlook the viaduct look worn down, though the neighborhoods through which it passes are gentrifying, upscale. One newly constructed building, wrapped in triangular flags, had seven stories of apartments, all visibly unoccupied through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Living on a freeway must be a hard sell. Even for the duration of a walk, the incessant, close sound of cars was irritating. In front of another building, abandoned midconstruction after the 2017 earthquake, Mariana pointed to a tree she knew as a cerillo, for the way its bare bark and bursts of red berries resemble matches. Other, older buildings spilled their storage and rusty boilers onto their balconies. As it got dark, I could see through the windows to the painted plaster apartment walls as though they were the Zoom squares I spent my days with.

Reyes wrote of the desiccation of the Mexico Basin: Three races have worked on it, and almost three civilizations . . . from Nezhualcóyotl [ruler of the city-state of Texcoco in pre-Columbian Mexico] to Luis de Velasco the second, and from there to Porfirio Díaz. . . . Our century found us still throwing the final scoop and opening the last ditch. Mariana’s father, a civil engineer, worked on one of those, literally, last-ditch efforts, the Sistema de Drenaje Profundo, a tunnel built in 1975 to drain Mexico City’s water to the state of Hidalgo, considered the largest public work the country had ever undertaken.

In 1912, Mexico City’s chief hydraulic engineer began a project to reclaim Texcoco for agriculture, through drainage, “washing” the soil of salts, fertilizing, and planting willow, tamarisk, and eucalyptus. Mexico’s decade of revolution interrupted the efforts; dust storms returned with a vengeance. Reclamation efforts returned in the 1930s, only to be terminated in 1946 by President Miguel Alemán—for whom the viaduct is named—in order to redirect the funds to industrial salt production. By 1960, the city’s annual average of dust storms was above sixty, and frequently caused the city’s international airport to close.

On one of our first dates, Mariana told me that for years she had been sculpting with salt, mixed with a tiny bit of concrete for structure. I told her I was working on a cycle of essays about salt lakes. A strange thing to have in common. She showed me images of salt flats I’d never heard of: Mauritius, Bolivia, Baja California. Then she showed me an image of a set of salt cubes she had made. Each varied from the next, sections missing or small pieces of wood added. They looked striking all lined up, their perfect textures and shapes like a minimalist model of a neighborhood. When we visited her studio, she found one of those she still has. She offered it to me to unwrap. “You can lick it,” she said.

In 1965, Harvard-educated engineer and soil scientist Nabor Carrillo came up with a proposal to stop the dust storms. He would recreate a large portion of Lake Texcoco with treated urban wastewater, pump groundwater from underneath the lake bed to end wet-season floods, and reforest the dry lake bed. Though he died unexpectedly two years later, the project continued. A significant portion of the remaining undeveloped land of the saline bed has now been planted with halophytes, and four reservoirs cover three thousand hectares of the lake bed with treated wastewater and receive the water from the seven rivers of the eastern Mexico Basin. The largest, named for Carrillo, is a rectangle with rounded corners, like a shape you didn’t mean to draw in Microsoft Word.

On Easter, I took Lázaro to the viaduct alone. Amidst the ivy, agapanthus, and Nymphaea mexicana of the “aquatic area,” a placard explained that the wetlands along the path are constructed in the same way as chinampas, the man-made islands that were used for cultivation in the freshwater zones of the Mexico Basin before those lakes were drained. A lizard ran across my path. An orange bird landed on one of the bushes. There used to be lizards everywhere, Mariana had told me another day. And you rarely see birds in Mexico City.

“He was a brilliant engineer,” Mariana’s dad told me when I asked him about Carrillo. “But he went and studied en el gabacho and when he came back he’d lost his sense of humor. He wasn’t Mexican anymore.” In one, important way, too, Carrillo’s project fails. By ending the floods and dust storms, he stripped Mexico City of its last reminder of the environment that bore the city.

While I worked at my desk, Mariana looked on Google Maps at the area surrounding Mexico City, absorbing the colors and shapes of the landscape. She went outside with paint pens from a graffiti store and filled the cracked shapes of the sidewalk around the corner with greens and yellows, like the hills and fields of the aerial imagery. Geografías actuales, she called them. As she painted, a friend from primary school walked by with her daughter. It turned out that they had lived blocks away from one another for years without knowing. Mariana showed them the little geographies. It feels so good to talk with someone, the friend said.

“I think we’re going to miss these times,” Mariana said one afternoon, as we were lying on our bed for an after-lunch nap. I knew we were. Sharing the space with each other constantly made for so many opportunities to pass one another, to touch and kiss one another, to do favors for one another, to offer patience. The more we were entangled with one another in the house, the more our affection grew.

Quarantine permitted us to live at such a small scale that our life became a multispecies one. Our domestic patterns became parallel to those of a canine. We harvested lavender from a viaduct to make tea. We planted vegetables in buckets on our rooftop. But this shouldn’t have surprised me: the quarantine, after all, was itself precipitated by the unavoidable link between the human and the animal, the ecological. “Imagining the interactions among roots, hyphae, charcoal and bacteria . . . is as good a way as any to refigure our understanding of survival as a collaborative project,” writes Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World of the nets of fungal hyphae that connect and communicate through soil. That sense of smallness, of being entangled, I hope to carry with me long after this is all over. It is, perhaps, what I missed about the running trails in Oakland and the presence of the ocean in California, which is the same reason I feel drawn to the ecoducto: the presence of nature, of other ecologies, defying the myth of urban space. A city, a life in which a sign saying a river passes by here would be unnecessary, redundant.

“Did you know Texcoco was a salt lake?” I ask Mariana one morning while reading in bed, immersed in Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake, disbelieving that I had been writing about salt lakes for over a year on the dry bed of one without knowing.

“No,” she says, the engineer’s daughter, the salt-artist, “I had no idea.”