Casa Palma is in a working class neighborhood called Cerro del Cuarto. The tourists and the higher end charm are down in el centro, which is small and packed into a narrow gorge — in most places, only a couple of blocks wide.
My days here pass quickly, but unhurried. I attend Spanish language classes in the morning, then find a reason to go to one or two of the many small markets that sell produce from the nearby farms. I can buy as much as I can carry for $3 but I usually leave room for a bottle of wine because it isn’t sold up on the hill.
My walk home is a steep climb on the callejon, a walkway with a lot of stairs that challenge me with unpredictable patterns as I run the gauntlet of barking dogs hanging over the edges of rooftops.
Sometimes instead of walking, I take a taxi to a place near my house called Rampa de Los Eloteros, which means “ramp of the corn huskers.” At first, I assumed the name referred to something from the past, but it doesn’t. The corn huskers are still here, shucking ears of corn by hand for the people down the hill who roast it and sell it on the streets. In the evenings, I often have wonderful dinners full of conversation with new friends Aly and Adam, and then return home to watch Rachel Maddow, who is as perplexed as I am about the state of things at home.
My neighbor, Pepe, puts it all in perspective. He lives next door in a compound of three small houses with 20 members of his extended family. Nine are young children, including adorable Oswaldo who was born last week.
I had dinner with Pepe’s family last night. During these warm days, meals are cooked on the patio. Pepe tells me that, because this is Santa Semana (Easter Week), the enchiladas will be vegetarian.
When I arrive, I am seated at the table where there is not room for 22 people, so uncles and aunts and adolescent children come and go, a steady stream of names and smiles. Next to us, Pepe’s sister-in-law is preparing the enchiladas, waving a large spatula over rows of tortillas and piles of vegetables on a slab that is heated by a charcoal fire.
At dinner, there is lively discussion and laughter, mostly between Pepe’s wife, Anna, and her sisters. Pepe makes a point to include me by explaining things in simple Spanish. No one is looking at a phone or playing video games. The children play the kind of games that will wear them out, dancing and squealing as they take turns jumping off a 4-foot stack of bags full of something like flour. No one tells them to stop making noise. They are happy. I have never seen them not happy.
Pepe is an artist and his murals can be found all over town. He takes me for long walks up and down the hillsides to show me his work and explain its significance. He also shows me places of interest like the light house that either provided a beacon for the conquistadors coming from San Miguel, or guides planes away from the side of the hill. Both maybe. Our walks are Spanish lessons because Pepe does not speak English. Although he does not have much formal education, he understands a lot about the technicalities of his language and he has an instinct for teaching.
Yesterday, we were two hours into our walk when I sensed we are heading back toward Cerro del Cuarto. I ask Pepe whether he has ever thought about painting a mural that would tell the story of solidarity between the people of Mexico and the people of the United States. His response is complicated but animated, so I assume the answer is yes. A little while later, he stops at a large house on the callejon and waves his arm toward its bright orange wall. “Tengo permiso,” he says.