Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Home, sort of: A 'Mexican gringo' in Mexico City

Among the many writers appearing this weekend on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held this year at USC, is one whose book I've been particularly enjoying lately.

In 2007, former LA Weekly and Los Angeles Times staff writer Daniel Hernandez set off to live in Mexico City, a place he had visited after college but otherwise had little personal connection with. A Mexican American from San Diego, he was intrigued by the "impossible megacity," as he describes it, a cultural capital that is woefully undervalued in the United States.

The result of his move is "Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century," published earlier this year. The book starts out in December 2007 as Hernandez participates in the annual Virgen of Guadalupe pilgrimage to La Villa in the north of the city, a mix of religion and revelry. "This is my first real test, my welcoming," he writes. "Not as a Catholic, but as a paisano."

Along the way, as Hernandez explores Mexico City's youth and fashion cultures, its religious cults, its dangers and decadence, its stratified social castes and fringe communities (among them deported Mexican Americans from the north), one thing he becomes acutely aware of is his "Californianess." An excerpt:

After three years of living here, I am still referred to as güero - white boy - by strangers on the street. To capitalinos who know enough about what a U.S. upbringing produces - our manner of walking, for one, quick and exasperated, our tentative Spanish, that starting pocho accent - I am a gringo regardless of how dark my skin might be. I am a Mexican gringo, if you will.

We are still regarded with some level of suspicion in Mexico City. Native capitalinos might see pochos as cultural bastards. In the city of swindlers, people might also presume pochos pose an easy opportunity to squeeze some extra pesos out of the day. But mostly people in Mexico City these days just want to make connections.

"What part of the U.S. are you from?" a girl asks me plaintively one night.

She is making a deep and accurate assumption; not a word has been shared. I am with Susana, at our bar on the downtown alley near the mound of garbage. Again. I tell the girl where I am from, and she just starts crying on me, there in the middle of the cantina, by the jukebox. She cries about how she misses her man on the other side. She holds on to me tight, clutching my shoulders, feeling for my California skin.

Identity is one of the many themes Hernandez explores in the book, as is immigration and its repercussions. Though as he mentioned a couple of months ago during a book reading in Echo Park, the notion of living in the United States is far off the radar for many a Mexico City-centered capitalino, as interconnected as the two countries are.

Hernandez plans to remain in the Mexican capital for now, he told the Los Angeles Times, which featured a profile yesterday. He'll be speaking on a panel titled "History, Identity & Purpose: California, Chicanos & Beyond" at the book festival Saturday afternoon.