Beds are hot; I understand why no one uses them here – hammocks allow the wind to find you, and for the sweat to dry as quick and gentle as it rises through the skin. They sell hammocks of all sorts and sizes: for two, for one, for infants, for the elderly, indoor, outdoor, for travel, for home. For now, until I find an apartment, I’ll have to make do with this hotel room. I could hardly sleep. The muggy heat leaked through cracks in the broken air conditioner, mounted high on the wall with loose screws, rattling as the condenser bucked and whistled with the first of the waking grackles.
The streets of the Cheguigu neighborhood are weightless at this hour. A blue-grey as deep as the ocean and as silent as a blade of grass washes over everything. Not until noon will they begin baking off their dust. For now, last night’s discarded mango peels are moist and unwrinkled in the gutters. Crows stand still behind a veil of dew in the Cacalosúchil trees. The tire-flattened lizards, and their last efforts to blend in with the grey pavement, are barely visible among the loose gravel and debris until you step on them. At this hour, the middles of the roads are for walking. At the cross streets in the flattening distance, the meandering shadows of street dogs hunch towards the marketplace, punctuated only by a drunk staggering, or the faint squeal of rusted pushcart spokes.
Cheguigu means “across the river” in diidxazá (dee-jah-SAH), the Isthmus Zapotec language. It is also known as the 8th and 9th wards, but those are just numbers assigned by the state; you might only find them on maps, or tagged in gang graffiti on the corner buildings of side streets. Part of the Cheguigu identity is the language – they say Cheguigu is where diidxazá is still spoken in its purest form, however this is also a claim made by the 7th ward on the city’s southside, where seafood mongers sun-cook silver mackerel on mattress coils, a specialty called bendabidxi (dry fish). This neighborhood is more known for the radical, grassroots organizing of the moto-taxi union, and for the river delicacies, including iguanas and the aphrodisiac Dxitabigu (turtle eggs). Despite its being split by two wards, Cheguigu is still understood as a singular neighborhood by the old-timers and traditional families, only separated from the rest of Juchitán by the river.
The walking bridge that connects Cheguigu to the 1st ward, or el centro, is forty feet above the river and just wide enough to fit two-abreast. Bicycles must be walked. A simple head nod and a badudxi (good day) will do for the greetings. At the start of the bridge, the jungle-green shrubs slope sharply down into the gorge, and the bridge itself disappears in the suspended fog. Months past the rainy season, there is hardly any water below, and despite the heavy loads of dumped waste that strangle most attempts at life, the broad-leafed trees and bushes flourish in the riverbed, even if the fish and the bi’cunisa (“water dogs”, or nutrias) cannot. In short time, the mototaxistas will line up along the riverside and listen to music, leaning against their windshields while waiting for passengers. On the dark cement wall behind where they will be, the scarlet red logo for the grassroots political party are painted on the dark walls and in front of the roadside cantinas, still exhaling last night’s fumes through the squared and barred openings. C*O*C*E*I, the logo reads, the Coalition of Workers, Farmers and Students of the Isthmus, the first political party to beat the oligarchic PRI party in municipal elections since the Mexican Revolution.
Arriving in the center of town, the ceiba treetops in the zócalo are filing up with their dawn chorus of passerines. Across the main avenue, the marketplace and the city government share one building: The Municipal Palace – a long, white colonial structure with a clock tower and a vaulted arcade running along the front, above which the second floor windows with wrought iron railings cast thatched shadows on the cobbles. In a couple of hours, the wooden windows above will open as the municipal office workers file in, but until then the second floor remains empty. Down below, Juchitán’s famous market women are heating up coals, stirring in atole and chocolate, chopping cilantro and onion, and chipping at fresh blocks of ice.
Entering through the arches, and traversing a network of tight corridors and narrow passageways, I remembered Celia’s place the moment I saw it. Last time I was here I had met Celia, a veteran of the market whose daughters live in Mexico City. She was the first to teach me words in diidxaza and help with my poetry translations. But that was when I was just a visitor, a student there for a few days. This was different. I’d have to explain to Celia that I was here indefinitely, that I was looking for a job and an apartment.
I sit down in the dark corridor lined with tables covered in blue plastic cloth and plastic buckets and pales where hot water and tortillas are kept, red and blue plastic coolers filled with ice and glass bottles of soda. Along the benches that line the table, about forty men in total, heading off, or many of them coming back, from the fields and lagunas, eating guarnachas (small fried tortillas topped with a shredded, slow cooked beef, onions and cabbage). All of them are drinking coca cola, like beer for the morning. This may as well be a cantina, the room is dim, the walls are cinderblocks and smoke drifts throughout from the coals beneath the cooking pots. Behind the vendors’ tables, metal trash barrels are sliced in half long ways layed across horizontal, filled with coal and laced with embers. Atop small piles of coal, three to four pale blue pots sit steaming across each barrel. All the vendors are women, and this is how they work in this particular corridor.
Celia tosses a block of dark brown cocoa into a large metal pitcher; then, using a bowl made from the shell of a jicara, scoops out boiling rice milk from a pot above the flaming coals, and dumps it into the pitcher of chocolate. She then takes up a wooden stick with a knob on one end, sticks the knobbed end into the pitcher and spins it with her hands together around the stick, like she was praying, or staring a fire with small tree limbs. She rubs them together fast and moves her shoulders in a circular motion. The fat and muscle in her arms shake as she blends, and she’s not sweating, nor is her forehead wrinkled with effort or concentration. She’s smiling and laughing with the women at the table next to her, saying something I can’t understand in diidxazá, something about the gringo, chopping cabbage and placing handfuls into a bright yellow bucket. She turns to me with a smile as she pours the steaming champurrado into a bowl, and asks what I’ll have to eat. Behind her, there are soot stains on the walls in the shape of mushroom clouds, exactly separated by the shadowy distance between each stove, made from aluminum 50-gallon drums sheered in half, long ways, and filled with coal.