Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

At the Table with Hungry Ghosts: Intimate Borderwork in Mexico City

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

At the Table with Hungry Ghosts: Intimate Borderwork in Mexico City

Article excerpt

I watched [my father] ... make tamales. The masa dough [on the counter] ... Corn husks soaked in a huge pot. The filling.cactus strips and kernels of corn in a chile-tomato sauce.had been ready since morning ... While he worked, he talked ... 'The mouth can talk', he said, 'but tasting is first. Talk is just the translation.' He put some cactus filling in my mouth.

Thomas Fox Averill1

Living in the crosshairs of this cultural shift, I am both expression and instrument of it: double resident, hence double agent, in the service of both sides and neither. Spiritual migrant, permanent gringo, riding the tidal currents that surge across this semipermeable membrane, la frontera.

Tony Cohen2


The plane leaves LAX, Los Angeles' airport, and heads south of the border. It seems like cheating to cross in this way-to duck the long queues of cars at checkpoints, constantly recycled in films such as Traffic and Babel. Nevertheless, the sense of border is palpable. Some hours earlier, while waiting at LAX during the 'constrained time'3 that air travel inevitably imposes, I felt haunted by the border's imagined presence: its displacements and relocations, its economies of movement, belonging and loss. Now, as the plane approaches Mexico City, however, this imagined (and actual) sense of movement-of lines of division and the crossing of these-is replaced by the stasis of the view below: a cartography of megalopolis. Gridded into a valley marked by volcanic peaks, Mexico's iconic global city appears as a dense, repeating pattern of streets filled with traffic and of neighbourhoods with squat white buildings, stretching towards the mountains (it is an unusually clear day).

The writing of the French theorist Michel de Certeau haunts my descent. Reflecting on the view over Manhattan from the top of the World Trade Center in the 1980s, de Certeau famously argued that such structures materialise the scopic imaginaries of urban professionals (architects, urban planners, bureaucrats) and 'construct the fiction that creates readers, makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilises its opaque mobility in a transparent text'.4 Meanwhile, 'The ordinary practitioners of the city live "down below", below the threshold at which visibility begins. They walk...'.5 In the company of ghosts then.border-crossers, planners, 'ordinary' city dwellers and a cultural theorist.I stare through the plane window and find Mexico City's 'immense texturology' as a 'panorama-city' overwhelming.6

This article is a meditation on borders, cities and people's everyday practices of belonging and exchange, in contexts of diasporic movement and transnational identity. Its aim is to address some related questions about difference and exchange of cultural meaning within the everyday of global cities. Crucially, these questions focus on how people live together, how boundaries of difference are strengthened, crossed or permeated, and how insights from postcolonial theorising might shape analyses of these concerns. I have been worrying at such a project in its general outline for some time, and from various perspectives.7 Threads will be unravelled here to ascertain whether these can be productively drawn together for conceptualising daily, accretional moments of living-in-transculturalism.8 (And here I am borrowing from Ien Ang's 'together-in-difference' to suggest the 'lived' experience of identities that, in the minutiae of daily life interactions, recognise, yet transcend, cultural boundaries.)9 In many respects, the argument presented here becomes a very personal one. Not only does it emerge from narratives of food exchanges within relations of intimacy, but it also allows, for me as author, a (somewhat nostalgic) return to a particular theorist who has become a familiar figure in my writing. Let us begin this journey in the company of de Certeau and others to signal, conceptually speaking, the potential presence of particular hungry ghosts at the table of interview memories and their analysis. …

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