Is it true that each culture can be a treasure trove for all humanity? Giuliana confirms this hypothesis for us by recounting stories from her childhood summer vacations in Mexico, which marked her for life, giving her a taste for lively colors, a passion for traditional markets and a particular way of thinking about death.
My recollections of Mexico are burned into the innermost sanctum of my memory. They are intertwined with the extraordinary experiences from my childhood, the discovery of the most vivid and colorful of life’s hues, those times that would forever alter the way I imagined the exotic and the way I appreciated beauty and color, and that would create in me the ever-present need to come into direct contact with the most authentic humanity and the most luxuriant nature.
Nearly every summer from 1989 to 1999, my brother and I had the good fortune to be able to travel from Italy to the birthplace of our mother, accompanied by her and several other family members from our ‘Californian diaspora’. After crossing the US border from San Diego, on the Pacific coast, to Tijuana, we would fly to Mexico’s capital on an Aeromexico plane, the country’s flagship airline.
The moment of landing in Mexico City brought with it a liberating, almost spiritual enthusiasm. I could see my mother’s overflowing emotions each time she returned to her homeland, and I was also somehow conscious of being reunited with something that was an essential part of my own life as well, a parallel dimension that had little in common with the Italian one of my regular life.
The capital of Mexico appeared to my eyes as a place of magic and madness, marked by harrowing contradictions and a primordial energy of constant renewal. It was a universe of daily and spontaneous discoveries, engaging my imagination to the fullest, and giving me the most intense impressions through its novel and unending delights for the senses.
It was in Mexico that I discovered the flavor of tropical fruit for the first time—I still remember the day when I gorged myself on so many mangoes that I got a terrible indigestion. It was there that I discovered the fearsome powers of true Mexican chili. It was there that I first held in my hands a magnificent hummingbird, and it was there that I got struck again and again by the merciless ‘Montezuma’s revenge’, elsewhere commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea. But more than anything, it was there that I came face to face with the biggest fear there is—the fear of death, which came to me in the form of one of its ubiquitous popular representations, which would disturb my innocent dreams for some time.
It was in one of the flea markets, called tianguis (an old Nahuatl word, from long before the Spaniards came), that I first ran into the so-called Cajitas de muertos (‘Little boxes of the dead’), small handcrafted dioramas with the theme of death. The sight of these little ‘shrines’ made me uncomfortable right from the start, raising existential questions that, at my age, could no longer be ignored. I didn’t understand what was the point of such macabre representations, or how my mother and her sisters could like these things so much—these skeletons, these skulls, made of plaster, sugar or paper—and even find them funny! They didn’t make me want to laugh at all. Instead, they stirred up in me a fear and an aversion that I just couldn’t control.
Yet, as I spent more time immersed in this strange world, and came into contact with its values in the most intimate way, I finally developed the awareness I needed in order to overcome my childish reaction. I learned to appreciate to the fullest this part of Mexican culture, which connects death with laughter in a way we wouldn’t even think possible, and manages to collectively exorcise one of the biggest taboos of humanity, particularly in the Western world.
I also learned to love the vibrant street markets, not just in the capital, but also those in the small light-filled pueblitos that we visited during our stays in the lush Valle de Bravo, near Lake Avándaro, where my grandfather owned a summer house, a few hours away from the big city.
I would wander among the stalls, searching for precious objects that could encapsulate my Mexican experience as a whole, channel my affection into solid material form: colorful beaded necklaces with figures of animals and children, small wicker creations, silver rings with Aztec symbols, such as the famous Piedra del Sol, that I had seen in the museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec, and so many others. I needed the reality of those little objects, both to give expression to my love for this land and to remind myself of its existence after returning home to Italy. I needed them as irrefutable proof that this world was real, and not just a figment of the wild imagination of a child.
But as the new millennium dawned, my mother became more and more reluctant to take the usual summer trip to her Mexican homeland, as the growing perception of the danger of being in that country was brought up again and again. It finally turned into a taboo, a forced expulsion of a kind, which my brother and I tried to resist. Unlike him, I finally yielded.
With time and distance, my second country became a kind of ‘Mexico of the mind’, an ‘imaginary homeland’, like India for Salman Rushdie, and its memory fed my bittersweet nostalgia for something elusive, a past that had been lived, but was also idealized—a world which, inevitably, could never be the same.
The severing of my physical connection with Mexico went on to feed the flame of my search for belonging—to an imaginary place that I projected countless times onto different real ones, to make up for the loss of the relationship with that source of life, that visceral and irresistible attraction for the senses. I became convinced, again and again, that I could find my Mexico in the colorful bazaars of the Balkans and Turkey, in the coruscating traditional costumes of Bulgaria, in the near-psychedelic brightness of the patterns of the artisan fabrics of the Caucasus, in the Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in others too many to recount.
I kept alive my own forms of nostalgic remembrance, with a series of daily rituals encompassing my memories of that lost paradise. Today, I still wear my bead necklaces, my silver bracelets and rings from Valle di Bravo, the earrings I got in a tianguis, and the scarf my brother bought in Chiapas.
And, 18 years after I bought the last of them in Mexico City, I still keep my cajitas de muertos with me—the laughing skeletons whose mocking grins no longer make me afraid.
This story has initially been written into Italian by the impressive plume of Giustina Selvelli.
It was then beautiful trans-created and polished by Eugen R., and carefully proofed by Eugenia P. until it shined like a diamond.
Finally, it was all magically spelled out to you by our lovely Project Manager Katerina.