Tepoztlan is a mystical town two hours from Mexico City via van, a bumpy one that smells like the airport and old food. I am there for a writer’s retreat. My very first. Everyone seems like real adults, wearing chiffon scarves, woven shawls and tote bags with bookish slogans.
I’ve been alive for twenty years and every one of them, my family has spent summers and winters in Mexico. Abuela and my cousins greet us upon every arrival, gifting piles of food served on the wedding china and the warmth of their bodies as we sit on the floor. It is a second home, or perhaps my first, where things make sense and it smells like comfort. In the streets, wrinkled women bounce their arms up and down, waving displays of red woven shirts, leather shoes hung on tiny hooks. I put my hands in my pockets and feel the cold coins graze my skin, but I do not pull them out. No gracias, no gracias. My sister and I look American, dressed in converse and Jansport backpacks.
The first day in Tepoztlan we walk through the town center, swarming with locals and pockets of white tourists. Despite my culture, I am light-skinned; I often get mistaken for the latter, curly hair straightened and eyebrows waxed. Years of living in California has killed parts of me. I see a man selling huaraches, different hues of brown. The shoe sizing in Mexico is different, and I try to remember; I think a seven is a five. Or maybe it’s a four. My half-accented Spanish spews out mangled words. Puedo ver los zapatos cafes? Si, el cafe bajito. He pulls a pair off the hooks and I take them in my hands, only slightly bending the thick and stiff criss-cross of leather. I slide off my checkered Vans and slip into a size five, a chunk of air left at the front. My attempt to walk makes them flop off my pale feet and I ask for a size four instead. This time, my toes barely make it in. They are funneled by the tip of the shoe, my entire foot squeezed into a slight arch by the hard sole. He tells me they will stretch, so it’s better to buy the smaller size. I want to believe him, this small man with dark skin, with eyes that droop from age and sun and shoulders sinking under the weight of time and pounds of sandals. I pull out a wrinkled bill of 200 pesos, barely $12 for me, and put it in his calloused hands. His last piece of advice is to shower with them on. The water will help wear them in and mold to my body.
I think about clothing and how none of it ever seems to fit correctly. There are inches that don’t match the curvature of my skin, my hips, the excess of my stomach. I constantly squeeze myself into sewn rectangles of fabric, force my ever-changing shape to remember my size from a month ago, a year ago. If it doesn’t match it, shame. I hope that my new huaraches will make people see that I’m Mexican.
The first night of the retreat is a dinner and reading at a local bookstore that doubles as a cafe. I spend the afternoon having anxiety about my anxiety at the hotel. My room has high wooden ceilings and it feels too large for my small stature. The dark blue floor tiles are cold. I take a shower for longer than necessary, my flaky skin turning bright red from the moisture-erasing heat, and the full size bed greets me. The small welcome package has a note that I do not read. Instead, my hands grab a granola bar made from amaranth. It is crunchy, held together by dried agave syrup and caramelized nuts. After a difficult few bites, I develop a growing concern that a tooth of mine will chip and fall out, so I leave the bar on the dresser, open, little specks of amaranth crumbling to the floor.
When I was young I tried to erase my difference and not look Mexican, not look anything at all. My Catholic schools were homogeneous and my only desire was to be part of the dewy, light-eyed masses of tenth generation Americans. My Spanish-speaking was kept secret, the sharp inflections and colorful words reserved only for a select audience during a select time, for a place miles away. In junior high we spent six weeks of the summer in Mexico. I threw a desperate fit, not understanding why I could not have a lazy summer with my classmates, afternoons at the mall or basking in the beachy sun, our matching white skin gathering a crisp glow. Even now, though I have passed the phase of self-denial, my body reflects the American changes. Speaking in Spanish does not embarrass me, but my dark curly hair, when worn natural, makes me feel absolutely hideous.
My palms sweat as my phone reminds me that I should be dressed by now if I’m going to make it to the dinner on time. I pull on pants and a sweater, both black, amorphous. My huaraches are next to the bed and I realize I forgot to wear them in the shower. No matter, my feet force their bones into the sides and tip of the shoe, not so bad while I’m sitting on the bed with my weight still floating. As soon as I stand up, step down, the leather grips my skin, and I briefly consider changing. My phone buzzes again, a command, I have to go.
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was a child, but I only really started writing during college. It felt easy to write about my culture, its rich traditions passed on by my effervescent family. Breaks from school spent waiting in airports, going from here to there and back again, in a constant haze of laughter and guitars and walking on the crowded streets past midnight just to get tacos. There is nothing new about what I’m saying. That is a thought I often have. There are many people with big, loud, ethnic families, and mine is not a story of struggle, it is a story of relative privilege. A lineage of doctors and dentists and business owners, my family in Mexico carries a respectable name. My mom was the only one that ever physically left, packing large suitcases to follow her new husband to a town in which she’d never resided. Los Angeles, California. Mentally, I don’t think she adapted all the way, which is maybe why I inherited her tugging sense of nostalgia and remembering, always wanting to be somewhere I wasn’t, someone I wasn’t.
Ten minutes remain until the dinner and reading is scheduled to begin. I punch the address into Google Maps and it takes several minutes to gather a signal. The altitude is much higher than at home, and around me are only green mountains and unpaved roads, reminiscent of past civilizations. Finally, the robotic maps lady speaks to me. A 14 minute walk from my current location. The road is completely unlit, and my vision take a moment to adjust. My feet, now in acute pain, drag across the uneven dirt and rocks as my eyes dance back and forth from my phone screen to the ground in front of me. The event is beginning and I’m still not there, so I pick up the pace. The shoes stab my pinky toe and big toe, and the entire outside arch of my foot. My skin begins to peel but I must keep walking; my rapid shuffling kicks up nebulous clouds of dirt and my chest coughs. After ten minutes, the pain is so severe that I consider removing my shoes and walking barefoot on the road, but it is often littered with broken glass and poisonous insects, and my brain knows it is not a viable option. Without thinking, a noise emanates from me. A painful groan. My voice echoes in the dark as the street rounds a corner, and I see the bookstore, my fellow writers chatting near a buffet table. I slide in through the back and in the glow of the patio lighting I can see that my feet are bleeding, red spots soaking through various creases of leather. I thought that perhaps during the reading I could slide the shoes off under my chair and let my appendages breathe, but I know now that it’s not an option if I don’t want to expose the strangers to my bleeding flesh. My loyal feet carry me to the buffet table and I hoist piles of local food onto a plate, the smell of summers past so familiar I can almost taste it.
Sarah Sophia Yanni is a half-Egyptian/ half-Mexican writer living in Los Angeles. She is an Editor at Sublevel Magazine and is currently pursuing an MFA from the CalArts School of Critical Studies. Her words have been published in Arkana Mag, BUST, Palaver Arts, and others. Find her on the internet at www.sarahsophiayanni.com