¡Hola!, Mexico!

  • onNovember 11, 2014
  • Vol.7 Spring 2010
  • byHa Seong-nan

If I return to Mexico, it will be not because of Mexican tacos, nor will it be because of the lure of the wall murals by Diego Rivera and his fellow Mexican muralists. Of course, I still long for that taste, and try to imitate guacamole by adding the zest of a lemon to an avocado; and when I close my eyes I can picture Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural of the bride with burning eyes, and this image still brings my heart to a stop.

Between November 23 and December 4, I participated in a 12-day tour that included a KLTI reading at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City, as well as the book fair event in Guadalajara. Mexico City is an ancient site situated 2,240 meters above sea level. The first dawn after our arrival, I felt nauseas and dizzy, as if I’d just gotten off a boat. That seems to be one special way in which this city greets its visitors. From inside a moving vehicle you can spot the hills that indicate your position in the basin. In a single sweeping moment your vision is overwhelmed by the sight of an unbroken line of crowded houses. Most of them are impoverished, cement homes. You can count the number of painted houses on one hand. And the iron foundations used in the houses’ construction can be seen jutting out of the second-story rooftops.

Our guide and chauffeur explained that this was a village of the less affluent. The people living there have usually left their country villages in search of work in the big city; when they fail, they eke out a living in the city’s outskirts. I assumed that they worked hard to save up, and when they had enough money, bought construction materials and added additional floors to their houses. I also presumed that they didn’t own the property and therefore could not sell, but that at the same time, that no one would come to evict them. But that night, I finally heard the real reason from a Mexican local; apparently, they leave their houses unfinished to avoid paying taxes. The houses are never completed.

Guadalajara is a resort town where Mexico City’s youth like to travel to on the weekend. The Book Fair was held there for its 23rd year, now with the participation of 1,600 publishers from 40 different countries. It is easy to get lost in the Spanish and English sections of the fair. The booths, hundreds of them, all look the same. I got separated from my group on the first day, and felt like a lost child. I walked around the same area again and again. When I finally stopped for a moment, I found myself looking at a sign in Korean, and my surprise and joy was tremendous. It was a narrow booth run by two publishers and the Korea Literature Translation Institute. I tried to imagine what it must be like for people to get a taste of the Korean alphabet, hangeul, for the very first time: their first consonant and vowels, their first exposure to the different letter strokes. This fair, which has yet to include any publishers from China or Japan, has had a Korean booth now for four years in a row. After that, I passed that booth every single day. The booth served as my milepost until I became familiar with the enormous hall. And one day, I spotted a young Mexican carefully handling a Korean novel at the booth of the publisher Ediciones el Ermitano, which has published dozens of translations of Korean literature. The youth leafed through a few pages of the book, hesitated for a moment, and then purchased it and disappeared. I imagined that this was the Mexican’s first Korean novel, and I felt happy to share this moment of the opening of a new world.

If I return to Mexico, it will be because of the endless line of unfinished houses crowning the hilltops, and because of the memory of stumbling upon Korean in the sea of foreign languages at the Guadalajara Book Fair. Of course, the lure of that original taco delicacy and the beauty of the Mexican muralists will continue to draw my interest.


by Ha Seong-nan

Author's Profile

Ha Seong-nan has published five short story collections, four novels, and two essay collections. Her short story collection The Woman Next Door is forthcoming from Open Letter Books. She has won the Dongin Literary Award, the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, the Isu Literary Award, the Hyundae Literary Award, and the Hwang Sun-won Literary Award.