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Nicholas Sorlien

Worlds Between Cities

Using her finger, Pollo traced a curved line in the sky above us delineating the path my plane would take back to the states. Her dark eyes looked at me with a somewhat critical curiosity. "You will come back, no?" I looked out and over the city below and wondered what truth I should tell her; the one I feel or the one I believed would come to pass. I came here two weeks ago to find calm in a sleepy country only to find a trouble darker than the murky waters of the bay I left behind in Boston. Now I found I had a decision to make that felt heavier than the stone cliffs cutting through the embankment beside my brother’s cabin up here in what the English speaking world calls 'Mexico City,' La Cuidad de Mexico.


Eric and I sat at an old wooden picnic table in the backyard of his cabin smoking a joint and talking.

"You’re not bringing home some damn stray woman this time, understand? You don’t know people here. They can be dangerous."

I nodded and smiled. "A dangerous woman… sounds good to me."

He lived not quite at the top of the mountain so we could see only a portion of the city below, but what we could see was amazing. The buildings rose in most places only three stories and spread out to envelop the various mountains that surrounded it. Houses climbed to the tops like insects scaling the mounds that rise out of a swamp, searching for higher ground. As the sky faded into darkness, the only visible sign of life was a wavering field of lights, for what seemed miles, appearing and disappearing behind a convection heat rising from the streets below.

"You’ve gotta go to the Zocalo," he said as he passed the joint back to me.

"Alright," I said, "You live here. I don’t."

Several days later, down in the city, Volkswagons dominated the streets, mostly in the form of green and white taxis. I got off a packed pasero and got into one of these taxis and headed for the Zocalo, the ‘second largest city plaza in the world.’ A lane became wherever the traffic happened to be flowing. The cars created a river of constantly inter-weaving vehicles that had as little concern for traffic laws and regulations as did the police who stood in the intersections blowing their whistles indiscriminately, miraculously waving the cars through without incident.

Vendors lined the streets selling freshly made quesadillas, pureed juices, and magazines. At intersections people walked between the idling cars selling newspapers, chicklets, clothes and whatever else you could imagine. Ten year old boys sprayed windshields and began cleaning without permission, then would finish and hold out their hand for payment before a person had the chance to refuse their service. The driver lunged the ‘bocho’ into the rapids forcing his way through dark clouds of exhaust five lanes wide. When we arrived, I got out and dropped 85 pesos in his hand. "Gracias por tu ayudar," I said as I turned to the plaza behind me. The car bolted forward bringing the door closed with the force of its forward motion.

Behind me stood both the new and the old City Halls, to my right was the Palacio Nationale, decorated throughout with the revolutionary murals of Diego Rivera, and directly ahead, almost a quarter of a mile away, stood the Metropolitan Cathedral. The Spanish colonialists laid the first stones of this baroque iconoclast in 1572 and forty-two years later it was dedicated as the new place of worship. I thought about the irony of its structure built directly over the footings of the giant pyramid of the Templo Mayor, where Montezuma would regularly sacrifice human lives to the goddess Coyolxauhqui.

As I began to walk through the various clusters of people in the plaza a stocky, square-faced man, eyes darting nervously left to right, shifted past me dragging a crying five or six year old girl screaming, "Pollo! Pollo!"

‘Chicken?’ I thought.

She seemed to be looking for something or someone in the crowd around her. The sound of her voice was beyond the fear of reprimand for some wrong she may have committed, beyond the fright of the father’s strong hands in anger. I couldn’t stop watching her. "Mama!" her cracking voice screamed out. Her tone this time broke my slowing pace.

"Callate, hija! Basta!" the square-faced man shouted. He shouted it again and again, crossing out the young girl´s screams, as if to justify to everyone in listening range that he had a right to do what he was doing. "Callate, hija! Basta! Basta!"

Only he wasn´t her father. I could tell he wasn´t. I was sure of it.

I turned toward them as the man made direct eye contact with me. Noticing my change in direction, he glanced at a clustering of police officers nearby, then released the girl’s tiny wrist and ran into a maze of people, immediately disappearing.

As I approached the young girl, she collapsed onto the cold and broken cement and began to scream louder and more hysterically, "Pollo! Pollo! Pollo!"

People in the crowd began to turn to us with furrowed brows. ‘What’s this gringo doing with a little Mexican girl?’ they seemed to be asking one another. A few in the crowd began to approach and the girl’s screams increased in volume and intensity, traveling through me and transmitting its terror. I realized that I was in serious trouble.

A woman suddenly burst through the crowd crying and yelling, "Elizabeth! Eliiiizabeth!" She ran to the little girl, picked her up and compressed her into her chest, burying her in the eternal protection of the mother’s bosom. She looked at me in curious anger, fright and a joy that is impossible to put into words. The rest of those in the crowd who were approaching looked at her, back to me, back to her, and then seemed to come to the same conclusion I had as well. I had the confused and random collection of thoughts one has after a car wreck.

I began to walk back towards the cathedral, my initial destination, when the mother stopped me with words spoken in restrained English, "Wait. Please, wait."


We sat down at a table on an outside rooftop porch overlooking the Zocalo. The woman brushed her daughter’s hair out of her eyes while she looked around the restaurant as if the stranger were at a table across the room, waiting, planning. The fear of losing her daughter had not quite subsided.

I was a little uncomfortable about having lunch with a complete stranger while at the same time I felt strangely bonded to her by the preceding event.

"She kept yelling for chicken," I said somewhat uncomfortably, trying to make conversation.

"I haven’t had the chance to introduce myself yet", she said. "My name is Melissa Rodriquez Solano. Liz calls me ‘Pollo.’ I call her my little ‘Juevo,’" she said brushing her daughter’s hair from across her face again. "It’s a little game we have played since she was two. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Liz will say the egg, and I will demand that it is the chicken, and so on." She smiled looking back at Elizabeth who was sucking the last of the mango juice from the bottom of the glass.

She then went on to tell me that she was an investigative journalist for one of the many daily newspapers in Mexico City, La Jornada, and had been doing an ongoing report on the Mexican Mafia and the illegal infant organ trade. She wrote some key phrases in English for me to learn more, and later, at Eric´s cabin, I did a search on the net and found an article on Mexican child abduction and the illegal infant organ trade by Hector Carreon at the Mexican Center for Children Rights. I was shocked by it conclusions:

"There are many children in the United States waiting for organs in

order to survive. As a result of this need, dozens of Mexican midwives,

nurses, doctors, lawyers, judges and even clerics sometimes participate

as accomplices in the theft of children from whom organs are extracted

at clandestine clinics on the U.S.-Mexico border… "The organs are then

transplanted to rich children right there!" said Victor Perera. "The baby

trade is so lucrative.....that a baby can bring as much as $10,000 to the

corrupt government officials who are known to take part in it."

The article went on to say that:

"Among many horrors, the report lists 17 clinics in Tijuana and Juarez,

on Mexico's U.S. border, that perform sophisticated transplants of kidneys

and corneal tissues from kidnapped children to wealthy North Americans

who pay top prices for the operations, no questions asked."

Pollo had quoted this article in her report and had been followed and threatened daily since its publication. She was afraid to go home.

"What are you going to do?"

"I don´t know. They know where I live. They know everyone I know."

I thought in silence. Eric had bragged about how much better the papers were in Mexico City, singling out La Jornada as one of the best news sources in the city. "They publish Chomsky on the front page!" he cheered. Eric would be angry, but this was different. He respected the paper, he was always up for a good cause; he would understand. There was an extra bedroom at his cabin and I offered it to Pollo and Elizabeth for the next week and a half while I remained in Mexico City. The rest was up to her. We left the restaurant and hurried to the nearest taxi without pause.


"What can I do?" I asked in frustrated indignation.

Pollo looked over to Elizabeth, then back out to the city below the mountain, then back to me. She knew the answer before I did.

Earlier that day, Eric was hysterically frightened, "El Eme?! The Mexican fucking Mafia! I have to live here! Remember? You don’t!"

"They need a place to hide!"

"There´s good causes and then there´s stupidity!"

He screamed at me while Pollo and Elizabeth were out walking by the small river that meandered down the side of the property he rented. She had been here for week and I was soon to go back to Boston and return to work. We could hear the river’s rushing water below. The air was cool and dry and the sound of birds and barking dogs resonated in the distance nearby. Dogs were everywhere in this city. Street dogs, some friendly and warm, others traveling in packs, waiting to catch someone or something on its own, vulnerable.

Now, her and I sitting together, Eric at work, the tranquility of the mountain deceived us, calmed us, made it somehow appear that we could just forget about it all and it would disappear. Pollo knew better. We had become close in some strange way, tied by the tragedy that almost unfolded in front of us, in front of everyone in the plaza that day. I feared for her, but I would have to go back soon, and so would she.


The distant sound of live traditional Mexican music, and the laughter and movement that the music did not exist without, faded in and out in the background. This was accompanied by fireworks that had been exploding day and night since I arrived. It became an ominous sound toward the end of my stay. Eric, Pollo and I would jump up and search the grounds outside with desperate eyes every time a big ‘bang’ or ‘crack’ would crash through the landscape about us. Elizabeth, her little juevo, would look up from her drawing and smile. "Fiesta Mama, fiesta!"

We sat together in his cabin, somewhere lost in the grand explosion of life, the ever-morphing city, the amoeba of justice and corruption, waiting. Thinking. In the depths of our confusions, in the many monotonous recollections of the recent past, in the memory of a moment so subtle I could have mistaken it for an angry father, a distraught child; we searched for direction, hope.

Pollo and I went outside to sit and talk, Elizabeth stayed inside with Eric.

"You will come back, no?" she said, dropping her hand from the sky like a falling bird.

I sat back and thought about these new and frightening worlds between cities. Language is a tool I use, at times well, and at other times poorly. I didn’t speak this time for fear of lying, fear of failing, and out of respect for all that silence could communicate so much better than I.

Later that day I knew I would be back on a plane; my return flight to Boston. The flight attendants will begin their ritual before departure and images of moments spent on the mountain with Eric, Pollo and Elizabeth will parade through my thoughts and charge my heart with the passion for life and the ever-present fear of death that invigorates everything here. As I leave I will face the disjuncture of the troubles I stumbled into and the now distant life I have lived in Boston, that other place, I will step off into with the residue of Mexico City still resting upon my skin.

Later, when I walk away from the plane and make my way to the train station, I will be reflecting on my last two weeks in Mexico and wondering if I can forgive myself for leaving, for letting go of a hand when the weight of the body became too much.

Nicholas Sorlien has received grants from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, The Colleges of the Fenway and Massachusetts College of Art where he received his MFA in the Studio for Interrelated Media. While studying and teaching there he pursued the boundaries between the various forms of creative expression and their potential social and political impact. He has worked on creative projects in Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Michigan, Oklahoma, Lousiana, and Mississippi, where he ran an artists workspace, called the BluHous Workspace, for 4 years. Nicholas presently resides in Asheville, North Carolina and has an upcoming show at Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.

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