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On Returning and Continuing On: The End of My Fulbright-National Geographic Grant

Me in a field in Tecámac, at the edge of the city’s urban area. Or, Things to Come.

I’m writing this from a cafe in San Francisco, sipping on a coffee that I bought for the price of a nice breakfast in Mexico. I ordered the drink in English, a language which at least 75% of the people I’ve overheard talking on the street seem to speak. I can make convincing small talk with strangers. The city is bursting with immigrants, from 49 other states and countless nations. I feel tall, but not so tall that I’m sure people are staring at me.

This is all to say that I’m back in the U.S. As of Sunday, the 21st, my Fulbright – National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship has come to an end. This is the sad news, at least for me, and perhaps, hopefully, for any of you who have been following along with my Instagram and this blog.

The good news is that my work, both in and on Mexico City is not yet finished. Well maybe that’s not “good” news, exactly: it means there’s lots of editing, writing and thinking to be done, but it also means that, after soaking up some of the comforts of my country, I’ll have some more time—a few more months—to continue working and living there. I’m immensely excited to shoot some of the few places I feel are important to capture to give a sense of the overall scope of suburban sprawl in the city, and that have so far evaded me. And I can’t think of a better place within which to immerse myself in order to edit the project’s 11,000 (and counting) photos, hours of videos and so far innumerable vague ideas.

When I meet people who know I’m on Fulbright and they ask me what I’m researching, I say that I’m looking at the processes of urban development on the outskirts of Mexico City. When I’ve been asked, in more general language, what I’m “doing in Mexico,” I tend to cut to the chase and say that I walk around different suburbs and make pictures of buildings and try to talk to people. Compared to academic friends of mine that, say, inject genes in yeast cells or research new materials for use by NASA, it feels pretty basic. But, as I hope to have already shared, and hope to continue to express in the website documenting the project that I’m currently working on, what I’ve learned through that process is more than I ever could have hoped for. Especially now that I’m back in the U.S. talking to friends who don’t know much about the housing markets, architectural trends or political structures in Mexico, its beginning to dawn on me how much I’ve absorbed.

I lived here in the Bay Area for much of my time in college, and in San Francisco for about two years after. Thanks to people like Paul Groth, Janet Delaney, Richard Walker, Matthew Coolidge, countless friends, everyone who I worked video production with, and especially the folks who ran the bike workshop in West Berkeley, I was inspired to walk and bike more miles of this metropolis than I’ll probably ever remember. In a region with such a commitment to preservation and such pride in history, the past is present here—scenes from old films, photographs and writings are easily found again. Here, like in Mexico City, the future seems to be a mix of growth in old city centers and, less-visibly but in greater magnitude, on the city’s oft-forgotten fringes. Most of all, here I learned that, if you learn a bit of the grammar of the built environment and slow down to read it, a city is an open book, a public record of its own creation and the interceding time between that moment and one’s experiencing it.

In some ways, then, it’s taken being back here to remind myself what I’ve been doing there. That reading, that exploring of the city is a pleasure, like reading a novel so often is for me. To recreate it, you’d have to go to Mexico City and take it in first-hand. But, like you, I won’t read every book, and besides, I’ve often enjoyed an intelligent review, or a friend’s animated description more than the thing itself. So in the meantime, I hope you’ll settle for my documentation of the city, my retelling of it, as I continue to post to this blog and as I launch my project website in earnest this summer.

Finally, in a not-incidental note, I will be in Washington D.C. coming together with the four other fellows (and the lucky new generation!) this week, on June 30th, for a public presentation of our projects. All are welcome! For those that miss it, the talks will be recorded and made available online, so you’ll all be able to see the photos and video that provide a counterpoint to this wall of text.

As always, thanks for reading.

Comments

  1. Sayjel Patel
    Cambridge
    June 30, 2015, 12:00 pm

    Congrats Michael!