Chilango by Erick Zepeda


Erick Zepeda was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. He is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, where he obtained a degree in Film with a Minor in English Literature. He is the writer and director of three films, and his fiction has appeared in Rip Rap Literary Journal. He hopes to have a career in writing both prose and screenplays.

I’ve been wanting to go to Ciudad Mexico for a long time. Like since before I was comfortable calling it that instead of Mexico City. When I was a kid we used to go to Mexico  just about every weekend for a year, but never deeper than Baja. I know, I know. “That’s not real Mexico.” The only time I went inland was when I visited my mom’s hometown. I wish I could say that was a life-changing experience, but it was a shithole rancho in the middle of Michoacan. Ever since seeing all that snakeskin, I can’t stand the sight of boots on my feet. They thought I was being rude if I declined having a beer, and if you think cholos freak out about dressing “like a punk rocker,” prepare to blow minds around some paisas. That was also the first time my mom heard me speaking all Spanish all the time and I swear she would look at me with tears of joy for every bid good morning. I guess that’s kind of sweet, but grandma still calls my siblings and me pochos. Six extra units achieving fluency for that Latinx Studies minor and the only knowledge I could pass on to my mother was that I had no excuses to avoid coming to Our Lady of the Three Hour Spanish Service. In some ways, it’s better that all your family knows about college is degree equals good.

Anyway, a few months ago I was sitting around with three of my friends for the first time since graduating. The air was dry and the sky was gloomy so I was balancing my coffee with double the water and pissing every twenty minutes. It was Keire, Emily, Angel, and me just shooting the shit about work and what it’s like to wake up at noon and have nothing to turn in. I was feeling great for the first time in a long time and I asked everybody if they want to travel somewhere in the spring.

Keire was iffy about it because he was really trying to focus on saving money and locking down a new job. He was back at his mom’s and that was the right financial decision for sure. I just miss when we could drop by his apartment to watch Paddington after class. Emily said something open-ended like “I have to check my schedule” or whatever. I love her to death, but she’s a flake. She had gotten back from a trip with Mia the previous month anyway. They were doing pretty well and she seemed happy even though we weren’t hanging out as often. But right when I thought nobody was down, Angel said yes. And they were serious about it. So we made plans to sit down and get some plane tickets the following Friday.

On the drive home I started to realize it’d been a really long time since Angel and I have hung out one-on-one. Like, you know they switched over to journalism and kind of developed another community - doing their own shit, focusing on their other work. Always cool when they came around but were we really close anymore? I told myself this was a good thing. If anything, it’s different. Adventurous even. It planted a seed of skepticism in my head nonetheless.

We met up to plan out the trip the following Friday. I came over to their apartment, and it looked different than I remembered. Cleaner, actually, but less decorated. They used to have up posters for awful movies because the marketing people at school would hand them out - The Snowman, Fast 7, that sort of thing. Now the walls were bare except for an original print they bought from a local artist. I asked if their roommates were here. They said Jenna moved back to NorCal and Michael is always at his girlfriend’s house now. I didn’t realize Michael was seeing anybody and it made me feel like I’ve really been away for a while.

I think Angel saw me look kind of confused so they offered me a drink. I figured why not because we’ll be here a while and honestly I was a bit uptight for no good reason. So we just sat down at the couch and opened up our laptops. We were just scrolling through stuff when I noticed their music tab was open and I saw they had a Cafe Tacvba album on there. We used to talk about a lot of trash indie bands way back, but never Spanish language music. So I asked them “You like Cafe Tacvba?”

“Yeah.” They paused for a bit like thinking if they should make a thing of this. Then they turned to me and said “My mom actually plays this kind of stuff around the house a lot. I just didn’t realize how much I like it too until I moved out, you know?”

“My mom still plays church music when she’s mad at me. You think I’ll start bumping that if I ever get out of there?”

They laughed. I thought about maybe just trading Latin American bands for a minute, but something in me thought I should use a face-to-face for something more important. So I relaxed my jaw for a second before I got the courage to ask “Hey, you ever come out to your parents?”

After I said that I felt like I was intruding. Angel has always been really chill, but talking about their sexuality and gender was something they just didn’t do a lot outside of jokes. But, they just looked at me straight up, without even blinking, and told me “I did, actually. My dad didn’t take it so well, but it’s easier now. And even though I know it keeps him up at night... it feels better than faking all the time.”

They looked me right in the eye when they said this. And I’m not sure why, but I felt like they were looking past me. They turned back to their computer. “They disregard my pronouns still. But, one step at a time I guess.”

I nodded. “You know I saw Cafe Tacvba last year.”

Their fingers retracted from the keyboard. “No way. Where at?”

“That festival at the Queen Mary. They got added late, like after tickets were already sold out.”

“Oh shit that’s right. Did they do only new stuff?”

“No, they started with it, but like halfway through they toned down and did “Eres”, you know. Then it was the classics.”

“Okay this is a weird favorite I have, but,” they turned to me halfway and set their laptop on the table. “Did they do ‘Chilanga banda’”?

“That is kind of a weird choice. They did.”

“I know. It’s just like, my mom used to love that song because she’s a De Efe and shit. So I learned all the words with her before I understood what it even meant.”

“I didn’t know your mom was from Mexico City.”

“Yeah, yeah, my dad isn’t though so he would always call her chilanga to tease her, and if América won a game she’d go off to that song.”

They got really excited about this and I found it kind of infectious, but again that seed of skepticism rattled around in my head. I said: “So have you been there before?”

“Not in like, a decade. But I think I remember enough to help plan this itinerary.” They picked their laptop back up and pulled open a doc with a bunch of bullets in it. At that moment I thought about how I just envied photos of The Pyramid of the Sun and the fact that the photoshoot of Yalitza Aparicio at Frida’s house is somewhere in my bookmarks. It was like the first time somebody told me they thought I was Italian instead of Latinx.

Angel was still looking at their screen, but they scooted closer to me to show me the name of this bar. They said “Back when I was a kid I remember always looking at these clubs and wishing I could go in. This one, I looked up and it seems like the spot. Probably a little touristy, but they play a mix of stuff because of that.” This must’ve taken them through some kind of journey because their eyes got lost in the screen. “Shit dude, walking through here was honestly when I really realized I was gay.”

I wanted to have a little bit more of the wine they gave me, but I thought reaching for it would be a bit rude right now, so I kept my eyes on them and said “How’s that?”

“There was this group of people coming from a club. I got a snippet of the music inside like the bass smacking and… I don’t know if you’ve ever just seen somebody dressed so flamboyantly and instead of thinking ‘oh what a weirdo’ it seems so cool.”

They were staring at a point across the room. Kind of drifting through their own headspace. I looked at them with the arracadas hanging from their ears, their tattoos peeking out of their sleeve, their outfit that said ‘I went to art school’ without shame. I understood.

“Of course my parents didn't agree. Called them shameful and picked up the pace. So I thought I was wrong. But since then I just knew.”

I felt on the single, plain pair of earrings I had on. I finished the wine. It was them that kissed me first.

A couple weeks later I got this newsletter with information on a museum event that I could actually make it to. An LA2 exhibition with a band playing bachata to a short film I guess. I asked Angel to come in a message I definitely stared at way too long before sending. We had been hanging out more since that day, but no big activities like a museum.  They sent back a “yea sounds cool” about an hour later. Maybe I give these things too much weight.

When we got the museum I asked them if they had been here before.

“No. I don’t really go to museums a lot,” they said.

I tried to remember the closest thing to a museum trip we had ever done together. Just the time we all went to support Emily’s photo exhibition on campus. We didn’t talk about visual art too much, but I always assumed they had a big interest. “Why’s that?” I said.

“I like going. Just difficult blocking out a day and going all the way down. That and it’s not the type of thing I’d do alone. I figured this was like totally your domain, so who better to come with?”

I thought for a minute about that. I smiled to myself, but changed the topic. “How you feel about bachata?”

“Not super into it, but I’m cool with bachata. You?.”

“You know Mac DeMarco is just white trash bachata.”

Angel did this laugh they do where they hunch over and their voice goes to the top of their octave range. “What kind of Youtube-comment-section ass take is that?” they said. I don’t know what was more difficult: concealing my smile or holding onto that joke since I came up with it two months ago.

The special exhibit was part of the Latin American section so we made our rounds through the whole wing because why not. I brought my camera, something I usually don’t do with my school friends on account of them being way better photographers. I mean I still have yet to change my universal profile picture since the combination of me being too high off my ass to feel self conscious plus Emily wine-drunk with her 24 - 105 was an unmatched power. But I remembered seeing this mirror piece was in the museum’s temporary collection on the website - one of those pieces you know they designed to be Instagrammable for the tags, and I knew I wanted to take a high resolution picture of it so I could Photoshop it into eighty different memes.

They had a decent collection. A couple pieces by the two Latin American household names on loan from a bigger museum. Some smaller Caribbean names, which to me is always nice because it’s annoying when something is labeled Latinx when they really mean Mexican. But mostly they had a lot more contemporary work. Things from Latin American-Americans. A few that I know. And even though I had been here before, I was glad to see that there was a lot that I don’t know.

I noticed Angel stop at this one painting. We weren’t at the LA2 section yet. I recognized it as part of the permanent collection. But they were really reminding me of that part in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, so I took a picture of them looking at the thing. When they heard the shutter they called me over.

“This kind of looks like that one you had as your header photo. Same guy?” they said.

“Yeah,” I said and I pointed to the corner, “He always puts this little figure somewhere in his paintings, but he messes with it from time to time. They have another one where it’s just that figure, but it’s like morphed and bright purple.”

“See, this is what I mean. Totally your domain.”

I didn’t know what to say to that so I just said thanks. They told me to send them the picture later.

On our way out we strolled through the gift shop. I sifted through the magnets because I liked putting those on the fridge even though I was the only one in the house who knew what they were. What ended up catching my eye though was the pins laid out on the table beside them. There was a little Jose Guadalupe Posada figure. The garbancera that Diego Rivera did a rendition of and named La Catrina. The same one that Juan Torres made into a clay figure in his workshop in Capula, Michoacan. What I liked about this one was that it looked goofier than their renditions. She looks silly because she’s making fun of Mexicans that just want to be white. I thought she looked like she was in drag. I guess that was significant to literally wear on my chest. More than anything I thought it was cute.

I got in line to buy it and the person behind me stopped me to ask what my shirt was. It was this graphic of a Hiroshige print. Some Urban Outfitters, weeb thing to have, I know. So I told them “It’s this Japanese woodblock print. Like a famous eighteen-hundreds thing.”

They nodded really enthusiastically. “Oh that’s so cool.  I’ve seen that around and I was just wondering. Sorry, like ignorant white girl here.”

I got a faint suspicion she was trying to flirt with me, but I can never tell so I complimented her earrings to be polite.

“Are you staying for the band tonight?” she said.

“Yeah. I came for the whole event.” I said. “You?”

“I think I will. I just wish I could understand the words. Maybe you could translate.”

She gave this nervous laugh and I was almost impressed by her forwardness if it hadn’t been for the White Guilt Studies vibe she gave off. I (sort of) lied and said I don’t speak enough Spanish to be able to do that right before the cashier freed up.

I put the pin in my pocket for later. I didn’t want to rearrange my whole jacket in the middle of a museum. Not even two songs into the bachata, Angel covered their mouth to stifle their laughter and told me I was right.

The next week, I was at Angel’s apartment and just found myself uncertain of what I was doing. I thought maybe we should have a conversation about it. There was an unspoken agreement we weren’t telling anybody this was going on, but I wasn’t exactly a pro at ambiguous flings. Maybe the excitement and mysticism were correlated. But we hadn’t talked about the actual trip since that first night. Now it had a different kind of significance if we went together. I decided we should go out to get some food. They eat too much junk so I always pick the place.

We went to this Thai spot I was a little surprised they hadn’t been to before on account of it being so close by.

“Value menu smacks harder I guess.” was all they had to say.

I laughed but I’m always suppressing the urge to give people dietary advice. It was early afternoon on a weekday. Real chill time of day that took my mind off the fact that most people have gainful employment keeping them from eating lunch right about now. I looked around and we seemed to be the only people our age aside from the staff. Just some old ladies speaking Thai and a straight couple that looked to be in their late-teens. They looked about the age I was when I first met Keire and then everybody else. Back when I was in a milquetoast straight couple.

I decided to wait for the food to come before I asked if we were still doing the trip. They paused for a bit. I was glad they were really taking a minute to give an honest answer. “Would it be weird now?” they said.

“Only if we make it weird.” I said.

“You’re my friend. It’s been cool hanging out more. Honestly, I want you to know that.”

“But the idea of being intimate to that extent. Basically living together while fucking each other. It’s basically a relationship.”

“Yeah. I don’t think I want that.”

I nodded. It didn’t bother me when they said it. In a way I felt like bringing it up was more an act of ending it than the answer. “Had you thought about doing this when we first planned to hang out?”

“I guess so. I’ve known you were attracted to me. You never talk about it, but you’ve hinted at being questioning before.”

“I guess you’d know better than me.”

They chewed on the ice at the bottom of their water cup. “Nah. That’s something only you really know.”

Thai tea had me ready to burst right about then so I went to take a piss. The place had one restroom that clearly doubled as a storage closet. Nothing unordinary. You know what I mean if you’ve seen one of those.

I looked at myself in the mirror. Like really looked at myself. The eyebags and the soggy parts of my gut and the mole on my left ear that made me feel like it’d be weird to pierce that spot. All that and for once I didn’t think I needed some intensive years-long routine. I just wanted to go watch a makeup tutorial and make my eyes pop. I wanted to put on the Chola Wings and a dark lip color. I dug around in my pocket. I had forgotten to take the pin out. Wearing my good jacket with my cute pins maybe I looked good today. Maybe some kids could see me walking down the street and think I was the badass, clockable, unapologetic, Xicanx adult they wanted to be. Maybe another kid would think I was white, but I dressed cool. Maybe I could just look like whatever the hell I wanted to look like. Whatever.

The next month I took the flight out to Mexico City on my own. I had the food, went to the museums, tried out a club, took a picture of the pyramids. My accent was embarrassing but some of the vendors might’ve thought I was Argentinian or something because I swear I only got swindled a few hundred. When I put up the magnet I got of an Orozco painting, my mom asked me why I picked something so scary. I said every single Mexican family has Vendedora de flores or Autorretrato con monos in the restroom so we need to diversify. She just raised an eyebrow and asked me to promise it wasn’t satanic or something.

The Acentos Review 2019