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Lingua Franca

Ciudad de México | Mexico

The Condesa neighborhood was modeled after Paris and the French here love it. I love it too. 

So it was no coincidence that on a visit to my friend Daniel’s apartment we’d find ourselves playing a board game in French. I don’t mean to suggest that I understand French. Daniel does, presumably on account of his many lovers. Not me, but I could not let that stop our French companions. 

We were soon joined by a gringa who did at one point blurt out, with a force of indignation, “español por favor!” As you might expect, we also could have gotten by in English. But the French reverted to French. For the two of us gringos it added an extra layer of difficulty to the game, which was like a Zapatista inversion of Monopoly or Catan where instead of conquering and enslaving each other we all cooperate to feed ourselves and build a democratic and autonomous society. The players are supposed to consult with one another and arrive at decisions by consensus. We may as well have been the lone two in a Tzotzil seminar who only speak Tojolabal. 

At the risk of generalizing, I would say that we might have been witnessing a clash of national characters. When Taylor, who’s  from Wisconsin, sat down next to me we began chatting in Spanish even though no one else was listening. The French are known for being aggressively French, which, to be fair, is usually not as bad as being aggressively American. My compatriots tend to feel it’s provocative just being “American.” The name itself carries a lot of presumption. Some certainly get a kick out of this, but the more bohemian expats you’ll find living in Mexico City might feel the need to compensate. 

Which isn’t to say that Mexicans are generally judgemental, but when someone asks me “where are you from?” or, god forbid, “eres gringo?” I get uneasy. Even worse than someone scoffing or joking that I must be Donald Trump’s nephew is when they’re enthralled by the possibility. Asked spontaneously on the street I prefer to simply reply in Spanish that I am French. 
Mexicans don’t have a derogatory referent for French like ‘gringo,’ which I attribute to the great national catharsis of rifling Emperor Maximilian. The modern French consequently tend to lack the guilt complex of expat gringos, who enjoy greater success in imperialistic ventures in the Western Hemisphere. I think this makes Americans less likely to locate ourselves squarely in areas known for ubiquitous high income foreigners like Condesa where enough home office workers of all stripes have been settling that it’s experienced the kind of catastrophic overnight rent increases we’ve grown accustomed to in the USA. 

Condesa is an engineered delight in the heart of a megacity full of boulevards with walkways enclosed in wide forested medians and an elegant harmony of greened modern buildings and art deco in various stages of disrepair. Vehicle traffic is kept respectful and pedestrians are not corralled. Even as Parque Mexico is inundated with visitors on a Sunday afternoon the streets feel open and comfortable. The ground floor shops include a lot of bookstores and lounge-style cafes, the latter of which are not abundant in other parts of the city. 

Such a lovable place was bound to become a textbook case for a phenomenon which, unfortunately, has a growing currency in Spanish as la gentrificación. Gentrification in English is clumsy in its usage, partly because the term is so apt in describing certain neighborhoods in the centers of global capital and there’s a tendency to universalize that situation. Pretty much everywhere else in the United States the cost of housing is increasing without a commensurate increase in nice new things or more housing being built than parking spaces. In my little city in Northern California people can be found complaining about 5-over-1s in spite of our city having not a single apartment building over four stories. We’re more than 150 miles from San Francisco but it’s as if we’re the next neighborhood out from the Mission. 

Five wood-frame stories over a concrete base is the cheapest way to build apartments legally in the United States, but it’s taken at face value when they’re marketed as “luxury,” so they’ve become emblems of gentrification. This has contributed to a strange bedfellows phenomenon between urban core tenants unions and reactionary suburban homeowners (rivaled by the YIMBY movement, which began as “Bay Area Renters United” and their backers in the real estate industry). 

The migrants paying more for rent are even more distinguishable in Condesa than in SF. Europeans or US citizens are bona fide gentry in Mexico on account of the incomes in their countries of origin. Not so much that they’re paid in dollars or euros, but how much more pesos they can get out of them: on average around ten times more for US citizens than workers in Mexico City. 

Mexico’s own yuppies have had a tendency to avoid Condesa on account of the way the soft and humid subsurface magnifies seismic waves. A lot of the buildings aren’t especially structurally sound. Foreign nationals who are fearless or unfamiliar with the local geology get a great deal at surface value. 

Because of all the money and power of dealing in English, italicizing an English word in Spanish can make it chic. So when an American tweeted “Do yourself a favor and remote work in Mexico City — it is truly magical [sparkles],” the response was called “el hate” in a mainstream local news outlet.  
That’s what bothers me the most about the use of la gentrificación: it imports a concept from English that doesn’t really contribute any analytical value. Spanish already has an elegant and original term for essentially the same phenomenon: el aburguesamiento. Furthermore, the etymological root of la gentrificación contradicts the meaning. The Spanish gente refers to people without distinction. The English word “gentry” comes from Norman, speakers of which formed the upper class of England so it connotes an exclusive demographic. Fancy people. Les gens français.

Author

  • Addison Winslow is a writer and political organizer from Chico, CA. For years he lived in cities across North America. He returned to his hometown after the 2018 Camp Fire, which decimated the surrounding foothill communities and resulted in a mass migration of climate refugees.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.