“Hermosa casita en la Colonia Roma,” read the listing that popped up on Airbnb when I was searching for a rental in Mexico City in the spring of 2022. The main image showed an elegant, periwinkle-blue row house with white trim, beside an identical house painted deep indigo and another, bubblegum pink. Potted plants and trees were clustered along a terra-cotta tile patio. Inside, the place looked bright and spacious, with bohemian charm. There was a big kitchen stacked with Mexican pottery, a purple dining room, a pair of red couches in the living room, and a yellow bedroom on the second floor that had its own sitting room with a marble fireplace. Plus, it was dog-friendly. And within my budget. What’s the catch? I wondered, but I booked it anyway, paying for the first month up front.
The casita was in Roma Norte, on a residential stretch of Calle Colima, a street known for its fashionable boutiques and restaurants and, more recently, for the bloggers and Instagrammers who flock there, snapping selfies with their morning pastry. However, the only crowds outside my new home that March were children, streaming from the elementary school across the street. My host, Janet Ruiz, a woman in her 60s with shiny dark hair and feline eyes whose Airbnb bio said she was an actriz, met me at the tall black gate and led me down a white-walled pathway. It felt more like entering a secret garden than a city dwelling. “Es muy bonita!” I said, trying to use my rudimentary Spanish. After introducing me to Pixie, a stylish older woman with a British accent who emerged from the pink house two doors down, Janet began watering her plants. A giddiness rose inside me: I’m here, I said to myself, although I didn’t yet know where “here” was. I scooped up Daisy, my senior Chihuahua, and walked through the open front door.
This trip had been taking shape since 2019, when I first visited Mexico City as a guest of the Los Angeles curator Amy Thoner and her DFlat artists’ and writers’ residency. As a culture writer, I’d been drawn to the city’s art and architecture and to its history as a refuge for political dissidents, intellectuals, and artists like the British surrealist Leonora Carrington, who immigrated to Mexico City during World War II, living and working in Roma Norte until her death in 2011. But nothing prepared me for the epic scope of this metropolis of 22 million, where relics of the conquered Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, still stand in the heart of colonial downtown, or for the simple contentment I would feel walking the wide boulevards under canopies of trees that cast green, dappled light. We watched that year’s Oscars at an outdoor screening, cheering with hundreds of locals as Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón received the Best Director award for Roma. Heading back through the plaza, past the Gothic apartment building known as La Casa de las Brujas (the house of the witches), I was already thinking about returning.
Of course, my plans were quickly derailed by the pandemic. But ultimately, COVID would lead me—as it did many others—to question where and how I was living, and why. A city is only as rich as its culture and its people, and with so many institutions shuttered and so many friends leaving town, resorting to various plan Bs, I couldn’t say what was keeping me in Los Angeles. The idea of a return visit to Mexico City evolved into a fantasy of an extended stay that would let me experience living in a foreign country (which I never had before); rekindle my inspiration and follow wherever it led me; and, maybe, discover a new side of myself in the process.
Built in 1920, in the French-inspired Porfirian style (named for the Francophile dictator Porfirio Díaz), the casita on Calle Colima was filled with art that gave new meaning to the phrase “If these walls could talk.” In the entryway, there was a portrait of Janet holding a microphone in a smoky nightclub, across from a large painting of three scantily clad women, one of whom appeared to have a pair of breasts for a head, while a new-wave picnic scene in vivid hues popped from the living room wall. I climbed the glossy white staircase, and between modern illustrations, abstract color studies, and religious and folk art, there were around a dozen charcoal nudes of a dark-haired beauty—Janet again—all bearing the same signature as the painting of the three women: Gurrola.
Wikipedia told me that this was Juan José Gurrola, a Mexican theater and film director, visual artist, musician, architect, actor, and apparent enfant terrible. He was so famous and so beloved that when he died in 2007, his body lay in state at the city’s main cultural center, the Palacio de Bellas Artes. I soon gathered that not only had my landlady, Janet Ruiz, been Gurrola’s regular collaborator, but Pixie Hopkin, my neighbor, was the first of his three wives.
One Sunday afternoon, Janet fortuitously invited me to the closing reception for a retrospective of Gurrola’s visual art at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil. In high heels and a floral dress, she caused a flurry upon entering, befitting her status as muse. As I took in the surreal, sexy paintings and pop multimedia pieces, the canvas of the three women in the casita’s entryway suddenly made perfect sense.
“He was a ladies’ man. He loved women,” Janet told me later, recounting her first meeting with Gurrola at an exhibition at the Museo Tamayo in the early 1980s. “I went up to him and said, ‘I want to take classes with you in your theater workshop.’ ” He asked to hear a poem, and, drawing on her classical training, Janet recited a 17th-century Spanish verse. She was accepted on the spot and given a part in a play written by Picasso, whose title translates roughly as “Desire caught by the tail.” She and Gurrola worked together for decades.
Janet also had a parallel career as a popular telenovela actor, and she started collecting art when she became involved with a gallerist who was part of Mexico City’s emerging contemporary scene. “He was exhibiting all the new painters,” she recalled, “so we were going to all the exhibitions, and I was just acquiring things from my young friends.”
After the 1985 earthquake that killed 10,000 people and decimated swaths of Roma as well as the Juárez and Condesa neighborhoods, turning Janet’s art deco apartment into rubble, a former partner bought her the house on Calle Colima that now provides a steady stream of income. “I love that house,” she said, “because it’s really safe from earthquakes.”
For all the talk of earthquakes in Los Angeles, I somehow hadn’t considered the risk of them in Mexico City, although there had been another catastrophic quake in 2017. But one afternoon, I started chatting with a woman during a dog walk, and I told her I was staying nearby, in a lovely spot. “I don’t like this neighborhood,” she blurted, shaking her head. I expected to hear how Roma Norte had changed for the worse, a theme that was starting to come up in conversation, but instead, she told me she couldn’t get the scenes of the earthquake’s aftermath out of her mind: “I see people running, with blood on their faces. I hear their screams.”
I flashed back to September 11 in New York City, and Janet’s assertion that her house was safe took on a deeper meaning.
Most mornings at Calle Colima, I had my coffee on the patio, writing in my notebook and secretly hoping Pixie might pass by. With her chic silvery-blond bob and heavy black eyeliner, kimono-style jacket breezing behind her, she was like a grande dame in gold sneakers. Sometimes she shared local tips—telling me that the stand on the corner had the best naranjita (orange juice) or ripping off a hunk of her baguette when I asked how the bakery was—but how do you casually mention to your new neighbor that you’ve googled their life story without seeming like a stalker?
My journalist’s curiosity got the best of me, and I left a handwritten note, tucked into the garden gate, inviting Pixie to come by for a glass of wine and a chat. “Coffee would be better,” she let me know, and I brought out Janet’s china for the occasion.
Now in her 80s, Pixie was an actor in London when she met Gurrola and began a romance with him during a theater workshop in Dallas. She didn’t expect much, she told me, but reading Carlos Fuentes’s 1958 novel about modern Mexico City, Where the Air Is Clear, inspired her to visit. “I came to Mexico for the weekend,” she recalled, “met Gurrola’s family, and married him on the Monday!” She smiled as if still surprised by the impetuous decision that altered her destiny. Soon, Pixie was at the center of a circle of artists and intellectuals that included Fuentes himself and writer Tomás Segovia; they were known as la mafia.
Gurrola’s 1964 film, Tajimara, written with Juan García Ponce and starring Pixie, is a time capsule of this moment, shot in locations like the new Museo de Arte Moderno and Pixie and Gurrola’s apartment in the Edificios Condesa, a storied address akin to New York’s Chelsea Hotel. The movie’s bitter climax is set to a Burt Bacharach song, and members of la mafia play the guests in two decadent party scenes.
Pixie and Gurrola had a daughter, Gabriela, but “life got very difficult with a genius, as you can imagine,” Pixie said. “I left him.” By the time Gurrola played a master gunfighter in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult classic, El Topo, Pixie had a new partner in life and art, Alfredo Elías Calles, an entrepreneur and producer who is the grandson of former Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles. When Alfredo’s ill-fated production of Hair was shut down after one performance thanks to its pro-drug, pro-nudity stance, Pixie turned away from acting, but not from public life.
She and Alfredo went on to create the wildly successful Pixie Fashion brand of wigs and playful clothing, whose tagline was “La ropa que tu mamá no se atrevería a usar” (the clothes your mother would not dare to wear). Their fashion shows were legendary, and with regular television appearances and more than a dozen boutiques in and around Mexico City, Pixie became a household name. Although their romantic and business partnerships ended decades ago, the two cohabit platonically to this day. “We’re very good companions,” Pixie said, a free spirit to her core.
Pixie and I started taking occasional walks in the neighborhood, stopping for coffee and sweets or running errands. One day, while picking up some British biscuits for a friend, Pixie told me she was thinking about writing a book. One of her black, studded ensembles from the 1980s had been featured in a recent museum exhibition about women designers in Mexico, and a small press, Ediciones Odradek, had reprinted the Tajimara screenplay with stills and production photos. The renewed interest had her thinking about her legacy—and presumably, about her responsibility to tell her own story. In the past, Pixie noted, when a member of la mafia had died, Tajimara would air on public television. “And now, all of them are gone. I’m the only survivor.”
Sixty-three days. That was the number marked on my immigration card, the number I’d requested on March 1, 2022, when two months had felt like an eternal leap into the unknown. But when the day of my departure arrived, returning to Los Angeles felt harder. I wasn’t even sure what home meant anymore. I did know that Mexico City had changed me, and I knew there was more to discover. I’ll be back, I vowed from the sky as the city’s smoggy splendor fell away.
It took almost a year, but I did return this past February—however, the city had changed, too: 2022 was the year that the “digital nomads” who had flooded into Mexico City from the United States by the thousands, upsetting the cultural and economic balance with their entitlement and tech salaries, reached peak notoriety and media saturation. As during World War II, Mexico’s welcoming border policies during the pandemic made the country a refuge for foreigners, but these new “expats” were more concerned with their ability to make money and live cheaply than with being able to make art and live freely. In October 2022, Airbnb, UNESCO, and Mexico City announced a partnership to promote the city as a hub for remote workers—a clear indication of the direction in which things were moving. It seemed as if the fine fissures I’d begun to sense in 2022 were starting to rupture.
I brought this awareness with me, but the city was as enchanting as ever. In the taxi from the airport, even the familiar whiff of sewage on the breeze made me strangely glad. I’ve been here before, an internal voice said, and that had meaning. Although Janet’s casita was booked months out, I’d lucked into another beautiful house in Roma Norte, close to an organic farmers’ market and a block from my favorite taqueria.
One Saturday afternoon, I was invited to a restaurant pop-up on the rooftop of an independent cinema. Over tostadas and mezcal, I chatted with Gaby Sánchez, a Mexico City native who has worked as a producer and writer for 20 years. Gaby had seen the city shape-shift firsthand, as both foreigners and corporations gentrified neighborhoods beyond recognition. She told me about real estate management companies that were buying buildings in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Tacubaya, kicking out the tenants, and then renovating the properties and renting them on Airbnb—a development the new partnership encourages. And while she couldn’t fault Porfirio Díaz for his taste in architecture (“He did many terrible things,” she noted—such as murdering his critics and opponents—“but they are beautiful buildings”), Gaby said that the Roma she remembers as a haven for squatters, post-earthquake, and an affordable colonia, where she lived from 2007 to 2012, is unrecognizable today. “If you go to one of the main streets, like Álvaro Obregón,” she said, “everything is a chain restaurant. It’s a lot of lights. I keep making this joke that it’s like downtown Cancún.” She laughed uneasily.
Janet’s main residence happens to be an apartment on Avenida Álvaro Obregón with balconies that face the bustle of the street, and I stopped by to say hello. Her best friend, Anabella de Corro Gregersen, a model turned spiritual coach, was visiting from her home in San Miguel de Allende, and neither was at all fazed by the changing neighborhood. “It’s turned into SoHo!” Janet said, noting that she preferred the “chaos” of Roma to a snootier colonia like Bosques de las Lomas.
Anabella, who’d spent much of her life between Mexico and the United States—her father was editor in chief of the Spanish-language weekly newspaper El Mundo in Las Vegas, and she lived in Hollywood during the 1970s, being romanced by rock stars and embracing Buddhism—expressed less tolerance for American entitlement. She settled in San Miguel 30 years ago to raise her son and has become a vocal advocate for her native culture. “I always tell the American people in San Miguel, ‘Remember, you are a guest in our country,’ ” she said. “They want to impose their rules…. ‘Why do the bells ring all day? What are these firecrackers?’ I go, ‘Look, these Chichimecas [Indigenous dancers] have been doing those firecrackers for centuries. They’re not going to stop because you’re here!’ ” She hooted. “You’re not going to change who we are—we’re going to change you!”
One evening toward the end of my stay this past March, nostalgically scrolling through the Airbnb listing for the casita on Calle Colima, I noticed that two days had opened on the calendar. Although I didn’t need a place, I couldn’t resist the urge to walk through those rooms again. I reached out to Janet and arranged to stay for a night.
When I entered the house, which smelled like Fabuloso, Mexico’s ubiquitous purple cleaning product, and echoed with silence, I burst into tears, overcome with emotion. I’d celebrated my birthday here; I’d meditated in the sitting room attached to my sunny bedroom, burning copal incense on the marble mantelpiece; I’d spent a night draped over the toilet when some contaminated vegetables took me down; I had a favorite coffee mug. Even my dog had her chosen napping spots. So many hopes and wishes, so much gratitude—and loneliness and frustration over my inability to properly communicate in Spanish, too—had filled this space. Was this what home meant? Where did all that energy go? Where did that version of myself go?
I gazed up the familiar white staircase, and I noticed that a large wall that had been blank in 2022 was now occupied by a painting of a stone female idol in the arms of a naked, bearded man. This was Cortés y la Malinche, painted by Alejandro Arango in 1986, and Janet had lent it to the San Antonio Museum of Art for the exhibition Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche. It hung beside two of my favorite artworks in the house, a pair of Pedro Coronel serigraphs that were signed “Para La Malinche. El amor.” Although I’d stared at these strange, wildly colored heads many times, I only recently learned that Coronel had designed the sets and costumes for the play Moctezuma, in which Janet had the role of Malinche, the young Indigenous slave who served as interpreter and companion to Hernán Cortés, the Spaniard who conquered Tenochtitlán.
In a museum catalog on the living room coffee table, I read about this controversial figure who is essentially the mother of Mexico’s mestizo (mixed) identity. Cortés referred to Malinche as “mi lengua” (my tongue), and he recognized their son Martín as his heir. While it would be insulting to suggest that she had any true agency as a slave, Malinche’s intelligence distinguished her and allowed her to rise to a position of some power when that was afforded to few women.
In the 20th century, writers like Octavio Paz used “Malinchista” as a negative term to refer to someone who chose extranjeros (foreigners) over their own people, and some Chicana poets and visual artists were disparaged as “Malinches” because of their desire to educate themselves. Rejecting the hypocrisy, they reclaimed Malinche as a feminist icon. It occurred to me that she is in some ways emblematic of the current situation in Mexico City, with all the contradiction and friction that implies.
Sitting on the Calle Colima patio as twilight fell, I contemplated my antipathy toward the concept of the digital nomad. For starters, the digital space is virtual; you can’t touch it or feel it. And a nomad, by definition, has no permanent home. Actual nomadic tribes may carry their homes with them, but they live by the cycles of the seasons. I didn’t want to live somewhere that could have been anywhere so long as I was logged in to the Wi-Fi.
I had come to Mexico City in 2022 and again in 2023 in search of a sense of belonging and connection. I spent many more hours walking the streets than sitting at my computer, and as the weeks passed, I could feel a certain alchemy taking place, as my body metabolized the rhythms, sights, and smells of the city. It’s a magical feeling when a place starts to become yours: when your brain anticipates the flow of traffic or a certain bend in the road, or recognizes the clean slant of morning light across a tile plaza versus the afternoon’s gauzy haze. Belonging, in this sense, happens within.
I thought back to the morning in 2022 when I was getting ready to return to L.A. After one last naranjita from Javier’s juice stand on the corner, I went to say goodbye to Pixie. “You’ve become part of this place,” she said to me as I gave her a hug. I realized that sometimes, when you breathe and move through a place with love, it just might love you back.