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The City and the Writer: In Lerdo, Mexico with Robert Con Davis-Undiano

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Lerdo as you feel/see it?

Lerdo is a city in Mexico that most Americans have never heard of. Situated near Torreón, Matamoros, and Gómez Palacio in north-central Mexico, the city proper has fewer than one hundred thousand people and has always been small. It is the place that my Undiano relatives came from during the period of mass migrations from Mexico into the US in the early twentieth century. Beautiful, with many gardens and parks, it is a place of tranquility, and its inhabitants take pride in their flower beds as well as the city’s lush gardens and parks. This little city is famous for welcoming visitors and new friends. There is also local pride for the specialty ice cream that can be found throughout the city—rich and creamy ice cream in every flavor that rivals what can be found in Rome and Florence. Most importantly, this city has the atmosphere of a place of refuge, a city that you come to when you are tired of other, bigger cities. It is a city that you are proud to be from and never want to lose the connection to it.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I remember being stranded in Lerdo many years ago. My wife and I ran out of money on a visit there, but she had to return to Oklahoma City to see her dying father. Without the funds to join her, I stayed behind at the Hotel Plaza San Francisco and nursed a stomach bug that I got by eating room-temperature salsa in a restaurant. I should have taken a pass on that dish and I ended up sick and by myself in this city while my wife was sitting at her father’s bedside far away. My mediocre Spanish made it difficult to enlarge my circle of friends, and so I stayed there by myself for a very long week to get over whatever I had contracted and to wait for money to show up. Unable to eat much and with almost no cash anyway, I felt dejected and lonely in this place. It was a strange feeling to have there, especially since this was the city where my family had lived for many decades before moving to the US.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I remember an ice cream stand near the city’s center. There was an older woman who sold four flavors of ice cream—chocolate, vanilla, mint chocolate chip, and strawberry. She had large, kind eyes, and I remember her selling me a cup of ice cream that I didn’t have quite enough cash to pay for. I went to the gazebo in the main city park, sat, and ate the ice cream slowly in hopes of forgetting that I was stranded with no ability, at least for a few days, to leave. Even in this sad state, I also remember thinking that there was an underlying warmth in this city’s people that doesn’t get recognized enough.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

There may not be a great many writers from Lerdo, but there is one extraordinary figure, Hermila Galindo Acosta (1886–1954). She was one of those cultural figures that rise above adverse circumstances, and there was nothing that could silence her. She managed to get an education and become a writer when it was extraordinarily hard for women to do these things. She would even be considered a progressive by today’s standards in that she supported women’s rights (especially suffrage), women’s involvement in politics, critiques of the Catholic Church on behalf of women, and sex education in the public schools. Her major work is La Mujer moderna, 1915–1919 (The Modern Woman) .


Is there a place here that you return to often?

I like returning to the gazebo where I ate the ice cream. It is a refuge within this city that is itself a refuge. I love getting coffee or hot chocolate and coming back to that special place. I sit there for a couple of hours and watch families with their children walk through, stop, play, and greet friends. My favorite restaurant is nearby, and so I’ve sat there many times after eating just to be in that friendly atmosphere.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I would like the many scenes that I describe in Lerdo to be taken as iconic. It’s not that there aren’t bookstores and cultural attractions in this city. There are. But what’s most important to me is the total fabric of culture and life there, the sense in which Mexican culture lives on the streets and out in the open, on the plaza and in the parks, and in the unhurried time of meals in restaurants. This city has an iconic literary importance not because books are sold there or because writers compose works while living there. It is because it is a bastion against fragmentation and the “life of the mind” that separates culture in the US from what is going on in bodies, especially the bodies of the poor. This is a city where bodies, the whole person, are welcome. This city is not a cultural ideal. It is not a perfect place at all, but it is a locale that invites thought about the past and about what about the past fits in the present and the future.

I would like people to read my comments about Lerdo and be reminded of the similar places in their own lives, the places in Mexico, the US, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe that are not the main thoroughfares of postmodern culture. I’m thinking of the smaller venues and places to live where people take ownership of their lives and protect what they have. This appreciation of Lerdo is not about idealizing small towns and rural communities. It is about realizing that such places are external living thoughts about the present. Lerdo is a living thing, like a mind, and it has much to tell us. This city is a collection of powerful thoughts that it will share if you go there wanting to listen and to learn from what it can impart. It is about community and people taking responsibility for their lives and who they are. It is about families, children, and people who do not have families and do not have a place to live. It is a city, like so many others, that can give us the mental turning room that we need to think productively about the future and how our past fits into the future that we will all live in together.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I wish that I could answer that question and I actively seek to know this city better. The Undiano family came from there, and they left in 1920 when they got on a train in Torreón to travel to the United States. At the Torreón train station, my grandmother María Atancia boarded with my father and his two brothers (all little boys) in tow. My grandfather had died only two months before, and she was also pregnant with my aunt Consuelo. It took great courage for María Atancia to get on that train while pregnant with a daughter and with three sons following her like little ducks waddling in a row to go on the big trip to Phoenix, Arizona.

When I go back to Lerdo now, I do not return as one of this city’s favored sons but as a third-generation Mexican American who wants to reclaim culture and re-find so much that he has lost. I go back to there now as someone needing to remake a part of my past that has slipped away and doesn’t really exist anymore—not for me or anyone. I know that any cultural reclamation that I can accomplish will always be of my own making.

When I am in Lerdo, I am aware at every moment that there is some information so important that it changes the people who know it. For me it is knowledge about Mexico that is that information, but also an awareness of the knowledge that I cannot reclaim about Mexico. Both come under the heading of information so important that it alters your perspective. I am different now because I have tried to reclaim that culture but also because I have failed to reclaim parts of my past that will always elude me even in this ancestral place. Either way, I am different and changed from trying to make a little bit of Mexico my own.


Where does passion live here?

Passion in Lerdo lives in families who have been there for generations and value knowing their cousins, and their cousins’ cousins, and who re-choose this place every day when they could be somewhere else, probably in better paying and bigger jobs. They re-choose a town that has a central plaza and a true cultural center. They re-choose being among people who want to walk around neighborhoods each night after dinner. They re-choose knowing their neighbors and caring about their neighbors’ neighbors. For generations, people have made their homes in each alleyway and main street of this old city. They have resisted moving on or even learning to be comfortable in new places.


What is the title of one of your works about Lerdo and what inspired it exactly?

In a sense, everything I write about in my reclaiming of Mexican culture, especially in Mestizos Come Home!, is about Lerdo, my family’s starting place. I tell the story of people from there when I talk about Mexicans being a mestizo, mixed people who have celebrated ethnic richness much longer than it has been fashionable to do so. I am telling the story of people from there when I talk about the Day of the Dead and the terrible killing legacy of sugar in Mexico and in the Americas. I am telling this city’s story when I write about Mexicans and their relationship to the human body. Caring about actual bodies and the people in them is a Mexican trait, one that runs deep and is taken for granted in Mexico. This attitude is different from the “life of the mind” and the indifference to the bodies of the poor that plays out everywhere in the US. I tell this city’s story when I talk about Mexicans and indigenous people caring deeply about the land that they and their forebears have lived on for so many years. There are countless stories that could be told about this city, and I’ve tried to tell as many of them as I can.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Lerdo does an outside exist? 

Galeano’s work exists. When I first started writing about Mexican Americans and the Americas, I felt very much alone and without connections to other writers giving witness to what happened in the Conquest and in the Americas since. I was struck that so much about our common heritage in this hemisphere has been lost and that we are living countless lies about our past in so many ways. I was shocked that there was little awareness of the current evidence of post-Conquest catastrophe in the Americas, the postcolonial stress disorder (as I write about in Mestizos Come Home!) that I was discovering and rediscovering almost daily.  

I was relieved and truly inspired by Galeano’s brutal but also honest and powerful descriptions of our situation in the Americas. He writes that “our system is one of detachment: to keep silenced people from asking questions, to keep the judged from judging, to keep solitary people from joining together, and the soul from putting together its pieces.” I wanted to be a part of pulling together fragments of our collective soul in the Americas. Once I discovered Galeano’s perspective, I found additional, kindred spirits, like Aníbal Quijano, among other Peruvian writers, and I no longer felt so isolated in thinking sad but necessary thoughts about our common heritage and the past in this part of the world. I felt that I could join with others, the living and dead, to think together about the Americas as if we were attending a resolana, a neighborhood gathering, where we could all share what we brought with us. It’s this community effort to reclaim our culture that is most important to me.


Robert Con Davis-Undiano was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1948 and is a well-known writer about Mexican American culture, the history of ideas in the West, American literature and culture, and literary and cultural criticism. He has published many books and essays about these and other topics. His latest book, Mestizos Come Home! Making and Claiming Mexican American Identity (University of Oklahoma Press 2017), won the International Latino Book Award in 2017. The recipient of many awards and honors, he is a passionate observer of contemporary culture. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma and directs the Latinx Studies Program and the World Literature Today organization at the University of Oklahoma.

Published Mar 21, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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