Angelique Chrisafis

Mexican hospitality is never warmer than when you’re being offered a lift: My car is your car, my brother’s pickup is your pickup, and where four can ride, another four can travel on their laps.

It’s rude not to accept. So at 10 a.m., I was in the passenger seat of a third-hand Chevrolet Citation II, moving through Puebla City: windows down, eyes watering from the speed, a smile plastered to my face, hand reaching for a seat belt that wasn’t there. Palm trees, telegraph wires, and adverts for Moctezuma cement and TV Azteca sped past. Jorge, co-founder of one of the city’s main organizations for street kids, was driving. He is a tall, bearded man who trained for the priesthood, but after a crisis of faith opted for non-governmental, apolitical, nonreligious work with the poor.

We were supposed to have met at 9 a.m. for an article I’m writing about Puebla’s swelling population of street children, but when I arrived, he looked at me blankly. “Shit, I forgot. I’ve got some errands to run. Get in the car,” he commanded.

The first stop was at the Gigante supermarket for their “30 percent off everything” video sale to buy a copy of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. The Catholic Church in Mexico had issued a decree against it, citing filth and blasphemy. Although the church couldn’t ban it, it had strongly advised its withdrawal from shop shelves. The thrill of purchasing a copy was so intense, we took several friends along. The first was Raul, a drama teacher in his 60s, dressed as if it was still the ‘60s in orange-tinted glasses and pressed flannel trousers, his feet shod in tiny leather slip-ons, clutching the credit card he had brought along for the occasion. The second was David, a Brylcremed medical student who just happened to be crossing the road as we negotiated a corner.

“Get in the car, you bastard,” said Jorge.

“But I’m just going down the road.”

“Get in, fuckface! We’re going to Gigante.”

We are speaking in Mexican “albur,” a hybrid of Spanish swear words and terms of abuse from Nauhatl, the Aztec language. Albur operates on a system of inverse wordplay. Innocent words are offensive: Avocado means testicle, chili means penis, mother implies motherfucker. In contrast, it’s fine to address your closest friend as a “godforsaken son of a cocksucking bitch.” I have no choice but to smile politely.

Raul, sandwiched between two guitarists in the back seat, leans forward and says, “You’re quite sociable for an English person.”

Some hours later we emerge from Gigante with one copy of TaxiDriver, for which we paid about $8. There was no LastTemptation, just lots of badly dubbed U.S. workout videos and a whole shelf of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (Vaselina). We discuss the bargain price and Robert De Niro’s “almost Mexican machismo” over a plate of Pueblan chicken at the side of the road. A sign reads, “If you want it on credit, ask God.”

Jorge says the street kids might have to wait until tomorrow. His friend Ernesto will drive me round the city at night on the back of a moped. That way I’ll get a better look.

This means an early night. I’m staying at a friend’s parents’ house on the nice side of town, consisting of two-story, 1960s townhouses, painted alternately brown and purple. I lie awake under five wood carvings, two guardian angels, an effigy of the Virgin Mary, and an iron crucifix. Outside, Chevrolet horns sound into the night. Then tires screech and the shouting starts.

“Hey, you. Fuck your mother.”

“No. You fuck your sister.”

“No. Why don’t you go dance with your grandma.”

I think about Ernesto and his moped.