A Day in the Life of a Mexican-American Cyclist
Culture, or, as I grew up calling it, cultura, embodies two main things: a group’s way of thinking and how others perceive it. As a Mexican-American cyclist whose childhood stretched between Mexico and Utah, I’ve thought a lot about how I fit into both. Somehow this cultural reflection, this story, is what empowers me to keep pedaling!
Imagine yourself as a kid again. Imagine being in rural Mexico. There are old farm homes, chickens scratching at the ground, and endless dirt roads leading to replicas of the same towns, or pueblos.
I wake up to the sounds of roosters hollering; it’s 6 am, and as far as I know, I have nothing to do today but get on my rusted red Huffy bicycle and pedal. As I pedal around the old rancho I notice little more than the clanking sound of the old bike chain that has fallen off more than ten times this week.
On the dirt road, I notice the other ciclistas. They are hauling pounds of beans and corn on some of the oldest pieces of metal, pipes, and wheels—although, in this area they are known as farmers, not cyclists. This is how they make a living. Then there are the smiling parents pedaling steadily towards the closest bus stop, perhaps ten miles away—to drop off the two or three children, draped over the handlebars and crossbars.
Already in the distance, I can hear the sound of children racing their bicycles to school, a la plaza to buy eggs and a la tienda to buy milk. The morning commute is vibrant and noisy, full of whirring wheels, clanking bike chains, and a language so beautiful and comforting. All I can think about is how important this piece of metal, la bicicleta, is to my community, to my home.
The sun beats down intensely on all the brown skinned people that occupy my childhood. The day is in full swing and everyone has somewhere to be, someone to see. Suddenly I realize that I have somewhere to be as well. My heart begins to race extremely fast. And I’m off, pedaling furiously—faster than I have ever pedaled in my life, towards la casa de mi abuelita! My little legs can scarcely keep up with the pedals. I am out of breath by the time her house comes into view. I can already make out the slightly bent figures of my cousins, primos, and grandparents as they load up the old Chevy pick-up to head into town. Breathless, I throw down my Huffy and climb up into the pick-up to lend a hand.
Now, we’re on the dirt road headed into town, towards the marketplace. I’m sitting in the bed of the truck with all of my primos, and I can’t help but feel a sense of relief at not being left behind. I’ve already forgotten about bicycles and the experience from that morning is far from my mind until we pass an old man pedaling along the side of the road. He is pedaling uphill through dirt and gravel. The noon day sun is beating down intensely. He looks tired. I notice his worn out huaraches and sombrero. I see this old man every time we go to the mercado. He is always pedaling very slowly.
The dust settles, on my memories of childhood memories but the image of the old man remains. I can’t place where I’ve seen this image before, it seems so familiar, but so distant at the same time. Then it hits me, I’ve seen this man before, at home in Utah. I close my eyes and try to remember,
When my eyes open this time, I am slouched low in the bed of another pick-up. The sun is beating down, but this time there are more cars zooming by. I look to my right and see my mom. She motions for me to keep my head down because in Utah it’s illegal to ride in the bed of a pick-up. But, as is the case with most children, my curiosity takes over. I peek over the edge and there it is—the image that brought my mind here in the first place: a man pedaling on the side of the road. Except this time the road is a well maintained freeway. And the ciclista?
Instead of huaraches y sombrero, he’s wearing Spandex, expensive sunglasses, and a helmet with a prominent logo. I notice his skin color, white. His feet are connected to his pedals, for efficiency? Is he struggling? I wonder how many times he travels this path each week? Wait, I wonder how many times he chooses to travel this path? As I catch a final glimpse of him, I naturally try to relate the two: the old man in Mexico and this man in Utah. I wonder who struggles more. As the Utah cyclist disappears from view, I let my imagination wander again. Where do they come from? What are their families like? Before long, the truck slows and comes to a stop. I open my eyes and see my primos again. They are smiling and laughing.
The mercado in Sombrerete, Zacatecas is noisy and full of life. Everywhere I look there are rows and rows of colorful tents, throngs of people and the smell of food cooking. I jump down off the side of the pick-up, almost taking out two of my primos, and run directly to the dulcería, or candy store. I can hear the rancheras playing in the background, or maybe it's la banda, I can never tell. Over the music I can make out the cries of the vendors. As I visualize and salivate over all of the dulces I am about to consume, a sign suddenly catches my eye. It reads “Bicicletería,” or bike shop.
This is too much to resist! Of course, I rush in and touch everything. I am mesmerized by the colors as the bicycle brands announce themselves in English in my head. An old man comes out from the back and suddenly I am in shock! It is the old man who I saw earlier that day pedaling, and struggling along the side of the road. He is wearing worn out huaraches and a dusty sombrero—similar to my abuelos.
He smiles and asks whether I am a mountain biker, a road biker, or just a niño, a little kid. I laugh and tell him that I think I am all of these. The old man reminds me of my older self somehow. His skin is darker, probably from hours pedaling in the sun. He clearly loves bicycles, and his enthusiasm is contagious. I feel alive. He gives me a tour around the bike shop and asks me what I ride. I tell him proudly, “A RED HUFFY!” He laughs and tells me the story of his first bicycle and how it helped his family transport water from a well located miles away from his pueblo. As he goes further and further into his story, another thought takes hold.
It hits me harder than a palo striking a pinata, harder than the sounds of huaraches dusting off a old doormat—almost like a smack of pastel, cake, in your face after singing Las Mañanitas. My morning on my red huffy directly comes to mind. I remember that his cultura is my cultura, a story of self that contains ingredients necessary for both survival and significance—significance that I don’t feel too often in the states, in Utah.
Is it because my cultura doesn’t exist there? Or is it because my cultura is not socially acceptable in Utah? Perhaps I feel ashamed of this cultura, but how could I be ashamed of something that is a part of myself?
Maybe I have lost my way from my roots, mis raíces?
As I am contemplating all of this inside this old bicicletería, the old man interrupts and asks me if I am going to purchase anything; almost as if he is aware that I am not actively listening. I don’t have much money, so I turn to leave.
Next thing I know I am pedaling through the historic Mexican city. I lose myself within the sounds, the colors, and the people. As I maneuver through some of the most chaotic traffic, I smile endlessly. I feel at peace, almost as if I visit this place often in my mind. Everywhere I look, I see and hear people with a deep energy for life. Everywhere, labor, family, food, religion, music and dance are intertwined. I pass an older woman on her way to church, a young boy selling chicles, a tired man hauling caged chickens, children racing—all on bicycles, all a part of me.
By pedaling, my thoughts about my cultura and my identity, begin to make more sense. I tell myself that everything I encountered today makes me proud to be Mexican. It’s also what makes me an American. I love bicycles as much as the old man in the worn out huaraches, and I also love riding as deeply as the cyclist in Utah.
The reasons I ride are embodied by so many people and so many different experiences. I remember them all when I ride. I think of the beauty and joy of cycling.
Before I know it, al atardecer and the sun begins to set. My stomach begins to rumble; it is almost dinner time. I am at home in Utah and at home in rural Mexico. I feel at peace.