Crossing the border
Coming of age in Mexico
by Liza Monroy
Spiegel & Grau, 352 pp., $21.95
by Erasmo Guerra
“Mexican High,” the debut novel by Liza Monroy, reads like an insider’s guide to Mexico City.
Set in the mid-’90s, the narrative may at first seem dated as a travel book, but the tour Ms. Monroy leads across the perils and pleasures of teenage drama prove to be as up-to-date as the latest travel advisory.
Sixteen-year-old Milagro — or Mila, as she prefers to be called — is forced to endure her senior year of high school south of the border after her mother, a single parent employed by the U.S. Foreign Civil Service, gets transferred from Washington, D.C. to Mexico’s D.F., or Federal District, as Mexico City is known to the locals.
To keep her routine new-student low profile, Mila plans to focus on her studies and apply for a Stateside college. But she quickly grows determined to uncover the identity of her father, a high-powered Mexican politico with whom her supposedly infertile mother had a one-night affair resulting in the miracle, or “milagro,” of her birth—and her subsequent name.
Mila’s also distracted by the dark sparkle of the more glamorous students known as fresas, or “strawberries,” the Gucci- and Prada-wearing kids of Mexico’s wealthy and political elite.
As late as the end-of-the-year senior trip, Mila still yearns to belong: to her unknown father, to the clique. “…I ordered a daiquiri de fresa and wished it were some Alice in Wonderland potion that would magically turn me into one… I sipped slowly through the straw.”
Ms. Monroy, 28, admittedly loves teens. “There’s always drama with them,” she explained recently. “It’s the time in your life when you have the most freedom and the least responsibility. And everything’s changing and scary.”
Growing up, she was a fan of the TV series “Beverly Hills 90210,” and she read the entire young adult romance series of Sweet Valley High books.
The primary motivation to write her own book, however, came from the four years she spent at a Mexican private school. “There were all kinds of books and TV shows like ‘Gossip Girl’ or ‘Laguna Beach’—a lot of stuff about these rich teenagers,” she said. “But it didn’t even come close to the fresas.”
While “Mexican High” may stride through the same academic halls of Curtis Sittenfeld’s best-selling “Prep,” it also re-polishes the empty, drug-fueled glitz of the ’80s novel “Less Than Zero,” now set in the Zona Rosa and other “Pink Districts” of money and privilege.
When Mila witnesses a guy she loves snort lines of cocaine with a rolled-up 10-peso bill, she’s compelled to point out, “Your father was killed by drug dealers, and you’re doing coke?”
“They’re not this powerful for no reason,” he replies.
And cocaine isn’t the only drug on hand. “Mexican High” is also informed by the well-traveled path forged by others on the lam or in search of spiritual truths, which could only be accessed in the psychedelic trips offered by peyote and other hallucinogenics native to Mexico.
“I was obsessed with the Beat generation when I was Mila’s age,” said Ms. Monroy. Back at her Mexican high school, she said it wasn’t unusual to hear other students say they were “Going to the desert this weekend” to get high on peyote, while telling their parents they’d be at a friend’s pool house at Valle de Bravo.
There’s something about Mexico City that allows teenagers to have a more permissive life. “The lack of rules,” said Ms. Monroy, explaining that a 15-year-old can walk into a bar, and order a drink, no I.D. required.
The high life didn’t kill her. Ms. Monroy said that teens in Mexico, as opposed to those who grew up in the States, learn quickly how to take care of themselves. She remembers going to one school function known as a “comida,” or “lunch,” except there wasn’t any food served, just alcohol.
“I went to one my freshman year and I got really sick. I never drank too much after that,” she said. “When I came to college in the States, I found all these people going to frat parties and drinking keg beer all night and puking and whatever. I was over it by then.”
After college, when Ms. Monroy moved to New York, she thought she would live in the East Village forever, but she now lives and writes in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
Earning her Master’s degree in creative nonfiction at Columbia, she heads into Manhattan for class as well as good Mexican food. She likes La Palapa in the East and West Village, Sueños in Chelsea and for a torta de pollo, she recommends the recently opened Toloache in Midtown’s theater district. She has yet to find great tacos al pastor, made from spiced pork meat slow-cooked on a rotisserie. She once stumbled upon a taco truck on West 14th St. and Eighth Ave., which advertised al pastor. “But it wasn’t the same,” she said. “Their pastor was just like steak tacos.”
She’s also on the search for a cup of cafe de olla, the heady, cinnamon-spiced Mexican coffee.
If only running into the fresas from her old Mexican high school were just as difficult. Recently, on a night out at a Downtown club, Ms. Monroy saw some of them. To the tune of both wonder and nearly horror-stricken disbelief, she said, “Some of them moved here.”
Upcoming book readings and author panels are scheduled for June 24 8 p.m. at the National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South; and on June 26 at 6:30 p.m. Bryant Park Word for Word Series, Bryant Park Reading Room, 42nd St. at Fifth Ave.