Writing So Open It Hurts

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A nini ethnography

In 2009 the word still did not exist in Mexico. Yet by August 2010, it was nearly impossible to watch the nightly news without suffering through yet another segment, interview, or monologue about the country’s nini phenomenon. Nini, ni estudian ni trabajan, they neither study nor work. The first mention of the term I am able to find in the Mexican press comes from the February 2010 edition of Proceso magazine. In his article, The Mexican Ninis, José Gil Olmos says he first heard the term from National Autonomous University rector, José Narro Robles.

In Mexico there are at least seven million, and worldwide many more. They are young people with no future, or, if they have one, it is hopeless, bleak, and shameful. This is a generation marked by disappointment. They are now called the “Ninis,” and previously were the “emos” and generation X.

In September 2010 alone, there were at least 161 mentions of the term “ninis” in mainstream Mexican media. It became a favorite buzzword by politicians and talking heads. Unemployed Mexican youth were blamed for the country’s insecurity, its slow growth, and the pervasive pessimism that hangs above the metropolis like the ever-present, yellowish layer of smog. César Duarte, the governor of Chihuahua, even proposed mandatory military service for all Mexican youth who are not enrolled in school or employed. Kent Paterson of the Center for International Policy declared 2010 the “year of the nini.”

Ninis estudien por orgilo

The February 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek – “The Kids Are Not Alright” – internationalized the alleged nini phenomenon:

“In Tunisia, the young people who helped bring down a dictator are called hittistes—French-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall. Their counterparts in Egypt, who on Feb. 1 forced President Hosni Mubarak to say he won’t seek reelection, are the shabab atileen, unemployed youths. The hittistes and shabab have brothers and sisters across the globe. In Britain, they are NEETs—”not in education, employment, or training.” In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they’re “boomerang” kids who move back home after college because they can’t find work. Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its “ant tribe”—recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can’t find well-paying work.”

The current protests in Spain have brought the buzzword back to the Op-Ed pages of Mexican newspapers, but among all the punditry of just what to do with these typically over-educated and under-employed youth, very few Mexican journalists or anthropologists have shown any interest in actually trying to understand them. Daniel Hernandez is one of the few, and in many ways Down and Delirious can be read as an ethnography of Mexico’s so-called ninis; youth who have not found meaningful employment, but have managed to create meaning through self-expression.

Alain de Botton reminds us that just 100 years ago it was rarely expected that we would marry for love. As little as 20 years ago work was still seen as work — a sacrifice we made in order to seek pleasure and leisure during our time off. Now an entire, global, connected generation wants to find meaningful work that creates pleasure in itself. But the market has not yet produced those jobs in sufficient quantity. And the youth keep waiting.

The Donald Draper Complex

Don draper02 bar

There were moments – plenty of them – when I felt undeniable envy; not so much of Daniel’s writing, which is beautiful, but rather the seductive aesthetic that seems to shape around his every waking day.

It is what first drew me into the novels of Henry Miller, Kerouac and Bukowski as an 18-year-old: the romantic revelry with hobos, drugs, prostitutes, starving artists, and sexual experimentation. While the rest of Mexico City’s expats are sipping fashionable mezcal and making their way around the museum and gallery circuit, Daniel and his indie cinema cast of friends “find an untouched watering hold and make it [their] own:”

“The little building looks both dead and drunk, unused, and at least two hundred years old. Around the corner, next to a permanent mound of fresh garbage and behind a metal grate, with no sign and no fixed name, sits our spot. It is just one room big and the bathroom is revolting. Nothing decorates the walls but a sticky film best left uninvestigated. Roaches the size of small rodents sometimes amble across the tile floor, giving me the frightening impression that they have large and complex brains. Old prostitutes, gangly old gay men, transvestites or transgendered ladies with saggy chins, gangsters, women with only a few precious bits of teeth hanging from their gums, dealers—it’s their spot, too. We get to know the “owners” and become quite acquainted with the running melodramas of the place.”

Daniel’s Mexico City is mythical. Somehow he is able to find a little Charles Bukowski wherever he goes. Each night, as I flicked through another chapter on my iPad, my own life began to feel increasingly sterile, predictable, institutional. More meetings, more proposals, more white papers, more conferences.

Half way through Daniel’s book I read a discussion between two old-school allies, Antonio Lopez and Erik Davis, which was yet another reminder of how far my life had drifted from the West Coast, wannabe Bohemianism of my younger days.

There were nights when I felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to surround myself with the “artists, writers, punks, filmmakers, druggies, psychonaughts, Bohemians, and homeless crazies,” in the words of Antonio. Other nights I nearly hopped in my car to seek out a bag of mushrooms and some hippie encampment outside of Palenque. I reflected on where this urge came from. A lasting vestige of my need to rebel against the monotony and sterility of Southern California’s suburbs? An early onset of a midlife crisis?

I’m not sure. Nor do I know why Daniel celebrates the hunger of the starving artist and the lunacy of the sobbing transvestite prostitute. Is it the life of the writer? Seeking out the esoteric underground to become its literary ambassador for the intellectual class? Or is it actually an aesthetic choice, our daily actions and discrimination wrapped up in fashion, photographs, waiting to be pinned down by marketers and magazines?

It is impossible to write about Mexico and not identity

This is a book about identity on multiple levels. First, and most obviously, Daniel’s own struggle to see himself through the eyes of other Mexicans:

“One day a roommate brought a friend over to our apartment. The friend was a young, redheaded, blue-eyed native of Mexico City, dressed like a gutter punk, who was “hanging around” California. I told the young Mexican girl my parents were Mexican and that I was born in San Diego, that we’re from Tijuana. “But you’re not really Mexican,” the girl responded. I was not? Until then I had always been under the impression that the world perceived me as Mexican, like it or not. I felt Mexican—stuck between a dominant American culture that shunned the “Mexican” within its society, and contemporary Mexicans back in Mexico who found it so easy to dismiss our mixed heritage as somehow unrelated to theirs. Around that time films such as Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También were opening up radically new conceptions of Mexican life for people north of the border. The same should have been true in the opposite direction. But no. As a Mexican American, born in gringo territory, I was still excluded from the national narrative in Mexico.”

But it is also a dissection of the many identities of Mexico City’s urban tribes. Emos, hipsters, cholos, punks, rappers, graffiti artists, neo-indigenist peace-pipe passers, fashionistas, cult worshippers — he tries to understand them all; at times by reviewing the literature, but usually by inserting himself into their circles.

There is one last, more subtle, layer of identity meditation, and that is Daniel’s own coming of age from 2002 when he graduates from Berkeley and books a one-way flight to Mexico City, and the end of 2010 when he finishes the book’s manuscript. Throughout the book the references to homosexuality and sexual liberation are both subtle and pervasive. Daniel’s relationship with the entire world seems to take on an erotic androgyny. From a conversation with a friend (boyfriend? we don’t know, it doesn’t seem to matter) about Mexico City’s fashion scene:

You can see it in other designers here as well. they are merging the global with the local, applying the austere lines and geometries of international couture with the playfulness and surreal qualities of everyday life in Mexico. They are also disciples of the power of androgyny. Among independent young labels, garments are offered as unisex, expressing in a simple article of clothing a belief in the idea that the male and female exist equally within the self.

Down and Delirious complicates how we think about sexuality among Mexico City’s youth. I have no idea if Daniel is heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Those categories simply don’t seem relevant, and the careful reader senses a deliberate effort to transcend them completely.

It struck me that, perhaps, Daniel could have only achieved such transcendence of the usual notions of sexuality here in Mexico City. Back in California the genres of hetero and homo are too well defined, while Mexico City is still exploring its first sexual revolution with daily improvisation.

So open it hurts

In 1970, Boston Globe magazine editor Bill Cardoso first referred to Hunter S. Thompson’s unique style of journalism as “gonzo,” and so emerged a new sub-genre of narrative reporting that inserts the observer into the observation. Today another, new sub-genre of writing is upon us — a slightly forced marriage between the frantic hyper-connectedness of the web and the reflective, iterative re-writing that eventually leads to a book.

There is no shortage of blogs that have become books (there is even software to automate the process), but Down and Delirious strikes me as much more ambitious than an edited aggregation of Daniel’s excellent blog, Intersections. Spanish speakers can get a better sense of what he is after in this video to introduce a workshop Daniel will be giving on digital journalism at .357.

The characters in Daniel’s book are also the same avatars leaving comments on his Facebook wall as I write this. It is impossible to separate the book from the blog, and impossible to separate the blog from every passing day, comment, conversation. We are witnessing a new genre that represents a generation that has grown up over-sharing, that has never been timid to offer an opinion even before learning all the facts, that can frequently share its deepest secrets with the wider public more easily than with its closest friends. It is a generation and a genre of writing that has learned to be so open it hurts.

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