Note to readers: this interview is part of an occasional blog series where we talk with people who contribute to making the neighborhood – in this case, Colonia Roma in Mexico City – vibrant.
When Bill and I landed in Mexico City, by the time we made our way to the Airbnb apartment in Colonia Roma where we would stay for the first two weeks, we were epically disoriented. So many unfamiliar sights, and all those people pushing around the streets, it was all very unnerving until Yasén Vilchis, our Airbnb host, appeared at the door with a smile.
Within minutes, she welcomed us, answered our urgent questions, and was already drawing a detailed map of the neighborhood that we would carry with us for days whenever we left the apartment. She even provided her cell phone number and encouraged us to check in if we needed anything. Just like that, thanks to Yasén’s steady, supportive approach, we felt the disorientation beginning to fade.
Since then, although we’ve moved on to new neighborhoods and different Airbnb apartments, we’ve stayed in touch with Yasén, now and then meeting for coffee and catching up.
Gradually, we learned more about her and her story.
Yasén is from Tampico, a port city of about 300,000 on the Gulf of Mexico, in the state of Tamaulipas. The youngest, and the only girl, in a family that includes six siblings, Yasén felt drawn to Mexico City at an early age.
Yasén: When I was nine years old, I first visited Mexico City. By the time I was 12, I knew that one day I would live here. My sisters-in-law encouraged me to stay in Tampico. But I thought, no, why do I have to?
From ages 12 to 21 years old, I was thinking all the time of Mexico City.
At school, she earned an administrative degree, and, after graduating and relocating to Mexico City, she found work in the administrative area with a security company. That was 24 years ago.
Yasén: I came here by myself to find another, different way of life. I love Mexico City, it’s the opposite of quiet and small. There’s risk and a free atmosphere, with plenty of opportunity, plenty of people and traffic. I love to get lost in people, like when riding on the Metro.
Mom thought I would come back in three or four years. Finally, she understood it cannot be.
Here in the city, I got a sense of my own life. It was the beginning.
Upon arrival, Yasén lived in Colonia San Raphael, which, like Colonia Roma, is in the Cuauhtémoc borough. After having spent some time also in Colonia Del Valle, she came back to her current neighborhood, Colonia Roma.
When asked what a typical day is like in Colonia Roma, she laughs.
Yasén: Here, there is no typical day!
When Bill and I met with her recently, she played us a video she had recorded on her iPhone. The video shows a still-dark early morning street outside her apartment building. Suddenly, a marching band, complete with uniforms, horns, and drums, appears on the screen. Her camera follows the band around a small circular park outside her window, then the music starts to fade as the band makes its way down the street.
That’s the kind of bold unexpectedness you’ll find in Mexico City, and in Yasén herself.
People here revere their cars, but not Yasén. Instead, you’ll find her zipping around the area on foot, unfazed by the rough and sometimes crumbling sidewalks; or grabbing a ride on one of the distinctive red bicycles from the popular bike-sharing program, EcoBici; or on her motor scooter.
Some time ago, she left her traditional office job in search of more vivid employment. For a while, she owned a neighborhood cafetería. Instead of the dream job that many people think that is, she describes the time as a period of constant hard work.
The hours were long. When something broke, she learned to fix it herself. And she never, ever got a vacation. On the other hand, she remembers, that was also a time when strangers around Colonia Roma who came to the cafe became friends.
Eventually, she sold the cafe to explore other areas of interest.
Yasén: I was with a Buddhist group for about two years. The Buddhists provided an entrance, a door to another world. Years ago, I realized I needed to meditate, but I didn’t know how. Instead, I was always very busy, with no time.
The Buddhists helped me to understand meditation, that the practice involves more than just music and white robes. The Buddhists taught me that meditation is movement with the mind. It’s hard to reach that state of mind, but there are techniques. I learned several ways to meditate.
Also, the Buddhists answered many questions for me. In the end, though, they taught me that the questions are not important, you must feel what you want.
When I was learning the meditation techniques, I had a teacher, and heard lots of talk that I didn’t understand. So eventually I decided to quit the Buddhist group, and study in my own way.
Would I ever go back? I don’t know. It depends on what my inner way says. Meanwhile, I respect and love the information and techniques the Buddhists gave me.
There is a Yasén before and after Buddhism; I showed big changes after Buddhism!
One recent change is a new tattoo in indigo blue on her right arm. The tattoo is a beauty, a phoenix, that iconic bird continuously reborn from its own ashes. It reminds her of the transformation she’s experienced.
Her days now are less structured, with time for mindfulness and consideration.
Yasén: Depending how the day comes, how the energy is, in the mornings I might swim or exercise. I have time to talk with friends. Then I might cook food for lunchtime. And I play with my cat, Gonzalo, who is the handsomest cat in the neighborhood!
Now I’m also working on a project involving La Romita [a pre-Hispanic square with narrow streets that include a church and surrounding buildings, where Colonia Roma began]. The community wants to re-start a cultural and art space.
Since 2011, Yasén has also been a host for Airbnb, an online venue for travelers. She owns an apartment in Colonia Roma that she offers as a vacation rental through Airbnb.
Yasén: I had conflict in my life, and I wanted to create a new life. As part of starting fresh, I joined Airbnb as a host. A neighbor was renting through the site, and I thought it was a good option.
What I like the most is the online platform; the way it’s built and configured to make a business. Airbnb doesn’t need to be in a building. Hosts and guests just log into a simple application to find each other. My guests are always interesting, they come to Mexico City from all over the world.
Finally, Yasén is a great reader, and self-help is her favorite genre. Right now, she’s reading books on meditation by Osho, an Indian mystic. She’s also a fan of works by spiritual teachers and authors Ekhart Tolle and Anthony De Millo.
Yasén: I read all these books to make sense of the way I have to follow for myself.
Asked where she might go if she could visit anywhere in the world, Yasén simply shakes her head.
Yasén: I have no answer. I would love to travel anywhere, but I don’t prefer one destination above another.
Instead of forcing a frenzy of exhausting travel plans, she would rather wait and see what unfolds.
Under the overhang of the coffee shop where we’re talking, Yasén sips her double espresso. As usual, she seems oblivious to the surrounding chaos of trash pick up, taxis honking, and motor scooters on delivery runs – the customary pandemonium of a weekday morning. In contrast to the endless striving all around us, she’s content with having enough.
Thank you, Yasén, for sharing with us your knowledge of the city, and for your reassuring calm that’s helped us to begin to make sense of this mad place.