The powerful earthquake that shook Acapulco and Mexico City a week ago made me worry about the damage that it might inflict on those two cities. At the same time, it revived memories of the many trips I’ve made to Mexico during the past five decades.
My first trip, in February 1970, stands out from all the rest for a bunch of reasons. It was, notably, my first encounter with the beautiful country of Mexico.
It also represented a tremendous leap from bitter-cold Chicago to a sunny and flower-filled part of the world I couldn’t wait to visit…as well as a total departure from months of hard work at my job.
Until the day I left Chicago for Acapulco–Saturday, February 21–I’d been largely preoccupied with my work as co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictive Illinois abortion law. We filed our lawsuit on Friday the 20th, and I took off for Mexico feeling a great sense of relief as well as anticipation.
Some background: My first job after finishing law school was law clerk for a U.S. district court judge, Julius J. Hoffman. [I’ve described my two-year clerkship in a series of blog posts beginning in November 2020. Please see the first post in the series at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/%5D After leaving Hoffman, I assumed a new role that validated why I’d gone to law school in the first place: a Reggie Fellowship, assigned to work at my chosen office, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Legal Aid Bureau of Chicago. [I’ve discussed the Reggie program earlier. Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2015/08/07/the-summer-of-69/%5D
As a Reggie, my goal was to achieve law reform for the poor, and I began to focus on my role as a lawyer working on behalf of poor women and men in Chicago.
So, after a month or two as a Reggie, I conceived the idea of challenging the Illinois abortion law, which clearly had its most profound effect on poor and minority women. My supervisor approved of my working on this issue, and I was soon allied with another woman lawyer (at the ACLU in Chicago), who became my co-counsel and lifelong friend. [I’m currently engaged in a writing project focused on this lawsuit.]
After months of hard work, we filed our lawsuit with the U.S. district court in Chicago on February 20, 1970, and I left the next day for my eagerly awaited respite from work, my trip to Acapulco and Mexico City.
In lieu of traveling with a close friend or relative, I set off on my own, but I’d arranged to spend part of my time with another single woman who was also traveling on her own. I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed sympatica and was knowledgeable about traveling in Mexico. I’ll call her Sandy.
My first stop was Acapulco and a bargain-priced hotel located near some luxurious hotels. Sandy, who’d chosen this hotel, arrived shortly after I did and assured me that we could safely melt into the crowd sunning themselves around a pool at one of the other hotels. (Our place had only a small, mostly unused pool.) So we probably violated all sorts of rules when we made our way to a crowded luxury-hotel pool, filled with the cool young people of that era, and lounged there, undisturbed, delighted to have escaped the frigid Chicago winter.
I immediately fell in love with Mexico. Acapulco turned out to be a beautiful spot, exciting and still relatively unspoiled by American tourists.
After soaking up the sun and the nighttime scene in Acapulco for a few days, Sandy and I moved on to a large middle-priced hotel in a great location in Mexico City. Sandy had taken up with a young man she’d met in Acapulco, and although I occasionally paired up with another young man, making up a foursome, once Sandy and I were in Mexico City I decided to go off on my own most of the time. So I proceeded to roam parts of the city I wanted to explore, feeling quite safe wherever I went. I impulsively purchased a ticket for the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and ecstatically viewed a stunning dance performance filled with music and dances reflecting many regions of Mexico, some incorporating the traditions of its indigenous peoples. And I made a memorable visit to the National Museum of Anthropology.
Before leaving Mexico, I wanted to see some of the other exciting locations described in my guidebook, and I signed up for a small private tour whose guide would pick me up at my hotel one morning and drop me off there at the end of the day.
So early one morning, I headed to the hotel lobby. Soon a large black car arrived, driven by a pleasant young man who spoke excellent English, and I climbed inside, joining a few other tourists who were taking the same tour.
The driver took us first to Teotihuacan, about an hour north of Mexico City, where we saw its astonishing pyramids. I energetically climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, feeling immersed in pre-Columbian Mexico. (Teotihuacan dates back as long as 1000 years before the arrival of the Aztecs, and the pyramid I climbed may have been built in the 4th century.) Seeing the view from the top was exhilarating!
We proceeded to make two other stops: the charming town of Cuernavaca and the town of Taxco, for centuries a center of silver production. The people who lived in Taxco mined silver long before the Spanish arrived, using it for Aztec ceremonies as well as jewelry.
I climbed the steps of Taxco’s 18th-century church, the Church of Santa Prisca, and devoured a tostada, purchased at a nearby restaurant, feasting on the tostada along with the gorgeous view from the top of those steps. The memory of that indescribably delicious tostada, and the view, has never left me. After choosing a couple of silver pins at a small jewelry shop (I still cherish one in the shape of the Aztec calendar stone), I reluctantly climbed back into the black car for our return trip to Mexico City, knowing that this ride meant the end of my glorious trip.
En route, I discovered that I was seated with a friendly middle-aged couple who announced that they hailed from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Yes, Yellowknife. I’d honestly never heard of it before. I later learned that it was the capital of the Northwest Territories, located on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake. And it’s famed for its frigid weather. The average winter temperature is about 30 degrees below zero, and it’s rarely above 40-below. More than half of each year, deep snow covers the ground.
When this couple learned that I was single, they immediately began to promote Yellowknife, even though I’m sure that they themselves had happily escaped its astonishingly frigid temperatures.
Both husband and wife, sharing a mindset typical of 1970, jumped to the conclusion that I wanted nothing more out of life than to find a husband. “Come to Yellowknife,” they implored, clearly eager to add to their ranks. “You’ll find a husband as soon as you arrive.” (Yellowknife apparently had an overabundance of marriageable men.)
I admit that I had trouble keeping a straight face. But I immediately assured them that I wasn’t looking for a husband. I had a fulfilling career and didn’t intend to move anywhere in search of a partner. I hope I avoided being rude, never adding that, even if I did decide to move, it certainly wouldn’t be to a place like Yellowknife.
If anything, I thought to myself, I’d move to an exciting new city and definitely somewhere warmer, not colder, than Chicago.
As it turned out, my trip to Mexico—a country loaded with brilliant sunshine and unlimited quantities of breathtakingly colorful flowers—actually did make me think about moving somewhere warmer. When I returned to Chicago, I began to focus on a possible move, most likely to California. (My earlier plan to move to DC had ended with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.) During my Reggie training, I’d met the director of a legal services program, located at UCLA law school, who’d expressed interest in hiring me to work for him at the end of my Reggie year in Chicago.
What exactly propelled me to move?
I’d been growing increasingly dissatisfied with my life in Chicago for a number of reasons. Aside from my job, which I found very meaningful, much too much about the city no longer charmed me. For one thing, I hated the long cold gray winters. The political scene, dominated by a benevolent dictator, depressed me. Repeated visits to the Art Institute no longer left me giddy. And I found the social scene sadly lacking. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t any male companionship. I’d been dating a number of young men. But none of them had struck a spark. So, in the absence of any compelling reason to stay in the city, I began considering my options.
Then there was a blizzard in Chicago on April 1st. Using a popular term of the day, I told friends that it “radicalized” me and led me to think seriously about moving to California. [Please see “A Snowy April 1st,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2018/05/%5D
I traveled in May to San Francisco and LA, both for job interviews and for a glimpse into the sort of life I’d have if I moved to one of those fabulous cities. The prospect of that life struck me as quite appealing and at least worth a try.
By June, I decided to give up the lease on my Chicago apartment, sell most of my furniture, and make plans to fly to LA in late August, where I would take that job at UCLA.
I’ve described elsewhere what happened once I landed in LA. [Please see, e.g., “Another love story,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/24/another-love-story/ and https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/26/another-love-story-2/%5D
But here’s my belated response to that couple from Yellowknife: I’m sorry I disappointed you by not adding to your frostbitten population. I think you probably meant well, but your assumption that I would even consider moving to your hometown–to find a husband–was actually offensive.
When we met, I was in no way desperately searching for a husband. Thankfully, I never was. I decided a few months later to leave Chicago for LA, not knowing how my life there would turn out. But I never contemplated for even one brief moment moving somewhere like Yellowknife.
Instead, I headed elsewhere, aiming to find—and finding–a glorious future filled with warmth and many, many sunny days ahead.