“I never imagined the city would have so many trees,” visitors often say when they come to Mexico City for the first time. Somehow, images of trees and Mexico City do not go together, yet huge, thick-leaved ficuses break the concrete sidewalks, and parks are filled with tall ahuehuetes (Montezuma bald cypress) and swaying ahuejotes (a kind of willow). You can walk down the street and encounter a cluster of banana trees loaded with fruit. The trees remind us that when the Spaniards came, they found a city built on lakes and canals. There would have been trees everywhere. I like to imagine how beautiful it must have been.
I am a Spaniard who arrived in Mexico’s capital 15 years ago. I came to a city built on what Mexicans call el fango. It means mud, or sludge. And while it is literally true that a large part of today’s metropolis stands on the muck where lakes and canals have been drained, city residents also use the word to describe the messy, complex, sometimes corrupt ways that things work here. When you’re frustrated by some aspect of city life, Mexicans will tell you, “Así es el fango” (“That’s the mud for you”). It’s at those moments I identify with trees: how they sink their roots down into the mud and hold on. In the face of pollution, vandalism, and poisoned water, they manage to thrive. And ultimately, they blossom.
One of the most beautiful trees in Mexico City is, like me, a recent arrival. Every year, in late February or early March, the jacaranda by my balcony blooms, and it always surprises me with its shockingly intense bluish-purple color. I have a Japanese immigrant to thank for that. In the 1920s, landscape architect Tatsugoro Matsumoto, well known and respected among Mexico City’s upper classes, brought the Brazilian jacaranda to Mexico, and on his advice the main avenues of the city were planted with the trees. Their knotted branches and clusters of delicate blossoms, in hues that change during the two- to three-month season, give the trees the air of a sumi-e painting—the brush-and-ink paintings made by Chinese and Japanese poets. For me, jacaranda season is my own Mexican version of Japan’s cherry blossom festival.
But I love the jacaranda for more than its beauty. One afternoon I was sitting in the garden in front of my school, the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s School of Philosophy and Literature, jacarandas in bloom all around me. There I was, a Spanish student of English literature who was living in Mexico, reading Wuthering Heights, surrounded by trees native to Brazil and brought here by a Japanese gardener. I realized that these trees could be a symbol for me and many others who have come from afar to make Mexico City their home: They represent the migrant’s resilience and the curious fact that some people, like some seeds, grow best in foreign soil.
To watch jacarandas in bloom: Stroll along Reforma Avenue from Chapultepec Park to the Ángel de la Independencia, or along Veracruz Avenue from Parque España to Mazatlán Avenueor visit the gardens in front of the School of Philosophy and Letters at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.