LEQUEITIO, Mexico -- Saul climbs out of a pile of cotton. He wants to be a doctor. His teachers at the local elementary school skipped out after lunch. ''I won't learn my medicine very well," Saul says.
The ''lagoon rain" starts to fall. In the desert of northern Mexico, the rain is dust, thrown by wind. It sets upon the loading yard behind a factory with a clattering contraption marked ''Lummus Cotton Gin Company," ''Columbus, GA USA," and ''Patented July 23, 1935."
Battened tarps squirm and cough. The tractor men tug at T-shirts to shield their faces. A brick tower disappears. Young Saul, pudgy and round beneath his white tank-top undershirt, leaps over a metal duct, fallen to the ground, and laughs. Dust and cotton merge.
Octavio Paz, Mexico's Nobel laureate poet, once wrote:
''Time comes to a full stop, and instead of pushing us toward a deceptive tomorrow that is always beyond our reach, offers us a complete and perfect today of dancing and revelry, of communion with the most ancient and secret Mexico. Time is no longer succession, and becomes what it originally was and is: the present, in which past and future are reconciled."
Paz was describing the annual fiesta for the Virgin of Guadalupe. But does time not also come to a full stop for men and boys unloading cotton behind the factory? The present is not perfect. Yet it is there, for a moment, as air rises in a rush.
Like dust and cotton, Mexico and the United States merge.
One country was born from England, the other from Spain. Each brutalized its indigenous people. The United States isolated those who remained; Mexico included them, if barely. A war ended in 1848 with a new border, one of the longest in the world.
Markets opened. Dollars go south. Millions of Mexicans come north to work and live. They make up roughly one-third of all immigrants to the United States. A new culture digs deeper in Los Angeles and San Antonio, but also in Seattle and Des Moines. In East Boston, they hail from Jalisco. In New Hampshire, from Zacatecas.
Our future, however distant, is one.
In to Mexico, then, to measure the moments when succession stops and time becomes again the present.
At the very center, in Mexico City, the high valley paved thick with the concrete homes of some 20 million people, a room within a room falls silent.
A tall young man with dark features stands before a middle-aged woman with golden hair.
''Speak. Do not be embarrassed," the woman tells the young man. ''To me, what's most important is my daughter's happiness."
''Sorry, madam," he says, his expression pained, ''but it's too late for her and me to be happy together."
Someone shouts ''cut." The man, Andres Palacios, 27, crosses the studio maze of TV Azteca, away from another set with a modest country kitchen, past a long hall serving, on this day, as the interior of a hospital. He sits in a cafe and talks about the soap opera ''Amor en Custodia," a prime-time hit broadcast across the nation and into Spanish-language markets in the United States five nights a week.
''This is a good way to show to our society what's going on," Palacios says.
He means that ''Amor en Custodia," which translates as ''Love in Custody," is a good way to discuss money and class in Mexico. His older colleague, Margarita Gralia, plays a woman who draws her lavish lifestyle from a beer business, no stretch in a country that is home to the Modelo and FEMSA Cerveza empires and a system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a relative few. Palacios plays a family bodyguard from middle-class roots who has fallen in love with the rich woman's daughter.
But Palacios also means that the Mexican television industry, led by Televisa, which now is being chased by TV Azteca with its two national channels, has the potential to turn a mirror on Mexican culture.
Palacios recalls a scene from ''Amor en Custodia" shot on location amid city shanties. He talks about a history of political corruption at the highest levels and the opportunity for continued change in next year's presidential election. He imagines acting in a show about former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who left office in 1994.
''In this day, it is amazing, because our candidate, AMLO [Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador], says he's going to investigate where is all the money that Salinas took from Mexico," Palacios says. ''Something big is going to happen. That could be interesting."
Such controversy rarely reaches prime-time entertainment. So Palacios talks most about life in televised luxury -- ''all the gorgeous actresses in my bed, in my shower" -- and the focus of fantasy in a place full of drama.
''The typical story," he says, ''is the young girl from the country, very poor, who comes into the city, who falls in love with a rich man."
Poor girl from the country; that part is not fantasy. Mexico, with its desert and jungle, upland fields and coastal flats, has long been the country of campesinos. Many still tend corn, beans, coffee, and cotton. But so many, like the poor girl who probably will not fall in love with a rich man, are fleeing to Mexico's bigger cities, or farther, to the United States.
In southern Zacatecas state, near a silent town plaza tucked amid slopes covered with squat cacti, David Vela Robles, 16, stands with his mother at the counter of the family grocery.
''I don't feel the pressure, the heat, economically. And I want to study," Vela says.
The teenager has long features and a quiet manner; his mother is squatter, harder. He is said to look like his father. The father, though, is in the United States, as he has been for 25 years. He lives with his brother in an apartment in Highland Park, Calif., and works in a clothing factory. He returns to this village, El Plateado del General Joaquin Amaro, once or twice a year. He has legal status to work in the United States and his commute goes easily. Many others, undocumented workers, make a mind-bending journey: After a routine holiday visit with family comes the risk of following a coyote, or paid smuggler, back to work in a rich land.
Why? The money sent back in a trickle of hundreds or thousands of dollars, totaling $16 billion a year, feeds Mexican families. More, the Mexican government matches private donations that Mexican workers in the United States make to town governments back home; among other things, the money is used to pave roads and buy school books. Overall, these ''remesas," or remittances, are the second largest source of income for Mexico. Only the oil drawn from fields along the Gulf of Mexico and offshore is worth more.
Twelve years after the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, factory workers assemble electronics and denim jeans in the desert oasis of Torreon, home to a bull ring and an Audi dealership. Farmers labor in hydroponic strawberry operations sprung up in the central state of Queretaro. Programmers write software in many languages in Guadalajara.
Yet in the fields throughout so much of Mexico, cattle and corn cannot keep up. On the porch of the General Joaquin Amaro town hall, old men happy to be home idle near Ford pickup trucks and gossip amid memories of their American days. ''Yes, yes, just a little," one says with a laugh. ''Only 24 years."
Nearby, friends gather with roast corn and ballads to celebrate the birthday of the parish priest. Atop the stone cathedral, a bell tolls.
Many leaving for the United States are taking their families with them. The town's population has shrunk from roughly 2,000 to 1,000 in less than a decade.
Vela, the teenager, leans against the fender of a parked Chevy El Camino. He has changed from a school volleyball sweat suit into an Abercrombie & Fitch jersey and a worn pair of Vans sneakers.
In his tender tone, Vela talks about his hope to study communications in the university city of Guanajuato. In his future, like that of so many others with some resources, but not enough, the United States looms.
''Once I do have kids and I'm pressured," Vela says, ''I would leave."
In Leon, the industrial anchor of the country's colonial core, the pull is from the edge to the center. Families stroll into the early day and merchants wait, the wide jaws of their storefronts lifted high, their wares on display: bird cages, shampoo, paint, toilet seats, bicycles. Farther along a main boulevard, more: shovels, stereo speakers, spices, candles. The boulevard meets another, and billboards and banks stand tall as a universe unto itself, in need of no other city, let alone another country.
On Hilario Medina Boulevard, a man thrusts a cowboy boot between passing pedestrians. ''Hey, friend, take a look at an ostrich shoe. Good price."
Glass-fronted galleries and back-alley stalls are loaded with leather boots, the pride of Leon, the political home of President Vicente Fox Quesada. In cowboy fashion, Fox broke the seven-decade reign of the PRI -- dubbed the ''perfect dictatorship" -- when he was elected in 2000.
Ending the PRI's singular control of power and wealth marked change, but it is only now, with an open race among three parties in next year's election -- Fox's struggling PAN party, the still-strong PRI, and the rise of Lopez Obrador, the PRD's populist mayor of Mexico City -- that many voters feel the power transferring to them.
Hugo Sanchez, a black-haired boot salesman in a smooth white shirt, considers a season of powerful faces smiling from billboards making promises. Who can end corruption, in business and politics? Who can use this trillion-dollar economy, fueled by oil, dollars, drugs, and tourists, to fill the chasm between rich and poor?
Sanchez, 24, is modest but cool. He strides to the wall and highlights his inventory: boots made from lizard, alligator, shark, ostrich, frog, anteater, or cow. Depending on style and leather, a pair can cost as much as $350.
Which to choose? Will the Mexicans turn back to the old network built over decades by the PRI, or walk further into new political terrain?
''Candidates now aren't convincing me," Sanchez says, guarding his one vote. ''I still haven't made up my mind."
Why decide, anyway, on a day that will see the full fervor of the nation's largest cultural event, the International Cervantes Festival of the Arts. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the Spanish writer, has been dead four centuries. But his hero, Don Quixote, rides on. So crowds converge on the city of Guanajuato, a seat of revolution against a Spanish king two centuries ago, with stoic cathedrals and ornate theaters perfect for opera and dance.
The Cervantino, as it's called, runs 19 days. At night, galleries empty and revelers spin on the stone streets. A band from the north serenades a young couple with the rhythm of acoustic guitars and longing lyrics. College students, some wearing collars and cuffs, others with tattooed arms or beaded hair, banter from balconies. Babies ride in strollers, and on backs.
On a stage in a crowded courtyard, a musician dedicates a song to Fox, the president who promised to help the Indians of Chiapas, but did not. Twelve years after armed revolt in Mexico's most southern state, Indians still live at the edge.
''What's going on with misery?" sings the musician, Francisco Vega Acevedo Morelia.
Moments later, as a woman in flowing skirts sings traditional ballads, Vega wonders backstage if anyone in the crowd heard his message.
''Guanajuato . . . is not the best place by far to do this kind of work," he says. ''The crowd is utterly conservative."
It is hard to imagine that there are villages so secluded they could rise in revolution, that there is anyone still out on the edge, when entering again the capital of Mexico.
An afternoon breeze lifts above Mexico City's squat homes and shops, up a steep hill and past a butcher shop. Two young men, aprons around their waists, kick a soccer ball in the street. A van, its windows crowded with elbows and profiles of men and women at end of day, climbs farther into a neighborhood that stops at a wall protecting open slopes and a rocky ridge: the top of the city.
A wandering man stops in the street. He struts and sings, in English, the words of Mick Jagger: ''Give me just another night, just another night . . ."
He pulls from under his upper lip a plastic bag holding a rock of crack cocaine. The man is weathered and weary, but alive. He swings and shouts in praise of the city of smog and sun: ''Always the same! Always beautiful!"
Below, in tight alleys filled with whining engines and honking horns, working-class families nestle beneath the skyscraper home of Pemex, the national oil company. Dark-suited office workers stop for
In the south of the city, beyond a
Past a chain-link fence, four shacks frame a concrete courtyard. Palacios, the actor, came here with the ''Amor en Custodia" crew for a scene in which he looks for his kidnapped lover, played by Paola Nunez, a lithe woman with deep brown eyes.
In a corner sits a bicycle with a cart that Angela Gonzalez Cenovio rides each morning to deliver tacos to customers in nearby businesses.
''When I was a child, my mom lost my dad. I only finished my elementary," Gonzalez says.
At 40, Gonzalez is soft and sharp, smiling as she explains that hers is one of dozens of families who bought this property in 1992, when land laws changed. In the 13 years since, a court battle with the previous owner has forced them to watch, unsure, as the surging city circled them, and rose above.
''Here among us, we try to take care of each other," Gonzalez says.
Only months before, Gonzalez and her husband set off for the border. They paid a coyote more than $500 each to lead them into the Arizona desert. They walked four days and then, dehydrated, lighted a fire so that US border agents would find them and send them back. They were home less than a week after they left.
''The idea was to go, work, make as much as possible, send money, then come back," Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez's 70-year-old mother lives in a plywood and tin shack. Her two married daughters each have one for their families. Gonzalez shares the last with her husband and two younger daughters, Lupe, 7, and Nancy, 6.
Inside that two-room home, the concrete floors are clean. Cooking supplies -- oil, rice, beans -- sit on a shelf above an electric stove.
Lupe squeals and leaps from bed to chair to bed between turns at homework. Nancy watches a cartoon on a small color television. Lupe writes numbers 1 through 10 on her way to 300. She reaches into a blue and purple backpack for samples of her cursive handwriting. Shyly, playfully, she decides what she wants to be when she grows up.
''A marine," she says. ''A police woman. Um . . . a nurse."
What about where those jobs might lead? A different kind of home, in a different place?
Lupe's eyes drop to her notebook.
Nancy says, ''She wants to cry."
Lupe is not ready for a tomorrow, deceptive or not, that takes her away from here.
''This," she says, ''is where I was born."
Contact Tom Haines at email@example.com.