03/14/2011 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Real Strange Mexicans: Down and Delirious in Mexico City , by Daniel Hernandez

There are two Mexicos in American myth. One is the drug-war basketcase that sends swarms north to take our jobs and steal our wages. It is this myth that has recently eclipsed the old middlebrow Mexico of Cancun and Cabo, which was also a basketcase, but more fun.

The other, newer and more highbrow, puts Mexico's capital city in a ring of developing world megalopolises seen as the rightful domain of American college graduates, also developing. Bangkok, Beijing, Bogotá, Buenos Aires and the former East Berlin are all popular. They've all sprouted incidences of an invention Americans like to claim as their own, the urban "tribe."

2011-03-14-mexicocity.jpgDaniel Hernandez's Down and Delirious in Mexico City charts the progress of a dark-skinned Chicano from San Diego who is Mexican enough to merit a passport, but who is also much more at ease, at least at first, on the UC Berkeley campus. After graduation, he determines to head south to reclaim his heritage, not to to the Tijuana borderland so close to San Diego but to the country's bewildering capital. (He's not related, at least as far as I know, to Daniel "best intern ever" Hernandez of Gabrielle Giffords fame.)

There is something realer about Mexico City, the DF, something that can't be captured in a weekend trip to relatives down I-5. Add to this noble instinct the fact that Mexico City is also quite sexy, the home to an emerging world of high fashion and high glamor and high-grade cocaine. Mexico City is safer than Washington, D.C., at least on paper, but Hernandez has in mind a life there that pushes boundaries.

He first came to Mexico City in 2002, and since 2006 he has been blogging about it on Intersections, as well as writing about it for the Los Angeles Times. If you like the blog, you'll also like the book. Hernandez's approach is appropriately episodic. He doesn't attempt much of a linear approach; on his journey, he says, "I've gone where the city -- and chance -- took me." Oftentimes the city and chance took him to the inebriated edges of the punk and fashion scenes.

Those edges can be ragged and sometimes shocking -- but cool's very global reach means they can also be distressingly familiar, as when Mark "The Cobra Snake" Hunter and Steve Aoki pop in for a DJ set. They're essentially vacationing in a neighborhood of L.A. with cheaper beer.

"Most Mexican hipsters," Hernandez posits, "do not dream of living in run-down lofts in far-off, frightening reaches of the city." For them, "hipsterdom is essentially an expression of middle-class comfort," which is of course also true of American youths, but they do like chancing life in those run-down lofts.

Many college graduates have gone out in the world in search of a cheap and easy scene. Hernandez wants to hit the parties but also something more, something strange and wonderful that he might be able to claim for himself as a Mexican.

The first real glimpse of this oddly enough is among a subculture that nominally came from America: the emos. But Mexican emos are a whole different breed, controversial enough to inspire the infamous "emo hunt" of Querétaro. "Kill the emos" was the battle cry.

Hernandez very methodically peels away the myths around the riot. The attackers weren't punks, as most media had reported, but chakas -- "kids from poor suburbs." The attack was almost certainly motivated by homophobia, and Hernandez takes a trip to a TV studio to interview a presenter who's mocked these young effeminate kids. The talk show host suggests a gay conspiracy behind the emo "movement," a telling sign of the paranoiac fear that's greeted shifting sexual mores in Mexico. The emos have taken a familiar trope of the American mall (one that retailers like Hot Topic commercialized almost from the start) and given it a vital social meaning, even if they are mostly 16 and inarticulate.

Our hero also hangs out with the originals of punk, trekking up to a hoyo fonqui, a place for underground shows, up in the hill slums of Tacubaya. These punks, he explains, take the 1968 Olympics massacre and the 1985 earthquake as touchstones of their existence, proof that government can never be trusted. The long-ruling PRI regime outlawed rock and persecuted the bandas that trafficked in it. Now that Mexico's rulers are freely elected, more or less, punk's lost some of its rebel lustre but still has its aging adherents.

When Hernandez gets to the show he's greeted with deafening music and copious beer. That's when the fight starts: "a ruido in Santa Fe almost always ends in a brawl, usually between rival neighborhoods. It is like an obligation, the event's natural ovation." Hernandez and his crew, which includes a young child, leave to "the muffled sounds of sirens and gunfire," walking away over a bridge across a reservoir.

There's something a bit gawkish about all of Hernandez's tromping around with kids either too young or too old for him, people he meets in bars or on plazas, but these interactions also serve as refreshingly honest introductions to worlds that a more self-conscious, hermetically hip storyteller might have ignored. He is also a bit too much of the journalist, quoting his subjects -- like those emos -- at length when he could tell their stories much better. He sometimes reserves his judgment unnecessarily, again too much the journalist, but the book is otherwise enjoyable.

His most intriguing such trip is into one of the dustier, forgotten corners of the metropolis, where the adherents of a ghoulish and growing cult have erected a statue to death. They follow the Santa Muerte, the Holy Death, a "saint" despised by the prelates as a satanic invention and venerated by drug-dealers, gun-runners and outcasts of all kinds as a touchstone for those who live precariously close to the edge of the everlasting.

The Santa Muerte is a slice of that Mexico Hernandez would never have found on vacations with his family. He sees a funeral for one Jonathan Legaria Vargas, "El Pantera," an assassinated priest of the Holy Death (a graphic image of his corpse is available here) who constructed "perhaps the largest personification of Death any mortal has ever built." That towering figure looms over the proceedings,

an enormous seventy-two-foot-tall statue made of plywood and fiberglass [...] Death is in a black robe, her face shrouded by a hood, her skeletal arms outstretched, like something out of a theme-park ride, crazed and nightmarish. Glancing up at it every few seconds, I half expect the structure's robe to mechanically split open and reveal the entrance to a hall of mirrors.

Perhaps the Santa Muerte is something of an easy trope for foreigners looking to find the otherworldly Mexico they have imagined. But Hernandez invests Death and her followers with a strange dignity, digging down to find out why they've chosen her as their saint despite all the social opprobrium she carries.

The emos, the punks, the disciples -- all present sides of Mexico that few Americans know in much depth. Hernandez's book tells the stories that we should know, if for no other reason than American culture is increasingly Mexican culture, as his journey makes clear.