It’s Saturday morning, and my friend Marisol and I board the Metro, on our way to a family-separation protest on Paseo de la Reforma, a major thoroughfare in the heart of Mexico City. Marisol is a 21-year-old musician and a psychology student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Today, like most days, she carries her ukulele strapped to her back. We’re on the pink line of the Metro at Pino Suárez, and we have five stations to go. The subway this morning isn’t terribly crowded, but we don’t find seats, and she accommodates herself quickly.
Marisol props herself against the door between the Metro cars. She swings her backpack around to her chest and her ukulele to her side. She deftly unpacks her arsenal of makeup. Isabel la Católica — one stop down. Amid the lurches of the Metro, she whips out an eyelash curler. One hand curls her lashes, the other holds her compact mirror and various tubes of pigment. Balderas — two stops to go. She dabs on foundation, blush, two different tones of shimmering eyeshadow, and eyeliner. Cuauhtémoc — one more stop. She snags a seat to apply her mascara, which she does with her arms crossed, using one arm to keep the other steady. The doors ping open just in time for us to jump off. Insurgentes — we’re finally here. I marvel at the steadiness of her hands: How do you not, like, leave stripes of mascara on your face? She used to, she says, but now she’s a pro.
Marisol doesn’t do her makeup on the Metro every day, but she does when she’s running late, and recently, she tells me, she’s usually running late. She lives in Chimalhuacán, a suburb about two hours from Mexico City on public transit. For her, like many other women in the Mexico City metropolitan area, applying makeup in motion is a skill born from necessity and ingenuity. Workers in Mexico City have some of the longest commutes in Latin America, averaging 88 minutes in 2016. The city is sprawling, but hyper-centralized: more than half of jobs in the city are located in the central district, where less than a fifth of the population resides. So each morning, the center of Mexico City, like a vortex, sucks in a majority of the population, and each evening, it spits them back out.
Mexico City’s Metro is the second-largest subway system in North America, just behind New York City’s. There are twelve color-coded and numbered lines, plus six lines on the Metrobús, a bus system that connects to the subway. Aside from the Metro, the city crawls with countless other bus lines. Just to get to the Metro, many workers first board a series of buses, commuter rails, or peseros, lime-green Volkswagen vans that wind through the city. Residents of peripheral districts can transfer up to five times a day — from bus to bus to pesero to Metro to bus, for instance — and can spend up to five hours on public transportation.
Priscila is one of those exurb commuters. She takes a bus about an hour and a half each way every day, from the city of Toluca, forty miles outside of Mexico City. Once she arrives in the city, she takes the Metro one stop to her teaching job. She tells me she’s usually one of only two or three women on her bus, and she applies her makeup in the last fifteen minutes of the ride: powder, mascara, a little bit of concealer.
Public transportation is particularly taxing for women: its tightly packed crowds are notorious for providing cover for surreptitious gropers and, across the city, street harassment is ubiquitous. A poll of women in Mexico City found that 96 percent have experienced some type of sexual violence, including street harassment, in public, and 58 percent have been groped in public. To minimize these incidents on the Metro, the city instituted women’s-only Metro cars in 2008. The first three cars of each train are now dedicated to women and children. And many of these women, between transferring from bus to train to Metro, take advantage of the time to color their lips and curl their lashes.