A MEXICAN SPRING Alberto Ruy Sánchez
THE ARRIVAL: A REVEALING VISION
Some cities reveal a clue of their personality, of their secrets at times, in the first images they offer their visitors. Mexico City is one of them.
For those who approach it by air, at night, can suddenly discover – forty or fifty minutes before landing – that they are flying over an enormous lake of lights that seems to have no end and overflows in all horizons. It’s as if Mexico’s ancient city system, formerly called Tenochtitlan, would emerge today as a ghost from the past through the throbbing and extended electricity.
In fact, the former condition of the lake, denied by its inhabitants over and over again over five hundred years, marks the growth and trace of the city as a secret. And it remains one of its repeating incidents and one of its major threats.
Even from above, the vastness of this sea of lights and the way we are slowing down, amaze the woman sitting next to me who does not stop looking out the window, with the feeling that the distance between two points of the city is equal to the distance by plane between two European cities. “It is the city of excess,” he tells me smiling.
Suddenly, as if the landscape had been listening, the snowy profile of a sleeping volcano becomes visible in the distance. By its side, a higher, live one appears. The white and convulsive fumarole that rises from its top is like an inverted reflection: two triangles immersed one in the other through the top, one made of stone, the other of cloud. Its name, in the Aztec language precisely means `smoking mountain´: Popocatepetl. And its snowy partner Iztaccihuatl is the white woman, also known as the sleeping woman. Better known as the Popo and the Izta. There are many myths and legends surrounding them, the most recurring one originated in the Aztec times, talked of two mountains that are tragic lovers, in the best tradition of Romeon and Juliet; once dead, the gods turned them into mountains to award them immortality. Mexican poetry and painting pay them tribute always. They are who Malcom Lowry made reference to in his classic encoded novel on Mexico as a descent to hell: Under the Volcano. They are more than simply erupting mountains: history, myth, they’re even a motive of ritual for the communities that currently surround them and consider them every day supernatural beings. And in the Aztec prophecies, the end of the world begins with the eruption of these volcanoes.
For nearly fifty years, the Popo was inactive and commercial flights flew right next to the volcanoes. Now that is has awaken, for safety reasons, they keep away from them. Even though they are fifty kilometers from the city, they truly are two imposing presences from the Mexican Valley when pollution and clouds allow us to see them. “They’re like the guardians of Mexican excess,” comments my seat neighbor, deepening her idea. She speaks to me in perfect Spanish, with a slight French accent.
To delve in her comment, I tell her that the strait between the two volcanoes is called the crossing of Cortes, because that is where the Spanish conquistadors entered Mexico City. Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s chronicle, the soldier writer, tells of a major discovery. It literally says that the European warriors thought they “saw things they had never heard or even dreamed of”: they discovered an enormous city, built on small islands called “water roads,” towers, palaces and great rock temples of unusual shapes that seemed to imitate the volcanoes. Straight and extraordinarily avenues, at water level, that linked the isles between each other and the mainland. And exuberant but organized vegetation in straight lines: floating gardens on artificial islands where the Aztecs sew flowers and food. Tall and slim trees from the willow family called ahuejotes, which served to anchor their roots on those isles. “Ce que nous voyons ici de nos propres yeux, dit Cortés, nous ne pouvons le comprendre avec notre entendement.” (“What we see here with out own eyes, said Cortés, we cannot understand with reason.”)
The Spanish make out more than forty settlements connected within the lake and its shores. Cortés himself compares it to Granada for its beauty and to Cordoba and Seville together for its size. But we now know it is ten times bigger. At that time there were approximately 250 thousand inhabitants in Tenochtitlan when Paris had 185 thousand and Venice 130 thousand. But Jacques Soustelle, specialist in Mexico, calculated that in the whole valley system there were about 700 thousand inhabitants. Cortés describes that in the immense and various markets in the city, there is a wider variety of products than in any European market. And he is amazed at what he considers insistent and exaggerated hygiene measures, a concept that was not valued in Europe at the time. And the omnipresence of plants and flowers in houses, palaces and temples. Even in people, everywhere and in every ceremony. It is clear that flowers are a substantial element of this culture. Christian Duverger narrates all this in his biography on Cortés and asserts that it is mostly the size that most astonishes the Spanish: the Mexican emperor’s table was served by four hundred servants every day. His harem was made up of a hundred and fifty concubines and three thousand servants. Fifty thousand canoes circulated between the islands and through the water roads. Everything seemed enormous to the eyes of the conquistadors. And what we see from the skies is a very distant derivative of that ancient excess. A metropolitan area with more than twenty million people (according to the 2010 census), in a country of almost 112 million.
The captain announces that we will be landing in ten minutes. We fly over streets and rooftops. The backlights of the cars flowing in the avenues, make them look like rivers of fire, volcano lava. The threads of lights reveal a baroque combination of order and chaos in the outline of the streets. Large avenues that crash into nothing. Unexpected labyrinths, broken by the American style fly-overs, in the shadow of a second city that seems to shut off. As if there were cities within cities in Mexico. As well as temporary modernity. It is easy to tell that one of our recent governors, of globalizing aspirations even though he declared himself leftist, pretended to make his city look like Los Angeles, and when he finished his peripheral rights of fly-overs, his city looked more like Bombay. But he never realized that. In any case, the image of turmoil and enormity and survival of ancient things that spring unexpectedly, oftentimes is the key, it is right there, in the first impression of the city.
And then we see how the sun slowly rises. The sun offers a multicolored show through the clouds and layers of evident pollution. But the surprise unfolds the presence of a tree flower that seems to fill the streets: the Jacaranda. From above and in spring, you get the feeling that the city has more trees that one could imagine. And at least thirty percent of those are Jacarandas: that mauve-colored flower that seems to take possession of the city for a few months. One which we have only started paying attention to, and not enough of it. “When the people of Mexico City learn to consistently attend and devote themselves to the Jacaranda just like the Japanese pay tribute to the cherry blossom, we will be better citizens,” says Roberto, a taciturn young man, Mexican, sitting to my left. He tells me that in its splendorous months, its flowers fall to the ground in large quantities and we can see entire streets colored with mauve. “We see them on the floor and in the sky,” he instructs me, “that is why the famous Mexican singer, Sasha Sokol says that the Jacaranda has a strange power of being cloud and carpet at the same time.” He assures me that during these months in Mexico City, “a street without Jacarandas is like a lover without kisses.” And Adolfo White, the poet, says “the Jacaranda in bloom are to the streets of Mexico as stars are to the night sky.”
It’s been said that, although it has Guaraní origin, it was brought from Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century by a Japanese gardener that migrated to Mexico, Sanshiro Matsumoto, who would’ve never imagined that in the 21st century, it would become the city’s characteristic flower.
The woman sitting on my right knows and appreciates them. “It is one of the reasons, more like, the images we had in mind when we chose this city to retire.” Elodie, French, and Louis Santamaría, northamerican, Mexican and Colombian, who has been the commercial attaché to the US embassy in many countries. He has a son in Paris, as well as the rest of his family, and another one in New York. They have lived in Argentina, Holland, Venezuela, Belgium and Spain, and on two occasions, in Mexico. Now they return to Mexico to settle for good. Based on what the national and international press says about the increase in violence in the country, I – as everyone else – ask them surprised, why Mexico?
The answer without showing a flicker of emotion, used to these questions, that they know the country well. That having lived in many others, they’ve learned to differentiate well between what the newspapers portray as the only image of a place and the enormous diversity everyday life has. And Mexico has an extremely rich and varied one. Louis tells me: “It’s the country we like the most out of all the ones we’ve been to and the one that promises both known and unknown pleasures. We have friends here and we were excited to come back to the city.” Elodie cuts in to add: “And there are other very basic things, external to what the newspapers say, that make life here very pleasant. People in France, when they think of Mexico, imagine it’s a very warm place. They relate it to the tropics, when really, this city is not tropical at all, it has the same temperature practically all year round, an average of 21 to 24 degrees Celsius. It is eternally spring. As if the seasons fused into a new light that shines on the plants and animals, things and people. It is not surprising that you eat so well here.” Given the imminent landing, we set a date to eat together soon at the city’s Historic Center.
On my left, the saddened young man that had been listening to everything, tells me on the side, whispering: “I can’t be that optimistic right now. I even see something somber in the Jacarandas that I love so much. I’m not saying what they said isn’t true. It’s just that life right now forces me to feel differently.” Roberto was studying social sciences in Frances thanks to a modest scholarship by the French government. To be able to finish it, before going to Paris, he had been able to save some money working illegally in restaurants in California, washing the dishes. Today, he returns to Mexico ahead of earlier than expected. He was forced to suspend his studies in Paris because his father, a taxi driver, had just died, victim of a robber that tried to steal from him. Besides going to the funeral, Roberto will have to go through the labyrinth of legal proceedings to recover his father’s body. His immediate future is not enviable at all and I express my regret. “Unfortunately, this city is also that.” Roberto lives in a area far away from downtown and not very flattering. Near the highway that leads to Puebla, on the way to the volcanoes. And I also set a date with him, once his sad urgencies are solved.
The airplane flies over the last Jacarandas and rooftops before fully entering the airport that – to the surprise of many – is located in the middle of the city. I will meet my new friends again in the ancient Historic Center that I also wish to rediscover through their eyes. And where the pre Hispanic world sticks out, literally, under the stones of the buildings from the viceroyalty era. Many of which were the stones of pre Hispanic temples.
THE SECRET HEART OF THE METROPOLIS
To visit downtown Mexico City is to drown in a river of people and get carried away with amazement by its tides. From the unbelievable to the routine, the city center is also an enormous crucible of the country’s social diversity and all its mix. Every one of the streets that leads to the main square, which we call Zócalo, boils with steps. A subway exit continuously spits out thousands of people on one of its sides. But there is also a metallic boil. Four million vehicles circulate in the city. A fifth of the total number of vehicles in the country. And a continuous flow of this smoky metal surrounds the square like a relentless river.
I met with my friends Elodie and Louis Santamaría right at the exit of the subway. Retired diplomats – Louis American and Elodie French – that had just returned to Mexico City, determine to settle down here after living abroad for many years. Their gaze, their curiosity, helps me see my city differently. I ask them what they remember from their last stay. They have the vivid image of the great strength of the ancient world of the Aztecs in everything that has pretended to hide it. “You just have to look twice at everything to notice it,” says Elodie. “That is hard to imagine if you haven’t been here before. In addition to the size of the city center and the amount of people.” We decided to figure out the historical layers together, badly hidden, that are the city’s secret script.
We see salesmen with plaster Christs, virgins and angels next to specialists in multicolored artificial nails, fabrics on the floor with handicraft from different regions of Mexico, right next to some made in China, that thoroughly imitate them. Busy office clerks, job hunters, occasional healers, frequent customers of pawnshop and traditional cantinas. Street manufacturers of honey candies, seeds and corn products, friend in dark oil. Mobile salesmen giving off electric discharges to the hands, mariachis on demand and shoe cleaners, fortune readers and dancers dress as eclectic apaches pretending to be Aztecs. All urban professions can bee seen in the streets, from the portable organ musician to the chimpanzee that picks up the coins, to the scribe who writes bureaucratic or romantic letter, depending on how urgent they are. The popular whirlwind is hypnotic and its calling never ends.
Half a century ago, the greatest Mexican narrator, Juan Rulfo, wrote a story for an experimental filmmaker about a bird that enters the heart of Mexico and travels to its being. The movie that came out, The secret formula, the camera takes the point of view of an insane eagle that spins over the Zócalo. We see its winged shadow as it approaches the ground. It raises and continues spinning. In our eyes, it turns into all the constructions that surround the square in a continuous circular and delirious wall of baroque textures and volcanic rock. This reddish rock, tezontle, present in almost every one of the antique buildings, is the one Octavio Paz described in his poem about his birthplace with “walls the color of dry blood.” We are at the symbolic entrance of the city’s veins.
It is very common to call this square “the heart of Mexico,” this enormous and usually empty square (200 by 250 meters approximately) where the world organizes around it. Suddenly, it can fill up with protesters or attendees to a very popular show, or some national celebration. It is a concrete island with a huge flag (25 by 50 meters), waving in the center. The flag’s emblem shows an eagle devouring a serpent on a cactus, on top of a small island: it illustrates the Aztec legend on the founding of our city. The prophecy received from a nomad people with instruction of where to settle.
Mexico City was born that way, on an island, around 1325. It was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors in 1521 and rebuilt with the layout of buildings we see today. When we cross the central square today, we are really walking over the live scar – old yet still fresh – of that small Aztec-founded island. It swamps were initially the refuge of a poor and weak people, semi nomad, expelled from the mainland. From that humiliation sprung a warrior empire that dominated all of Mesoamerica. And the island was the center of the empire and the cosmos: symbolic underworld and upper world.
The lagoon was refilled and apparently dried up over and over again by the Spanish and the following governments. But it lays in the underground like a humid autonomous being, devouring the heavier buildings that have been established on top of it, little by little. That is why it is not strange to see sloping constructions, some whose doors you have to go up to and now one must go down a few steps. Through cyclical flooding and frequent earthquakes, she makes her presence felt.
To get a better picture of the whole, it is convenient to go up six floors, to the terrace of the Hotel Majestic, which is now the highest point in the square, which is supposedly not even two thirds the height of the ancient Templo Mayor (Great Temple), destroyed by the Spanish. My friends, Louis and Elodie, who know the whole continent every well, say that if we were to compare this historic center with any other in Latin American capital, we’d understand why Mexico City, head of the New Spains, was known as “the Palace City.” All the old buildings are superior in size and building quality to those of Bogota or Lima, Havana or Buenos Aires. Since 18th century, the mining wealth and the large estates had been turned into a city and the capital of the New Spain had at least ten times more palaces than any other in America.
But this greatness was decadent. A few years ago, as I walked though these streets with Octavio Paz, I asked what his impression was of the current Historic Center, considering that he’d visit it often, he spoke of a worn out image it already had back then. “The Mexico I knew was superior to Madrid. It’s as astonishingly similar to Palermo, full of antique houses and palaces very similar to those of our city center. Its historic moments coincide. In both places, the palaces have this indefinable mix of severity, magnanimity and melancholy, which is very Spanish but when carried out in Italy or Mexico, is immediately transformed into something else. What can be said of Mexico in the 30’s and 40’s is that it was a city filled with fallen greatness. Greatness and poverty: old greatness and melancholy.”
The National Palace is in front of us. It is the official headquarters of the presidential power, even though the President’s residence and office are actually in a bunker called Los Pinos, a few kilometers from here. Thus, this Palace was established as a venue for official ceremonies. And protests since it is to these balconies that all the social movements come to protest, and occasionally take over the square.
It is well known that Moctezuma’s Palace was located here as well as Cortés’ house. It has various interior patios, a museum, a cacti garden and its main attraction: Diego Rivera’s murals narrating the history of Mexico in the Manichaean way that become official in the 20’s. However, the more interesting murals are found in the nearby buildings: in the San Ildefonso Museum and in the offices of the Ministry of Education. We see both buildings a few meters away from the National Palace, to our left. Among the most extravagant celebrations of the vice royal Palace, was the hunting of wild boars that the women contemplated from their balconies while the viceroy and his knights chased after their preys in the Zócalo, in the middle of a forest sown for the occasion. The forest was replaced by a market, the Parian, which was there until the mid 19th century, where products from the Far East were sold, coming from the Philippines on a legendary vessel known as La Nao China (The Chinese Vessel)
The Hispanic vice royal power was frequently in conflict with the local government, run by creoles. We have two different powers next to the city’s government building to our right, which often meet throughout history, as they are now, in the hands of opposite parties who supposedly coexist in the square but oftentimes fight over it, mutually impeding their massive celebrations.
A third power in the country, on the left side of the square, is majestically erected with the Metropolitan Cathedral as its symbol. It is a huge neoclassic building on the outside and predominantly baroque on the inside, hosting one of Mexico’s most important art collection in its 14 interior chapels. Its golden altars with pillars thrown toward the public, show the theatrical and wrapping power of a type of art that pretends to affect all the sense like a multimedia show would do today. To the right of the Cathedral and adjoining its walls, a smaller church is found, more attractive on the outside, with a hyper baroque façade, extremely ornate, the Chapel of the Rosario, built in the 18th century.
In the fourth side of the square, where we are, under an arcade, commerce was established. To our right, on the same side of the Zócalo, Mexico City’s Gran Hotel is located, with its interiors of made of splendid fittings and 19th century Art Nouveau stained glass, tailor made to the image of the great Parisian department stores with stained glass on the roof. This layout of the spaces delimiting the square is the application of an old renaissance utopia of the city as a balance of religious and civil powers, with the occasional civil power that oftentimes only expresses itself through parties and social organizations. In 2007, artist Spencer Tunick took another one of his famous photographs and filled Mexico’s Zócalo with 20 thousand naked people. After it was taken, many of them went to the Cathedral, spontaneously telling off the archbishop of Mexico who had protected various priests that were prosecuted for raping children and who, at the same time, had made a public condemnation, considering the naked people immoral.
In fact, the immense Cathedral has just been repaired because of the sinking had tore it down the middle, like an egg shell. Especially since they discovered, some thirty years ago, the remains of the Grand Temple of Mexico-Tenochtitlan and deep excavations were made almost behind the Cathedral, causing the humid soil pressure under it to fatally be uneven. Behind this enormous hole in the ground, to visit the Museum of the Templo Mayor allows you to get an idea of that ancient Aztec city, whose remains professedly bloom, like a vengeance of the antique every time a new construction is undertaken.
The most recent on – just over a year – when an aberrant glass building was intended to be made behind the Cathedral, instead of one of the most beautiful façades of the city center that has these Arabic geometric traces called ajaracas, which currently hosts the amazing Museum of Photography Archive. The building collapsed and the largest engraved Aztec stone found up to now, came to light: the Goddess of the Earth. You can see at the front of the Museum of the Templo Mayor. Many of the stones of the Aztec temples were used to construct the Hispanic world and they increasingly attract attention. There is an entire city below the actually city, emerging incessantly. And the lake falsely dried too is a presence of the ancient world that resurfaces and makes its presence felt. And as if that weren’t enough, defying the advanced crossbreeding, some member of the Mexican middle class, imagine a curious kitsch Aztec past that they sing and dance in the streets, dressed up as the figures of their imagination. The heart of Mexico beats between these extreme sounds of recently exhumed bells and the constant ringing of mobile phones as in every other globalized city.
We get a call from some friends in common to have lunch in another part of town, one that grew with Mexico’s first expansions outside of the surrounding of this phantom island, tenacious. We head in that direction to rediscover together another side of the city.
THE CITY OF MINUTE PLEASURES
Mexico City has a thousand faces and many of them truly fascinate those that get to opportunity to discover them. When you slowly make your way from the old part of downtown to other areas, the urban expression slowly shows a more complicit and wrapping smile.
Moreover, this fascination is naturally drenched with great oddness. A few years ago, while visiting a great popular food market with Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster, they told me that the feeling they got was of this radical otherness: another civilization, another planet. People, what is bought and eaten, belong in a greater scope, to a world prior to the industrialization of food and their business before refrigeration. In other countries of the world, including tropical ones, like old San Juan Puerto Rico, for example, the Americanization of food and trade make it almost impossible to drink a natural fruit juice. Mexico is the opposite. In many street corners, natural juices are made from the fruit and one can eat fresh fruit.
That alone creates a scenario in the city of a different world that greatly affects the quality of life of its inhabitants as much as its visitors. Even in the chronic of the conquistadors, indigenous markets were already surprising centers of attraction and the Spanish did not know more than half of what was sold there. For starters, the fact that Mexican love to eat insects and flowers, just like in France one can naturally be a mushroom and snail lover. The inhabitants of the ancient city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan invented efficient artificial floating islands to multiply the frequency of their farming. Many of them still exist in the south of the Mexican Valley, some twenty kilometers from the Zócalo, in the Xochimilco lake. And even at the end of the 19th century, there were rain canals between these two places, through which hundreds of small boats transported food to the central markets.
One of the last resistances to the very American anxiety of modernity that cities live is its culinary. That is why in some cities, the markets are inseparable from its being.
Along with my friends Louis and Elodie Santamaría and a friend who writes in English about food in the city, Nick Gilman, we went through one of the most attractive popular markets of the Historic Center. The San Juan Market. We were immediately immersed in the world of smells and colors that sprung from this prelude of taste. There are various markets in the area but the characteristic this one has is that it is the place where other markets come together and the quality of the food is superior. The fish and seafood section is delicious, but my friends consider an even more extravagant food section: chapulines (grasshoppers) from Oaxaca, escamoles (ant eggs), maguey worms, crocodile, armadillo and even lion meat. But that is not even the most definitive. We can also find French cheeses as well as Indian spices, flower, seeds. From the common to the extravagant, everything catches your attention. Even the visitors’. It is one of the places where the chefs of the city got to every day, and it is not surprising to bump into Mexican culinary stars selecting, negotiating, dreaming the plates they will cook next. Inside the Mexican markets there are always restaurants, very humbly laid out and priced, and here, one is particularly good. We cannot avoid its mole seduction: this chicken dish where a thick, dark sauce is mixed with a varied selection of seeds and chili and, very importantly, cacao, chocolate’s raw material. The city is also its flavors.
We keep moving away from the city center, spiraling, which allows my friends to discover the many baroque façades that can still be found in the ancient city. Coming from the market, they establish an immediate link with the baroque style of the food and streets. And they are not mistaken. In fact, the oldest Mexican recipe books were made for massive community parties, five hundred or more guests for various days. The nature of Mexican cuisine and its main dishes is inseparable from its antique baroque celebration. Mole was invented for one of those urban celebrations in a nearby city, Puebla. But it rapidly became a national dish: one of the symbols of Mexican crossbreeding. Like some of the Indian curries.
A specific palace constructed in Mexico City by someone originally from Puebla – which was no coincidence – makes you ponder on the link between baroque food and the city: La casa de los Azulejos (The House of Tiles). A two-floor building completely covered in these glazed ceramic pieces of Persian origin that we call with the Spanish derivative of the Arabic word zelije: tile. A type of ceramics that was normally used at that time to completely cover up the inner walls of the kitchen convents.
Walking attentively, looking at the façades and squares and palaces, we can perfectly imagine that at some point in time, this city was conceived as a great urban theater. It is understandable how the parties as well as the streets impressed the travellers that visited the New Spain’s metropolis in the 18th century. The renaissance utopian idea of the city traced as an adequate grid for large pilgrimages and for the convergence of citizens, could not be fully applied in the old and much less labyrinthine European cities, which is why it was done in America. The area, which was enormous for the time, which we know as the Historic Center, was the perfect example of that world.
To the balanced trace of that network, another utopian idea of a different type was added: to unite society in a complex but implacable project of crossbreeding. In addition to stimulating weddings and cohabitation, great parties were required to include them all and in which deep new ties, new social networks could be created. Spanish patronage of newly baptized indigenous people, excessively expensive weddings and funerals, creating reciprocities, celebrations of the neighborhood’s saint. The social network was endlessly secured and renewed through these parties. And the streets were scenarios of incessant and magnificent rituals, which through baroque excess, created and recreated a new society. In ever community party, full of processions and big meals, excessive and mandatory partying, new alliances and reciprocal obligations were necessarily established. That new universe of rituals and inclusive forms was called baroque. A way of life more than a lifestyle; even more: an inclusive national project that provided Mexico City with a face.
But the traces of this baroque face are dispersed, mutilated and faltering because soon enough, that project was interrupted by the modern anxiety of the late 18th century and all of the 19th, it was called Neoclassic and it destroyed more than it constructed. And later on, in the mid 20th century, it did it again under another modernity, American style, that continues to anguish our new contemporaries. A city remains after great destructions and constructions: multiple, active, arrogant at times. A city that grows among display and ruin.
“It’s like a dozen cities or more, together, wrapping and unwrapping themselves. Always restless,” says mi friend Elodie as we move away from the city center. We leave the great Palacio de Bellas Artes behind, a monumental jewel of the 19th century, finished in the 20th, that has frescos by the great muralists: Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, González Camarena, Rodríguez Lozano, Montenegro, even Tamayo. And almost in front of it, a slim skyscraper of the 50’s: the Latin American Tower. Two emblematic buildings from those two eras where the anguish of modernity devastated the old city and constructed something valuable.
Right next to the Palace of Bellas Artes (Fine Arts), an old public garden is preserved: the Alameda (Boulevard), decorated today with urban furniture of the 19th century, although it is an emblem of the city from earlier times, that has always being valued/treasured by people as a Sunday walk. There is a museum at the end of it, constructed exclusively to protect an immense mural by Diego Rivera that is entitled “Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda,” which includes about thirty popular characters: salesmen, postmen, multiple heroes and a few artists, from Frida Kahlo to La Catrina: a skeleton dressed as an elegant woman of the beginning of the 20th century, invented by the engraver José Guadalupe Posada; she, like Frida, was turned into one of the most recurring symbols of Mexican culture. Diego Rivera includes himself in the scene as a young boy, holding Death’s hand. Not many people know that in that very place, behind the Alameda, in 1940, George Whitman, founder of the current Shakespeare and Company in Paris, was about to open his library. He told me one day: “I had to decide between Paris, Beijing and Mexico. We’d be speaking Spanish right now if I had chosen your country. I really liked La Alameda to soak up the sun around the fountains in the morning.”
A few meters away is Reforma Avenue, one of the two main streets of the city. It was emperor Maximilian’s wish that in 1864, to facilitate the six kilometer route that separated his residence in the Chapultepec Castle from the Palace where he governed in the Zócalo. I was called Empress Avenue. It is the work of an Austrian engineer Louis Bolland Kuhmacki, who received the order to construct an avenue in the tradition of the Parisian boulevards and the Louise of Brussels avenue, but of greater dimensions. Three times the length of the Champs-Elysées and one or two meters wider in a few sections. When at the beginning of the century a city began to spring from the Historic Center, it went to the sides of this avenue and large residences began to populate it. In the fourth round about of Reforma Avenue, Porfirio Díaz built a monument to the Independnce in 1902, which he inaugurated to celebrate his first centenary in 1910. It was made by a famous architect, Antonio Rivas Mercado, whose daughter had committed suicide in Paris, in Notre Dame, facing the altar on the side dedicated to the Mexican, dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe. It is a pillar with an angel at the top. It was built on a rocky area and because of that it is one of the few monuments of Mexico city that hasn’t sunk. The rest of the city keeps sinking. The monument is well above the level of the city which is why it has become a sort of pyramid where the town celebrates with collective catharsis the few triumphs of the Mexican football team, even the ties.
Along Reforma, you get to an area of museums, where the main one, without a doubt, is the monumental Anthropology Museum, built in the 70’s. Further down Reforma, in the decades of wealth that Mexico went through in the 20th century, the bourgeoisie that consistently looks north, built two neighborhoods with aspirations of American comfort: Polanco, on one side of the Chapultepec park, and Las Lomas, on the hill. The latter was initially called Chapultepec Heights, in English. The embassy residences are located there, there are almost no shops around and you need a lot of money to live there and a car to go anywhere. They are the most well known areas by foreigners that come to live in Mexico but by no means the most pleasant or interesting ones.
A bit further away from Reforma, to the southeast, there are two neighborhoods right next to each other, Condesa and Roma, that belong to a Mexico where it was still important to walk and enjoy a park, mingle with people of different social classes and ages, buy in everything you need in the corner shop, and where there are new and old neighborhood residents. You can still find some libraries and cultural centers. And the avenues have trees filled with the spring Jacaranda flower. A peculiar avenue called Amsterdam was traced on the trail of an old hippodrome and adds a unique touch to the area. Both neighborhoods have filled up with small restaurants where youngsters, especially, mingle and rejoice in the small pleasure of the city, including bumping into each other. Our next stop is the south of the city and its other happy queerness.
THE CITY THAT LOOKS TO THE SOUTH
Of the four water horizons that Mexico City had when it was established as an island, seven centuries later, one survives in the distance. In the southern part of the Mexican Valley, as if coming from a strange water dream, the town and ancient lake of Xochimilco is part of the city as one of the last neighboring towns devoured by the huge city and its explosive growth in the second half of the 20th century.
Xochimilco is one of the last pre Hispanic landscapes that can be seen in Latin America. Its network of artificial islands, dedicated primarily to the cultivation of flowers, with its innumerable ritual celebrations, its rich plant market, its canals endlessly navigated; it is a proud rarity. She is the queen of the south of the city. Her favorite anomaly. For centuries, the city center has exploited its farmland and its water in a thousand different ways, it has shown it with pride to visitors or simply, or has simply disdained it. But she remains there, with the slow perseverance of its seeping water.
Today, my friends Louis and Elodie Santamaría, who are in the process of retiring and settling down in Mexico, want to buy many plants for their new home and we’ve decided to go to Xochimilco together, going through other beautiful places in the couth of the city. Louis takes out a map of the city with her methodical curiosity. Although she knows how to get there, she wants to confirm the route and her geographic location in relation to other areas of the city that we’ve been rediscovering the past few days.
In the open map, we also see another section of the city where we ate last week, a very renowned Mexican restaurant, El Bajío, in the Azcapotzalco area, in the eastern side of the city. Louis and Elodie were struck by the appearance of the area. It is modest and organized in some places and then all that organization is distorted by new avenues and chaotic parts of new streets. Too much city and very little urbanism. Like a collage that’s never finished. Close by, the 52-story tower, the headquarters of the state oil company: Pemex. That tower seems to insist that this is its territory. And it has been for a very long time, even leaving a mark on the urban physiognomy of an important part of the city. But Elodie is right, the south is completely different. The south has been Mexico City’s obsession since it got out of the siege of growth we call Historic Center, and which contained it almost till the beginning of the 20th century. But it is not only because it grew to the south; once outside of those main boundaries, like in a relentless spiral, the hungry metropolis began to take over everything habitable that fell under its steps. To the North and East, industrial growth extended for the highest stage of economic development that Mexico lived between 1934 and 1976. And this was done based on a model of one of the most drastic urban assimilations that was ever made, that of the ancient town that was the metropolis before Tenochtitlan. It was named Azcapotzalco, which means “the ant’s nest,” to name the restless human activity that it had back then and still does now.
It became an place where big factories, steel mills, oil refineries were established, not only offices. And the entire area also became one of the neighborhoods where the workers of that growing industry lived. The old haciendas of the area and the indigenous towns, were divided into new streets and plots of land that turned into a great variety of compounds where the workers, through the official unions, could buy a small plot of land to build a modest one or two-story house. A very high percentage of the new city hence turned into similar neighborhoods, of workers and other union workers.
The owners of those factories or the highly ranked employees, lived mainly in las Lomas, Polanco, or in the south of the city. Not in the deep south, in the town of Xochimmilco, but half way, in those two beautiful old towns where the Spanish conquistadors had already constructed their second residences: Coyacan and San Angel. And later on, in El Pedregal, a neighborhood designed recently by architect Luis Barragan. With curved roads between lava rocks that strived to be the ultimate urban luxury in the second half of the century. As always, it was soon overtaken.
And in between the two ends, between the workers neighborhood and the neighborhood of the stars, grow many neighborhoods of the immense middle class that emerged sweepingly in those years of growth and mark every day life in Mexico. The great economic contrasts that reign in the country are also visible in the city. But it isn’t the workers neighborhoods that are the most disadvantaged, but those built through the appropriation of land by occupiers that come from different areas of the country, attracted by the overvalued possibilities of work in the capital. And oftentimes, they remain unemployed or have very marginal jobs, and live in rooms with no urban services of any kind. One of those neighborhoods, Ciudad Netzahualcoyotl, has two million inhabitants. It is no longer the poorest area. It has drainage, water and electricity that other neighborhoods don’t have. But twenty years ago, when I went to give a lecture and read stories in schools, the majority of the streets were dirt roads and I met eight and nine year old kids that had never seen a tree, let alone the sea. All this has changed and the most extreme poverty has settled in other areas, even further away and increasingly extended.
To connect the city center with the south, a new avenue was built, not as luxurious and wide as Reforma avenue, but much longer: Insurgentes avenue. Almost 29 kilometers long, crossing the entire city, it is connected to the highway that leads to the city of Pachuca in the north, the ancient mining center that produced a high proportion of the wealth Mexico, “the Palace City,” made. To the south, Insurgentes is connected to the highway that leads to the city of Cuernavaca, eighty kilometers from the city, where Malcom Lowry set his novel,w hich is one of the most profound explorations of Mexico: Under the Volcano. Insurgentes avenue then grew as the major axis of the city and at its borders, looking south, new ascending middle class neighborhoods bloomed, one by one.
Coyoacan was the town where Cortés established his government while he rebuilt the destroyed Tenochtitlan. And many of the conquistadors’ houses are still found there, on the long and shadowy Francisco Sosa avenue, with its ancient trees. Like the majestic Pedro de Alvarado House, still decorated with those arabesques relieves on the walls know for their Arabic word: Ajaracas. Octavio Paz lived the last year of his life in that house and died there in 1998. It is currently the headquarters of the Fonoteca Nacional (Sound Archive).
One of Coyoacan’s main attractions is La Casa Azul (The Blue House), where Frida lived since she was young until her death. Diego bought it off Frida’s father to be able to house Trotsky there; he was able to get his political asylum in Mexico through president Cárdenas in 1937. After some time, Trostky, his wife, and an entourage of bodyguards, moved to a house not far away from there which is the Leon Trostky Museum today. He was murdered there in 1940.
Friday’s house is very striking. It has handicraft and every day objects that she kept, various paintings, by her and Diego Rivera, a photograph collection, her studio, and even the bed she died in. Even the stones in the garden are part of a special and discrete collection. But, most of all, this house stands out as a realm of appreciation for all things Mexican. And one feels in the midst of a nationalist spirit of the 30’s, where Diego and Frida were the main characters. Trotsky’s house is completely different. The feeling you get is of persecution and death. To see it completely refurbished, with extended walls, boarded windows, everything altered to become a useless fortress, it is terribly horrifying. You can visit the studio where he was murdered and see the marks on the walls where the gunshots fired by painter David Alfaro Siqueiros and his team of assault, when he tried to murder him. Four months before another one of Stalin’s messengers, Ramón Mercader, achieved it. Trotsky’s ashes and those of his wife are found here, in the garden, behind the tombstone.
The main square of Coyoacan is one of the most pleasant and busy squares of the city. You suddenly have the feeling, as you walk down the cobblestone and tree-covered streets, that you’re living a town life, although you’re only passing by. And that is one of the main attractions for people who come to visit from other parts of town. Almost neighboring Coyoacan is the current neighborhood of San Angel, which until the middle of the last century was also an old town with an important convent named del Carmen, a square and an old hacienda that was later turned into a hotel to rest on the way to Cuernavaca, when you travelled there by carriage. It later became a Jesuit university and is currently an elegant restaurant. Probably the most beautiful one in Mexico since it preserves the old building from the vice royal times. It was restored thanks to the creativity of an architect, Manuel Parra, who constructed a large part of what is today San Angel in the same style, reinvented by him in the 50’s. While the other great Mexican architects destroyed the old buildings to build modernity in 20th century Mexico, Parra would go to the places they tore down and buy all the sculpted stones, the broken columns, the old wooden beams, the engraved doors, the old bars to build real vice royal style collages. Parra reinvented an entire neighborhood, giving it a peculiar spirit that, in the recent years, it is once again destroyed in the name of that same modern anguish he swam against. In front of the San Angel Inn Restaurant, even before Parra restored it, Frida and Diego built a few studios in a very modernist style that picks up elements of industrial architecture and surrounded the complex with a wall of cacti. It is a small museum today. In one of the larger houses of the neighborhood, a handicraft market takes place every week, known as “Saturday’s Bazaar.”
We finally get to the Xochimico market and my friends buy a large quantity of plants that will be delivered later in the day to their home. Meanwhile, we go to the docks, where we rent a small boat to go around in the flowery canals. After a while, an every smaller boat draws near offering food and beverages, the another one, a musical group further down and like that, all the vessels take ride, eat and celebrate, floating just like us. Being here makes us feel in detail what Mexico City’s floating urban tissue used to be like. And at the same time, the delusional effort of drying up a lake, over the centuries, which was huge and has never fully finished drying. There were times when the entire city would flood and once, in the 17th century, it remained under water for three years. And the threat is always present.
The day after our floating ride, in one of the neighborhoods next to Xochimilco, in Chalco, an ancient dry lake, torrential rain flooded everything under a meter and a half of water. Four hundred thousand people were affected and lost everything they had in the ground floor. The sudden tropical rain turned into a hailstorm had, once again, overflown the sewer capacity. All over the city, in the fast lanes with overpasses, cars were trapped. And that is precisely why I couldn’t meet Roberto, who we had met on the plane to Mexico a few weeks back. We must once again take a rain check. The huge city is ad nauseam a motive for encounters but also failed meetings. And as a hazardous symbol that something is about to end, in this seasonless city with no sudden climate changes, that hailstorm destroyed all the Jacaranda flowers that covered the streets and that had caught our attention from above as well as from below, as we went around the city in these past weeks. The spring of the Jacarandas, hardly a month into the spring calendar, had abruptly come to its end.