My last post tells the clichéd study abroad story: fun host family, mediocre foreign university, basic navigation of a different culture. I would like to think that my time in Mexico, however, goes beyond the most basic of study abroad tropes, and it owes that difference to the city I lived in. Mexico City is so gigantic that no one can dream of making their way through it in four months, though I managed to visit practically all of them on the day a pair of old high school Spanish teachers swung through the city on a visit. No East grad’s journey through Mexico is complete without a day on the canals of Xochimilco with Mrs. Bergum and Mrs. Melchert.
My university, the Ibero, gave its exchange students an easy way in via a Friday “class” that took us to sites around the city. The first trip with tour group took us straight into the city center, where a kindly but long-winded gringa used a bevy of props to lead us through some of the city’s more famous attractions. She knew her stuff, and we followed her across the great plaza known as the Zócalo—every Mexican city has one—and into the Metropolitan Cathedral and finally to the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the centerpiece of the old Aztec capital, rediscovered only during excavations by the national electrical company in the 1970s. But as we meandered through the site museum and the guide droned on and no promise of lunch came forth, a friend and I bailed. With a few quick steps out a side door, we left behind the self-conscious curation of Mexican history and entered the Mexico of today, a cobblestone street lined by small shops and teeming with the seamless ballet of urban life, as the shoppers stop and start and flow along down the avenue. We disappeared into a taquería, came out with some streetside delicacies, and, two days later, came down with diarrhea.
Leaving aside long nights on the toilet, the journey down the side street kicked off my many unguided wanderings of the city, and the Zócalo was a natural place to revisit. The Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, the center of the great imperial city that rose to glory under the Aztecs and became the seat of Spanish power in the northern hemisphere. At its center, a massive Mexican flag, the eagle on the cactus lilting in the breeze. The government, the church, and those Aztec ruins all spectate from the sides, but this is a living plaza, always the center of the action. Often a protest, sometimes a concert or a party, though never more novel than during my final visit in early December: a skating rink! This Minnesota boy could have watched for hours in delight. The rink featured at least a hundred uniformed attendants, all there to help out the poor Mexicans as they shuffled about the rink, clinging to the walls in desperation. Further along the intrepid city government had devised a mini snowman-building station, and an artificial sledding hill made an appearance as well.
Mexicans on Ice!
The rink was one of the more lavish flourishes of mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s urban vision. Ever since it gained home rule in 1997, the Federal District has stayed firmly in the hands of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a left-leaning party that has been decimated in the rest of the country thanks to the egotistical handiwork of Ebrard’s predecessor to the top spot in the Federal District, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. To be fair, López Obrador’s administration helped push Mexico City’s urbanism toward the vanguard, and under PRD rule, the city has had a renaissance of cultural life and chic vigor. A large urban elite allows for a center-left party to flourish, and even if it’s not on the cutting edge of the war on poverty, it runs a fairly clean and efficient ship, which is no small miracle south of the border. But Ebrard lost out to the more ruthless López Obrador in the 2012 succession battle, and the PRD split into two, its moderate core left only in Mexico City. The result: a city whose governing vision has more in line with New York or San Francisco than it does with the villages just beyond the Valley of Mexico.
If the Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, then the Alameda, some six blocks to the west, is its soul. Or so I thought when I first laid eyes on the great Diego Rivera mural back when I was in high school, the one that showed the whole of Mexican history promenading down its leafy walks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. On one of my first Sundays in Mexico City I walked from my place in Polanco up Paseo de la Reforma to the mural. I sat before it for a while before venturing into the square itself. The Alameda of 2010 had no great politicians or artists striding up its walks, but there was a complete cross-section of the country: the wealthy on parade, young lovers in the bushes, beggars, the inescapable rows of vendors, protesting leftists, break-dancers, and every possible shade in between. And on a bench in the middle of it all, a dreamy American kid, enmeshed in that urban fabric and in love with it.
A dreamy Sunday.
The rest of the center city has chaotic but ordered streets, and is well-serviced by the packed but slick, highly subsidized, rubber-tired subway system. The urban grid conforms to the Spanish colonial Laws of the Indies, with churches and government centers grouped around plazas of varying importance. There’s a bike share system, a number of pedestrian streets, and little monuments or plaques at every turn. The architecture impresses, from a gilded post office to the Casa de los Azulejos, the original home of the Sanborns owls that now roost about the city on the department store’s logo; from the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts to the iconic Torre Latinoamericana, long the city’s tallest building. To the North is Plaza Garibaldi, perfect for one’s mariachi rental needs, and unrepentant debauchery once the sun goes down.
Paseo de la Reforma is the artery that feeds the body of the beast, a grand avenue that belongs on a short list with the Champs-Elysees, the Rajpath, Broadway, and Las Ramblas. Every major intersection brings a traffic circle and a monument, the statues ranging from Columbus to Aztec emperors to Roman goddesses to the city’s most famous icon, the Angel of Independence. It’s wide enough to handle hordes of both cars and pedestrians, and on Sunday, the whole thing shuts down for bicycles. The neighborhoods along it to the west of the center are the trendy and artsy core: Roma Norte, the gay-friendly Zona Rosa (under Ebrard, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009), and La Condesa, the D.F.’s answer to Williamsburg. The streets in each neighborhood have themes, with national heroes and dates in the city center, European cities in Roma, and Mexican states in La Condesa. La Condesa is at once the most happening and perhaps the least Mexican place in the city, a cosmopolitan neighborhood filled with fusion restaurants and clubs for travelers from afar. It was a popular home for the European students at the Ibero, and I spent many nights in its apartments and parks, dining or heading for the Pata Negra, the club where all twenty-somethings’ paths seem to cross while in Mexico.
View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.
West of La Condesa sprawls Chapultepec Park, a giant green space that makes Central Park look quaint. It hosts many of the city’s great museums and monuments, from modern art to anthropology to Chapultepec Castle atop the hill. Below Chapultepec is the monument to the Niños Heroes, six boys who wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves from the ramparts rather than risk capture when the American army sacked the palace in the 1840s. Los Pinos, home to the Mexican president, is here as well, but so are the unavoidable vendors, brackish lakes, and price-gouging toilets. There is no such thing as a free leak in Mexico.
North of Chapultepec and Reforma, beyond the Parque Líbano, lies my old haunting grounds. Polanco is densely urban, filled with apartment towers and shopping streets, though it’s statelier than La Condesa, and the streets are so robed in trees that it seems sheltered from the oppressive crowds downtown. The streets here, all named for great philosophers or writers, make one want to stroll to a café and discuss some great work with other learned people. I meandered its placid streets whenever I needed to get out of the apartment and breathe, stopping for an ice cream or touring the Tianguis market on Fridays, perhaps flagging down the tamale bicycle. At its heart is the Parque Lincoln, a quaint monument to the American president, who gazes across the street at Martin Luther King. A few blocks north is Presidente Masaryk, Mexico’s swankiest shopping street; a few blocks south, the Campos Elíseos: Champs-Elysees, Elysian Fields, one of those streets that just basks in presumption, playing host to embassies and luxury hotels.
Street corner in Polanco.
Further up the hill the men of letters give way to mountains, and the lanes loop around walls that guard the estates of Lomas de Chapultepec. I myself lived right on the line between Lomas and Polanco, on Monte Elbruz, a short wedge between two highways that still managed to fill the obligatory quota of 7-Elevens and Starbucks on a Mexico City block. My tower overlooked the Periférico, the ring highway that loops about the center of the city. At night I’d gaze down from the picture windows as the traffic weaved along the canyon below, threading its way through a small regiment of financial and corporate towers. The cool mountain air poured in through the slits beneath the windows, breathing life back into the giant’s lungs.
To the north, a pyramid, a church, and the State Department share a square. It’s the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, still better known as Tlatelolco. This was once a booming native market town, but now this name recalls a different memory, the moment that ripped the mask off the PRI regime. In 1968, the government gunned down scores of student protesters here. The regime ruled ably for forty years, overseeing an economic miracle that pulled Mexico to the brink of the first world. The 1968 Olympics were supposed to prove that greatness, and celebrate the “perfect dictatorship,” the system that seamlessly transferred power from one party boss to another, all the disparate factions of Mexican society united within one machine. Instead, they kicked off a national nightmare.
The next thirty years saw a slow but steady decline. The party couldn’t buy off the far left the way it could with other groups, and its patronage machine went from competence tinged by low-grade corruption to a downright bloated bureaucratic cesspool. The nation’s fortunes rose and fell with oil prices and presidential terms, and after a stolen election in 1988, the PRI was in crisis. It held on for another twelve years, enough time to oversee the lurching implementation of NAFTA and a privatization scheme that simply put state agencies into the hands of wealthy cronies rather than fostering genuine competition. To the credit of President Ernest Zedillo, he was willing to hand off power when the PAN won the 2000 election. The PRI returned to the presidency in 2012, but it is a shell of its former self, with the El Chapo jailbreak showing the bankruptcy of Enrique Peña Nieto’s pretty PR machine. The ghosts of Tlatelolco have come home to roost.
Further north Reforma splits in two, and the Calzada de Guadalupe and the Calzada de los Misterios lead the way up to the Basilica of Guadalupe. The current basilica is an unfortunate modernist thing, but all the beautiful old churches and chapels on the hill at Tepeyac are still there, and one can still mount it for a view of what a sixteenth century miracle has wrought. The shrine marks the site where the Virgin Mary revealed herself to Juan Diego, and the image seared on his tilma became the foundation of a nation. Mexico is a fractured place, filled with hundreds of indigenous tribes and regional cultures, and riven by stark mountain ranges. Many of its Catholics practice something that my Polish and Irish grandparents could never recognize as their own.
Juan Diego’s tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.
But the Virgin courses through all Mexican life, and the flag hanging around the framed tilma drives the point home. While the southern Latin American countries killed their natives and the Andean and Central American ones still live in serious racial tension, Mexico approximates a blended nation. Reality still shows stark divides, but ever since its great revolution in the 1910s, Mexico’s official narrative has aspired to a blended mestizo identity, the raza cósmica that takes pride in both its indigenous roots and its Spanish inheritance. The PRI, for all its failures, built a country around that vision. It is no small victory, and while some racial divides endure, the rest of the world has something to learn from Mexico.
In the far north lie the ruins of Teotihuacan. The name means ‘City of the Gods’ in Nahuatl; the story claims that the Aztecs, still in their exodus phase and wandering the Valley, stumbled through its ruins and figured that no man could have built them. Sitting atop the Pyramid of the Sun today, it’s not hard to see why: its base rivals the Great Pyramid in Egypt. But if the Aztecs aspired to godlike status, they found it soon enough. They found that sign they’d awaited, the eagle perched on a cactus, and build a city to rival Teotihuacan in the center of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan stunned its Spanish conquerors with its size, beauty, and cleanliness, though that did nothing to stop them from slaughtering the lot of them and filing in the lake.
Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan
Today, the only living remnant of the Aztec imperial city is on the far south end, in Xochimilco. These canal-filled gardens sum up Mexico simply: a historical artifact kept alive by a raucous party on boats, with vendors paddling along the rented trajineras peddling food and flowers and booze. The traffic is just as hectic as the Mexico City streets, the oarsmen worryingly young, yet no amount of social scrutiny can dim the festive atmosphere. Here Mrs. Melchert showed incredible poise under pressure, earning applause from the Mexicans as she maintained her balance after our trajinera got rammed just as she was leaning out to take a picture.
The south side of Mexico City has more wealth than the north, and it is here that one finds the sprawling campus of the national university (UNAM), home to over 250,000 students; the giant Estadio Azteca is here as well. A little ways further north are two charmingly gentrified neighborhoods with cobbled houses and colorful streets and histories as well. San Ángel features a flower market, a Diego Rivera studio, and a monument to some Irish-American U.S. soldiers who turned on their new county and joined the Mexicans during the U.S. invasion. They all got slaughtered, but they still remember them in San Ángel, and I happened to visit on the day of a remembrance parade that included the Irish ambassador. Better known is Coyoacán, Mexico City’s Greenwich Village of yore, home to the famous blue Frida Kahlo house, where one can learn of all her eccentricities. Just up the street sits the Trotsky museum, where budding little Marxists shepherd the tourists about the bullet-riddled rooms of the exiled revolutionary’s final home. The bullets from Stalin’s henchmen all missed their marks, but later, an ice axe did not.
Not wanting to cause my host family or the university and undue ulcers, however small the real worry, I never ventured on foot into the far eastern reaches of Mexico City. As the city climbs up out of the valley, there in the shadow of the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, the city degenerates into row upon row of concrete housing. The largest slum in the world is here, beyond the D.F.’s border with the State of Mexico, and there’s a ring of badly built homes creeping its way up the mountains on all sides of the city. They’ve come here in search of something more than subsistence farming, the countryside drained of peasants by a growing economy. It is a zone of misery, though Mexico has nothing on the poorest of the poor; in fact, thanks to a growing economy, there are now more Mexicans heading back south across the border with the U.S. The American immigration crisis these days comes from Central Americans, who endure a hellish journey across Mexico to the border. This journey usually avoids the insanity of the capital and instead works its way up the Atlantic coast.
Mexico City faces many issues, perhaps the most worrying being its need to suck up water from all across the country, but otherwise, its problems have solutions. Yes, the mountains that ring the city hold in the smog, though it’s not as bad as it used to be; methods to clean up the sky lurch along. My lungs had no trouble adjusting to the Mexico City air during my workouts, as many past travelers had suffered. The soft former bed of Lake Texcoco, filled in by the Spaniards, causes some structural problems, and leaves the city vulnerable to earthquakes. But the government can and does take steps to stabilize these things, and it’s hard to foresee a catastrophe. The once-worrying taxi system has been cleaned up some. And the drug violence that plagues some parts of Mexico doesn’t really appear in the Federal District: it is just too large and sprawling, and the state has too big of a presence, for any of the cartels to move beyond the run-of-the-mill crime operations found in any big city. At the time I traveled, Washington D.C.’s murder rate was over three times the D.F.’s. I can’t recall a single crime, even minor theft, befalling one of my fellow foreign students—and we weren’t always the most self-aware or cautious bunch.
In a way, my complaints about the traffic how easily it is to lead a comfortable life: the most serious inconvenience of D.F. life is a mundane problem that’s not much better in, say, Los Angeles. Large parts of Mexico City are placid if not downright lovely, which both makes life easier and makes one understand why the Mexican upper classes aren’t terribly bothered with the slums to the east. Their productive, comfortable lives can coexist with the extreme poverty around the city. Seen from the ground, the contradictions that form this city are easier to understand, its vast scale easily gathering it all in. No city did more to drive my fascination with the systems of urban life, and its allure will long endure, no doubt pulling me back before long. For good or ill, Mexico City is without equal.
Next time: Provincial towns and cities of Mexico.