FEBRUARY 28, 1998.


“What a difference a day makes,” as the song goes. Wow, what a difference a month makes. February has seen a complete change. In fact I feel quite embarrassed looking back at Alligator Report no. 9. As for ‘la cortina de frijoles,’ well, it’s been completely blown away and I vow never to use the expression again. ‘Disculpeme mexicanos todo, por favor!’

This alligator will, of necessity, be truncated and rushed. I’ve been busy having a good time (which in my world means working on things I like doing). I haven’t had time to even think about alligators. So, it’s late 28 de febrero and I’m bashing this out for the record. Don’t check for typos!

First an up-date on Chiapas. Much to my surprise I am not alone in believing the current situation in Mexico is a re-run of the Porfiriato of 1880-1911. Let’s hope the results don’t turn out the same.

Don’t be deluded, though, into thinking the unrest in this country is confined to Chiapas: Guerrero, Tabasco, Oaxaca and some of the northern states are boiling kettles with the lid held down.

Presidente Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, the man who vowed to correct the inequities, predictably, sees the solution to all problems as changing a few faces around the cabinet table: and, of course, chucking money at selected moving objects.

So we have a new face in the interior secretariat, Francisco Labastida. His solution is to ignore the San Andreas Laranzain accord signed between his government and the EZLN, as a result of the Zapatista uprising of January 1, 1994. His call to the EZLN is, hey, guys this isn’t an all or nothing situation: give a little. The EZLN’s reply is we don’t want all or nothing, all we want is for you to respect the accord we signed, in good faith, together with your government in February 1996. And send the army home. The trouble with liberal politics is, its only real tool is “dis-truth.”(Sound familiar?).

In addition, the government is expelling foreigners “meddling” in Mexican politics. The Interior Secretariat has accused, among others, the Rev. Michel Henri Jean Chanteau of “undertaking political activities not authorized.” The Rev., a Frenchman, has lived in, and contributed to, Mexico for 32 years. Needless to say the French government is pretty pissed-off!

But enough of depressing politics. Depressing because like all liberal politics, Canada included, the solution is simple, staring us in the face, except that implementation means raining on the parade of the anointed few.

The good news! Well, the big change is, as much as anything, due to one very hospitable mexicano, Profesor Gustavo Casillas. When he read alligator 9 he e-mailed back, very gently, that not all mexicanos are the same: and boy, oh boy is that ever true! And from there began many friendships.

Gustavo introduced me to his mother, family and novia. His novia, Maria-Luis, introduced me to Gustavo’s graduate student, Jim Hamalainen. Jim is from Surrey B.C. studying architecture and computers with Gustavo. Jim, in turn, introduced me to Profesor Julio Obscura and as a result I am helping in a graduate course on architectural design in the Collegio de Arquitectura at UNAM.

Anyway let’s do this in sequence. At the beginning of February I did a bit of exploring with two delightful young ladies from Duncan B. C. Sarah Long, stepdaughter of a Vancouver friend, and her friend Hilary, had been in Mexico a few months. There last fling was DF. So we walked the length and breadth of this place: me guiding. The high light, for them, was, not surprisingly, Tepito.

Tepito is famous for in-expensive clothing: inexpensive because its wares are reputed to be stolen. Furthermore, recently, the police confiscated 30,000 pirated videos from a warehouse there. It is also a centre for crime and prostitution. I seldom go there and always only in daylight. The Duncan ladies reveled in the place: even went back, without me, while I was at Angangueo.

At Angangueo, the first weekend of February, I visited the Mariposas Monarca at the Rosario reserve. What a sight to behold!

We left early Saturday morning, 7.30 am, stopping on the way at Victoria for a light roadside snack: chocolate atoli for me, a drink made from corn mixed with milk, like porridge, flavoured to choice. We dined in Angangueo before heading back, returning to DF around 10 pm. Cost, all-inclusive, M$195 (C$33.00).

Angangueo is “ trunco,” logging, country way up in the mountains of Michoacan. Stray butterflies become evident as we approach. Closer to the reserve they are noticeable more numerous.

From Angangueo we truck it up a dusty winding logging road to the Rosario reserve. I was in the cab with the driver who kept up an incessant commentary until I asked him, “ silencio.” Yeah, I know I’m a drag. But hey, I’m 68 years old, I’m allowed! On the way back I rode in the back with the sheep. I prefer the view.

At the entrance we, and lots of other sightseers, walked up the mountain trail. It is steep, dusty, hot and long but fun. There I met Elizabeth Hernandez Valenzuela and together we just gawked at the natural phenomena.

Elizabeth Hernandez Valensquela.

Brother, you should see these monarcas. Evidently it takes three generations for them to fly from Canada to Michoacan and back. So the same monarch in Ontario could be a grandparent of the one who arrives in Angangueo. How did all this get started? How do they find their way? How do they know where to go?

When they get here millions cling to anything, particularly trees. Everywhere the sky, the forest, the ground, orange-brown is re-colouring the landscape from November to March: and then they head back to Ontario.

My reason for coming to DF was to discover the beautiful public urban spaces that regale this place. The campus at UNAM, as I have said before, is among Mexico’s best. I had strong desire to become involved with the students in “la collegio de arcquitectura” at UNAM and tried very hard to get in there, to no avail: until I met Jim.

Now I have realized both ambitions. I am assisting Profesor Julio Obscura with his architectural design course and I have a pretty good take on the 12,000 public urban spaces of this city. Yup, things have changed dramatically for the better. I may stay a while longer!

UNAM has a total of 300,000 students at the main campus and satellites close to DF. The collegio has 7,000 students (a lot more than I was first lead to believe: UBC has something like 300) divided into: post-graduate studies, urban development, computer design, architecture, industrial design. The collegio was the first faculty to be established after the revolution and it is reputed to be the oldest faculty in Latin America since it was inaugurated by Philip II of Spain, like, way back.

Yes, UNAM is one hell of a big place.

Tuition is virtually free: 20 centavos - 30 centavos (C$0.12 - C$0.18) per course. It has been this way since the revolution. The idea being, entry is based on academic standards not family resources.

We have had three architectural design sessions so far. There are about 15 students from many parts of the Americas: mostly from Mexico but also Latin America, Argentina, Canada.

Anyway the first session was about getting to know each other. Julio set a project to design and individual sleeping space to be presented at the next session. Also we were to discover an urban space and report on it.

The weekend following, Jim, his friend Carlos, and I spent Saturday investigating, on foot, Centro Nacional de las Artes; Plaza Frederico Gamboa, Chimalistac; Parque Bombilla and Plaza San Jacinto, San Angel. All are in various parts of Coyoacan. I was the only one who seemed to think CNA had any architectural merit. Jim and Carlos are interested in Colonial and post-colonial urban space. Accordingly they have chosen to investigate Plaza San Jacinto for their class project.

Next session was presentation time of the sleeping space project. Now Julio’s approach to architecture is very similar to mine: i.e. architecture is a sensorial experience arrived at by technical means. And that was reflected in the presentations.

Actually, and I must tread very carefully here, I was not exactly impressed because I am judging the students on the level of graduate school in Canada. Things are not the same here and I haven’t quite got the hang of the educational order. So, as I say, I have to be careful.

Generally speaking, the verbal presentations were very good: the students have a personal presence and are confident. However their graphics left me wondering, and their sense of architectural space, form and structure is not well developed.

Jim explained to me how students study in high school what we do in the first three years of university and are qualified to enter UNAM as, well, graduate students. So in reality Mexico graduate school isn’t quite the same as Canadian graduate school. By next alligator report I’ll have a better understanding of the hierarchy and let you know.

Anyway, the next project is to research and existing public urban and at the last session I lectured on the paper I have written, ‘Espacio Publico Urbano de Mexico.’

Okay, the lecture. Why not?

Before the lecture Jim invited me home to his house for supper. This is the second time I have eaten at his home but the first time in daylight. We had spent the afternoon looking at architecture in the downtown and picking up some techie stuff he needed.

Jim lives with his aunt in Coyoacan. His is the first gracious mexicano home I have been in. Before going home we delivered some stuff to his other aunt who lives in the Pedregal, a very gracious residential area build on a volcanic deposit, close to UNAM. I didn’t go in, assuming Jim would just pop in: which he did. But his aunt came out and asked the obvious, why didn’t I come in? Next time I will for it looks like a very beautiful house and garden from what little I could see.

Anyway, Jim’s home in Coyoacan cannot be seen from the street. But the large wooden doors that open to the car yard are a delight in themselves. The residence, itself, forms a ‘U’ shape surrounding a patio at the back, a garden beyond the patio and the car yard, which is just as beautiful as the garden.

Once in the courtyard, stone, stucco and bougainvilleas set the scene. Inside the ambience is of a family very interested in original art.

Back to UNAM. At the last session Julio told the students, who can generally speak ‘ingles’ very well, their professional literature is in ‘ingles’ so the sooner they get the hang of it the better. Indeed, later I found out that a requirement of entry is a working knowledge of ‘ingles.’ That made life easy for me because I didn’t have to reel-out my ‘pigin’ espanole: which I do when I have to!

So, I came prepared with a model, to better explain my points, and copies of my lecture, 5,000 words; 20 illustrations, to hand out. And Julio didn’t show up. No matter this isn’t the first time I’ve done this and the students were polite, interested and co-operative. Of course I delivered ‘en ingles’ because my mind was running faster than my mouth and the students seemed to follow.

So all told we had a very enjoyable evening: listening to one another and discussing ideas. A few of us stayed late going over their work and sketch-books: a very important element in a students’ repertoire because it shows if they are living their work or just fulfilling class assignments by rote. And on closer inspection I could see that two or three of them clearly had a developed understanding of architectural design principles.

Next week the students present their views on the urban spaces they have been researching. That should be interesting.

If Julio doesn’t want to show up for the remainder of the term I can manage. But I’d like to listen to him too. He’s a good profesor and has some good ideas to share.

Gustavo’s mother, Maria Elena Lavin Espinosa is an acuerela artist. She is having an exhibition of her work on March 11. I will be there.

One Saturday afternoon we visited the Galleria Nacional de Acuerelas in Coyoacan. On the way we passed the residence of the former Presidente de la Republica Miguel de la Madrid. His place was obscured by a high wall of volcanic rock and swarms of soldiers. I’m not so sure mexicanos like their presidentes, past or present, otherwise why such heavy, and I mean heavy, security?

It brought to my mind the level of security a Canadian head of state can expect when he retires: at best a remote office, desk acreage before him, in some humongous law office, on the fiftieth floor of a glass tower in downtown Montreal or Toronto. He would be well guarded by a couple, at most, secretaries be-decked in false eyelashes. Come to think of it secretaries are more formidable security than soldiers, n’est pas?

I digress. Later Maria introduced me to one of the best seafood restaurants I have ever eaten at. It is in Coyoacan just off Plaza Hidalgo. On the weekend you are lucky to find a seat. I say seat, not table, because, typically, we sit at long communal tables facing one another, which pretty well compels you to talk to the stranger sitting across from you. And that is not so bad. But the food, well, it is something to write home about. It’s inexpensive, too: walk away after ‘filetes, mixta mariscos y cervesa’ and you are light only M$120 (C$21.00).

And by the way I read that Ciudad Mexico now rates in the top ten most expensive cities in the world and I believe it: with third world salaries to boot: and I believe that too.

Oh, and talking of past presidentes. I digress once more. Luis Echeverria was on the hot seat the other day. Vancouverites may remember his smiling presence at the Habitat conference in 1974. I do. I met him. Anyway, remember the Diaz Ordaz inspired massacre of protesting students at Tlatelolco in 1968? Some say thousands were gunned down by the army. The official count is a few dozen. In any event it was a sorry day for the human race.

Well, there is an official investigation going on as to who was really responsible. It turns out Echeverria was the secretary to the government at the time and the chosen successor to the presidency. Indeed, he was interrogated last week about his involvement. But, as The News reported, ‘no one could pin the old fox down.’ He evaded every question. Even if he is culpable there is no mexicano law to bring him, or anyone else, to justice for such officially sanctioned crimes. Still it would be a healthy move forward to reveal the truth: so it won’t happen again.

Last weekend Maria, who is a retire schoolteacher, took me to Xochimilco to a teachers’ re-union. Maria, by the way, cannot speak a word of ‘ingles,’ but we seem to manage. It was held in a thin shell concrete restaurant designed by Felix Candela. First we all crowded into one of the famous ‘chalupas,’ colourfully decorated, punt-like, flat-bottomed boats, that take tourists around the floating gardens.

Actually there isn’t much to see of any gardens today. The water level has dropped so drastically, like two metres, that it is impossible to see beyond the banks of what is essentially now a muddy ditch crowded with other ‘chulapas.’

But no matter her compatriots were very generous with the tequila, which flowed much more clearly and copiously than the waters beneath us.

Then safely ashore, under the shelter of Candela’s shells, we dined, drank and danced until we were too tired to go home. But we did! I was a bit too inebriated to go on any more.

The following day we were alert enough to participate in a family gathering at Gustavo’s home for her birthday. Everyone was there: Tomas, Gustavos’s brother who works for Banco Serfin in Santa Fe, his wife Bertha, and their two ninos, Priscilla and Tomas. Gustavos’ sister, Patricia, a dentist with her practice close to where I live in Centro, too, with her son Rodriques. We ate, barbecue style or as it is called here, charcoal style, in the garden.

The actual house, Gustavo’s that is, fronts on to the street with a metal door behind which is the car yard. Across the yard we enter the ground floor living area, quite small, comprising entrance with powder room, living - dining area and kitchen. All very compact. Up stairs are the bedrooms, I assume: I haven’t been up there. The living - dining area is open, separated by glass sliding doors, to the garden. Quite small, but sufficient, the garden is closed in by high walls, private from the neighbours.

His home is convenient to Metro Nativitas. So I am able to Metro and walk there under my own steam. Public transit is one of the great things about Ciudad Mexico. Yet everyone seems to prefer driving.

Elizabeth drives a lot but not when she is with me. She speaks very good ‘ingles’ despite having had no practice, she says, for many years. I try to keep the conversation ‘espanole’ for selfish reasons but sooner or later we both tire.

We have been doing a bit of investigating around the city on weekends, restaurants that is, together!

Elizabeth is a secretary working for Pemex. That is the big state oil company: The Mexican government derives 37% of its revenue, much of it foreign revenue, from Pemex. She has been there fifteen years and would like a rest. She lives in Satelite: car commutes to work every day.

Some times I meet her at her Pemex office. Wow, the place is huge. Actually it is a campus of towers. The official Pemex tower can be seen, with its communications technology crenellating its profile, from anywhere in the city but that is only a part of it.

Elizabeth works in another, smaller accompanying tower. Quitting time is 4.00 pm. Every one spews out at once. The traffic snarl is deadly. Elizabeth will hazard the traffic except on Fridays when it is . . . well . . . a hell of a lot worse than the Lions Gate Bridge at that time. Sundays she leaves the car at home and we meet early on the Plaza de la Constitution and walk or ride the Metro, pesaros and taxis. It makes for a more relaxing date.

I asked Elizabeth if she is ambitious about work. She is not because getting ahead in Pemex means, according to her, working all night and marrying the company. That is a far different story to the one Jim tells me. He says it’s a massive bureaucracy pretty well beholden to itself. Every one is over paid and under worked. Pemex is Mexico, he says. It represents everything that is retarded about the country. It should change but probably wont.

Quite different stories. One from the inside, the other from without.

A, ha! Elizabeth just phoned to confirm. Tomorrow, Sunday, we spend the day exploring Palacio de las Bellas Artes.

Roger Kemble
Hotel Isabel
Centro Historico
La Ciudad de Mexico DF.