APRIL 30, 1998.



Santa Semana, Easter week, the Casillas family very graciously invited me to accompany them on a visit to the ‘piramides.’ Needless to say, there are dozens of archaeological sites but everyone knows ‘el piramides’ as Teotihuacan.

Some of the others! When I was last here in 1976, they had just, inadvertently, discovered ‘El Templo Mayor’ by excavating the footings of a modern building next to ‘El Catedral Metropolitan’ on the Plaza del la Constitucion (the zocalo). That, and the remains at Tlatelolco are about all that is left of the great Aztec city on the island of Tenochtitlan dismantled, in the 1520’s, by Cortes to build his own city.

Teotihuacan is a very popular place to visit because it has been reconstructed, making it easy to understand the physical layout of this ceremonial city: the center of the Toltec empire from 900 to 1540 AD.

Anyway this isn’t a history lesson. I know very little about history and besides my truncated interest regresses no farther than Hidalgo, 1811 and independence.

Gustavo Casillas L. is a professor of industrial design in ‘el collegio de arquitectura’ at UNAM. Accompanying us on the visit was Maria-Elena Lavin Espinosa, his mum; Abril (6, who prefers to be called Aurelea) his daughter; Patricia, his sister and her son Rodriguez (9). We started out early and got back late. The day was hot, dry and dusty. But those two kids were as good as gold. Not a complaint or peep all day!

We headed north through Indios Verdes. In the marches of this city, between DF and the State, life must really be ugly: visibility limiting smog/haze, shanties, marginally more prosperous neighbourhoods emerging from being shanties, inevitable American commercialism hustling-out Mexican commercialism with the latter well in retreat. Traffic, traffic, traffic! There is no relief to the monotone concrete blocks, garbage, auto-parts, corrugated iron, mud and dust and indeed whatever material can be scavenged on the way: all so dense, cluttered and in chaos. And it’s worse in the south.

What with wrong turns and delays, asking directions, that went on for about an hour. La Ciudad is not sprawled out. It is just solidly compact. And of course for a stranger, like me, the overwhelming semiotics is ‘danger, danger, danger.’ Here Ciudad Mexico gets its bad reputation and I am the last to argue.

Teotihuacan, ‘el piramides,’ is entered through a modern reception complex, ticket wicket and restaurant.

Then the whole epic opens out to the ancients, that indelible part of the mexicano psyche: stones and bones. The layout is lineal, ‘el calzado del muertes’ (street of the dead) running north / south, about 3 km., with ‘el piramide del luna’ at the north end. ‘El piramide del sol’ is some where in the middle on the east side. All this orientation has some meaning but I don’t know what it is. Those who do and value its mysticism congregate in flowing robes at equinox and do their thing to placate the Gods up top.

Predominating the ambience is a hazy sort of burnt umber: the sky, the air, the stones, the ground. I don’t know whether contamination perpetrates this far (it probably does) but the impression is perpetual brown / red dryness: with a hot swirling wind to blow it all around.

Now I took a risk, at this point, to engage Gustavo in a brief discussion on why he reveres this past. They were so wise was his reply. And yet for all their wisdom my contrary mind couldn’t help ruminating the fact that even they fell head long into the same trap we are well into: demanding more from mother earth than she is willing to impart. Some wisdom in either case!

Well, we all got to the top of ‘el piramide del sol.’ That’s quite an achievement for it must be twenty stories high. The kids did it in a breeze. We lost Patricia briefly in the crowds but we soon reunited around the water truck. Wow, water is essential on a trip like this. Potable water, from the bowser, was dispensed fresh, inevitably warm, from taps into which we filled plastic bags from which we sucked that 80% of what we are.

After ‘comida’ in a wayside restaurant, fussed over in the usual mexicano style, we took a diversion to the Convent at Acolman. Oh boy what a relief.

Built in the 16th century by Benedictines,
This is the oldest ruinas in DF.
It is completely hemmed in by globalization!
the convent is classic early colonial. Massive stonewalls, judiciously placed small windows and a complex of interior courtyards: it is simple in contrast to the later ornate colonial churrigueresco. No need for modern mechanical cooling wizardry. Inside is a haven - tranquil, cool and mild. Modern architects could learn a lot from this. Yes, wisdom is certainly evident some where.

Another day, later, Maria-Elena and I visited Cuicuilco. In DF, it is on the southern periphery, Peri-Sur as it is known here, of UNAM. The ‘piramide’ at Cuicuilco, better known as the round base was last excavated in 1925. Reconstruction has not been carried out in the manner at Teotihuacan. Indeed, it is figuratively only a base, reputed to be 3,000 years old. Recent probes have indicated it could be much older.

At Teotihuacan, when I engage Gustavo in a conversation about why he revered the past I also asked him about the future. He is afraid of the future. That is reason enough to revere the past! And I can see why for Cuicuilco, although a valuable, nay sacred, site it is, nevertheless, inundated by the most grotesque modern piles of building material I have ever seen. Mindless isn’t the word. Blatant vandalism is more appropriate.

The site of the ‘piramide’ itself is a fenced off encroached-upon ‘ecological’ park: I suppose to give nominal obeisance to ‘heritage preservation.’ Yet it is completely hemmed in by glass chunks sticking up out of the ground: with no relationship to one another, certainly no relationship to the ancient site (which could, with sensitivity, be a wonderful value-adding asset) and no thought for the potential public urban space between the chunks that, also, could have had an enhancing value all around. Oh, and I nearly (purposefully) forgot, there is a commercial centre, Plaza Cuicuilco, made from an old paper factory reminiscent of the underlying, sentimental brutalism of Ghiaradelli Square, San Francisco.

Now, I have been an architect for fifty years, almost, and I know this is the result of impatience and thoughtlessness. If there is to be a future, there is no place for these ‘international, global, financial rag-a-muffin freaks’ that perpetrate this horror. Be it at Cuicuilco, or for that matter Santa Fe DF, or for that matter the North Shore of False Creek, Vancouver. No wonder Gustavo is afraid. No wonder mexicanos cling to a never-existed past. Such developments have no reason, socially, economically or even practically. All carry that, too familiar, stamp - mindlessness.


No, I haven’t owned a car since 1984. They are a damn nuisance. Everyone here owns one even though they are more constricting than convenient as most ‘capitolinos’ admit: people I know, for instance, are reluctant to drive in centro because of traffic snarls and ‘robos.’ Yet a car in Ciudad Mexico isn’t just transportation: a young buck would be hard pressed to get a girl friend without one. I prefer to be without one - anywhere!

My routine has, for years, been to plot walking tours. I’ll tell you about some here. Most are in the South East sector around Coyoacan and UNAM.

I met Jim Hamalainen Reynoso a couple of weekends
Jim Hamalainen Reynoso.
ago at my favourite seafood restaurant, Jardin del Pulpo (Octopus Garden), in mercado Coyoacan. After, we set off to survey the residential district between the restaurant, just about the geographic mid-point of Coyoacan, and Metro General Anaya on the eastern extreme: about 2km, half an hour, if we took the direct route along Calle Xicotencatl. but we didn’t, choosing instead to wind all over the place seeing everything: all afternoon.

Coyoacan, by the way, is a large ‘Delegacion,’ including Ciudad Universitaria, and extends 5km. east/west from San Angel, through Chimalistac to Churubusco and 6km. north/south from the Viveros-Coyoacan silvi-culture reserve to the southern extremes of UNAM at Cuicuilco.

Most of Coyoacan is residential: some parts very posh where Delores del Rio (a very famous 1940’s ex-Hollywood glamour girl) and ex-presidente Miguel de la Madrid live. We chose the less posh, the pre-revolution (1911-1917 +/-), route. Yet even then the residences are gracious, obviously the erstwhile homes of well off families. Apparently Jim’s favourite pass-time is dreaming of fixing-up these delightful latter-day architectural gems. And that is what we did.

The streets are narrow and winding, cobble-stoned. Wall-to-wall I‘d say the impressionable widths (they vary) are around 8m. But very quiet and very little traffic. Closed in by high walls the ambience succumbs to the heavy foliage of ubiquitous over-hanging bougainvillea and rooted Jacarandas. All are in bloom now and believe me they are a spectacle to behold.

Most of the residences are dilapidated, many un-occupied and in a very bad state of repair. It is, thus, possible to rubberneck behind the walls through the many failures in the masonry. And that, also we did. The density of these places is not as compact as they appear for always behind the walls are expansive courtyards, gardens surrounding the sprawling mansion: or even chunks of under-used real estate separating land titles.

Pre-Revolutionary architectural detailing, elsewhere it would be called Victorian, is typically ‘carpenter off-the-shelf,’ catalogue detailing. Maybe here it should be called ‘mason’s off-the-shelf,’ for although crafted wood is used, the basic structure is masonry.

They seldom rise higher than two stories: sometimes two with a Mansard attic. Yet they are festooned with Victorian ginger-bread all the way from verandas, balconies, porticoes to intricate architrave’s and columns: wonderful opportunities to carry out brightly coloured compositions with all the intricacies, as no doubt the originals were decades ago before weathering faded their impact and society turned its back.

Another walking tour. Last weekend Jim, his friend Lalo (Eduardo Perez Gonzales) and I spent the afternoon walking through Colonia Roma in the area surrounding Plaza Rio de Janeiro. Lalo is a graduate multi-media designer and Jim, although a registered architect is heading in that direction.

The buildings of Colonia Roma are, predominantly, also pre-Revolutionary and, of course Victorian gingerbread but large and more varied in their function. Colonia Roma is, to all intents and purposes, downtown and commercial.

And central to Roma is Plaza Rio de Janeiro, one of the pleasures of this much-maligned city. It is an arboreal, fountained haven amidst the bustle, more than bustle, the craziness, of this city. Right in the middle of the foliated square is a massive reproduction of Michelangelo’s David: wow!

After imbibing the requisite domingo cappuccino, by chance off a side street, we came upon an outstanding modern design. Well, of course, us all being in the design business we got talking. We even got talking to the point of drumming up the courage to ask if we could see inside. And we did!

It is a four-plex, with one remaining unit under construction: that we toured. We were at first attracted by the sparse geometric facade. Indeed, it is impossible not to notice. In contrast to gingerbread neighbours it is stark white smooth stucco punctuated by checkerboard, small rectangular windows. The outside just doesn’t match the inside. Who cares?

Inside is a symphony of spatial levels and sunlight. The obscure ground floor was for utilities and parking, with metal doors opening to the street. But once above that the whole place was awash in light. Three levels, living, dining, kitchen, sleeping, the whole shootin’ match, grow up from the ground floor each visible from the other with open mezzanine type exposures. The roof is just all glass and behind all this is a walled-in private garden with glass everywhere.

Hey, when you’re walking you don’t miss anything!

So much for modern architecture. There is no point talking of walking Ciudad Mexico without mentioning the ‘ambulantes’ (street vendors). They are ‘problematica’ according to the government. Yeah, get real! It’s the government that’s ‘problematica’ for if it were to really go introspective (My God am I joking? A liberal consumer democratic government introspective?) It would find the root of the problem.

And the root of the problem is that while it enacts legislation to inhibit uncontrolled urban growth it simultaneously enacts legislation that makes it impossible for these people to live as campesinos in the countryside. So what the hell else can these hordes do but come to town and try to scratch a living selling on the street, on the Metro, what they can?

Still, when I’m walking around I am amazed at how many empty building there are. It is the marches, the Indios Verdes, the periphery that is dense. The centre is like the proverbial hole in the do-nut.

Yup, old or new, large or small, residential or commercial ‘la ciudad’ is empty. Yet more stumps erupt (Cuicuilco, Santa Fe) every day, financed by off-shore itinerants, who obviously have more money than sense and everywhere these new . . . er, things, just like the old, are festooned with ‘se renta’ or ‘se venda.’ What is going on? Are these, ostensibly hotshot, global, international tycoons, stupid? Don’t answer!

Octavio Paz died on Sunday April 20. As ambassador to India he made a major statement of protest by resigning in 1968 when his government (secretary to the government Luis Echevarria) ordered troops to massacre hundreds (some say thousands) of students at Tlatelolco.

He wrote, evidently, the definitive examination of Mexicans in his 1960 book sized essay, “Labyrinth of Solitude,” in which he characterized Mexicans as hiding behind social masks. Or, he decided, and this caught on, that the Mexican inferiority complex is, indeed, a manifestation of loneliness.

Coincidentally Hugh McClellan wrote, “The Two Solitude’s,” at about the same time, referring to the gulf between the English and French, also finding loneliness in their hearts. Unlike Paz, though, he did not excuse the Canadian sense of inferiority (if indeed there is one). Hey, and that reminds, me the Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote “Cien anos de soledad.” All this solitude! When are we going to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start doing something about it?

I do not wish to comment irreverently about a national icon but if all he can say is that Mexicans hide behind social masks, he hasn’t met many other peoples. My God everyone hides behind social masks. It’s a defense mechanism that buys time until major decisions about further intimacy can be explored. However, I’ll read the book and keep you posted.

Judging by media coverage now that Paz is gone another icon is in the grooming. I have read Carlos Fuentes, not extensively, I am not a literary expert, but enough to wonder what all the fuss is about. For one thing when ever we read about him here he is off in the U.S. promoting his stuff. And for sure, and what I know, he writes for the North American market. Some potential Mexican icon!

And there is the other erstwhile icon, the now deceased painter Rufino Tamayo. Tamayo is ostensibly recognized as the continuing bearer of the visual dialogue between Mexicans started by three greats Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco.

In my opinion Tamayo’s work isn’t a shadow of the work of those three. Yes, it has a gently mystical quality of Mexican iconography. But essentially he struggled with painterly issues that have long ago been resolved in Europe by the impressionists. And as for social commentary, of which the three greats where renowned, he was mute. Then, he was an Oaxacan Indian making him impervious to criticism.

Thus, he, Fuentes, and I suspect Paz are typical, stamped, Grade ‘A’ government approved who’s work is safe enough for the established media to cover without risk of offending.

I find it kinda cute that all these exalted national icons, everywhere not only Mexico, wax eloquently about the foibles and beauties of human kind conveniently eulogizing away our kindly souls’ abuse of mother earth and ourselves.

And in this age of all consuming media-government ‘news-speak’ that is exactly what the artist and writer is not supposed to do.

Still, I suppose if you want to live in some kind of style in today’s world you have to give something up, like integrity, even if you are a writer or an artist. It is not like you will be imprisoned or ‘off’ed.’ Nothing so crude or Stalinesque is necessary. All that happens is that the dissident voice is . . . well, marginalized. It just doesn’t exist. Mind you that doesn’t mean the media doesn’t cover dissent but it is done in such a way (shaped and edited to fit the sound-bite or column space) so as to be sort of ‘honeyed over.’ And, besides, the great majority of consumers could care less anyway.


And this is what is happening to Obispo Samuel Ruiz. He is being . . . well, honeyed over . . . suffocated. Which brings me to Chiapas.

Since the uprising two major efforts have been made to bring peace to the region: the San Andreas Larrainzar accord signed between the government and the EZLN, January 1, 1994 and the on-going Conai, The National Mediation Commission, chaired by Obispo Samuel Riuz.

Furthermore Presidente Zedillo has vowed his government will not resort to violence and, indeed, the army’s presence in Chiapas will be reduced. He has also vowed to up-hold the constitution by expelling foreigners who meddle in national affairs, referring, of course, to Chiapas.

Well, the San Andreas accord is history. I never cease to be amazed at how readily we allow our governments to waft away discomfort.

And now Conai is being accused by El presidente of being biased. In response to that latter accusation Obispo Ruiz stated, “Mediation cannot be impartial to injustice, to the truth, to inadequate games or to different ways to express oneself . . . if that affects one side more than another, it is only a consequence of the situation.” (The News, April 26, 1998).

As for reducing the presence of the army. Many of the meddling foreign observes who are being expelled report that the army’s numbers have recently increased by 10,000 pip-squeaks. Furthermore those same observers claim U.S. military equipment, designated for the war on drugs, is being used to carry on the offensive.

Actually El presidente doesn’t need to resort to violence when he has well-organized local goons ready to do his dirty work. That is what happened at Acteal. What is it officially called? “Plausible denial.”

This whole Chiapas affair seems to me to be intractable: an irresistible force impacting an immovable object. The EZLN wants independence for many municipalities. How independent is, so far as the government is concerned, not up for debate. I have heard that there is a pan-Mayan movement to create a new country across all the Mayan territories: Chiapas, Belize and Guatemala.

Obispo Ruiz is doing his best to protect the interests of his ‘indigena.’ And even though I believe history is on the side of devolution, in order to get there western consumerism is going to want a lot of blood. World wide liberal consumer democracy, for that is what the ‘indigena’ are essentially facing, is a pretty aimless entity. When it wants it wants and anything that gets in its way is well . . . good-bye yellow brick road.

Chiapas isn’t big the news, anyway. I have to read the small print to get it. And besides, not surprisingly, the current bunch of ‘national icons’ is too busy off in the States promoting themselves to make it an issue. The big news just now is the Italian designer Adrienne Vittadini visiting El Palacio Hierro with her new collection.

Oh well, it’s lunchtime. I’m off to eat at Cafe el Popular.

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