May 31, 1998.



There’s a bit of a commotion going on outside my window: well before 5 am! What’s going on? It’s the army! No, cadets are congregating for one of many mexicano’s military celebrations. The cadets are, essentially university students serving their social service, a requirement of graduation: actually it is called ‘servicio militaire nacional.’

Dozens of parked, camouflaged army trucks contrast hundreds of youngsters colourfully be-decked in black uniforms slathered in gold braid and red trimmings. After muster they line up and march off at the beat of drums to . . . where ever the hell - the zocalo, I guess.

Of course! It is ‘cinco de mayo.’ This is the day, in 1862, of the battle of Puebla. A rag-tag bunch of ‘indigenas’ defeated a well-organized French army who had come to collect debt denied by the newly independent nation of Mexico.

Later, on the zocalo, whatever happened, happened before I got there. ‘El presidente’ had, evidently, addressed the cadets at some ungodly hour. ‘El presidente’ of course gave a boilerplate speech exhorting them to, if necessary, give their lives for their beloved Mexico. Never, he promised, will the army be used against mexicanos. He went on to say how important the army is in defending this beloved republic from out side invaders.

My cynical mind then went on to conjecture, what out side invaders? The US? The US is already here in force! Belize? Guatemala? Or maybe an assault of a massive armada of ships from some mis-begotten enemy like . . . who would bother?

No, trust me, the pip-squeak army is to be used against it’s own. It, with the navy, is advertising aggressively for recruits at an expense that makes me wonder, can’t this land of intractable debt and falling peso find something better upon which to spend its ill-managed wealth? And many of my mexicano friends are asking the same question!

Oh yeah, one other rationalization. The army is to wage war against drugs. The US is supplying massive material aid in what appears to be a losing cause. Using the drug issue to build up the army is just an excuse to militarize the country. For every one tells me we are in the midst of the second Porfiriato and we all know the culmination to that era.

No, the only threat from the outside comes not from any external wayward military armada but from that catchy phrase ‘globalization.’ And no one is more enthusiastic in facilitating the potential of such an incursion than ‘El presidente’ himself. If the international currency speculator George Soros had the whim, with a press of a button he could put Mexico in financial subservience. He doesn’t need an army. This fact, ‘El presidente’ doesn’t seem able to grasp.

Actually ‘El presidente’ is no ass-hole. Rather, he cunningly understands his role as proxy to world consumerism. Proxies don’t make decisions in the world of consumerism. Economic determinism does. So, so long as ‘El presidente’ maintains his privilege all is well: for him!

Also, ‘El presidente’ is whining because of the international backlash against expelling foreigners he accuses of meddling. 134 Italian peace observers defied government orders to keep away from some of the independent communities in Chiapas. He complained, foreigners are casting his government as and “authoritarian dictatorship.” Well, waddaja no!

“The Italian group said they intend to go before the European Parliament and denounce what they have called grave violations of human rights that have occurred against the indigenous population of Chiapas . . .” (The News, May 11).

Monday, May 4, published a comment on Chiapas from (The Rev.) Alan Reynolds of Richmond B. C. He wrote, how the conflict in Chiapas affects even remote Canada. He is right. But not in the way he thinks. For if, indeed, there was an independent pan-Mayan state your early morning fix of cafe-latte would surely skyrocket.

“Meanwhile, the Observers Commission of Canada returned to their country, Sunday, with the impression that the government is doing everything necessary to combat the problems of poverty and marginalisation in its communities . . . Canadian Ambassador to Mexico Stanley Gooch said . . . Mexico is a great country and expressed his confidence that its current problems would be solved soon. He added that Canada is hoping to strengthen commercial ties soon with Mexico.” (The News, May 11).

That is what Chiapas is about: sea-level canal to move oil, luxury chocolate manufacturers Callibault Hermanos to exploit an abundant supply of cocoa, coffee and sugar. Lumber in the Lacondona. Much, much, more. Chiapanecos are not up against the Mexican government or the army. They are up against a proxy. And that’s hard to beat because it’s all about you and me! And that button!


The beltway rag here, featured an article, “Latinos View United States As Violent Enigma.” “What I do not understand,” it quoted of a mexicano businessman, “ is why the United States, people who seem meek (a remark, I find baffling!) commit horrendous crimes without any justification at all.” (The News, Sunday, May 3).

What I do not understand is, what doesn’t the mexicano businessman understand. People do what they do given the circumstances. And a mexicano, good God, given his country’s history and social state, should be the last to wonder.

Still the article got me wondering about other people’s opinions of . . . yu’ no’ . . . other people. Specifically, I got to thinking, what do I think of Mexico and mexicanos. I must say, after more than a year, I just do not know. Really, they are just like us with one exception: they are totally different!

Another snippet got me wondering. Reading, I came across Stan Persky eulogizing Octavio Paz. Stan gushed on about poetic love: the usual platitudes and road-kill. But his eulogy doesn’t stack up with the Paz of here: the poet is a tamed toady, at M$40,000 monthly, paid by a grateful and ruthless government so long as he ignores reality! Don’t ask me! Ask mexicanos!

Whatever I have read about Paz and Fuentes here they are usually bragging about their nefarious exploits in Paris or London, long, long ago. How that gives them license to represent the ‘alma mexicano’ escapes me!

My point, of course is, not what Persky thinks but how opinions can differ for different reasons. The difference between the Italian peace observers observations, on Chiapas, and Ambassador Gooch’s for instance.

So I want to tell you about my wonderful mexiano family. My opinion is, of course, gushing. But I’ll just describe the facts because being overly flattering may be condescending.

Gustavo, his mother Maria-Elena, daughter Abril and I, I have introduced them to you before, went off on an excursion into darkest Morelos, a state southwest of DF last week. Maria-Elena has a piece of property there: we went to check it out.

The day always starts with Maria-Elena and I talking over cappuccino at restaurante California.
Maria-Elena Lavin Espinoza
After, we piled into her red Volkswagen bug, all four of us, and headed south through those densely frightening concrete block barrios. It was hot, dry and hazy.

This countryside is just one step from being a barren desert. But the pueblo of Milpa Alta is known for cultivating ‘nopales.’ Nopales are the flat, oval, green and prickly cactus plants everyone identifies Mexico with. They need little water. Evidently they are very nourishing and a staple on any mexicano table. Surprisingly the Japanese have a taste for them, too.

We pass through Yautepec and Cuautla, two small towns, dominated by the colonial church, living off truck stops. The road becomes more and more bumpy but Gustavo assures me we haven’t seen the worst. Indeed, we haven’t for as we close in on the border of the state of Puebla it all but disappears.

But at last we are at the environmental development of Montecarlo. We stop for refreshments and Abril takes a dip in the lake just below a rubble irrigation dam built, Maria-Elena tells me with disgust in her voice, by then ‘presidente’ Miguel de la Madrid. Some few miles past the lonely ‘club de golfe’ and the one or two isolated ‘casas’ is Maria-Elena’s ‘tierra.’ All the way we have been chasing iguanas.

But first we stop at the isolated (it has electricity, water and a septic tank) ‘casa’ of Miguel for he will guide us to the actual spot. Of course we have to walk: the . . . er . . . road continues but it would do lots of damage to the car.

Now, here we are at Maria-Elena’s ‘tierra.’ We’ve been driving, walking and talking for about four hours. We are on the top of a rise, dust and stones beneath, metallically bright over-cast sky above and all around us very prickly, sharp as razors, scrub bushes, that Miguel assures us will be a sea of green in ‘junio.’ There are the occasional massive organ-pipe cactus too.

Miguel tells us water is available, drilling only 15 metres, even now at the end of this unusually dry season. Mexico, this spring, is experiencing its worst drought in history.

Wow, what a beautiful place. The silence is audible! Isolated yes! But tranquil, far from the pandemonium of DF. We conjecture on the possibility of building: plenty of stone available in-situ. Laminated asbestos for the roof is light, easy to transport. So are the few other materials: plumbing, electrical etc. But Maria-Elena is impatient, paying taxes, and she is open minded about its future. Gustavo isn’t!

Driving back to civilization is straightforward but we take the odd wrong turn. There simply is no recognizable landmark. The hills, the stones, the bush and occasional organ-pipe look all the same to this uninitiated eye. Once on the way to back Cuautla, however, we stopped at a roadside restaurante for ‘carne, nopales, tortillas y frijloes y refrescos. Claro!’ Home at about 7.00 pm.

Then, 08 de mayo is mother’s day. It is also the long forgotten ‘dia de santo Isidro.’ Santo Isidro was, still is to some extent, venerated by campesinos to ensure success of their crops. Well, now urbanization has turned santo Isidro into mother’s day. Oh, how things change!

We all went to Tomas’s and Berta’s apartment to celebrate the occasion. Tomas is Gustavo’s brother. They live in Tlalpan in the southern part of DF, not far from the massive fot-bol Azteca Stadium where all the greats, Pele, Maradona, at some time or another, played. We approach their apartment block through a lush garden flowered by every tropical plant, bush and tree I can imagine. Maria-Elena named them but, well, my mind was on the visuals.

No elevator, we climb four flights to enter through a carved wooden door. Throughout the afternoon every one arrives. Tomas (11) and Priscilla (12), Tomas’s and Berta’s ninos, are of course at home; friends Carlos and Rosina with their three, Nadia (9), Rodrigo (1.5) and Carla (6): Renee and Hortensia with theirs, July (9) and Rene (5). Gustavo, Maria-Elena and I take-up empty spaces in the, not small, but well occupied by the Sunday afternoon crowd, apartment. We had fun.

Yes, the apartment was crowded with furniture too. Especially prominent was the huge carved wood dining room suite: eight chairs, table and sideboard. Gustavo, as a ‘profesor’ of industrial design at UNAM, is philosophically a design minimalist. His brother Tomas certainly doesn’t follow his aesthetic leanings!

The big thing on this day, though, is ‘Pozole.’

‘Pozole’ is a kind of very bulky soup. It simmers on the stove for hours with pork, maize and other unidentifiable ingredients. Mine was served natural colour but for others it was red: lotsa ‘piquante.’ But that is only the beginning. Before eating grated lettuce, radish and other vegetables are ladled on. Then it is eaten with the usual tortillas. Everyone ate gallons, or was it tons. That is the done thing on ‘en la dia de la madre.’

That wasn’t the end of it. As is the custom ladies congregated in ‘la cocina’ talking about everything and we men congregated around the dining room table, sipping tequila, talking work and politics: especially berating the ubiquitous corruption. Occasionally one would retire to the hammock strung out on the balcony.

And of course the kids, all of them were off in the bedroom playing together and yes, quite, quiet, quiet. For a few minutes before she ate Rosina held little Rodrigo until he was ready to be on his own. Even after, not a peep. In Victorian England the word was, kids shall be seen and not heard. In Mexico, in my limited experience, they are neither seen nor heard.

Last Sunday Maria-Elena treated me to my favorite ‘restaurante mariscos, Jardin del pulpo’ (Octopus garden) in Coyoacan. The ‘vuelve de vida y pescadito’ (bowl of every sea food imaginable with a strip of fried filet of fish) washed down with ‘cervesa corona’ is delicious! In August I will return the favour.


Let me introduce you to the urban design class of 1998 in ‘el posgrado escuela del collegio de arquitectura, UNAM: -’
The Class. Let’s see now.
L to R. Top: Barbara, Leticia, Julio, Carmen, Jim, Carlos H., Me,
Lower: Alejandro G., Alejandro P., Adriana, Luis, Mauricio

Professor Julio Obscura, from DF, and students: Adriana Quirogoa Zoloaga, from DF; Alejandro Guzman Ramirez, from Leon; Alejandro Perez Cruz,, from DF; Barbara Mendoza Moya, from Jalapa; Carlos Mesta Fernandez, from DF; Carlos Marcelo Herrera, from Buenos Aires, Argentina; Carmen leon de la Barra, from DF; Genaro Pa'ez Pimental, from DF; Jim Hamalainen Reynoso, from Vancouver, B. C; Jose Luis Lizarraga Y, from Mazatlan; Leticia Azucena Ascencio Cervantes, from Guadalajara; Marco Antonio Ortega Rodriguez, from Pachuca; Mauricio Miguel A. Gonzales, from Puebla; Remco Doolar, Amsterdam, Holland; y Rosalba Ruiz Tellez, from DF. Sound exotic? Well, they are just people like you and me: polite, hard working and attentive.

One or two goofed-off but isn’t that life at any U? At UNAM the goofers-off have names: ‘poros’ are students who register, never turn-up and don’t do any work. ‘Mientras a caso,’ are students, usually women, who attend while waiting to get married. I don’t know if I had any in my class and I don’t care. Most worked very hard

So, what did we do? Well, Profesor Obscura was in charge but he was so busy with his practice he occasionally had to leave things to me. I sort of hung around to give what help I could. Actually, I did a little more than that! Indeed, because Julio was busy designing a department store in Chicago, the thrust of the studies were set by me.

But first let me tell you about the lecture I gave at the ‘posgrado’ festival at the end of April. It was quite a riot! Typically UNAM, everything was chaotic. I was hoping for a translator but, oh no! The actual venue wasn’t much either. Not so much a lecture hall as an areas set aside so the public and other wanderers could drop in: noisy, acoustically wild, ‘mucho’ distractions. I followed what appeared to be a very serious lecture on the chemistry of the environment. Any way not to be daunted I plunged in to what turned out to be a small but very receptive audience.

My lecture was titled ‘The Canadian City’ - without consulting me. Well, that’s okay. If I don’t know the Canadian city I don’t know anything. Thinking back, although I had notes, I don’t really know what I said. I was concentrating so hard on my ‘espanole.’ I remember doing a few diagrams, my usual dog and pony show. But there were lots of questions after and it all, lasting two hours, went by in flash. The audience were very kind to me. I enjoyed myself and I have to assume everyone else did too.

So, now the class.

Julio set the first two projects: a very simple one to design our individual, ideal, sleeping space. Hey, come on Julio these are graduates. Lets get serious. And to my dismay the level of input was, well, not up to my expectations. So Julio obviously knows something about mexicano ‘posgaduados’ that I do not.

The next project was an assessment of an existing urban space of our choice. We could work in teams. And as I suspected the students hid behind slide presentations and talked, and talked and talked. This is a cop-out! This is a design class not research of old dilapidated, albeit beautiful, ancient plazas. I kept asking myself, is this graduate school?

Yes, it is! After questioning every one about their previous education, generally, the students have an educational history of, from 4/6 years old, kindergarten; 6/12 primary; 12/15 secondary; 15/18 preparatory (for U.); 18/23 as undergraduates. One or two students had years of office experience too.

Apparently undergraduates in the ‘collegio de arquitectura’ have some grounding in structures, properties of materials and building techniques. And only simple, single function, designs! They have no understanding of multiple-function complexes. Then, upon graduating they are registered architects.

Now I don’t expect entries to ‘posgraduado’ to be conversant in complex design problems. I do, however, expect them to be ready for that level of work! Anyway, I suffered on and eventually came up with a project that would challenge and expand their imaginations. Julio graciously agreed. It was something I have been working on for years, one of my pet projects, adapted to the reality of Ciudad Mexico. “A city within a city” as Alejandro Guzman put it.

And God bless them they all (well . . . not exactly all) rose to the occasion magnificently.

Hipodromo Condesa is a complex urban neighbourhood close to Centro. Named after the earlier owner of the original hacienda, ‘La Condesa de Maravilla, its form is oval following the racetrack, that it once was. Avenidas Amsterdam and Mexico have taken the place of the erstwhile track surrounding 13 hectares of ‘Parque San Martin.’ Started in 1925 and, incrementally continuing up to today, its buildings vary from beautiful art-deco to Teodoro Gonzales’s very modern (completed last year) Casa Amsterdam.

I set the students to work on in-fill interventions. At first I had to do a bit of ‘animo,’ encouragement. Talent, creativity and risk: that was my theme.

Also, to show I wasn’t blowing wind I spent the whole holiday ‘semana santa’
My demonstration model.
(Easter) designing my own project, building a model and setting up presentations.

All the while I was keeping a record of our progress so Julio and I could compare notes for the final grade. I had no authority in UNAM to grade students. Not to worry everything turned out. We finished triumphantly with a few of us heading off for a celebratory glass of wine.

So, what do I think after all that? No, ‘la escuela posgrado en la collegio de arquitectura a UNAM’ is not up to, what I consider, post-graduate architectural standards. Notwithstanding I had four good students, Jim Hamalainen from Vancouver, Alejandro Guzman who had worked with Joe Baker at Laval, Alejandro Perez and Carlos Herrera from the Argentine. Note: all shared previous educational experience from elsewhere. Graduates from mexicano provincial universities are, well. . In my opinion . . . inadequately equipped. Aw, who cares? They’re getting there.

Oh yes, another anecdote about UNAM. I had ‘desayuno’ with the post-graduate historic restoration class last Sunday. We were supposed to tour a special building but the ‘profesor’ didn’t show ( ‘! es mexico!’ ). We were talking, yelling more like: we got so passionate (I’m surprised Sanborn’s didn’t kick us out), about the ‘catedral metropolitan’ which is held together by hi-tech scaffolding. My thought is that sooner or later a big decision will have to be faced: how much more money does Mexico throw at this albatross? Or is the money better spent on life today? Profora s Diane y Ana-Marie do not approve the questions!

Yet, while gangs of international compulsive sociopaths rip Mexico to shreds mexicanos wallow, indulgently, in a fantasy ideal of their past.


Okay, this is it.

Yup, I have come to the end of my Ciudad Mexico adventure. Wow, doesn't time fly. I planned a year. At one time I thought I might stay longer but . . . well . . .you know how it is: it's hot now - lot hotter than this time last year - and at heart I'm a kid from close to the Arctic Circle. Besides, there are other things to do. UNAM is the one thing that could have kept me but . . . er . . . don't tell anyone: it just isn't challenging enough.

Actually I am not at all sorry to be leaving: other than that I’ll miss all my friends. ‘El contaminacion’ is worse that it has ever been. With no rain it just mounts. Last year at this time it was much cooler. The rain, in absolute torrents every evening regularly, both cleaned and cooled the air. Not so now. I haven't seen Popcatpetl for months, from my window.

Blame everything on El Nino. Actually, it should be hotter on the coast where I am going but it my be a little less humid, which is great with me: hopefully no mosquitoes, damn them!

Still, other than faltering 'espanole' (I can hold my own but I cannot really speak it) the year has been, what with friends, UNAM, students and getting to know this place, successful beyond my wildest dreams. I'm happy. Don’t believe the horror stories. Ciudad Mexico is beautiful!

I'm leaving Hotel Isabel June 1 and returning August 15: e-mail blackout between those dates. So no more mail, snail-mail too, addressed here. I'll send regular post cards from the back-of-beyond so you will be able to keep-up with where I am. Family, I’ll phone!

I am heading off into the, for me, unknown (Dr. Livingstone, I presume?): Veracruz, Palenque, Bonampac, Yucatan, Belise, Copan, Honduras, San Salvador, Guatemala returning to DF via Chiapas and Oaxaca. Maybe farther south if it looks interesting. Actually, I’ve been to all those places before but so long ago I might as well be visiting for the first time.

I don't know why I do this other than since I'm here I may as well get to know a little more of Mexico and south. But I am filled with the same trepidation as when I came to DF last May. Horror stories abound. Still, they have proved to be essentially unfounded here so why worry about the rest of the country - that is my rationalization.

I’m going to try something new: like lay on a beach with a bottle of tequila. Hey, maybe I can rent a sail boat and mosie around Laguna de Terminos at Ciudad del Carmen on the Gulf coast. But most of all I am looking forward sipping chilled white wine, listening to the brass band on Oaxaca’s zocalo.

Anyway I will not be taking my laptop: it being a prime target for rip-off. And I want to travel a lightly as possible. I'm not even going to take my socks: yeah, it'll be hot and humid on the coast.

I'll have a couple of weeks, at the end of August, back at Hotel Isabel to buy some goodies and say adios. I’m really going to miss everybody. Alligator No. 14, 28 de agusto the last, will be an account of the, "the unknown (Dr. Livingstone, I presume?).”

C' ya all September.

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