June 30, 1997.


It’s about people, mostly Mexicans, institutions and the effects they render: assuming I know something after a couple of months! Still, we are in the great era of globalization and Mexico wants what you have: ergo there is a levelling of everyone and everything.

A vain wish, for while you are losing it, they, sure as hell, are not going to get it.

July 6 there will be, what some call, an important election: for mayors, governors and the national assembly.

I got caught up in an astonishing event today. It’s Sabado and the PAN and PRD, along with the PRI leading political parties, are slugging it out on the zocalo in a day long, winner take all shouting match. It’s all very emotional.

First the church is celebrating some saint or another setting-off big-bang fireworks filling the sky from dawn to well after dark.

Hordes, from all over the country,
La Plaza de la constitucion: Lots and lotsa people!
flock to the zocalo: the centre of Mexico’s universe. Who knows how many people are here, but they keep coming waving their flags, sporting their respective colours and insignia. It’s a truly arousing sight, especially since many of them are so young.

And music literally fills Centro. I’m in my room with the door open, on the roof. The zocalo's about a mile away, hidden by lots of buildings, but music is everwhere, in massive volume. I may as well be in front of the amplifiers. It’s wonderful. Even the car alarms are out-noised.

The PRD had the first crack early in the morning. Blaring it’s support was a relatively moderate salsa band. After noon the zocalo was hit by PAN’s home-grown rock group. The place came alive. Obviously PAN is favoured by young voters. It literally pulsated with colours, flags, people, dancing, music and confidence.

Which brings into focus this old cynics caution. The whole affair was too much music and not enough content. Indeed, the whole event rang more of demagoguery than democracy. So long as Mexico over-weans it’s developing material wants the future will be decided by anonymous gnomes in hidden places.

Anyway, I’m voting PAN. I’m taken by the young dancers and their music.

Elections, anywhere, are like rolling over debt. After you’ve gone through the motions you’re still in the same position. Change comes about through ideas in confluence with historic events and natural phenomena. Politics follows!

So the politics and economics of this place is a re-run of what’s happened (and, incidentally, failed) elsewhere! In the new world order, don’t think international, think homogenisation!

Please excuse the rant. I needed to get that off my chest! Anyway who cares. I've fallen in love with this place!

Now for some stats. No one knows how big this city is. I believed, before I came, it was one of the largest, fastest growing cities in the world: and well it may be along with Sao Paulo, Brazil or Tokyo/Yokohama, Japan.

Best estimate at the moment, from the Canadian funded Fronteras Comunas, is that DF at 20 m, (unofficial reports claim 25m) with an additional 2 m in the immediate industrial surrounds. That’s still pretty big!

The median age is 25 with the average 15 (I find that hard to believe, but there it is!). Just walking around, this city is obviously a young people’s domain: lots of smooching on the streets and the Metro (ha, I wish!).

But such a young country is inevitably confronted with, how to educate, how to find work for all these youngsters? And with the older generations dirt poor, how to pay for it? I doubt those magic cure-all panaceas NAFTA and the markets, beloved so much by tenured economics professors (what do they know about competition?), hold out much hope: those are for the expense-account crowd.

NAFTA? In Mexico, along with privatisation, it is just a fortuitous opportunity for PRI friends to get into the cookie jar: Telephones, monopoly (service atrocious!); Television, monopoly; Cell-phones, monopoly. Conveniently forgotten in this mad dash for free trade etc. - it only works under a strict regime of regulation. Otherwise one guy ends up owning everything: stagnation.

How populations, the world over, have swallowed this nonsense, without one word of debate, defies democratic pretensions? Not one thought as to its consequences. Asi es la Vida!

Even the casual observer can see this is not a poor country. It is, rather, a poorly managed, exploited country! A local friend believes the PRI has its faults but over all it has given Mexico 60 years of peace. Given the preceding century of upheaval that is a common point of view. He, of course, forgets the 1968 student massacre, current events in Chiapas and Guerrero and, to quote Mexico City’s The News (June 22, 1997), “ the PRI . . . has largely ruined the country and, particularly its social institutions.” Don't expect much better from the PAN, PRD etc. They face the same circumstances, motivated by the same forces! Modern government must do more than keep the peace!

The IMECA (ozone) reading is hovering around the 200 mark again (100 being acceptable). A law requires cars with certain licence numbers to alternate: theoretically reducing the number of moving vehicles by half, ergo reducing pollution. So, everyone buys two cars. Never under estimate the drive of homo-sapiens to destroy itself. Es muy facile!

Por un otro ejemplo, tambien! The garbage all these people generate? DDF officials report 11,400 tons of garbage is produced, daily, in the city alone. At least 500 tons are picked-up on major arteries, side streets and parking lots every day. (What about the stuff that isn’t picked up?). Nearly 48% is generated by residential households, 35% comes from commercial and industrial use and 13% is found in public areas.

That last bit confounds: picked-up? The experience of walking through those public areas, indeed the one unpleasantness, are the piles of rotting garbage. It isn’t evident in Zona Rosa or Centro Historico, but walk through one of the no-man’s land areas in between and wow! DDF reports 1,200 public spaces are found littered with garbage every day.

Believe it and just as a side-thought imagine the city has more than 12,000 civic public areas. Ciudal Mexico is known as the city of palaces. It should be called the city of plazas.

Everywhere you go there are green havens (albeit ravaged by pollution), gardens, trees, seating all the way from the Alameda, the zocalo, to little areas you come across walking. And always full of people: eating, selling or begging. If so many people are hanging around, and they are: that’s bad management. Why not put them to work cleaning up the garbage.

Can’t afford it? Get real! Many of the world’s richest people are Mexican: oil, gas, minerals, tourism, a mature manufacturing base and infra-structure, an educated population.

Traffic is probably the worst of bad management. The problem is confounded by the minion Canadian experts, among other peripatetic mal-advisors, that troupe down to teach Mexico how to replicate mistakes we made twenty years after we haven’t learnt ourselves: bad advice from foreigners begets bad land use; begets bad housing; begets congested traffic; begets piles of stinking garbage, begets . . .well, you name it.

Thank UBC’s own home-grown Centre for Human Settlements, that Liberal tax funded boon-doggle, for its minor contribution to that iniquity. And the powerful transportation union, along with the CTM (whose leader Don Fidel, close ally to the PRI, just died June 22 at 97) hasn’t helped.

All the management in the world though wont help the human tragedy I saw the other night.

In my exploring, research to be pretentious, I tend to stretch geographic limits. Each day I explore a new neighbourhood: extend the envelope, so to speak! Each night I stay out longer. What with all the horror stories I want to test the waters: carefully of course. At the same time I have to get to know this place!

Last night I visited the Merced District, one of the no-man’s lands.
Calle Santo Tomas: This ain't no courting game!
It’s a couple of Metro stops east and on the way are two very dense markets: stuffed with clothing, travel equipment and of course taco stands. The merchandise is poor quality: look closely and there it is, ‘made in China.’ It is also reported on the news as a problem (problem?) area for DF similar to Mount Pleasant in Vancouver but greater in magnitude, obviously. I’d read about it in Mexico City Times so I thought I knew what to expect.

It was just past dusk. I was walking along the main east west Calle San Pablo, about a half hour walk from Centro Historico, when I saw a crowd in a back street: Calle Santo Tomas. Is this a street show, a cock-fight or what? All men? From the street it appeared so. No women . . .well! So it had to be violent, I wondered!

Yeah, it was violence all right. But not what I expected.

The street was narrow, not for vehicular traffic, yet more than pedestrian only. The crowd blocked the street: men, maybe two, three hundred, all ages but of one evident social class, lined the side walks and crossed the road to form an elongated circle: in fact a parade ground.

What I saw is a derivative of the traditional courting ritual practised in more innocent Mexican rural towns. In, Merida, Tehuantepec or San Cristobal, for instance, out on a mild Domingo evening, families walk, circling the zocalo to the strains of the brass band, showing off their sons and daughters, with a specific purpose.

No brass band played in Merced. But there was a purpose and it wasn’t to show-off the kids.

It was strictly business, for when I joined the circle I discovered the men were watching, appraising, about two or three dozen women, strutting their stuff, showing off the merchandise.

The men, scruffy, in jeans and open shirts, common attire, looked distracted: maybe, a bargaining technique! The women varied, but were pathetic: a very sorry sight. They paraded, inside the circle, with an air of defiance attempting, I suppose, to maintain a modicum of dignity: while being evaluated as livestock.

Because the men feigned disinterest some women, as they passed, brushed a hand along a likely prospect.

I saw no deals. Where do they go? What do they do? How much do they charge? I don’t want to know! I’ll tell you one thing, for sure. It was not an arousing spectacle. I felt no sense of desire. All I felt was a sense of human tragedy.

That’s only a part of Merced. Lining the streets, in every direction, women stand ready to give a jerk-of-a-nod to any eye they catch. There are thousands. Competition must be bestial. But hey, this is the free market working at its best!

Mary Basic (ex-pat Vancouverite) wants me to show her.
Mary and I in the Hotel Isabel lobby
No way, I’d be testing my luck!

Class and prestige play an important part in a Mexican’s life. No where is this more evident than comparisons between the Zona Rosa and Centro Historic. I don’t think I’d make it (if I ever got a chance) with the up-siders.

I mean, if you’re a corporate expense-account suit I suppose the Zone Rosa is, well, okay! It’s not a shopping place, though. You can get much better styles, for less, on Robson. Rents are ridiculous: US$4,000 and up for lousy apartments in an earth-quake zone.

Anyway, I’m paying my own way so I live in Centro Historico. Neither did I come from Vancouver for Dunkin’ Doughnuts, McDonald’s, Arby’s or a lousy Haegen Daz one-scoop cone at C$5.00 a shot.

There is something profoundly banal about people living high off expense accounts here and penny pinching to pay the mortgage at home! I guess it’s a matter of whose money!

Yes, the 1985 earth-quake hit the zone badly. It was latterly developed, built on the old lake-bed. The footings are shaky. The ground turns to Jell-O at the slightest tremor. In 1985 the epicentre was 250 km away. It was the footings (or lack thereof), not the quake, that caused the damage.

Even today empty buildings abound. Possibly because of demolition expense. Look closely, concrete frame failures and exposed re-bars are evident. Some day those things are going to come tumbling down.

Zona Rosa is pretty varied, though. It has the Sullivan Arte Plaza, among other things. Every Sunday afternoon hundreds of artists display their work: mostly easel painting. On one occasion a very accomplished lady contralto took over the central area singing to a tape recorded orchestra (no, not karaoke). A very sheepish young girl (no doubt her daughter) worked the crowd selling cassettes.

Centro Historico fared well in 1985. Essentially it is built on the site of the original Tenochtitlan, the solid island upon which the Aztecs built their city; and later Cortez. Much of Centro dates from the last century with many of the larger building, Correo Major, Palacio de la Belles Artes, built during the Porfiriato, Presidente Porfirio Diaz’s reign spanning the few decades of the turn of the century and, incidentally, the cause of the revolution.

Little, or nothing, exists of pre-Cortez Tenochtitlan. He used the magnificent temples as quarries to build his new “great” city. All that remains is a bit of re-constructed rubble, Templo Major, just east of the Metropolitan Cathedral.

And Cortez’s “great” city was inundated by a massive flood in the 17th century.

Apart from being possibly the safest place to be in an earth-quake Historico is an incredibly interesting place to live. Everything goes on here. Why it has such a bad reputation, of crime, noise, smells, poverty, crowds, beats me? All of the aforementioned exist all over DF, and no less in the posher parts!

Historico has a texture of people all the way from, apparently, the richest to the poorest. Hotels Li ka-Shing wouldn’t shy away from, beggars and just below my window (it’s about noon) a seven piece brass band plays a local shanty the Tijuana Bass would be pleased to own.

And it’ll take me a life time to sample the restaurants: damn it I’m trying. The streets and people are like a complicated work of art. The more I look, the more I discover.

Yesterday I saw the most elegant, beautiful women I can ever remember seeing. She was a delicate, very tiny, Asian beauty shading herself
The beautiful asian lady
on the Zocalo.
with her parasol, walking daintily across the zocalo. She is of some upper class caste, I conjectured: concubine to some ghastly rich international trader, no doubt! So, with neighbours like this who cares about the suits in Zona Rosa.

The other extreme is Merced.

The Arte y Cultura programme on Canal Once shows more of Historico than it does other “in” places. Architecture is well covered. Local architects, usually the same faces, are interviewed about everything from the latest fad to traffic.

My espanole es pocito so I must not attempt a definitive opinion. Architecture, I can follow from the pictures. But I am at a loss to figure out what worth an architect’s opinion may be on traffic, other than that he’s probably in it most of his life. When all is said and done, as architecture currently stands, as it is taught in the universities, even at UNAM, all architects do is dig holes, fill ‘em with concrete, pile building materials on chunks of real estate, go on telly and talk!

Indeed, expressing such negative opinions on the profession that has been good to me may look somewhat distasteful. My intention is not denigrate half a century of my own participation. But something is very wrong with architecture, even Mexican architecture!

I don’t want to condescend, Mexican architecture and architects can hold their own without help from me: they do good work. Those exceptional works are, though, isolated events, created in a vacuum, totally outside the scope of everyday life. Beautiful as they may print in colour they are insignificant. Despite a photographer’s talent it is possible to walk through, and past, them and be lost to their impact!

But these spectacles are more insidious than that, for they give the impression, at least as coloured photographs, architecture is alive and well, when it is not. For the one or two genuinely creative works there are millions upon millions of thoughtless contraptions inflicted on the natural and urban environments. A few charismatic practitioners give licence to minions of corporate pompous non-entities who get away with murder.

Here, as in Canada, there is an ongoing, incomprehensible cultural dialogue encouraging this isolation: oblivious to general access. As an urbanist I find this puerile. A segmented culture is incomprehensible: no culture at all. Yeah, something is wrong with architecture the world over!

Caballito’s work, a sculptor much favoured officially, is often featured on Canal Once and, so far as I’m concerned, open to the same commentary. Diego Rivera’s work isn’t incomprehensible. Noteworthy for its lack of originality, it is all over the place: massive welded iron contraptions, bright primary colours, bearing the imprimatur of government approval, because, being spectacular, he has nothing to say. Put Rufino Tamayo on the same boat!

But not in the Zona Rosa! The Zona Rosa is the tourists choice and Polanco the local parvenu’s choice. But Coyoacan has to be THE choice. I have a friend, met her on the net surprisingly: M. She lives in Coyoacan (for Coyotes). Her family once owned the place.

M. desperately wants to get out of Mexico: she hates it. She wants to live in San Jose or Beverley Hills (why? ask me another!). She is very unusual. Most Mexicans are avid nationalists. Her ancestry is partly French which may explain her peripatetic longings. She’ll discover, though, wherever M. goes, M. will be waiting!

The other day we visited Coyoacan’s weekend market centre. I’m talking about the real out-door centre: not the God-awful, suit-created plate-glass, Centre Coyoacan.

The centre we visited is a series of connected open plazas, squares and gardens redolent in trees, greenery and blooming flowers and people eating tacos. Churches set the whole thing up and define the spaces. They are big and remarkable and would be cathedrals anywhere else.

The market is a mass of people selling the inevitable junk. M. calls it a hippie market - I don’t think so!

Lots of selling, though, not much buying (if you don’t include tacos). Colours, political rallies, music, noise, everything that brings a place alive: people, Indians, Mexicans, Guatemaltecans and, no doubt, many “from aways” like me if I could only pick them out. It is a market Mexico is famous for.

And indeed so are the precious metal markets: plata y oro.

Mexican artisans have a well developed penchant for wasting precious metal, especially gold. Gold vendors are concentrated in two areas in Centro Historico: on Isabel la Catolica and the west side of the zocalo. Dozens of vendors offer the same, poorly crafted designs: repetitious, tacky. I call it art-deco con carne (i.e. over-worked, over-designed, vulgar!). Mexico’s nuevo-rico have more credit than taste! Don’t blame the tourists.

Mexican silver, 925, is better. I know of two silver places: the San Juan Artisans mercado, in Centro Historico and Calle Londres, Zona Rosa. The latter has by far the best selection. Most is art-deco con carne. With patience and discrimination, though, very beautiful pieces, reasonably priced, can be found.

There is however, a minor aggravation: petulant vendors. These people set themselves aside, for Mexicans are very amiable. But browsers will be harassed and, when rejected, vendors sulk until all that remains is: let’s get out of this place.

One place there is a lot of buying is just down the street from where I live. The vendor, a woman, has dumped a pile of used electronic parts on the sidewalk. Any time many people will be pawing through it: handing over pesos as they do. One person’s junk is another’s business!

The Metro is something else.
Estacion Isabel la Catolica.
My stop on the pink line:Obervatorio/Pantitlan
Regardless, I use it. It is crowded, busy, rampant and fast. You need elbows to get on and fists to get off. I’m told it’s dangerous late at night: for visiting women anytime. I keep my hand on my cash travelling Metro. One local told me, being big, I’m less at risk. I dunno, I don’t feel big! But I am regaled with horror stories everyday from young European tourists, passing through Isabel, who have lost their papers on the Metro. Jeezless, I hope thugs are not biding my time!

Mostly I travel the Observatorio / Pantitlan line and sometimes the Universidad / Indios Verdes. I have travelled as early as 7.00 am (Ciudad Mexico doesn’t move until 10.00 am except on the Metro) to 9.00 pm. The former line is always fighting-to-get-on and nasty-pushy-to-get-off busy. And the latter isn’t much better!

But technically it is a very good system. French built, it is just like Paris Metro, no RER, though connecting the suburbs, which is a bit of a rub. The signage leaves something to be desired but once I got used to following the colours (pink, Pantitlan; yellow, Universidad) it’s okay.

Some of the stations, Insurgentes, Copilco are festooned with murals celebrating the conquest, Independence and Revolution. Those artists, unlike Caballito, don’t pull punches.

Which brings me to monuments. The city is festooned with a monument to the Revolution this or a Ninoes Heroes that. God bless Mexico but if it has to be constantly reminded by government approved in-your-face hardware then you’ve got to ask - Revolution? Who the hell won? And if anyone, what did they win?

I’ll tell you one thing: there was a lot of killing. Not enough winning!

Mexico is motivated by death, fate and the past: from Azteca, Independence to the Revolution. The past! What about the future?

I had soup for breakfast! For breakfast? That’s a first for me. And that’s Mexico!

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