JULY 31, 1997.


As often, I sauntered the zocalo this evening. The sky was clear: no pollution socking the place in. Munching on papas fritas, I watched the Aztec dancers doing their stuff,
Aztec dancers on the Zocalo.
the crowds of ordinary Mexicanos enjoying the clear bright evening, novios con chicas smooching. Overhead the great bandera nacional, green: mast, eagle devouring snake on white, red: fly, billowed, like Carlota’s bloomers, in the breeze: kids flew kites and parachutes over the warm air venting from the Metro. It beats going to the movies.

The crowd, this evening, was very different from the political rallies of three weeks ago. The election is over. The results are in. Now it’s time to see how it turns out.

As it stands there certainly has been a change. Of 300 Federal districts, in the final count, the PRI, priistas, (Revolutionary Independence Party) holds 164, PRD (Democratic Republic Party) 70, PAN (National Action Party) 65 and PT (Worker’s party: T for trabajadores) 1 ( Novedades, Saturday July 12).

Voters vote in a pluralist system, I don’t quite understand. But the winner isn’t necessarily the first past the post. Accordingly, the large voter turn-out in DF, for the PRD, gave it strength in the assembly, which is not reflected across the country. Surprisingly, after all the excitement only 58% of eligible voters turned-out country-wide: 67% in DF.

The, “shoot and ask later” priistas have apparently lost their hegemony. They’ve been in power 65 years, having conducted, in that time, a democratic Presidential dictatorship. Until now they have, through cheating, ‘mordida’ and violence, held just about every political position.

To give you an idea of the benevolent techniques of these rogues, 1995 in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, 17 farmers protested a lack of fertiliser and demanded the state governor provide some. Don’t forget this was a paternal system wherein all life’s needs were supplied by the priistas. Well, without a word of warning the state police moved in and shot the lot of them dead. Novedades reports (Saturday, July 12) 39 officials and police have been implicated and are facing 3 to 26 years in jail.

The whole episode sounds horribly like that black humour bumper sticker, “Shoot ‘em all. Let God sort ‘em out!” Except when it really happens it isn’t very funny!

In contrast Tepoztlan, Morelos is virtually a free state. It all started in 1993. The puppet administration decreed a golf course be built, by foreign investors, on a dedicated ecological reserve.

In allowing it the government was, in fact, breaking its own laws. Selinas was president at the time and he just ran rough-shod over objections until the situation became intolerable. The enraged locals deposed the puppets and set up their own administration. To this day the officially appointed administrators sit, twiddling their thumbs, while the towns people run Tepoztlan to their own satisfaction. And the irony is, the golf course will still be built: but not by foreigners!

What surprises me is that such a small, local decision would be made by the President of the Republic. He must have been very, very busy making himself rich.

Anyway that was the beginning of his, and the priistas’, downfall. In introducing NAFTA I don't think he, and they, realised he was inviting much closer international scrutiny: ergo he could not send in the army even though, judging from past experience, he would have.

Nevertheless, the army still lurks. Ciudad Mexico, being the centre of the universe here, is where all demonstrations and protests take place. When I first got here 30,000 (Alligator no.1) teachers were marching through Centro, day and night, blocking traffic and every day activities. They had to be here because all decisions are made here, even by their national union. Mind you they were doing it at home too!

In the back-ground, there was the army, very well dressed, very well equipped waiting for the President to fart.

To this day Tepoztlan is surrounded by a stone wall to keep the federalies out. The towns people can thank NAFTA (it’s not all bad!), for focusing world attention, compelling the President to act in a civilised manner, for not being given the Aguas Blancas treatment.

Evidently there are similar (Free) towns in southern states.

In spite of all that, the priistas still have strong support from the conservative, the wealthy and the unions: especially the deceased Don Fidel’s (who, until he died last month at 97, was Mexico’s de facto President) Confederacion Trabajadores de Mexico.

And even more surprisingly, the election showed it to have overwhelming, 70% voter support, in the very poor and neglected state of Chiapas: where the Zapatista’s made news. There, it is said, the priistas are seen as the ‘peace’ party (go figure!). Evidently Subcomandante Marcos, now favouring non-violence, has broken with Bishop Samuel Ruiz because of the latter’s rip-the-place-apart policy.

A contrary view holds that the intimidating presence of the army caused such a low turn-out: hence the large win for the priistas. “In a communiqué distributed in Oaxaca the EPR (Popular Revolutionary Army) denounced the governments attempts to magnify the significance of . . . the elections. “It is difficult to believe we have come to the final stretch in the road towards democracy when these types of injustices continue in our nation . . .” (The News, Mexico City, July 27, 1997).

The PAN is supported by business. It claims to already rule by virtue of its control over many state and local governments. By that, I assume, it can govern by with-holding, or otherwise, support for the priistas’ non too robust majority: ergo call the shots.

And because of the priistas’ antics PRD, supposedly left wing, has control of Ciudad Mexico DF. Previous to this election the mayor was appointed by the President of the Republic. PRD’s Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is now the governor, mayor, of the city. Supposedly, he is the second most powerful man in Mexico!

Cuauhtemoc is the son of Lazaro Cardenas, the erstwhile President of the Republic, who in the 30’s, nationalised the oil industry. Cuauhtemoc, himself has lived politics all his life. Previously he was state governor of Michoacan.

Politically, he’s been all over the map. “ He was . . . the despotic head of the Secretariat of Flora and Forna (an early attempt to stifle environmentalism while providing another control over the countryside).” and, “As an Echeverria disciple he is from the totalitarian side of the left.” “Herberto Castillo . . . had many doubts . . .”That’s why I don’t trust Cardenas who . . . suddenly joined the (conservative military party) Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution . . . - but in a completely undemocratic way, without an assembly such as the one he demanded of the PRI.”” (The News, July 2 1997).

Cardenas ran, unsuccessfully, for the Presidency of the Republic in 1993. He still claims the presidency was stolen from him by the cheating priistas! Which brings up the question. Will Mexico continue to be run by an entrenched cadre who know about politicking but little of the country and the people? Sound familiar?

Maybe! Indeed, Cuauhtemoc’s view of life is already emerging. He is creating headlines by announcing a new express Metro line, including nine tunnels. For what its worth, next time I dine with Cuauhtemoc I’ll remind him of a priority more important than fancy high-speed shiny gadgets beloved of technocrats and their hi-finance brethren: a reliable potable water supply. President of the Republic Echeverria was the last to recognise the problem in the early ‘70’s. He built a very expensive tunnel to contain storm water.

Needless to say storm water draining off the streets inevitably finds its way into the remains of the lake aquifer upon which the city is built. That aquifer is the city’s water source. When it rains here it thunders down. Water supply is not a problem. Potable water supply is!

Here’s another wake up call, reminder, that the euphoria of three weeks ago may be losing its shine.

“Residents and artist of San Rafael neighbourhood in the Cuauhtemoc precinct of Mexico City . . . protest a project by Grupo ICA . . . which wants to demolish at least half of a 50-year old park in order to expand a parking lot. They demand the plans for ICA’s project be disclosed for the approval or rejection of inhabitants of San Rafael. ‘While the authorities openly claim they are protecting the city’s environment, behind closed doors they hold a policy of privatising the public spaces of the city, spaces that should belong to the entire population.’”

And another . . . “A citizen who is fed up with the crooked ways of political performances . . . could only be offended when the son of Cuauhtemoc was named to his father’s transition team . . . Instead of including another collaborator Cardenas preferred his family.” (The News, Mexico City, July 27, 1997).

So much for the great events of life. I am doing what I came to do: try to understand one small piece of a great country. I suppose I should be the adventurous tourist and follow all those young kids, in the hotel from Europe, trekking all over the place. Well, I did all that years ago. Some time I’ll pop over to Puebla, Cuenevaca, Queretaro etc., but right now I want to get to know this city and its people. Actually I did go to Puebla (On the way I saw Popo: it sleeps now!) last Sunday, but I’ll tell you about that later: this is already too long.

Oh yes there has been one other momentous outcome of this historic election. The value of the peso has risen. When I last bought, May 8, a C$1 bought M$5.88 at Bancomer: July 21, I bought at M$5.63. Some weeks ago rumours were flying (they are, still!) that the peso was over-valued: after the election the President would have to, yet again, devalue. That would, of course, be very unpopular among Mexico’s trading partners, especially the U. S., but not me! Anyway, quite the opposite happened.

My good Mexican friends tell me I have just witnessed a great and peaceful revolution. I believe them! I am completely swept up in their enthusiasm. Whether in church, on the zocalo or politics, Mexicanos have so much hope. God, I hope it works out for them.

Back to what I came here to do . . . I think, now, after three months I can safely comment on Ciudad Mexico’s multitudinous urban myths. Like for instance, don’t drink the tap water (true) or don’t eat fresh vegetables and fruit from the markets (false). But the most iniquitous myth is “manana:” that everyone siesta’s at noon and everything can wait until tomorrow (false).

The manana myth. Ciudad Mexico slowly arises and is ready to go about 10 am. But everything, retail, work of any kind keeps going until late, well after 10 pm, seven days a week. Offices usually close around 7 pm. The siesta, if it ever existed, has been blown by air conditioning. Offices do slow down for comida around 2 pm but it’s only for half and hour: an hour at the most. UNAM seems to be going 12 hours a day, five days a week, twelve months a year.

In the hotel here, Senorita Marina,
Senorita Marina.
the 4th floor house keeper, lives in Puebla, one and a half hours on the bus each way, arrives at work at 9 am and leaves 7 pm: six days a week. She is a very intelligent, independent thinker. And for that, she tells me, she gets M$350 a week. Pop goes the manana myth!

Only eat in the western restaurants myth. I mentioned (Alligator no.1) my favourite hang-out, Rincon Mexicana where I get fed a full four course meal for C$3.14 (I made a typo, it wasn’t C$3.74). Now it’s C$3.42. But I’m still a regular. If friends want to find me I’m usually there after mid-day. Occasionally I corrida comida (quick lunch), at a restaurant guide books would shun, for C$3.70: soup and a stew rich in veggies with a big chunk of beef. And I haven’t been poisoned yet! But that is only a part of my eating habits.

VIPS and Sanborns (the afore mentioned western restaurants) are safe: modelled after the typical U.S., “did you enjoy your meal?” type. VIPS is an absolute ringer of the White Spot: coffee only, C$1.30. Ham, scrambled eggs, rolls, juice and coffee, C$5.39 (a 15% tax is included which, it is rumoured, may soon be reduced by 2%), tip extra.

Some times I eat there but I prefer Mexican, like at Zenon which promotes itself as the oldest restaurant in DF: that’s where I was served soup for breakfast, ole! And always, no matter what you order, anywhere, even at VIPS, it comes with frijoles - ah, Mexico!

But there is an intriguing little tortilla stand that I haven’t tried yet. I’m going to soon. It’s a block away right in the middle of a busy shopping area. All it is, is a hole-in-the-wall doorway, a stainless steel cauldron full of hot tortillas, condiments and the guy serving from a space not much bigger than a mail box. The place is busy day and night with patrons in suits, overalls, all kinds: it doesn’t look to me that people get sick eating there! So it must be good. They crowd the side walk: it’s impossible to get by. They sit on parked cars, anything while munching their torta’s.

My daily eating routine is fruit and croissant for breakfast in my room; comida, 2.00 pm, at Rincon. Then a snack, again, in my room in the evening. Eating in restaurants? Not all the time!

From the Mercado San Juan Pugibet, just down the street, I buy grapes, bananas, oranges, grape fruit, mandarinas, nectarines, papayas, tomatoes, kiwi, avocados, I wash everything well, the hotel supplies potable water (not in the tap), and an assortment of cheeses and ham from different stalls. I’m getting to know everyone quite well, just like16th and Granville.

From the pastellerias, my favourite, El Molino on Avenida 16 de Septiembre y Calle Bolivar, I buy pan chapata, croissants, empanadas atun y jamon, rolls and other goodies.

Oh, talking of food, here’s one insight into the competitiveness of the market economy here. There’s a very large well established pastelleria on 5 de Febrero called El Madrid. On the side-walk in front of it is an intense bazaar of street vendors selling everything: torta’s, watches, clothing, pastries, papa fritas; you name it. It’s hard to get by. Well, not to be out-done El Madrid competes in kind, selling torta’s, papa fritas etc. too: by opening-up its store front to the street. So, instead of whining, hey we’re paying taxes the police should move in on the vendors, El Madrid takes the gloves off. Papa fritas on the street are M$3, at El Madrid, M$2.5!

So far so good! Most places are closed on Sunday then I dine at VIPS, Sanborns or Zenon. Bye, bye the don’t eat locally myth!

The crime myth. There’s umpteen yarns about muggings, run-away purse snatching and pick-pocketing but I have not met anyone locally who has personally experienced it. In three months, wandering around like a branded ingenue, I haven’t. Oh, of course petty crime exists. Tourists with a sun burn and a “take me sign” are typically vulnerable. But so they are in any big international metropolis. Be careful then, and forget the legendary Ciudad Mexico small time crime. On the other hand big time crime is, yes, big-time crime.

This story is quite funny really. Mid-July Mexico’s most notorious and wanted narco-czar died in Ciudad Mexico. At first no one could identify the body, for sure. All this narco stuff is cloak and dagger. Anyway, after extensive tests U. S. drug enforcement officers determined it was indeed the great Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “El Senor de los Cielos.” Evidently he had died on a plastic surgeon’s operating table having massive feature changes and liposuction: for vanity or identity, who cares? He was only around fifty so he didn’t die of old age: in that business one seldom does.

Anyway, not long after a pompous funeral in his home state, Sinaloa, lo and behold if the poor plastic surgeon who botched the job didn’t up and disappear: presumed assassinated (although not confirmed). And there’s the message: don’t mess with the cellulite of a big-time drug lord. The saga continues . . . but be sure to hang on to the crime myth!

Climate myth (that’s for Acapulco). I don’t know, has Ciudad Mexico ever been thought of as a beautiful climate. In September, 1966, my first visit, it was mild, clean, beautiful. It was never scorching hot and humid like the gulf coast. That’s because it’s up about 2,400 m. As for pollution. I don’t think the word had been invented then, as anywhere!

Right now it’s supposed to be summer and it’s damn cold! Forecast, July 27: cloudy and rainy. Temperatures range from C12 (night) to C26 (mid-day). The same report calls for Vancouver, partly cloudy, C13 to C21. Getting up in the morning, around 7 am, it’s damn chilly. It is also the season (May-September) of rain. Every evening, as regular as clockwork, anywhere from 4 pm to mid-night, and sometimes long after, it thunders and torrents down. Don’t get caught without an umbrella. It hailed July 17 and 24.

Put the climate myth in perspective. It depends where you go.

Pollution. It’s a drag. I awaken, often, with nasal congestion. I can hardly breath. Current reading, July 26, for Centro are: Ozone high, 200 - low 10 (over 100, unacceptable): Sulphur dioxide, 21: Nitrogen, dioxide, 28 and Carbon Monoxide, 62. Sometimes, on the weekend, it abates, the surrounding mountains are visible and the Catedral Metropolitan stands out from a bright blue sky. But . . . pollution is no myth!

Are there myths about Mexicanos? I never held any. When I first travelled here I was most impressed to see campesinos struggling to work at sunrise, returning a sunset. Often with big loads on their backs. Mexicanos are an industrious people facing unfair odds.

Here’s a thumb-nail sketch of Ciudadanos, in general, without getting personal. Language and cultural differences make it both impractical and unethical, and me unwilling, to describe personalities.

Language, for instance, can be a real minefield. The other day Hugo and I had an appointment to analyse the elections: I thought he said Thursday, he meant Tuesday. To a Mexican, en Inglise, the words are so similar. With my ‘pidgin’ espanole, I get into even more trouble!

Words often sound the same in Inglise but have totally different meanings: a vacuum cleaner is a ‘Speedar.’ You wont find that in the dictionary! Fog is, ‘neblina’ Pregnancy is ‘embarazo.’ Yeah, I can see that! Heuvos divorciadados are, essentially, eggs sunny side up: you know, separated.

On and off I converse with a number of Ciudadanos: Hugo, a practising physician and psychiatrist speaks very good Inglise: Adriana Olvera, 25, a linguistics student at Universidad de Aqueologos is my professor de espanole at IMNAI. She speaks very good Inglise but wont let on. In class it’s strictly espanole!

Monica Espinoza, psychology student UNAM, is anxious to learn Inglise: Jose Ladrillero, primary school administrator speaks excellent Inglise and uses me to improve his understanding of the idiom. He is very dapper, even irons creases in his sleeves! I use him to learn espanole: tit-for-tat! Elba Aponte, previously lived in London, New York, speaks very good Inglise.

I have to thank many kind people for their patience. It is not easy carrying on an extended conversation with responding ‘pidgin.’ I find it exhausting. They must too. Accordingly, acquaintances fade. Monica has been helpful in that she does not speak Inglise, which is fine for me because I get the best espanole lessons possible. Becoming integrated with the locals, though a wonderful ideal, is probably not likely, short of a life time.

Still I believe, generally speaking, many Mexicanos are just like us. They want just the same things out of life: which may not be such a good thing. They have families with whom they go walking in Bosque Chapultepec, Domingo. They commute five, sometimes six, days a week, they have mortgages (hipotecas) and car payments.

Despite a minority who are very attractive, they look dishevelled on the street in jeans and sloppy T-shirts. Others, very intense, bespoke, chatter away on cell-phones. Lots eat at VIPS (the White Spot!).

I went to a night club Saturday night. A group of us from the hotel found the Dutch-courage. Lots of Mexicanos there. We were the only strangers. Centro Historico is a real hoppin’ place on the weekend. There are five night clubs within two blocks of the hotel.

Really though, they aren’t night clubs, at least not of the Billy Holiday genre. They are discos. Actually until now, I haven’t been to one since Oil Can Harry’s. So the latest on that scene eludes me.

Anyway they were intrigued by the racket going on outside, from mid-night to after 5 am. Me too. So, together we drummed up the courage to see what gives!

The racket comes from cars lining-up, honking, revving, customers trying to get into the clubs and car hops hopping cars. A crowd, mostly young men in jeans, milled around trying to attract the attention of the bouncers, wanting to get in.

We rubber-necked too and, much to my surprise, without hesitation the bouncer beckoned us in. I thought only the beautiful people made it.

No cover charge but they sock you for the drinks!

Once inside well, it could be described as nightmare-ish. The decor was mercado-Mayan, typically low lit and dramatic. A thump, thump beat, well . . . I was going to say pulsated but that isn’t it: ha, whacked, that’s it, away!

Naturally, being Ciudad Mexico, the crowd was young packed-in to the point of elbows only. Contrasting the out-side there was a preponderance of young women: chicas. The men were scruffy: jeans, sweaters, colourless. The women were absolutely gorgeous, expensively, and in some cases scantily, dressed, ready for anything. I felt little over my head. Still, not being a wet blanket, I soldiered on.

To start things off an acrobat, dressed Mayan-like, did some trapeze acts over the dance floor: the place is three stories, surrounded by galleries, and glass sky-lite roof. Without warning big bang fireworks filled the place with crashes, sparkles and smoke. The sparkles burn. Fire-marshals, if they exist, keep out of the way!

Okay now things get going. Artificial smoke oozed for effect, announcing: time to get hoppin’. It’s about 1.30 am.

Two small elevated platforms over look the crowded tiny dance floor. A scantily clad Mayan muscle man undulates on one. A very haughty, heavily made-up, woman sort of writhes on the other. In no time at all beautiful young chicas were up with the Mayan, stroking and moving with seductive innuendo: of course, nothing they wouldn’t do for the family. Ummm . . . very interesting. No one got up with the woman, probably because she was sending clear signals, don’t you dare come near me: and we didn’t!

We had a bit of a fracas in our group. Hotel romances are a bit like ship-board romances, somewhat shallow. Anyway these two had coupled up. She was from Toronto. After a bit she excused herself to get her cigarettes. Then about half an hour later we, especially her hotel beau, began to miss her. So we went looking only to find her smooching in a dark corner with a Mexicano. Her beau was a bit pissed off. I’m inclined to agree, “ya dance wid da guy dat brung ya.” She excused herself , “well he came up and kissed me!”

Now she being young, I dunno, mid-twenties, I can see that. Except, ironically, prior to venturing to the disco she had been most vocal complaining how Mexicano men treated fair skinned female tourists as well. . . EASY. Why don’t they show the same respect for us they show for their own? Well, I guess she answered that!

After about two hours I hi-tailed it oudda there!

You’ve got to run pretty fast to keep up with that crowd. I can’t say I enjoyed myself!

Another thing we have in common with Mexicanos: emotional problems. On TV 7 there is a show I watch with fascination: Se Vale Sonar (To you, the promise sounds familiar). Featuring the gorgeous Veronica Velasco the hostess, it sledge-hammers into families’ private lives in full view. It stops at nothing and, always, every one ends up in tears: especially the hostess.

It is all so emotionally exploitative. Never mind the anguish the families have been driven into, the camera always pans in on gorgeous Veronica, tears pouring down her painted, sculptured features, never, though, to the point of disturbing the tableau. Rehearsed? Obviously she is, as she turns the tap on, sometimes twice a show. Nauseating!

Actually there’s nothing quite like that in Canada.

But yes, there are a wild discrepancies too. Too many, unlike us, don’t have anything. And that’s the other side of the coin.

Most street beggars speak Nahuatl. They range in age, men, women, usually cradling a child: for sympathy I suppose. Most blind. Some immobile crouching on the sidewalk, some wandering the Metro, singing, playing simple instruments. On the next block, in a church alcove, there is a man, apparently permanently zonked out, sleeping every time I pass. But he doesn’t beg!

Yes, Mexico has a language problem too. There are dozens of languages and dialects spoken by the native population: Nahuatl being most commonly spoken here. Because of this so many are unable to pull themselves out of poverty. No one can understand them. They can hardly understand each other; so I’m told by Adriana. Nahuatl was the language spoken by the Aztecas hundreds of years ago. It is still spoken on the streets of the city.

By the way there are 94.7 million Mexicanos now, 3.9 million more than expected. Oh, and do not call Ciudadanos de Mexico, Chilangos. It is a pejorative used by provincials to express their resentment of the way the big city seems to drain all the resources of the country. It is a colloquialism meaning “gluttonous pig.”

I’ll close with a little piece on how others see us. It is not necessarily Mexican, although it was published in the Mexico City Times (an English speaking, belt-way, rag):-

“ A few years ago, Vancouver, another spectacular city on the sea, was a favourite site for jet-setting ‘astronauts’ . . . The sleepy Canadian outpost benefited from an injection of capital, entrepreneurial spirit, and great Cantonese restaurants. But Canada and Confucianism were a marriage of convenience. Astronauts earned their title by parking their families and their brokerage accounts on Vancouver’s quite streets . . .” ((Why Hong Kong Is (Was?) Great) Mexico City Times, June 30, 1997: reprinted from N.Y. Times, June 29).

Pettiness, I suppose. Nevertheless, “Sleepy Canadian outpost” rings true! Still, the longer I stay here the more I yearn for the “sleepy-city.” “Vancouver’s quite streets . . .” Well, that’s another matter. After 14 years at 16th. and Granville, I’m hard to convince.

Whatever! Mexicanos think well of us. So they should! Canada, often Vancouver, the TSE and VSE religiously, are reported favourably in the Spanish and Inglise press.

June 30, 4 p.m. Popocatapelt erupted spewing ash over Ciudad Mexico for the first time in historic memory. !Y, todavia el quejandoses!

Yup, lotsa change!

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