AUGUST 31, 1997.


“! Guan: no es un broma ! Es verdad. La pueblo Tepoztlan es un forteleza.

Fui a Tepoztlan, ayer, Domingo 17 de agosto. Es un pueblo muy bonito con trece mil personas, tambien es el lugar de nacimiento de Emiliano Zapata. Pero, todo los caminos que llevan dentro del pueblo tienen barricados: alambre de puas y roca volcanica.

Pienso no necessita. ! Los montanas son proteccion bastante !

Sin embargo, el ayuntamiento cubre con dibujos de esqueletos con escritos “Zapata vive,” y “Tierra y libertad” (en la puerta de la comandancia de policia), “La dignidad vale mas que pinche club de golf.”

Mi conjetura es que los elecciones y Cardenas no son el comienzo de la epoca nueva: son el termino de la epoca antiquo. ! Creo !”

No this story isn’t over yet. Still, the peso continues to rise: “18 de agosto,” C$1 = M$5.51 at Bancomer, perhaps because financiers are wedded to the ‘belt-way press,’ with it’s Washington slant, and official wishful thinking. I don’t think even the average “ciudadano,” here, really appreciates what is happening. Most people are busy with work and family. They are fed by, and uncritically accept, local media which is even shallower than Tony Parson’s, Patricia Graham’s or Kevin Evan’s “periodismo amarillo.”

Today’s “26 de agosto,” THE NEWS reports that “Liberation Theology Influence May Be Growing.” Liberation Theology refers to Bishop Samuel Ruiz’s “catechists” whom he organised decades ago, “in order to start fighting against the country’s institutions, against Mexico’s national security and against the harmonious development of the economic, social and political sectors of Chiapas.”

All over the country things are in turmoil. La Jornada, the local responsible Spanish newspaper, provides a clear understanding. Indeed, you don’t have to read the news papers, this city being the centre of the universe, to know the country is rife with dissatisfaction. And go to Tepoztlan, it’s only an hour and a half on the bus, protest is written all over the city hall and roads-in are barricaded.

Not to be alarmist, I am not suggesting things are going to blow in the near future, unless it’s Popo. This government, even the newly elected congress, has extensive experience in repression. However, unlike Canada, where all the government has to do is extend your credit, buy yourself a new pair of shoes, and you’re numb for another ten years: it isn’t quite so easy. The difference is that, here, the country is mostly “indigena” and people whose social and economic status is no better.

Canada, and B. C. in particular, are not exactly lily white when it comes to confrontation and repression: Gustavson Lake, Oaka (it, too, was over a golf course), Duffy Lake and Apex Road blockades come to mind. There are many across the country: steal people’s land, no matter where or how long ago, using whatever legal tricks, and expect what you get. Nevertheless, the ordinary Canadian, waiting in that interminable commute home (which I suppose is retribution enough) never gives a moments thought to such occurrences. Well, most Mexicanos are the same!

I have collected about a month of quotes from La Jornada. Now I have a bit of espanole and a good “diccionario” I read it every day over cappuccino. I was going to use them, but really there is too much. “18 de agosto, Retira el Ejercito tropas de las tres zonas de conflicto en Chiapas.” Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it! “16 de agosto, Rodley: sabemos mas sobre tortura militar en Mexico que ONG.” Oh, indeed, and where has Nigel Rodley (U.N. human rights rep.) been these many years? “15 de agosto, Marcharan unidos en la ciudad de Mexico el CNI (National Congress of Indigenous People) y Zapatistas.” Expect more! “13 de agosto, Durante dos horas el Popocatepetl lanzo vapor de agua, gas y ceniza que afectaron a municipios de Morelos y Puebla.” Yup, we haven’t heard the last of Popo, either! “Castigo a 2 militares acusados de filtrar informes a medios.” Among other things, La Jornada accuses the government of using the ‘war-on-drugs’ as an excuse to militarise the country!

I’m told I am brave to stay in such a hot-spot. Still, there’s more danger being run down by a truck at 16th and Granville than being the recipient of a stray bullet. The real danger, here though, are the mad-cap taxis. It is necessary to keep things in perspective.

Had I no purpose being here, I’d still enjoy the place. But believe me I do not dabble in local affairs. I just don’t know enough about what is going on besides, there is nothing brave about being foolish. I live a sequestered life appropriate for a “rentista” well out of the way of protest and I intend to keep it that way. Reports of violence are over-dramatised. But if it happens close I‘ll duck and let you know, pronto!

I have explored some suburbs and neighbouring cities this last month.

The other day I took the Metro to Indios Verdes, the end of the lines on the extreme Northern outer limits of the city. I walked across to Metro Politecnico. No rush, it took about three hours. Hey, what a surprise! I expected hovels, poverty, rateros, bandidos, poluccion: God knows what! What I got was a pleasant suburban stroll through Linda Vista and the vast campus of the Instituto Polytecnico Nacional. And the former truly lived up to its name: the mountains, I could almost touch them, are visible from everywhere!

Linda vista, like Coyoacan, is a residential area: but cleaner and much more pleasant. Streets are narrow, closed in by walled gardens, some visible from the street. Walls are always festooned with bougainvillias, other plants or arbours. Buildings are tightly clustered. Some, indeed most, are enclosed by security measures but gated streets are open to the public (although probably not so after dark).

Surprise, surprise, Linda Vista has a central shopping village with pedestrian scale shops “esteticas” and eating places. It reminded me very much of Edgemont Village in North Vancouver. And it had very few cars, which did not invoke North Vancouver!

Roaming other areas I found the South west, Universidad and Jardin de Pedregal, tightly packed, mountains still close, very pleasant and in the case of the Pedregal very expensive and posh. I doubt I’ll ever be able to report to you on the inside of a residence there.

Suburbs are not like in Vancouver. For one thing Ciudad Mexico doesn’t peter out into wave upon wave of banal negative equity. It does not sprawl (“espacidos”). I am sure there are as many shyster speculators here as anywhere: likely more. I am sure there is a bloated planning bureaucracy here: probably worse than Vancouver’s. But their antics do not result in wasted, badly planned land-use.

The South eastern extremities are not quite so clean-cut. I may not be so adventurous as to take a stroll through Pantitlan and Churubusco - although, having seen them only from the Metro I don’t know why!

Travelling to Cuernavaca, and Puebla (that’s travelling south and east) shows off some pretty blighted areas. Yet despite the poverty land is carefully marshalled and hope is always evident. Hope: well you can tell Mexicanos have hope and confidence by the number of babies and, especially, by the way they build their houses.

You don’t see this in Linda vista or Coyoacan, being established communities. But to the South and East, the expanding areas, the houses are always topped by exposed re-bars (“castillos”), ready for an upper floor, when funds allow, when family expands. And if that isn’t evidence of hope and confidence in the future: what the hell is?

Misplaced hope in the past is also present. The grandeur of Basilica de Guadeloupe is evidence of that: literally a Mecca of hope in the past.

Basilica de Guadeloupe is a massive concrete structure designed by the architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez in the 1970’s. I remember it well from coloured spreads in the trade glossies. But it is more than just that: being as much, part of a campus.
Arq. Ramirez's Basilica Guadelupe.
The total surround is made up of seven places of worship, a large market, replete in the usual plastic covers, selling ecclesiastical junk, monuments of assorted varieties, gardens, a waterfall and fountain: a veritable Disneyland of Catholicism. Really it is as sprawling as any North American suburb, except the building are not stucco boxes. It is appropriate to include it here for that reason.

Ramirez’s Basilica alone is, though, a magnificent piece of architecture. The grand sweep of the concrete and copper roof is reflected in the interior space: mostly free of columns. The sanctuary and nave are arranged according to the new liturgy, as decreed by Vatican I, in the early sixties, amphitheatre style, facing the congregation: in plan, semi-circular.

The interior, and if it comes to that the exterior too, shares one element with its colonial neighbours, gold leaf decoration. Unlike most colonial churches it is very well lit inside and the gold leaf plays with light in a very dramatic manner.

One art work on the campus gives me trouble. It is the fountain, waterfall. Built into the waterfall is a massive statute of Our Lady of Guadeloupe shining forth from a radiating, brass and saintly, glow. And, can you believe this, a dozen or so “indigenas” are bowed in prostrate worship before it. Oh boy, oh boy, after all the suffering and destruction done in its name, if there is one effigy in Mexico that does not deserve the devotion of the “indigenas” it sure as hell is that brass woman.

Aye, and the rest of the official church (Bishop Ruiz, aside, who to me is an enigma) does not have a good record in Mexico. Since the revolution it has either remained conveniently benign or has surreptitiously condoned the nefarious activities of the priistas. Actually it is frightening to behold the grasp this church has on so many people. Certainly, its record doesn’t justify such devotion.

Go to Basilica Guadeloupe “15 de febrero,” Adriana tells me, the place is like a gigantic, crowded used car lot!

Okay, that’s an incomplete round-up of some of the areas known only to mexicanos and others common to the tourist trade (of which the basilica has to be included). Remember, though, Ciudad Mexico may be compact but it is still a vast city and I haven’t seen, let alone experienced, an iota of it yet. Probably never will!

Outside Ciudad Mexico, but close, there are a number of significant cities: Cuernavaca, Puebla, Queretaro and Toluca being among them. In addition to Tepoztlan, a village, really, I have visited Cuernavaca and Puebla.

Tepoztlan: It is a tourist Mecca and a hell hole for “indigenas.” That may account for the unrest.

The village is hemmed in by incredibly dramatic mountains. The high way doesn’t even come close. Still, there are lots of cars.

I visited Tepoztlan Domingo, “17 de agosto.” It is one of the number of places on my list this month. Given the horror stories floating around Vancouver, I didn’t expect to be so adventurous, so soon.

I hope you have born with me, so far, my opening immodesty “en espanole.” Essentially the introduction goes something like, “This is no joke. Tepoztlan is a fortress. It is a mountain village of about 13,000 inhabitants. All the roads in are blockaded with barbed wire and volcanic rocks. The city hall is covered with graffiti. A skeleton is drawn on the police commander’s office door. My guess is, the recent elections and Cardenas are not the beginning of a new era but the end of the old era. Believe it!

The bus dropped me off well above, and away, from the town. To get into centro I walked down a very steep cobblestone cart track closed in by walled gardens. Coming close to centro it is necessary to make an abrupt left at the cross-road and there is the first barricade, festooned with signs: MNA, Movimiento Nacional de Anticorrupcion.

That was surprise enough, although I was half expecting it. But the real surprise was the extent of the market in centro. Simply put, as I walked down towards it centro appeared to be one great plastic sheet. The plastic, of course, covering the stalls. I mean, what a come-down for people who had just confronted and, essentially, won over the brave Mexican army (whose sole purpose is to kill its own).

Still for all their self-determination, you could see on the faces of the vendors, boredom, ennui. Again, it was a lot of selling, not much buying. A young musical, family foursome, “muchacha, con hermanos,” sang by rote a catchy ditty. They appeared on every corner scraping together what tourist pennies they could, obviously bored out of their minds. No wonder the village is in uproar!

The focal point is the zocalo and the iglisia. At least they are not under plastic. I cannot say I am very interested in visiting monuments and museums. The past leaves me cold. I look upon it as the invention of some archaeologist who woke up in the night scribbling a few notes for the tourist trade. Most of the ruinas in this area are definitely that, crude restorations. Nevertheless the sheer simplicity of the church and convent (now a museum) drew me in. Hardly touched by meddling restoration, they are truly magnificent.

Cuernavaca: Let’s Go Mexico 1996 say this city has a population of two million. Who am I to argue? It doesn’t feel that big. On the other hand literature introducing the Spanish Language Institute claims the population to be half a million. I’ll go for the latter.

The city is what Let’s Go Mexico claims it to be: a play ground redoubt for the up-wardly mobile. Ask any ciudadano to come to Cueravaca and sure as sunshine the response will be, “oh wait ‘til I get my bathing suit!” There are many motels with swimming pools catering to that crowd.

On the other hand the lay-out, typically mexican, is centred around the zocalo, narrow streets and many public spaces. The zocalo is sort of two urban spaces melding into one, the zocalo proper and Jardin Juarez, predominated by the Palacio de Cortes, which is now, you guessed it, a museum.

I have a very good cappuccino in a cafe located on “Calle No Reeleccion.” The world could use a few more streets named thus.

Puebla: Legend has it that the Bishop of Tlaxcala dreamed of a beautiful field next to a sparkling river with angels staking out streets for a new city. The next day while hiking he recognised the site of his dream and thus established Puebla. Bishops? Angels? Why do people persist in believing such rubbish? It’s worse than the legend of Vancouver’s eternal growth.

Puebla is definitely a large industrial city. I’m told it has a population in excess of two million, yet still with a compact physical foot-print. It’s been the home to a large Volkswagen manufacturing plant for decades. Despite the industry it is very beautiful with a very small centro, with zocalo of course, containing many pedestrian delights.

I was there Domingo. First off for me, a cup of coffee. And to my horror I was served a glass of warm milk with a packet of Nescafe. I didn’t stay to taste it but I did enjoyed the famous local dish, mole poblano.

On the zocalo families enjoyed the mild sunny weather. It was quite cool. Adriana, who was born in Puebla tells me, for her, it is quite cold: preferable more so than Cuernavaca and from my brief stays in both, I agree.

An amplified band played for the entertainment of the families. As the day worn on it became warmer and plenty of seating appeared. Trouble is the seating was vacated by families seeking shade. Not one seat was available under the trees.

The zocalo is dominated, literally, by the cathedral: a pattern repeated time and time again throughout Mexico, very successfully. I’ll take it over Cuernavaca any day!

And, again, the exposed re-bars of hope. Houses tightly packed, not an inch to spare.

Queretaro and Toluca: Adriana says the former has a population of 1.2 million. She lives there. They, too, are among industrial centres taking the load off Ciudad Mexico.

Believe me Mexican cities are among the most beautiful in the world. At least the world I’ve seen: and that includes all the Americas and Europe. Obviously they have been built, and are still being built, for people to live and work in. Cars abound but they are not top priority. God knows how Ciudad Mexico got such a horrendous reputation. It does not deserve it.

Mexico being a very centralised country sort of revolves around the middle. It’s a lot like France and England. If you don’t live in the capitol you don’t exist. Accordingly, everyone flocks to Ciudad Mexico. This centrifugal migration is a re-enactment of the closure laws in Europe of the 18th., 19th centuries. People aren’t so much as coming to Ciudad Mexico as they are being shoved off there land in the provinces.

IFE (Instituto Federale de Elecciones) seems to have confidently estimated the population of the country at 94.7 million for 1997. God knows how it came up with that figure. It doesn’t seem able to estimate, though, the population of the capitol or its surrounding cities: especially with the wide discrepancy evident in the population estimate for Cuenavaca. I’ve heard wild estimates as high as 28 million for D. F. Anyway whatever the growth, everybody in Mexico sooner of later ends up here.

Embryonic as it may be there is sort of urban decentralisation, so long, I guess, as it doesn’t stray too far from the centre. Puebla, Queretaro and Toluca seem to be evidence of that. But it is a policy that works within the existing context. I mean, these are not new towns like Milton Keynes, U. K. or Saint Quentin, Eveline, France. These cities, and many others, are as old, if not older, than Ciudad Mexico itself. Exceptions to the rule are the maquiladoras on the U. S. border and Monterrey close to it. But, despite its industrial pretensions, it is still a land grab, just as it was in Europe 200 years ago.

When I first came here, in the sixties, I used to joke that “indigena” hand-craft work was the result of the teachings of an itinerant social worker from the Bronx, probably in the twenties.

Well, I wasn’t so far wrong. The social worker wasn’t from the Bronx, she was from the “revolutionary’ government. Believe me teaching the “indigena” to thread beads, weave, whatever, (who cares?): anything to keep them distracted while shysters steal their land. We did that successfully in Canada (maybe that’s where they learned the trick). And that’s been happening, and is still happening, here for decades.

The Huichol of Jalisco have bought into that bill of goods. Located conveniently close to Puerto Vallarta they are the darlings of the "carriage trade.” Poor devils used to work in gold until the Spanish stole it all. Now they work in beads from, of all places, the Czech Republic under the “religious influence” of peyote (just the stuff for land-grabs). What else can they do? Still, God save them from condescending do-gooder tourists!

All over the country “indigena”, not only “indigena,” are sitting, day after drudging day, waiting for someone to buy their stuff because the big guys have, and are, chasing them off their land (that’s one of the draw-backs to the NAFTA). What a humiliation! Boring! And, believe me, it shows on their faces.

But there is more to it than that. Each “artisano” is assessed an “impuesto informal” (informal tax) for the privilege of selling on the street or zocalo: imposed, of course, by the priistas. So when next time you are touristing, admiring the freedom of local entrepreneurs remember they are virtually indentured. That’s no life for anyone and one day someone is going to wake up. Still, tourists lap it up.

Oh, just one other thing. The rateros got my bolsita the other day: on the Metro. The usual ruse - crush in the doorway (believe me it was crowded all over).

Yeah, I know I’ve been crowing about ‘sunburnt tourists with signs.’ Well, despite my efforts to convince you Ciudad Mexico is not the hot-bed of crime of its reputation I got ‘got.’ But I am cautious. I keep very little money in my bolsita. In this case a few pesos and Metro tickets: all told, including M$20 for the bolsita, oh I forget, M$35, about C$6.30! Still I’m pissed-off as hell! La Jornada reports that, for its size, Ciudad Mexico has a surprisingly low crime rate. I believe it.

Oh one other closing note. I am told by a very reliable chica mexicano jeuven that she gets hassled by macho mexicano men on the Metro just as much a fair skinned tourist ladies.

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