OCTOBER 31, 1997.


Ciudad Mexico: Altitude 2,240 m.
October 20, Weather, IMECA (ozone reading -100 okay: +200 dangerous), Centro 190.
Temperature Ciudad Mexico, 19c - 06c. Vancouver: 13c - 07c.
October 25, IMECA, Centro 235, Phase one alert.

Popocatepetl. Estado de Pueblo on yellow alert. It is rumbling: sismo 2.5 - 2.7. From my window it appears benign, although steaming.

40% of mexicanos, live below the poverty level, subsisting on M$90 (C$16.25) / month state support.

‘Huracana Paulina’ may have been top of the news for the world telly. But the news, or the awakening, for me this month is the realisation that Mexico has, undoubtedly, “Una Cortina de Frijoles.” You’ve heard of Berlin’s Wall and Russia’s Iron Curtain. Well, now you’ve heard of “La Cortina de Frijoles.” (The Curtain of Re-fried beans). And, remember, you heard it here first.

At first things were quite a social whirl. Of course, I knew it wouldn’t last. This is a big city. People have lives. They are hospitable but they cannot suffer intruders forever.

Furthermore, I am no Tom Cruise when it comes to ‘chicas,’ nor do I want to be. And ‘ciudadanos,’ so young as they are here, no doubt see me as an antediluvian creature emerging from a Pleistocene swamp. To be admitted as readily as I was in Vancouver is to expect too much: and it took nearly 50 years there.

All that accepted there is a barrier. Though, I wouldn’t compare mexicanos to say Londoners, New Yorkers or Parisians for damn right condescension. Nevertheless its hard to take after the open friendliness and hospitality of Vancouver.

When I think of all the ‘mexicanos’ who have slipped through my air space over the last few months I wonder what happened. Do I have bad breath? Do they?

The first barrier was erected before I even got here. Prior to my departure I thought I had developed some acquaintances, on the net, through CIS’s Mexico Forum. Oh boy was I wrong! “La Cortina de Frijoles.” is drawn pretty tightly even around Mexico’s twenty-first century whiz-bang technology!

Language is definitely a barrier. I have attained a level of ‘espanole’ which allows me to function on a day by day basis. I can look after myself in the hotel, Metro, ‘mercado,’

I attended a round table discussion the other night at the Palacio del Bellas Artes on ‘Arquitectura: Ciudad y Naturaleza.’ I would loved to have participated in the open discussion that followed but I was too intimidated. Mexicanos really get going at functions like that. A few more months and I’ll be in there.

Another barrier is social status. I live in Hotel Isabel in Centro Historico. I choose to live here because it is reasonable, for its neighbourly urban conveniences and human activity. If I lived in the Sheraton Isabel Marie, in the zona Rosa, I would, I know, be given a very different reception. Ciudadanos have a pubescent sense of social prestige.

Let me explain. When I first arrived, naturally, I needed to set up a bank account. Bancomer, my bank, has a branch just around the corner. It has a policy whereby customers bank close to where they live. So when I opened my account the lady with whom I dealt (speaking good ‘ingles.’) insisted I follow that policy. Sounded reasonable. Except for one thing. I could not convince her I lived around the corner in the Hotel Isabel. She insisted I lived in the Hotel Sheraton Isabel Maria, in the zona Rosa, accordingly would not accept my money, and directed me to the Bancomer branch there. My account is still there!

And yet another barrier is age. Believe me if I could meet people my own age I’d be delighted, but they don’t seem to exist, not in Ciudad Mexico, anyway. An American neighbour quipped, they’re all dead by 45, unless they are on the street begging!

That’s not the only evidence of “La Cortina.” Jose, a superintendent of schools, had advertised in the paper to exchange ‘ingles/espanole’ over coffee. What a good way for him to improve his ‘ingles’ and for me to learn ‘espanole!’ Well, it was fine for a couple of sessions. He even asked me to talk to his ‘clase ingles.’ Sounded okay by me! Well, that was, inexplicably, the last I heard of that.

I was hailed, one evening, on the street by an acquaintance, David, to call, and come see him at his office. Well, I called. Then when I showed up his place was locked, bolted and barred. Nada, again. Oh yes, and there was also the occasion when I was to meet a friend on Thursday only to receive a note telling me he thought it was for Tuesday. And again - after, nada!

I offered my services, gratis, to the College of Architecture at UNAM. The profesora exuded enthusiasm. That was weeks ago. Again, nada! What am I supposed to do? Nag!

I have experienced much of this kind of stuff: I don’t want to be so churlish as to list them all. Remember this is not me being pushy. All these invitations came to me, not from me: except UNAM: which was only a reasonable suggestion!

Of all my encounters with mexicanos I have never seen inside their homes, never indeed, known there exact street address and never met their social group. All this is very strange to me. I suppose it can be attributed to my lack of social skills ‘mexicano.’ But I’m not going to accept all the blame.

Indeed, I am beginning to sympathise with Mexican men who fondle women on the Metro. It is their only chance, short of committing themselves to a life time of three kids, a mortgage and car payments, of touching the distaff side of life. (By the way, during rush-hour, Metro cars are reserved for women).

A young acquaintance, Jorge, runs Cafe 1652 in Colonia La Condesa. He is busy learning ‘ingles.’ It will not help him run his cappuccino bar. But it will, he says, help with the ‘chicas.’ Tough slogging for a date?

The gulf between men and women, social contact between anybody, here is reminiscent of North America circa 1950’s. Attracting signals are overt, taboos are subliminal. Look but don’t touch unless you’re in it for the long-haul: which, of course, for a visiting sexagenarian ‘Canadiense’ is, mercifully, out. And, especially, be wary of people who look different!

I met a gentle young lady through an acquaintance. We have been friends for about four months. We have an arrangement whereby I teach her ‘ingles’ and she teaches me ‘espanole,’ although so far it’s been entirely espanole. We are supposed to go off on suburban explorations: ‘lecciones’ espanol like that are, for me, preferable to the classroom. We’ve been to Satelite and the Art Gallery but somehow things just tapered off. Paradoxically, I’m just as happy. When I was introduced to mama, a red light flashed in my head.

I don’t want to be ungracious. but let me go out on a limb: reveal some of my partialities. Are mexicanos paranoid (they have good reason to be) or are they just slow to open-up to strangers?

It would be easy to attribute all this to cultural differences (putting aside Tom Cruise and the primeval swamp). You know what I mean, I am British/North American: Mexicans are Spanish/Indian. But culture here is as European as it is in Canada. Painting, architecture, sculpture, theatre, literature, social mores, marriage, religion etc. all follow the format of the European origins.

No, I see the problem as being of an urban people still carrying campesino fears. I would compare them to the Cantonese new arrivals in Vancouver or rural villagers in Yorkshire, England.

I have seen the same rural reticence in Yorkshire, where I lived for the first part of my life. There, country villagers had much the same way of looking at life as the newly arrived Cantonese in Vancouver and the newly arrived urban population in Ciudad Mexico.

Ciudad Mexico’s telephone book is very thick. It is called locally ‘El libros del muerte’ because it names dead relatives obscuring the names of living people. I am told mexicanos don’t want government (nor, you and I) to know who or where they are. Hence the deception.

The Cantonese have successfully sold their peasant prejudices as cultural differences to Vancouver. But, discouraging your kids from mixing with ‘gweillos’ is not culture.

Culture is a creative process, on going, risk-taking, ever changing and receptive to new influences. Indeed, culture thrives on assimilation. Mandarin Opera on main-land China, Mariachi music in Mexico and Henry Moore sculpture in Yorkshire are culture. Insisting on Cantonese at home in Vancouver, fear of foreigners in Mexico or strangers in Yorkshire is not.

Still, rationalising doesn’t help. As for getting to know them, I’ve run out of ideas. But, I’m not about to settle for Claude Van Damm re-runs, ‘con subtitulos en espanole,’ on the telly. Maybe I’ll join a church basement social group!

It’s ‘domingo en la ciudad:’ a few days before the end of the month. Domingo is my favourite day. Quiet reigns. No traffic, reduced pollution. So naturally I treated myself to an early breakfast at Sanborn’s: coffee and relaxation over the belt-way rags.

Yup, the major story this month has been ‘Huracana Paulina’ with the extraordinary event of the Canadian Ambassador speaking-out, runner-up: that is until ‘lunes negro’ and the Hang Seng took a dive. The former, you know enough about from the telly.

Suffice to say, ‘Paulina’ persists because disaster reveals the weakness of the system. Obviously Mexico’s ‘priistas’ had learnt nothing from the 1985 earthquake. The details are different but the rank indifference to suffering and preparedness are the same.

Indifference! Yes, it’s evening, now, and something is going-on on the zocalo. I can hear the shouts and speeches. If I was an enterprising reporter I’d high-tail it to see what was going-on. But then something is always going-on on the zocalo: some protest or another. If the streets of Historico aren’t blocked once a week the place feels de-nuded. Shows how blasé six months can make me: doesn’t it?

Talking of the Historico and the zocalo. Ciudad Mexico has 12,000 public urban spaces, many arboreal. I figure this makes the place unique: the reason I came here.

Mexican cities are in the true sense of the word beautiful: Mazatlan, Oaxaca, Ciudad del Carmen, Cuernevaca, Queretaro, Merida, Tuxtla Gutierrez, San Cristobal de las Casas. All are places I have visited and can attest to their beauty: many have had recent additions and renovations to their public plazas that I have not seen. For those interested the book ‘Mexicanisimas Plazas*’ gives an illustrated up-date.

Ciudad Mexico may be dirty, crowded and, in the case of Centro Historico, run-down.
Iglisia Isabel la Catolica: Centro Historico.
But it is beautiful. I believe it is the sense of public urban space, the zocalo, Alameda and the thousands of lesser urban plazas, that makes it so.

A magnificent public urban space integrating the past with the present is
The magnificent interior of Iglisia Isabel la Catolica.
La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco, Ciudad Mexico, the site, incidentally, of the 1968 Diaz Ordaz ordered massacre of hundreds of striking students. It is an archaeological reserve too.

On the plaza is a monument in memory of the slain students: ranging in age: 19 - 20. A foot-note tells how, that night, all was surreptitiously swept away: a testament to the authoritative guilt, and mentioning the collective neglect of the media. Neither radio, television nor newspapers uttered a word of the tragedy the day after.

Another very beautiful complex of urban spaces is Plaza Hidalgo, Villa Coyoacan: albeit very traditional with no modern intrusions.

The concept of public urban space is a 18th century phenomenon. It is not unique to Mexico nor the Latin sense of urban culture. It was the same in North America until the financial whiz-kids and their real estate accomplices muscled in. London’s West End: Paris before Mitterand’s mis-conceived onslaught of modern at La Defense; even Montreal’s Vieux Ville! And in 1932 a wiser Mexican government decreed all buildings of historic quality be preserved, all streets be cobble-paved and a sense of public urban space preserved.

I say a wiser government for, despite the illustrated ‘Mexicanisimas Plazas’ Ciudad Mexico looks like it may lose many of its beautiful urban spaces and, ergo its beauty.

Item: (The News, Mexico City, October 20, 1997). George Soros, the currency speculator (and financial whiz-kid if ever there was one), whom the prime minister of Malaysia accused of wrecking the Asian economy, already owns half this city. According to the latest reports, he’s just bought the Argentine. And he’s persuaded himself he’s “doing good” with his benevolent foundation in Guatemala.

Evidently he is behind a monstrous mega-mall now being built in Colonia Santa Fe. He is dumping a sky-hi pile of building materials on El Paseo de la Reforma
So this is El Paseo. Not quite what the Empress Carlota intended,eh!
and he’s about to start planning (is that the word?) - in partnership with the redoubtable Reichmann Brothers, of London’s Canary Wharf fiasco - another monstrous thing somewhere else here. Bet your bottom dollar, there will be no arboreal public urban spaces in those contrivances.

And, no doubt all vendors in the traditionally smelly, noisy markets and on the streets will be displaced. What will they do? Find employment as ‘rateros’ (pick-pockets) in the mega-malls, I guess! Doesn’t anyone learn?

Another item: (The News, Mexico City, October 20, 1997). “The End of Sovereignty.”

George Soros, Li ka-Shing, Ghengis Khan: they all seem caste from the same mould. They rampage into a * “Tradado curioso y docto nuestras Mexicanisimas Plazas.” Anthinea Blanco, Reed Dillingham. CVS Publicaciones. Seguro Tepeyac. Mexico, 1996. city, country, continent, whatever hits their fancy. Their formula is trenchant: you’ve seen one you’ve seen ‘em all, whether in Burnaby or Santa Fe. Then just as quickly as they come they’ve gone.

We have persuaded ourselves we must be hospitable to their money otherwise our economy will collapse: thus “The End of Sovereignty.”

What is it that makes us tolerate such behaviour? Will our economies collapse? Surely we have choices? Cannot we forgo a modicum of over-priced consumerism, which when all said and done is all these jerks are offering, to preserve the things we, ciudadanos too, value?

The story about the end of sovereignty has us believe we can do nothing about these characters. Mega-shopping malls haven’t worked elsewhere. Look to the failing Metrotown, Burnaby, and the now bankrupt Eaton’s Centre, Vancouver!

When I visited the College of Architecture I noticed mexicano architectural students learning to ‘design’ (does anyone design these things?) ‘condos lujos’ (luxury condominiums). My heart sank. The profesor was assessing plans destined for Santa Fe, that could be fated to sit empty in Surrey or Coquitlam. Ciudad Mexico needs luxury condos and mega-malls as much as it needs ‘mas agua contaminar.’

George Soros is going to do to Ciudad Mexico what Asian money did to Vancouver, or for that matter Surrey and Coquitlam. Remember the Asian miracle that was going to float Vancouver on the Pacific like Cleopatra’s gilded barge?

Item: Hang Seng drops 10% in one day (The News, Mexico City, October 24, 1997). Like Ghengis Khan, rolling into Europe in the 13th century, quick in: quick out, Asian hordes rolled into Vancouver, chucking their money, indiscriminately, at blank walls and mud holes. Then back they rolled. And, like Ghengis Khan, leaving nothing of worth behind. George Soros is up to as much here!

The likes of Soros, Li ka-Shing and Ghengis Khan are simple organisms. They are predictable: they just want everything. Like single cell organisms, amoeba reacting to Sun light, or tape worms reacting to acid in water, they respond according to certain simple, understandable chemical laws.

I am not suggesting these people are organisms. They are human beings. I just wish they would see us in the same light.

We must, nevertheless, counter their destructive actions. We know the consequences. Perhaps mexicanos are too naive to know. We should tell them. We have been that route. It leads no where.

The great shark-infested waters of the outer world are different to the cloistered world of Mexico now gone. George Soros cannot be held at bay by porcine generals and their pip-squeak privates. If such tricks are tried the porcines may find themselves up against privates, not so pip-squeak, accustomed to a foe more formidable than kids in the arms of unarmed mothers.

Look I ain’t whining. I don’t care if Mexico stays enshrouded in peasant paranoia. I’ll be back in my smug complacent haven soon. But if Mexico is serious about holding its own in a real world, NAFTA and God only knows what else, it will have to wake up: pull back the “Cortina de Frijoles.” Let in a bit of sunshine!

Reminder. There’s more to life, and death, than George Soros. I came across a dead man on Avenida Republic del Salvador. It was of the harmless soul, mentioned in a previous Alligator, perpetually zonked out in a church alcove. He would yell as I passed: not begging, just some incoherent chant. I found him sprawled out on the pavement: two people were gawking, so I didn’t hang around. When I pass now, as I will in about an hour, to pick up my ‘taco de canastas,’ I know I will miss him. Poor sod!

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