DECEMBER 31, 1997.


Well, “La Cortina de Frijoles” is opening up a little bit. I don’t know how far this will go but I’m here to follow through: where or whatever!

But it did not open enough for some gracious mexicano family to invite me for Xmas. So I spent it alone and enjoyed every bit of it. I went for a walk, there being no 'contamination,' through the palm-treed boulevards of Colonia Condesa and had dinner on the roof terrace of the Gran Hotel overlooking the zocalo.

The Gran Hotel is something else. Situated on the zocalo it is very art nuevo. The lobby rises four floors and culminates in a very beautiful stained glass skylight. It is massive. I’d like to say it is Tiffany glass and it may well be, looking at it, but I cannot be sure. The remainder of the lobby is decorated in filigree ironwork.

Beat that for an Xmas treat!

The best bit of news, for me, is that in January I will be teaching at the College of Architecture at UNAM. I am really pleased because I expect to meet people who think the way I do, are of my general age and professional persuasion. That is a couple weeks away.

Suffice it to say my essay on public urban space in Mexico, essentially the content of Alligator no. 7, was very well received. La profesora in charge of extra-curricular activities actually asked, with surprise, “did you do the sketches?” Of course, lady. I can draw!

So I’m excitedly looking forward to January. I’ll keep you posted. And oh yes, I’m also looking forward to February because that is the best time to visit the Monarch butterflies in their habitat at Anguangeo. They’ll be returning to Canada in early March.

This Mexico adventure still has its ups and downs though. I’d rather talk to mexicanos than butterflies and I have been trying to get to know Mexico through mexicanos. That is very hard. Sometimes I just give up saying 'damn mexicanos.' But that is pointless. It is, after all, their country. And my language skills are not the best even though I can continue a conversation sufficiently to be understood. But mostly they want me to help them with their 'ingles.'

Nevertheless, I am being more adventurous. As I say, “La Cortina de Frijoles” has opened up a little, because I have decided to be a bit more aggressive.

Most of the people I met at first, the ones I have mentioned in previous Alligators, seem to have vanished. The ladies who want to live in San Diego, especially the real estate one who is looking for a rich American to waft her there, the school superintendent who acted weirdly, Monica who introduced me to her mother and talked about me taking her to Canada, the other Monica who wanted me to finance her mother’s grocer’s store, and lots more, have all graciously vanished.

Hotel guests continue to be the easiest to get to know. But they are transients and usually I end up being a city guide to travelers from all over the world. With the mild weather I keep my door open so they just pop in. I know this city better now than many locals now, certainly better than the hotel receptionists.

Hotel guests chaperone me around: a production engineer from Rio, a German TV reporter from Koln, a German underwater archaeological explorer, a Dutch video artist recording ‘El dia de la muerte’ and a Lebanese translator who resides in Los Angeles and London: all attractive, amiable companions. And with such exotic professions, I sometimes wonder if holiday time isn’t fantasy time when people discard the cloak of humdrum life and adopt the persona of their dreams.

Every one speaks very good English, no matter where they come from, know nothing of Mexico and, of course, are not the reason for me being here. So I avoid hotel guests.

Then there are, or were, two other long-time residents in the hotel. Peter an American self-ordained religious missionary (what else?) and Andrea’s, another German TV reporter.

Then there is Chris. Chris doesn’t live here but he may as well.

Peter moved in with one of his disciples but visits regularly because his disciple has asked him to move out. Where will he live? He responds dreamily that God, or more probably some kind generous soul will provide.

Peter is, or was, a member of a sect, about 20, from Minnesota who landed on us last July responding to a call to come to Mexico. He is the last remaining member. Exactly who called or why is not explicit. Isn’t that typically American? Mexicanos need to be saved and here we are to do the saving: the American way.

So far he has eked out a living teaching English illegally: bootlegging a tax number from heaven, literally, knows where. He has no qualifications or experience. He hasn’t bothered to acquire even a remote facility with espanole. And he wonders why his students don’t stay.

Peter’s religion dictates giving. He has given up all worldly things: nothing matters, he says. I share his view, who the hell cares about anything these days, except that there are 5 or 6 billion people around who have other ideas. Still, for a guy whose avowed mission in life is to give he’s doing an awful lot of taking!

Andreas, the other resident, fits his fantasy holiday persona perfectly. He wanders around with large tomes of government research, taking as gospel everything in print. If he is, indeed, a T.V. reporter in Munich God help his viewers.

He speaks ‘ingles’ perfectly: German and espanole too, I suppose.

In one of his all night drunken rampages (this is his third, here) Andrea’s wrecked the hotel bar, his friend’s computer, and nearly himself. Next morning his blood was all over the lobby table.
Hotel Isabel lobby: After the clean-up.
He was worried they would kick him out. He came up to me distraught, ashamed and in a confessional mood. So I listened, protesting that I am not a psychiatrist. He didn’t seem to mind: any port in a storm. He fears he may be an alcoholic. I fear he may be worse: a middle-class, over-indulged kid on the loose!

In his room blood was smeared all over the walls. All is well, though. The hotel is forgiving: they only socked him for the glass bar room door. He’s still here.

I convinced him that is not his normal drunken behavior. Someone must have spiked his drink. A ha, that got him off the hook. His behavior is not his responsibility. Anyway, I referred him to my psychiatrist friend whom I will tell you about in a moment.

I hope I am not being a tattletale. I guess we are all trying to get through the night in our own ways! These characters are worth hearing about, though. Don’t forget they are holiday fantasies: that is, I am telling you the truth, it is just that they are far enough away from home to be acting out their constructs. At home they, no doubt, behave normally. Anyway, we all get along fine although I have no interest in joining them in their prolonged beer binges, especially since they involve Chris.

Chris is an Australian lawyer practicing here. At least that is what he says. He could quite likely be another holiday fantasy.

He gets pie-eyed drunk every night. Fortunately, and unlike Andreas, he does so passively. He props himself up, strategically, at the bar so he can observe everyone coming and going. When the bar closes he props himself up in the hotel lobby for the same purpose. Later, he asks silly questions. Get a life Chris!

As I say, I am intent on cultivating mexicanos but I am always saying to myself, au, mexicanos are not like Canadians, they are repressed by church and family. But that is an excuse. They probably are like us, just a little more reticent and besides being big-city folk they mind their own business and expect me to do like-wise! So I am in no position to judge.

Anyway, I’ve decided to take the ‘what have I got to lose’ approach. At best I land-up embarrassed. At worst I make a fool of myself. So what’s new? And results are beginning to show.

Like with Jorge Tenango Tamariz.

Jorgito Tamarze, Age 11,
en piso quatro Hotel Isabel.

Jorgito is eight, the son of Senorita Marina the housekeeper on the fourth floor of the Hotel Isabel. The family lives in San Martin about two hours by microbus on the way to Pueblo. His father, his parents live ‘union libre,’ works in the hotel also. For Navidad he gave me some chocolate candies. His mother gave me a little sculptured treasure chest with Santa sitting on top.

Most Sundays Marina brings Jorgito to work with her. He comes into my room to watch television. Otherwise he just hangs around, obviously bored.

But he is an incredibly good little boy: no fuss, no bother. In fact a bit passive for a boy of his age. His mother works on Sunday from 9.00 a.m. until 6.00 p.m. often later. He patiently waits.

Our first encounter was over arm wrestling. Such energetic sport on Sunday morning is not in my character: I am surprised we continued our friendship. Needless to say he always wins: and I am way too old for that sort of thing. Later he got a bit more ambitious and presented me with his maths homework. I got a little bit more ambitious, too, by trying to solve it. Eventually I pulled out my pocket calculator.

This was about six weeks ago. He clearly is not going to be a maths genius: if I recall, he had about half right. Nor am I, so the pocket calculator was essential if the Canadian flag was to fly high. So, after pressing a few buttons, hey presto, 100%. Did he tell his teacher? I have no idea.

Gradually our “relationship” began to develop and we went out to the closest VIPS (White Spot-like restaurant chain here) for ice cream etc. I suspect Marina is glad I provide brief entertainment and I certainly enjoy him. We don’t talk much, so my ambitious language project is on hold with Jorgito. Actually he doesn’t talk much, not because of my limited ‘espanole,’ but because he likes to be quiet.

Then for a couple of Sundays he was down with “el gripe.” So was I! So was, and is, everybody! But the Sunday before we walked the length and breadth of Bosque Chapultepec looking for “los animales.” We didn’t find them but we did visit ‘El Castillo Chapultepec.’ Chapultepec is one hell of a big park!

Sunday is freebie day for all Museums. That means the crowds are intense. Among others, thousand of uniformed school children are intently viewing their history, taking notes. Jorgito takes notes in his head. Like, when I dutifully explain the big Diego Rivera mural depicting historic mexicanos like Miguel Hidalgo of independence fame, he, at the time, appears disinterested. Then when his mother comes to work next morning she reports in detail what Jorgito has told her he’s seen. I am more than surprised because he says little, even acts a bit bored. But he’s taking it all in.

He is thoughtful too. Last Sunday we did find ‘los animales.’ And after we’d done looking for hours at them we had goodies, like pizza and he always saves a piece for Mama.

Well, I had a minor bout with mexicano medicos last week. For two months I have been struggling with ‘el gripe.’ I just couldn’t shake it off. So a week ago I overheard a guest request a doctor at reception. Wow, I thought, if he’s coming anyway, why not? The receptionist said it may be expensive at M$200 . . . it turned out to be a hell of a lot more!

Little did I realize my innocent request would result in several visits to the clinic in Colonia Condesa. After one call to the hotel and the shock of the bill, I did the visiting. Anyway it was an interesting experience.

Dr. Mora attended me. His ‘ingles’ is good but we had to use both languages to communicate. He is about fifty, born in Cuernevaca and attended UNAM medical school. He has two kids in school. He started medical practice by operating a clinic in Tijuana. With his partner medicos he still owns Tijuana in addition to the Condesa, Clinica Sinaloa, and a hospital on Avenida Chapultepec in the city. I would assume he’s quite rich unless all the assets are mortgaged up to the hilt. Yet he considers himself upper middle class. He was very relaxed placing himself in the mexicano social hierarchy explaining how the various strata’s are identified.

Mexican private medical care costs about the same as in Canada. Lots of attention, lots of pills, lots of vitamins. Dr. Mora has a very gentle and attentive bedside manner. He kept assuring me everything would be all right, don’t worry. I was beginning to wonder what I had. Hey doc, I was thinking, I only have ‘el gripe’ (the flu)!

At first I was wondering how it would work out. But I can assure Canadian potential patients Clinica Sinaloa in Condesa is reliable. I hope B.C. Med. doesn’t give me the run-around!

Dr. Mora showed me around his local establishments. In fact during my twelve days taking his advice we had some very interesting conversations. He seemed to take a liking to me. Unlike doctors in Canada he didn’t appear to be rushed off his feet. Although he was on call 24 hrs, apparently seven days a week, he always had time for good long conversations.

We talked about how foolish mexicanos are for having so many babies. His obstetrics department is always busy. But with so many babies most families cannot afford to give them a life. God know, every one I have spoken to are members of large families.

I mentioned my teaching stint at the College of Architecture, while expressing my dismay that there are so many students, 1,400, and how do so many find jobs? He explained: they don’t. Many qualified architects sell construction equipment and real estate!

I cannot say I got to know Dr. Mora very well. But our brief professional encounter has opened “La Cortina de Frijoles” a little bit more.

I have, however, got to know one other medico. Dr. Hugo Gonzales Cantu is my other very important window on Mexico. He’s the guy I referred Andrea’s to when I found myself getting out of my professional depth: he specializes in alcoholism.

He’s a psychiatrist and doesn’t have much time for socializing. Every time we settle down to talk his beeper goes off! Nevertheless we have had a few good lunches and I hope we continue. The week before our last lunch he had been mugged, he told me, in broad daylight close to where we were eating. It happened so quickly he handed over his cash before anyone else on the street noticed. That’s the best thing to do when three kids are wielding knives at you, he said. I agree!

He is a typical mexicano intellectual, about mid-thirties, un-married, university educated. His ‘ingles’ is almost perfect; being a physician all his scientific reading material is ‘en ingles.’

Politically, the PRI leaves him cold, although he admits, much to my surprise, they have given Mexico 65 years of peace (peace?) and stable government. He supports Cardenas the new, supposed left leaning, governor of Mexico DF.

Hugo was the first mexicano I met. With his friend Raymondo we had a beer at La Opera, famous for the bullet hole preserved in the ceiling (but lousy food) from Pancho Villa’s pistol in 1911. Later we went to an avant-garde art show opening. It was a mind-boggling introduction to Mexico on my second night: bewildering as hell for this small town guy.

Subsequently we have visited the Museo Antropologia. Hugo is passionately interested in the pre-Columbian history of Mexico. He must think me a philistine, as he walks me around all the history, as I protest, this is all re-constructions and let’s go to the Museo Nacional de Historia to check-out post Independence history.

He’s from Monterrey. He’s here because he doesn’t enjoy the dry, dusty desert climate of Nuevo Leon.

I wish I could tell you more, but I see so very little of him. He’s in Monterrey with his family for Christmas now. We hope to rectify that in the future.

Well, I hope Jorgito, Hugo and Dr. Mora give you some idea about mexicanos. I cannot say they are typical. ‘La Cortina de Frijoles’ hasn’t opened up enough for me to make that judgment.

I do know this. Jorgito is going to inherit a Mexico much different from that of his father. Globalization, consumerism, liberal economics are all changing the landscape. There’s some nonsense talk going on about democracy too. Yet all this change is going on in the face of old habits.

Mexico is changing but mexicanos are not. The people of Chiapas haven’t change very much and the official reaction to their justified demands hasn’t either.

The slaughter continues. ‘Massacre Claims 46 Lives In Chiapas’ (The News, Dec. 24, 1997). Last Monday, not twenty years ago, December 22 that happened. Old habits flourish. Sub-commandant Macros says the trouble in Chiapas is about NAFTA!

I don’t know what you receive in Canada but every day there are reports of police violence and political kidnappings. The old guard is still at work. These are of a high political level and, although there is the usual big-city petty crime, generally ordinary Mexico is not affected. What it does say, however is, that despite President Zedillo’s official happy face, things are not well in high-up places. For all the talk of imminent economic recovery, the benefits of NAFTA and globalization, some one, may be lots of some ones, very powerful, somewhere are not very happy. Plus ca change plus ca meme chose. N’ est pas?

A big-time Mexican real estate agent representing an American company was murdered last week while taking an ‘sitio’ taxi. This was unusual because ‘sitio’ taxis are officially registered and supposedly safe.

Last week the news was that a very high level government official, I forget his name, had disappeared: feared kidnapped. This was no ordinary joe. This was a big shot no doubt with an array of highly sophisticated security surrounding him.

Officially he was on holiday. Evidently, insurance agreements wont allow the victims to go public. So for days he was missing: vacationing. The point is where? Then he miraculously appeared. He had, indeed, been kidnapped in a very sophisticated and well-planned operation. He was released for a ransom of M$6m. Some one had to have known what they were doing, with resources, to have pulled that off.

But to get back to the Chiapas massacre. In this poorest of states three factions are battling it out: the entrenched priistas, that is the PRI (these guys certainly don’t want change, despite their rhetoric) that has ruled Mexico for 65 years, the EZLN, sub-commandant Marco’s Zapatistas and Obispo Ruiz’s ‘Catechists.’ Reports say all are at each other’s throats. All accuse each other of the massacre. I am told all Obispo Ruiz is doing is helping poor ‘indigena’ and the official church doesn’t like his independence so it bad-mouths him.

One thing is known, the Zapatistas have declared 1111 communities independent from the State of Mexico. That’s a change from the old regime. It has established alternate governments in each of these communities. And that is the source of the friction. The priista appointed officials sit twiddling their thumbs impotently while Zapatistas run the show to their own advantage.

Everybody knows the murderers this time. So far Jacinto Arias Cruz mayor of Chenalho municipality, including Acteal where the massacre actually took place, has been arrested with 23 of his supporters (The News, Dec. 28, ‘97). Evidently they are the priista inspired ‘Paz y Justice’ (Peace and Justice, ironically!). They are recognized, despite their ski-masks (Zapatistas aren’t the only ones), as locals intimidating ‘indigena’ into not supporting the other side.

If you are a villager you don’t know where to turn. Show sympathy for the priistas. Zap, you are shot by the Zapatistas. Similarly, you are shot by the priistas if you help the EZLN. All this is done to unarmed campesenos, women and children. This has been going on for years. The 46 are just the most recent. And all the while President Ernest Zedillo Ponce de Leon, while shedding crocodile tears, sends in the pip-squeak heroic army who just throws gasoline on the fire: obviously the army is seen as siding with the government (which, in Chiapas is the enemy). He talks change but he relies on the old guard when he’s needs them.

Everybody agrees, get the army out of Chiapas and implement the, now, two year old peace agreement. The old PRI don’t seem to be able to wrap their mind around that imminently reasonable idea.

No wonder Mexico City residents are called ‘Chillangos’ by the rest of Mexico. ‘Chillango’ means greedy pig! While the people of Chiapas are crying for basic human needs ciudadanos are indulging media images of blue eyed California girls as though that is the Mexican norm.

I dunno! Is this being imposed or is this what Mexicans want? Is this catering to the fifteen per cent of the population who are doing very well out of all this globalization nonsense, thank you, while leaving everyone else in the cold?

There are some good television programs and movies made in Mexico, too. Not withstanding that, on the six channels I have available, much of the time is given over to American re-runs with subtitles and of course the inimitable Claude van Damm. They seem to go for violent cop movies. Who is watching?

Media here is essentially Madison Avenue hype. There are moraines in the advertisements but by far the most prominent imagery is Californian blue eyed blondes. God only knows why: mexicanos, with their raven beauty, must be collectively among the most beautiful people in the world. Are ordinary mexicanos keeping up with this imposition? Go figure?

Another puzzle for me as an ingénue observer: mexicanos defy everything Freud hypothesized, the writings of Dr. Spock and, God knows, most contemporary theory on child raising. On the face of it mexicanos mothers and families are very nurturing. Always they hold their babies very close. They apparently take them everywhere. In public places they have special facilities for mothers and babies. Later, they are very protective. Families live together. Children stay home well past their twenties. Fathers and mothers won’t let their adult live-at-home daughters out late: their sons too for all I know. Not just for economic reasons, either.

How would a twenty something Californian blue eyed blond react if daddy demanded she be home by 9.00 p.m.? Are mexicanos going to continue to let daddy control their lives or are they going to get out the bottle and become California blondes?

If you ask a mexicano where he/she lives they will invariably say with Mama. On rare occasions will papa be mentioned: like at curfew time. Yet overt sexism is rampant. All the chicas I have met tells me it is very difficult to be a woman in Mexico. I believe them.

Perhaps, if they would accept who they are, eschew those media images, they may learn to like themselves. Nevertheless, in the media everything is, ‘one happy, blue eyed blond family! I wish I knew what real mexicanos think of that.

The people I meet and see on the street and the images in the media don’t somehow seem to jibe. Just like the army and the people of Chiapas don’t jibe. You know, you cannot control big changes in one little part of society and expect passive compliance from everyone else!


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