Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Art of Mexican Protest

IMG_8765
Banners with the names and faces of the forty-three students who were kidnapped in Iguala, Guerrero, allegedly by police, hang in front of a plantón, or a protest encampment, on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.

Every time I’ve come to Mexico City, I’ve happened upon a protest.  In fact, I run across at least one almost every day, sometimes more than one.  (Today, as I was bicycling to my Spanish lesson, I passed two.)   Mexicans love to protest almost as much as the French, though it’s not at all clear that they’re getting the same results as the French.  On this trip to Mexico, I’ve noticed something that I never noticed before:  the use of entertainment in protests.  Maybe song and dance have always been features of Mexican protests, and I’m just noticing it now.  Or maybe it’s a new strategy for capturing the attention of Chilango passersby who are so accustomed to protests that they hardly notice them.

A few weeks ago, for instance, I was walking around in the Historic Center, and I stumbled upon a few dozen nearly naked men dancing to cumbia music in front of the Torre Latinoamericana (the tower in the Historic Center that was once the tallest building in Mexico).  Then I noticed that there were a half a dozen topless women dancing in the middle of the street.  It was causing quite a traffic jam, mainly because pedestrians were taking over el Eje Central (the main thoroughfare through the Historic Center) in order to get a better look and take pictures.  The men had photos of two allegedly corrupt officials attached to their crotches, and behind them were huge banners denouncing the malfeasance of Marcelo Ebrard and Miguel Angel Yunes Linares.  The former is accused of illegally expropriating land to build a subway line when he was mayor of Mexico City, and the latter of embezzling tens of millions of pesos meant for social services.

Just last week, as I was walking around in the Historic Center, I noticed a ballet folklorico being staged in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.  As I got closer, I saw that this too was a protest organized by Antorcha Campesina (Rural Torch—or Peasant Torch—I’m not sure which is the best translation), demanding justice for a man they claim was kidnapped and killed by the government.  (When I asked my friend Mauricio about the protests, he was familiar with both groups and said that they had been holding protests in Mexico City for years.  So maybe this isn’t a new tactic after all.)

No topic inspires more protests these days than the fate of forty-three protesters in the Mexican state of Guerrero.  A little more than a year ago, two busloads of students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were traveling to the town of Iguala, where they intended to disrupt a conference being held by the mayor’s wife.  On orders from the mayor, the local police intercepted the students, shot three of them, kidnapped forty-three others, and then turned them over to a drug cartel that allegedly murdered them and incinerated their bodies in the town dump in nearby Cocula. This is, at any rate, what the federal government claims happened, but it’s a story that few Mexicans believe.  The Mexican publication El Proceso published an article arguing that the federal police and army were also involved in the kidnapping of the students, and a recent article in the New Yorker makes a similar argument.  Teams of forensics experts from the UNAM and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights investigated the incident and claimed that the government’s explanation was physically impossible.  Later, when forensics experts from the University of Innsbrook in Austria identified the remains of three students in material collected from the Cocula town dump, the IACHR’s experts cast doubt on the origins of the samples that the Austrian team had studied.  The families of the identified students have said that they don’t believe the government’s explanation, and every Mexican I have talked to about this topic is equally dubious.  Graffiti and protests signs throughout el DF say, “Fue el Estado” (“It was the state”) and “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos” (“Alive they took them, alive we want them”).

On September 26th of this year, the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping, I was in Puebla, where I joined protesters in the town square who were commemorating the anniversary and demanding government accountability.  As with so many other protests that I have witnessed recently, there was entertainment:  music, spoken word poetry, and stirring speeches.  (The city government sponsored a concert in the town square that day, much to the annoyance of the protesters, who believed it was a deliberate attempt to distract attention from their protest.)  The performances all took place on a small stage, in front of which were arranged forty-three empty chairs, each labeled with the image and name of one of the missing students.  At the end of the event, the names of the forty-three students were all read aloud.  Each name was accompanied by chants of “Vivo se lo llevaron, vivo lo queremos” and the release of one black helium balloon.

IMG_8212_edited

 

 

As Francisco Goldman explains in his excellent series of articles in The New Yorker, these kidnappings hit a nerve in Mexico not because they were isolated incidents but because they epitomize the link between organized crime and corrupt government officials that has been plaguing Mexico for so long.  In his words, “Mexicans know that the murder of the forty-three students, like so many other Mexican atrocities, wasn’t a local crime but rather a manifestation of the political corruption and impunity that have been tormenting the country for years.”

During the protest in Puebla, one speaker decried the lack of accountability for government officials in Mexico.  If just one corrupt politician were to be punished, he said, the country might begin to change for the better.  He spoke of the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose work recently led to the jailing of the country’s president and vice-president, and called for a similar independent, international commission in Mexico.  Many in Mexico have called for an independent investigation of the events in Iguala, including both the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the right-leaning Party of National Action (PAN), but the current PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) dominated government of President Enrique Peña Nieto continues to insist that an independent investigation would be a waste of money.

When I was studying Spanish at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, my teacher recommended that I see the recent film La Dictadura Perfecta, a political satire about the link between corrupt politicians and the Mexican media.  In the film, a state governor caught accepting bribes on camera negotiates a deal with a major TV network to clean up his image and help him win the next presidential election.  When this governor is involved in a second scandal, the TV network arranges the kidnapping of two adorable little girls and covers the story non-stop in order to distract the public’s attention from the scandal.  The movie seems like an improbable political farce.  But after I watched it, I googled it and learned that every outrageous event in the film was based on something that had actually happened in Mexico.  The British publication The Guardian, for instance, somehow got its hands on contracts between the Peña Nieto campaign and Televisa, the largest Mexican television network, and published photos of them.  When I read about this, I recalled the protests I had seen in Mexico City a few years ago, just after Peña Nieto’s election.  Many people carried picket signs bearing images of Peña Nieto with thought bubbles saying, “Televisa made me president.”

IMG_7466_edited
At a 2012 protest after the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, a sign reads, “Televisa made me president. You’re the product of Fraud. Thanks, Televisa.”

With Mexico’s largest TV network in bed with corrupt politicians, the burden to investigate them falls on the shoulders of print journalists.  But print journalists investigating corruption are killed at an astounding rate in Mexico.  More than a hundred journalists have been killed in Mexico in last fifteen years, and twenty-five others have gone missing.  Mexico is the second most dangerous country for journalists in the world, after Iraq.  It’s even more dangerous for journalists than Syria.

Many of the Mexicans I’ve talked to are pessimistic about the chances for real reform in Mexico.  But the protesters have not given up.  A group of them are camped out in tents on Paseo de la Reforma.  I cycle past them every day, and they’re making a lot of noise.

IMG_8553
A banner on Paseo la Reforma in Mexico City reads, “We’re missing 43. It was the state. Alive they were taken; alive we want them.”

 

Bicycling in Mexico City

IMG_8977
An Ecobici stand on Calle Mazatlan in la Condesa

Given the madness of the auto traffic in Mexico City, bicycling here might seem slightly suicidal. But more people do it than you would expect, and every time I come to el DF I see even more people getting around on two wheels.  The city encourages it with an excellent bike-sharing program called Ecobici, and many streets now have bike lanes, including Paseo de la Reforma, where bicyclists are separated from vehicles by metal and cement barriers.  On Sundays, many of the major roads in the city are closed for the ciclovía —an event that allows bicyclists (and roller skaters and pedestrians) to take over the streets. These events are convincing more and more people that the bicycle is a viable form of transportation in Mexico City.

The bike lanes on Paseo de la Reforma are separated from auto traffic by metal posts.
The bike lanes on Paseo de la Reforma are separated from auto traffic by metal posts.

Four years ago, when I spent five days here en route to Buenos Aires, I first noticed the Ecobici stations that are ubiquitous in la Condesa, la Roma, Zona Rosa, and Centro Historico.  I was dying to hop on a bike, but when I googled Ecobici, I learned that it was pretty much just for Mexicans.  A local address and a Mexican credit card are required in order to get an Ecobici account, or at least they were at the time.  Several weeks ago, on a fantastic Mexico City Bike Tour, led by an UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) professor of landscape architecture, I learned that these bikes are now available to tourists and that all one has to do is go to one of the stands and swipe a credit card in order to get a temporary account.  Well, in theory, anyway.  When I tried to sign up, I kept getting an error message.  I told my Spanish teacher at the International House about my experience, and she urged me to go directly to the Ecobici office and try to get one of the cards that will allow me to use Ecobici for a whole year.  They’re supposedly only for residents of Mexico City, but she told me that previous students of hers had managed to get them anyway.

So I headed to the Ecobici office and spent two solid hours getting signed up.  It was surprisingly complicated.  First, I had to walk around the block to a branch of Bancomer and open an “express” Mexican bank account.  Then, I had to call to activate my new express debit card (and be grilled in Spanish for about 20 minutes about what I was doing in Mexico).  Once I had paid with my new card, I was given a small pamphlet about bike safety and Mexican biking laws, and after I read the pamphlet, I had to take a written test to prove that I had read it.  Finally, I had to walk to a copy shop and make a photocopy of my passport.  (When I told my Spanish teacher about my experience, she was incredulous.  According to her, a written test isn’t even necessary to get a driver’s license in Mexico.)

But as they say in Spanish, valió la pena.  It was totally worth it.  Now that I have Ecobici card, I can just walk up to one of the bike stations, swipe my card, and pick up a bike.  I have to return it within 45 minutes to another Ecobici station, but Ecobici stations are not hard to find (and I was also given a handy map that shows me exactly where they are).  Then after waiting about five minutes, I can get a new bike.  The bikes are all in good condition, with adjustable seats, both front and rear lights, and a small storage space (with a bungee cord) that you can use for a backpack or whatever else you might be carrying.  I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth already.  It’s only $30 US for the whole year.  That’s about what I’d pay to rent a bike for one day in almost any American or European city!  And I’ve used these bikes every day since signing up—including on Sundays for the ciclovía.

Ciclovías, or ciclovías recreativas, originated in Bogota, but now they’re gaining popularity all over the world.  The basic concept is that, for a period of several hours, major city streets are shut down to auto traffic so that people can bike in a safe, car-free space.  It’s a great way to introduce people to urban bicycling.  San Francisco’s version, called Sunday Streets, happens once a month, and Oakland’s version, Oaklavía, occurs three times a year.  But in Mexico City it’s a weekly event, every Sunday.   From my apartment, I can walk just one block to Calle Mazatlan, pick up an Ecobici, and ride it through car-free streets all the way to the historic center.  Riding along Paseo de la Reforma, normally choked with auto traffic, with hundreds of other bicyclists, is an exhilarating experience.

This past Sunday’s ciclovía took me past a temporary art exhibit on Paseo de la Reforma, between the Angel of Independence and Diana the Huntress.  Sponsored by  the Museum of Popular Art, it featured brightly colored papier-mâché fantasy creatures that attracted hundreds of families with children and quite a few bicyclists.  I stopped and took a few photos and then headed on my way.   At the next intersection, a woman approached me and asked if she could give me a hug.  I was a little skeptical.  I had recently read something about a pick-pocketing scheme in Bogota that involves hugging people and then stealing their wallets.  But then I noticed that there were about a dozen people there offering hugs to everyone.  I received about ten hugs before the light turned green, and my wallet, cell phone, and camera were still with me when I pedaled away.

A temporary art exhibit on Paseo de la Reforma
A temporary art exhibit on Paseo de la Reforma
The man in the blue jacket is about to give me a hug.
The man in the blue jacket is about to give me a hug.

In the waiting room of the Ecobici office, a video on constant loop boasts about the degree to which Ecobici has helped reduce air pollution in Mexico City.  It’s undoubtedly true.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve talked to several people who have told me that the air quality in el DF is dramatically better than it was 20 years ago. In fact, they tell me that almost every aspect of life here is better now than it was 20 years ago, and it’s all because of good public policy.  In addition to encouraging bicycling, the city has improved public transportation, removed smoke-spewing factories, and regulated the content of gasoline.  According to Corydon Ireland’s article “The Makeover of Mexico City,” in 1992 the UN declared that Mexico City had the worst air quality in the world, “so bad that flying birds, overwhelmed, would fall dead from the sky. . . . Air quality in Mexico City now resembles that in Los Angeles: not wonderful, but not catastrophic.”  These days, Los Angeles is following the lead of Mexico City.  In 2014, after a trip to Mexico City, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti recommended that his city try to imitate the Ecobici program, and in August of this year, the Los Angeles City Council approved the idea.

Why Mexico City?

 

IMG_8706
Avenida Chapultepec in Mexico City. The city has plans to turn this traffic-clogged thoroughfare into a cultural zone much more friendly to pedestrians. It will include, among other things, an elevated park resembling New York’s High Line.

When I tell people that I’m spending the bulk of my sabbatical in Mexico City, they usually say something like “Oh, cool!” but they look at me as if they think I’ve lost my mind.

I understand why they’re so perplexed.  I visited Mexico several times before daring to go to its capital.  Much of what I had read about the city made it seem a daunting place—polluted and crime-ridden—that is perhaps best avoided.  On my visits to Mexico, I met several Mexicans who had never been to Mexico City and had no intention of ever going.  But I also met people who had visited or lived in Mexico City and loved it, who described it as the New York of Mexico, a cosmopolitan megalopolis that offers everything a great city can offer.  When I finally worked up the nerve to visit, I fell in love with the place.  I have since visited so many times that I’ve lost count.

IMG_8645
The Palace of Fine Arts and the old Post Office in the Historic Center of Mexico City, seen from the 8th floor cafe in the Sears Tower.

This is apparently a common experience.  In his book First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, David Lida describes being similarly intimidated by Mexico City (also known as el DF–pronounced “day efay”for Distrito Federal) before visiting it, then immediately falling so hard for the place that he rearranged his life so that he could live here.  Lida’s book is a kind of love letter to the city, and it is just one of several that I have come across recently, including Daniel Hernandez’s Down and Delirious in Mexico City and John Ross’s El Monstruo. 

IMG_6428

Mexico City’s admirers are not unaware of its problems:  crime, pollution, poverty, income inequality.  It’s a sinking city that is running out of water.  In Down and Delirious in Mexico City, Daniel Hernandez explains that “the weight of 20  million people and 4 million cars and skyscrapers and tunnels and elevated highways presses the ground year after year into what was once a vast bed of interlocking lakes, a sinking that is accelerated by depleting groundwater.  Buildings in the old center lean this way or that in the soft earth.  Steps are added at the bottom of outdoor staircases to level the land for pedestrians.”

But the city’s approach to coping with its challenges—both on an individual and a collective level—makes it an exciting place for many.  As Lida says, “Part of what makes a city dynamic is the way that its citizens deal with its problems, and the people here are nothing if not imaginative at problem solving.  Indeed, the Mexicans and their ingenuity are very much a part of what gives Mexico City its dynamic energy.”  Lida details the creative strategies that Mexico City’s poor use to survive in an economy that doesn’t offer them many good job opportunities.  And the government of Mexico City, whatever its flaws, has managed to make the city a better place to live in the past couple of decades.  Crime is not nearly as bad as it once was (and according to Lida, even at its worst it wasn’t as bad as the American press made it seem).  The per capita homicide rate in Mexico City is lower than that of Washington, D.C., Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Phoenix, Dallas or Las Vegas.  In an interview with Amy Goodman, the late John Ross pointed out that Mexico City has been ruled by the left-leaning PRD (the Party of the Democratic Revolution) since 1997, when the citizens of the city were finally allowed to elect their own government.  As he explains, “No other megalopolis in the Americas, and perhaps in the world, has been run by a left party for so long.  It’s been an interesting experiment. . . . A lot of things have changed. There were a lot of things to change.  . . . [I]n terms of social amenities, [after] thirteen years of a left party, [we have] things like abortion on demand during the first twelve weeks of gestation, free abortion on demand; same-sex marriage, as of March 4th [of 2009], and now every week we’re having collective marriages; a right-to-die bill, with dignity; bicycling every Sunday, two days a week without cars — the air has gotten better, the gas been reformulated; [there’s] a commitment to recycling. Mexico puts out about 20,000 tons of garbage every day, and that’s a lot of recycling to be done. All of these social amenities, I think they’re very distinct from the rest of Mexico and very distinct from the rest of Latin America. And sometimes it feels like Mexico City is San Francisco, you know?”

Mexico City certainly looks nothing like San Francisco, but I get Ross’s point.  While traveling in Quintano Roo, I heard a Spanish tourist say that although Mexico City is not beautiful, it is full of life and energy.  I actually do find el DF beautiful, but I understand her point.  Large swaths of the city are quite ugly, and when people talk about what they love about Mexico City, few mention its beauty.  And yet, parts of the city are lovely.  The historic center contains block after block of majestic buildings—some dating from the 16th Century.  Paseo de la Reforma, often called the Champs Elysees of Mexico, is a broad boulevard with modern skyscrapers and grand monuments.  It’s no Champs Elysees, but it’s pretty impressive nonetheless.  The glitzy Zona Rosa, popular with American tourists, has a lot of trees and some handsome historic buildings.  (Given that it’s also Mexico City’s gay neighborhood, you’d think I’d like it more, but it has far too many American chain restaurants for me.  For some reason, I’m never happy when I’m on a block that has a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Burger King, a Wendy’s, and a Starbucks, even if it also has several gay bars.)

IMG_4472 (1)
The cathedral in the Zócalo, the heart of Mexico City’s Historic Center.

IMG_8689 (1)

 

The bohemian central neighborhoods Colonia Roma and la Condesa, in addition to being hipster paradises, are home to peaceful parks and Art Deco and Art Nouveau architectural gems.  As Amber Bravo says in an article about Herman Miller’s decision to locate its Latin American headquarters in la Condesa, these neighborhoods “paint a picturesque rebuttal to the notoriously frenetic image of Mexico’s capital. Leafy, residential, and almost European in flavor, the boulevards, parks, plazas, and cafés that punctuate the area’s colonias beg to be ambled and discovered on foot or bicycle.”  These neighborhoods are my favorites.  Although they resemble many hipster enclaves in the United States and Europe (Soho, Chueca, Fort Greene, Greenwich Village, the Mission, Uptown Oakland, Silver Lake), they’re also unmistakably Mexican.  I see things here that I would never see in the U.S., mostly things connected to Mexico’s vast informal economy:  wandering street musicians, vendedores ambulantes (i.e., people selling stuff on the street), food stands, news stands (which have almost disappeared in the US but are everywhere here) and young men selling tamales from bicycle carts, announcing their presence with a loud recording that urges everyone to “acérquese y pida sus ricos tamales oaxaqueños.”  There are also shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe (la Virgencita) on almost every block, as well as a few shrines to Santa Muerte (Saint Death), a folk saint that, despite the objections of the Catholic Church, has a huge cult following in Mexico City.

IMG_6412 (1)
A shrine to Santa Muerte in Plaza Rio de Janeiro in Colonia Roma
IMG_6508
Avenida Álvaro Obregón in la Roma

Mexico City is the largest city in the Spanish-speaking world, and it is one of the most important—if not the most important—cultural capitals of Latin America.  Lida says that, culturally speaking, Mexico City has “offerings more along the lines of First World cities than any other in Latin America.” He adds that “on any given night there is an extensive selection of theater (classical, contemporary, experimental), film (mostly from Hollywood, but also from France, Japan, Romania, or Argentina), music (from the local symphony orchestra, to an avant-garde jazz combo from New York, to touring rappers from Beirut), and public presentations of just-published books.”  Mexico City also has a vibrant gay scene.  People say it has some of the best gay bars in the world, and I see public displays of affection between same-sex couples everywhere I go.  (In this sense, it truly is like San Francisco.)  For this reason, when I decided to research Latin American LGBT literature as my sabbatical project, Mexico City seemed like the best place to go. There’s even a queer book store here (Voces en Tinta), something San Francisco no longer has.

IMG_7713

So here I am, sharing an apartment with strangers in la Condesa, trying to improve my Spanish, reading queer fiction, and wandering the streets of this fascinating city.  I’m hoping to use this blog to share some of what I learn about Mexican culture—and to recount my adventures here.

IMG_6519