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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.