Keeping “Safe” in Mexico City

You know you are in the global south when

— the old homeless man on the street wears a T-shirt proclaiming “Extreme Skater” with the image of a skateboard.  He does not know what a skate-board is, or what Extreme Sport is.  He does not speak English.  He picked up the shirt from the rubbish or bought it cheap at some point at the many second hand clothing heaps that exist on the roadside selling this stuff for very little, funneling yet more first world rejects into his city.

— the little shops that fill up the pavements sell single cigarettes.  Not cigarettes by the pack, but as singles.  You do not have the money to buy the whole pack.  Not often.

And thus we arrive in Mexico City.  So close to the borders of its giant North American neighbor, shaped by histories that are so different from that neighbor.  Mired in mythologies that attach themselves to poor countries: it is not safe to travel here.

Many Americans who heard that we would be spending Spring Break with a two year-old Shayari in Mexico City responded with an anxiety-laced “Is it safe?” question.   There are 12 million people who live in the city.  Do they step out of their front doors everyday wondering about the safety of their lives? As we watched them go about their jobs, boarding subway trains, walking the busy streets, occasionally (and rightly) trying to con a first world tourist with overpriced trinkets—we failed to detect signs of any such anxiety on their part.  Obviously people who ask such questions are concerned about AMERICAN SAFETY in a NON-AMERICAN country.   A modern rendition of the missionary-in-the-cauldron story.

Well, long live the cauldrons, we say.

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Our Hotel and Other Stories

We stay in the Zona Rosa.  Originally a haunt of artists and bohemians and now a strange eclectic mix of incommensurables: high priced “respectable” tourist hotels, cutting edge night clubs, gay nightlife and the sex-trade.   This made certain things culturally very complex.  There were, for instance, several sex shops that openly lined the beautiful boulevards of Zona Rosa.  Should one take them as signs of empowerment from an assertive gay and lesbian subculture? Or should we see them as your normal sleek and low aids to flagging businessmen as they weave their way back to their hotels with a sexworker in tow? We are not sure.  One suspects it is a mix of both.  A contradiction of empowerment and enslavement that is perhaps normal of enacted sex life under capitalism.

The city is extraordinarily clean.  Far cleaner than New York or London.  We do not see rubbish anywhere.  No discarded plastic bags posing as edgy art installation from tree tops.  Everyone smokes in this city, but we see no cigarette butts on pavements.

Instead we see a plenitude of public art.  Every single city block has some kind of a sculpture or monument.   Some are beautiful bold testimonies to the modern: such as the over 100 foot tall brilliant yellow modernist cabalito.  Shayari loved it and claimed that it reminded her of the Alexander Calder flamingo in Chicago.  Others are statues of the Great Men variety.  The nation peers from behind numerous ossified leaders: Hidalgo, Morelos, Benito Juarez.  Normally one ought to cringe at such nation-flexing but when you see the Angel on the Independence Column overshadowed by HSBC, you are grateful for reminders of a rebel priest who had abolished slavery, tribute payment by Indians and had one evening in Guanajuato cut off some ruling class heads.

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Mexico City is also still fascinated by the memory of its freedom.  In India, 1947 happened a long time ago.  The generation that brought it about is dead, and very soon the generation that watched it dawn as children will be gone.  Birds defecate generously on Bhagat Singh and Gandhi alike, while Nike store windows are polished everyday in Calcutta, Delhi and Madras.  In Mexico City every revolutionary’s statue stand erect, free from city grime.  And not just Mexcian revolutionaries.  The city is an amazing map of insurgent memory.  Everyone from Marx, Trotsky, Martin Luther King to Oscar Wilde is remembered in some way.  We navigate mutinies as we cross city squares, alleyways and murals.

Murals and Muchachos

(March 15) We arrive at Zacalo Square just past eight a.m.  The sun is bright, the air cool, the square nearly empty of people.  Political squatters have established a permanent tent city of opposition to the ruling parties and government.  The most frequently sited poster features portraits of three industrialists wanted by Mexican workers for the ‘assassination’ of miners.

Shayari takes off in crazy flight across the square in pursuit of pigeons.  Their lives are interrupted again at 8:30 when the bells of Metropolitan Cathedral intone over and over, a sonorous medley.

We enter the National Place.  Rivera’s murals leave us breathless.

We walk a good way through residential/commercial lower middle-class and working-class streets, stopping for lunch at Café Tacuba.  We have garlic soup, pancakes (guess who?), and chicken salad with rolled ham and cheese.  A Zurich man married to a Mexican woman visits our table with his three year old son Lou.  Lou is smaller than Shayari, but growls fiercely and attacks his Baba playfully as they leave.  Shayari will refer to this episode with great amusement over and over on the trip.

After afternoon nap we taxi to the Museo de Diego Rivera in Alameda Central.  Scores of men play chess on concrete benches out front.

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Inside, the upstairs is closed off for renovation, but we are able to stand alone before the vast, spectacular “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda.”  The painting is a history of Mexico from bloody Cortez to independence.  A young boy picks the pocket of a bourgeois.  A gendarme shoots a demonstrator in the eye.  Diaz holds the Constitution aloft above the fray.  Shayari is smitten with Diego’s image of himself as a ‘muchacho,’ or small boy, wearing short pants with frog and snake tucked into front pockets.   We end the day with a carousel ride on a teetering, illuminated whirl in the park center.

Another Kind of Unsafe

(March 16) We arrive at the Museo de Leon Trotsky in Coyoacan early.  The museum cop won’t let us in.  We walk, and circle back for the 10 a.m. opening.  The museum has two front rooms with photographs and memorabilia: Trotsky disembarking in Mexico, photos of his murdered family members, his reading glasses and French-Russian dictionaries in display cases, the rifle used by guards at his villa.  The entire tableaux is one of momentous suspense and sadness and premonition, as if history that has already happened could repeat itself during our visit.

We walk back into the garden, which is also Trotsky’s failed fortress.  Gun turrets are cut into the upper reaches looking down over hundreds of square feet of perfect cacti, small flowers, and precisely cut foot stone footpaths.  The cages where Trotsky kept and tended rabbits sit empty in the garden.  The obelisk where he and Natalia’s ashes are buried is center of the courtyard.  It is a spartan memorial, unbelievably moving.

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The house is even more so: history as small facts accumulated.  A tea kettle in the kitchen, walking stick  on the bed waiting for use, Trotsky’s shoes and jackets hung in the bedroom closet.  These things are animated by our coming but seem desolate unto themselves.  We move through briskly because staying long seems almost to perturb the lives and history intended to have been lived out there.

We walk next to the Blue House, or the Museo de Frida Kahlo.  This place stands in kinetic opposition to the Trotsky house though they seem connected still by his photos and the bedroom he once stayed in.  The blue walls irradiate.  Sunlight fills the gardens, the pre-Hispanic sculptures nestled therein.  The space is sauntering, open as sunlight itself.

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Inside we see as if revisited the remains of another revolutionary life: Kahlo’s paintings first, not the best of them; the kitchen, a warm blue and gold workspace; the dining room where Trotsky, Breton, et al. talked, laughed, fought, ate.  The upstairs studio is window-studded and flooded with light.   Kahlo’s bed, an icon in her paintings, now rests her death mask centered within a rebozo fanned out like fire beneath her.  It reminds me of the apocryphal story that she sat up during her cremation.

We have a nice lunch in lovely Coyoacan.  Shayari is tired, but we press on, and walk the length of the city, stopping at a playground.  Our camera catches Shayari in her new purple Frida t-shirt (or skirt as she insists on calling it). The joy and hope in her face inscribes our day.

Footnote to the city: We are late to board our flight to Atlanta.  An airport employee named Nancy sees that Shayari is distressed by the wait and allows her to cross the ropes into an open area to calm her down.  Nancy and two other airport employees engage and talk and play with her for the fifteen minutes we have yet to wait.  Obviously Mexcian foreign policy in the middle east, unlike that of her neighbor’s, hadn’t caught up with airport paranoia.

We arrive home at 2 in the morning.  Our bodies still processing Mexico City.

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