South of the border, down Mexico way
“I’ve been robbed 4 times. One time, 6 masked men tied me up in my store in the Zocolo and took everything," the owner of the boutique B&B I was staying in the charming Condesa neighborhood gave me a concerned look, "… Are you sure you want to take the metro?” Repeatedly, people warned me of the possibility of being robbed- or worse- around Mexico City. “I know Mexicans who’ve never even been on the metro,” said my State Department handler.
Sufficiently wary, I decided to still go to the Zocolo, the largest square in the city. As I set off for the metro, curiosity got the best of me and I hopped on a bus marked for the metro station, holding my bag tight. At the station, I paid the 10 pesos (less than a dollar) for 2 train tickets and tried to sneak an occasional peek at my metro map rather than hold it in my hand so as not to look like a tourist. By the time I got to the transfer point though, it was obvious to everyone that I was lost and several people approached me, offering to give me directions. A few even asked to escort me to my destination to make sure I got the directions right.
Once I arrived at the Zocolo, I emerged out of the station into one of the largest public squares I’ve seen in Latin America. Cars zipped by as an imposing church anchored one angle of the square and the Presidential Palace angled the other.
I toured the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral built upon the site of the Templo Mayor of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
I contemplated Diego Rivera's murals depicted Mexican history, the brutality of Spanish colonialism, and the paternalism of Catholic missionaries in the National Palace and wandered through streets and stores.
Despite the warnings not to, I often stopped in the local establishments and ate and drank with the locals rather than frequent the tourists spots for 10X the price. I explored every nook and cranny of the beautifully decorated House of Tiles (Casa de los Azulejos) before stepping back out onto the bustling city street filled with people too polite to push by you as you gazed at a monument.
I soon realized that if I stopped to snap a photo, the Mexicans would stop as well simply to appreciate the beauty of what I was photographing and suggest other things that were worthy of encapsulating in a photo. Everywhere I went, people greeted me with a smile and a hello. As I ate, people walking by my table would wish me a good meal.
It was obvious that Mexico City was egalitarian, unlike many other cities in the region where the locals are priced out of the best attractions and restaurants. “Tourist” attractions and museums alike were filled with Mexicans also enjoying their national patrimony. Mexicans were lined up for blocks outside of the Palacio de Bellas Artes to see the works of Michelangelo. The Zocolo was packed with people enjoying a free outdoor concert the first day I visited the city center.
The next day, I started the day at the fascinating Anthropology Museum. Claudia, the tour guide, took us through the highlights of the pre-Mayan and pre-Aztec Mexico. Pointing out a discovery that highlighted possible warfare or human sacrifices amongst one distinct indigenous culture that was previously believed to have been pacifists, Claudia said something that stood out to me, “With every new discovery, we Mexicans get to re-examine and re-define what we know about our history.” I was immediately struck with a sense of loss for the little we know about the history of Africa and its descendants, and the whitewashing of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. There is power and pride in being able to tell your own history and re-imagine your identity, this was obvious in Claudia's demeanor.
Taking a break from the bustling Mexico City, I spent Saturday in the charming city of San Miguel de Allende. I’d purchased my bus tickets online via ELN for the 4 hour bus ride. I was impressed with the luxury coach line that offered snacks to each rider (my United Airlines flight didn’t even offer peanuts), large and comfortable reclining seats, and a great selection of movies. When I arrived at San Miguel’s bus terminal at the outskirts of the city, I followed the Mexicans to the bus stop and hopped on a bus with them rather than take a cab like the other tourists. The bus driver assured me that he did, in fact, go to the city center before I got comfortable for the 15 minute bus ride.
San Miguel was as picturesque as the guidebooks said it was. I spent hours at a busy market taking pictures of people deeply engaged in enjoying life's simple pleasures with the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel rising towards the clouds. Exploring the narrow streets led me to an Italian restaurant where I settled in for some comfort food. During an afternoon thunderstorm, I dipped into a spa for a full body scrub and pedicure overlooking the city. Once the rain passed, I was ready to head back to Mexico City, having seen everything the little town had to offer.
That Sunday, my last day in Mexico City, I headed to La Lagunilla Flea Market. My mother used to take us to the Swap Shop flea markets and thrift stores as kids early Saturday mornings to catch the best deals. Now as an adult, in every place I visit, I always look for local secondhand treasures.
At Langunilla, I found myself amongst a dizzying array of food vendors, tattoo artists, barbers, antique dealers, clothing vendors, book dealers, etc. as DJ's spun pop hits and people haggled for a bargain. I drifted through the stalls, stopping here and there to pick up souvenirs for folks back home before noticing a curious trend: there was Nazi memorabilia everywhere. At first I thought it was just one guy with a strange hobby, but as I began to look a little closer, several vendors had SS gear proudly on display. At another stand, I found Mexican comics prominently featuring a jigaboo-like character and bought a few a reminder of how easy it is to dehumanize and stereotype other people.
Next, I took an Uber to the Frida Kahlo Museum, her former home, on the other side of town. There I explored the artist’s house and art. It was immediately obvious to me that I would have liked Frida, someone who tried to strike a balance between here art and activism. I explored that neighborhood after the museum closed. The daily afternoon rainstorm caused me to stop in a local market for fish tacos (3 for 50 pesos!) before continuing my journey.
I ended my last night in Mexico at the Ballet Folklorico at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. After standing in a line that wrapped around the Palacio for 40 minutes for the show that was supposed to begin at 8:30, I finally asked the the security guard if I was in the right place. He said that the line I was standing for was for the 8:30 tour of Michelangelo's artwork, not the show and that I should just go to the front. Annoyed at having missed the first half of the show that I’d already bought tickets for, I was nevertheless impressed by the dancing and energy of the performances. Towards the end, the show incorporated the audience with lively clapping and shouts of Viva Mexico as the curtains closed on the show and my last night in Mexico.
Altogether, I enjoyed Mexico City for all it offered to Mexicans and tourists alike. I’m certainly glad I did not heed the warnings to stay away from the bus or metro and avoid places where the locals hung out, otherwise I would have missed out on the best part of Mexico- the people themselves. Viva Mexico indeed!