A trip to the center of the Mexican universe:
Monday morning, around 10:30, we hopped the ADO “GL” super-deluxe bus to the TAPO terminal in Mexico City, an uneventful 6.5 hour journey featuring the usual mix of bad action movies and documentaries, all in English with Spanish subtitles, on the little drop-down screens. Because we have “senility cards” (i.d’s issued to those of “the third age” by the Instituto de Senectúd – the Senility Institute), we get to travel at half-price, provided no other certified geezers have already taken the two seats in each bus set aside for our ilk. That’s a cost of about 200 pesos, as opposed to the plane, which takes an hour and costs anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 pesos each way (in Mexico, there is not normally any discount on a round-trip ticket).
[Also seen along Juarez, this poster that attempts to tie many issues together. “Poor Mexico”, it reads, in a variation on a famous statement, so close to the the U.S., and so far from Democracy”. The Trife is the segment of the Supreme Court that hears and decides all electoral disputes. Recently, the Trife declared that the election was unduly influenced by a series of presidential and media manipulations, but declared that Calderon won anyway. “A happy meal of electoral reversal”. That the McDonald’s logo, a symbol of neoglobalism, is used, is surely no coincedence.]
Unburdened by a lot of luggage, due to a projected five-day trip, we hopped the Number-one Metro line (tickets cost 2 pesos per trip) from TAPO to the Sevilla station in the Roma neighborhood, an up-scale area just the other side of the historic center, and a two-block walk to our hotel. This part of Roma has a lot of small-office buildings where visiting business people rent by the day or week. Many of these offices have sleeping facilities as well. Our hotel has no name, just a number, and rents seven floors (about 8 to a floor) of combination work / sleep rooms. There is a club kitchen, furnished with a small refrigerator, microwave, 2-burner hot plate, coffee maker, toaster, and service for from two to four (depending on your needs); a double bed; a couch, and a table. The building is wired for wifi. The rent, reasonable by Oaxaca standards, but a little high in the generally less expensive DF, was $350 pesos per day.
[September is normally known as “Mes de la Patria” (month of the fatherland). This September has been declared, by Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) supporters and others, the month of resistence.]
When we arrived on Monday afternoon, our friends Aran and Margot (who are starting a new English language magazine which will include a section called “transitions” about various “settling in” issues confronting newly arrived ex-pats, edited by Yrs. Truly, which we will tell you more about in the next Newsletter), who arranged the room for us, informed us they were leaving on Friday for Lake Chapala and Guadalajara, and asked us if we’d like to go along. Of course we accepted. That meant we only had three days in the DF: so much to see, so little time.
When we boiled it down, just about all the things we wanted to see and do during the day were in the historic center, so we became subway commuters. The Metro is clean, quiet, and free of graffiti. Some “correspondencias” (long passages connecting one line to another) have art galleries in them. On one such stroll, we saw a fine exhibition of work by several photographers.
It was a lot of fun revisiting the magnificent mural in the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, off the northwest corner of Alameda park. The Alameda begins at the Bellas Artes – a combination museum and theater space constructed by the government of Porfirio Díaz, the dictator overthrown by the Revolution. He built a lot of very baroque edifices, including the Macedonio Alcalá opera house in Oaxaca. Full of historical figures, all of which are identified in a triptych facing the mural, it is Diego at his finest, and that is pretty fine indeed.
There is also a collection of murals in the Belles Artes, by various artists including Siquieros and Cuevas. Siquieros is the guy who decorated the Foro, south on Insurgentes Boulevard from the center. There are murals all over the outside of the building, and, in a room the size of a roller rink above the theater space, a huge and ambitious work that covers the walls. Cuevas, who is still living, created the colossus of a sculpture that is pictured in this issue. It resides in a museum that houses many sculptures and paintings by him and his late wife. Her paintings are mostly on metal surfaces like gold, silver, and aluminum foil, and often have some three-dimensional qualities. The museum is located in a section “behind” the Government Palace which is jam-packed with puestos that fill the streets for blocks around, where everything imaginable is for sale and the amplified sales pitches of the hawkers create a noise pollution that can make some people want to scream.
By far the most exciting museum visit, for us, was an unplanned one, while walking from the Pino Suarez metro stop to the Zócalo: the Mexico City Municipal Museum. An homage to Mexican migrants to the U.S., and to the families they leave behind, several rooms of beautifully done art works range from cardboard cutouts of border crossers, to a wall of movie posters advertising old movies with a “cross-border” theme, to photos of migrants in the fields of California, to a truly poignant and informative documentary film, “Wetback”, projected on the wall. They should make this into a traveling show. Every community in the U.S. with a decent-sized display space needs the opportunity to view this offering.
[Part of the show at the City Museum, portraying border crossers walking at night carrying their belongings. The figures are life-size.]
Travel is broadening:
Literally. Mexico City, like Oaxaca, is for eating, and we jumped in with both hands, so now we are “watching our diet” in hopes of removing the few pounds we gained. This usually happens when we travel: nothing new for us.
The area of the Roma neighborhood, where we stayed, has a broad range of eateries. There are excellent taco and torta stands on the streets, as well as small take-out eateries in storefronts. There are coffee-shops serving light food, restaurants featuring foreign food (generally expensive), seafood, fast food, and “natural” food. We mostly ate breakfast in Roma, before boarding the Metro for our day’s adventures. The restaurants were uniformly clean, with better service than we’re used to at home. Prices for a complete breakfast package varied between 24 and 47 pesos, and generally price was no indicator of quality: quite the reverse, actually.
The best meal we had – perhaps the best Italian food we’ve eaten for the money anywhere, including Italy – was served in a small (about 12 table) establishment on two floors, by the name of Cozzaglia. A recent startup by three brothers who worked in an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, and located on Balderas just a few blocks up from the large covered Mercado de Artesanias, it provided that all too rare combination of great food and low prices. We had a Caesar salad each (small but adequate, with plenty of cheese but no anchovy), two kinds of ravioli, orangeade, and hot bread, and the bill came to 124 pesos total. The salads were 16 pesos each; the drinks 8 pesos per. The most surprising thing about the place is that we discovered it through a review we read in the Herald.
We also stopped at Selecta, a great Israeli / Middle Eastern deli in the Polanco district (which contains both synagogues and mosques), and picked up some bulgur for tabouli, a packageof falafel mix, and a tub of herring in cream sauce, both unavailable here. The bulgur and falafel mix we brought home; the herring we devoured with our friends Aran and Margot.
Remember the large flat rubber disks that fit over your sink drain to act as stoppers when the plunger thingy gets broken or worn out? We, and a few of our friends, have been looking for one of those for years here in Oaxaca, without success. Well, we found one on a blanket in the street market around the Zócalo in MexCity, for ten pesos!
We really enjoyed our stay in MexCity, and though we exercised reasonable caution (for example, we only took “sitio” taxis and we spent some energy hugging our tote bags when in crowded places) we loved the plentitude of things, sites, and culture (there are, for example, over a dozen “art movie” theaters). Because it was rainy season, the smog wasn’t bad. The noise and the pace, though, do become wearing after a while.
The People’s Zócalo:
The plaza is in the middle of the nation’s capital; therefore it is in the heart of the nation. The square itself, a Tien-an-men sized space, is completely covered. When you are on the outside looking in, you see a seemingly impenetrable wall, covered with slogans, banners, and announcements. It takes a while to find a way in, and when you do find it, it is gated and guarded. Obvious tourist gringos such as ourselves are not challenged; others are politely asked to state their business.
There is a large sound stage in the middle of the square, surrounded by a warren of tents, lonas (metal frameworks with canvas stretched over them) and plastic shelters. We discovered that Lila Downs had sung on that stage the previous Friday. You can’t walk directly across the square, probably as much for security as anything. It’s like walking through a maze. Each structure contains a “delegation” from one or another state or political party. The Oaxaca PRD has one of the larger shelters. We took a load off our feet in the Tabasco tent, a large affair with an information table, a pantry (donations gratefully accepted and freely dispensed), and a kitchen / dining area.
Everyone is friendly and helpful. Somehow, the woman then in charge in the Tabasco tent was able to direct folks who asked, to their delegations in other parts of the square. Diana bought a plastic bracelet in yellow, black and red bearing the likeness of AMLO and the logo of the PRD, from a street hawker near the stage, for ten pesos. Also for sale in various places were t-shirts, cd’s, etc.
Leaving the Zócalo and walking up Juarez, a wide street with shops and restaurants on one side and the Alameda on the other, one encounters more delegations, and a lot of tents selling similar items, as well as books of political cartoons, posters, and so forth. We picked up a few cartoon collections for friends back home, and took some pictures of some posters that had sold out. There were conferences and teach-ins going on. Announcements were made of events that were to take place later that day and the next day.
We came away from that experience with the feeling that the folks up there are way ahead of the infrastructure game compared to the folks down here. That’s probably because there is more money up there: the PRD is, after all, an established political party, and the APPO down here is non-affiliated, except maybe to the Zapatistas, and goodness knows they don’t have any money… And of course a “top down” organization like the AMLO bunch are likely to be more “efficient”, since everyone knows more or less what the chain of command is.
For the record, we did not see the great man…
[The courtyard of the Cuevas museum]
Lila Downs to perform in Mexico City:
Just in case you’re in town at the time, don’t miss Lila and her band in concert at the National Theater at 7:00 p.m. on October 8. She will be variously joined by a mariachi band, a “Jarocho Barroco” group from Veracruz, and a band from Oaxaca.
Oaxaca continues to be a quiet but tense place:
Celebrations relating to the first skirmishes in the 19th century war for independence from Spain went off without a hitch on the 15th and 16th although they were nothing like they had been in the past. Now that the APPO is running things, there were no police barricades, or police for that matter. Thousands of Oaxaqueños gathered in the Zócalo to hear the “grito” (Viva México) of Fr. Hidalgo, a shout which eventually cost him his head. There were no disturbances. Instead of the usual pyrotechnic displays of the government, costing tens of thousands of dollars, there were a few Catherine wheels, some bottle rockets, and a lot of dance, song, and band performances. Instead of being addressed by the governor from the ex-Government palace, the people received the words of the newly elected mayor of Zaachila from the kiosk in the middle of the square. Added to the usual grito was “Ulises Ya Cayó” (governor Ulises Ruiz has already fallen).
For more information, some very nice pictures, and an up-beat analysis of the situation, go HERE . I would take George’s assurances of street safety at night with a grain of salt, but otherwise, he has produced a welcome and interesting summary of the current situation.
On Saturday, a few hundred civilian marchers cheerfully strolled to a few strategic locations around town in celebration of the refusal of the Army to put on its annual parade, complete with weapons of serious destruction.
Negotiations continue with the Interior Secretariat in MexCity, and rumors keep surfacing that this or that influential politician or political group is / are working on getting rid of Ulises. Almost all other issues have been agreed upon, but without this one there can be no peaceful solution. The dissidents rightfully fear that if Ulises is re-instated in the governor’s office (he is currently at home in Mexico City) he will initiate reprisals on a mega-scale, resulting in hundreds of arrests, disappearances, and killings.
At this moment, the Interior Secretariat is considering – according to an announcement by the chief undersecretary – sending in the Army. (Most observers think this an unlikely solution for the near future.) Under such conditions, the tension – and the unfortunately hasty reactions to rumor which might be provoked – will not abate, however many pieces of green, white, and red colored squares of perforated paper are strung across the empty streets of central Oaxaca.
[Poster art in Oaxaca: this gem is a takeoff on the “grito”. Instead of “Viva México”, Hidalgo is calling for “death” to the PRI. On the left, “out with Ulises Ruiz of Oaxaca”; on the right, “the popular struggle lives”. It was large, about double-bed-sheet size.]
Lack of tourism brings restaurant prices down in Oaxaca:
On Thursday, after being told about it by our upstairs neighbor, we went to Las Danzantes for comida. Danzantes is one of Oaxaca’s “upscale” restaurants, serving an eclectic choice of tipico Oaxacan food and dishes with a “California cuisine” slant. It is hard to get out of there with a full stomach for less than 100 pesos without wine or beer.
We are told that other upscale eateries such as Biznaga and El Naranjo are also empty, and Iliana Vega, the chef at El Naranjo has said that they may have to close.
With the dearth of tourists, who look upon ten dollar lunches as cheap, Danzantes is keeping the doors open by offering a daily fixed-price special that is affordable for local folks of some, but not extravagant, means. For 55 pesos, approximately 5 dollars U.S., they are serving a “comida del dia” – which varies from day to day – that includes a bowl of soup, a salad, a main course with rice, a shot of mescal, a fruit drink, dessert, and coffee.
Thursday’s meal consisted of a bowl of lentil soup; a salad with (unfortunately) iceberg lettuce, sautéed mushrooms, grilled nopales; a generous portion of pork steak in gravy with rice; tortillas and hibiscus drink; mescal mousse, and coffee with real cream. All delicious, and served with care in pleasant surroundings..
For those who don’t mind the occasional roadblocks, or the not-always-pleasant changes in the Zócalo, Oaxaca has become a more affordable place to visit – and to live. And not just for us: Danzantes also serves their old, complete menu – and not one of the diners that were there when we were (about 2/3 filling the place, all but one other couple Mexican) was ordering a la carte. Along with special menus at places like Olive and La Red and others, the complexion of dining in Oaxaca has changed.
[Saturday, September 16, evening. When the “bad government” ran things more visibly, a contingent of militarized police put up and took down the flag in the Alameda park, opposite the Oaxaca cathedral. Now, the job is done by a group of young women from APPO, who march with at least as much discipline while the folks gathered ’round sing the national anthem]
Still, we wish it wasn’t so:
A guy we know who helps out in the docent program at the Rufino Tamayo museum, a gem of fine pre-Columbian artifacts and other treasures in a magnificent colonial era building, told us that they have not had a single visitor in weeks. The tables in the Primavera, and the other restaurants around the Zócalo go empty for hours at a time. Art galleries cancel their shows, as do other cultural events, for fear of the night-time streets. The villages that produce craft products are starving for lack of tourists. The corner grocery store, that used to have lots of fresh produce for sale, has empty bins because people are not buying. Times are hard.
We believe that the APPO and the teachers are right: it is long past time for the tyranny of the rich and powerful to stop, and for the poorest to at least get enough of a share to lead decent lives. We didn’t choose to be here during a major convulsion that may lead to positive change (or to even greater repression?) but here we are. Though we can get a little more for our buck, we can’t go out at night; still we are not going anywhere else, at least not yet nor in the foreseeable future.
We can’t help but feel bad for the average Juan, caught between the rock of the oligarchy and the hard place of the APPO. We wish the suffering would end; both the urban suffering we see, and the rural suffering that goes on beyond our field of vision.
Coming in the next edition:
A trip to Lake Chapala; a new Magazine for expats and visitors; the Library deals with controversy over the current situation; and the usual mix of news, views, etc. Between now and then, we hope, a major revision and updating of the Glossary, which is woefully out of date.