HELLO, 2003 — GOODBYE, “THE NEWS”

“The News” from Mexico City in English printed its last edition on December 31. It, and its Spanish language big brother “Novedades”, are currently in “reorganization” following a buyout of the publishing company by a company in northern Mexico. There is no date set for reopening either paper.

My best guess is that the buyers wanted the physical plant and distribution systems in order to bring their paper “National”. Their first move was to fire all the (union) workers, offering them a severance package to avoid a strike and occupation.

With all its faults, “The News” had its good points, including its coverage of foreign affairs and, most importantly for us, the NY Times crossword puzzle. We will miss it, but hopefully not for long. The buyers announced yesterday that they have every intention of producing an English language paper, under a different name and with a different staff.

[Diana gives a little perspective to this picture taken by Stan at the Patiño Museum. The skull up top is also from the Patiño. Article further down]

ZAPATISTAS COME OUT OF THE MOUNTAINS

For the last couple of years, the Central Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has maintained an almost complete silence. It was, they announced through their “spokesman” Subcomandante Marcos, their way of objecting to the inability (not to say unwillingness) of presidente Fox to implement the San Andres accords which granted a good deal of autonomy to indigenous areas. Instead, the legislature passed — and Fox signed — a gutted version whose language is offensive and whose provisions for self rule are more oppressive and restricted.

On New Years’ eve, the EZLN broke its silence. 20,000 indigenous people from all over Chiapas passed through and by-passed military roadblocks, and evaded pro-PRI paramilitaries; and for three hours they turned the heart of San Cristobal into Zapatista country. Nine of the most important comandantes on the central committee, including Tacho and David, spoke to the crowd.

Marcos (absent just then), they said, speaks for “every man, woman and child” in the popular bases. This should end speculation about his status after his pronouncements supporting the Basque movement for independence offended some of his liberal intellectual supporters. To emphasize this, the crowd was told explicitly that his controversial letter of support represents the position of the central committee on this matter.

Faced with an escalation of the military presence in that beleaguered state, they not only ended their silence, but they reminded their foes — and the rest of us — of the ease with which a well-trained and well-supported guerrilla can move through their territory. Press reports of their imminent demise would appear to be a good bit premature.

[This picture was on the front page of La Jornada on Thursday.]

MR. GRINGO PLAYS IT SOFTLY

On December 20, as requested, I attended the “Dia de Migrante”, and spoke for the rest of you. As usual, things were not quite what they were supposed to be.

I had asked the sub- sub- delegado what they had in mind, and was told some remarks on behalf of the gringo community would be appropriate (see last Newsletter). When I got there, the consular agent, Mark Leyes (with some only partially disguised glee) told me I had it all wrong: there was a program — had I not seen it? I had not — that listed me as reading from my own writings, in English.

I had come with prepared remarks in Spanish. Diana gamely agreed to go back to our casa, and bring back a copy of “Letters From Mexico”. By the time she returned, I had already been called upon to speak and was reading an abbreviated version of my speech. It didn’t seem to matter much.

There were other performances, by a Japanese, a couple of Columbianas, a Brit, and someone from Holland. The ceremony was short as these things go, and when it was over there was some fantastic catered food from local Italian, Argentine and Cuban restaurants: clearly the best part. I would have stayed longer, but another cultural event beckoned:

AN EVENING WITH LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI

At 83, Larry Ferlinghetti is still happening. His booming, lyrical, whimsical and sometimes sardonic voice brings it all home when he reads his works, both early and late. The performance was in the courtyard at the Institute for Graphic Arts (IAGO), and the courtyard was packed. Larry was introduced by an obviously drunk young fan, who kept putting himself in the act so much that the audience boo-ed and hiss-ed him into silence on a couple of occasions; and the maestro’s poems were re-read in Spanish by two alternating interpreters who did a beautiful job.

After the reading, he stayed to sign books of his poetry, and some posters. Diana introduced herself, and talked about having been present at the grand opening of City Lights Bookstore, lo these many decades ago. He smiled, asked her her name, and allowed as she looked sort of familiar. The next person in line mentioned having been at a party with him back in the 80s. He asked her name, and allowed as she looked sort of familiar…

AN ORPHANS’ PARTY AT THE LIBRARY

The Board of the Oaxaca Library sponsored a party on Christmas day, held in the paseo (driveway) of the Library. The weather was exceptionally good for late December, the folks who attended were a relaxed, festive group, and the whole thing ran smoothly. Diana and I were the major movers on this one, with lots of help and support from the other four committee members, and it could hardly have turned out better.

132 tickets were sold (150 would have been a snap, but we had ordered tables, chairs and dishes for 120); 115 people showed up; and the Library pocketed 8,000 pesos: the second most profitable event of the year.

Amate Books donated 21 volumes for door prizes, Michele Gibbs parted with an old poster for a Francisco Toledo exhibition, and Casa Colonial and El Naranjo restaurants each gave a certificate for a meal for two.

For us, the real story is the ease with which we found volunteers to help us put this together. The chicken Móle was catered by chef Susana Trilling at a significant discount, even though she gave up valuable vacation time to do it; the rice was donated by hotelier Peter Kizer; the lasagna was delivered hot, 30 minutes before serving, by the sisters who operate the Supercosina Panoramica; the drinks, salads and deserts were provided by 21 friends of the Library; and 10 people volunteered for various phases of the setup and cleanup.

As planned, most of the attendees were tourists, snowbirds, and folks who for one reason or another no longer hold Library memberships. Glad of a place to go to be with other “orphans” of the Oaxaca scene, and pleased with the food and the ambiance, attendees responded with a grace and enthusiasm that should guarantee that his event will become an annual affair.

[This scene is also life-size, from the Patiño Museum]

MEXICO CITY IS NOT YOUR AVERAGE VACATION DESTINATION

“The time to visit the D.F. (Distrito Federál; the federal district of Mexico City) is during Navidád (Christmas / New Year) or Semana Santa (Easter) vacation”, friends kept telling us. “The city empties out, the sky is clear, the traffic disappears, and everyone cuts their prices because of the decreased demands.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, there is an exodus, and yes, it helps to have a few million less cars on the streets and polluting the air; but no, the prices do not go down, and DF on its best day is still worse than a fairly bad pollution day in Oaxaca. No question, though: when all those vacationers return, things can only get worse.

One pleasant surprise was the cost of things: hotels, food, and transportation are slightly cheaper in the DF. We had started out at the Casa de Amigos (Friends’ – as in Quaker – House), which –while the gatherings in the lounge were pleasant — was a bit too much of a youth hostel for our taste. The water pressure wasn’t very good in our room, the hot water wasn’t working, they didn’t furnish soap, and the room was in the shadows and never warmed up. At 200 pesos, it was no bargain compared to nearby hotels. The Texas, across the street, charged 205, and the Emerson, a block away, was 210. We chose the Edison, for the west-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, which kept the room warm; and for the large shower stall. The 3/4 size bed was a little hard to get used to, but the elevator was a plus for our old knees. A room like this in Oaxaca would be at least 300 pesos.

[Terracotta inlaid turtle shells from the Templo Mayór on display in the Museum.]

Just down the street a few blocks, we found the restaurant Cahuich, where a good comida cost 23 pesos, again a bargain by Oaxaca standards. Mostly, we went out of the neighborhood (north of Paseo de la Reforma and behind the jai-alai frontón) to find more varied fare. In the Zona Rosa, we visited the Yug, a vegetarian restaurant which had great bread but only average fare and charged as much as Manantiál; and the Chalet Suizo, a faux rathskeller with excellent food served on linen tablecloths with surprisingly good food at not unreasonable prices. Diana had a french onion soup that had that caramelized flavor I associate with the real thing, cooked out of La Rousse Gastronomique; and I had a Wiennerschnitzel that reminded me of the main dining hall in the train station in Frankfort (a place with crystal chandeliers, damask, silver, and waiters in livery).

One night, we went to the Casa de Pavo, down in the center. Portions were huge, but the fare was tasteless. Nothing as dry as dry tasteless turkey breast…

The DF, a relatively small portion of the greater MexCity metroplex, is a huge piece of real estate, and most of our travel was by metro, a quick and cheap, but not very scenic, way to get around. One difference we noted in surface travel was the replacement of many VW buses by fewer, quieter, safer and newer big buses. We found that getting around to the various far-flung places we wanted to see was tiring, involving long subway rides, transfers (and long underground walks to the “connecting line”), and often requiring bus rides from the terminal to the destination. Oaxaca is like Berkeley; DF is like L.A.

In spite of running afoul of “closing Monday”, when most museums are locked up, and New Years Eve Tuesday, when everything closes by 2:00, we managed to get in a lot of culture.

I had never been to the Templo Mayór, the excavation that started when a new metro stop was being planned for the Zócalo area. The ruins aren’t much, but the museum is definitely worth seeing. Also worth seeing are the Muséo de San Idelfonso, with three stories of murals by Jose Clemente Orozco, and a room with a Diego mural, which was unfortunately closed when we were there. The coffee shop there makes a nice resting place after the long walk thru the ruins and museum of the Templo Mayór, which is just across the street. The mural above, Orozco’s painting of Cortéz and Malinche his Aztec mistress, is in one of the stairways of the Idelfonso.

We also visited Frida Kahlo’s “Blue House”, me for the first time and Diana after a few decades. Diana was disappointed at how the house had been rearranged for tourism: for example, her bed with mirror on top was moved from her studio to an alcove. No getting around it though, with the amount of tourism the house receives (the heaviest of any place we visited), something had to be done to keep it flowing. Ahh, progress…

An unexpected bonus, not in our Lonely Planet Mexico, was the Poliforum Culturál Siqueiros, a large theater with an “upstairs” lined by the largest indoor mural in the world. Done in various materials including plastic, in high relief, it purports to juxtapose slavery (wage and otherwise) against the freedom of the Workers’ state. The photo below is of one of the outside walls of the Poliforum, also done by Siqueiros. We found out about the Poliforum from someone we met at the Casa de Amigos.

The highlight of our cultural tour was the Muséo Dolores Olmeda Patiño. One of the many mistresses of Diego Rivera, and a rich and discerning collector, Doña Dolores recently died, and her estate, managed by her son, remains open to the public. Set in extensive gardens and vast lawns, the museum itself features a huge collection of Diego’s work and a room of Frida’s (although legend has it she hated Frida for taking Diego away from her, and did everything she could to sabotage Frida’s career while Frida was alive), mixed with an extensive pre-Columbian collection. There was also a room of Muertos figures, including some life-size calaveras (skeleton figures), in a temporary show.

Peacocks roamed the grounds, and they did not have their wings clipped, so they could fly a little. It was fascinating to watch them jump off the roof, two tall stories up, and float down to the ground. I saw the brilliant orange and umber under-wing feathers for the first time. I never knew how colorful peacocks could be. There were also a pack of Esquintles, little hairless dogs who are gentle, friendly and quiet — and just a little bit ugly…

Near the Muséo, in the Xochimilco area, is a Venice-like series of interconnecting waterways, where families commandeer pole-driven flat bottom boats and have a picnic, either brought with them or bought off other (smaller) boats selling cooked corn, sodas, snacks and tacos, as well as cut flowers; and have their pictures taken by water-borne photographers and serenaded by boatloads of mariachis. There are far too many boats for the amount of channel in most places, and the result is a traffic jam of gigantic proportions. One person we talked to said she had hired a boat for a forty-five minute ride, and ended up in a two-hour snarl.

There is another side to the area, designated as an ecological reserve, where things are reported to be less crowded. We didn’t find it this trip, but maybe next time…

New Years Day, there was nothing open in our neighborhood but a VIPs (kind of a Denny’s, but without the low-ball breakfast special), and the streets were empty. Getting to the TAPO for our bus home was a snap.

If we do it again, I’m for trying Semana Santa. It’s warmer. And I think I’ll get a good Mexico City guidebook (the Lonely Planet book is as thick as their Mexico book).