Federal District (Mexico City)
In Spanish the word for wolf is “lobo” and many people feel Mexico City is the big bad wolf. A weekend spent there would help me realize that it’s a big city with its fair share of problems, but none too large to not make it an entirely worthwhile destination.
As we rounded the corner, I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight in front of me. Corey turned to me to ask “¿qué pasa?” Thinking that perhaps he could not see the bizarre spectacle in front of us, I simply pointed. He turned and laughed uproariously.
“Come on, nos vamos.”
The sight of half naked men and women on the streets chanting loudly and emphatically, along with the sound of beating drums, is not something I would willingly walk towards. Perhaps that’s my prudish English heritage shining through. But buttocks and women’s breasts on display, well it puts one in a slightly uncomfortable predicament, especially when there were dozens of them in this state of undress.
Upon getting closer, I could finally make out what was covering the protestors’ private parts. In what many cultures consider to be the most private, some, the dirtiest parts of one’s body, was the face of Felipe Calderón, the man who had been elected president in one of Mexico’s most controversial elections in the country’s history. It could best be equated to the 2000 election controversy between George W. Bush and Al Gore, although I don’t think anti-Bush supporters ever barred all and wore only an image of his face over their “below sections.” In case you were wondering, a g-string was what graced their derrières.
While some contested elections feature periodic news coverage, and a few rallies here and there by steadfast supporters, they usually draw to a conclusion after a time. In Mexico, supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador , the man whom the country’s Federal Electoral Tribunal had deemed not the legitimate victor, continued their protests went on and on. Literally.
The presidential elections took place in July, 2006 and his supporters were still staging protests, naked protests too, as late as November of the following year, the weekend I was in Mexico City. Even a McDonalds’ restaurant in the southern city of Oaxaca was the target of an act of civil resistance by Obrador supporters.
It was like a wreck on a highway you simply couldn’t look away from featuring breasts and buttocks of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Corey, no longer interested in gaping at the site in front of us almost had to pull me away to continue on to the cafeteria where we were planning to eat lunch.
“So I guess if the most that happens to me while in Mexico City is seeing some very overweight naked bodies I came away pretty unscathed.”
“What did you think was going to happen?” Corey asks me.
“Umm, Man on Fire?” Being met with a blank look I go on to say, “you know the 2004 movie with Denzel Washington.”
“Never saw it. What’s it about?”
“Well, Denzel Washington plays a man who is hired to protect a little girl in Mexico City, although in typical Mexico City fashion, the girl is kidnapped, thus forcing Denzel to become the quintessential bad ass.” I leave out the part where his character saws off the fingers of one of the bad guys who knows information regarding the little girl’s disappearance.
“Ah, Hollywood at its stereotypical finest.”
I liked Corey a lot. He was as big a fan of RBD as I was, which was the whole reason behind me being in Mexico City. We were going to see them perform live later that night at the Palacio de los Deportes. Although I had traveled considerably more than him, lived abroad in more foreign locales, Corey was Mexico smart, which was funny as he was not only blond but also from Oklahoma. (A gringo from Oklahoma, the character of Curly from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved musical comes to mind.) I attributed his ease with the Mexican culture and way of life due to the fact that he was a guy who could speak as much slang as any of the chulos he worked with on the grounds crew at the orphanage where we volunteered. That and he wasn’t female. So I felt on some levels he couldn’t quite understand the cultural adjustments I’d had to make the past two months.
“So I was thinking we could head over to the Zócalo area. A lot of the main sights are there.”
I replied with “sounds good” as Corey was basically our tour guide for the weekend. He had been to Mexico City a couple of times before and took us around with ease since we had gotten off the bus at the city’s Tasqueña terminal earlier that day.
I was finding Mexico City to be quite charming and even beautiful. Granted I had not been traversing in the city’s poorer colonias (the Mexican equivalent of a neighborhood), but what major city does not have its dangerous and less desirable areas?
The hostel where we were staying was located in the city’s Zona Rosa (the pink zone) which began when it was developed as a residential district for wealthy foreigners and Mexico City residents who were looking to move from the city center. Although its illustrious origins have long since faded, today it’s the home to the city’s gay community, as well as an ever increasing Korean enclave. Traces of its historical past can still be seen.
As was all the rage worldwide at one time, we passed by many mansions that had been clearly designed to look European. It reminded me of the Recoleta neighborhood in Buenos Aires, which is often the reason why Argentina’s capital is bestowed with the moniker as the “Paris of South America.”
When I read up on the Zona Rosa, I discovered that many of its streets were named after European cities-Londres (London), Hamburgo (Hamburg), Florencia (Florence), Niza (Nice). I’ve never been, but many of the dilapidated structures I saw in the Zona Rosa I equated to Cuba’s losing war with preservation efforts for many of its historical buildings. Preservation is a noble cause, but often too expensive for countries whose citizens barely make enough to live on as it is.
The Zona Rosa is said to have some questionable streets but I never felt unsafe once, even walking back to the hostel after midnight when returning from the concert. All I saw were tree lined boulevards with a touch of Mexico in them.
One of the largest city squares in the world, the Zócalo has been a gathering place for Mexicans since Aztec times. Although its official name is the Plaza de la Constitución, it’s simply known as the Zócalo.
“I assume that’s the National Palace?” I asked Corey as I pointed straight ahead.
“Sí, and that’s where the president delivers the famous Gríto de la Independencia (cry of independence) every September 15,” pointing to a small balcony. (September 15 marks the beginning of the Mexican war for independence from Spain and is the country’s most important national holiday. The history of the gríto is based on historical legend that says Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest from the small town of Dolores, uttered the famous battle cry.
Off to the one side of the National Palace, I knew I was looking at the remains of the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples of the Aztec civilization in their capital city of Tenochtitlan (now known as Mexico City). I had seen this exact image in my high school Spanish textbooks.
Although there were viewing platforms you could stand on to get a better look at excavation efforts, it was not something you could experience in the physical sense like climbing the 365 steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan (an Aztec city located on the outskirts of the capital). What fascinated me though was the immense realization of what I was looking at, a civilization that had been built over top of a previous civilization.
The Mexican people’s use of the term mestizo today (originally used to define a person who was of mixed heritage-part European, part indigenous), greatly embodies the cultural and historical significance of the Zócalo today. Neither wholly Spanish nor wholly indigenous, rather it is a site that captures and recognizes all of the country’s past. I thought to myself that there are few places in the world like this today.
After admiring the awe-inspiring Diego Rivera murals located inside the National Palace, which tell the story of Mexico’s history we headed to what is considered Mexico City’s lungs, Bosque de Chapultepec.
I’ve been to Central Park numerous times, and I even checked out Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, two glorious parks located smack in the middle of humongous cities. But I had never seen anything like this before in a Latin American country.
To say Chapultepec Park was massive would be a gross understatement. I knew it was the largest city park in Latin America, but it was unimaginable to think that a city known as having one of the highest smog rates could have something so beautiful, so immensely green.
Although I know its many trees served a most important purpose (replenishing oxygen to the Valley of Mexico), that didn’t mean that the sight of them crowning Chapultepec Castle on top of a hill didn’t fail to leave me slightly awestruck.
Though we skipped touring the Museum of Anthropology, I just enjoyed being in a space so green. Latin American cities offer visitors many distinct things, but massive amounts of greenery is generally not one of them.
Since arriving in Mexico, I had had a couple of stressful months. Constantly getting sick coupled with being slightly homesick and dealing with cultural differences in a professional setting had made for some rough moments. But just as the trees serve to replenish oxygen to the Valley of Mexico, they also replenished my emotional self that had been severely drained.
The concert later that night was, of course, a fantastic time. To see a music group I had discovered by chance one night while flipping through the channel at my host family’s house perform live was a dream come true. But the time spent not at the concert, but exploring one of the most fascinating and historical cities in the world, was an even better time.
Mexico is a country that too often is painted as dangerous, a place you’re risking your life to visit. When it’s featured in the news, it’s almost always in a bad light whether it’s related to the drug cartels, illegal immigrants, or its perpetually stunted and poor economy when compared to its northern neighbors.
When my family and boyfriend came to Mexico for Christmas, we spent part of the trip in Mexico City. I was only too excited to take my boyfriend around a city I had become smitten with only a month prior, as this time I was the tour guide leading around the first time tourist.
In my opinion, the people who hold such negative views of Mexico are often the ones who have never been there. Violence, controversies, and gore sells news; the good stuff often never does. So how would most of the world know about all the rich bounties that Mexico City has to offer to tourists? I’m glad to have seen the light where Mexico City is concerned. It’s a city I very much hope to return to one day in the future.