Mexico City is sprawling and intimate. It smells of exhaust fumes and sewage and eucalyptus and cinnamon and masa and sizzling meat. It awakens to birdsong, sells itself in sing-song chants, and talks and shouts and eats and drinks and honks its horn late into the night. Oh, and the weather is perfect year-round.
I loved it.
What follow are some general impressions, beginning with this blog’s principal obsessions – food, birds and running, looking at stuff (often while birding and running) – and then offering some broader thoughts on the city. While I don’t pretend to know or understand it, I was struck by the way it manages, however improbably – built as it is on sinking ground, its population swollen to 20 million – to work. The contrasts between politics, national mythology and historical memory here and there provided plenty of food for thought.
First, though, we need to talk about food for eating.
If there are food-challenged parts of the city where one can walk more than half a block without seeing something delicious, we didn’t find them. The impossibility of eating it all was frustrating – but also powerful motivation for a return visit. (Gorditas de nata, I’ll see you soon.)
As regular readers of this blog know, I’m hardly a lightweight when it comes to Mexican cuisine. I know my guaxmole from my guacamole, my alote from my elotes, I look forward to pozole and pancita on the weekend, the tamal vendor by St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes me. But the food in Mexico City operates at a whole different level. That’s as true of humble market stalls as it is of high-end restaurants. While not every mouthful set me swooning – I’ve had tacos al pastor in Sunset Park that were arguably better than those from El Tizoncito, which claims to have invented them – the abundance, staggering variety, and overall quality did.
I swooned for quesadillas of pumpkin blossoms and huitlachoche (fresh, not out of a can) at the Mercado de Coyoacán, for tlacoyos filled with ground fava beans and topped with nopales and queso fresco in Condesa, for perfectly grilled fish and perfectly tender tortillas at Contramar. I learned that atole can be fruit flavored, and also – if it’s made with masa nixtamilized with ash, rather than lime – black. I sampled young mezcal and old mezcal and mezcal “cured” with tamarind and various mezcal cocktails, including one with a new-to-me, vaguely papalo-like herb called chepiche. I chowed down on chapulines. On a day trip to Tepoztlán, I decided that thick, triangular itacates are my favorite antojito and recovered from a strenuous hike with a tall, cold glass of pulque.
The one ubiquitous snack I couldn’t bring myself to try: Dorilocos. Sold from carts all over the city – in parks, by subway stations, on street corners – these are are a triumph of junk food, a messy assemblage of Nacho Cheese Doritos, Japanese peanuts, pickled pork rinds, cucumber, jicama, chile powder, lime juice and chamoy. Oh, and gummy bears.
On the one hand, they are a beautiful example of an industrial food transformed into something personal, creative and regionally specific.
On the other hand, those gummy bears.
The true food highlight of the trip were the markets. We missed the enormous La Merced (next time), but visited the Mercado de Coyoacán; a special Michoacán market set up temporarily in the Coyoacán zócalo; the outdoor Tuesday tianguis in the Condesa neighborhood; and, as an encore, the Wednesday tianguis in Tepoztlán.
Market vendors stack and arrange their fruits and vegetables as though they were anticipating a magazine shoot. Mole pastes in shades of red, brown and black tower above their plastic tubs, while cajeta achieves drownable depths in its. And everyone, but everyone, wants – no, insists – that you sample what they’re selling. We’re not talking about carelessly hacked chunks of fruit on a soggy paper plate (the Brooklyn green market standard). No: that proffered perfect slice of avocado will have been dusted with sea salt; the pineapple, at peak ripeness, with a homemade chile blend. Tempted by the glaceed fruits swimming in their own syrup? There’s no need to choose between fig, pumpkin and sweet potato. Why not try them all? And then compare them to those at the next stall?
And so I did – then bought two mameys as a guilt-offering (oh, okay, if you insist, go ahead and throw a third one in there), which made for a delightful evening treat and a shared offering at breakfast the next morning.
Birding and running (but mostly birding)
I knew from experience that altitude affects me more than the average person, and from warnings on Trip Advisor that Mexico City sidewalks are treacherous. (Could they really be worse than the ones in Brooklyn and Queens that broke both my arms? Maybe, I decided, but not by much.) So I wasn’t planning on doing any serious training, but I did bring my running shoes, tights and a couple of t-shirts, and headed out before sunrise each morning of our stay.
My destination was the Viveros de Coyoacán, a few blocks from our guest house. A lovely, soft track of red dirt and gravel hugs the ~2 kilometer perimeter of what is part park, part arboretum and part nursery (the plants and trees grown in Viveros supply the city’s other parks). There I joined scores, maybe hundreds, of other runners. It was as though an extremely orderly community race was taking place, with everyone (no exception) headed counter-clockwise around the track. In six mornings, I did not see a single person acting like a jerk, which is something I’m afraid I cannot say about Prospect Park.
As it grew lighter, and the unfamiliar chirps and twitters and snatches of birdsong around me grew louder, I’d veer onto one of the interior paths, take my binoculars out of my backpack, and try to find a cinnamon-bellied flowerpiercer. (I had developed a fixation on this particular bird before our trip, partly because it would be a life bird, partly because they’re pretty, and partly – largely – because it has such a great English name.) Alas: they may be common, but they’re also small and hard to spot. But I did see a handful of life birds, as well as some Mexican/western U.S. species I’d seen before, but not often or for a long time. I also got advance looks at many neotropical migrants who’ll be passing through Brooklyn in a few months.
The thing I love about birding in unfamiliar places is that even common species look strange and beautiful. Take Inca doves, with their scaly, russet-lined wings that make an odd clattering noise when they burst into flight. You see them all over the city, and yet I never tired of looking at them. The thing I don’t love – but should, because it’s good for me, like choking down calcium supplements and studying Spanish grammar – is feeling so utterly stupid. Unlike running, which is the same everywhere (except for CDMX runners being more polite than the average NYC runner), birding skills tend to be area-specific. On a longer or more birding-focused trip I would have tried to connect with local birders, but this time I was content to enjoy the Inca doves and let most of their small, backlit, fluttery friends go unidentified.
Looking at stuff
My second-favorite travel activity, after eating, is the general category of “walking around looking at stuff.” Mexico City excels in that department. Vehicular traffic is heavy, it’s true, and sidewalks are narrow – but it’s still a great walking city because there is so very much stuff to look at. Street art? Check. Art Deco? Check. Ultra-modern? Wow, check. How about a post office where the lavishly ornamented walls inform you of great moments in the history of mail (did you you know that the first sea mail was delivered in 1765)? Check (and no, until I visited the Palacio Postal in the Centro Histórico, I didn’t). And why is one of the side chapels in the Catedral Metropolitana decked out with offerings of children’s bouncy balls, including many with Spider Man faces? (I never did figure that out.)
I loved the twig brooms that keep the sidewalks clean, the hand bells rung by trash collectors, and the vendors who invariably appeared at just the right spots, whether that meant selling running shoes from a car trunk outside the Viveros on a Saturday morning, or water and paletas before the final climb to the pyramid atop Tepozteco.
Here and there
We did remark on small things that reminded us of Brooklyn (using the lazy shorthand of “Brooklyn” to mean all things artisanal and quirky and non-GMO, which is not of course the reality, but in certain precincts, comes uncomfortably close). At times we wondered: are we drawn, like moths to a flame, to this wide world’s most Park Slope-like destinations? To knitting boutiques and sweater-wearing trees, to bookstore cafes (more there than here, we decided), to locally-sourced coffee served in handle-less earthenware mugs that fit just so between the palms of your hands? Was that man really asking about “leche de avena”? And did that woman in the largely indigenous market in Tepoztlán just tell us that her cookies were “végano y sin gluten”?
But in general, what we noticed were the differences – especially differences in political culture, national mythology and historical memory. Nothing captured those differences better than the murals that decorate official buildings throughout the city.
It is deeply embarrassing to admit this, but having lived so long in Detroit, I always assumed – without giving it much, or any, thought – that Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals in the Detroit Institute of Art were not only his masterwork, but the highest achievement of the entire Mexican muralist movement. Because, you know, they are magnificent. They spoke to us, and we were (and are) very proud of them.
So perhaps a bit of Detroit parochialism is understandable. But Rivera was Mexican, and it would be odd indeed if his masterwork depicted the industrial history of a U.S. city – and not the sweep of his own country’s history, from the Aztecs through the Conquest through independence, invasion and revolution. Sure enough, the Rivera murals at the Secretaría de Educación Pública and the Palacio Nacional have scale, grandeur and passion that make “Detroit Industry” look small and, well, tame.
Nor was Rivera the only or even, necessarily, the greatest of the Mexican muralists. Siqueiros was stylistically more innovative (even if he was a stone Stalinist), while Orozco was arguably more passionate, clear-eyed and outraged, particularly in his depictions of the church (he had more reason to be outraged with the church, since he, unlike Rivera, was a believer – as I was surprised to learn from a guide at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso).
The first amazing thing, to a U.S. viewer, is that these in-your-face revolutionary murals have survived in the halls of government and temples of high culture for 80+ years. John D. Rockefeller didn’t hesitate to destroy the original “Man at the Crossroads” when Rivera sneaked in a portrait of Lenin; you can see a later version, with even more Communist iconography (fuck you, John D!), in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, not exactly a proletarian venue. And while Orozco’s murals at Mexico’s Supreme Court (which, unfortunately, we didn’t see – another item for the “next time” list) may cause some queasiness among justices and attorneys for their devastating portrayal of the country’s legal system, they’ve been allowed to stay . . . unlike the mural Maine’s former Republican governor removed from the lobby of the state Department of Labor.
The difference goes to the two countries’ self-conceptions, I think, grounded in our respective national mythologies. Both Mexico and the U.S. were born in revolutions, but our national mythology skips over the revolutionary-ness of ours. Instead of workers and farmers waving red flags, we have the Founding Fathers: be-wigged, property-owning, thoughtful, measured. (“Hamilton” shakes that up, but that’s precisely why it seems so new and fresh.) Mexico’s national mythology, in contrast embraces revolution, celebrates it, drenches itself in it. These are the stories we tell ourselves, not our real, messy history (Mexico’s actual leadership has not been so revolutionary, ours, god knows, not so measured and thoughtful), but they still shape the political culture.
The second amazing thing – the really amazing thing, to my mind – is the willingness to confront the ugly parts of one’s history. Orozco certainly did that. But so did Rivera, even in his capacity as Mexico’s “official” artist. He shows the ugliness of the Spanish conquest, of course, and the splendor of the empire the Spanish conquered – that’s part of the national mythology, after all. But look closely at his depiction of Tenochtitlan before its fall. Is that a human limb being sold in the meat market? And the great temple at the center of the city, could that be blood slicking the steps to the top?
Is there an honesty there that belies mythology and acknowledges complexity?
Yes, yes and yes.
And no, I can’t think of anything that could conceivably decorate the walls of the U.S. Capitol building that would confront the ugliness in our own history, and the futility of yearning for a golden past, with that kind of bluntness.
It’s a heavy note to end on, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about in the week since we got back. Well, that and wanting to run a car-free Paseo de la Reforma on a Sunday morning. And spend more time in Chapultepec. And see the UNAM campus. And spend another Friday night in Coyoacán . . .