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El Charco del Ingenio is a botanical garden on the outskirts of San Miguel, out along the reservoir. This being the desert, it’s a desert garden. Mexico, one of its plaques informs us, has more cactus species than any other country (cactus are found almost exclusively in the Americas), and this garden tries to represent them as richly as possible. It also includes a conservatory with a tiny stream running through it to showcase some of the riparian life, plant and animal, that also exists on this harsh but exuberant terrain.

One section of the garden is devoted to agaves, a plant I have fallen in love with here, and who knew there were that many agaves in the world (many more, actually–it’s only a sampling)? What I love about them is the marks that each layer leaves on the layer within. Long after the layers have separated, the shadow of each blade’s teeth is left behind, precise as a photogram. I don’t seem to have taken a photo of any agave yet, and I’m too tired to photograph the drawing I did of one and upload the photo and all that, so thanks be to Wikimedia:

photo by Stan Shebs

One small disappointment of our time in San Miguel has been the lack of lizards. I even told the munchkin there would be lots of lizards, and I’m glad she hasn’t put her hands to her hips and demanded to know what I was talking about. I don’t know, I just thought, desert climate, Mexico, there’ll be lizards everywhere. No doubt I was influenced by our trip to Joshua Tree last year (lizards galore!) and by my only previous visit to Mexico, which was to the Yucatan (very different terrain and climate), where we saw plenty of lizards and even, at Tulum, huge iguanas. Well, I’ve seen hardly hide nor tail of a lizard in these six months, but on my last trip to El Charco I saw two. I leave satisfied.

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photos by AZM

(#14 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)


I’ve traveled in ten countries, including my own, and based on my three and a half months in San Miguel (and, five years ago, two weeks honeymooning in the Yucatán), Mexico wins the Warmest People Award.  It shows in the little courtesies, like people ending even trivial interactions with “Que le vaya bien” (no exact translation, but it’s basically “go well” or “may it go well with you”), and saying hello when they come into a store or even onto a bus.  It shows in the trouble they take to make even a juice stand beautiful.

Traffic in San Miguel makes way for pedestrians.  No one seems to be in a hurry or to try to rush others along.  The legendary easygoing nature of the people makes a dramatic contrast with the US at times, as in an incident we witnessed when we were coming along a busy street in a taxi.  A driver ahead of us had been cut off, almost hit, by another car making a turn, and both men were shouting and gesturing out their windows.  We couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they were obviously angry.  And then, just when we were thinking they’d be jumping out of their cars and having a fistfight in the middle of the intersection, one said something that made the other laugh.  In a few seconds they were both joking and laughing, and then they drove on. Joy and I grew up in the Northeast and live on the West Coast, and expected threats of lawsuits, if not gunfire. Northern Californians pride themselves on being relaxed, but Sanmiguelenses have forgotten more about mellow than Marin County ever knew.

While I also loved Mexico City, and found that as citydwellers go, its people were friendly and welcoming, there’s no question but that the Big City is different. Read the rest of this entry »

It wasn’t hard to decide what to see and do in one week in Mexico City, because everyone we spoke to, foreigners, Mexicans, and Chilangos (=Mexico City-ans) alike, gave us the same short list: Chapultepec, Xochimilco, various places to see murals, Bellas Artes and the Modern Art Museum, the Children’s Museum, and, always, always, the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Anthropology it was, on Thursday morning.

Joy had been to the Anthropology Museum on previous trips, and was prepared to take the munchkin to a nearby playground for a couple of hours so that I could get there. It wasn’t necessary. Munchkin had a great time there.  So did we.  It’s beautiful and so jam-packed of fascinating stuff that you’d have to go back every day for a week to do it justice.

The museum, and Mexico City itself, added some food for thought to something I’d been chewing on for weeks: the relationship of Mexicans to their indigenous roots. They almost all have them, and so this museum, organized by culture (Oaxacan, Toltec, Mayan, Tlaxcalan, Pueblo, etc.), covers the background of almost everyone in the country. We don’t have a comparable museum in the US; we couldn’t; it would have to be an anthropology of the whole world. The National Museum of the American Indian is fantastic, I’ve been told (haven’t gotten there yet), but like the vast majority of estadounidenses,* what I would be learning about there wouldn’t be the heritage of my own family. (Now, I might be in the minority in that sometimes it seems like everyone else claims a Cherokee ancestor, but going by what people report on the census, only about 1 in 100 of us is Native American/Alaskan/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.)

In short, the categories of one culture don’t always apply to another, and it’s hard to know where the tender spots are.  It definitely takes more than a few months’ acquaintance to understand another culture’s complexities of race, class, and ethnicity.  So I have no conclusions, but some observations:

– The pride Mexicans in general take in their country’s pre-Hispanic heritage is evident, and not just in their flag, which alludes to the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlán by the Aztecs.  To give just one other example, the most universally admired past president of the country seems to be Benito Juárez, the first of an entirely indigenous background.

– Juárez, who left office 138 years ago, is also the country’s last indigenous president.

-Even mestizos who are sympathetic to indigenous people, are concerned about their exploitation, have strongly Indian features, and give their children names from that heritage, may think of themselves as a separate group, speaking of “indigenous people” as “they,” not “we.”

-Everyone eating at a restaurant in a ritzy neighborhood of Mexico City (Polanco) was very light-skinned and European-featured.  Everyone working there was dark-skinned and Indian-featured.

-Skin color per se doesn’t seem to be a sensitive issue. Friendly nicknames such as “moreno” and “negro” (“dark one,” “black one”) are as unremarkable here as they would be unthinkable in the US.

-The beggars in San Miguel all appear to be indigenous (possibly mestizo; definitely not European).   Joy said she’s observed the same everywhere.  Indians in Mexico are generally extremely poor.

– The museum itself evaded a lot of the political issues that are inevitably tangled up in anthropology and ethnology.  The section on modern Chiapas, for example, gave no hint that the people being described there so widely despise the federal government, both for its neglect of their region and for the programs it proposed after the Zapatista movement started.

A complicated picture, no question.  At least as complicated as race, class, and ethnicity in the US, and a lot more mysterious to me.

After the museum, we went out for about our third Asian meal. We wondered if other people who visit Mexico City take it as an opportunity to eat as much Chinese, Japanese, and Thai food as possible. Probably if they’re Asian-food addicts who’ve been living in a small Mexican town, they do. And then we went to the Children’s Museum, the first truly expensive such place we’ve been to, but totally worth it. The munchkin got inside a giant hamster wheel (twice), went fishing with magnets, saw a just-hatched baby chick, helped Joy play a computer game, etc., etc. Thursday is their late night–open until 11–and we stayed until 10:40. The munchkin looked set to go all night, but her parents were dead on their feet.


*Thank you, Spanish language, for providing a demonym that neither implies that we’re the only residents of the entire American continent(s), nor sounds dumb, like “USans” does.   We could use one in English, and would no doubt come up with one if we took seriously the problem with “American.”   I usually settle for  “US American.”

Our fifth full day in Mexico City, Wednesday, was May 5.  For whatever reason, Cinco de Mayo has become the day to celebrate Mexican culture in California.  In most of Mexico, while it’s significant enough to be a federal holiday and have a downtown street named after it, May 5 is not a big deal.  There was a parade on Saturday morning, we didn’t know why, so maybe the occasion was “closest Saturday to May 5th”?  Quien sabe.

In any case, we were glad that Cinco de Mayo isn’t considered an occasion for 2 a.m. fireworks*, because we’d switched hotels and were now right downtown, two blocks from the Zócalo.

The Spanish conquered the Aztecs in 1521, destroyed their capital of Tenochtitlán, and rebuilt right on top of it, putting their cathedral on its main temple, of course.  Tenochtitlán was built on an island in the middle of the lake, and just like many US cities, was expanded right onto the water, though we use garbage as landfill and I don’t know what the Aztecs used.  All I know is that after knocking down Tenochtitlán, Cortés maybe should have considered a different location for his capital of New Spain, because parts of Mexico City are sinking.  The church next to our hotel has a discernible tilt—away from the hotel, I was relieved to see:

The Aztec temple, known as Templo Mayor, was uncovered by a 20th century work crew.  As I wrote the other day, I was moved by this remnant within the modern city.  However,  I was also hot and worn out from dealing with a very grumpy child.  I think she was letting us know in the only way she knew how that she’d been away from her routine for too many days and dragged to altogether too many adult-type activities, such as Looking at Things.  Sorry, sweetie.  We’ll make the next trip shorter.

So my attention span was also not very long, but I really liked these frogs and the way they look like they’re about to be eaten by the giant snakes (the counterpart to the giant snake in the foreground being out of the frame, on the far side of the frogs).

Then we had lunch and went to the Blue House.  I should’ve known there would be cats there (photo by the munchkin!).

Rivera and Kahlo are two interesting artists even without the soap-opera excitements of their lives to spice up the work.  But being there, where they lived, the drama within the work is particularly hard to separate from the drama swirling around it.  Kahlo’s studio is a testimony to a life of pain (wheelchair and the easel made to be reachable from it), loss (medical poster of the stages of fetal development, which she presumably used in the paintings about her miscarriages and trauma-induced infertility), controversy (a box on her bookshelf is labeled “Protest Rockefeller Vandalism”), and love (another box bears the lotería symbol of a heart, and contains letters from Diego). And I admit that the piece that most captured my attention was a little drawing called “Ruin” that sure looked like a “screw you” letter, addressed “para Diego.” It showed a bust of Frida as a crumbling ruin, and was accompanied by a kind of poem: “Casa para aves, nida para amor, toda para nada” (“House for birds, nest for love, all for nothing”). Ouch. Whatever was going on in February 1947, several years into their second marriage to each other, it wasn’t making her happy.

A calmer space is their gorgeous kitchen, bedecked with “Frida y Diego” spelled out in tiny ceramic coffee cups. We agreed we’d like one just like it, provided we could bring in a gas stove and a fridge. (Later curators must’ve taken out the icebox to show off the gorgeous blue and yellow tiles, because I can’t believe they didn’t have one.)

The grounds are beautiful, with a pyramid (?), ponds and fountains, lots of sculptures, and of course those cats, altogether making it a great place for a little one to hang out. We spent a long time there.

I liked the frog mosaic in the fountain. Maybe it was an in-joke of Rivera’s, who was fully aware that he looked like a frog (and was irresistible to women anyway).

Kahlo and Rivera weren’t the only artists in the neighborhood. The roof across the street was lined with bottles:

And here’s a Coyoacán example of the wrought-iron artistry seen all over Mexico:

*At least, not in Mexico City.  San Miguel, which never passes up an excuse to make a great deal of mess and noise,** probably partied all night.

**Fifty points to your house if you know whom I’m quoting.

Our fourth day in Mexico City was Mural Day. First stop was the Diego Rivera mural “A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda” (image #1 here), to be followed by a stroll down the Alameda ourselves. On the way to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, Munchkin had had a meltdown of major proportions, and I’ll say no more about that here, except to report that she was still a little tense, a little sniffly, when we went into the room with the mural, and it turned her mood around. She was captivated by all the people, who include kids, a balloon seller, a sweets seller; there’s even a dog in the painting; plus, as she pointed out, the room is like a movie theater. I also liked the other work on exhibit, by an artist I wasn’t familiar with, Saul Kaminer. I liked a sculpture that looked like a bird but had a “shadow” (that is, a flat component reminiscent of a shadow) that was shaped like a person (the name of the show was La sombra de la sombra,sombra means shadow) and the munchkin found that so fascinating that she explained it to Joy a few minutes later.

Then we spent some more time contemplating Rivera’s great portrait of his country-in-progress. I wondered who would be in such a painting if we were the artists. Who shaped our country into what it is now, and who are our best hopes for making it what we dream of? Now Joy and I may make a big collage, which already has the title, in my head, “Nuestra Alameda.” I’m not sure where it should be set. Central Park? But we both thought that that would make it about New York instead of the whole country. Somehow I picture the whole country as background, the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters (and Woody Guthrie is definitely one of the people in the mural).

We headed down the Alameda to Bellas Artes, which has murals by Siquieros, Orozco and Rivera, among others. Rivera’s “Man, Controller of the Universe or Man in the Time Machine” was by far my favorite. He had painted it (with the title “Man at the Crossroads”) on commission for the then-new Rockefeller Center, but Nelson Rockefeller balked at the positive portrayal of Lenin, and had it destroyed. Our loss. Rivera had photographs to work from, and re-painted it in Mexico.

(Frida Kahlo had a similar clash with another member of the New York elite, Clare Booth Luce, who commissioned a portrait of a friend who had killed herself; Luce apparently expected a nice straightforward portrait, and was appalled when she opened the crate and saw The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, an explicit and disturbing painting of the actual suicide. I feel for Luce–and appreciate her keeping the painting and eventually donating it to a museum–but I wonder what she’d expected. Didn’t these people look at the artists’ resumes before giving them a commission?)

Bellas Artes also had a Magritte exhibit, irritatingly scattered among several rooms with no signs informing viewers where to go next nor even that it continued in another room. I can see how curating a show in Bellas Artes is a bit of a nightmare, with all the rooms widely separated by these great big murals. I didn’t like the museum much, on the whole. The layout was confusing and the guards were unhelpful and officious. But the curators of the Magritte show created playful videos of falling Magritte apples and tennis-playing Magritte pipes, and also put together a really terrific room of things to do and make in his vein. The munchkin sat down with the paper, pencils and scissors provided to anyone who wanted to make a bird, and made three for the wall.

On this Day of Murals, we also made our first attempt to see the murals that eventually turned out to be my favorites of the week, the Rivera paintings all over the Department of Education, but it didn’t work out. And that is a long story that I’ll tell more fully on Day 7, which is when it finally reached a happy conclusion.

Our last stop before collapsing was the Palacio Nacional, for more Rivera. It’s a crime to spend only 10 minutes looking at these paintings (many of which you can see here), but the munchkin had fallen asleep and Joy and I had to go upstairs separately, with little time left in the day. I might have to get a book of his murals. They are political screeds, biased in ways that are sometimes downright comical (who else would paint an entire history of the Aztecs without so much as a visual mention of human sacrifice?), but they’re so rich and beautiful. I love the composition, like his use of the staircases to show the chaos of battle and the collapse of a country, people and horses tumbling down the diagonals. And I love the panels showing Aztec farming, building, families, etc., one-sided though they are. These paintings, in that place, are like Rivera’s gift to his people: look, this is your heritage, this is where you come from, one of the world’s great civilizations.

On Monday, we traveled 35 km out of the city to the ancient site of Teotihuacán. There are very few trees at Teotihuacán and precious little shade, and the thing to do is get up at 5, get there by 8 and beat the heat, but while there must be some families capable of such a thing, we’re not one of them.

Pyramid of the Moon

No one is quite sure who lived there–the city was already in ruins when the Aztecs came along, and their guess about who had built it was passed along for centuries until archaeologists cast doubt on it–and the purposes of the temples, assuming the pyramids were temples, are also a matter of educated guesswork. The larger of the two enormous pyramids is still called the Pyramid of the Sun, but the information plaque next to it theorized that it was actually a temple to the god of water.  If the weather here in the 5th century was similar to today’s, a preoccupation with either would be understandable: the sun because you can’t get away from it, water because you wish you had some.

It is strange how a city can become a ruin. Not how it got that way, I mean (though that’s a mystery too–why was the city abandoned? Invasion? An internal uprising?), but how hard it is for us to see past the “ancient ruin” status and picture it like our own cities, filled with all the noise and activity of life. The wide-open spaces of Teotihuacan seemed like they’d always been that way. Even walking among the acres of former homes, even seeing remnants of the paintings that once covered many of the walls, it was hard for me to imagine people walking around there, cooking their dinners, leaning against a wall for a chat with a neighbor, trotting up the steps.

It wasn’t until I got to Templo Mayor, a few days later, that I could really stand within a long-ruined building and imagine it busy with people. For one illuminated moment, I really understood that they were there, in that place, just five hundred years ago, and that they weren’t thinking, “What a fabulous temple–it’ll make an impressive ruin one day.” They weren’t picturing their brilliantly-colored murals faded to fragments. They just swept the floors, got the ritual objects out of the closet, put their worship clothes on, and started the service. I could almost see the crowd strolling along the wall of sculpted skulls. Maybe it was easier to picture Templo Mayor as a living place than Teotihuacán because it is smack dab in the middle of a huge city; or because it has a roof overhead and so it feels like rooms instead of ruins; or even because it was used so much more recently, not by ancients whose name for themselves we don’t even know, but by the practically-modern Aztecs.

Templo Mayor (Aztec temple in Mexico City)

Maybe people in Mexico are better than I am at recognizing their continuity with the past.  They certainly honor it more, despite being a thoroughly modern nation.  For example, they’re less likely than we are to knock down old stuff to bring in the new, instead incorporating the old into the new. (I just learned that when Wal-mart built a store near Teotihuacán, workers were ordered to hide the artifacts they dug up–those who blew the whistle got fired. I’m feeling worse and worse about that stroller.)  In San Miguel they are forever pulling up cobblestones to do work on the streets, and when the new pipe is laid, they put the cobblestones back.  Modern Mexico also has a very different relationship with its indigenous roots than we have with ours, not surprisingly for a country where almost everyone is mestizo (mixed, i.e., partly native), but those are musings for another post.

The munchkin often talks about “zooseums,” and I mistakenly thought that it was simply her word for “museum,” so early in our time in San Miguel I told her about a “zooseum” (gallery, actually) I’d been in that I thought she’d like. We all went there and she looked around at the colorful art and said, in a voice that was made somehow more heartbreaking by its simplicity and lack of drama, “I thought we were going to see animals.” My maternal guilt-meter went off the scale. I’d deprived my child of her beloved Coyote Point for six months, plus I’d misled her into thinking she was about to see otters! Joy and I both rushed to tell her that there’s a great zoo in Mexico City and we’d go there soon.

So Sunday we took the long-awaited trip to the zoo in Chapultepec Park. The munchkin did enjoy the zoo very much, but I think in the end the highlight of her day was not the polar bear or hippo or even the terrifyingly agile snakes she adored, but the Spider-Man (-Men, I should say) who hung out in a booth along one of the park pathways and shook her hand. Here they are, only asking 10 pesos each for the photo, with a lesson in the proper hand position for web-spinning thrown in for free.

I’m ambivalent about zoos, to put it mildly. No matter how nice the enclosures (and this one’s are very good), they’re still cages, and the only kind of zoo I could feel 100% happy about would be populated entirely by animals who couldn’t survive elsewhere. (In fact, most of Coyote Point’s animals, and all of their mammals, were found injured and would die if released to the wild.) But it is still amazing to see them so close. And the Chapultepec Park zoo costs . . . zero. Yep, absolutely nothing. Incredible.

The approach to the zoo had approximately ten zillion things for sale besides photo ops with Spider-Man. Shoes, junk food, a skyscraper of cotton candy . . .

(all three photos by my multitalented spouse, Joy Morgenstern)

Our other visit on Sunday was to El Museo de Arte Moderno. The munchkin (who had a hard time the whole week) was melting down at that point, so we didn’t get to spend much time in the exhibit that interested me most, on the creation of Mexican identity. That’s travel with kids for you, even one who has remarkable museum-staying power for a three-year-old. In fifteen years we’ll come here with her and she’ll want to spend more time in museums than we can stand, plus she’ll want to race us to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Actually, she did suggest going to the top, but I thought a few steps were enough.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Teotihuacán was Day 3, so I’ll write more about it tomorrow.

We’ve just returned from eight days in Mexico City, and boy, are our legs tired. No, we didn’t walk from there, on a variation of the ancient joke. We just walked around there, miles a day, it seemed. I ought to be losing weight here in Mexico, but I think in the battle between More Exercise and Lots of Cheese, the cheese is winning.

We got to the city last Friday evening after a full day Read the rest of this entry »

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