Mexico City Today

 Mexico City Today

(a chapter in TimeOut’s book “Mexico City & the best of Mexico”).

Journalist Témoris Grecko on a city changing its spots

The first thing you might notice when you arrive in Mexico City is that it’s far from the post-apocalyptic, crime- and pollution-ravaged megaslum that a few foreigners – those  who marvel when they hear you’re visiting Mexico City – might imagine. A surprisingly attractive and even, at times, lovely city, studded with archaeological jewels, it’s way more functional than many realise and even quite cosmopolitan. Joyfully surprising, too. If you had checked into your hotel in the early hours of May 6th, 2007, overlooking the vast downtown square of the Zocalo, you would have had a most unexpected view from your balcony: almost twenty thousand naked women and men harmoniously lying in rows in front of the main cathedral of the largest Catholic city in the world.

Linguistically and geographically, Mexico City is in the centre of the Spanish-speaking world. Above is the US with its 35 million Latinos; to the right, over the Atlantic, is Spain; and below Central and South America. It has the largest concentration of Spanish speakers anywhere, with the population of this city half that of all Spain; and in terms of business, it’s second only to Sao Paulo as the Latin American city in which deals are done. Architecturally, it’s a treat, with a range of buildings that span the ages from pre-Columbian to yesterday in a fascinating arc; it has more museums than any other city in the world, it’s the fourth in number of theaters (after New York, London and Toronto) and with the inexorable growth of FEMACO, the annual contemporary art fair, the city is becoming an important fixture on the international art scene.

But there’s no doubt about it: it gets a bad press. The world’s second largest metropolitan area, with 19 million inhabitants (according to the most recent official account), Mexico City isn’t an easy place to live, and the struggle to do so presents something of a challenge to all its residents. Crime, pollution, traffic, lack of services, corruption, water shortages, poverty — it takes guts to be a chilango; and yet chilangos, as Mexico City’s inhabitants are known, still manage to survive and indeed thrive in astonishingly large numbers. And real as they are, the city’s problems can also be exaggerated. Getting stuck in a rush-hour traffic jam or making your way through a crowded underground wagon at peak time are no fun; but most visitors get out alive, lungs and wallets intact, having had a glimpse of one of the biggest, most creative and dynamic capitals of the globe — and one of its bona fide megacities.

A city against the odds in many ways, with a story of constant struggle thanks to its unique geography and geology, for survival, so too has it often been engaged in a struggle for its political life. Since 1824, DF has been the only geographical district of the nation that is politically dependent on federal powers (it’s surrounded by the much bigger State of Mexico, but with separate administration). It has always been denied full autonomy enjoyed by the States. Citizen pressure has eked gradual gains from the central government: a local assembly with limited faculties in 1991, a mayor in 1997, and directly elected borough (“delegaciones”) chiefs in 2000. Full statehood, the next step in the process, hasn’t been achieved yet because the rightist party, PAN (National Action Party), lost all its enthusiasm for the project when the city markedly leaned left, in 1997, and voted overwhelmingly for the leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), in contrast to most of the rest of the country. Out of 31 states, 26 are run by the PAN and  the center-right PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), and DF is becoming a truly liberal island in a national conservative sea.

And it is increasingly determined to highlight that difference. In November 2006, just months after its candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, lost the presidential elections to the PAN by a extremely narrow margin (a result it heavily contested on the streets), the left used its majority in the DF assembly to pass a law allowing gay marriage. The Catholic Church warned of a city becoming a Mexican “Sodoma” (as they already call it in El Bajío, the extremely conservative region that stretches from Querétaro to Guadalajara). But it was nothing compared with the campaign it launched weeks later against a legal reform on abortion. In April 2007, the PRD decriminalized the interruption of pregnancy for up to 13 weeks (with free treatment in government-run clinics for all women, residents and non-residents), making it the only city in Latin America outside of Cuba to do so.

In their crusade to prevent this, the bishops denounced the new “Holocaust” of baby killings it would cause, calling the faithful to demonstrate and threatening mass excommunications against all those who supported the project or got somehow involved in abortions. Waves of public and stealth pressure were launched against assembly members, and even a neo-Nazi group came out of nowhere to stage a public act in the assembly’s stairs to declare death sentences for the representatives who dared to vote in favour. The measure was approved. Polls showed a majority support for it and the clergy didn’t feel confident enough to call for the massive demonstrations in protest it had threatened with. Around that time, Mexico City’s archbishop’s webpage published a report that only between 6 and 9 percent of baptised Catholics were actually attending mass on Sundays. And as if to illustrate the city’s secular, progressive credentials, just two weeks later, in May 2007, US photographer Spencer Tunick’s invitation to Chilangos to strip off in the epicenter of the country’s religious and civil power, the huge Zócalo square, was answered by over 20,000 people – almost three times the previous record of 7,000 set in Barcelona four years before. The vision of these naked bodies orderly covering one of the world’s biggest squares, within metres of the largest Catholic church in the country, was powerful and eloquently demonstrative Chilangos’ irreverent, art-loving spirit — and it’s not just confined to artists, intellectuals and the middle classes.

In 2007, Frida Kahlo’s and 2008 Diego Rivera’s individual retrospectives, were met with attendances of 5 million; and in 2008, Gregory Colbert’s ‘Ashes and Snow’ exhibition at his Nomadic Museum pulled the largest museum attendance numbers ever recorded, with over 8 million in 3 months and 9 days. Current mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s decision to turn the Zócalo, the main plaza, into the world’s biggest ice rink and to set up artificial beaches around the city in an echo of Paris’s urban plages, all admission- free, was branded as populism by the upper-class regulars at swish Cancún resorts and Colorado ski pistes;  but they were overwhelmingly welcomed by the tens of thousands who had never seen a piece of ice larger than those in their freezers, nor experienced the feeling of sand and water on their skin. As art cafes and galleries spring up in neighborhoods previously untouched by high culture and gay couples wander around sporting new wedding rings, young people find it difficult to believe that many of the sex scenes so normal on TV used to be edited-out in theaters. But that’s how it was.

Just one generation ago, under the seventy one-year PRI regime (which ended in 2000), Chilangos were used, along with all Mexicans, to the moral and religious censorship of movies (1988’s “The last temptation of Christ” was first screened in 2004), blatant pro-governmental bias in the press (including an ubiquitous president-worshipping in articles), and having to exercise their sexual and entertainment preferences semi-clandestinely. A trademark of the city in the 1970s and 1980s were “hoyos funkys” (funky holes), illegal venues to which local rock bands were confined. Only the universities and a few independent media -led by the weekly magazine Proceso and the daily newspaper La Jornada – provided a space for freedom and relief where social activism, political humour and critical journalism thrived.

The turning point came in 1985, when the government’s catastrophic failure to respond adequately to two massive earthquakes that caused thousands of casualties forced society to act instead, as rightist groups channeled donors’ funds as they thought best and thousands of homeless people were left to fend for themselves. It was a traumatic wake-up call, and the beginnings of a popular democracy in the city, giving rise to a range of organizations that in time gave the left the strong popular base it enjoys now.

Nevertheless, the blunt social fragmentation typical of Latin America is particularly marked in Mexico City; and all of its developments have taken place unevenly, to say the least, across its different city areas. Economic differences translate into political, social and cultural differences, with PAN’s few strongholds located in the richer, whiter areas to the West and South (home, as well, for the intellectual left), while the North and the East tend to be weaker in cultural options and public services. Traffic is painful everywhere in the city; but water shortages and power blackouts tend to happen regularly on one side of a street, and never on the other side. And while English is commonly heard in Centro, Condesa and Coyoacán, its use remains limited to the foreign names of a few products advertised on billboards in the East, where the colour of people’s skin is invariably darker.

And if a visitor can fall all too easily into a tourism rut, seeing the sights while rarely straying from outside a well-worn trail, as in all massive cities, so can chilangos. Many spend a lifetime in a particular area without getting to know the others – and it’s partly because transport is so bad. The Metro (underground system) has one of the largest networks in the world, complemented since 2005 by the Metrobús, a ‘bus rapid transit’ running north-to-south through the city, and eventually east-to-west too. Yet small routes in the hundreds are served by the anarchic “micros” (minibuses) and “combis” (vans), and some desperate city-dwellers who have to cross the city everyday can take up to 4 hours one way – a desperately slow way for the city’s life blood – its people – to circulate.

Many chilangos would be astonished by the cosmopolitan, gentrified  neighbourhood Condesa has become, where hippy artists mix with yuppie publicists, soap opera stars and independent movie actors, and enriched wannabes and impoverished magnates (plus a lot of expats) dine out in an allegedly bohemian style. Condesa couldn’t be more different from a place like Tepito, a pre-Columbian neighborhood of criminals, boxing world champions, poets, traders, smugglers and painters (and a newish Korean mafia), with its distinct culture (including “Tepiteño”, a playful slang with a unique accent and plagued with word tricks) and a strong sense of identity that has led its inhabitants to repeatedly challenge the authority of the State. Executing an arrest warrant there requires hundreds of policemen to confront the uprising they will likely face.

Many citizens still speak of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, now a big and industrious lower-to-middle class district on the city’s edge, as the mega-slum it was in the 1970s; although rather more unchanging are the Southern, village-like Coyoacán, San Ángel and Tlalpan boroughs favoured by old-guard intellectuals and a certain good-old-times aristocracy. At the opposite pole are the recent, US-modelled neighborhoods in the west like Tecamachalco, Interlomas and Santa Fe. The latter, once a massive rubbish dump, was transformed into a skyscraper-studded business district in less than twenty years in a perfect example of Mexico City’s talent for reinvention, continually constructing its new self on top of the old one – with traces that show through if you know where to look. In Santa Fe, close to the glassy, supermodern corporate complexes, a wide shiny avenue narrows to cross through the old working-class Santa Fe town, behind which remain the caves in which some of the rubbish-digging people of old still live.

In the midst of a renaissance is the stunning Centro Histórico, which at the turn of the millennium used to be deserted at dusk, with a reputation for dangerous streets, but now is increasingly filled with restaurants, bars and cafes, its streets and buildings renovated and occupied by a young crowd as a result of a project launched by a somewhat unlikely duo: the former leftist city mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who styles himself the “legitimate president” after his 2006 electoral defeat by 0.5 per cent, and the second (some say first) richest man in the world, Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim. For decades, new governments had been trying to remove the thousands of street vendors who invaded footpaths and closed many streets, masking the beauty of the colonial buildings and serving as a cover for thiefs. They also doubled as fierce demonstrators and political capital for the competing parties. Each attempt to send them away failed. New mayor Marcelo Ebrard finally convinced them to leave the main areas of the Centro by offering them room in newly built malls. So far, the measure has worked and the public has enthusiastically accepted back the recovered space.

The fight against crime has had mixed results. Mexico City’s reputation for crime developed in the late 1970s, when Arturo “El Negro” Durazo was the all-powerful police chief. In those days, enemies of Durazo were liable to turn up dead in the sewers, and a person in a dark street, with a police car on one corner and a mean-looking gang on the other one, would instinctively run to the latter for protection. By the mid-and late-nineties the situation was at its worst, and in 1998, annual reported crimes for DF hit a figure of almost 238 thousand. No sooner had crime peaked than it began to fall, following the election of the city’s first democratically elected mayor, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who took office in december 1997. Since 1998, the crime rate has fallen every year, bar a surge in 2002, to reach just over 149 thousand in 2006. Some point at the coincidence of reaching a peak and the beginning of a slow but steady decrease in violence with the time the first elected local government took power. Marvels of accountability?

But it is still far from enough, yet. And the security policies of the left in government have shown grave weaknesses even where it is supposed to be strong, human rights. It suffered a big embarrasment in June 2008, when an badly conducted operation against the News Divine, a bar selling alcohol to under-age kids, provoked stampedes and twelve people dead by suffocation and crushing – nine boys and girls and three police officers. Beyond the appalling mistakes and abuses made there, the local human rights comissioner pointed at major failures in the system, such as a tendency to persecute working-class young people. The immediate result was the sacking of the city police chief, the city prosecutor and the borough chief. But Mayor Ebrard said he would use the extensive ombudsman’s report -legally unbinding-, as the basis for a general reform of security forces’ procedures.

Despite improvements in the crime figures, news arrives everyday from the drug war zones into which several of the country’s states have been transformed since the national government launched a general offensive, in 2007, and Mexico City inhabitants open the dailies fearing to read that their frail detachment from the narcotraffic violence might have come to an end. Only national police officers, based in the capital, had been targeted for assassination by drug gangs. Yet in February 2008, a local chief was the objective of bomb attack in the tourist district in Zona Rosa. The weapon exploded in the hands of the inexperienced terrorist, killing him and injuring his female companion. Surveillance cameras show him swinging the artifact in a plastic bag as if it were a box lunch.

The other city’s bad reputation is pollution. Surrounded by a wall of volcanoes and mountains, the giant metropolis sits at the bottom of a locked-in basin at an altitude of 2,240 metres, a set of affairs that translates into thin air and heavy smog that has no natural escape. This is worst in winter, when cold weather makes gases heavier. Rapid industrialization and an unstoppably growing car pool mean many more millions of cubic kilometres of gases each year, and some days, flying in to the city through a thick, brown-grayish cloud may feel like diving into an unattractive pool. It’s way more recommendable -and stunning- to fly into Mexico City by night, when an immense blanket of light spreads across the valley, twinkling on its surface like an inky lake.

In the 90’s, drastic measures were introduced, banning a fifth of all vehicles from driving one day a week (though many Chilangos just went and got another car), setting limits on factories’ activities in the zone, and controlling car’s gas emissions. “Imecas” (in Spanish stands for enviromental quality metropolitan index) became as familiar to Chilangos as their ancestors, the “Aztecas” (Aztecs), and they got used to “contingencias ambientales” (environmental contingencies), crisis days in which all activities must cease. Children would stay at home, most cars would stop, workers would enjoy a free day in front of the T.V. and all of those who could avoided exposure to air: that feeling of raw throats and soar eyes many times preceded respiratory diseases. Nowadays, “contingencias” have become a rarity, because the efforts have had a certain degree of success. Rather occasionally, there are “pre-contingencia” alerts that stop some factories and a few cars -most are newer and have catalytic converters, free from restrictions. A 2008 report shows how ozone levels that trigger a contingencia or pre-contingencia were reached on 4 out of 5 days between 1990-1994, whereas there were only 4 pre-contingencia alerts in 2007.

Much has improved in ‘el DF’, as it’s known in Spanish; but there’s still a long way to go, and a sense that Mexico City’s enormous potential hasn’t been fully achieved. It has the strongest TV industry in Spanish, producing much quantity, but weak in quality (the duopoly that controls production and owns 9 out of ten open channels in the country is only interested in sales), and both Miami and Los Angeles are making big steps to displace it. Its films have won recognition around the world, but that’s almost a miracle regarding the small number actually being filmed and financed in Mexico each year (Mexican directors are mostly winning awards with their Hollywood and European-produced works). Barcelona, a Catalan speaking city, is the publishing capital of the Spanish language, whereas DF gets overlooked each year as the main Hispanic book fair takes place in the western city of Guadalajara. At $315 billion USD (2005), it has the biggest GDP of all Latin American and Spanish speaking cities, but Brazil’s Sâo Paulo’s stock exchange has overtaken Mexico’s as the biggest in the region. And in many other areas, Mexico City has failed to make the best of its many advantages to become the Hispanicsphere’s economic and cultural capital.

That translates into a certain sense of frustration. An exasperated feeling of “how come we haven’t done this, we don’t have that”. Chilangos can’t understand why Mexico City is still considered a backwater metropolis, when to their eyes it should have joined the mainstream of the world capitals long ago. Still, the sense that the city’s golden years are yet to come works like a roaring engine pushing hard up a steep mountain. In 2010, the country will celebrate two centuries of the beginning of its struggle for Independence (September 15-16) and a century of its massive social Revolution (November 20), and Mexico City is getting ready to play her principal role in the festivities. To be a city with such a long, dramatic history, and so many big social problems, Mexico is remarkably youthful in its attitude: colourful, brash and vivid, joyfully getting naked in front of its priests, and inviting the rest of the world to come and watch.

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