Archives for posts with tag: Mexico City

I’m back in the US,  but I can’t go without saying….

While in Mexico for a year, I developed an addiction that will be hard to get out of my blood, and certainly out of my heart, and that is my addiction to Mexico City. I visited five times–about a three-hour bus ride from Queretaro– and I was trying to figure out a way to get back there before I left. It did not happen. (I will just have to save up and get Aeromex from O’Hare.) And I will be back. The electricty that runs through me at the thought of this second largest city in the world will need recharging.A summer storm rolls in over La Reforma

I first visited late into my PC service, and when I finally did, I followed the usual routine: Go to the main plaza and figure it out from there. I was headed to the Zocalo anyway, to the Maya exhibit at the National Palace. I had no idea what I woud see when I came out of Juarez, one of the many streets that radiate from the central plaza. The Zocalo is 10 acres, anchored by the Cathedral, the largest in the world, and it seemed that Mexico had shown up that day, or at least a good percentage of the 30 million who live there.  I never saw so many people in one place at one time. A boy pulling a tarp heaped with scarves almost knocked me over. Everyone was selling something, or going somewhere. Where? Crowd-control fences  help direct the hoards moving  in and out of the metro stop to the dozens of neighborhoods surrounding this city on the plateau.

In front of the cathedral...Mexicans dressed for every occasion, in colorful indigenous skirt and vest, and bullet-proof vest

In front of the cathedral…Mexicans dressed for every occasion, in colorful indigenous skirt and vest, and bullet-proof vest

I just stood there, out of the way, gawking, which is  not a good idea–especially in Mexico City. You have to look like a big-city person. But now I had seen the big-city mother of them all. I have wanted to write about it, but I feel like that little kid pouring the ocean into a hole in the sand. I’d just had to pour more and more…

The Maya exhibit, thousands of years of history written on stone, still grips me. The shophistication, the horror–the smiles and terror etched on the faces. The two laughing statues with their pets–some things do not change, even in thousands of years. I spent a whole afternoon there, after wandering into an architectural museum on Juarez where I meant to stay a minute. Right. Hours later after studying sketches, the work of Barragan and O’Gorman, the beginnings of the building of Mexico City, a city built on a Lake Texcoco that the Aztecs had accommodated with canals, boats, gardens and pyramids–which the Spanish promptly destroyed, filling in the lake, killing off the people.

The Aztec Empire--detail from Diego Rivera's vast, fabulous murals in the National Palace on the Zocalo

The Aztec Empire–detail from Diego Rivera’s vast, fabulous murals in the National Palace on the Zocalo

When Cortes saw Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) for the first time, he reported to the king that it outrivaled Babylon and all of the greatest cities of the world. They had to have it. As if in retribution, Mexico City is sinking. I can only hope that Moctezuma is smiling somewhere.

When excating next to the Zocalo, the Mexicans unearthed one of the grandest temples to the gods ever discovered: The Templo Mayor. To walk the paths through the ruins, to see the altar of sacrifice, the black lava rocks and statues, the serpents dug up, is, in a word, thrilling.

At the Templo Mayor, figures rest against steps of the pyramid.

At the Templo Mayor, figures rest against steps of the pyramid.

The museum next to the dig is a treasure of pottery with painted stories, exhibits of gold, turquoise and obsidium, carved stone, including the great circle that shows the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui. The story goes that her mother, Coatlicue, was sweeping one day when she picked up a ball of feathers, held it close to her stomach, and later was born, fully grown, Huitzilopochtli. Coyo was so jealous, she plotted to kill her mother, but the brother vowed to protect her, dismembering his sister with a fiery serpent.

On my visits to the city, I  anchored each trip to one or more excursions to museums or exhibits. I saved the Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park until last. I took the bus down La Reforma and got off at the park–wear good shoes and rest up before the trek. It is a lovely walk along the tree lined Reforma, but you need stamina for this museum, elevated on a rise in the park with a large “shade”–a beautiful length of stone that seems suspended in the air.

Stone shade at the archeology museum in Chapultepec Park hovers in the courtyard.

Stone shade at the anthropology museum in Chapultepec Park hovers in the courtyard.

The museum appears to be deceptively manageable, with two levels, one wing on each side of a courtyard, but the interior is vast, and fascinating. On one level scenes of different parts of Mexico show the cooking, the costumes, music playing (of course).  One exhibit shows the history of the maguey plant that has been around for 10,000 years, its fibers, leaves, heart used  for blankets, clothing, medicine, shampoo, rope, shoes–and, of course, pulque and tequila (although tequila comes from the blue agave, a sister of maguey).

While the Zocalo was the center for these visits, the thread that held it together was La Reforma, a wide–we are talking wide–boulevard modeled on the Champ d’Elysses with grand monuments marking the roundabouts. The stretch between the Zocolo and Chapultepec park is a sort of embassy row, with  hotels, enormous shaded trees, plenty of space for leisurely strolling.

In Chicago, we have cows;    at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, we hands--dozens and dozens of manos with themes.

In Chicago, we have cows; at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, we hands–dozens and dozens of manos with themes.

On Sundays, from 8a to 2p, the central traffic lanes from the park to the Zocalo, a distance of some six miles, are closed for bikers, skateboarders, baby carriages, all sorts of wheeled Mexicans, hoards moving at their own pace in the glorious sunshine. I thought of my cousin, Kathy, and how I have to get her down here. I did not not get a chance to ride, mostly because I did not have the time, and the traffic in Mexico City is daunting. Crossing the street on uneven pavement requires full concentration while the cars and bikes come with amazing rapidity from all directions. In the rain, it is even more terrifying.

Terrifying and surprising. Isn’t that the essence of a memorable trip? Not too much, but just enough.  One thing about visiting a city this size is the number of surprises: the variety of street food, walking in off the street into a bakery that is a small village of treats, the colorful neighborhoods I barely got to visit (Coyoacan, you are next), the music at every turn–Garibaldi Plaza is dedicated to the mariachi with dozens of bands waiting for gigs, or standing around playing in the street. I may be a Chicagoan at heart, but I’m also a good bit Chilanga–a Mexico City aficionada!!

Nancy Nau Sullivan, a former English specialist in the Peace Corps in Mexico, is the author of this blog and responsible for the content.

The culture of violence:  Here, the skulls of  five Spanish and seven indigenous from Tenochtitlan are displayed in the Maya exhibit at the National Palace in Mexico City.

The culture of violence: Here, the skulls of five Spanish and seven indigenous from Tenochtitlan are displayed in the Maya exhibit at the National Palace in Mexico City.


On Monday morning, I asked my students what they did on the weekend, just to get the discussion going. Most of them had watched a movie or two with English sub-titles. Alejandro, a graduate engineer with his own start-up, said he watched The Dark Knight Rises.

“Did you like it?”  I asked.

“Yes,” he said.


“Because it’s real.”

“Batman in fantasyland? That’s real?”

“Yes, it’s like Michoachan,” he said. “No laws, shooting in the streets, the people taking the place.”

It’s true that the state of Michoachan is the “wild west” of Mexico, and lately it’s made international news. CNN featured a drug-cartel leader giving away 100-peso notes, facing an admiring crowd in the street–a sort of Robin Hood. His reasoning, basically, for working the drug trade was that people want the drugs so “we supply them.” The cartels are fighting hard to keep the meth labs open and continue import-export of all drugs off the coast.  To combat trade, vigilantes are fighting back, and the government has shipped in agents and military.  It’s called the “hot earth,” literally. At first, the government insisted the vigilantes disband; they refused.  Then in an about-face last week, the government invited the vigilantes to come on board, a sort of “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” approach.

As for the violence associated with this business, which includes dumping a dozen bodies in a shallow grave, rolling severed heads into a bar, and hanging people from trees, this is the result of doing business in Michoachan and in other areas of Mexico.  It is also a cultural anomaly that the Mexicans, who are so warm, friendly, fiesta, family and food loving, could commit these atrocities.  The men are soft-spoken, except at a soccer game, and for the most part they are full of Old World deference and charm.

Where the hell does it come from, this killing and horror?

One Mexican editorial writer says it’s the result of a “fragile culture of citizenship and attachment to the law”; bad economy and lack of good jobs, and a “crisis of values.”  Probably.

Omar, a professor at the University of Santa Rosa Jauregui, told me the contemporary violence is “not Mexico…It resides in a few bad people.”

But the miserable treatment of person upon person has deep, deep historical and cultural roots, which in all probability can never be extracted, smashed, killed, gotten rid of by any means. The roots have dug in, and not just in Mexico.

History tells of human sacrifice, torture and killing of every sort.   In every culture.  I am probably descended from the Druids who horrified the Romans with their practices.  Oddly enough, the Germanic people stand out among those who least killed for sport and vengeance–or in the name of religion. But no where was the practice of human sacrifice done with such abandon, and for thousands of years, as in Mexico.

At the Maya exhibit in Mexico City, the stories of death are carved in stone and written on pottery.  It is a stunning display at the National Palace.  One relief shows a nobleman passing the knife to another to offer his heart in sacrifice.  Altars display the positioning of prisoners and noble alike for killing. They ate the dead, and saved the head as a treat for the local priest.

The exhibit, which runs through April and then moves to Brazil and France, is vast with over 500 artifacts, some recently discovered.   Fortunately, it presents a culture that played sports as well as created pyramids, agricultural models, houses (with latrines), and painted pottery that is nothing short of wondrous.  One statuette shows a bat and a crocodile with arms entwined, laughing. It was so funny, it made me smile, and the two are almost 3,000 years old. The Maya had dogs for pets, who did not escape sacrifice when their owners died.  The Maya wore lavish robes, gold jewelry and fixed their hair in elaborate layers of coils.  Their carved faces are haunting: hooded eyes, fine lips, high cheekbones.  Most of the artifacts date from around 400 to 1000 BC, taken from digs in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.  It’s worth a visit to Mexico to see it all–and the enormous expanse of fabulous Diego Rivera murals that surround the beautiful courtyard of the National Palace.

For the sake of balance, the aspects of killing are not emphasized, nor glorified, in the exhibit. Families brought children and explained history, and that was heart-warming to see hundreds of small faces getting a history lesson in context, with the real thing, from their parents and grandparents.  In one scene showing games, a ball player carried a head.  A little boy wanted to know, Why? The father said, It was part of the game, a “trophy,” and moved on. Another relief showed two prisoners about to be killed.  “Pobrecitos,” said the father.

Detail of Diego Rivera mural at the National Palace, Mexico City

Detail of  the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace

Many Mexicans are trying to move past the issue of violence in their society. The media is overstating the problem, said Luz Elena, a student in my Monday morning class.  A graduate industrial engineer, she lives in Queretaro with her sister, but she drives back to Michoachan on the weekends, to the quiet town where the rest of her family lives.  Her fingernails were newly done up in a French manicure with rhinestones in the centers of pink daisies.  Her classmates inspected.  “Only thirty pesos (about two dollars).  Here in Queretaro they would have cost four times that.”

“Did you have a good visit?” I asked.

“Yes, but at night the town is closed.  When it is dark nobody goes out of the house.”

About the violence?  Her friends live in many towns of Michoachan, and they are getting along, even with the presence of guns and guards, she said. “Sometimes you can’t trust who is the police or not.  It could be the bad guy.”  The police stopped her on her drive back to Queretaro Sunday.  There are regular roadblocks all around Michoachan to catch drug runners and stop them from  fleeing to surrounding states–the “cockroach effect,” they call it.

Was she afraid at the road block?  Luz Elena, 22, is at that age when she is not afraid of much.  “I can’t let that happen. The policeman was nice.  I told him I was an engineer, but he didn’t believe me (she needed to produce papers).  He said I was too young for that.”

They want change. I read disappointment, and probably some worry, in their faces when they talk about the violence. They won’t have better opportunities if their country is wreaking havoc. A poster in the Peace Corps office says it best: little changes make a big difference.  In spite of history.  According to Ross Hassig in Aztec Warfare, the Aztecs killed up to 80,400 prisoners over four days during the re-consecration of Tenochtitlan in 1487 (the site of Mexico City). Since the government crackdown on the drug cartels in 2006, approximately 80,000 people have been killed.  History needs to stop repeating itself, one change at a time.

Note: The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Peace Corps.  Nancy Nau Sullivan is a University English Specialist serving in the Peace Corps in Mexico.

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