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Down and Delirious in Mexico City

Artist Miguel Calderón at home in the Condesa (Photo by Adriana Zehbrauskas)

Party in Polanco

I’m sitting on a sleek black leather divan in a Modernist second-story flat in Polanco, a ritzy neighborhood of Mexico City known for its mansions and foreign embassies, sipping soju out of a plastic cup and having one well-deserved Parliament cigarette. A party is going on around me, but no one is talking to me. No one even looks in my direction.

A new face is of little interest here; the fresas, or upper classes, are notoriously snobby and cliquish. All I can do is take stock of the scene around me — a roomful of beautiful and handsome 20- and 30-something Mexican creative types, all of them stylishly dressed, all of them smoking, all clearly coming from money. Fauxhawks, it seems, are big here. Impressive contemporary art hangs on the walls, and expensive furniture is placed sparsely across the hardwood floors. I feel as if I’m 10 stories up somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard — in 1975.

What am I doing here? The short answer is that I am in my second city again, this time to cover the presidential election. Tonight I am the tag-along for Yoshua Okon, a video-and-installation artist and a leading member of the local scene.

The big-picture answer is one I’ve spent the past four years trying to figure out: What is it that is so addictive about Mexico City? I have time to think about this for a moment, my social capital having been spent on cursory and short introductions. It might be the challenge of it. The sharp-tongued locals, known unkindly as chilangos, have an unsavory reputation in other parts of the country as pompous liars and cheaters. And they’re traditionally hostile toward Mexican Americans, us pochos, their wayward countrymen from the north who speak bastard Spanish. Was I Mexican enough?

My parents did not approve of my attraction to the capital. They told me to never, ever come here. “Te roban los calcetines sin quitarte los zapatos,” my father said. “They’ll steal your socks without taking off your shoes.” I went anyway.

Or it might be the city itself, the sheer audacity of it. For the rest of the world, Mexico City, or the D.F. (de-efe for the Distrito Federal), is a megalopolis defined by pollution, poverty, congestion and chaos. But what is often left unsaid is that it’s also one mighty society’s capital of wealth, excess and consumption. It is glamorous and cosmopolitan. And like New York, like L.A., like Tokyo, London and Berlin, it is a magnet for a culture of creative workers who go about their day dabbling in this and that, from fashion to drugs to “alternative sexual lifestyles,” and wake up in the morning to do it all over again.

Earlier in the night, I met Okon and his wife, Gabriela Jauregui, a student and writer in Los Angeles, at their spare apartment in the Condesa neighborhood, and went along with them to a couple of art openings. Now, at the party in Polanco, Okon introduces me to a few artists, a few designers, a few writers including the novelist Francisco Goldman. I say hello to Daniela Edburg, a Houston-born Mexican artist with neon-red hair. A few hours earlier, we had been at the opening of her latest show, a collection of comically morbid photographic illustrations with titles like Death by Gummi Bear. She barely acknowledges me. Then to another young artist, some sort of designer, who I’m informed is from T.J. “My family is from Tijuana,” I offer. The guy appears to be looking directly through me, far away. I ask what he’s doing in the D.F. “On vacation, güey,” he grunts, walking away without looking at me. It’s a brilliant diss, using the Mexican man-to-man endearment as a piss-off.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a group of partygoers moving sneakily into a room and closing the door behind them. Presumably, this is the party’s coke room, a staple for a swanky party in Mexico City. A young woman standing next to me, a writer, is licking her lips at the thought of going inside. “Don’t you want just a little ray?” she whispers to me slyly.

We wait. No one emerges. As we stand there, I’m hit with a flashback — the summer of 2002, when I lived here and was first exposed to the hard-partying, almost religiously decadent lifestyle of Mexico City’s young culturistas. It wasn’t what I bargained for. I was fresh out of college, with no friends, no family and no contacts besides a friend of a friend of my dad’s, and I came to the D.F. on a noble, slightly bloated mission. I was a post-Chicano from the borderlands, searching for my Mexicanness. Instead, I discovered the glories of vice and solitude in the biggest city of the Americas. Now I was back, and the city seemed more self-aware, self-assured and self-absorbed.

 

Still nothing new from the coke room. My new friend is frowning, lingering near the kitchen table. Okon, aware that I am leaning further into the drunken zone, calls a cab for me. The driver is a white-haired old man who asks if the party is still going. I say yes. It’s 3:30 a.m., and it’s raining. He drives me to my friend Umair’s apartment in the Roma district, and I pass out on the couch, ready to get up in the morning and do it all over again.

A New Cynicism

From the moment you disembark your plane at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport, your body must begin adjusting to the new atmosphere. It is thin, as the city sits in an enormous valley at an elevation of 7,300 feet, and also famously polluted. More striking is the smell. The air here tastes like charred corn. The history of the country’s conquest bears down upon the Valley of Mexico with the fury of the rain clouds that drown away the smog nearly every summer afternoon.

In the months leading up to the July 2 election, political propaganda was plastered across the cityscape: on billboards, on pedestrian bridges, in windows, on the metro’s platforms and inside the cars, over government buildings, on cabs. It was billed as a battle between the leftist populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the conservative Felipe Calderón, a less exciting version of outgoing conservative President Vicente Fox. Also at stake was Mexico’s democratic maturity. It was only the second election since the 2000 toppling of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. For seven repressive and bloody decades, the party was the government, and the government was the party. Elections were mere formalities, characterized by fraud and aggression against dissent. Now, Mexico had a real choice, and everyone was wondering if the country’s still-youthful electoral institutions and political parties would deliver a trustworthy election.

Turnout at the polls was high. But to everyone’s great disgruntlement, the election did not end on Election Day. Calderón won by less than 1 percent of the vote. López Obrador, leading the polls for much of the campaign, has been fighting those results ever since, suggesting that a conservative-led conspiracy cheated him of the presidency. Enough evidence of poll irregularities and the peculiar interconnectedness of the political power elite of Mexico make his case strong. López Obrador has led massive marches through the city, calling for a vote-by-vote recount. AMLO, as he is known, for his initials, has mobilized his supporters effectively. But his rallies do not reflect the overall mood of the capital, where the surest sign that Mexico is a “democracy in transition” is the rise of a new cynicism.

On Election Day morning, Gloria de la Cruz, a 20-year-old waitress, wanders about the Zócalo, the vast public square in the center of the capital’s colonial core. Voters are lining up around the block at a “special polling place,” but de la Cruz will not be joining them.

“Unfortunately, I don’t believe in politics,” she says. “Instead of making proposals that are really worth something, the politicians spend their time fighting with each other. You’re a thief, you’re this, you’re that.”

The Zócalo is ancient earth. It sits directly on top of the ruins of the Aztec Empire’s capital city, Tenochtitlán, and is surrounded by the centuries-old Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace, and the exposed ruins of the Aztecs’ Templo Mayor, accidentally unearthed in modern times during a public-works dig. The area is teeming with vendors, demonstrators, and neo-Aztec dancers pounding on drums and burning sage. It is the hard-shelled seed of the Mexican soul.

De la Cruz, of Sonora, is dressed in a black velvet cape and black lace-up boots, and has black dyed hair and black lipstick. She calls herself an “oscura,” a darkie, part of a popular youth subculture in Mexico, similar to the goth-punk kids of Hollywood. De la Cruz says her favorite band is a group called Apocalyptica.

“They don’t know the reality of the people,” she continues. “And those who do offer something somewhat good, simply speaking, once they get to the top, they forget.”

Who is she referring to?

“Why name names? I don’t mean Fox. Fox had good proposals. I liked them. But the Congress never approved his reforms. What does that mean? The majority of politicians don’t care much about the country, but simply for their well-being.

“In any case,” she adds, “even if I voted, it wouldn’t mean anything. Votes are always changed.”

She ambles away, and I descend into the metro station under the hot ground of the Zócalo.

The Nader Ghetto

By Election Day, the cultural tastemakers in the Condesa district — home to most of Mexico’s prominent writers, artists, musicians, architects, intellectuals, and, more recently, scenester rich kids and real estate investors — had heard enough. They express no desire to obsessively follow the news or attend one of the many mass demonstrations for López Obrador — and certainly none of the rallies for Felipe Calderón. People who go to such things are only the most hardcore of political militants, I was told, those who linger on the fringes — racists, old lefties, conspiracy theorists, exhibitionists, closet fascists, the mentally ill, student Communists. Besides, the capital offers too many distractions; there are parties to attend, art to see, strangers to make eye contact with — and be dismissed by.

 

Sure, they were all going to vote for AMLO, but only halfheartedly. Many really wanted to cast a vote for the minor leftist candidate Patricia Mercado, a socialist feminist who would legalize marijuana and increase rights for Mexico’s gays and indigenous Indians. And enough of them apparently did: When the ballots were counted, Mercado snagged more than 2 million votes from López Obrador, who lost the race by less than 244,000 votes.

“Yeah, sure, she’s the Ralph Nader,” says Francisco Goldman, whom I’ve run into on the street. We sit at a sidewalk café in the Condesa, a welcome break from the press conferences and political rallies.

Goldman tells me how Mercado’s effect on the outcome of the election is similar to that of Nader’s Green Party on the 2000 U.S. presidential election. “For the Democrats to win,” he says, “the coalition of African Americans, the union working class and white liberals has to be there. And with Nader, white liberals betrayed that coalition.”

Fruit vendors blow into long, tropical-sounding whistles as they ride along the sidewalks on their bikes, and birds chirp in the lush trees above our heads. A strolling musician stops to serenade the afternoon coffee crowd.

“And here it’s that same kind of effect. It’s fresa liberals,” Goldman says, who abandoned the leftist coalition and placed a vanity vote for Mercado. “Someone said to me, ‘No poor people voted for Patricia Mercado.’ ”

Goldman is Guatemalan and Jewish, born in Boston, but he divides his time between Mexico City and Brooklyn. Before writing three acclaimed novels (The Ordinary Seaman, The Long Night of White Chickens and The Divine Husband), he spent years as a Central American correspondent for several American magazines like Harper’s and The New Yorker. He would come to Mexico City to collect payment and wander the sagging stone streets of the old colonial center.

He lives here today but never writes about it. For him, he says, the D.F. is neutral territory: “Mexico City is incredibly conducive to what I need to get lost in the imaginary world of a novel. It’s always a bit of a dream space for me, a bit detached from reality.”

Goldman’s home is now in Tacubaya, a district farther to the west, but he used to live in the Condesa, in a decaying, stuccoed-over two-story modern apartment building on Amsterdam, the leafy, circular street in the center of the neighborhood. We walk past it on our way to the café, and Goldman flattens his hand against the building’s wall as if feeling for its energy.

“I love my old, beat-up apartment that I used to have here, I love the rain in the afternoon.”

Once upon a time, the Condesa was a relatively quiet and peaceful, if a bit rundown, enclave in the middle of the frenetic city. The woodsy streets lined with forgotten Art Deco treasures gave the district an Old-World Italian or French feel that attracted Mexico’s urban Jews, bohemians, writers and artists. For Goldman, it was the sort of place “where people were living the way they do in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles. This neighborhood was the epicenter of that phenomenon, and then things like La Panadería would spring up.”

From 1994 to 2002, La Panadería was an experimental arts space that served as the central gathering point for the edgy and underground Mexico City scene. The gallery was on Amsterdam, not far from Goldman’s house, and it was a harbinger of the changes in the Condesa — as both a beginning and an ending.

“The first time I walked by,” Goldman recalls, “I just laughed my head off because they seemed so young and adorable. Kids that looked like 15 or 16 and seemed really hip, really self-consciously hip. They’d be playing these B movies, like Roger Corman and stuff. And then they began having art shows, and I met Yoshua, and I started going to openings.”

Goldman hands the strolling musician a few coins. “There’s something in the atmosphere, an energy that sort of throbs up through the sidewalk here, that both seems very young, and very ancient. What makes this place so terrifically inspiring to all the senses is that blend, that energy, combined with all that remains of the overwhelming megalopolis, the labyrinth, the impossible city. This place eats time.”

 

“Do You Want Fiesta?”

After four days of eating street tacos and quesadillas, the artist Miguel Calderón tells me, I should have something different for dinner. How does a French bistro sound? We meet at his house in the Condesa, and from there hop in his small German car and drive a few blocks — while bumping Kool Keith — to a place named Bistro Mosaico, where the wait staff wear black bow ties.

Calderón, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, launched his career at La Panadería, which he co-founded with Yoshua Okon. One of Mexico’s hottest artists, with galleries in New York and the D.F., Calderón is known for photography and video that poke at the dissonance of modern Mexico — like his 2003 photographic series of middle-school kids posing in uniform for a class picture, each of them looking stone-faced in the sort of bomber sunglasses commonly associated with Mexico’s narcotraficantes. He recently had a major solo show in the capital that was mentioned in The New York Times, in a story gushing about how cool and exciting Mexico City art is.

At 35, with messy, curly hair and a perennial two-day stubble that rises to the top of his cheeks, Calderón’s the sort of character you might see at Spaceland on a Monday night. But in the Condesa, he is a superstar. It takes him a few minutes to make it through the room, stopping to shake hands and plant kisses. He knows everyone in Bistro Mosaico. This makes both of us a little uneasy, so we take a table outside on the sidewalk.

But the Miguel effect is inescapable. People walk by with their pets, returning home after yoga or an evening at the gym, and in most cases, Calderón knows them. With each passerby, he shares a heartfelt greeting, then whispers their C.V. once they’ve passed: She’s a model. She’s an artist. He got nominated for an Oscar. He owns the Naco T-shirt company. Finally, when yet another group approaches, Calderón cranes his neck to see who they are, then says with relief, “I don’t know any of them, I swear.”

He misses the old Mexico City, Calderón says — the more lawless, less trendy one, the one that sparked all the creative energy in the ’90s that only now is getting international attention. In those days, Mexico City was mostly just a steamy urban hell. In less than half a century, its population had increased from 3 million to nearly 20 million, spurred by steady migration into the capital from rural zones long neglected by the Mexican government. A genteel city not unlike Paris in its structure and manner exploded into a megalopolis that swallowed towns and villages in its periphery and became the world’s leading example of City Gone Wild. Pollution, crime, violence and congestion rose at startling paces. Then came the great earthquake of 1985. Social problems only intensified with the economic crises of the 1990s. The authoritarian PRI government had reached its most vile levels of corruption and repression.

Back then, you could, as Calderón says he often did, walk into a topless bar with your band, set up your equipment and play a set without any hassle from security guards, because the guards were too busy performing cunnilingus on the dancers. Back then, he went on, you could go up to a couple of cops and ask them to be in your art piece — and they’d do it, gladly.

Other artists were pushing the limits of inspiration from the D.F.’s radical urbanism. Belgian-born Francis Alÿs walked through the Centro Histórico wearing shades and holding a loaded gun to see how long it would take for police to stop him. When they finally did, after 12 minutes, he explained he was doing an art piece, then asked the officers to reenact their exchange for his cameras. (They did.) Daniela Rossell started shooting her now infamous photographs of Mexico’s criminally rich and morally bankrupt, the “Ricas y Famosas.” Minerva Cuevas established the Mejor Vida Corp., a one-woman company designed to make no profits in its efforts to make minor improvements in everyday life in the capital, such as sweeping the metro platforms. Santiago Sierra, commenting on the difficulty of getting around the city while aggravating that ?very problem, created his “Pedestrian Bridge Obstructed With Wrapping Tape” and “Obstruction of a Freeway With a Trailer Truck.” During the happenings, the city’s pedestrians and motorists, always on the move, made little fuss and sought ways around them.

 

“Art reflects what’s going on (as you say),” Calderón says.

I suggest that there’s an aesthetic to the Mexico City scene, and the art it produces when that art directly engages the city: It is generally sarcastic, even a little sadistic. Disagreeing, Calderón asks for an example. So I use a project of his in which he placed classified ads in Mexico City newspapers asking for the cooperation of people possessed by the devil for an art piece. He heard back from several of Satan’s children, and ventured into their homes in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods to document their plight.

“It is sarcastic, but a lot of it was also inquisitive,” Calderón says. “When I started going to these people’s houses, I was really scared. By the end of the project, I realized I was dealing with a lot of bad actors. You could say it’s funny, but it’s also kind of tragic.”

Calderón starts texting and making calls. There might be a party later, but friends are at a mescal bar down the block. “Do you want to go? Do you want fiesta? If you want fiesta,” he says, “I can give you fiesta.”

Later, Calderón explains why he’s stuck around and not flown off to New York or Berlin or Los Angeles. “Mexico City to me has become like the movie by Luis Buñuel, The Exterminating Angel, in which a crowd of guests are at a party and when the time to leave comes, for some strange reason nobody can leave. They just seem to be stuck there. For the past 12 years, I’ve tried to move somewhere else, but for some strange reason, I can’t get out ?of here.”

We head to the mescal bar, a smoky, barren place packed with fair-skinned, hypercool Condesa kids. There is a jukebox and, all along the back of the bar, a display case of action figures from the ’80s: Star Wars, Transformers and plastic soldiers. Greeting several people, Calderón lets out a big, loud “woo-hoo” before taking his seat at a tiny table, among three more of his forever friends.

View From the?Middle Class

As sprawling as Los Angeles and as vertically stacked as New York, Mexico City is tough, treacherous and fast. The metro system, one of the largest and busiest in the world, is a high-speed parade of Mexican society. Daily, riders cram into the cars by the millions, filling every available inch for often-suffocating rides from north to south, east to west. The transfer stations are awesome feats of engineering, swarming with commuters, teenagers selling candy and pirated MP3 collections, deformed beggars, barefoot Indians, groggy businessmen heading to the office, all marching through tunnels, up escalators, on bridges, on the platforms. Like many of the city’s big public-works projects, the metro was built at the height of midcentury Modernism: The color scheme is shag-carpet orange, fecal brown, and olive.

Emerging from the División del Norte station, I’m met by Hortencia Perez de Jaime and Guillermo Jaime Alarid in their white four-door SUV. Relatives of a friend in Oakland, the Jaimes have promised to give me a short tour of their life in the D.F.

“We are of the middle class,” announces Hortencia, 52, a cosmetologist, who does the driving and most of the talking. Guillermo, 50, is a member of Mexico’s large Lebanese community and makes popular low-budget movies about “love, contraband and death,” according to Hortencia. It is the day after the election. They voted for the PRI, she says. “Why bite the hand that feeds you?”

We drive past auto shops, pharmacies, corner stores, cramped apartment buildings, fortified homes, street vendors and lots of raw graffiti. I ask how they feel about the campaign and López Obrador. “He did scare us,” she says. “Poor man is too accelerated. The PRD [López Obrador’s party] are socialist capitalists, like all us Mexicans,” she laughs, before adding by way of explanation, “Yes, let’s help the poor, but ‘Ay, what car do you want to buy?’ ”

The concept of what qualifies as poor in Mexico has changed, says Hortencia. “The people are poor if they don’t go to KFC every day, if they don’t go to McDonald’s every day.” She lets out a generous laugh and keeps an eye on me in the rearview mirror: “The south of the United States isn’t Texas. It’s us! We have all the influences of the U.S., the good and the bad.”

The Jaimes drive me to their comfortable, walled-off house in the Colonia Ruiz Cortines neighborhood in a rougher part of Delegación Coyoacán, one of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs. Along the way, they complain about the lack of order to the streets, the lack of police officers.

“It’s the police officers that make me nervous,” I offer.

Hortencia giggles. “You’re learning fast!”

 

They tell me about their lives in the capital, about what Mexico needs to succeed in the future. For starters, it should put a stop to the endless flow of cheap Chinese goods that are crowding their sidewalks and markets: electronics, pirated software and designer accessories, toys, hygiene products, baskets, books, purses, belts, dresses, watches. Guillermo’s production company has suffered tremendously because of rampant pirating of his films. He can go to any market and find his movies being sold, with no licensing or reproduction fees or royalties going back to him.

“You’ve been to the Centro?” Hortencia asks. “Aren’t you embarrassed by the amount of Chinese junk they’ve allowed in? All of that was allowed by the PRD [which runs the local government]. But what happens to people like us, who pay taxes?”

Hortencia says they have heard no acceptable explanation as to why so much of Mexico is still poor, or why the country is now importing beans and maize — the “foundation of our pueblo.”

“Everyone has a place where they hang their dirty clothes,” Guillermo says. “That’s what Mexico is. We’re that place.”

Death of the Art Bakery

It’s a balmy summer night after another seasonal afternoon rainstorm, and though it’s midweek, the Condesa might as well be celebrating a national holiday. The streets are jammed with tiny commuter cars, and the sidewalk cafés and cantinas are packed with the kind of Diesel-clad people who are fond of rolling their eyes, sprinkling their chatter with unnecessary English and smoking Camels. Valets are working hard, dashing from corner to corner. And as they seem to do every night in this neighborhood, police cruisers are on patrol, their siren lights inexplicably on, perpetually signaling motorists to move on.

Mexico City is experiencing its 15 minutes. Hollywood, perhaps drawn to the heat from the new Mexican cinema, is making movies here. The global art market is hungry for work by Calderón, Okon and others. American Apparel has arrived: The L.A.-based company is producing a monthly bilingual zine on newsprint called Mexico City Monthly, which concerns itself entirely with how cool Mexico City is. Every culturista in the U.S., it seems, is “dying to see” the D.F. Much of the attention is focused on the Condesa. Flowery reports about how neato and on-the-edge the general area is have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other foreign papers and magazines. But the truth is, the Condesa is really beginning to suck.

Month after month, it seems, a swanky new café opens. Meanwhile, fancy, overpriced buildings designed by trendster architects are drawing in moneyed creatives looking for that sort of homogeneous “urban lifestyle” you can find in the “coolest” neighborhoods of the global cosmopolitan capitals. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rohn, one of the wealthiest, most corrupt politicians in all of Mexico, is planning to open a casino smack in the middle of the already congested district. Homeowner groups in the Condesa are fighting the proposal. But knowing the way the bureaucracy in Mexico works — money talks more than anything — it’s almost certain they’ll lose.

“There’s a bridge-and-tunnel effect going on here now,” says Okon, strolling the tree-lined sidewalks of the neighborhood he’s lived in for most of his life. “It’s the same phenomenon of gentrification that you have in the U.S. They come here to party, break beer bottles at 3 a.m. and leave.”

If the Condesa was once the epicenter of the cutting-edge creative energy in Mexico City, Okon and Calderón’s La Panadería was its brain, heart and reproductive organ. The place was the site of some of the most innovative and daring art happening anywhere in the Americas in the late ’90s and early part of the 2000s. Many of Mexico’s most celebrated young artists had their first or most significant showing there, including Eduardo Abaroa and Mariana Botey. There were bands, screenings and parties. Artists invited from around the world came to participate and make art there. It was sceney before the city knew it had a scene.

La Panadería reflected the times, and the art often trafficked on the dubious edges of legality and acceptable taste. In one piece Okon and Calderón jointly exhibited, they presented footage of themselves smashing a car window and attempting to steal a car stereo. The piece was meant as an “other side” reaction to the artists’ experience of being robbed, a common occurrence in the D.F.

The gallery, says Okon, was about the flow of information. “We didn’t only care how outsiders saw Mexico, but how can I, living in Mexico, have access to what is happening in Japan? How can I, living in Mexico, have access to living culture? It wasn’t about how others saw us, it was about participating.”

 

Okon’s flat is above what was once La Panadería. That space is just another trendy Condesa café now, with a valet, a bar, an arty magazine rack and an endless soundtrack of hotel-lobby electronica.

La Panadería’s closure is the stuff of art-scene lore. Okon says it was difficult to maintain the loose collective that operated the place. “It was organic, and like every organism, it had a life span.”

Cocaine also had a negative effect, he says. Back in the heyday of the experimental arts scene, I remember: Coke was everywhere. At parties, at bars, during large family events where my guides were invited guests, at concerts, even at art openings. The drug craze inspired the artist Teresa Margolles to make Cards for Cutting Cocaine, credit-card-sized art pieces that on one side reproduced gruesome photographs of victims of Mexico’s bloody narco wars. She handed them out at openings.

The last official “opening” at La Panadería was an action by the morbidly enigmatic Margolles, who is known for using body parts and paraphernalia from the Mexico City morgue to create jarring sculptures and installations, reflections of Mexico’s culture of violence and death. That night, the attendees stood in the wide, empty gallery space, waiting. Then a hulking cement truck backed up into the gallery loading dock and unleashed a river of chunky, sludgelike cement into the gallery, trapping people in the corners. The cement, we were told, was mixed with water used to wash bodies in the D.F. morgue. And that was the piece, a fitting end to La Panadería — and a prescient commentary on what would follow.

“It’s gone. That kind of creativity isn’t in this neighborhood anymore. That kind of creativity, I guess, is in the center,” Francisco Goldman had told me during our long afternoon coffee. “This was like Soho for a while, Soho when it was young. Didn’t last very long. It’s still a nice place to live, but I think if you’re looking for what really young artists are doing, it’s downtown.”

He was referring to the Centro Histórico, the old city of the D.F., where for centuries, time has nearly stood still. Baroque Colonial-era buildings made of volcanic stone settle into the soft earth at dizzying angles. The streets are thronging with street vendors. For decades, here is where many of Mexico City’s most reclusive and most innovative artists, such as Francis Alÿs, have lived and worked. Today, the Centro Histórico is itself facing the threat of gentrification, an operation funded by Mexico City billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, the third richest man in the world. Slim has been cleaning up the Centro, snagging old buildings and turning them into “lofts.”

Sound familiar?

Today, the Mexico City art scene is considered one of the liveliest and most interesting in the world — almost two decades after its truly rich period. Massive contemporary-art collections like La Colección Jumex and high-profile galleries like Kurimanzutto are forging ever stronger cultural and curatorial ties with Los Angeles and New York, where, in 2002, a massive show about D.F. art at P.S. 1, “Mexico City: An Exhibition About the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values,” cemented the Mexican capital’s international art rep. The art scene that was once notable for its disjointedness, its daring and its direct contact with the churning megalopolis has been all but institutionalized. The bridge-and-tunnel effect in the D.F. has gone global.

Nahuatl Dreams

Sometimes, when the metro is too crowded, the air is too thick, the noise just won’t stop, you have to get out of the city. On my last day here, I sneak away for a day to Milpa Alta, in the southern part of the Distrito Federal. Of the D.F.’s 16 delegaciones, those to the north are densely urbanized, while the southern ones are rural and mountainous, reachable only by car or bus. Of these, Milpa Alta is the farthest from the city center and the least populated. It’s known for its strong population of Nahuatl Indians, the descendants of the Mexica, or Aztecs, and its cactus production.

In the election, Milpa Alta became the latest formerly PRI-run delegation of the D.F. to fall to the PRD. “We’re out of here,” shrugs Efren Ibañez Olvera, the Milpa Alta director of economic development. “We know there are currents. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.” As of October 1, Ibañez Olvera and the rest of Milpa Alta’s bureaucrats and officers will be replaced by PRD appointees. They tell me that they will return to their villages and farmlands and wait for the next local elections, in three years, to see if they can retake the local government.

Our conversations are punctuated every minute or so by a deafening fireworks blast. No one flinches. A procession for the town saint is weaving its way through the stone-and-dirt streets. Along with mariachis, and people carrying idols and images of Christ, one man busies himself with launching missilelike fireworks that fly into the sky with a screaming trail of smoke and explode a few seconds later, as if out of a siege in the Mexican-American War.

 

In the central plaza of Villa Milpa Alta, the largest of the delegation’s 12 villages, Indians and men in vaquero hats go about their work, selling fresh meat from a sidewalk stall or colorful brooms from a tin pail. Young couples sit on benches, holding hands. Vendors sell drinks and snacks. A book fair is taking place under a large tent. All around the town, PRD campaign propaganda is stuck to the walls, scratched off or graffitied over. Old people watch time march past them.

“What we need is support. We need hospitals, playing fields, highways,” says an old gent who would only say his name was Señor Salazar, 70.

Señor Salazar and I get to talking: about life, about Mexico, about politics, about the elections, about why poor people are happier than rich people.

“The poor man is happier, because the rich man doesn’t sleep,” Señor Salazar argues, pointing a raisiny finger into the air. “The rich man gets spent quicker. Look at me. Here I am, sitting in the garden, poor.” He laughs.

“Mexico has been a rich country, a rich country, but its governments?” He pauses and whistles. “Who knows? Who knows what’s happened?”

As we speak, a young Nahuatl guy practices his skating on the square. He wears a green Communist cargo cap and baggy jeans, has black-painted nails, and introduces himself as Baruch Molina Perez, 22, a student. He insists that I come to meet his family in the next town over, Santa Ana Tlacotenco, because his grandparents speak Nahuatl and they maintain a few ancient traditions of the Mexica. We pay 2.5 pesos each to hop on a rickety microbus, and make our way to Santa Ana, past hill after hill of green cactus fields.

The Molina Perez family lives high up, near the village cemetery, in a house made entirely of concrete — the floors, the walls, the ceiling. It’s very cool inside. The doors are glass and appear to come from a U.S.-style hardware store. All the comforts of the middle class are here: welcoming furniture, electronics, a fish tank. They offer me sweet, homemade cinnamon tea.

Baruch’s father, Antonio, a wedding-and-party videographer, says his family is native to the land of Milpa Alta. Their line goes back to before the conquest. His parents speak Nahuatl; he speaks only some; and Baruch, hardly any. The traditions of their people, he says, are fading fast.

“I have no desire to live in the city,” says Antonio, who is wearing a baseball cap. “I don’t believe in politics. I don’t believe in political parties. Or in religions.”

Some things remain the same: The Day of the Dead, rooted in rituals from before the arrival of the Spanish, is still a big deal in Santa Ana Tlacotenco. Babies are still greeted with incense, and weddings retain Nahuatl traditions as well. The Molina Perez family have worked the cactus plant in the past, but not now. Baruch says the work is too hard for him. He wants to be an architect. Today, his father has a side project: He’s joined a cooperative to harvest a plant that’s new to Santa Ana, apples.

Baruch and his mother, Margarita, drive me back down into central Santa Ana, where, at the “plaza civica,” local PRD officials are preparing a small rally in support of AMLO’s bid to have the presidential-election ballots recounted. Black rain clouds are bearing down upon the highlands. Religion’s rockets keep exploding in the sky. A mean wind is whipping about the village and forcing women selling blue-corn tortillas on the sidewalk to shutter their stalls.

Under a huge canopy, a few Santa Ana old-timers hold yellow PRD flags and posters as the newly elected PRD head of the Milpa Alta delegation, José Luis Cabrera, is about to be introduced. When the sound system cuts out momentarily, the PRD man on the microphone screams, “See? They are even trying to manipulate our sound!” The old people pump their posters into the air.

We drive farther down the hills into Villa Milpa Alta, where I will catch another bus back into the delirious city. Baruch, at the wheel, might as well be an Orange County teenager, zipping his car through narrow suburban streets in the O.C. hills. Only here, we are surrounded by endless fields of cactus, and we dodge men pulling wheelbarrows and women with babies slung across their backs.

In the car, Margarita is recalling the highly charged atmosphere that took hold of Milpa Alta during the infamous election of 1988, in which a rising leftist candidate was robbed of Mexico’s presidential sash. She says she worries that the same thing could happen again if the current electoral dispute is not soon settled.

 

“This is my fear, that the people do not know how to act with prudence, to foresee consequences,” Margarita says. “And sooner or later, things may have to fall under their own weight.

“The people with power, the people rich with money, even though they don’t want to pay attention to us, sooner or later, things will have to go as God wishes. God will not allow us to lose, and if the people at the top don’t listen to us, well, they will have to see the power, not of the poor people, but of the elements.”

Baruch and Margarita drop me off at the bus stop, telling me that I can return whenever I like, that I have a home in Santa Ana Tlacotenco. Rain is coming.

An hour and a half away, the city is noisy, fast, smelly, unforgiving, covered with political graffiti. It seems highly unappealing. No one cares if there is one more pocho around or if there isn’t.

I can’t wait to get back.

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