Sunday, August 29, 2010


I awoke to church bells this morning. Religion, or perhaps more accurately, faith, is an inescapable part of life here. Although devout Catholic practice is shaped by the corrosive qualities of urban life, it is a thread that runs through both quotidian life and national history.

On a weekend when Glenn Beck was proclaiming the United States to be a Christian nation, Mexico was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of an independence movement begun by Catholic priests. If the ultimate realization of independence came about on a simple platform that officially affirmed Roman Catholicism as the new country's religion, observance and belief--then as now--existed in multiplex popular forms. Though it is not uncommon to see people carrying statues of saints through the streets or on the metro, by far the most prevalent indication of faith is the permeation of the cult of San Judas Tadeo. Small cloth medallions, cheap bracelets, grubby t-shirts all bear the image of the saint, often with the invocation "pray for me." As the patron saint of lost causes, the resonance of San Judas Tadeo among Mexico City's poor, living on the margins of survival--and often legality--is self-evident. More than the iconic Virgen of Guadalupe, it is the cult of San Judas Tadeo that more deeply reflects religion in the unequal and gritty world of contemporary Mexico.

At 8 PM I will hear the church bells again. The country's Catholic hierarchy, seemingly more concerned with vociferously protesting gay marriage laws than attending the needs of the poor, will continue to be--as it has for over two hundred years--the absent steward of an edifice built by popular practice.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Government by Quijote

In the past two weeks, the city government has imposed a plastic bag ban and the federal government has forbid the over-the-counter sale of antibiotics. Both measures run against long-standing common practice, legislating to the ideal rather than the real, even if both respond to legitimate concerns. The conditions that gave rise to the overuse of antibiotics, such as difficult access to medical care and the proliferation of pharmacies, are the same conditions that make such a prohibition nearly impossible to sustain.

Similarly, Mexico City's trash problem--a major component of which is the rampant use of cheap plastic bags--has long been the subject of regulations adhering to noble principles which are impossible to enact or enforce. In theory, it is prohibited to deposit trash on the street, and all waste must be sorted. In practice, the absence of a sensible collection system combined with the strength of old habits means garbage simply piles up on the corner.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Research breakthroughs can come in unexpected ways. Stray sheets in the archive, serendipitous connections, flashes of inspiration...

In the late 1940s, a pair of films were released in Mexico offering a dramatic--and slightly comedic--portrayal of the bus industry in Mexico City. These films, although a part of the golden age of Mexican cinema, are nearly impossible to find. Though I knew of their existence, I had no idea how to track them down.

As a regular customer at the Sunday market, I have come to know many of the vendors. The three butchers were particularly friendly. One morning as I explained what I was doing in Mexico, the youngest of the three, Gabriel, stopped me and asked if I knew about the film "Esquina, Bajan." Surprised, I exclaimed that I knew of it, but had never seen it. "I can get it for you," he replied. So it was that a few weeks later, I was handed a half-kilo of tenderloin and two much-sought-after DVDs.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Food on the Run

Mexico City is peppered with food stands, ranging from a simple table, handwritten sign, and basket of warm tacos, to more permanent brightly painted metal puestos serving pork or goat stew, quesadillas, hamburgers, or tortas. Such comida corrida is indispensable during long days when the trip home will often take several hours.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


One of the most pervasive perceptions of Mexico, and Mexico City in particular, is that it is a chronically unsafe place. This is partially the legacy of an especially sensational mid-decade wave of kidnappings-for-ransom and robberies, combined with the city's persistent reputation for inevitable petty crime. In the past several years, the capital has remained largely sheltered from the rampant drug-trafficking-related violence elsewhere in the country. Pockets of immense poverty located next to relative wealth, the city's tremendous anonymity, and the strength of underworld networks in peripheral areas mean that Mexico City will never be totally secure, yet neither is it as viciously unsafe as often portrayed. Many of the city's neighborhoods are no more dangerous than comparable cities in the U.S., though the fear - if not the reality - of crime is far more insistent here.

As I walked home from the National Archive last Thursday, two rail-thin young men cornered me against a parked car and rather aggressively extended their hands. "Give us a peso," they said. When I protested that I had none, they persisted, playing on fears of urban insecurity: "look, g├╝ero, we're asking, because it's better than taking your belongings."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


In a little over a month, Mexico will celebrate the bicentenario, marking 200 years since the start of the insurgent movement that ultimately resulted in independence from Spain. Popular patriotism is tinged with the blackest cynicism, however, frustrating efforts to promote the event. Today's Mexico-Spain soccer match bordered on the farcical, from the "Bicentenary Trophy" that was at stake to the pathetically earnest television commentators. When a vapid blond sideline reporter asked a very bemused David Villa what he thought about the historic importance of the bicentenary match, the star Spanish striker could only confusedly mumble "Uh, happy?"

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Research very rarely moves in a linear fashion. On Friday, intrigued by a document I had found, I returned to a topic that my advisor had suggested during my first weeks of graduate school. As I leafed through the card catalog the shape of a potential project quickly became apparent and a fascinating story began to emerge. After a fatiguing week, the excitement of glimpsing new possibilities reminded me why I chose to pursue history.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Writing on the Wall

"Jose - You were the best by my side and you gave me my life back, but I could not thank you for for everything you've done in person, so I will leave it here, hoping that some day you will come and read it."

The scrawlings of frustration, sadness, and mischievousness.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Today marks six months since I arrived in Mexico. Over that time, very little has played out as I anticipated. Several archives have left me frustrated or disappointed, while I have found marvelously rich sources I never expected to find. My neighborhood has proven as wonderful as I remembered it being, while I have struggled to find my footing socially in the anonymizing flood of this city.

It continues to be an adventure.