Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Waiting for Rain

Spring lingers in Mexico City, a mean heat carried on dusty, bone-dry winds. It hasn't truly rained in the center of the city for several weeks, though the yellowish haze smudged across the sky perpetually threatens to build into cathartic thunderheads. In a few months, summer will bring regular rainfall to wash away the baked-on grime, for now we wait.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Amusement Park

Paint peels from the tired faces of overriden carousel ponies, a central fixture of the semi-permanent amusement park rides stationed in many of Mexico's public parks. Weekending families wander through the whirring machines, occasionally succumbing to a child's nagging and passing a five peso coin to the operator.

Most often, however, the rides sit abandoned, however, their transient appeal waning further until one day they are gone, as quickly as they appeared. Visitors still visit the park, the space once filled by rides now occupied by balloon sellers and popcorn carts.

The bright colors, blinking lights, and humming music of the rides create a vivid tableau, a nearly-constant backdrop for Sunday paseos that is simultaneously enchantingly vibrant and melancholy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Mexico City's central cathedral dates to the seventeenth century and leans, its back hunched by age, slightly to the left. Over the years, the monumental stone construction has sunk into the unstable earth below, giving an impression of slightly crooked grandeur. Time weighs heavily here, on eroded structures and memories of a history that lingers in the present.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Festival de Mexico

Over the last 20 or so years, Mexico City has become a increasingly cosmopolitan place, interconnected with the global art and music scene. This cultural vibrancy has been on display the past week during the "Festival de Mexico", an event featuring music, theater, dance, and cinema from around the world.

Events have ranged from dramatized readings of the work of a contemporary feminist Iranian poet, to electronic noise music in dark austere halls thronged with painfully cool hipsters.

Some of these performances have occurred in gloriously intimate settings, where avant garde jazz saxophonists simply meander through the standing audience and experimental bassists improvise rhythms and melodies to fifty people sitting in crosslegged rapture.

Often, events like the festival disappear in the nonstop buzz of activity in Mexico City. Often, what you do is simply a question of which poster on the wall of a subway train catches your eye.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

City of Palaces

Time has worn the once-ornate facades of Mexico City's historic buildings. The City of Palaces, as a colonial traveler once labeled it, is outwardly gray, filled with ponderous stone edifices weathered by the centuries. These cold exteriors often give way, once one slips past the burnished heavy wood of equally ancient doors, to bright interior refuges from the clamor of the street.

The baroque moldings and soaring arches, the ornate metalwork and fading frescoes, are reminders of past glories, of the wealth and power that once resided in the city's center but has long since moved to newer, sleeker buildings in newer, sleeker neighborhoods.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

El Campo

Alan Knight polemically once wrote that "provincial Mexico" was "the real Mexico." Yet over the course of the twentieth-century, the majority of the country's population moved into urban centers, creating new dynamic urban cultures and often discarding "provincial" trappings. Simultaneously, however, the countryside became the repository of a mythologized romantic past that was evermore distant. Popular movies celebrated rural life, and the city's radios often played ranchero music.

While residents of the metropolis cheered for parading charros and thronged to street stands offering barbacoa, policy toward the countryside after 1940 alternated between neglect and abuse. Increasingly, the government sought to feed--literally--the industrialization process by suppressing food prices and commercializing agricultural production, subsidizing urbanization at the expense of the campo. Excess rural population was squeezed off a limited land-base, the emigrees first providing the manpower for new urban factories, then, increasingly, becoming economic refugees north of the border.

In the face of these bittersweet realities, rural life still exerts a strong pull on Mexican culture, even in the concrete-bound center of the Distrito Federal. The tunes and traditions of the countryside are also the tunes and traditions of Mexico's past, the core of a well-armored national imagination.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Mexico City is a brutally anonymizing place. Returning here after a long trip away, you are forced to confront your own inability to grasp, comprehend, and master the unsympathetic walls closing in around you.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


The overnight bus from Mérida bellyflopped over an outsized speedbump and rumbled into the grey predawn silence of Chiquilá. A procession of sleepy passengers snaked from the bus down the wharf. In a few minutes the small catamaran ferry appeared from the darkness of the bay. Once the pile of luggage had been transferred, the boat lurched from its moorings and thrummed out onto the crumpled velvet ripples of the lagoon separating Isla Holbox from the mainland.

My trip to Holbox was the product of a childhood spent thumbing through too many fishing magazines. The island is famous for its tarpon, a silver-plated species renowned for dramatic leaps, and the supposedly remote setting appealed to a sense of adventure. As the ferry glided into the dock in Holbox's still-slumbering harbor, the sun crept above the horizon and my trip began.

The island is a long scruffy sand spit, cast like driftwood onto the northeastern corner of the Yucatan peninsula where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea swirl together. On the long outer beach, sunbathing tourists recline near the bobbing lanchas of local fishermen, the torpor of the former contrasting with the tidal coming-and-goings of the latter.

Eventually I set off to fish, the boat skimming westward past low palms and desolate beaches toward Cabo Catoche and a massive lagoon. Nature, however, conspired against my hopes. New moon tides had left little water over the sea grass, and strong winds strafed the bay, sending battalions of foam fleeing across the surface. Though the sparkling cerulean stretches of ocean seemed to whisper possibilities, it was not to be.

At the island's western end, a collection of unpaved streets run past squat wood and concrete houses, connecting the bayside harbor with the small hotels along the oceanside beaches. Rusted handmade stop signs fade into creeping foliage. Golfcart taxis and pushcart tricycles lounge on shaded corners of sunbaked streets, not until dusk drives sunbathers from the beach will the town's center awaken. Restaurants that would be quaint, if they were not unabashedly tourist-fare, crowd the streets around the central plaza. Yet visitor and resident mingle easily here; Holbox is too small for it to be otherwise.

As the sun disappears behind the hard edge of the western ocean, I wander along the now quiet waterfront. When night falls, few people linger on the cool sand of the beach. Behind me, lights from the town cast long shadows of palm trees down to the gently lapping waves. Without a moon, the soft velvet blackness of the night is peppered with the tiny pricks of light from countless stars, only visible when my eyes adjust to the darkness. In town, the plaza buzzes with pre-carnaval activities and children chase the darting spotlights beaming out from the stage. Everything beyond these lights, out in the shadows, away from this small village huddled on the corner of this island, seems very far away and very big.

The following morning, the ferry departs for Chiquilá. On board, a group of French tourists smoke and cluck, the imminent return to the mainland perhaps awakening a need to shred what few traces remain of the island's tranquility. And out along the beach, far past the farthest edges of the hotels, small waves lap at the footprintless edge of a ruffled sandbar.