Wednesday, April 27, 2011


After a week when the full pageantry of the Catholic Church was on display, Aztec dancers convened today on the edges of Parque Mexico, wooden bells on their ankles stomping out a percussive rhythm. Reenacting pre-columbian rituals is something of a national mania here, where historical processes of mestizaje and the slow grind of global cultural penetration have withered the roots of indigenous tradition. Whether the dancers, who can be found in nearly every public plaza, seek a spiritual connection to the past, or simply a few pesos from a passing tourist, their presence is a reminder that the gleaming glass facades of the country's modernity are not Mexico's only face.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


During Holy Week, Mexico City becomes a ghost town. Vacationers stream into small towns surrounding the city seeking a respite from the noise and smog. Nestled among towering cliffs and weathered crags, Tepoztlan has long been a destination for weekend trips from the D.F. and during Semana Santa its narrow streets turn into a meandering carnival that stretches along the length of its main street and winds up the steep pathway to the Pre-Columbian temple perched on the mountain above.

While visitors sip micheladas from styrofoam cups and savor the sweet frozen nieves for which the town is famous, residents follow the rhythms of the week's religious ceremonies. On the evening of Good Friday, after many of the tourists had long since returned to their hotels, a candlelight procession slipped through the cramped passageways of the market outside the courtyard of the imposing church.

Later, thunderstorms will break on the hills above the town and sharp lightning will rip through the sky, and fat raindrops will pepper Tepoztlan's now quiet cobblestone streets. Tomorrow, more visitors will come to relax in the town's clear sunlight, and in the evening the storms will come again too.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Spring storms have finally arrived in Mexico City, breaking weeks of grinding heat and rinsing the dust from dry winds. They have arrived just as Semana Santa begins, washing dead leaves into storm drains on empty streets and chasing the few lingering vendors from abandoned markets.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


The masks hang on countless streetcorner racks around the city, glittered tassels fluttering, hoping to catch the eye of a passing tourist. Few of Mexico City's subcultures have been as successfully repackaged to capture foreign curiosity as has lucha libre, the peculiarly Mexican form of professional wrestling that is equal parts kitsch and passion. In many ways, however, the comedic interpretation--cultivated in Jack Black movies and Lonely Planet guidebooks--is a mask for the sport's more earnest elements.

Lucha is, undeniably, entertainment, but it is also entertainment with profound social resonance. Commentators have noted that the struggles of the characters in the ring--valiant tecnicos versus devious rudos--replicate the struggles of daily life in Mexico, right down to the flamboyant referee whose impartiality is often in doubt. Beyond this psychosocial reading is the reality that popular wrestlers make ready folk-heroes, the persona of their mask offering an anonymized identity that could be assumed, potentially, by anyone. For many years, the wrestler Santo, recognizable for his simple silver mask, starred as the do-gooding hero of many Mexican B-movies. In the wake of the 1985 earthquake, a retired luchador donned a red and gold outfit and styled himself as Superbarrio, a defender of popular needs and became the figurehead for a powerful citizens' movement. Female luchadors, it would appear, have extended the sense of empowerment inherent to the experience.

Perhaps the most telling sign of lucha's legitimate popularity is the sheer number of wrestling leagues performing in venues scattered across the metropolitan area. These range from the cavernous Arena Mexico in Colonia Doctores to the cramped cinderblock-and-aluminum bunker that is Arena Lopez Mateos in Tlalnepantla. At the smaller arenas, the lucha is more raw, less influenced by the pyrotecnic television entrances of the WWE, and has feel of gritty, working-class neighborhood entertainment. The wrestlers are local figures, and their fans are vocal, boisterous. These are the kinds of places where amateur fireworks set off in the back row spew still burning embers onto those seated by the ring, and wrestlers pose for pictures alongside the runway. Here, the interactive aspect of the performance is unmistakeable, in the crass taunting of unfavored luchadores and the echoing chants of support for the favorites.

The performance itself can range from monotonous to exhilarating: the repeated chest slaps and ubiquitous arm throws are humorous at best and yawn-inducing at worst, but the most talented wrestlers are high-energy acrobats, as often aloft in some elaborate maneuver as grandstanding for the crowd. The dynamics of a match are uncomplicated, though often lost in the swirl of lights and wave of noise. Wrestlers are divided into two camps, tecnicos, the supposed 'good guys', and rudos, their often dirty opponents. It is the rudos, however, who often draw the loudest cheers from the most devoted fans. The referee is often a character in his own right, whose judgement is often questioned, and many matches feature appearances by auxiliary characters, whether monkey-costumed mascots or morbidly obese women who demand kisses from the wrestlers.

Lucha is, in the final estimation, a far more complex organism than its comedic caricature would have. It is a potent subculture, a performance that fosters deep connections with fans and reflects aspects of the society at large. Its significance is not in the orchestrated throws or theatrical pins, but in its ability to reach beyond the ropes of the ring.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


One of the greatest challenges of research is to glimpse beyond the reflected illusions of the documents to the reality beneath. What is perceived is often convenient, fitting elegantly into teleologies, narratives, and historiographies, but it is understanding the truth that matters.

Monday, April 11, 2011

People #1: Señor Diego

I met Señor Diego several weeks after arriving in Mexico. The barbershop was little more than a wide hallway, slotted between an ice cream store and a mini-mart. He worked slowly, deliberately, his practiced hands floating in search of stray hairs. Talkative, though not garrulous, he inquired what I was doing in Mexico, having quickly noted my accent. When he finished cutting, he passed a strange hand-massager along my shoulder and back, the final touch of a ritual.

Over the next few months, I would learn that Señor Diego had lived in Mexico City since the fifties, having moved here from the mixteca oaxaqueña. He talked with pride about his children, who were working as lawyers and doctors, and recalled how the city had changed. Most often, though, he talked about the house he and his wife were constructing in Zacatlan, Puebla, and where he would retire.

When December came, he had decided to leave at the start of the New Year. In shaky, uncertain lettering, he deliberately wrote out directions to his home on scraps of paper. And then, with a warm handshake and best wishes for the future, we parted ways.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Through a Glass, Darkly

Historical research is much about making sense of vaguely glimpsed figures, grasping at shadows that flit across the dim curtain of the past and are gone. Of the actors, whose darkened reflections emerge from pot-shard documentation, we can ultimately say little. The golden ideal of understanding will elude us.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


A 19th-century Mexican commentator once remarked that his favorite part of Mexico was "Veracruz, because it is from there that one leaves." Though it was only tenuously connected to Mexico City by a bad road for much of the country's history, Veracruz was the great port, through which countless invaders came and countless exiles left.

Today that great port, no longer haunted by pirates and foreign militaries, is a thrumming commercial town. The coral-and-brick battlements of San Juan de Ulua, where Benito Juarez was once imprisoned, now guard over the peaceful passage of modern container ships. Around the bustling harbor tourists and locals gather to watch freighters steam out to sea and Navy vessels arrive. Farther along the malecón fishermen hang their nets, their simple launches tied to worn wooden docks. In Mexico's oldest city, history and tradition bob quietly up against the present.