Monday, May 23, 2011


Deep in the South of Mexico City, past the concrete band of highway that loops around the urban sprawl, past gritty neighborhoods and the National University, highrises give way to low whitewashed bunkers and patches of dusty trees seep through the asphalt landscape. Here, on the outskirts, is Xochimilco, where creaking gondolas glide along ancient canals and bands of mariachis serenade languorous birthday parties.

As Mexico City grew, the lake that once surrounded the Aztec capital was drained and filled, its elaborate network of canals and floating gardens quickly disappearing. Xochimilco too was swallowed by the metropolis creeping down and west, its neon trajineras and abundant flowers drawing a stream of daytrippers. These visitors spend hours soaking in the relative tranquility found aboard the gondolas that jostle for space in the main canals, slow-motion chaos that flows between the banks.

Most trajineras are narrow scows, their shallow decks lined with two rows of chairs around a warped table. The battered tin roof provides welcome shade from harsh midday sun for passengers who sip cool micheladas and snack on quesadillas sold from smaller canoes. Photographers, musicians, and trinket-sellers drift by, swinging their boats alongside the others to advertise their wares.

Bright colors abound here, in the vivid arches bearing the names of the gondolas and the starbursts of flowers on the banks. Yet there is something profoundly faded about Xochimilco, in the worn metal on the edges of the trajineras and the rotting hulls on the shores of backwater channels. Even as lively music floats over rafts of revelers, the murky water lapping at creaking hulls suggests a sadness. Mexico City has strangled the rich lake ecosystem that once sustained it, grown over the water that made the place special. A smoggy haze hangs over Xochimilco. Even on the outskirts, the city looms.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

1 Year

Photography is as much about capturing the quotidian as the extraordinary. When I began this blog exactly one year and 100 posts ago, it was little more than an assortment of snapshots of daily life in Mexico City. Over time, it has grown and developed into an attempt to provide a thoughtful reading of Mexican culture, a sympathetic portrayal of the rhythms of the city, and an earnest commentary on the struggles of living and researching abroad. I have been surprised by its growth and the extent to which the blog has come to shape my photographic endeavors. I am grateful for the loyalty of readers, and the support and encouragement of friends who have made it possible.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Volcano Dreams: Part II

The low whine of the van's motor faded down the dirt road behind me and was gone. I stood in the desolate parking lot and glanced up at the ominous dark clouds swirling above. The immensity of the solitude closed around me. Steep, brooding cliffs guarding the flanks of Iztaccihuatl appeared and vanished in the mists. When last I came, the trailhead had buzzed with activity as my climbing partner and I gazed at the mountain above. Now, I was alone. Obsidian puddles and patches of grainy snow dotted the ground. I looked up at the clouds again. Was this where I wanted to be? Alone on an unknown mountain, far from anywhere, and under threatening skies? I started upward.

Towering above airy valleys and sweeping plateaus, the sheer relief of Iztaccihuatl is staggering. Rugged spires of black volcanic stone soar above dark cliffs and barren slopes march upward, a succession of ridges stacked upon peaks reaching toward the sky. The mountain's mass sprawls north from the trailhead at La Joya, an imposing jumbled bulk that stands in stark contrast to the graceful cone of nearby Popocatepetl.

Below me the parking lot shrank into the distance as the trail unraveled behind. I passed a saddle, where I had watched the sun sink behind the foothills on my last visit, following a familiar path. Then it vanished, a web of runnels and snowbanks, deceptive, misleading. Thick mist surged up the side of the ridge and obscured the tangle of maybe-trails. I howled with frustration. The sky cleared briefly and a yellow marker emerged. Passing my previous high point, the trail skirted a ridge and wound to a ragged promontory. Daylight seemed to seep away, and storms threatened. I scanned the slopes for signs of the refugio, anxious. I started down a seeming path, then retreated, disheartened, then scrambled, searching, down the backside of the ridge. Nothing. Again I howled. Beyond the promontory I crested a small rise, and the silvery glint of the shelter appeared.

The Grupo de los Cien refugio perches on a small outcrop below the stark cliffs of las rodillas. There were once other such shelters on the mountain, though they have burned or decayed. The passage of many climbers is evident here. Packages of ramen and empty water bottles sit on a shelf, a child's hiking boot hangs from a rafter. The heavy iron latch on the door has been worn smooth. It is quiet inside, and light streams through the tired windows and the battered white interior gleams. Outside, bolts and cables fasten the ephemeral structure to the mountain.

Silhouetted against the evening sky above the refugio a line of crosses dot the ridge like an alpine Golgotha, a cold reminder of the risks here. I attempted to sleep, but altitude and anxiety gnawed at me. To gain the ridge leading to the summit, I will have to climb through the cliffband that marks the "knees" of the mountain, and I worried about following the route. Orange lights from distant towns glowed through the haze, and a bright moon shined in the cold, clear sky. Overnight, wind roared and rockfall crashed down a nearby gulley and echoed off the slopes. The next day dawned clear and still and silent.

On top of the "knees", a new world unfolds. Naked ridges embrace yawning cirques, stretching in spectacular succession along a string of minor peaks reaching to the summit. Worn ruins of a former hut and the thin berm of the trail are the only signs of human passage in this alien landscape. The glaciers here were once bigger, and snow more common, but now it is mostly dry, loose dirt and gravel swept up into graceful ribs.

From the "knees", I downclimbed a rugged knob of rock that blocked the otherwise gentle sweep of the ridge, a soaring emptiness under my feet. Across and down, up and over, I followed the path along the crooked spine of the mountain, climbing up false summits and opening onto the glittering white blanket of the Ayoloco glacier. Carefully tracing faint footsteps across the icefield, I scrambled up loose scree, empty space falling away beneath me, wandering astray before rejoining the route. Then, the summit. Months of dreams, hopes, fears blew across the domed peak. I lingered in the sun, then, as huge white cumuli blossom on nearby crests, I scampered downward.

Back in the parking lot, fleeting bursts of sunlight poked through thickening clouds. A minivan arrives, then a sedan. Other climbers pull heavy packs from trunks and prepare to ascend. Many people come to the mountain, seeking adventure and challenge. Low on the trail, they will pass a small white rock, on which someone has scratched "animo, sí se puede", "c'mon, you can do it."

(Click for Full Color Version)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Paz y Justicia

Shortly after taking office in 2006, President Felipe Calderon made the risky decision to deploy the military to confront increasingly powerful drug trafficking organizations. Five years later, the results of that strategy are painfully clear: violence has spiraled uncontrollably upward , fueled by military grade weaponry and inter-cartel struggles over trafficking routes. Civilians have been caught between sociopathic traffickers and heavy-handed military policing, particularly when the latter fails to provide any protection from the former.

Traumatized by gruesome massacres of northbound immigrants and senseless crossfire killings, Mexican society has begun to push back against government policies. On Sunday, a march for peace arrived in the zocalo, waving white flags stained with fake blood.

While the movement's broad objectives were noble, its platform was profoundly revealing of the quandary presented by narcotrafficking. If a thousand origami swans is a touching gesture, it is equally unlikely to bring about an end to the violence as demanding the President's resignation. The sweeping institutional, social and economic reforms that could begin to address the crisis are actually less likely to be achieved with a 'citizen candidate', despite the march leaders' insistence on a total rejection of existing political parties. Corruption, simply put, is not the problem. Mexico's judicial and penal systems are nearly irreparably broken; recruitment posters for prison guards in the Metro advertise a starting monthly salary of 6500 pesos - around $560 dollars. The country's tax system is in desperate need of reform, and its ability to exploit what oil resources still remain is hampered by outdated but virulently defended legislation. The legacies of the political structure birthed by the Revolution - most prominently the prohibition of reelection - create a permanent hindrance to representative governance. Job creation lags far behind population growth, leading to the tragic growth of the "ni-ni's", youth who neither study nor work. Confronted with his impasse, the marchers' frustration is shared by many.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that the march will have any lasting impact on the political scene. Turnout was underwhelming, and previous civil society protests against violence and crime have done little to alter the landscape. Fake blood theatrics are hardly an effective tool for opening serious discourse, and a great deal of ideology floated beneath the waving banners. What hope was to be found on Sunday was in small signs of compassion and sacrifice, not overt politicking and radical sloganeering. The pain that was on display is not enough to produce a change, but it might be enough to move toward healing.

I can be contacted at: lettieri.michael (at)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dias Festivos

The prevalence of vacation days is a simple fact of life in Mexico. After nearly two-week-long Easter vacations, the country has returned to normalcy with partially-observed holidays on Monday and Thursday this week.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Veracruz's impressive aquarium attracts a steady stream of tourists who come to marvel at the beauty carefully encased behind thick lucite. From spectacular reefs to Pacific seamounts, Mexico possesses a wealth of coastal resources beyond travel-brochure beaches, yet preservation efforts have rarely succeeded. Though turtle populations have recovered after the end of large scale harvesting and egg hunting operations, that is a rare success story in a country where limits on fishing are effectively nonexistent. For all the wonder the aquarium inspires, there is little hope that conservation of the country's marine riches will expand beyond spotty local efforts.