The great lesson of Mexico City is that people and culture can triumph over computers and concrete. There is a spirit embedded in the indigenous culture, a sure instinct for survival, dignity, and humor, that makes Mexico City work, even when logic tells you that it has outstripped its physical means of existence.
One palpable manifestation of this spirit, and one of the city’s saving graces, is its sensuality—which is not to say it is sexy. Far from it. The highly charged emotional climate is not compatible with the easy, fleshy eroticism that exists, say, on the campus of the University of Texas. Rather, Mexico City is sensual in a very literal way: it assaults, delights, and occasionally overwhelms the senses, particularly those most atrophied by contemporary life in the United States, the senses of hearing and smell. It is difficult to realize how quiet and odorless the U.S. is until Mexican street life is embraced.
And it is in the streets that the city’s spirit surely reveals itself, at least all of it that a tourist from the U.S. is going to see. The poorer Mexicans, who after all constitute the large majority of the society and form its cultural bedrock, do everything in the street. They eat, sing, and play in the street; woo, drink, and pass out in the street. They also make or beg a living in the street, occasionally relieve themselves in the street, and not infrequently die in the street. I confess that in two and a half years of intense street watching, I never saw a Mexican actually born in the street.
The challenge, then, is to descend into the maelstrom, afoot and alert, and seek out the city’s spirit among the places and people that nurture it. The first hint can be glimpsed in the myriad shops and stalls as they shake themselves awake in the early-morning haze.
The bakery, open at seven, radiates the savory warmth of a country kitchen and does a land-office business in hard rolls and at least two dozen kinds of fresh pastries. A block away, a great creaking contraption turns mountains of corn dough into thin, flat discs, which puff up wonderfully as they make their short journey over a heated conveyor belt and plop into a basket. There, with an almost audible sigh, they collapse under their own weight and become that familiar staff of Mexican life, the tortilla.
The neighborhood market beckons with a rainbow facade of cut flowers, piñatas, and caged canaries, parrots, thrushes, and buntings, all adding their laments to the din of the street. Inside, the market is a great visual feast: green and gold pyramids of tropical fruit, oversized squashes, wrinkled chiles, and dozens of fruits and vegetables you never heard of. To one side, chalk-white wheels of dry goat cheese, and swaying carcasses of cattle, goats, and swine; draped overhead are ropes of round red sausages; at the rear, packed in ice, an assortment of flounder, red snapper, shrimp, crab, octopus, and on and on. High on a wall, overlooking her children with sweet serenity, stands the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Back in the street, a delivery is being made to La Hija de los Apaches (Daughter of the Apaches), the neighborhood pulquería. A huge barrel is rolled to the back of an ancient truck, unplugged, and the milky substance gushes out into waiting five-gallon buckets, filling the street with a tangy, sour smell. (Pulque, fermented juice of the agave plant, is the drink of the poor; it costs considerably less than Coca-Cola.) As with all pulquerías, La Hija has a plaque barring certain undesirables—in this case, women, minors, and anybody in uniform.
Like strange flowers, corner newsstands blossom in the morning air, displaying all eight of the city’s major dailies and a scintillating array of tabloids featuring photographs of wrestlers (mostly masked), corpses (mostly mutilated), and women (mostly naked).
Hungry? Follow your nose to Nacidos para Comer (Born to Eat), a popular taquería, and join the standing throng of students holding their satchels between their knees, and harried bureaucrats and salesmen, all nervously munching their tacos and tortas of beans, brains, cheese, kidneys, or whatever else is the specialty of the day. Why does everybody eat standing up? Because there are no chairs.
Commerce is not restrained by walls. On the sidewalks and streets are the innumerable roaming purveyors of goods and services who own only their wares, tools, and perhaps some odd but appropriate conveyance.