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. From these you may purchase fresh orange juice, sliced fruit, fried pork rind, nuts, chewing gum, lottery tickets, phony pre-Columbian artifacts, blankets, ice cream, puppets, miniature statues of John Kennedy, Benito Juarez, Jesus Christ, and other luminaries, molded gelatins in Day-Glo colors, plastic jewelry, corn on the cob, hot tamales, not so hot tamales, or a hundred thousand other things that sooner or later you are going to need.
Bootblacks are everywhere, both the old pros with their shaded stands and the lesser lights who are condemned to hustle every man, woman, and child with dusty shoes.
Certain callers announce their presence with distinctive signals: the short, high-pitched whistle of the balloon seller, the flute of the knife sharpener, the mournful steam whistle of the camote (baked yam) cart pusher, and the clanging bell that announces the arrival of the garbage truck. Add to this the singsong cries of others, such as the man who sells coat hangers or the man who buys junk, and you have quite a cacophony—unlike any music, yet somehow pleasing to the ear.
And if this were not enough, thousands of Mexican musicians take to the streets to play for those who will listen, and collect from those who will pay. Unkempt duos and trios vainly grope for an elusive harmony on battered clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, and accordions; a solitary heap of rags and wrinkles saws out a parody of “Humoresque” on a homemade fiddle; a swarthy ranchero combo boards a bus, bursts into song, passes the hat, and gets off at the next stop; organ grinders churn out “Skater’s Waltz” and “La Golondrina” on antique Austrian devices wherever people gather. From midnight to dawn the music of the street is in the capable hands of the mariachis.
The ordinary people are actors as well as spectators in the continuing epic of Mexico City. Great swarms of school girls in gingham or plaid uniforms and knee socks; rural men in billowing white blouses and trousers that tie at the ankles; rancheros in wide, flat cowboy hats (always with a faded tassel dangling from the back); impossibly old widows in mourning black; teenaged toughs in boots and leather jackets; teenaged softies in flannel hip-huggers and high-heeled shoes; scouts in short pants, carrying flags; prostitutes (some winsome, some grotesque); a superfluity of infants (some swaddled, some nude); barefoot Indian women nursing their young; midgets; cripples; borrachos (drunks passed out in the sun, trousers unzipped, defiant even in repose); assorted weirdos, deadbeats, revolutionaries, confidence men, and nondescripts—the parade is endless.
All these Mexicans know in their bones what several generations in the U.S. have overlooked in their headlong flight to the suburbs: that life is with the people. Smoggy, brutal, noisy—yes, Mexico City is all these things. It is a place that breaks your heart but conquers it, and calls you back by the sheer abundance of its energy, drama, and diversity.
So if you go to Mexico City, bring along a wide-open spirit of adventure and discovery, but leave your pity, squeamishness, and indignation at home. Then take a good, long walk and relish the incomparable spectacle of a great city unselfconsciously enjoying itself.