Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mexico City

Zocalo, Mexico City's central square – one of the largest public squares in the world – in a way, is the spiritual center of the whole country. When Cortez governed from the overlooking palace, it was the heart of New Spain. Before he marched upon it, it was the main square of the Aztec capital. Modern Mexico City is a city build upon cities, and physical fragments from each of its incarnations remain still.

Stand before la Catedral, the biggest church in all of the Americas, and you might find yourself on a reinforced, but translucent, platform. Look down and you'll see the ghost of a city: exposed stone walls, some even with human skulls embedded in its surface. Between the cathedral and the palace: ruins of a native civic building. There stands a wide pedestal exposed to sunlight in one of the subway transfers I frequented. As the new city grows, we see more of the old city, and our understanding gains further definition with new excavations.

Native culture doesn't merely remain as a lingering architectural feature, but lives on also in the language and in the blood of the Mexicans – and this is something I greatly admire about our neighbors to the south. I wouldn't dare say anything like the natives of what would eventually become Mexico endured any less suffering or cruelty there, but by contrast, it seems that in the states native heritage has been largely sequestered away and forgotten by by the American main stream; isolated from our communities and our conversations in remote and often squalid reservations. In Mexico, native culture is in the public art and in the food. It's celebrated. The Mexican regard for its European forefathers seems somewhat more complex, with a more coherent regard for the wake of bloodshed and suffering they left in their footprints.

The night of my arrival, Zocalo – normally full of entertainers and happy loiterers – was occupied entirely by an exposition put on by the Mexican special forces. Attendees were welcome to climb aboard tanks and helicopters and pose with anti aircraft weaponry. Demonstrations of basic training and canine units drew large crowds.
The service men on the inside of the show were as well armed as those on the streets. The police and federal officers maintain a strong visible presence most places I went, armed with shotguns and imposing fully automatic weaponry. Given the numerous accounts of theft and violent crime prevalent in Mexico City I've taken in, I was usually happy to see them around.

Tuesday afternoon became cause for a joyous reunion, when my cousin Brian walked out of a cab and into my hostel's reception. He's a seasoned traveler that I've always seen quite eye to eye with and I felt very privileged to share the road with him.
I poured him a welcoming shot of tequila and led him on a walking tour of the Centro area (I went through the same motions on Monday, but everything in Mexico City – EVERYTHING – is closed on Mondays). We saw some of Diego Rivera's better known socialist murals in the Secretary of Public Eductation building and in the National Palace. We got a good look inside the beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes, art noveau on the outside and 30s art deco on the inside. We took a stroll through Alemeda Park, which used to be the main market in the Aztec city, and is now a rare green space in a city that's somewhat monotone and grey compared to much elsewhere in Mexico. The green is occasionally cut with the flower blossoms all over jacaranda trees, which punctuate the city all over with an out-of-place seeming but still soothing purple hue. We finished our stroll at Opera Bar, a classy space where we sipped mezcal served with spiced orange slices, and which sports a bullet hole left by Pancho Villa.

We took the metro – which is cheap, clean, and fast, though it does have trouble keeping up with the volume of riders – to Arena Mexico for an epic match of Lucha Libre wrestling. We didn't forget to drink a few cervezas and buy masks first (my wrestler name is El Puño – The Fist). The best match was a three vs. three bout where they would tag each other into the ring, but order would occasionally dissolve into inside and outside the ring into six man madness.
My team of choice was composed of Diamante Azul, Titan, and Maximo. The first two were lucadores of classic pedigree: old fashioned masks and thick oily muscles. Maximo, on the other hand, was a flabby unmasked wrestler with a pink mohawk, effeminately floppy wrists, and his signature move was planting a smooch on his opponent's lips when he had him cornered. The crowed loved Maximo and pleadingly chanted “Beso! Beso!” if Maximo got ever close enough to lock lips.
My team was decimated in round one by Scorpion Rey and his cohorts, a villainous duo without masks dressed like cavemen. Given how wrecked my wrestlers were, it was truly unbelievable how they were able to recover so swiftly and with such strength that they were able to fight back with high flying kicks and throws enough to win the two final rounds and send those goons back home.

Gigante Rojo y El Puno
I didn't catch the names of the wrestlers in the final one on one round, but given the shouts from the spectators, I would guess their names were Puto and Cabron.
The next morning saw us on an early bus to Teotihuacan, a series of native ruins featuring the second largest pyramid in the Americas. Driving in the city's perimeter, you get a greater sense of just how enormous Mexico City really is, and then just how many of its people are impoverished. Once a native city of modest size built upon a lake set island, the lake has now been long since drained and the metropolitan area has swollen to over 20 million people. Far from the the classical architecture of the central zone, the hills are dense with small concrete boxes in a dull grey that mirrors that of the low hanging clouds. On the undulating hills, the houses almost seem as if they are growing organically but reduced to simple geometry, like some kind of sad grey coral that only grows in 90 degree angles. The density of population in these spaces is reportedly one person to every square meter. I was startled when it occurred to me these communities weren't structurally so dissimilar from those built up and down the hills of Guanajuato – these here were merely devoid of color. That simple element can paint the difference between a scene of joy and a scene of sorrow.

Eventually as we passed along the road, the houses thinned out into clay colored hills and patches of green cactus, and the stony tops of two great pyramid pierce their way into view.
The layout of Teotihuacan was planned cleverly in accordance with astral movements and the four cardinal directions. The two main pyramids are named after the sun and the moon and are each echoed by the mountains they foreground as seen from the area's central plaza. Running up the sides of several temples remain stone depictions of gods: the feathered serpent form of Quetzalcoatl and a stone god chiseled into right angles with binocular scopes for eyes.

Much of the ruins remain underground and there were several teams of excavators hard at work during our visit. At each corner of the pyramid of the moon, skeletal remains of bound children were discovered, placed in ceremonial poses suggestive of human sacrifice. In lunar based intervals of a duration I can't remember, a male youth was selected among his peers as being a living god among men, and his was a life of prestige. That is until the cycle was up and his life was taken with a great ceremony.

The people that built the pyramids abandoned them for reasons we still don't understand, but the Aztecs that arrived from the north around 500 b.c. Found here the fulfillment of their prophecy: that they should found a capital in the place where they find an eagle perched upon a cactus swallowing a snake.

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