Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Election night in Mexico City

I sent this out to family and friends via email, but I've been thinking that maybe it does have a place on the blog, even if it's on a more serious note.

Written on the night of the election:

Election night in Mexico City started off with a 10-person airplane
carrying the minister of the interior, Juan Camilo Mouriño, crashing
two blocks off Reforma, one of the city's biggest streets. This is a
headline akin to "Condoleeza Rice's airplane crashes on the National
Mall." Mouriño is President Felipe Calderon's right-hand man, recently
charged with taking down the narco-traffickers. Sitting in traffic due
to the crash, listening to tense broadcasters on the radio, was a firm
reminder that I wasn't home in California tonight.

My friend's Mexican roommate traded calls back and forth with her
brother as we walked to an Election Night house party with some of our
paisanos. CNN dominated the room, full of chattering Americans, Brits
and Mexicans sipping wine.

The past several weeks, I've explained the American electoral system
quite a few times - with each explanation it seems to make less sense.
My French room mates were very intrigued by the electors ("los grandes
electores" - you have to get a bit creative with translation
sometimes) who supposedly cast these electoral votes for the states.
Then again, some idiosyncracies of other country's systems came to
light, for instance that in Britain, the election takes place and the
new Prime Minister is sworn in the very next day, moving into the
offices as the former Prime Minister frantically packs and heads out
the back door.

The interest from everyone has been keen. A Swedish co-worker said he
thought the whole world should be able to vote in the American
election since it affected everyone - he assured me the world would
never vote Republican. I assured all my friends here that I would be
voting for Barack. A friend's cleaning lady showed up Tuesday morning
and asked, "Si vas a votar por el negrito, verdad?"

Among the Americans, it was all about being from a swing state. My
friend, Catherine, had the most cachet being from Virginia.
California, not so much in the presidential election, although the
three gay guys at the party were closely watching Prop 8.

We nearly ignored the early, crazy-eyed prognosticating of the TV
networks, waiting for real results to come in. Then it hit the screen
- "Obama wins." We checked foxnews.com: "President Obama." We check
the NY Times: "TV Networks call election in favor of Barack Obama" -
perhaps one of the longest and weakest headlines ever to grace their
Web page.
One British woman was a bit nervous about busting open the champagne
just yet, asking, "Didn't you Americans learn anything in 2004?" We'd
had it with the tentative hopefulness though.

Between the weight of our past and the weight of the future challenges
we have to face, this election night is a singular moment of levity
and jubilation. After a campaign it seemed would never end, after so
much anticipation, worry, posturing, analysis, circumspection, I feel
that I can just let go. A burden has been lifted off my shoulders that
I didn't even realize I was carrying.

As I sat in a foreign country, next to a Mexican friend, at last, I
was proud to be an American. Barack gave a little shout out to all us
Americans abroad and we all cheered. Together, we proved America's
strength - that we can change, that we can see the error of our ways
and do what it takes to change them, that we can be a force for good
in the world.

As I face the challenges of the next 100 years - global warming, the
wars, the economy - instead of feeling despair, I feel the history of
America and our accomplishments and culture swelling behind me and my
fellow Americans standing around me. We are innovators, we never give
up, and our country is a place where anything is possible. I hope we
can hold on to that feeling so that I can always leave my country and
be proud to be an American.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mexicans LOVE Starbucks more than suburban soccer moms

The new Starbucks right off the main Plaza in colonial San Miguel de Allende, a UNESCO world heritage site

After living in the Northwest, I concluded no population could ever be as ga-ga over Starbucks (yet at the same time "so over" Starbucks) as people in Portland and Seattle. I was wrong. The new, and somewhat unlikely candidate, for the most Starbucks-obsessed is Mexicans.
El Starbucks (pronounced eh-Stár-buhks) entered Mexico in 2002. There are now about 30 Starbucks nation-wide as far as I can tell; the company indicates that 9 stores are currently being prepared for opening. This small number of stores doesn't capture the enthusiasm for Starbucks. Just like when it first started expanding in the U.S., it is THE happening spot, especially among the teen set. The Starbucks cup could now be considered a standard accessory for the upper-crust in all major cities and the presence of a Starbucks confirmation that you are living in a "nice" neighborhood. The Starbucks in the above photo was feebly protested by San Miguel's huge American expat community, but the Mexican locals welcomed it with open arms. To me, the true indication of the passion for Starbucks - You can get a much better latte at almost half the price at Punta del Cielo or Finca Santa Veracruz, Mexican chain stores that are everywhere, but people pay the about same for a Starbucks latte in Mexico City as they do in Dallas.

The meat market: Mercado San Juan is a vegetarian's worst nightmare

From Mercado San Juan - Mexico City, DF

And to think you thought I would spare you.

The meat markets in Mexico City are a far cry from the sanitized meat cooler at Safeway. My first piece of advice - wear close-toed shoes. All Mexican market vendors are very conscious of presentation - they'll cut beautiful designs in the fruit and stack apples and pears into enormous towers. Meat vendors are not exactly an exception, however, a tower of skinned rabbits is just not quite as alluring somehow. Most of the meat stands are equipped with a tree-trunk-sized chopping block as well as a guy with a machete whaling on whatever unfortunate piece of meat needs to be diced up. Any part of the animal is fair game. If the part of the animal exists, there is a Mexican who will make tacos out of it. Tongue, intestines, brains? Those are all somebody's favorite.

The accompanying slideshow is a walk through Mercado San Juan, considered the king of all markets for a it's wide selection of gourmet and imported products, as well anything a cook could desire from unusual fruits and vegetables to meats. Whatever it is, they can get it for you here. Have a nice walk through the market...

Mercado San Juan - Mexico City, DF

Trashy journalism: National Enquirer has nothing on Mexico

Good old-fashioned sensationalism - inside the plot to kill Barack!!!!

Mexico's version of the Page 6 girl.

The "back cover" which is always lewdly displayed as the front cover on the news stands.

My response to Mexico's trash newspapers is 3 parts horror and 1 part guilty pleasure. The photos are actually vomit-inducing, the content is sensationalist and morbid, but I have to give them credit - they effectively pander to our basest instincts and they put the worst of American publications to shame.
Mexico is home to a dizzying number of publications. There's Reforma, the equivalent of the New York Times, el Universal and other standard newspapers that largely hold true to international standards of journalism - objective, not too many graphic images, balanced topics. But the newspapers hawked at the small stands and in the metro stations, the newspapers read while getting your shoes shined or waiting for customers to show up at your taco stands are something else. The standard cover images make the debate over how much to show of the Iraq war almost comical. The images rotate between particularly horrible car accidents, Narcotraffickers' beheadings or torture and gun shot victims who always seem to be bleeding out of their eyes. I was kind on you folks and didn't choose one of the more gory pics. Also de rigueur is the skanky girl in a thong. The overall coverage breakdown is as follows: News 20%, Soccer 60%, Other sports 10%, Almost nude girl 10%).My careful anthropological observation of Mexican men "reading" on the metro indicates that after the in-depth coverage of the soccer play-offs, skanky girl is by far the most popular features.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

What EVERY girl wants for her birthday

(Or at least what way too many Mexican guys might think would be a good gift for their girlfriends on their birthdays...)
The official perfume of the Pumas, the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico's soccer team

!Olé! Baby bull-fighting

I often have those "only in Mexico" moments, when I think, "Wow, this sure is fun. No U.S. company would ever insure this activity in a million years!" The latest too-dangerous-for-the-U.S. activity - DIY bull-fighting with baby bulls. Climbing into a stadium ring with an angry, little baby bull that wants to gore you with his little bitty baby horns. Did I mention that tequila shots are handed out before entering the stadium? And that half of the women in the ring were wearing boots with 3-inch stiletto heels?

As you might imagine, this activity was: 1) dangerous, 2) pure chaos, and 3) HILARIOUS! There are various options; our hostess wisely choose the soccer game/bull fight. Twenty guests started playing soccer, after 5 minutes, they let loose the bull who ran around, attempting to gore people who kept venturing out from behind the little partitions to try and score a goal. Unfortunately, I was cowering behind a partition and did not have my camera, so the video is of the next group that went. We all agree that their baby bull is not half as hard-core as ours was. Sooo...everyone survived the event with the only injuries being a señora who got stepped on and will be aching bad tomorrow and the birthday girl's brother-in-law who broke his wrist. Not bad!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Bill Gates of Mexico: Carlos Slim

Peces Seafood Restaurant - "The only place that isn't owned by Carlos Slim"

In summer of 2007, a small daily e-newsletter broke the news that Mexican mogul Carlos Slim had unseated Bill Gates as the richest man in the world. The story was quickly picked up by major news outlets who estimated his total fortune at some $59 billion, edging Bill Gates' $58 billion.

There is something obscene about any single person amassing such a fortune, but somehow it is even more obscene when that person does it in a poor country. According to Fortune, "His family's holdings represent more than 5% of Mexico's 2006 gross domestic product, and Slim-controlled companies make up one-third of the $422 billion Mexican Bolsa, or stock exchange."

ONE-THIRD of the stock exchange.

If you live in Mexico, you are paying Carlos Slim. His bread and butter is Teléfonos de México, which was privatized about 15 years ago. Rather than opening up to competition, it remains a monopoly, controling 92% of the country's phone lines, with his mobile wireless service claiming a 70% market share. A study by World Bank found that Mexico's rates for monthly service and residential phone hookups are some of the the highest in the developing world.

But if you ever get tired of paying the Man, well, you can grab a meal at Peces in La Roma.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Only in Mexico - more funny photos

Mmmm...animal heads. I like the futuristic branding - "Entrails 2000"

OSHA - jigga jigga que? What's so wrong with riding on top of loose gas tanks anyway? We'll hope they're empty.

No point. Just love it.

Dinner with the WHOLE revolutionary family.

The ultimate stumper - What IS the most worthless government procedure?

Today, the polls closed on the Secretaria de la Funcion Publica's latest experiment in participatory democracy - a contest to identify "El tramite mas inutil" - the most completely worthless paper-pushing procedure in government. As of 10 days ago, 4,000 people had already put in their two cents. The Secretaria said, interestingly enough, that the most roundly denounced procedures were indeed the most used - paying taxes, getting passports and getting medical appointments with ISSSTE and IMSS. Whether or not anything is improved through this exercise, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The winner at the federal level pockets some $30,000 and the state and municipal winners take home $10,000.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Day of the Dead meets Halloween in Mercado Jamaica

Mercado Jamaica in Mexico City is painted orange this time of year, its narrow aisles bursting with chrysanthemums for Day of the Dead and a fair amount of Halloween tzotchkes. From traditional papel picado, sugar skulls and copal for offerings to glow-in-the-dark skeleton key chains and Bart Simpson masks, the market is a visual banquet of the morbid.


Tis the season...for grasshoppers! This Oaxacan specialty is widely available throughout Mexico, served up with lime, salt and chile. I actually like chapulines, as well as two other dubious Mexican snack foods pictured here - dried crawdads from the rivers near Puebla and charales, a small lake fish which is dried and fried. What can I say? When in Rome...

Separation of church and state - what?

A banner advertising the federal government's upcoming Family Expo at the Palacio de los Deportes. What better family to use to illustrate family life than Mary, Joseph and little baby Jesus?

Into the depths of the metro

The Mexico City metro system is unlike anything else in the city - it is logical, orderly, user-friendly and largely reliable. There are the occasional breakdowns causing people to be trapped in the tunnels for minutes to hours or preventing your train from leaving, but I've only personally been delayed once.

This is Mexico City however, I doubt there is anywhere you could go that you could overlook that fact. A hallmark of the metro are young guys and girls with stereo-equipped backpacks blasting music to promote whatever pirate CD they're hawking - anything from cumbia to musica romantica to the Doors or the Beatles.

One of the odd things about the metro - to my eye - are the stores in the stations. Without fail, in every station, there is a Domino's Pizza and an alternative nutrition store. I particularly enjoy reading the advertisements on the nutrition stores, such as this one above. Offering include: Nopalinaza (Cactus/Linseed) to combat obesity, gastritis and colon problems, "Hepanat", effective in solving liver problems or bad breath, some sort of soy product that helps with embarassment, bad moods and sadness (not to mention ovary pain), creatine for muscle development, vitamins for kids and, the staple of every nutrition store and, I suspect, their bread and butter - "X-tra Virile" (100% natural) which helps with, well you can imagine.

I shouldn't laugh. I know that having the polis stand on boxes makes perfect sense surveillance-wise. But it does make me laugh, just like the polis on segways up and down Reforma.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

L.A. or Mexico? You be the judge!

As all Americans (except for Miss America contestants and maybe another 45% of the population) know, California used to be part of Mexico. Yeah, it's true. I'm a history major, you can trust me on this. The legacy of that close cultural bond? Taco trucks, a lot of streets ending in "Vista", mission-style architecture and such cultural high-points as "Yo quiero Taco Bell." This little gallery is a selection of photos that German and I took in Mexico and L.A. - guess where each was taken!

LA or Mexico? You be the judge!!

Would you eat green sausage?

Forget green eggs, try green chorizo. The tasty (AKA super-fatty) Mexican sausage, chorizo, usually comes in the color of bright red. However, you can also get it in bright green. It tastes about the same but has that extra kick as you wonder if with every bite you risk food poisoning and possible death. Mmmmm...the taste of danger.

Guess things didn't work out with la Virgen

This family in San Miguel de Allende no longer looks to the Virgin, nor any other saint to protect their home - but rather a combination of good humor and karma if we read the pinwheel correctly.

A full-service country

Mexico is all about service (primarily because labor costs so little - people put in 12 hour days for $30 or less and many people work just for tips). Wealthy Mexicans and American retirees live like kings with full-time nannies, drivers, cooks, maids and gardeners. But there are also a lot of little things throughout the day that remind you you're not in Kansas. For instance, there are shoe-shine stands on every corner, but you don't even have to inconvenience yourself - the shoeshine guy will come to your office and polish them up while you continue to sit and work at your desk. Or stand guard as seen in the above photo.

You do not pump your own gas in Mexico. If you park at the grocery store or the mall or even on the street, a man will almost always appear out of nowhere to offer to wash your car. Not only do pizza places deliver - so do all the major pharmacies. You don't even have to get out of your car to shop, because there are vendors at nearly every stoplight selling everything from peanuts to chips to soft drinks, toys, maps, traditional candy, the day's newspaper, and flowers.

But the ultimate luxury experience in Mexico would definitely have to be going VIP to the movies. Both of the major chains, Cinemex and Cinepolis, have several VIP cinemas which cost twice the usual admission price of $5. For your $10, you get: a leather recliner, a full restaurant menu with everything from sushi to lasagna to chocolate cake, and, of course, access to a full bar. A major newspaper recently did an article about how Mexico is so far ahead of the world in terms of VIP cinema, which doesn't even exist in most countries (naturally, the example for America was some po-dunk theater in Texas that happened to serve BBQ). As the PR girl from Cinepolis put it, "We Mexicans just like to spoil ourselves."

Living the good life...waiter, could I get another mojito please?

Even the bathrooms are swanky when you go VIP.

LAS MOMIAS: the dark side of Guanajuato

From Guanajuato and San Miguel

Guanajuato is a charming colonial town nestled in the mountains of central Mexico. But don't be fooled by the brightly painted houses and tree-lined plazas. The place certainly has its dark side - most notably its major tourist attraction - "LAS MOMIAS." The mummies of Guanajuato are basically a bunch of bodies that were naturally mummified due to the soil conditions. People were sneaking into the basement of one of the churches to see them, so the city government decided they wanted to get in on the action and created a museum to house the dozens of bodies. How is it that one's body ends up getting dug up? All were buried in the city cemetery and didn't have relatives around to keep up on the payments. That would be the city's way of legitimizing digging up bodies and putting them on display sideshow-style. You may be a corpse, but there are no freeloaders here - gotta pay your way in Guanajuato!

Needless to say, the mummies are a huge hit, with tourists traveling from all over the country to check them out. Does the display say something about the Mexican attitude toward death? Maybe, but basically it's just all kind of creepy. For instance, the corpses of victims of scabbing, drowning and...being buried alive. Whoops, thought the cholera had done her in. Below are some shots of a few of the mummies. Scroll at your own risk.

From Guanajuato and San Miguel

From Guanajuato and San Miguel

From Guanajuato and San Miguel

From Guanajuato and San Miguel

And the topper? Infant mummies. The museum also boasts having the smallest mummy in the world - a mummified fetus removed from the mother. No way was I going to take a picture of that, so you'll just have to go and see for yourself.

From Guanajuato and San Miguel

Marvelously Macabre Mexicans

The last post detailed my visit to see LAS MOMIAS DE GUANAJUATO, definitely the darkest tourist attraction visited to date. Another trip to the dark side - the city museum which focuses on the town's revolutionary history. A star of their collection is a metal cage used to hold the heads of revolutionary leaders after they got caught. These were hung at the corners of major buildings to dissuade any revolutionary tendencies, as was pointed out by the tour guide in the above photo who showed off the cages to a group of young school children. So much for the age of innocence - I mean, they'll see heads swinging from street posts sooner or later.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Must see - "The Tortilla has Turned"

This video was presented at the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, documenting the illegal immigration of Americans to Mexico in search of the "Mexican Dream," and attempts to profile and reach the new market. Hilarious!!

Se dio vuelta la tortilla (The tortilla has turned)

First-quality humor - El Titanic Mexicano

I can watch this again and again and I'm still dying of laughter. Xochimilco is an area in south Mexico City with over 90 miles of canals. It's the closest thing to how the city was when the Aztecs built it in the middle of a lake. Lots of people rent out boats to cruise along the canals and party while buying food from vendors in passing boats or tethering a mariachi boat on to listen to music. These are some kids from the ITAM (one of the major universities) who apparently do not understand the laws of physics.


Lotta Party right this way!

Just a few funny signs for you guys. Spotted this one up in Naucalpan, unfortunately, due to traffic, wasn't able to go check out the party.

From La vida chilanga

In San Miguel de Allende, if you need to clean your car, just swing by the "Car Huash."

From La vida chilanga

Little known fact - revolutionary Emiliano Zapata was apparently cross-eyed. He had a fantastic publicist. Harder to take those revolutionaries seriously when they have a lazy eye.

From La vida chilanga

You want pastel? Go to the pasteleria. Tacos? Taqueria. Cerveza? Cervezeria. And, apparently, they've even now got a "Burreria" fulfilling all your burrito needs in Morelia, Michoacan.

From La vida chilanga

We all suffer occasionally from delusions of grandeur. This would be the Titanic of Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan.

From La vida chilanga

National Geographic: "Framing Life"

From La vida chilanga

Some months ago, National Geographic rolled out a campaign all around town, placing this yellow frames in front of many of the major sites of the city. This one in front of the David statue in La Roma always put a smile on my face.

Yes, I am la Guerita: about those derogatory pet names

"The good flavor/taste of my little black girl" - I think it's safe to say this name for a restaurant would never fly in the United States.

When I studied abroad in Cuba, we had various work shops in preparation and were provided a handbook on "culture shock." One of the first pieces of advice? Don't get mad if people call you "Gordita" (little fatty). Indeed, it is somewhat common throughout Latin America for people to mine your appearance for pet names - chaparrita (Shorty), flaca/flaquita (Skinny), chinita (Curly-haired) and, in my case, guerita, which translates loosely to Whitey or Blondie. One of the girls on our trip to Cuba was from Guam and, on account of her Asian features, was universally called "Chinita" (little China girl). In three months, she made little progress pointing out she was not from China.
I probably get called guerita at least one or two times a day, usually by vendors trying to get my attention (Que le damos, guerita?), sometimes by taxi drivers making kissing noises as they pass me on the street.
Is it offensive? Maybe a bit. Can I deny that I am indeed a Whitey? No. So basically I will take this Mexican custom and get used to it because I'm sure not going to succeed in changing it. And why would I complain when the building caretaker calls me "mi guerita, la mas bonita" (my little blondie, the prettiest one)? I'll take it.

*And a final note - La Guera is also a popular name for restaurants and businesses, as evidenced by this banner in Mercado Jamaica. There is nowhere I get called "guerita" more that in the market - check out the sound clip to experience the market as I do.

"Futbol Soccer" - you could say it's a passion here

From La vida chilanga

"I believe in a single, all-powerful team, called the machine of Cruz Azul, creator of the goal on their home field and any field they visit. I believe in a single team, the only team of the Azul Stadium, over and above any other team. Amen."
- prayer sticker on the window of a small bus in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl

Since I got here, people have been pressuring me to pick my soccer team team. America is the team for Mexico City, however they win a lot so in a way they're kind of hated for that. As far as I can tell, loyalties are split between America, Cruz Azul and the Pumas, the team of the UNAM, Mexico's major public university. And there are those rogues who root for Chivas, the Guadalajara team. I'm not much of a spectator, so I've remained fiercely independent so far. I think it will probably all come down to which team has the colors I like best...

Guess this sound

For months, I would hear this bizarre sound echoing through the streets perhaps one or two times a week. I never managed to walk to it fast enough and after many sleepless nights, I finally asked a friend what in the world it was. Just so you can have the fun of guessing (you will NEVER get it), I'll toss the answer down near the bottom on the right.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Desfile Navideño / the big, bad Christmas Parade on Reforma

Angels and devils and zebras and alebrijes and the Virgin Mary in a bicitaxi - what more could you want?

(Okay, I admit I'm slightly behind on uploading given it's almost Christmas...again).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Gas costs how much??!! That's obscene!

I am only writing this post because I am safely in Mexico City, and since in the course of a year none of you have come to visit me, I don't even think wanting to kill me will get you guys down here. Why would you want to kill me, your dear friend?

The latest news out of the capital:



A couple notes on the whole gas thing in Mexico, which is the world's 10th largest producer of oil. There is only one kind of gas station in Mexico - Pemex, so that means wherever you go, gas costs exactly the same. There's none of that going to the gas station in the sketchy part of town because gas costs 3 cents less a gallon. It is state-owned, heavily subsidized and in the news as of late because heavy investment is needed to find new oil reserves. There are calls for privatization and of course, counter-marches in favor of keeping gas in the hands of the people led by everyone's favorite never-say-die frustrated presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AKA el Peje).

However, even Mexico's heavily subsidized gasoline is not immune to rises in the price of gas. With the 6 centavo hike, gas in Mexico now costs...ready yourself...

$2.77 a gallon.

Please don't kill me. And don't mind my maniacal cackling.

Mexico - #1 in tacos, tequila and REALLY creepy mannequins

First of all, this image is just a taste. You ain't seen nothing yet. Mannequins are liberally used and abused here in Mexico. A common display technique is for half of the store to be comprised entirely of huge windows chock full of mannequins, usually decked out in enormous Quinceanera dresses or men in suits and guayaberas. Many of these stores are jammed into enormous market floors so you find yourself walking through a sort of forest of partygoers. Really creepy partygoers with huge eyes and outrageously long eyelashes.
This metrosexual mannequin was no exception. He had the unfortunate luck to be the mannequin for a store selling crutches, slings and all manner of post-accident wear. I'm still unclear on what trauma resulted in him wearing the beige man-diaper. The poor guy also had a neck brace, a sling and a finger cast. Talk about a bad day.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Would you like chipotle with your California roll?

Eating tacos is a unique cultural experience in Mexico. So is eating sushi.

Just as in the States, sushi is now ubiquitous in Mexico with the two major chains, Sushi Itto and Mr. Sushi, vying for space in every food court across the country. Every menu has the standards: miso soup, fried rice, yakisoba noodles, and, of course, nigiri rolls of eel, tuna, salmon... However, the highlight of the menu is the specialty rolls.
As the Sushi Itto corporate video puts it, "We incorporated new flavors based on suggestions from customers." And thus were born the Si se puede Roll, CuauhtemItto and Tlapan especial. Not to mention the chain's signature soy sauce which apparently has over 40 ingredients and tastes like soy sauce and orange juice. Did I mention that 80% of the menu includes cream cheese?
Other top additions include fruit (mango, fried banana and pineapple), chiles toreados, chipotle mixed with mayonnaise, and salsa Tampico (crab surimi, mayonnaise and green chile).
So how is it? Hmmmm...I'll put it this way, all my Mexican friends love it. I'm down with the chipotle and mango, but the fish is iffy quality and it's smothered in cream cheese. But you don't have to take my word for it because, that's right, Sushi Itto has expanded into the States, one of the only Mexican franchises ever to do so.
“Right now, Alberto and I are experimenting in the States,” commented the founder in this article. “For example, we notice people in the States don't like cream cheese.”

Sushi Itto San Diego

Sunday, May 25, 2008

DF by night - the endless city


Portland progressive? Hah! I´ll have you know that all bars and restaurants in Mexico City are now smoke-free. Mexico is a place where oodles of people smoke. All the time. Indoors. The authorities wisely did not pass this ordinance during the rainy season. So far, the major effects of the ordinance seem to be giving State of Mexico (the home of a great part of the metropolitan area) a veneer of coolness and libertarianism because you can still smoke there and making bars with rooftop bars extra popular.

Meet me on Ixtlememelixtle Street

When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I had a single map that fit in my purse and covered the just about the whole metropolitan area. Here in Mexico City, I couldn´t live without my Guia Rojí, which has more like 200 pages and is an artistic masterpiece. Adam had it easy - how many animals are there, really? Try naming every street in a metropolis that covers 570 square miles with endless little alleys and byways. Neighborhoods often have themes when it comes to the street names – here in Polanco, they´re all authors, so nearby streets include: Carlos Dickens, Jorge Shaw, Homero, Virgilio and, of course, Hans Christian Anderson.
This excellent essay, which I first read in the coffee table book/photo exhibit ABCDF, which is great collection of essays and photos having to do with Mexico City, says it better than I could.

Tim Wiener. “A city hears poetry in the naming of streets.” The New York Times. Aug. 7, 2000.

The map of one of the largest metropolises in the world is a form of literary masterpiece. The Guía Roji can be read as if a writer of magical realism had translated the encyclopedia, made it into confetti and sprinkled over the city.
This is not a place where people live on 88th and Third, as in Manhattan, or 35th and P, as in Washington. This is a place where people live at Heart and Soul. Here one lives on Light Forest, Water Mirror, Forest of Miracles, Garden of Dreams, Tree of Fire, Forest of Secrets, Sea of Dreams. The surreal names of the streets can reflect quite true realities. Work is long. Love and Happiness are short. Good Luck crosses Hope, which is a dead-end street. Las Bocacalles become imaginary works. The Volga River runs into the Nile, Beethoven meets Bach, Himalaya crosses the Alps.
And Understanding ends in Silence.
Fewer than a million people lived here at the start of the 20th century, nearly 20 million at the start of the 21st. With a city endlessly spilling over its borders, long ago, the city´s founders ran out of dead presidents, revolutionary heroes and battles for which to names streets, avenues and boulevards. As a consequence, the Guía Roji have a list of more than 100 places named for the national hero, Benito Juarez. There are more than 200 streets named after Venustiano Carranza, author of the Mexican Constitution and about 300 for Lázaro Cárdenas, considered by some Mexico´s greatest president. Upon being asked about any address, the residents of the city should react like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy asks how to arrive to the Emerald City – pointing two different ways at once.
It is not the sheer number of streets named the same that overwhelms the senses, but the sheer magic in so many of the names among the 70,000 odd streets. The city mapmakers have perservered with an endurance perhaps more poetic than practical. But they must be near their wits´end.
They have exhausted the names of the world´s great landmarks, drained the lexicon of oceans and seas, rivers and lakes, paid tribute to all the gods and goddesses, the birds and flowers, the colors of the palette, the signs of the zodiac, the names of the saints, the better-known stars and constellatioins.
The major arts, crafts and sciences are taken and the minor ones are going fast. Other capitals, conceivably, might also have a boulevard dedicated to Bacteriology or Beekeeping. Mexico City also has a Cardionalogy Street and Astronomy Street, Orthodontist Street and Hairdressers Street, Publicists Street and Biographers Street. Significantly, the street dedicated to authors is not a street, but Novelists Circle.
Let Paris have its sidewalk semioticians, Mexico City may be the only place in the world dedicated to a school of literary criticism – Structural Analysis Street.
Mexico´s calendar is full of holidays and dates of historical significance. So is its capital, there are streets named for the fifth day of January, February, March, May, June, July, September, October, November and December. The first of May, the anniversary of Mexico´s victory in 1862 over French forces, has a special place. Many actually.
More than 200 streets with the name Cinco de Mayo are listed. There are more than 100 streets named for days of the year, giving a newcomer a nearly one-in-three chance of choosing an address matching her birthday.
There is a Squid Street and a Shrimp Street and, for better or worse, a Tuna Fish Street. There is Avocado Street, Onion Street and Cilantro Street, Corn Street, Rice Street and Bean Street are here, but, surprisingly, Mexico City has no Chicken Street (although Kabul, Afghanistan does). There are streets named Fountain of Hope, Fountain of Light and Fountain of Happiness, of course, but there is also the somewhat hallucinatory Fountain of Mushrooms.
Mindful of its place as a world city, the capital has christened streets in the name of Greek Culture, Roman Culture, Mexican Culture, Aztec Culture, Mayan Culture, Physical Culture and just a plain Culture, along with World Cinema Street and a generic Cinema Street. Social Action Street and Public Assistance Street stand for civic virtures, although National Unity Street deadends.
Whole neighborhoods are dedicated to canonic writers and composers, scientists and philosophers. One can stand on the corner of Tolstoy and Dante, Dickens and Moliere, Verdi and Wagner, Socrates and Homer, Shakespeare and Darwin, imagining their conversations.
There are 21 streets named Peace, but 18 named High Tension (after public utilities, not private miseries). Democracy, Justice and Human Rights are in a tough neighborhood. Panama Canal is barely 100 meters long, but 100 Meters Avenue runs nearly a mile.
Mexico City´s respect for the past sometimes passes understanding. Russia has liquidated the memory of its worst dictators. But when Mexico City taxicab meters, which sometimes malfunction, usually in the driver´s favor, break down completely, thay are repaired on Stalin Street. Stalin lies a block away from Trotsky in Mexico City some 60 years ago. By no coincidence, Siberia Street is four blocks away.
Some names have been clearly conceived. There is a Nafta Street, in a neighborhood called Plenitude. Obscurity Street runs hopefully into Tomorrow Avenue. Others seem intended to drive mailmen mad. In one suburban neighborhood, there are two difference streets named for the same Islamic republic. One is Pakistan. The other is Paquistán. Then there are the names in Náhuatl, the language of the people who were here before the conquistadores, which sound like music from another planet: Panquetzaliztli, Cetlaltepetl, Ixtlememelixtle. But in cities as in science, mindbending complexity can contain beautiful simplicity. A great green park stands near the heart of this urban beast. An avenue graced by Art Deco buildings circle this park. And the people who live there have an unforgettable address: Mexico Avenue, Mexico City, Mexico.

Fresas, Juniors, and Nacos

The sociocultural classes of the United States can largely be traced back to the cliques of high school: the Jocks, Preps, Punks, Hicks, Goths, Stoners, Hipsters, Emos, Gangstas…
“Sociocultural” is really far too highfallutin´ a word for a definition based nearly entirely on the music you like, the clothes you wear and whether you spend the hours after school playing football, smoking pot or tagging. However, we´ve been classifying everything else since long before the Dewey decimal system so here goes..
Here in Mexico, the disparaging designators most thrown around are: Fresa, Junior and Naco. I have gotten into a number of discussions with my friends here, trying to come up with equivalent terms and clear-cut definitions for these widely recognized types.

A first attempt at a definition (Pido a mis amigos mexicanos que me echen la mano, por favor):

Fresa (literally strawberry): Pretty close to the American Prep. Characterized by earnestness, cheesiness, a very narrow view of what´s cool and what´s not, and little tolerance for the off-beat, sarcasm or irony. If you´ve got it, flaunt it. A fair amount of overlap with the Juniors. They wear designer clothes picked up on trips to "ir de shopping" in Texas, pepper their speech with American slang and listen to very vanilla pop en español (do I have to bring up Timbiriche? The Mexican version of Back Street Boys).
Here´s a list of some fresa slang like "super nice" and "osea" and here´s a list of "You´re fresa if"

Junior: A uniquely Mexican type in my eyes. Basically rich brats who have never worked a day in their life and probably never will like Tenoch in "Y Tu Mamá, También" or sort of akin to the Trust Fund Babies of the East Coast with whom I had some contact in college. To my eyes, fresas, but even more obnoxious if that´s possible.

Naco: The defining characteristic of a Naco is bad taste and perhaps a lack of class as far as I can tell. The closest equivalent I´ve come up with are Red-neck/hick or White Trash and the adjective “tacky” which don´t quite do the term justice. The American “Red-neck/hick” is more loaded with class judgments, mingled with a little city snobbery towards the kissing cousins and country bumpkins that supposedly populate rural America. Much as teenagers have White Trash parties, people here have Naco parties at which the dress is kind of like 80s/early-90s, hideous to the max. My friend says Naco doesn´t have to do with how much money you have, but your taste. For instance, she said it is Naco to cover your dashboard will all kinds of crap and doodads.
There´s a whole ton of "How naco are you?" quizzes floating around that I can´t really translate, much less explain. Here´s one. Here´s a long posting of "You´re naco if..." Seriously, most of it flies over my head. All you UC Berkeley Raza studies kids, I´m thinking thesis topic.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sounds like Mexico City - less blah blah, more rock

The basic criteria for this playlist? That it´s a song I´ve heard way too much or I like - good songs, rocking songs, possibly atrocious songs, lo que está sonando...take a listen.

*You can also listen here if you want to play all, and click here to also see my comments about the songs.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Driving in DF - Adventures in Mortality

(Okay, not the classiest graphic to pull off Google to illustrate the traffic reality of DF, but seriously, typical. And I think the thought bubble is just as accurate- "F***, it's a three-day weekend and I want to go get trashed!!" For me, the measure of my progress at learning Spanish wasn't the usual benchmark of dreaming in Spanish, but rather swearing like mad in Spanish in my head...often while driving here in fact.)

My friend, Ana, called me the other day, elated. "Guess what? I got a driver's license!" That she was pursuing a driver's license was news to me "...Yeah, I went with my boyfriend and my sister and we all got one!"
"That's great, Ana! What did you have to do?"
"There was a test, we did really bad. But they still gave it to us. I don't even know how to drive!"
And there you have it, my friends. DF is a seething mass of narrow, one-way streets, hidden stop signs, blind corners and illegally parked cars populated by drivers who don't know how to drive and insane taxi drivers. But no worries, mom!

Let's start with some basic survival tips:

1. Drive a tank. Not possible? Too bad...
2. Drive like a maniac. This may some counterintuitive. In the U.S., we have this informal thing called the "Rules of the Road" that is basically a set of assumptions like if we arrive to a stop sign at the same time, the person on the right will proceed first. It's not that Mexicans don't have a shared set of assumptions, they're just different ones. Really, they're a set of things you can't assume such as: That the other drivers know how to drive. That they will use their turn signals. That they will stop at stop signs and red lights. That they will go the correct direction on one-way streets. Basic stuff like that. So, if you make a very strong stop at a stop sign, you see, the guy behind you was not expecting to do that, so he might quite rightfully rear-end you. Kind of coast through if possible. And when you're at an unmarked intersection, just keep inching the nose of your car forward until you're blocking them and they have to let you pass.
3. Lay on the horn. Even if you can see that they are boxed in and can't do anything to get out of the way. DF is far too quiet and it really helps.
4. Wear a seatbelt. If you have one in your car. Not because of a strong belief in its power to protect you, but because the polis will now pull you over and charge a mordida. Ditto on talking on your cell.
5. Tie a rosary around the rear-view mirror and that should pretty much protect you from any traffic accident. Taxi drivers might want to double up with a shiny Virgen of Guadalupe sticker as well. The Playgirl bunny sticker probably doesn't hurt either.

Postscript: This article from the L.A. Times says it better than I ever could. With the bonus of research, interviews and historical context. Buenisimo.

Post-Postscript: The photo above is from a blog rant about traffic before three-day weekends, which I will offer up as Mexican Spanish 101 for this week as it correctly utilizes in just three paragraphs these key expressions: No mames, pinche, desmadre, putamadre, cabron, pedo, chupar, vete a la verga and chinga su madre (which you, FYI, should NOT use). Let the learning begin. Click here.