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.

History - not just the name of a Michael Jackson album

A couple of months ago, the advertisement above started showing up on billboards all over Mexico City. It first came to my attention however when my co-workers unfolded a poster of the image from the newspaper and started busting up with laughter. "Que piensas, Sierrita?" Chistisisimo - obviously! Not at all surprisingly, not all my paisanos feel the same way, particularly those loveable Minutemen who are always ready with a soundbyte.
What I love is that this is an actual map of the border before the 1848 Mexican-American war. People so rarely get riled up about history anymore that I’ll pretty much take what I can get. So high five to Absolut who knows full well that a few apologies are a low price to pay to win over millions of Mexicans who have taped up the poster in their bedroom and waiting for the census that will make the map seem downright current.