Mexico City: A Rose in Concrete

When one mentions Mexico City in the US, it’s not the beach resorts that come to most people’s mind. Rather, people think of crime, pollution, corruption and impoverishment. But while the crime rate (mostly thefts and burglaries) in Mexico City has reached significant levels of concern, one of the highest in Latin America, there are many other global cities that echo the same issue.

So why does Mexico City seem to stand out as the epic center of metropolitan crime, pollution and poverty? Perhaps the apparent rundown barrios or slums make it difficult for the ever-present media not to focus on them. But this is not how the majority of Mexico City is. Living here for several months, I discovered that the City has an overwhelming rich history, culture, and a unique architecture deserving the worldís attention. I spent five months in Mexico City teaching English to a variety of students. Coming from the U.S. where one can see many films that depict Mexico in a one-dimensional and conventional way, I was relieved to discover a world contrary to the common stereotypes of shady dealings and dirt roads.

Mexico City’s rich history layered with modern advancements outshines the standard dull images of the city I, coming from the US, was accustomed to seeing.
My days would typically start with grabbing some breakfast from one of the many vendors in the Centro Historico, the historical centre of Mexico City, with its colonial architecture. The Centro Historico, in addition to the famous Zocalo plaza, demonstrates the well-preserved Mexican history stemming from the Aztecs and the Spanish colonial conquerors. The Zocalo is the largest plaza in the Western Hemisphere. It was also the site of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán.

According to legend, the god Huitzilopochtli told the Aztecs to find a place where an eagle stood upon a cactus with a snake in its beak. There, the Aztecs were told to build their capital city Tenochtitlan. This symbol is still Mexico’s national symbol and is for instance displayed on their national flag. In the sixteenth century Spanish conquistadores paved the streets of Tenochtitlan in stones and completely transformed Zocalo plaza. Now, this is where most protests and sit-ins of the city occur. One particular morning, I witnessed a mob of people marching towards the Zocalo in protest of a major gas company that maintains a questionable monopoly in the city.

The Spanish influences are largely visible in the architecture of the Centro Historico. It is a feast for the eyes to see the abundance of historical buildings housing museums, cathedrals, and historic government buildings. The Catedral Metropolitana, the oldest and largest cathedral in Latin America has a history that spans three centuries. It was built on the location of the old Aztec temples, which were destroyed when Cortes ordered the construction of a church here. The church was destroyed and construction of the new cathedral began in 1573. Before completion of the bell towers in 1813, it had fallen under the influences of the different artistic periods. This explains the eclectic style of the cathedral with baroque and neoclassical elements. There are five altars, the world’s largest organ and fourteen chapels in churrigueresque style, named for the early nineteenth century Spanish architect Jose Churriguera and typical of Spanish baroque.

You will also find the two buildings that now make up city hall, the Museo Mural Diego Rivera that once inscribed Rivera√ɬ≠s controversial Marxist motto “God does not exist,” and the beautiful neo-classical opera house, the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Porfirio Diaz, the former Mixtec Indian dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1911, initiated the construction of the marble-clad opera house in 1904. After Diaz was removed from political rule, an Italian architect, Adamo Boari, completed the structure. Trimmed with pre-Hispanic motifs, the inside hall has a Tiffany stained-glass curtain depicting the two volcanoes outside Mexico City.

While the architecture of the Centro Historico has plenty of European influence, some of the most striking historical structures are Aztec. In 1978, while telephone cables were being laid in the area an archaeological breakthrough made headline news. Ruins from the Aztec empire were accidentally unearthed, when the telephone company workers discovered an eight-ton stone disc engraved with the Aztec moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui. According to mythology she was killed by her brother Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun. Their mother became pregnant with Huitzilopochtli when a ball of feathers fell from heaven and touched her. Because Coyolxauhqui and her next of kin felt dishonoured because of the mother’s pregnancy and conspired to kill her. But before harm was done Huitzilopochtli sprang out of his mother and saved her. He cut Coyolxauhqui’s head off and threw it to the sky where she became the moon.

The engraved stone of Coyolxauhqui was found at the foot of one of the Aztec pyramids. This important archaeological site is known as “templo mayor” and consisted of a double pyramid. One was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and the other to Tlaloc, the god of water. Templo mayor was believed to represent the cosmic center of the universe and human sacrifices, usually prisoners from Aztec wars, to the god Huitzilopochti were required to sustain it. These sacrifices intended to secure rain, harvests and military success, and the Aztecs believed they were the chosen people of this god. Seven rows of stone skulls align one side of the pyramid structure. Adjacent to the temple is the Museo del Templo Mayor, which houses three thousand artefacts found at the site, ranging from ceramic warriors, knives, the skulls of sacrifices, and models of the ruins shaped like they looked before the Spanish arrived.

In the mornings, the streets of Centro Historico bustle with the traffic of pedestrians and cars mostly en route to work. The sidewalks were covered with merchants selling everything from socks to DVD’s. People crowd together to search through the vast staples of DVD’s of illegally copied movies that just reached the theatres and other items that are up for sale. Most people opted to buy their little odds and ends from these sidewalk sales with a mentality of “don’t ask, don’t tell” rather than patronizing the overpriced convenient stores. After buying breakfast from an array of food stands, I would snake through the parade of customers as I headed back to my dwelling at a nearby hostel. Back in my room, I would devour a hearty mushroom and cheese quesadilla and finish it off with a cup of the freshest fruit this American girl has ever tasted. Leaving the hostel much later around four p.m., I would hop with other droves of people onto the metro, one of the world’s most efficient and busiest transportation systems, to commence a typical late workday of an English teacher in a foreign town.

I would get off at the Chapultepec metro station, which borders the sixteen hundred-acre park Bosque de Chapultepec. It is Mexico’s largest park and it serves as a green refuge for people exhausted from seeing buildings and asphalt. It is also home to the president of Mexico, a decadent castle, five top-notch museums, and a zoo that dates back to the sixteenth century, and the park is a wonderful playground for children. From this plant-adorned paradise, I would catch a bus to one of the more upscale and ethnically diverse neighborhoods (or colonias) of the city known as Polanco.

Crammed with swanky restaurants and designer boutiques Polanco is definitely not what the average American Joe would expect of Mexico. Here a shopper’s expectations are more than met while gazing at shops like Tiffany and Co., Hugo Boss, and Escada. The wealthy and fashionable come here to update their wardrobe, and they can even find a snazzy car if they decide to buy a Porsche or BMW from one of the luxury car dealerships around the corner. While I headed for class, I would see content middle-class mothers driving their kids home from private school, usually from one of the international English schools. I then turned down Juan Racine Street with apartment complexes lining along both sides of the street. Stepping through the entrance of one of these immaculate apartment buildings I was greeted by a five-year old Korean boy shouting √ɬ¨Hi April!√É¬Æ We walked towards his ‘play room’ and begin his English lesson of today.

You might think the same thing I thought when I first met him: ‘What does a little Korean boy do in Mexico City?’ Actually there’s a considerable amount of Koreans residing in the city. Estimates are that there live about twelve thousand Koreans in Mexico, and about twenty thousand descendants of the first wave of Korean immigration. In fact, I was surprised to discover that nearly all of my students were Korean, whose parents had opted to move to the megalopolis for professional reasons. Most of their fathers were employed by large-scale electronics companies located in Korea and Mexico. This comes as no surprise since at least ten of the fifty top ranking enterprises in Mexico are associated with computers and electronics. If you visit any of the English language institutes in the city there are at least a few Korean students enrolled. Many moved to the city only recently, and are planning to move to the U.S. in the near future. Their situation mirrors many immigrants that I met in Mexico City who were there to work, even the young internationals living in the city. But if you haven’t been there, it’s quite easy to forget that Mexico City is just as culturally diverse as any other major city.

Succumbing to the contagious Mexican nightlife after a “hard day’s” work, I would go to one of the bars or nightclubs in the Colonia Condesa, a trendy neighbourhood particularly attractive to young bohemians. There I met many natives and internationals that were mostly worked in creative fields. It wasn√ɬ≠t odd to be surrounded by artists, actors, and fashion designers in one place. In fact, one of Condesa’s most frequented bars is co-owned by a well-known Mexican actor, Diego Luna. Consistent with creative energy, Colonia Condesa has been filled with an artistic populace since the 1920’s.

It has also been home to the largest Jewish communities in Mexico with forty thousand Jews living in Mexico City. Starting in 1924 in a four-year span alone fifteen thousand Jews migrated to Mexico City. Being both quiet and upscale, Condesa is a peaceful place to stroll through on a typical Sunday afternoon. In 1985 a turbulent earthquake caused many of its old residents of Condesa to relocate. The sudden vacancy of many apartments here caused cheaper rents and became the attracting force that lured the youthful crowd currently inhabiting the area. . The surge of creative youth brought a demand for the unique blend of galleries, eateries, and shops that can be seen in Condesa today.

My stay in Mexico City pretty much flashed before my eyes, passing by too quickly. I was practically gone in what seemed minutes from when I arrived. It was an elevating experience heaving with culture and decadence. After I left the city, not once did I reminisce about crimes that had been committed or pollution in the air. Rather, I remembered having the best time of my life, which could have been otherwise, had I allowed the cityís vices to outweigh its abundant charms.

August 16th, 2004 by