FEB 5: Mexico City
On the fifth, Stewart, Pat, the teens and I ride Dario’s truck down into Taxco and breakfast together, then part affectionately and I enjoy the downhill walk to the bus terminal. I sit playing my little guitar, which impresses the locals just a little (the fact that a gringo sits playing, I mean) and eventually board the bus. The trip to MexCity is uneventful and I arrive in time for the taxi driver from El Terminus del Sur to proceed at a snail’s pace through the afternoon traffic trying to figure out where we are going. He finds the Hotel Habana in time for me to sign in, buy some beer and comestibles, and settle in for some alone time before Kathy Fisher arrives. We’ve agreed to meet and spend a little time in Mexico City before she goes off to a literary conference in San Miguel which focusses on Women’s Lit. She’s late arriving, having been bounced through Huston. We are happy to see each other, although we are both somewhat awkward to be sharing a hotel room. Mixed gender in a six-bed dorm I’m used to; two friends sharing a hotel room is a slightly different negotiation.
Next morning we walk to the Zocalo, delighted to be simply amazed by the grandeur of the scale of the vast public square and the imposing buildings around it. We find our way into the Gubernator’s Palace, where we marvel at the beauty of the gardens and open courts, and proceed to pay homage to Diego Rivera’s murals on the history of Mexico.
The first thing that strikes my Canadian sensibility is that there is nothing cautious or compromised about the work. Shaded as the main mural is in the stairway of the West wall of the palace, the colours come to life the moment you come out of the direct sunlight. The ochre oranges, reds, and yellows that are ubiquitous in Mexican art are in wide swaths everywhere in this major work. Beginning on your right, there is a clear narrative: Aztec life was harsh and structured in almost unimaginable ways. It was however beautiful and made sense by its own measure. It had a fixed hierarchy and was comprehensive and comprehensible to those who lived it. Then you move to the centre panel, which presents the great disaster of Mexican history, the Conquest, crushing brave and beautiful warriors under the armoured horses, the iron-clad and (because of their helmets) anonymous gargantuans egged on by their greedy and corrupt money-grubbers and priests. A group of campesinos cringes behind the single truly pious priest for succour, but they are mere fodder for the cynical soldiers who know that this resistor-priest has no real power. It is the grotesquely bloated and angry priest, who might have stepped out of a painting by Breughel, who has the ear of the military governor.
Floating above the scenes of violence, horror, cannonade, and bloodshed are the law-givers and the revolutionaries of Mexico, busily fomenting just revolt and formulating constitutional law.
The wall on the left looks forward to a bright future in the Socialist Workers’ Paradise. Here we find Marx, Engels, and Lenin pointing the way to a world where industrial workers are allied with farm labourers and with scientists as they battle onwards towards the classless society. All ends happily.
On the smaller panels which are on the 2nd floor arcades, Rivera expands on the theme of pre-Columbian agrarian paradise and of post-Colonial horror. People who appear not unhappily as tithe-paying peasants delivering part of their corn harvest to the priest-warriors reappear as mutilated victims in a post-Conquest world where intolerable torture is meted out under the Inquisitional zeal of the universally corrupt Church, paid for by the robber barons of the Old World.
One wonders how the murals could be housed in any government building. The most liberal governments Canada has ever had would not permit a narrative so bluntly frank about the conquest narrative, much less the unrelieved Marxism that is celebrated and indeed prescribed, in Rivera’s work.
We tour the rest of the palace to which we are permitted access, including a small gallery and the Governor’s Council Chamber, where the two throne-like chairs on a five-foot dais are confronted by a semi-circle of chairs for the councillors. I think Privy Council would be the Canadian equivalent. Our Parliament puts only the Speaker above the combatants in his role of referee/advisor. A much preferable structure for governance, in my view. However, as our government has been run since Trudeau’s day from behind the closed doors of the Cabinet chamber, the righteousness of our symbolism has lost some of its force.
Kath and I exit the Palace, wander into the Zocalo and pay a visit to the Cathedral. A mass is in progress, the thin, mostly female congregation kneeling reverently under the great weight of massive chandeliers, gold-plated iconography, and the image of Christ suffering for them. The priest is wearing a lapel mic, which allows him to speak in a flat, unenergetic mumble, while the celebrant singer, clearly a young girl not confident in either her musical or oratorical powers, trills out her songs in a tremulous alto.
We walk West along 5th of May Ave towards the Palacio de Bellas Artes, stopping to marvel at the Art Nouveau grandeur of the Post Office, before passing the Palace’s amazing exterior. Kath’s guidebook recommends coffee on the 8th floor of the Sears building, which does indeed deliver a view of the P.d.B.A from in front and above that is wonderful. No less so is the bustling life on the steps and in the plaza in front of the Palacio, people seen in foreshortened view from our beautiful if pigeon-infested eyrie. When we gather our energy to descend from Sears and enter the Palacio, it is a revelation. Built over at least three architectural movements (Bauhaus/Art Nouveau/Art Deco) and on a very grand scale, the building is a pleasure to be in. The red and white marble is offset by black, silver and brass highlights. The open space vaults over you. The lobby is on three levels, the upper two of which boast murals by Rivera as well as by other greats. The familiar themes of oppression overcome by The International, of mankind on the near edge of a great evolutionary leap forward are very present in Diego’s work (this is the work that was banned from the Rockefeller Center once he had made its political intentions clear to the Rockefellers). The other murals are far more harsh in their narrative: war and oppression presented in their grisly detail with no relief from travail until the inevitable Victory of the Working Class. (The use of capital letters seems to be required here.)
I find myself wishing that we had enough confidence in our own democracy to let such fiery, passionate works into our large public buildings. Imagine being challenged by art the way the vast mural by (I believe) Alfaro Siqueiro on the second floor of this building challenges us: a muscular woman, with near-comicbook breasts bursts forwards at us, breaking out of her chains as she takes spiritual flight. Wow.
I awoke from such an instructive dream. I was ambiguously a guest of a desirable woman in the house of strangers. The other two people were a woman and a young man who emanated talent and a strong animal energy. It was clear that my presence in the house upset a balance that had been established. This became clear when we sat around a beautiful dining table, and there was some discussion of some kind of decorative, artistic work that was to be done on it. I had a few suggestions to make, which clearly frustrated this young fellow; he was in fact so irritated that he could barely contain his anger. There was a kind of temporal jump-cut at this point in the dream, and the four people of the household were once again at the table. We were about to begin some kind of restoration work on the table, but I was aware that the young man was again boiling with irritation, afraid that I might drop several drops of sweat on what was clearly now HIS table. We three stood back from the table to observe and allow the young man to deal with the table as is he saw fit.
There followed one of those formalistic, time-wasting egoistic displays that one sees sometimes: the young man busied himself with taking the table cloth, some thicker padded material clearly intended to protect the precious wood, and displaying his mastery and competence by carefully folding it, leaning over it and lovingly flattening the seams, refolding it, opening it out again, folding it again, all as a kind of demonstration of his own mastery and power. We others grew more and more uncomfortable watching him; he was so passionate and energetic, and yet so absurd. It was clear that the situation was reaching a pitch in which his precious status quo –as the alpha male of the group- was either to be somehow abjectly acknowledged, or challenged in some kind of pissing contest. Everyone was becoming more and more uncomfortable. He finally turned to me (along with the others) and said (or somehow communicated the thought): “What are you waiting for?” (I believe that the two women in the room were asking the same thing of me.)
At this moment, the dream became a kind of lucid-dream koan. What indeed was I waiting for? I replied, “I see that you are displaying your competence and your aggression. It is very impressive.” This response unbalanced the young man somewhat, but he took it as a challenge. I could feel how he now felt on the edge between fighting with me and actually acknowledging that his display was absurdly defensive and pointless. I felt myself shifting consciousness up through levels of dream state, and freed of the as it were drive of the plot of the dream, I was able to come up with the best answer to his question: “I’m waiting for you to reveal your better nature.”
At this, the dream characters faded, no longer needed, since this was clearly the answer to the koan. The huffy egoist in the dream was of course myself, and he felt stuck, unable to proceed with the work on the table, because he was more concerned with his status in the household. There are many approaches to dealing with those who want to help. Guarding one’s precedence as the expert is the last thing that will move the work forward. But as all characters in dreams represent parts of oneself, the answer to the koan is… reveal my own better nature.
The Trotsky House.
This is surely one of the stranger “tourist” destinations in the world. There are some monuments to tragic events that the traveler should absolutely include on his or her itinerary: if you’re in Cambodia, pay respect to the victims of the Pol Pot regime by visiting the SG21 museum; if in Poland, Germany, or Czech, visit one of the sites of Jewish tragedy and absorb the horrifying magnitude of industrial murder; if you’re a Canadian in France, go weep for the dead at the Vimy Memorial.
To visit the Trotsky House in Mexico City is to contemplate the death of Russian Marxist idealism. The house is interesting enough as a display case for the pictures and documents collected there, but the true effect of visiting is to see what must have been a pleasantly modest house reduced by stages to a defensive shell. The family’s living arrangements became, with the repeated assassination threats and attempts, more and more confined, the doors to the inner chambers replaced with thick metal hatches. It is almost quaint and pitiful that Leon Trosky, that warrior-intellectual who accompanied Lenin through the brutal first years of the Russsian Revolution and was the Commissar of the Red Army during its horrifically systematic wiping out of the White forces during the civil war period, that very man would up his life a prisoner in his own house, quaintly feeding chickens and living in fear of the fate that finally caught up with him one August day in 1940.
I have never been an admirer of Trotsky. Although many leftists throughout the world mourned him as the greatest leader the Soviet Union never had, and think that under his leadership, the Russian experiment would have been saved the horrors of Stalinism, there is no proof that it would have been spared the horrors of Trotskyism. Nevertheless, a visit to the house is a sobering reminder of the plodding inevitability of Soviet revenge, and to see the windows turned into rifle blinds, the bullet holes in the walls, to picture Trotsky at his desk with Ramón Mercader standing behind him, ice-axe in hand… well, it is a sober contemplation.
From the Halls of Montezuma…
In a strange twist of fate, I have been spending more time in the company of a Major in the U.S. Marines than I would have thought possible. It came about like this: Kathy and I arrived at the Kahlo House a mere 70 minutes before it was scheduled to close for the day, and there was a long line. She asked the people in front of us how long they had been waiting, and struck up a conversation with the very sociable woman, who, although latino in appearance, was markedly American in manner. She was there with her husband and daughter. Kath, who knew that I was feeling very little like standing in a lineup, suggested that the husband and I go off and have coffee, and wife suggested that she could text us if the line got going. So the two of us guys, happy to be freed to go off and talk guy stuff, went off and found a tavern and ordered beers. Eddie turned out to be a Marine, serving in Mexico in some kind of advisory/liaison capacity with the Mexican military. I didn’t enquire too deeply, but when I told him about Nick Turner’s experiences in Afghanistan (and about my own, in the 1970s), he warmed to me and we had a very civilized conversation. I was downright amazed to hear his overtly liberal opinions (he likes Obama, for example), and was astounded by his personal history. He was born in Columbia, and moved to the USA (first to Miami, then to NYC) with his mother when he was very young. He enlisted in the Marines as a very young man, and advanced through the ranks. He is now a Major in the Corps, but so unlike any stereotype of a Marine Major that I probably looked as though I was inexplicably shaking my head throughout our conversation. We thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company, and when we got the message that the line had advanced to the door, we went back to the museum and spent 45 minutes touring through the place.
The most remarkable things about the Kahlo House are the artifacts from her disabilities. Disfigured by polio, and then having suffered a serious spinal and leg injury in an auto/tram accident as a teen, Frida’s body was supported through her lifetime by various prosthetic devices for her leg and her chest and back. It is truly impressive that she accomplished so much artistically, socially, and yes, sexually (among her lovers were Rivera—of course—Anais Nin, and famously Leon Trotsky).
After the visit to the Kahlo House, Kath, Sue, Eddie, and their daughter and I repaired to a restaurant and had a prolonged conversation about politics, the military, Canadian-American relations, the state of the world, and other gratifying topics. They drove us to our hotel in their nice Nissan SUV, and we agreed to meet again.
After five rather whirlwind days with Kathy Fisher, I’m a solo traveler again, and content to be so. We had quite a decent chat last night as we lay on our separate beds. We talked a bit about the stuff that had been wonderful about the visit, and what had been challenging, including the push-pull of control of agenda, and the differing styles that any two travellers experience. In the morning, she prepared to go off and attend the women’s writers’ conference in San Miguel, which features some truly impressive names in FemLit. She and I had pleasant breakfast, and she piled her stuff into a taxi bound for the Terminus del Norte, from which northern-bound busses leave Mexico City.
Pat and Stewart had come down to Mexico City from their mountain home to put the girls on the plane back to Canada, so I met them for breakfast at El Café Popular, famous for its breakfasts; more fun and interesting talk about families, politics, the teachers’ strike (which is currently tying up the whole downtown area, the teachers having taken over a large area of the Zocalo, and having camped out on MexCity’s main artery). Stewart is cynical. He tells the story of how the woman who was President of the teachers’ union campaigned on a platform of transferring both job and pension to relatives and friends, and how she was subsequently arrested. We parted with good will, and an invitation to return to Taxco and a repeat of the invite to stay at their place in Toronto in July, which I will certainly do when Candice Fiorentino and I arrive to bring Anatolia Speaks to the Toronto Fringe.
Then a long walk east of the Zocalo in search of a towel and a haircut. I walked through blocks and blocks of the garment district, saw scores of stores selling the same fabrics, hundreds selling plastic knick-knacks. I asked for help finding a barber and was give polite but ineffective directions (a common experience in Mexico). I tripped on a curb, went down in a heap without anyone offering help or comment. I got kicked out of a store selling dollar-store items for wearing my backpack. I stopped to buy socks on display, and the proprietor seemed to say that because they were 5 pesos, they were not for sale (??). The police (on account of the teachers’ strike) had barricaded all traffic going into the Zocalo except pedestrians. In the Zocalo itself is the protest area. A stage has been set up, complete with professional stage lighting and sound, but it is blocked from general view by tall wooden walls. It’s fine to protest, as long as you can’t be seen, this seems to say.
The police and security forces are everywhere downtown. They lean on buildings, they smoke, they joke with one another and eat from the street vendors. Young women bearing assault rifles do their makeup, young men leaning on riot shields look off into the distance, unsure about their place and hoping that they don’t have to do their duty and bash some heads. Or worse.
The organ grinders grind away. I’ve already tossed my pesos into the hats. On the West side of the Cathedral, tradespeople sit behind their backpacks, each with a shingle leaning on the pack which advertizes his specialty—gas fitting, painting, general labour, carpentry. A market in workers, a workers’ market. I’ve already walked several miles today, and I’m more exhausted than I want to be.
Light rain this afternoon. I retire to my little hostel, watch several episodes of The Fall, which is an intense Brit procedural set in Belfast (in itself interesting), and noting the very unflinching feminism of the writing. Gillian Anderson’s superbly-crafted character coldly fucks a fellow cop she sees on the street because he’s got a great body, all the time insisting on his sexual passivity. Meanwhile, the scene is juxtaposed with hard-cut shots of the serial woman-killer and his abuse of women. What this is supposed to say I have no idea, but the film’s gender bias slaps you in the face repeatedly: the male cops are at best ineffectual, every piece of cop incompetence is acted out by a male cop (and vise-versa); it goes without saying that the serial killer’s horrific treatment of women (he targets the successful, young, and beautiful) is hate-able.
Anderson’s supervisor on the Belfast squad—her status as London detective makes her suspect by her Irish colleagues— is a kind of moral weakling. In a weird writing twist, he has a very forced scene where he shows up drunk, treats her almost violently in his desire to sleep with her, and then, once she has punched him and neutralized him, sits and bemoans, “why are women so strong?” Her answer: “because men are aberrations: they are born with a birth defect.” No doubt this sort of writing gets a lot of cred in the Irish film industry; for my part, it’s simply a bizarre thing for a male writer to indulge in, a kind of gender-self-abnegation.
After my movie indulgence, I haul out the guitar and give myself a workout, not making it back out on the street till after 8 pm. Oddly, of the few restaurants in the area of the hostel, only one is open, so I end up eating another street sandwich. I did however, stumble across The Street of Music Stores, quite nearby, as it happened. More than a dozen music stores all in the same area (like the garment district this morning), most with an array of knockoff electrics, and cheap Spanish-style guitars. One store did stock a bunch of Fenders, several American made (I’m not chauvinistic about Yankee craftsmanship—I was actually shopping for Mexican-made Fenders, and couldn’t find one!!). This warrants a return visit. I did pick up some strings and a cable to give as gifts in Cuba.
I’m starting to figure out the general tone of this town, I think. The people whose job it is to serve the tourist industry are efficient and polite. Everyone else is indifferent to us gringos. The people of the DF (Distrito Federal) are like the citizens of any of the world’s major cities: self-conscious of the fact that they are living at the centre of things. Even the damage of the 1985 earthquake, which is still evident in huge cracks in stone walls and visibly empty apartments and offices, is a kind of badge of honour for the citizens.
I revisit Chapultepec Park (Mexico City’s massive central park) and the surrounding sites, including the Museo de Antropología, one of the world’s great museums, this time concentrating on the upper floor, whose displays are about current Mexico. Seven years ago, I toured the main floor exhibits (which take hours to view with any detail), concentrating on prehistory until the Conquest. I have to say that this part of the Museum is the best. The modern Mexico that is presented in the upper floor is not one that I’ve seen anywhere on my travels. It feels as though the displays are all forty or fifty years out of date, and the imperative to offend none of the many ethnic and cultural groups that make up this vast country has resulted in a very bland presentation.
Chapultepec Park is beautiful. You can walk for half a day under its canopy of trees. Families crowd into the park on Sundays to picnic, wander the market, eat ice cream, paddle on the small lake. A group of people of a certain age gathered under trees on the Walk of Poets (which features busts of great Mexican writers) to play beautiful folk music for the pure pleasure of jamming. (This was one of my favourite musical experiences in Mexico.)
Near the museum, you can (as Kath and I did) watch the old flying dance, the Danza de los Voladores: Four men in traditional costume climb a 30-meter pole to a platform on top. Then they each wind a rope around the top of the pole, and the musician then climbs on top of a platform at the peak of the pole and plays the flute. At the appropriate moment, the four mean launch themselves from the top of the pole and for a magical ten minutes, they spin around, descending, heads to the ground, as their ropes unwind, the flute player never stopping playing, and the other dancers holding ritual positions as they waft through space. The physical endurance alone is very impressive, and the sight is inspiring. Once the men are on the ground, the collection plate goes around of course, and they deserve every peso they collect (not a vast amount, I would guess). I approached the men as they stood untying themselves from their ropes and asked them about the knot they used. They were happy to show me that the only knot that they trusted their lives to was the bowline.
I wish there were more fruit stands downtown—people have an endless appetite for wheat, corn, and meat, and I can only ingest so many Cubana sandwiches before my system begins to revolt.
Feb 12. The Delores Olmado Museum
The lengthy metro ride from the centre of the city to the Museum, in the southern part of the city, (in the Thirties, it was a suburb) is such a deep experience of Mexican culture. I must rely on the helpfulness of strangers, and of course… they come through. On the train car, there are constant crowds. They are no kinder than, no less kind than such crowds everywhere. What we do not have in Canada are people who come on to train cars to sell books and ointments, hawking their wares with rhythmic patter. No one in Canada trips through the car with salsa music played far, far too loud, selling pirated CDs of the artists.. No beggars with one foot mangled from some horrid injury come stumping through the train loudly proclaiming their medical condition and the course of treatment that will help them, of only you will contribute. No blind musicians busk for two stops. No passionate student rides from one stop to the next on the LRT, haranguing about U.S. oil companies and their Imperialism and conjuring one and all to buy his leftist mag.
When you ask a subway security officer in Edmonton for directions to the nearby museum, does he produce a pen and draw a map?
Arriving at the Delores Olmado Museum I am taken aback by the beauty of the gardens, the carefully groomed botany of Mexico, the excited peacocks urgently shuffling their displays at pea-hens. Geese and pigeons and sparrows sing and squawk and get on about the business of making love and making a living.
I wish Kath and I had come here in search of Frida Kahlo, whose works in this small gallery devoted to her express such profound pain and despair that it hurts to look. Like having to watch someone in mortal sorrow, irreconcilable. Her formal studies in surrealism are much more interesting than I expected, and her symbolist work about her miscarriage is profoundly sad. I felt short of breath. There is a lot there about fecundity: breasts and vaginas weep, the sky rains milk, or sperm, or something, and Frida looks out at us accusingly, the soul of all women who suffer penetrations and childbirth (and all its complicated horrors) as martyrs in the cause of procreation.
By contrast, Diego’s galleries reveal the gradual maturity of the artist, whose cubist studies of the 1910-15 period gradually give way to more realist art, more didactic. As Diego ages, he shucks aside the European training in formalism and turns his gaze on his Mexico, saying, “Look at this, my countrymen, look at the beauty and the suffering, look at the heroes who fight for justice!”
How driven the man was is best revealed in his very last works, painted in Acapulco in 1956-57, where he was dying of cancer and a guest of Delores Olmedo. He studied the light at the end of the day in a series of paintings that feel like a man struggling to wrest out of paint and brush the most precise account of the miracle of light that is sunset. And he still had an eye for the girls, evidenced by his quite delightful study of two girls in The Hammock, although there is a wistful air as well—the girls are modestly dressed in 1950’s bathing suits, the kind that look almost structural in their unnatural contortion of the female form–and their shared pleasure in life is, alas, no longer for the artist. Their smiles are for themselves alone.
At three thirty or so, there is a massive clap of thunder. What I swore was the mewing of a distressed cat turned out to be the distressed mewling of a peacock in the garden. Like my dear little dog Zoe, the birds hate the massive inexplicable power of the storm.
Feb 13. I have changed hostels, and am now staying at the Hostel Catedral. From the fifth floor kitchen, I could easily toss a pebble onto the roof of the Zocalo Cathedral. I am more or less living above the remains of the greatest Aztec city. I had breakfast this morning with a very interesting, sympathetic Uruguan economist named Emiliano. His passionate accounts of the recent election of a left-of-centre former prisoner of the (of course) CIA-backed dictatorship, of Uruguay’s four World Cups, of the general rise of the people from poverty, and the beauty of the country, inspired me to visit. I will get Emiliano’s contact info tonight.
(done. I will someday go to his country)
Feb 14th: At the futbal game.
Valentine’s Day, and I am a willing non-participant. I really wanted to see a BIG soccer game in Mexico, so I bought a scalper ticket a few days ago, stopping on my way back from the Delores Almada Museum at the Estadio Azteca (from the sublime to the jock) to wander near the ticket booth until I was offered a ticket for a hundred and thirty pesos above the face price. The local favourites (Los Americanos) are taking on Los Jagures. I gird myself for an exciting night of great soccer in a stadium with 100,000 people.
The event, as it turned out, was a bit anticlimactic. Only about 10,000 fans came to the game. The massive stadium, truly impressive in scale, was largely empty. I’m not sure why this is—both teams have a following, I’ve read. But the home town supporters declined to show up en masse.
The police, however, DID show up in force, with riot shields. They looked bored, or vaguely amused. There were several hundred cops on the scene, perhaps 500 or so, making a ratio of about one police officer for every 20 fans.The commercialism that we observe in all professional sport was very evident. Corona is a big advertiser, as is “Bimbo!” a bakery brand. Any thought of buying a fan t-shirt was quelled, as I don’t want to wear, or subject anyone else to wearing, a shirt with the letters BIMBO across the chest.
In contrast to Canadian sports fans (at least in terms of their voiced response) the male fans certainly knew what the real purpose of the cheerleaders was, for when the pretty girls in tight clothes paraded onto the field carrying the various sponsors’ flags, a loud chorus of wolf whistles came from the stands. As ever… sex sells.
The game was played on a high level indeed. Although the best Mexican players probably play elsewhere (England, Spain, or Italy, where the big money is), I’m pretty sure that either of these teams would embarrass, for example, the Toronto or Vancouver teams. Sadly, they were not evenly-matched—the Americans were beating the Jaguars handily (4-0) when I left 15 minutes into the second half.
My favourite moment (apart from the impressive athleticism on the pitch) was a brief show at half-time. The beautiful eagle that is the mascot of the MexCity side was on display before the game, and fans could have their picture taken with it, for a price. At half-time, the bird was carried onto the field. A man took a soccer ball on a long rope, and whirled it around himself in giant arcs. When the eagle was unhooded, it swooped across the field and chased the ball down, to loud cheers.
It is my last night in MexCity for two weeks. Tomorrow, I fly to Cuba.