The Living and the Dead in Mexico City (New York Press)

When a Mexican calls an American a gringo, he'll tell you it's
because he has no choice.  Mexico is in the Americas, and here
in Mexico City, they don't like it when we call ourselves,
exclusively, Americans.  You can say you're from the United States,
but officially this place is also the United States...of Mexico.
Sometimes they call us norteamericanos,but I don't get that
distinction, as we are nowhere near South America.

Mexicans insist that, given these name problems, gringo isn't
derogatory--it just sounds that way.  But I notice they don't mind
calling our cars "American," or our form of football, which is all
over the TV (Los Green Bay Empajadores, Los Houston Petroleros).
Their point is that Mexico is America; that they, as much as we,
are Americans.

This may seem a slim line of geographic squabbling, but
it's more than that.  Besides the real physical relation, Mexico
shares our Indian past and colonial legacy--a particularly
"American" combination.  And more than any other of the earth's
newly sprawling, overpopulated, polluted Third World megalopolises,
Mexico City--closer to New York than Los Angeles and closer to Los
Angeles than New York--reminds us of that past and presents an
image of our future.

I had two days to prepare for this trip, so I tore out parts of three
different guidebooks; I was also carrying some cliche fears about the
brutal, macho Police States everywhere south of San Diego, so I studied
those guides assiduously during the flight down. I picked up some pointers on avoiding
pickpockets and diarrhea (don't leave your hotel, don't eat), but
it struck me how limited their ideas for tourists are.  All of the
guidebooks, from the top-dollar to the dirt-budget, concentrated on
three things:  museums, ancients sites, andplaces to shop.

Maybe these are naive questions, but why do they want me
inside museums, steeping in history?  Or visiting dead sites where
you only meet contemporaneous locals as trinket-salesmen?  Or
shopping.  For what, in poor Mexico?  Things to bring home.
Souvenirs.  Proof.

To be fair, Mexico City is culture-rife; and it's the E. Coli
in the water, more than the thugs in the streets, that keeps the
tourists away.  There are so many good museums here, large and
small, that they're hard to avoid, even if you're conscientious.
But they're not what I came for.

I came was to check out the Day of the Dead
festivities on November 1 and 2.  One of my favorite books is
Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, which takes place on the
Day of the Dead in nearby Cuernavaca.  The hero ends up dead drunk--and
then dead Dead, at the bottom of a ravine (killed by brutal macho
Police State police).  And though I hoped to fare better, I have to
admit I was looking to have some sort of poignant Day of the Dead

My second day, I took the subway to the South bus station to
go to a village called Mixquic ("meeks-keek") where I'd heard there
were good Day of the Dead festivities.  This happened to be the
morning of President Salinas's biggest speech of the year, called
La Informa.  "This is his first Informa.  It could be very
important for the country," Cybelle, a friend and political science
student, had told me the day before.  "Workers have the day off to
listen, but most will just sleep late."   Walking to the subway I
could see, from about a half-mile away, hordes of riot cops massing
in the direction of Belles Artes, the majestic neo-classical-art-deco-
confectionery opera house where Salinas would be Informing in
a few hours.

In the subway, I discovered that the next four stops--the
heart of downtown--were closed.  Just a few cops with M-16s on the
platforms as our unexpected express whizzed by.

There is a saying here, "El que se mueve, no sale," which
means, "He who moves doesn't show up," or "doesn't leave a mark."
It comes from the world of Ambulant Photography--the guys with
big box cameras who take your picture in front of colorful backdrops
--but the expression has taken on another meaning in the arena of
Mexican politics.  "He who moves doesn't show up" holds that a
political leader who is too radical or too flashy could very easily
disappear.  Stand still, Big Brotherwants to take your picture.

In Mexico, the man working the camera is President Carlos
Salinas de Gortari.  Salinas's party, which has controlled the
government of Mexico for the past 60 years, has one of those
contradiction-in-terms Socialist tags you'd expect to find in
Romania, and not on our doorstep: the Institutional Revolution Party,
known here as PRI.  Seems to me that when you institutionalize a
revolution, you pretty much take all the fun out of it.  The
political opposition would agree: the PRI has won every important
election since 1929, often with the kind of exuberant corruption
that is the only way to explain 90% of the vote.

Maybe Mexico's revolutions should be institutional, they've
been around long enough.  When the Maya Empire collapsed in 900BC,
it was probably because oppressed peasants fled the fabled cities,
leaving the priests and nobles to build their own pyramids and
sacrifice their own humans....this is just a theory.  As far
as I know, the fate of all the great Indian civilizations has been
the same thing:  "Mysterious Decline."

Repression that got the Maya in trouble has been a part of
Mexican life at every stage of the game.  And since Cortez came
dancing across the water with his galleons and guns, the power has
skewed toward the white skin of a Spaniard and away from the brown
of the indigenous Indians. This color curve is smooth, and its ability
to predict status, even today, is close to 100%.

But this is "a land of contradictions," according to the
guidebooks (granted they say the same about Detroit), and
even though Spanish blood runs in Mexico's weathiest veins,
Spaniards themselves are reviled in the Mexican psyche as
Conquistadors.  The derogatory term for a Spanish man, gachupine,
remains malicious to a degree that gringo never was.  At the same time,
images of warriors and dancers from Mexico's Aztec
tradition fill the museums, and are common in advertising. "Indio"
is a proud name for a popular dark beer....but calling someone an
Indian is an insult, with the despicable ring of "nigger."

From the subway I changed for a bus to Mixquic, which turns out
to be 90 minutes away through dusty roads and small towns and
cornfields....but still, by gerrymandering stretch, within the
city limits.  On the bus radio, we could hear President Salinas's
speech get going, though with my junior-high Spanish I couldn't
pick up the gist.  When he paused, a roar of applause arose, and
died as if on cue, like the clapping ladies on "Monty Python."

At one point a brown patrol car passed us and then, on second
thought, decided to pull us over.  A fat cop got out and our
driver, a quiet young Mexican, met him at the patrol car with his
licenses and IDs.  Moments later the driver sulked back to the bus
sadfaced and shaking his head.  From the stacks of coins on the
dash he pressed off three thousand-peso pieces for the cops, a
standard bribe.  The bus was quieter after this, and Salinas's
speech accompanied us the rest of the way to Mixquic, including,
perhaps, the part where he warned (as I later read), "The fight
against corruption in public administration is a commitment of the
government, but also of society, which should report illegal
activities and refrain from taking part in them."

In the "land-of-contradictions" department, it's hard to top
the mix of Believe-It-Or-Else Catholicism and party-up Paganism
that constitutes religion in Mexico, especially during fiestas like
the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead has all the festivity and demonology of
our Halloween, but it is also directly connected to the Church, to
true religious feeling, and the graves of the real dead.  More serious than
our fright night, the Day of the Dead shows a healthy, somewhat
pagan, countenance of death.  At the shrines and graveyards of old
villages like Mixquic, the departed are presented with elaborate
offerings of fruit, wine, doughnuts and bread--which people claim
get eaten.  Meanwhile, there's a festival in the streets, with
people selling food and booze, plus skull pins, posters, dolls,
cakes and candy--more skeletal knick-knacks than a Grateful Dead

Next to the real cemeteries, which get blanketed with candles
and huge bunches of flowers, pretend-cemeteries are set up, with
rows of fake graves of people who aren't really dead--friends or
notorious neighbors.  These tombstones are inscribed with
"calaveras," four-line rhyming epitaphs, silly things like, "Here
lies Alfonzo the D.J., his death was unfair/he swallowed a
microphone while on the air."  The newspapers even publish the joke
epitaphs of celebrities, including the President.

I saw another fake grave set up in the middle of a huge
teachers' strike and vigil in downtown Mexico City the next day--but I
don't think it had the same playful sentiment as the ones in
Mixquic.  "Throughout the country, 66 teachers have been
assassinated--for protesting or trying to reform the Union," a math
teacher from the neighboring state of Michoacan told me.  El que se
mueve, no sale.

The Teachers' Union is one of the biggest in the country, but
its officials aren't elected.  The teachers want a democratic union
and a 100% raise, and here on empty streets in the middle of town, thousands have
set up a vast tent-city with ropes and colorful sheets of plastic,
pink, yellow, and green.  Their urban lean-tos line both sides of
five or six long blocks, covering the sidewalks and streets where
they have been sleeping and eating for a month.  They are scrawled
with names like "Hotel Che Guevara" and slogans like, "Our Country
or Death."  Displays openly mock bald-pated effigies of President

You run into a lot of protests in Mexico.  As with this huge
Teacher Town, the government tolerates a lot of it.  As bad as the
poverty and corruption are here, you soon realize that it could be
a hell of a lot worse. The social and political messes that stretch from Tijuana to
Tierra Del Fuego are hard for us Americans to relate to.  But the
brutal brand of "law and order" practiced with increased severity
south of here parallels the methods we used to "win the West" in
the last century--a period in our history that has been
mythologized beyond recognition by Western movies and Marlboro ads.

One big difference is that the Indians we so hermetically
exterminated are genetically mixed into 90% of the peasant
population here.  Another is that, instead of six-shooters,
the Powers That Be are now toting helicopter gunships.
In Mexico they seem to be exploring a path somewhere between
the new Gorby-style Socialists in Eastern Europe and the US-backed
priest-killing fascists of El Salvador.  It could go either way.

When I finally found someone who spoke as little English as I
speak Spanish (aren't there any English teachers on strike?), I
asked her if this was dangerous.  "Of course," she said.  "But we
must let the police see that ours is a city of order."  Children
were running around, and women were cooking on coal-fires in the
streets; other protesters moved through the crowd with over-xeroxed
handbills:  "Arise Teachers!  The Future is Bright and Belongs to Us!"

The future does indeed belong to the teachers--if only because
there are so many little kids here: Mexico has one of the world's
highest birth-rates.  And this in a pious country whose most
popular saint got that way from never having sex.  In the land of
the blinking Jesus and the most gruesome plastic crucifixes, the
number-one Holiness is the Virgin of Guadelupe; and her Shrine,
just north of the city, is the holiest Catholic shrine
in the hemisphere.

This dark-skinned version of the Virgin appeared in 1531, and
is credited with converting masses of Aztecs, who apparently liked
the way she looked--i.e., like them.  She still draws tens of
thousands of pilgrims a day to the huge, ultra-modern shrine, where
they join throngs riding conveyor belts past a scrap of the
Virgin's cloak.  (One can only speculate on the religious
outpouring an entire garment would inspire.)  There is a constant
carnival atmosphere at the Shrine, and a real carnival just outside
its gates.

In the streets around the Virgin's shrine you can buy (in
addition to blinking Jesuses and gruesome, full-sized plastic
crucifixes) blank cassettes advertised as "virgin."  Mexican girls,
at marriage, are expected to be in the same unused condition.  But
despite this push for virginity from all quarters, the Valley of
Mexico is not likely to be labeled the Chastity Belt anytime soon.

Girls here seem to mature faster than anywhere else.  The
streets are filled with young beauties--44% of the population is
under 15 years old.  They dress like Madonna (Ciccione, that is) or
in black-and-neon aerobic outfits of skin-tight lycra.  I found
myself embarrassingly attracted to the scores of Lolitas parading
on that precious pubescent cusp, desirable and out of reach
to everyone male.  Family and Tradition and Catholicism are
invincible here, so instead of sex-before-marriage you have this
almost palpable lust-gap.

So, of course, they marry.  Young.  And, of course, once they
do, there's no sex without baby-making.  A few years later--still
in their teens--they have a couple of kids...and before you know
it--sunrise, sunset--the little ones are pulling on the lycra
again.  Such are the workings of "Traditional Values."   Meanwhile,
Mexico City is choking with poverty and pollution and a
population of at least 20 million.

                        *    *    *

Mexico City lies at the center of the Valle de Mexico, a
vast, mountain-ringed basin 7400 feet above sea level.  There is a
real downtown, with a large historic district and modern office
towers, but most of the city is low and flat and dense, spreading
for miles, petering-out at the distant fringes of huge and
growing slums.  These crowded, cardboard and concrete
neighborhoods, cities of millions in their own right, reach beyond
the airport and surround the city in most directions.

As in most other Third World capitals, loud fume-sputtering
buses (broken windows, metal floors, torn-out seats) dominate the
vicious traffic.  But there are also small cars with violent
instincts and broad avenues with possibilities for speed.  This a
dangerous place to jaywalk--though people still do, thank God.
When in comes to real cities, jaywalking separates the men
(New York, Mexico City) from the boys (L.A., Seattle).

Many of the cars are VW Bugs, which the city has more of than
California in the 60's.  Mexico is the only country in the world
that still manufactures this old Volkswagon--you can buy them
new here. Inexpensive, easy to drive, park, repair, steal and fence,
this is a car that makes sense for the American Third World.

What doesn't make sense is how this city got such a good
subway system.  The Metro, as it's known, is clean, the
trains come fast--you rarely have to wait
more than three minutes--and there are special cars for women and
children during the madhouse rush-hours.  Government-subsidized,
the Metro is cheap, even for Mexicans:  to ride this modern and
extensive line (125 stations on 100 miles of track) costs about
four cents--less than than the price of printing and selling
a ticket.

For illiterates, all the stops are represented by pictograms.
(Let's see, what would be a good one for Times Square?)  The cars
hold a steady stream of moving salesmen hawking Chiclets and lighters with
a rapid, musical rap.  As on the streets, you don't see any
straight-up beggars, just real, broke-down cripples.  There are
also comedy teams in the subway who spiel back and forth for a few
stops.  People try to ignore them, but half-smiles break and they
garner some change.  "You have green eyes," one of them said to me.
"That means they are not ripe."  I'm told that's funny in Spanish.

Perhaps the longest, and the most interesting, subway transfer
in the world is at a stop called La Raza, between the 3-line and
the 5.  The one at Pino Suarez is pretty good--you pass an Aztec
shrine unearthed when the station was being built--but La Raza
is like detouring into the Boston Museum of Science.

In the first long stretch of hallway you pass a series of
large color photographs on both sides.  On your right is a photo of
a man on a lawn.  The next shot is a close-up of his hand, and as
you progress down the hall the pictures increase in magnification--
the man's skin, pores, cells, DNA, molecules--all the way to atoms
and quarks: "10 to the -16th power," the last photo is labeled.

Meanwhile, on your left, the first shot, labeled 10 to the
26th power, is a picture of a cluster of galaxies.  So to your left
as you head down the hall--to change trains, remember--you pass
pictures of galaxies, then our galaxy, our sun, the solar system,
and our planet.  They keep zooming in to the U.S., then a city
(Chicago), and finally a park and a man on a lawn--the man we
started with at the beginning on the right.

What follows this micro-to-macro-cosmic underground
experience?  Well, you turn the next corner and enter a thirty yard
stretch of darkness--darkness, that is, illuminated by ultraviolet
light.  And the only thing glowing besides your teeth and shoelaces
are the constellations overhead: a mini-planetarium.  Between
subways in the largest city in the world.

Despite these mass-transit wonders, the pollution upstairs is
awful.  Mexico City on a good day is like L.A. on a bad day.  You
feel it in your eyes, on your tongue and in your lungs.  Mid-winter
is worse, when, according to the locals, "birds drop out of the
sky."  In Mexico they refine their own petroleum, but they don't
refine it much.

This year the city is taking a radical step to fight
pollution, a sign that people are seriously concerned about their
two-pack-a-day breathing habit.  Every car license plate now comes with
one of five colored squares on it--red, pink, yellow, green or
blue.  From November 20 until February 28, each work day, all the
cars with that day's color cannot be driven.  20% of the cars will
be idle, 20% less pollution and traffic.

This increase in social responsibility can be traced back to
September 19, 1985, when an eight-point-one earthquake hit the
city, killing as many as 50,000 people (or as few as 7200, if you
believe the government).  "The earthquake was one of three events
that brought young people together," my friend Filipe--Cybelle's
boyfriend, and also a student--told me as we drove his black VW Bug
through an area south of Alameda Park that is still scared by the
quake--many empty lots and shells of buildings.

"First 'the Crack,' then the big strikes at the University in
1986, and then the elections.  Everyone was surprised that the PRI
allowed an opposition party, PAN (the National Action Party), to
win in Baja.  And President Salinas has been a reformer, to a
degree.  Right away he broke up the powerful Petroleum Union--who
opposed his election--and threw all the corrupt bosses in jail.
These events, we were convinced, would be catalysts for change.
But now, we wait and see."

We stopped to walk through the Revolution Monument, and when
we returned to the car, Filipe handed a few hundred pesos to a
little boy, a street-urchin type, who said he was watching the car.

"To understand Mexican politics," Filipe continued, "you must
know how powerful the PRI really is.  It may appear chaotic, but
they are connected everywhere--with business, unions, they even
make deals with opposition parties.  You would be surprised how
all-encompassing their power is.

"But more than anything political, the earthquake, I believe,
is important to the political change now in Mexico.  When it
happened, everyone came together to help, rich people, poor
people."  Filipe himself immediately joined a work-crew searching
for survivors.  "And we all saw it--the effects of corruption and

Hardest hit were some of the poorest neighborhoods-overcrowded
government-subsidized housing--plus several new
hospitals.  The pattern is this: the buildings where most of the
people died were recent government projects, and they dropped, not
because of faulty engineering, but because of corrupt building
officials waving through sub-standard materials.

Tremors, which are common, are no longer taken lightly.
Earlier this year a small quake hit.  Cybelle was at home and, by
instinct, ran into the street.  "I ran out without thinking, and
into the arms of a woman I did not know.  We both started crying,
though nothing had happened.  When I looked around, the street was
full of people, everyone crying and praying."

Many places haven't been rebuilt because of the soft ground,
and many because there's no money in it.  Some of the poorest areas
had the benefit of decades-old rent freezes; with 100%-plus
inflation, rent frozen for perpetuity led to families paying the
equivalent of just over one cent a month.  For some landlords the
quake was a gift from God.

Tuition at the National University, UNAM, is on a similar
scale:  a semester's fees run to 200 pesos--eight cents.  Its
Mexico City branch, with 200,000 students, is about 10
miles south of the center and covers an area bigger than downtown
Manhattan.  Some of the buildings are decorated with famous and
colorful (and didactic) mosaics, but most look like 50's-style high
schools needing a coat of paint.

Why do they bother to collect this pocket change?   As with the subway,
making the whole thing free would put a lot of bureaucrats out of
work.  The idea of a sliding scale, of even
hemi-demi-semi-realistic tuition, riles up the radical ideologues
who lurk around UNAM, pining for revolution.

Now UNAM is paying the price of its own altruism.  The
government is resigned to paying huge amounts to keep UNAM open,
but nothing more.  The grounds aren't kept up, the faculty doesn't
get raises, and the reputation of the school is going the way of
those ancient Indian civilizations.  The University still has some
excellent departments, but it sounds like what Tom Lehrer once said
about Folk Music now applies to an education at socialist UNAM:  "The reason
it's so bad is because it's by The People."

                       *    *    *

One night, after a few beers at an intellectual-hang-out
cantina in the pretty hip area called Coyoacan, Filipe, Cybelle and
I turned into a cheap and greasy-looking taco stand open to the
street.  Filipe said we had to stop, "This is a rare and special
taco stand, very hard to find.  When I see this, I say, 'Go for
it,'"  he said with real pride and enthusiasm.  The place served
"Tacos de Cabeza," Bull-Head Tacos, and Filipe promptly ordered a
Lip and Cheek combo.  You could also get Eye, Tongue and Brain
tacos, or, for the less cerebral, Penis tacos.

There's evidence that this diet does strange things to Mexican
tastes.  For instance, Nescafe is more popular here than real
coffee, and Pizza Hut can advertize itself as "Delicious &
Prestigious."  Despite the prestige, American fast-food isn't
nearly as big here as it is in most of Asia or Europe.  Unlike New
Yorkers, Mexicans aren't all sick of Mexican food.

Somehow, after sampling bull-head tacos, the idea of watching
a bullfight didn't seem so revolting.  I tried to get tickets for
the corrida on Sunday, but there were only scalped tickets
available--for nearly a million pesos.  Apparently bullfighting in
Mexico City is not hip, but rather an Old World, high-class sort of
pleasure, good for business connections and favors, like golf
or suites at Giants Stadium.

I did catch some highlights on TV, which condense the whole
thing into a few minutes of replays.  First they show the huge,
strong bull charging into the ring, then the picadors stabbing it,
barbs in the bull's shoulders to slow it down and lower its head.
Then the matador does a few brave Ole's until the bull seems weak,
at which point he pulls out a long sword and stabs it quick behind
the head.  The bull stands there dumb and confused while the crowd
goes wild, but the replays don't show it actually falling down
dead.  Cut to the matador being awarded the bull's two ears and
bowing proudly to the crowd.

They showed these same highlight-segments from three or four
fights, interspersed with honey shots of the spectators--mostly
fat men with big cigars and fat women with dark roots lifting
drinks.  Seeing only replays, you miss out on what the fancy
guidebooks call "the ceremony and pageantry of the ring."  It just
looks barbaric.

But I wasn't going to get all my cultural insights from the
television set, and I still hadn't had my big dark-yet-poignant
Mexican Experience.  So on the final Night of the Dead, I decided
to do what the guidebooks warn you not to--go to Garibaldi Plaza
with my big camera and flash to take pictures of the mariachi bands
that perform in this notoriously sleazy area.

Garibaldi is a dark square surrounded by cantinas and
restaurants.  Mariachi musicians, buttoned into tight, spangled
suits, congregate here, and their bands compete for the crowd's
cash and attention.  The place is also famous for pickpockets and
purse-snatchers, so I was somewhat paranoid and more on
guard when I joined the crowd surrounding a noisy band.

I popped a few flashes, and was aware of a gang of kids drawn
to the white strobe light, like some new night-creature, part moth,
part shark.  With my New York awareness tuned up, I watched them
spread though the crowd.  Some of them blended in nonchalantly,
tapping their feet, enjoying the music.  But there were also some
scarier toughs.  One, who I guessed was the leader, looked like a
real street-fighter, with scarred knuckles and a broken nose.  He
was edgy and shifting like a boxer, too dark and tough and poor to
be enjoying himself.

     I felt like a target, so I kept moving, and ended up standing
behind the leader--to watch him look back, shark-eyed, for me.  I
moved away, and soon saw them peel off, one by one, a total of 6 or
7 from different parts of the crowd.  Later, I spotted the same
gang lurking in another crowd; they saw me too.  It felt like a
game and a challenge--who could better stalk whom--but their dark
stares scared me so I decided to get out of there, flashing one
more group of mariachis on my way.  3 or 4 blocks up the main street
home, I turned into a well-lit restaurant I'd noticed on the way in,
Restaurante Lucha (lucha means ìfightî ).  I'd barely sat down when
in sauntered one of the gang--ratty pants, zippered sweat-top, a
16-year-old's moustache and zitty nose--sent, I was sure, to case me.
He sat down two booths back.

The waitress came, cleared my table, and I thought, Stay or
go?  I looked back at the kid, to make sure he knew I'd seen him.
His nervous glances went everywhere else, but for an instant he met
my back-glare.  Fuck this shit.  I got up, with noisy fluster, and
standing, stared at him longer shaking my head like, "You stupid
idiot bastard, I see you, leave me alone," and then banged out the
front door.

On the street I moved fast.  I kept looking back, and saw a
couple of them walking near the traffic.  At Belles Artes I broke
away and sprinted across 5 lanes of approaching cars--unaware that
in lane 6 buses run the other way.  A big honk shocked me, a big
bus just missed me, and I hustled down into the subway.

So that was my Noche de Los Muertos experience.  La cuenta, por

The next day I told Filipe about the incident.  I was glad to
hear he feels the same way about the place.  "Garibaldi, I don't
like it, I won't go there.  It is only prostitutes and thieves.
All those kids you see, they are addicted to drugs--not drugs:
cements, solvents, glue.  It kills their brains.  But glue is
cheap, and I suppose better than being hungry."

I don't know whether my little scene in Garibaldi Plaza
illustrates crime-bred-by-poverty or paranoia-bred-by-guidebooks,
but afterwards I was more content with the standard tourist sites.
The last one I took in was the bright and hazy view of the city
from the Latin American Tower.

Near the top of this 44-storey building--which markets itself
as the symbol of Mexico City--is The World's Highest Aquarium.
This is an extremely obscure distinction, sort of like...The World's Fastest Museum...no.
There is no comparison.  I've been pondering the meaning behind
this high-altitude fishbowl and have come up with nothing but a

 Other images of Mexico City are not so abstruse.  One of the postcards
I brought back shows "A Panoramic View of the Plaza of
Three Cultures," in the area called Tlatelolco.  The 3 Cultures are
the Ancient Indian, Colonial Spanish, and Modern Mexican,
represented on the postcard by the ruins of an Aztec pyramid in the
foreground, a 17th-century church behind that, and the modern low-
income housing that surrounds them--neat concrete buildings with
Mondrian-print exteriors.

     You'd expect this architectural nexus to be oozing with
symbolism and irony and indeed it is.  It was here in 1521 that
Cortez finally rubbed out the Aztec resistance, which brutal
imperialism (a model for all subsequent American brutal
imperialism) is remembered on a plaque there as "neither a triumph
nor a defeat, but the painful birth of the mixed race that is
Mexico today."  And it was here, in 1968, that government troops
and tanks massacred four hundred or so peaceful student protesters
10 days before the opening of the Mexico City Olympics.

The 1985 earthquake hit hard in
Tlatelolco and things now aren't quite as they appear in the postcard's
plastichrome vision.   But in a land where civilizations are always
"mysteriously declining," a survival-rate of two-out-of-three
cultures ain't bad:  the heavy stone of the Aztec pyramid and the
Spanish church held up.  Only the cheap concrete high-rises (the
places, alas, where the poor people live), crumbled into the dust.

The earthquake's destruction hasn't slowed the city's growth,
1000 people a day are moving in, mostly to the poorest slums.  And
everywhere in Mexico City you can see Third World street scenes
like Bangkok or Bombay: the generic Dark Child sitting on a busy
sidewalk selling chewing gum for pennies; old women chopping open
cow heads with hatchets, pulling out brains with their hands; men
eating fire and swallowing swords at traffic lights for change.
One night I saw a man with a telescope selling views of the moon.

Blocks away in those Asian cities you can find disco-video
bars and fancy hotels; so too in Mexico.  But the bars here aren't
full of homesick American tourists and ex-pats, or dollar-rich
locals not quite comfortable in their new Western-style clothes.
They are full of Mexicans, sophisticated, spoiled, and wealthy,
singing along, word for word, with the video on the bar TV, which
right now is tuned to MTV, live via satellite, though it could just
as soon be TBS or TNN or CNN or ESPN, which reminds you that this
strange Third World place is not so far away.  In fact, it's