One of the world’s great capitals—a city where the ancient lives alongside the cutting-edge, a place with a formidable art scene (including the can’t-miss collection of the planet’s richest man) and an extraordinary food culture (high and low)—is finally having its day in the sun.
One late summer afternoon in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, with the sunlight falling through the leafy streets, I sat at a sidewalk café and watched the scene around me: A couple of young businessmen climbed into a waiting car and took off into the rush-hour traffic. The tamale man was pedaling by, his tricycle cart loaded with a shining aluminum vat, offering up his wares to the neighborhood with a nasal, high-pitched chant that’s a virtual national anthem: “Tamales oaxaqueños,” he sang out over and over, “tamales ricos.” A housekeeper came out to buy some, wiping her hands on her apron. Down the street, two long-haired dachshunds on a leather leash sniffed and tussled, while their owner typed out texts on her phone. A burly man in a business guayabera was quarreling on his phone in Starbucks, while his attendant, all but ignored, watched his car, bought him a pack of cigarettes, gave him a lighter, brought him a newspaper. On Michoacán, people were gathering in bars and cafés. Next door, in a bright-white shop, two little blond girls were buying homemade ice cream. The shoe shine man had two clients waiting. Evening was on the way.
Filled with the bustle of commerce on every conceivable level, Mexico City is overcrowded, dirty, and raucous, but also lush, extravagant, exotic, and seductive. It’s also one of the calmer enclaves in the country…if, that is, you can call what is by many counts the third-largest urban agglomeration in the world and by all serious estimates among the world’s ten largest metropolitan areas an enclave. Still, calm it is: The drug traffickers who have been so violent and public in other parts of the country are rarely visible here. The reason for this, according to Carlos Puig, a commentator for Milenio, a Mexico City newspaper and television network, is that it is in the people’s interest to keep the capital safe. “Everyone wants to be able to come here,” Puig said. “This includes the drug traffickers. Some live here, some have family here, some have businesses here, and they all want to be able to visit in peace.”
Like many residents of the Distrito Federal—or D.F., as Mexico City is known—Puig wants to believe, and wants us to believe, that “Mexico City has nothing to do with the rest of the country.” And perhaps that’s true. Certainly Mexico City has more in common with Buenos Aires, Paris, and Los Angeles than it does with the Mexican countryside. Arguably what the D.F. has become—in the twenty years since Mexico, Canada, and the United States signed their controversial NAFTA agreement—is the southern capital of the North American financial colossus. Much of Latin America’s wealth is here, which you can see in the skyscrapers of its financial center; in its increasingly luxe hotels; in its traffic-clogged streets and its museums, galleries, music clubs, and restaurants; in the fresh paint on its houses; in its sleek cars and designer shoes. All this money flowing into the city, and the energy that it ignites among rich and poor, mean that with every minute in this very modern, very sophisticated capital you’re on constant sensory overload.
Mexico City has a long and fragmented history: centuries of pre-Columbian civilization followed by more than five hundred years of engagement with the white man. Everything in the city, it seems, is about change and conflict, and therefore about narrative. Take Huitzilopochtli, the typically tongue-twisting Aztec name of an old hummingbird god. You’d think he would be adorable, having started out as a little blue hummingbird that hovered at the shoulders of wandering indigenous tribespeople and led them to the high valley where Mexico City would later be founded. But to believe this would be to fall prey to Mexico’s surface allure. That dear hummingbird ended up, some three hundred years after the tribes settled in the Valley of Mexico, as a big, stone-faced, feather-wearing warrior who demanded buckets of human blood and torn-out hearts to make the sun rise.
The artist’s scenes tell unbelievable tales, but they pale compared with the baroque potboiler plotlines of Mexico’s world-renowned telenovelas, let alone the incredible stories that fill the history books and newspapers. For example: A slave girl serves as a conquistador’s translator—and then becomes his mistress and the mother of his firstborn child! True! Then the conquistador strangles his Spanish wife with a string of pearls! He is tried for the murder but never convicted! Later, a fifteen-year-old girl becomes the mistress of a close adviser to a Mexican president! After she leaves her lover, she becomes a singer and stage personality—and then the mistress of a later president! True facts! A politician puts a steep price tag on the head of a bandit, who promptly offers double the reward for that politician’s head! A Mexico City police chief runs a notorious cocaine ring! An education secretary, intending to paint over Rivera’s murals with whitewash because the artist is a known Communist, instead tours the murals alongside the subtle and cunning Rivera and calls the artist “the philosopher of the brush”! Only in wild, romantic Mexico City!
The world of the city is not magically real, as the literati might have it, but really magical.
At the end of my stay in Mexico City, I went to Xochimilco. Back in the days of Huitzilopochtli, Xochimilco was, along with Tenochtitlán, one of the island-cities in the Mexican Valley, which was almost entirely submerged. Communities relied on a system of waterways. Today, Xochimilco has the only canals that remain from this pre-Columbian network. It’s become a tourist sight, but locals also enjoy it. You come to Xochimilco on weekends or holidays and rent a boat, and you can bring sixteen or even twenty friends and buy lunch and beer and eat at the long table that runs down the center of the deck, as your silent captain, in the back, poles the boat with a long stick.
I went to Xochimilco on a weekday at sunset—a downtime hour—and chose the less active dock, the Embarcadero Cuemanco. We took off in a yellow trajinera, or flat boat, just me in the front and the boatman in the back. A returning trajinera passed ours, stocked with partiers in colorful dress. The accordion trills of banda music filled the air.
And then silence. We moved out into the canals and into history. This is where it all began. Birdsong rose up from the man-made islands that line the canals; today, some of these islands are used to grow organic vegetables and flowers. The water parted for our boat; mountains rose in the distance. A white egret with a yellow beak watched us go by, and laughter floated to us from a distant soccer game. We listened to the scraping whine of bugs.
Down the middle of a long island stood a seemingly endless series of massive electric pylons, their lines buzzing audibly with power for the megalopolis, a strange mooring for such modern technology. A black carp swam next to us. A jumping fish made a silver sparkle and disappeared.
Dark clouds gathered ahead as we turned back. This was how it was in the water world, when the early Mexicans weren’t building pyramids or sacrificing enemies. This was the peace and the quiet that could be found in Mexico City, which no longer has much of anything to do with peace and quiet.
Can’t believe I didn’t see a hummingbird.