The Many Names of El D.F.: Art Capital of the Americas

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Written for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (25.4mb).

The Many Names of El D.F.: Art Capital of the Americas Between english indie rock and a naked crowd: the new Mexico City?

A couple weeks ago, on a Sunday just before dawn, 20,000 people were standing in the center square of Mexico City. It wasn’t another political protest, or even a particularly popular Catholic mass. No, they were completely naked. And they were standing at attention, saluting, in the freezing cold. It was art for art’s sake.

Later, the photographer Spencer Tunick spoke about why he picked Mexico City for his latest naked installation / photo shoot. “There’s something happening in Mexico City, it’s cultural, it’s going to explode and it’s going to be great. The greatest and newest things can come from Mexico. In my mind, the heart of Latin America is now Mexico.” The New Yorker was apparently seeing something that goes largely unnoticed to people living in the US borderlands. Mexico City, an art capital? Since when?

Some say since NAFTA. Another New York institution, the venerable Times itself, also recently cast its ears on the exploding english-language indie rock scene in the Mexican capital, and through sources cited NAFTA as being one cause of the explosion.

The theory is one that chicano poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña has been openly dreaming about since the early 1990’s––that along with endless KFC’s, Micky-D’s, and Wal-Marts the size of entire pueblos, we would begin to see a free flow of art and artists crossing borders and expectations. Has that time come? Has the coming of the MySpace messiah changed everything?

The energy of Mexico City has always been obvious and overwhelming. “This city is a universe,” says Pilar Rodríguez Aranda, a video artist and writer currently living in Coyoacán, a neighborhood on the southside. The city is so many things at once, and each can be seen through its many names. It is el DF, el distrito federal, the government center, just as DC sets Washington apart from the rest of the nation. It is also chilangolandia, an ego-centric metropolis, cosmopolitan and hip.

It is also––as Pilar calls it––el DFectuoso, the defective center of a torn country. “It’s a mirror of this country so full of contradiction and injustice, of beauty and the poor masses. She’s right, in all this art-talk there’s no denying the city’s plagues. Violence against women on a horrific scale. Drug cartels––financed by sales in the US––with a boot on the neck of every level of government. El narco even recently helped give Mexico the dubious honor of being labeled the second most dangerous nation for working as a journalist––second only to Iraq.

El DF is also of course locked in a perennial arm-wrestle with Tokyo for the right to call itself the biggest city in the world, which is perhaps how it inspires the obsession and envy of other metropolises like New York and Los Angeles. Of course, we’ll never really know if it is literally the biggest, but does that matter? In 1961 some four million people lived in the city. Now, it’s anywhere between twenty and thirty million––take your best guess.

José Manuel Mendoza, an intellectual of many disciplines and native to the city, puts it this way. “[In the middle of the twentieth century] Mexico City represented for the rural poor what the United States does today. It was the land of guaranteed opportunity.” Which of course sparked massive inward migration from the provinces.

Despite all of the comparisons between NYC an LA, there is one fundamental difference to el DF. While New Yorkers and Angelenos have a clear tendency to think they live in the center of the universe, chilangos have evidence, at least as they see it. Over half of the  population of the entire nation lives in Mexico City, and when people in other states refer to it, they usually just call it México. Even more shocking is the history of that demographic. From the Classic Mesoamerican Era onward––long before the arrival of any conquistadores––city-states like Teotihuacan (100 BC-650 AD) and Tenochtitlán (1325-1521 AD) had always been the cultural and popular focus of the region, often holding more people than the rest of the Mexican land-mass combined. 

The word Mexico itself comes into play here, and its original meaning in náhuatl. Mé, meaning moon. Xi, navel. Co place. The place of the moon’s navel. So you could say Mexico City has its own center-of-the-world complex. Maybe any good city worth its weight in concrete does. One of the original Spanish conquistadores, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote that pre-conquest Mexico City––the Mexica capital known as Tenochtitlán––was the most marvelous city he had ever set eyes on. Four times bigger than Sevilla, the largest city in Spain at the time, Tenochtitlán was a shining city built on a series of platforms and islands in a lake surrounded by 15,000’ volcanoes.

Little by little the Spanish drained and filled in the lakes, and built a Catholic church atop every Mexica temple they could find. Which brings us to the earthquakes. Every great city has its origin myth, and each its dark prophecy. For Manhattan, it’s the bay rising twenty feet. LA has the San Andreas and Hollywood, both tempting fate. But el DF is sinking. Its sandy conquest-era foundations can’t support the mestizo jewels of architecture built atop it. As the city sinks, it shakes, settling back down into the earth. And when the fault lines that run through the Sierra Madre––San Andreas’ southern cousin––sends shakes, it’s always el DF that feels them most.

So this city is a little like everywhere, ephemeral and blissfully doomed. Making art in the meantime and fighting for enough to go around. Abortion has been legalized and American Apparel runs a culture rag called Mexico City Monthly. As Pilar says, “it’s natural that in a city this size there are ‘important’ things happening.” But is it natural for 20,000 people to be standing naked at dawn in front of the national cathedral? Entirely. This is the center of the moon’s bellybutton.