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.

Mexico's Dark December

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The beginning of a new series of Mexican snapshots for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. Not all will be this political, but it's a political time.

Ulises ya cayó y sigue Calderón –graffiti, Cuernavaca zócalo

Depending on who you ask, Arizona’s southern neighbor is either in the first stages of a nationwide class war, or just up to business as usual. Either way, December 1st looms large on the 2006 Mexican calendar. This Friday, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa is set to be sworn in as the next president of the United States of Mexico.

As with any issue, this is worth asking the taxistas about. “A grey December awaits us,” said Augustin, a middle aged taxi driver on the day that the PFP (Federal Preventative Police) entered Oaxaca city in an attempt to retake it from the APPO (Popular Assembly of Oaxacan Peoples), a movement that has controlled the city since late summer. “Things have never been this tense.”

The Oaxaca issue is the most visible flashpoint in a struggle that has been part of Mexico’s landscape since time immemorial—the peoples’ friction against a wealthy and corrupt ruling class. Primarily, the movement seeks the removal of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a member of the historically omnipotent PRI party. It is widely accepted that Ruiz is a corrupt and heavy-handed ruler, which has been evident in his dealing with the APPO. Disappearances and murders by plainclothes police officers are now common place. Ruiz is the kind of politician that many hoped would be obsolete by now, a throwback to the 1970’s and 80’s when corrupt politicians acted openly with impunity.

However, coming into 2007, Mexico is a different country. In 2000 Vicente Fox became the first president to come from a party other than the PRI. Both he and incoming Calderón are members of the PAN, a rightist pro-business party. Faced with the situation in Oaxaca, Fox displayed a startling outward indifference for many months. He waited until the situation had escalated incredibly and sent in forces in late October, his other options mostly unexplored and therefore exhausted.

Fox may have been just a little distracted. He unabashedly supported Calderón’s bid for the presidency, to the point of using millions of dollars of public funds in pro-PAN TV advertising. When the vote came back too close to call on July 2, all of Mexico’s political mind became preoccupied with the contested election. The leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has not conceded gracefully. Since lifting his occupation of Mexico City’s center in early September, his movement has lost momentum that it seeks to regain on December 1st by staging a series of massive protests. Obrador declared himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico on November 20th and has announced the creation of a parallel national government. As of yet these moves haven’t had a definite effect, but that may well change in December.

The two movements—the APPO in Oaxaca and the lopezobradoristas in Mexico City—have been quick to declare common cause against what they see as corrupt government. It can be read in the graffiti that seems to be growing from every cement crack all over the country: “Ulises has already fallen and Calderón will follow him.” Faced with a political landscape at least as volatile as that of the 1960’s, what will Calderón do when he takes charge? And what will happen December 1st?

“Nothing’s gonna happen,” says another taxista working near Mexico City. “It’s pure blah blah blah, same as always. The dog who barks loudest doesn’t bite.” He may be right. Several key dates have passed this fall without the predicted outbreak of violence and revolution. September 5th the election was called for Calderón by a national court with PAN sympathies. September 16th, Mexican Independence Day, Obrador backed down and allowed the army to stage its traditional parade. October 27th, the PFP moved into Oaxaca and an expected national outcry wasn’t nearly as strong as it might have been.

On the other hand, all of these events could be seen as stepping stones down a path that leads to more drastic events. “Just think about it,” comments Margarita, an elementary school teacher in her 60’s, “1810, Mexican Independence. 1910, the Mexican Revolution. 2010, who knows? A class war?” The possible signs are obvious: Oaxaca, the election, severe economic disparity triggering mass migration, Fox’s squandering of a magnificent and unique opportunity for change and the ensuing widespread disillusion, and the wave of left-leaning governments winning power across Latin America.

From whichever angle it is considered, December 2006 looks to be a key month in the recent history of Mexico. It’s as if millions of hands are extended to the sky all across the country, holding its reassuring blue mass over their heads. On December 1st we’ll see how many decide to drop their hands and pick up arms, in whatever form they come. And more importantly, we’ll see if without their support, that blue sky falls.

An American Poet in Mexico

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The sixth and last installment of my series of articles for The Noise. Fotos by Bart Pogoda.

Poco a poco se anda lejos. –dicho mexicano

We’re practicing personal pronouns when it pops out of Yared’s mouth. “The fan writes a circle!” he cries, fully aware that in my fourth grade classroom, we raise our hands when we would like to speak. He just can’t help himself, and his little dark fingers fly to cover his mouth as soon as the last word leaves it. “Sorry,” he says, rolling the r’s.

“That’s OK, Yared,” I tell him, and it’s moments like this that “Teacher Logan” remembers that he is actually a poet, not the elementary school teacher he has been pretending to be for the last month. Soon the class is working on illustrating the English sentences they just made up, and my pocket notebook has found its way into my hands. The fan writes a circle above the head of Yared, I write, and its verses blow all across the schoolbooks.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

How did it come to this? School books, personal pronouns and starting the days by singing the super-popular “Good Morning Song”? In the eight months since leaving Flagstaff, I’ve felt myself blown from one continent to the other, waking up in strange cities where the shadows tilt at crooked angles and riding boats and motorcycle sidecars that always seem to take me farther from home. Then, it happened in late summer: the money ran low, the wanderlust overflowed the notebooks, and lonely became more than just an adjective. It was time to settle.

I arrived in central Mexico again after almost two years with a backpack full of slightly trumped-up résumés and the familiar, strong set of ganas to again see this country from the inside out. I didn’t plan on teaching kids. But the kids had my number, and the school had the envelope stuffed with peso bills.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

At this point, I’m just another undocumented American worker supporting the Mexican economy. The school passes me those envelopes every couple of weeks, no one asks questions, and I wade further into the Byzantine, murky and antigonizing world of Mexican papeleo, hoping to one day become legal. At least for me there’s the chance of becoming legal.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

I leave our house at that moment when the night just begins to crack with the lucid expectation of dawn. While walking the fifteen minutes to the freeway, I pass the milpa where the corn has now grown to its full height. Just above it, on clear days, Popocatépetl dwarfs an entire mountain range. Glaciers still somehow cling to its summit and steam wisps from the sleeping lava below.

The bus is usually packed, maybe fifty people steated and another fifteen standing in the aisle. We’re all clinging to our last moments of calm before the long hours of trabajo, and the sleepers’ heads fall and nod like heavy fruit on elastic necks.

Meanwhile, outside of the day-to-day life of most workers and children, the country has wound itself tight into a political crisis the likes of which it hasn’t seen since maybe the Revolution itself. After nearly seventy years of rule by the PRI, (the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party) Goliath finally took one to the forehead with the election of PAN’s Presidente Fox in 2000. Now, just six short years later, PRI came in a distant third in July’s presidential elections.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

The United States seems to be the global trend-setter in more than just movies and music these days: disputed, too-close-to-call elections now seem to be de moda the world over. The leftist PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador lost to right-winger Felipe Calderón of PAN by just 234,000 votes out of some 41,000,000. But as with everything, the Mexicans had to put their touches on the trend to make it their own. In 2000 in the US, Gore fought for his cause with one foot already in the grave, and in 2004 that strange flavor of American political apathy allowed the shifty happenings in Ohio to go by uninvestigated.

By contrast, Obrador and his supporters stormed the streets, occupying the center of Mexico City for over a month. Recently, after the PAN-influenced high court ruled against him, he vowed to establish a “parallel government.” Never mind that the taxista that I rode with today called him “out of his head” and that he continues to alienate many moderate voters with his extra-governmental manuevering, the man knows how to stand his ground. And further south, in the state of Oaxaca, police and government have fled the capital city under pressure from a peoples’ movement led by—who else?—schoolteachers.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

But somewhere in between all of that, la vida ya se ha normalizado un poco—what a miracle of human adaptation that a life like this could begin to seem normal. Walking into my tiny classroom with hardly any experience to teach English to kids born in 1998 felt like a running of the bulls—except that the bulls new the ring better than I did and were somehow capable of throwing spitballs.

But the weeks pass and Mexico swollows us—surrealist Mexico at its best: our neighborhood fills with taxistas and mariposas every afternoon. The taxistas drink Coke and piss in the bushes while they wait for fares and the butterflies look mostly like delicate pieces of fax paper folded in half and given the spark of life. The neighbors across our small valley burn trash while wildflowers laugh and bloom from the rough sides of the cement streets. The woman down the way makes the greatest gorditas de flor de calabaza you’d ever taste, and occasionally some men come by in a big truck to pick up the trash from our house.

It’s like that dicho says: little by little you end up walking far. You put your head to the grind, lay down ink when you can, and the next thing you know the fan over your head is writing circles, bringing everything together. The fourth grade class has a laughing attack, the teacher does a fan-dance, and the poems spill through the bars covering the windows.

We are raising our hands and not looking back.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.