Monday, August 29, 2011

LA GLORIETA DE INSURGENTES: From metro stop to open-air museum?

When I first visited Mexico City in 1989 I found myself in a taxi driving in a circle, overlooking what appeared to be a set for a movie about the apocalypse, or an enormous, circular pin ball machine. I clutched my seat and watched wide-eyed as cars sped into the swirling traffic from multiple entry ramps, lights flashing, horns honking, all of it dwarfed by a towering image of a Coca-Cola bottle and massive billboards. It was frightening and fabulous, a one-ring urban circus.

(Note the Porfirato buildings at the far right, a hint of the past.)

I later found out that it was called the Glorieta de Insurgentes, a huge roundabout built in the 1960's at the edge of the Zona Rosa, right in the heart of Mexico City. In the pit below the traffic circle is the entrance to the Metro Insurgentes and one of the city's busiest bus stops. It's estimated that a million people a day pass through the Glorieta.

The glory days of the Glorieta--if there were any--have passed. It's a big architectural wart now, surrounded by porn video stalls, a school that offers free haircuts, a shop selling sexy disco outfits, a clinic where you can see a doctor for 25 pesos. There are some interesting Mayan style relief tiles at the metro entrance, but that's about the only attractive thing there is. In spite of it all, the place has a compelling energy I've always loved, especially as the sun sets and street lights add their disorienting effect.

This plaza has lots of potential, but it falls short of being a truly great, glitzy urban space like New York's Times Square, London's Picadilly Circus, or Tokyo's Ginza. There's not enough beauty to make it really good, and not enough ugly to make it really 'bad' (in the Michael Jackson sense).

The city keeps trying to eliminate billboards, but I think the place needs more of them, not less, along with some flashing neon and strobe lights, maybe a fountain or two, or a ferris wheel like the one in downtown Osaka.

We now have bike paths, pedestrianized streets, a projected 'high-line' elevated park. Thomas Glassford, an American artist who lives here, recently completed a project in Tlatelolco, covering an entire building in a mesh of neon lights. Mexico City is putting a lot of energy into giving itself a modern, user-friendly, makeover. It's a great time to be living here.

A new proposal is afloat to transform the Glorieta de Insurgentes. The idea is to turn it into a massive art gallery, an open-air museum, by having young artists integrate paintings, sculpture and photography into the commercial mayhem. The photo below is a digital creation of one possibility. The article
I found (see link) seems fairly vague about how all this will happen, but it's a good start. Are you listening Carlos Slim?

Article in Spanish about the Glorieta

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Pope's Blood, Part II / Bingo for Catholics

As a follow up to my previous blog post, here's a link which offers additional information about the showing of relics relating to the life of Pope John Paul II:

At the bottom of that link is another with the complete itinerary in Mexico.

I have to confess it was the blog's title, Bingo for Catholics, that inspired me to post this--who knew?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Mexico City's Best Market: el Mercado Jamaica

"I went to the supermarket today and burst into tears!", wrote my friend Dottie, having returned to Colorado after a year in Mexico. "Everything is wrapped in plastic. There are no smells of fruits or vegetables or flowers. The avocados are as hard as rocks. I miss the real thing!"

The 'real thing' she missed was el mercado, the traditional shopping venue for many Mexicans. In Mexico City neighborhoods, the tall red and green Mi Mercado sign is a familiar sight, and although statistics show that more and more suburban Mexicans are shopping in American style supermarkets, the traditional market thrives in the city.

The Mexican mercado has a long tradition. At the Museo de Antropología a diorama of a pre-Hispanic market looks remarkably like what you see today. In the Palacio Nacional, Diego Rivera’s panoramic mural shows an Aztec mercado with a butcher offering a human arm for sale—other than that, it’s still pretty much the same. Beans, squash, avocados, metates for grinding corn and molcajetes for grinding chilies, ceramic pots, baskets and woven mats are just a few of the things that connect today’s Mexican market to its Aztec predecessor.

Most market stalls are individual, family-run businesses, so there’s the intimate feel of a village in the mercado. You can still ask for 'un aguacate para hoy', a recommendation for the best melon, or get a free apple as a pilón (an extra gift). Vendors beseech you with '¿Que va a llevar?' or '¿Que le damos, marchanta?' and there's a chatty, bustling feel to the proceedings. A roaming guitar player is usually nearby to provide the soundtrack.

My favorite market in Mexico City is the Mercado Jamaica, located a few miles south of the Zócalo. It has all the variety of the much larger La Merced in the centro, slightly scaled down—but without the crowds. I take visitors here even if we’re not shopping for food—the exuberant colors and lively atmosphere make it a fascinating destination.

What makes the Jamaica market special is that, aside from the mountains of produce, it's also the city's wholesale flower market (they also sell retail at prices that will astound you.) You'll see bundles of fragrant nardos, piles of mutli-hued roses (whose petals can be bought by the kilo), armloads of gaudy gladiolas, exotic heliconias and lots more, on display.

There are formal arrangements for all occasions from baptisms to funerals. Some florists seem to have learned their craft at military school, with flowers standing at full attention. Others appear to take their clues from Frida Kahlo's surrealistic paintings, and might include apples, plastic baby dolls or even live goldfish.

Holidays are a great time to visit the Jamaica market. During Semana Santa, before Day of the Dead, Mothers’ Day or Valentine’s Day the sheer quantity of flowers is dazzling. And if you happen to need a bouquet at 4 in the morning, it’s the place to go—the market is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Wandering through the market you'll also find baskets, ceramics, tinware, fantastic costumes for children, and even an beauty parlor run by a pair of transvestites. There are great food stalls in the market as well. many of them specializing in huaraches, a corn-based antojito (snack) with a variety of toppings. And this market is one of the rare places where you can sample tepache, a traditional drink made of lightly fermented pineapple juice.

A visit to the Mercado Jamaica is much more than just a trip to the supermarket--it's time travel to a pre-industrial world, a microcosm of life in Mexico, exuberant, colorful...alive!

Getting there: The #9 metro line stops at ‘Jamaica’ and there’s a taxi sitio behind the flower market.

Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating content for the Mexico Today program.
All stories, opinions, however, are completely my own.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I've lived in Mexico for fifteen years and occasionally settle into a complacent feeling that I really know what's going on here. And then I see something like this news headline:

Capsule containing Pope John Paul II's blood heading to Mexico

and I begin to question it all over again.

The blood, displayed in a new handcrafted reliquary, along with other items relating to the pope's life, wil

l be on display in Mexico City's Cathedral from Sept. 5-9 and will travel around the country through December. John Paul II, who was beatified (first step toward sainthood) in May, has made five official visits to Mexico and is a figure of adoration here.

The connection between religion and blood--large quantities of it--has a history in Mexico that pre-dates the arrival of the Spaniards. You can find long descriptions of Aztec human sacrifice, literally heart-rending, in early missionary chronicles. Graphic images of a blood-drenched Christ are common in churches here. And of course, the 'blood of Christ' is an essential element of Catholic mass everywhere.

According to Rev. Manuel Corral, public relations secretary for Mexico's Council of Bishops, "In the perception of a Mexico plunged into terror, pain, hopelessness, anguish, vengeance and rancor as a result of insecurity and violence ... the veneration of the relics will be an opportunity for the baptized and pe

ople of good will to turn their eyes to God."

I received a Catholic education as a child, but

it did not prepare me for the Church I found in Mexico. The first clues that something was different were the crepe paper and balloon decorations I saw in a chapel in Oaxaca. The sightings of the Virgin Mary in a tortilla or on a paving stone in the metro were new to me, as were the dancers clad in Aztec attire that attend many religious festivals, and the pilgrims crawling on hands and knees to reach the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. There's a rambunctious, slightly pagan aspect to religion here, something that reaches back into the pre-Hispanic past, searching beyond the gospels, into the codices, the glyphs, to where the plumed serpent and the robed madonna meet.

The Bishops' Council has asked organized crime groups in Mexico to give the folks a break--no kidnappings, shootings or decapitations, please--in the presence of the sacred blood. Nothing else seems to be working, so why not? A lot of blood has been shed in the 'war against drugs' in Mexico. Maybe it's time to just stop and meditate upon it.

Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating content for the Mexico Today program.
All stories, opinions, however, are completely my own.