Mexico City Journal, Part I

(Photo: Mardzpe/Dreamstime)
Notes on a southern capital

Mexico has a terrible distinction: Except for Iraq and Syria, it is the deadliest place in the world for journalists. And it is not far behind Iraq and Syria, if behind at all, really.

Anyway, suffice it to say, if you practice journalism in Mexico — particularly if you cover corruption and crime — you risk a lot. Mexican journalists are some of the bravest people in the profession.

I will write about all this later on. In the meantime, for your enjoyment (I hope), a breezy little journal, about the Mexican capital, with maybe some serious points thrown in, just for fun.

‐As you may know, William F. Buckley Jr. spent a year in Mexico City, when he was in his mid-twenties. Under the auspices of the CIA — Bill himself might put it that way — he did some scholarly work. Perhaps some other work as well. I’m not sure.

He and Pat were neighbors of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo — sharply different politics, of course.

‐Looking at a map of Mexico, my eyes fall on Tampico. You remember where Reagan was born, right? Tampico, Illinois (whose population today is just under 800).

‐There are two pieces of music in my head: El Salón México, Aaron Copland’s piece about kicking up your heels in Mexican dance halls; and “Mexico,” the James Taylor song. The two pieces jostle in my mind for a while, until Copland wins out, to the point of distraction. The music lingers and lingers (not all that unpleasantly, I should say).

‐From New York, you fly several hours to Mexico City — about five — while having to set your watch only one hour back. In other words, Mexico City is in the Central Time Zone. And it occurs to me: I’m used to flying east or west, and setting my watch a fair number of hours forward or backward. I don’t often fly a long way south, and I pretty much never fly north.

Funny thing to think about.

‐When I was in Colombia a couple of years ago, someone said “up in Miami,” which jarred me. A few months ago, a friend of mine said, “I drove down to Vermont.” That jarred me, too. Then I realized: He’s from Montreal.

‐On the plane, there’s a man with a large tattoo on his neck, reading, “Pray for me.” Arresting.

‐I notice a phenomenon on the plane: There are young parents with young children, and the parents speak Spanish while the children answer, or exclaim, in English.

‐At the airport in Mexico City, a sign says, “Bienvenidos a México: El país de hermosas playas.” “Welcome to Mexico, Land of Beautiful Beaches.” Interesting what people, and tourism bureaus, choose to emphasize.

‐The airport is named after Benito Juárez, president of the republic from 1858 to 1872. Many, many things in this country are. Think Senator Byrd (and his wife) in West Virginia.

‐As in San Diego, you land in the city — not on the outskirts. I’m told that the airport used to be on the outskirts. But then the city grew beyond it.

‐Twenty million people live here, in 16 boroughs. Little old New York has only five!

‐My experience of Latin America is not extensive, but it’s not negligible either. And I must say this: Wherever I go in Latin America, it looks like Latin America. Let me explain what I mean: It looks like a movie setting for Latin America, whether beautiful or ugly (or in between). It looks almost stereotypical. It is familiar, recognizable.

Do you know what I mean? (I realize that Latin America includes tropics, deserts, and jungles. But please allow a little generalization …)

‐Always, I am struck by the presence of Indians, and of mestizos (those of mixed Indian and European ancestry). In the United States, you can go a long, long time without seeing an Indian. There are so few, and they tend to live in pockets. The difference between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas in this regard is dramatic.

The subject of many books …

‐Man, are there a lot of street vendors in Mexico City. A lot of food carts. And, man, do a lot of people eat on the street. It must be the street-eatingest city I have ever encountered.

‐There are neighborhoods of Argentinians. And of Colombians. And of Venezuelans. And of Cubans. They have their own cuisines.

“Can you tell all of them by their accents?” I ask. “Oh, yes,” comes the answer. “They all have their distinctive Spanishes.”

‐Speaking of Spanish, or at least Mexican Spanish: Some words can be tricky to pronounce, for the English mouth. The “e” vowel is particularly tricky. Take the word “peso.” That first syllable is not pronounced “pay,” as in “payment.” Nor is it pronounced “peh,” as in “pet.” The “e” is in between — devilishly in between.

Same with the name “Pedro,” etc.

‐But back to pesos: You indicate them with a dollar sign. So, 540 pesos would be $540 — which is confusing, at first.

‐If you have a chance to go to the neighborhood called “La Condesa,” do. It is a place of refinement, color, graciousness, and fun.

‐In a park, there’s an organ grinder — a real-live organ grinder. No monkey, though. No real monkey, I mean — a stuffed one.


‐During the day, you can count on finding three kinds of people in a park — a park anywhere in the world, I mean: children (with their minders); the elderly; and vagrants.

‐You also got dogs. Mexico City must be one of the dog-lovingest cities ever. Have a look at these pooches:

‐Eons ago, when people were trying to popularize soccer in the United States, they came up with a slogan, which was a bumper sticker: “Soccer is a kick in the grass.” Well, not for everybody:

‐There is an Armenian colony here. They fled the genocide in 1915 and after. In gratitude for the refuge that Mexico provided, they erected a “water clock.”


‐Nearby is a huge bust of Einstein. Huge. It was installed in 2015, to mark the 100th anniversary of the genocide. (Let me pause to say that some don’t like the word “genocide” to be used in this case. Well, so be it.) Accompanying the bust is a quotation from Einstein — in Spanish, of course — to wit, “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to persons or things.”

‐In the stalls at midday, there is much fresh fruit, cut. It looks heavenly, honestly.

‐Rest assured, there is a Circle K — where strange things are afoot. (If you’re uninitiated, go here.) There is also a 7-Eleven. So competition is in force …

‐When I see a Domino’s Pizza parlor, I feel a surge of hometown pride — for Domino’s originated in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

‐In New York (Manhattan), my New Balance store disappeared, annoyingly. This happened several years ago. Well, there’s one here in Mexico City. There’s also a Sears — good ol’ Sears, the Walmart or Amazon of its time, which is dying at home.

‐Is Mexico City like New Jersey? I ask because, in Jersey, you can’t pump your own gas — attendants have to do it. I see attendants here in CDMX. (This is how the locals indicate “Mexico City.” Think “Ciudad de México.”)

‐On the Calzada de la Juventud Heroica — Heroic Youth Way — there are posters of moose, horse-drawn sleds, ferries, lobsters, etc. What the …? Turns out the Canadian tourism bureau is advertising.

‐They are mad recyclers here in the city, or maybe aspire to be, or think about being. Routinely, there are three receptacles, of different colors, all adjoining one another. The first is for organic materials. The second is for inorganic recyclable materials. And the third is for inorganic non-recyclable materials.

Needless to say, the contents of these bins all look the same.

‐“A los defensores de la patria, 1846–47,” it says on the vast monument, which some might regard as in the Mussolini style. “To the Defenders of the Nation,” in the Mexican–American War (as we know it in the United States).

Many times, I have written about other people’s patriotism, which can be touching, even moving. Bill Buckley was especially sensitive to this — other people’s patriotism. (He lived and traveled throughout the world.) He emphasized this point in the Panama Canal debate. He also said that those who come from the most powerful countries — e.g., the United States — should be particularly mindful of other people’s patriotism, for all sorts of reasons, including self-interest.

Hang on, it’s starting to get serious. I will break for today, and finish up this journal tomorrow. Thanks for coming along, y’all.