Friday, January 3, 2014

Mexico City a nibble at a time

Eight years after moving to Mexico its capital city remains an impenetrable riddle that Stew and I, who are both confirmed fans of big cities, have barely begun to decipher. Mexico City can be as grand as any European capital but also as chaotic and intimidating as any place you'd find deep in the Third World.

Last week we parachuted in for two days primarily to see a photo exhibit called "The Mexican Suitcase" hanging at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildelfonso (Calle Justo Sierra #16, a couple of blocks from Mexico City's Zócalo, until Feb. 9). San Ildefonso was built in the 16th Century as a Jesuit seminary and then underwent numerous reincarnations that included a medical school, a law school and an army barracks before being converted into a museum and cultural center in 1992.

Treasures within treasures: Murals cover most of the interior walls of
the College of San Ildenfonso. 
It's a great exhibit but when we left, near closing time, I realized we hadn't seen the rest of the museum the interior of which is covered with works by Mexico's most famous muralists. Or for that matter the Museum of the City or the Templo de La Enseñanza, located—along with a maze of dozens of other colonial buildings—within a few blocks of the show we had come to see. It may be that Mexico City is best understood and enjoyed through small, savory nibbles rather than any grand tour.

The so-called Mexican Suitcase is actually three small boxes containing 4,500 negatives of photos, mostly of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro (Capa's romantic and professional companion) and David Seymour, which had disappeared for approximately seventy years.

Even now it's not entirely clear how the boxes made their way from Capa's studio in Paris, to Marseille, and into the hands of Mexican diplomat who brought them to Mexico City where they were held, unknown, by relatives of the diplomat. A filmmaker in Mexico eventually inherited the negatives and revealed their existence in 1990. In 2007 the negatives were donated to the International Center for Photography in New York, which digitized the images and put together this exhibit.

Despite their travels around the world,
the 4,500 negatives suffered little damage. 
This odyssey of the Mexican Suitcase reminded me of that of Evita Peron's embalmed corpse, which over a period of twenty years traveled from Buenos Aires to Milan and Madrid before showing up back in Argentina.

The images in the Mexico City exhibit impressed me as remarkable for several reasons.

The trio, and particularly Capa, may have launched the entire genre of war photography as we understand it today: up close and very personal. No telephotos or second-hand reports involved here.

"If the photograph is no good it's because you were not close enough," Capa once said. In fact, all three of photographers were killed while covering wars in various parts of the world. In 1954 Capa stepped on landmine while covering the war in Indochina; Taro was accidentally hit by a tank near Madrid in 1937; Seymour died in Suez in 1956 while on assignment for Newsweek magazine.
Girl with dolls at a refugee camp. Photo by
David Seymour. 

They were close enough to their subjects alright, not only physically but politically and ideologically. There's no pretense of professional distance or objectivity. They were propagandists for the leftist Loyalists, along with an international battalion of writers, artists and intellectuals such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux, who were opposed to the fascist forces of Francisco Franco, who had the backing of Hitler and Mussolini.

To my eye, the photos in this exhibit show not just the heroic or military side of war but above all its impact on ordinary citizens, including images of bodies at a morgue, a funeral cortege, and the defeated faces of Loyalist combatants after the war was lost and they fled to refugee camps in France.

On the way out from the exhibit Stew and I ran into the monumental murals by José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera  and David Siqueiros and other Mexican muralists that cover practically all the inside walls of the museum where the photo show was hanging. Clearly we have got to come back here, to this museum and this colonial heart of Mexico City for another nibble at its treasures, which we've barely started to appreciate.
Young soldier (unfortunately I didn't jot down
who took the photo)

In fact for some time I've been hatching a secret plan to really explore the Metropolitan Cathedral by slipping one of the guides a $500 peso note so he can take us not just to the usual tourist stops but to the back rooms, nooks and catwalks of that immense structure. Bribery may not be a very moral sightseeing strategy, particularly of sacred places, but I'm sure God would understand.

Another reason to bring us back is that with a senior discount card the bus trip from San Miguel to the capital aboard a luxury bus is US$28 round trip and entrance to the museum is free. With the money we save I might raise the ante to the guide at the cathedral to $750 pesos.

A section of "The Aristocrats," a huge mural by Orozco.





















17 comments:

  1. I like that concept. Taking Mexico City in nibbles. I need to try that. On my next trip I would like to spend a week in the anthropological museum -- doing one or two rooms a day.

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    1. We are again nibbling our way through Mexico City, but it's actually food. So far, in less than an afternoon and an evening, we have discovered nothing remarkable, but we have hope.

      Our first food stop was the Hamburguesas a la Parrilla stand, at the corner of Calle Colima and Calle Morelia, Col. Roma Norte. This is a perennial favorite of ours, for fast cheap burgers. They are not really that high a quality, but the overall combination works very satisfactorily.

      Somewhat later, we stopped in at the new BBJ (Burger Bar Joint), on Avenida Álvaro Obregón near Hotel Milán,which defines the latest in flash hipness as well as inflated prices. We had a couple of mezcal drinks and an order of onion rings (not bad), and la cuenta was $280 pesos.

      This morning we are headed back to Bisquits, Bisquits Obregón, the original location, Avenida Álvaro Obregón at Calle Mérida, where we have almost always been pleased, despite the resemblance to a Mexican style Denny's. This restaurant received a load of scathing disrespect fro opinionated mavens and mavenesses on Chowhound.com. A mi no importe. Me gusta.

      Saludos,
      Don Cuevas

      Delete
    2. We are again nibbling our way through Mexico City, but it's actually food. So far, in less than an afternoon and an evening, we have discovered nothing remarkable, but we have hope.

      Our first food stop was the Hamburguesas a la Parrilla stand, at the corner of Calle Colima and Calle Morelia, Col. Roma Norte. This is a perennial favorite of ours, for fast cheap burgers. They are not really that high a quality, but the overall combination works very satisfactorily.

      Somewhat later, we stopped in at the new BBJ (Burger Bar Joint), on Avenida Álvaro Obregón near Hotel Milán,which defines the latest in flash hipness as well as inflated prices. We had a couple of mezcal drinks and an order of onion rings (not bad), and la cuenta was $280 pesos.

      This morning we are headed back to Bisquits, Bisquits Obregón, the original location, Avenida Álvaro Obregón at Calle Mérida, where we have almost always been pleased, despite the resemblance to a Mexican style Denny's. This restaurant received a load of scathing disrespect fro opinionated mavens and mavenesses on Chowhound.com. A mi no importe. Me gusta.

      Saludos,
      Don Cuevas

      Delete
    3. We are not big museum goers. When we went to el Museo Nacional de la Antropología in November, we stayed less than 2 hours. My brain can absorb just so much of these things. I tend to live in the moment rather than reflecting on the past.

      Although we were admitted free of charge with our INAPAM cards, after 3 visits in all, I don't need to ever go there again.

      Así es.

      Saludos,
      Don Cuevas

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    4. Stew and I are not huge museum goers either, as in that type of person who can spend hours and hours. We tend to spend just a two or three hours and we usually rent one of those recorded guides otherwise we may not understand what the heck we're looking at. The ideal of course would be to find a guide who can walk with you.

      I must confess we need to get over the fear of eating from street stands; Except for the "tacos de cabeza" which I'm not touching, most of the rest of the stuff looks and smells great. Thanks for the tips.

      al

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    5. I've found that taxi drivers know which stands to eat at and which to avoid. There are some good ones near El Monumento de la Revolución.

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    6. I got caught up with the smell of a hot dog--not chancing that again, though it tasted delicious, at the time. BBQ chicken is a favorite. And pork tamales when I see a long line for them. Yum

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  2. As you probably know, it is the city with the most museums in the world. Mexico City began my love affair with Mexico forty years ago. It is enchanting, beguiling, surprising, surreal and infuriating. I LOVE it!
    (I so hope this posts, the last three comments never did)

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    1. Babs: As you know, I love you and I do publish your comments and if they're not showing up I don't know where they are going. I have noticed though, a significant amount of spam filtering in as "comments". The grammar and spelling are not native but I don't know where they're coming from.

      Al

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    2. Honestly, I relieved to see this comment posted. I was beginning to get a complex as I know I've never said anything negative or criticized anything. I so enjoy your writing and look forward each and every time you post.

      Delete
  3. Even with a series of big bites, Mexico City is a lot to see. I've been there dozens and dozens of times, and I've yet to see it all. Not only is there tons to see, but the city is physically enormous, covering hundreds of square miles. And if you start to include nearby attractions such as Teotihucán and Taxco, well you've got a lifetime of tourism within a 75 KM radius.

    If you're going to do it in nibbles, you'd best be prepared for a LOT of nibbling.

    By the way, there is a tour of the Metropolitan Cathedral's roof and belfry for 50 pesos. I'm not sure if that will satisfy your "itch," but try that before you try bribing someone. It's cheaper, and quite satisfying. If you go on a clear day, you can see the volcanoes ringing the city from the roof.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    San Francisco, CA
    Which is not exactly lacking in tourist attractions, either.

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    1. Great idea about the roof of the cathedral, though picking a clear day might be tricky even if the air seems to be getting cleaner.

      al

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  4. I think I'm going to have to find a way to fit in a trip to DF very, very soon. Do you know how long the Mexican Suitcase exhibition will be up?

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    1. The exhibit is up until Feb. 9; I just called yesterday. Monday the museum is closed. Tues it's open from 10 to 7:30 Wed thru Sun 10 to 5:30. For more information about the Mexican Suitcase, check the website of the International Center of Photography (they have special section dedicated to it) and the NYT article by Randy Kennedy, published I think in 2009. The museum being located so close to the Zocalo your best bet for lodging might be the Hotel Catedral which is rightthere. The streets around there are very crowded and hectic, so hang on to your belongings. Bring your INAPAM card for the bus fare and free admission. This is one of those times when it's actually beneficial to be OLD.

      al

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    2. Let me put a plug in for the Hotel Catedral. Great location. Reasonably priced. Nice accommodations.

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  5. OK> I'm ready to go. Next, I am hoping for a report on various markets.

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  6. I visit Mexico City frequently, and I never fail to find new places to visit. I second the recommendation that you take the tour up to the roof of the Cathedral. Chances are slim that you will see the volcanoes, but the view of the Zócalo is fantastic.
    If you are into the muralists, I suggest that you go to the Secretariat of Public Education, just a stone's throw from San Ildelfonso. Everyone goes to the National Palace to see the Rivera murals, but the SEP is chock full of Rivera's work. On the south side of the city near the World Trade Center is the Poliforum with murals by Siqueiros. He's generally not my cup of tea, but the murals inside are so massive that even I said "Wow!"

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