Mexico City: The Tour Begins

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Mexico Series: Part 2

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After being stunned by the beauty of the Huasteca, my mother and I drove on, spending a couple of days in the colonial city of Queretero in a hotel converted from one of the haciendas Cortez built for his Indian translator and concubine — La Malinche.

Of course, I had no idea who either of them were. The only conquistador I’d ever heard of in 1968 was Ponce de Leon and his crazed search through the swamps of Florida for the Fountain of Youth. So much for how great the educational system was back in the good ole’ days. Today, however, Queretero is a UNESCO World heritage site and much of its colonial splendor has been restored.

As beautiful as the countryside was, as elegant as the colonial buildings of Queretero were, nothing really prepared me for the glamor and excitement of Mexico City. I still remember descending from the mountains into the western side of the city, driving down the Avenida Reforma under palm trees, around the Diana Fountain and onto Avenida Mazaryk, where mansions lined either side of the avenue as far as the eye could see. It was Paris, Manhattan and Los Angeles all rolled into one.

Years later in a restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, I overheared a young man at the next table next trying to describe Mexico’s capital to his companions. “There are world’s within worlds there,” he told them. I borrowed his words for Palace of the Blue Butterfly because they were so true.

We lived only a short walk from Chapultepec Park where the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia is located. On my first full day in Mexico City, I walked through the park and into the Museum, and when I did, I stepped into one of those other worlds the young man at the restaurant was talking about.

When I was asked to give this talk on Mexico at a little salon we have up here I thought, where do you begin? Wil, an astronomer from UC, already lectured on Mayan cosmology, but then there’s the Mayan architecture of the classic period in Uxmal, the highland Mayas of San Cristobal de las Casas. There’s the great Zapotec City of Monte Alban near the City of Oaxaca — another World Heritage site. There’s the beautiful Baroque city of Puebla, the jewels of the Bajio — San Miguel del Allende and Guanajuato — the birthplace of Diego Rivera, and so on and so on.

Eventually, I settled on Mexico City, because it embodies all that is Mexico — it’s history, its rich cultural and artistic life, it hugeness and also, because to appreciate all those other cities one has to understand the history of Mexico’s metropolis from its pre-Columbian past to its impressive modern present.

So I began to think of this talk as more of a tour than a lecture. If I were to take you all with me, what would we do and where would we go?

I’d love to dispel the idea that Mexico is corrupt, dangerous and full of drug lords. Purely self-interest. I’d like to have readers for my novel, and if that’s what you think Mexico is, you’d never be able to believe my story.

So, future readers, let’s imagine that you’ve booked my tour — Five Days in Mexico City — and let’s take a look at our itinerary. You’ll have a different picture of the country if you come along with me.

Day One: The Museum of Anthropology and The Templo Mayor. The Conquest and Destruction of Tenochitlan.

Day Two: Coyoacan and the buildings of the first capital of New Spain, the Zocalo and the Centro Historico. The Rise of the Creole Class.

Day Three: Chapultepec Castle. Emperor Maximilian, Empress Carlotta and the French Intervention. Lunch at Hacienda Morales and a little shopping!

Day Four: Porfirio Diaz and his palaces — Palacio de Bellas Artes, the National Post Office, the Palace of Communications, now the National Museum of Art, and the buildings around Plaza Tolsa. Lunch at Girasoles and a new opera at Bellas Artes.

Day Five: The Art Nouveau buildings of the Colonia Roma, the Art Deco buildings of the Condesa and a visit to the Rosario Castellanos Bookstore where we learn about the modernist masterpieces of Luis Barragan.

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