Great Escapes

02.10.14

Mexico City’s Magical Moment of Resurgence

One of the great capitals—a city where the ancient lives alongside the cutting-edge, a place with a formidable art scene and an extraordinary food culture—is finally having its day.

by Amy Wilentz

One late summer afternoon in Mexico City's Condesa neighborhood, with the sunlight falling through the leafy streets, I sat at a sidewalk café and watched the scene around me: A couple of young businessmen climbed into a waiting car and took off into the rush-hour traffic. The tamale man was pedaling by, his tricycle cart loaded with a shining aluminum vat, offering up his wares to the neighborhood with a nasal, high-pitched chant that's a virtual national anthem: "Tamales oaxaqueños," he sang out over and over, "tamales ricos." A housekeeper came out to buy some, wiping her hands on her apron. Down the street, two long-haired dachshunds on a leather leash sniffed and tussled, while their owner typed out texts on her phone. A burly man in a business guayabera was quarreling on his phone in Starbucks, while his attendant, all but ignored, watched his car, bought him a pack of cigarettes, gave him a lighter, brought him a newspaper. On Michoacán, people were gathering in bars and cafés. Next door, in a bright-white shop, two little blond girls were buying homemade ice cream. The shoe shine man had two clients waiting. Evening was on the way.

Filled with the bustle of commerce on every conceivable level, Mexico City is overcrowded, dirty, and raucous, but also lush, extravagant, exotic, and seductive. It's also one of the calmer enclaves in the country...if, that is, you can call what is by many counts the third-largest urban agglomeration in the world and by all serious estimates among the world's ten largest metropolitan areas an enclave. Still, calm it is: The drug traffickers who have been so violent and public in other parts of the country are rarely visible here. The reason for this, according to Carlos Puig, a commentator for Milenio, a Mexico City newspaper and television network, is that it is in the people's interest to keep the capital safe. "Everyone wants to be able to come here," Puig said. "This includes the drug traffickers. Some live here, some have family here, some have businesses here, and they all want to be able to visit in peace."

“And like the tamale man's chant, this exotic food is Mexico itself: a statement of sovereignty and a restatement of all Mexican history.”

Like many residents of the Distrito Federal—or D.F., as Mexico City is known—Puig wants to believe, and wants us to believe, that "Mexico City has nothing to do with the rest of the country." And perhaps that's true. Certainly Mexico City has more in common with Buenos Aires, Paris, and Los Angeles than it does with the Mexican countryside. Arguably what the D.F. has become—in the twenty years since Mexico, Canada, and the United States signed their controversial NAFTA agreement—is the southern capital of the North American financial colossus. Much of Latin America's wealth is here, which you can see in the skyscrapers of its financial center; in its increasingly luxe hotels; in its traffic-clogged streets and its museums, galleries, music clubs, and restaurants; in the fresh paint on its houses; in its sleek cars and designer shoes. All this money flowing into the city, and the energy that it ignites among rich and poor, mean that with every minute in this very modern, very sophisticated capital you're on constant sensory overload.

Mexico City has a long and fragmented history: centuries of pre-Columbian civilization followed by more than five hundred years of engagement with the white man. Everything in the city, it seems, is about change and conflict, and therefore about narrative. Take Huitzilopochtli, the typically tongue-twisting Aztec name of an old hummingbird god. You'd think he would be adorable, having started out as a little blue hummingbird that hovered at the shoulders of wandering indigenous tribespeople and led them to the high valley where Mexico City would later be founded. But to believe this would be to fall prey to Mexico's surface allure. That dear hummingbird ended up, some three hundred years after the tribes settled in the Valley of Mexico, as a big, stone-faced, feather-wearing warrior who demanded buckets of human blood and torn-out hearts to make the sun rise.

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I first met Huitzi at the city's National Museum of Anthropology, a bunker-like building filled with treasures from all over Mexico and set back from the rest of the city in graceful Chapultepec Park. The hummingbird god is there, weighing more than a ton, with his strange mother, Coatlicue (she whose head is two serpents, whose feet have claws, and who is wearing a necklace of the hands, hearts, and skulls of her sacrificial victims). Huitzi's sister, Coyolxauhqui, is there too—he is said to have beheaded and dismembered her after having dispatched most of his hundreds of brothers. These are the kinds of stories you hear all the time in Mexico City. The city seems to have one visible life that beats cheerfully along the sidewalks—eating tacos, drinking tequila, talking animatedly, listening to music—and then a secret parallel narrative moving along beneath the pavement.

Or take ant larvae. You might think of ant larvae as just a stage in the development of an ant. True, true. But they were also food for the Mexican tribes of old, a great source of protein gathered painstakingly from the roots of agave or maguey plants. They are still eaten in the countryside, and—this is the punch line—they're also on the menu in the best restaurants in Mexico City. Sitting in a room at swank Pujol, with black walls, white linens, and tables of rich, satisfied-looking business diners, I myself ate a larvae taco—or two. Pujol was offering a choice of tasting menus that evening: Mar (Surf) or Tierra (Turf). I did not understand that when Mexico offers you tierra, it doesn't mean just what lives on the land—it also means what lives in the dirt. And like the tamale man's chant, this exotic food is Mexico itself: a statement of sovereignty and a restatement of all Mexican history.

The mural—the country's beloved art form from the Aztecs on—is the obvious artistic expression of this tendency to turn everything into a story, to tell things from beginning to end, left to right, with all the characters represented in the fullness of place and time. The narrative mural was most famously taken up by the Mexican genius known as Diego Rivera, and when you stumble upon one of his, it's overpowering. This happened to me at the Palacio Nacional, an enormous government building on the Zócalo at Mexico City's center. It was another rainy day and I needed shelter, so I walked into the entryway and followed some other wet stragglers up a grand staircase; there was the first of the murals. Behind us was a gray run-of-the-mill day, rain pouring down in the central courtyard. Before us, glory, color, spangled grandeur, the mural so huge and continuous and lifelike that you feel as if you too are one of the characters in it. People like to say that if there was nothing else in Mexico City but these frescoes of Rivera's, the city would still be a destination worth visiting.

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