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Discovering the Polanco Aviary

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Aviario de Polanco – Polanco Aviary

Entrada/Cost: 7pesos

Horas/Hours: Martes a Domingo 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm

Ubicación/Location

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Nevado de Toluca’s Chilly View from the Top

nevadodetoluca_mexicocitystreetsWhether you live in Mexico City or are just visiting, you should try to make it out to see the Xinantécatl volcano, better known as the Nevado de Toluca. According to the official government site of the city of Toluca, this is the only volcano in the world where the crater can be reached by car, only in the last few years, to protect the volcano’s natural environment have they blocked off the final 2K stretch to the mouth of Xinantécatl.

I’ve been twice now, once in April when it snowed and once this October when there was no snow, but it was briskly cold and windy. Both times it was beautiful. This last trip we started out with the idea that we would hike the entire rim of the crater (appx. a 3hr hike) but after about an hour of heavy breathing we decided we were satisfied, snapped some photos, had a moment of meditation and headed back.

The fog is often thick, blocking views of the Sun and Moon Lakes that sit sparkling inside the crater. When the sun does come out and the clouds lift, it’s a stunning sight.

There are several trails down to the lake shores (easier than trying to hike the entire rim) and around the inside of the crater. Bring dogs, mountain bikes, walking sticks or backpacks, but don’t forget your long underwear, the higher you go up, the cooler it gets. High-altitude runners and bikers often train on the park’s trails. Nevado de Toluca, at around 14,000 feet above sea level is double the altitude of Mexico City, so take this trip after a little acclimation in town first.

To get there: Here’s where it gets a little tricky, nothing is well marked or very clear on the way to the Nevado, but a decent gps will get you there easily.

You take the Mexico-Toluca highway (15D) till it becomes just 15 near Toluca, turn left off of the highway onto Salvador Diaz Miron until you get to Av. Las Torres (go right), after a short distance on Las Torres, turn left onto Calle Laguna del Volcán, this streets veers slightly left and becomes Lanceros de Toluca, follow it until you meet route 134 and go right. This will take you all the way to route 10 (there is a sign for Nevado, and a triangle turn – to your right are several food stands along the highway), turn left onto route 10. You will follow this along, through a small town (with lots of speedbumps) and then see a gravel road to your left that goes sharply up the mountain, take that and follow it into the park, once you have gone through the booth where you pay (20p) Immediately to your left is another gravel/dirt road that goes up to the left, follow that till you reach the parking at the top of the mountain (it is windy and full of potholes so be prepared). From Mexico it takes around 2 1/2 hours.

Make sure you stop afterwards at one of the food stand you see at the turn off for route 10 to eat some monster quesadillas and drink cinnamony, sweet café de olla.

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Russian food and old bones in Santa María de Ribera

DSCF3073I know it sounds lame, but I have never seen a dinosaur skeleton up close and personal before. So when we walked into the National Geology Museum in colonia Santa María de Ribera and I saw that giant mammoth skeleton in the entryway I got a little giddy. Ok, ok, I realize it’s not a dinosaur, just a very old, extinct animal, but I loved it anyway. Apparently the dinosaur bones found in Mexico are all found very north because this part of Mexico, the central region and the Yucatán peninsula, was a shallow water ocean (much like the Caribbean Ocean today) during the dinosaur days.There are theories that the Yucatán only emerged as a land mass because of the impact of the Chicxulub meteorite that shook the earth and, according to many scientists, sparked the beginning of dinosaurs’ extinction. Later, our Lake Texcoco (the one the city sits on top of) was a kind of watering hole for pre-historic animals passing through and that’s why many of their bones have been discovered here. (Like below the Talisman metro stop when workers were excavating it to build the station– note the symbol used for it).

 

The geology museum has mammoth bones, pre-historic horses, fossils of every  DSCF3076    kind and the fossilized remains of Ichtyosaurus, a pre-historic aquatic animal that died giving birth and her young’s skeleton rests inside of her own. There are also case upon case of meteorites, quartz, amethyst, Hematite and turquoise all lined up like sandwiches in a deli case.

 

DSCF3099The museum was originally built as the National Geology Institute and filled with researchers. Unbeknownst to many of its visitors there are a series of stunning paintings by José María Velasco Gómez hanging on the walls at the top of the entryway’s long, winding staircase. Each painting represents different stages of nature’s evolution -  I am especially fond of the depictions of marine life – and are Velasco’s interpretations of a set of black and white postcards drawn by landscape artist Joseph Hoffman. They hang beside incredible stain-glass windows, recreations of 10 different geological events in Mexico’s history.

After wandering through the quartz and the meteorites, we crossed the plaza to DSCF3061the Kiosco Morisco. This is a moorish-style gazebo reconstructed three times during its lifetime; the first to serve as the Mexican pavilion at the 1884 World’s Fair held in New Orleans, the second, to sit in the Centro Histórico’s alameda after the fair until was reconstructed once again in the Santa Maria de Ribera plaza. Its carving is beautifully intricate and still maintains its rainbow of red, yellow, blue and brown coloring.

 

DSCF3118There are two great places to eat right on the plaza, one Kolboko, the Russian restaurant that fills up with Russians and non-Russians alike on sunny Saturday afternoons. We ate chunky beet borsht with a dollop of cool sour cream on top, heavy Bajithka beers, pork goulash, and flaky honey cake. On the other side of the plaza is Los Jirafas, home of giant quesadillas so big that you get a metal hanger centerpiece on which to hang your beer (to save table space), DSCF3121served in a long giraffe-neck glass. All this in addition to one of the city’s first colonias built outside of the downtown Mexico City. A place that filled up with intellectuals and high-society moneymakers looking to get out of the hustle and bustle of busy Centro Histórico. These days the colonia is simply another neighborhood in the city, but it was once an escape to the countryside. The streets are a mix of 19th century mansions, ancient Mason Lodges, tenement apartment buildings and Mexico’s ubiquitous abbarotes shops.There are so many hidden gems with a few blocks radius that overwhelmed my lazy Saturday afternoon attitude.

Next time I’m going to visit the haunted house where pop singer Thalia grew up and find the building that was the fictional setting of La Casa de las Mil Vírgenes, a novel by Arturo Azuela populated by the personalities of Santa Maria de Ribera.

 

 

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La Merced Turns 57

The pouring rain, the noise and chaos were all worth it to see this guy:

virgin_La_mercedNeed I say more?  The band — Black Power — came all the way from Veracruz to kick off the celebration of La Merced’s anniversary.

I assumed the start of the market’s anniversary week this past Tuesday would be even more overwhelming than a regular trip to La Merced. On most occasions I get lost at least once, repeatedly wonder about competitive advantage of sixteen potato vendors all located in the same row and feel completely helpless at the sheer volume of choices when purchasing a set of knives.

Banda_Abrilena_La_mercedThe party, however, made it feel different. Somehow it scaled the market down to size for me. It felt a little like watching the Memorial Day parade on Main St. Vendors and shoppers gathered between the chicken parts and the tomatoes to watch the Banda Abrileña blow on their horns (check them out on youtube), kids huddled around the Black Power stage to dance a tight cumbia (careful to avoid the mounds of limes to their left), people strung decorations, even the virgin dressed up for the occasion.

Don Raúl at El Pollo had indigenous dancers, who filled the lunch counter area with copal smoke and stomped in time underneath huaraches and quesadillas signs. Don Raúl himself, always the gracious host, handed out agua fresca and cups of garlicky peanuts mixed with roasted crickets and dried chile de árbol.

dancers_la_mercedIt felt like we were all family for a little while.

La Merced, second in terms of size only to the Central de abastos in Iztapalapa, is known for being the city’s most famous market for bulk buying – fifty kilos of potatoes, five hundred avocados, mountains of banana leaves – they have all the regular produce you find in markets here, just in heart-stopping quantities.

Everyone is invited to their yearly party, and vendors run the show. On Tuesday some were celebrating their near miss with the electrical fire that destroyed close to 2000 stands in 2013. Some were celebrating the fact that, after over a year, the reconstruction of the burned area seems on its way to being finished, hoping they would soon be back under La Merced’s high ceilings and not in the outdoor passageways along its sides.

From Don Raúl’s cultural center (a small room above his stand), where photocopied pictures of movies filmed in the market hang on an old bulletin board, you can see the new construction area. Taped to his door is the revitalization plan in the works for the La Merced neighborhood that surrounds the market, one he believes will drastically change the colonia.

balloons_la_mercedWhen I showed up it was pouring down rain and the crowds were swerving through the market’s narrow passageways, dodging dripping plastic tarps, and darting inside the market’s covered area. Business was still in full swing, even as vendors strung balloons and passed around the tequila bottle and there was a full-on battle of bands going on as the acoustics reverberated off the walls.

From what I hear all this is relatively mild in comparison to the next few days at the market (the party lasts until the 30th of September), so if you want the experience you still have time to get down to La Merced. You will miss Black Power but you might come across something even more amazing.

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Eating Around the Block

Here are a few new places I have finally gotten around to checking out, as I collect information for my upcoming living guide to La Roma. They are all going on my eating map, COMING SOON.

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Carrez Cocina Urbana – Colima 110

Carrez has that rustic, urban vibe with wooden counters, mismatched chairs and benches with pale green pillows. I don’t know why I was struck to order the one thing on the menu that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like — the roasted veggie sandwich. I’m not a veggie sandwich kind of gal, but it sounded good (with feta dressing) and I guess I figured if they could wow me with that, everything else would be amazing. I didn’t love it — not enough feta and square chunks of roasted veggies are impossible to eat — but I am determined to give them another shot, because my juice was fresh and COLD and the service was awesome.  I will reserve my final opinion for the next meal there.

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Mikasa Asian Market Weekend Buffet – San Luis Potosí 173

I love this market any day of the week for homemade miso, imported Japanese candies and the deli’s deep-fried balls filled with various proteins, but I’ve been wanting to hit the weekend buffet for months. Last Sunday I finally joined the gobs of people that fill up the plastic outdoor tables, set inside two massive tents on either side of the market’s entrance. I was not disappointed – the ground chicken and veggie balls were phenomenal, the hard-boiled quail eggs wrapped in bacon a little weird but definitely worth the taste and the sticky rice balls appropriately sticky and delicious.

Las Costillas de San Luis – San Luis Potosí 129

Las_costillas_de_San_luisWe went to Las Costillas de San Luis just yesterday and I kind of fell in love with the place. Sit at the community tables up front and people will actually chat with you. The waiters are super friendly and the food is really good for a comida corrida joint. We tried ribs, huaraches and quesadillas. They serve you homemade beans and rice with every main dish and have three fiery salsas that taste like they just came out of the kitchen. The place has been around since 1975. Don’t let its tiny front room fool you, it’s huge, with lots of space to sit upstairs and in the back.

Comedor Romita in the Galería Garash building – Alvaro Obregón 49

I’ve been wanting to try this restaurant because I love the design of the space so much ceviche — its massive open window that looks out over Alvaro Obregón street, the loft upstairs by the grill that looks down on the rest of the restaurant, and the black and white tiled floors.  While I thought the food was good (the ceviche in particular), the portions were tiny, the prices somewhat high and the staff pushy.

La Veracruzana – Chiapas 198

The slow, whirling ceiling fans and canvas draped ceilings give La Veracruzana a touch of coastal in the middle of the city (and right off one of Roma’s most trafficked streets). The menu is almost 100% seafood and while I thought the fried fish quesadilla I had was a little greasy, the Sopa de León (oyster soup) was like dying and going to the beach. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I’d love your comments… click on the comments link at the top of the post to leave me your opinion about any of these places in La Roma or anywhere else you think I should try as I search for the best places on the block to eat.

 

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Alvaro Obregon’s facelift

bikesAll the different neighborhood groups that the city government called together to talk about their new project, agreed on one thing – they wanted the trees to stay.

“The other thing they said was bicycles,” said Rene Caro, part of the city’s public space authority, told me recently, “Even people who probably aren’t riding bikes – seniors citizens for example – all agreed that eco-bici and bicycles in general had an important place on the avenue.”

 

The Project

These snippets were part of a discussion about the city’s planned revamp of one of La Roma’s most important avenues, Álvaro Obregón – home to the majority of the colonia’s nightlife and also a lot of its daily chaos. Groups of neighbors with varying interests formed a part of a series of 4 workshops that the city government held to get feedback about the planned project and find out what was important to people about the avenue. The obvious issues raised their ugly heads – parking meters (one side of Obregón has them and the other doesn’t), dogs (some neighbors want dog parks, the others want no dogs allowed), street vendors (are they providing a service or adding to the chaos?) and noise (bars and restaurants, motorcycle gangs).

According to Caro, and the official project proposal, what’s first is a revamp of the trashcans_alvaro_obregonphysical area. That means fixing the streetlights, repaving the sidewalks, treating sick trees, renovating the fountains and (I hope) adding more trashcans. This will all begin after the first of the year.

The second phase of the project will be a little trickier.

 

The Long Arm of the Law

“What we’re not short on is rules,” says Caro, “the problem is enforcement.”

The project’s second stage is getting businesses and residents to follow some of the city ordinances already in place. That means restaurants are limited on the amount of tables they can have on the sidewalk (and what they can have can’t block pedestrian traffic), it means clubs and bars have to respect noise limits, it means residents have to pick up after their dogs. It also means that most sidewalk vendors will have to go.

This last issue is a particular bone of contention, with one side abhorring the vendors and the other side applauding their utility. For many people, their removal will be one more example of gentrification in La Roma.

But Caro says that along with vendors’ utility come issues of legality, mobility on the sidewalks and the trash that street markets and lines of vendors are notorious for leaving behind.

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“It’s all about creating a balance,” he says. “We’re never going to lose this culture of buying and selling the street, but we need to organize it in such a way that street commerce respects the space of the other as well.”

Win, Lose

As a resident of this neighborhood I hate the idea of reduced sidewalk seating at my favorite restaurants and I don’t agree with kicking vendors off Álvaro Obregón – they not only add to the vibrant street life of the city, but fill the streets with onlookers, an important part of making them safe, especially at night.

BUT on the other hand, it would be nice if the sidewalks were clear for disabled residents, if I had a place to lock up my bike and if the streetlights worked.

“We complain a lot about the government and its corruption and ineptness,” says Caro, “ but when it comes time to follow the rules ourselves we refuse. This creates a vicious circle of blame. We all have to learn how to become responsible citizens.”

Later we talk about Mayor Mokus of Bogota and his famous experiment in the 90s where neighbors were given red and yellow cards to flash at each other when they caught someone doing something wrong – cutting someone off in traffic, throwing trash on the sidewalk. Psychology and perception have a strong influence over how we act on the street. We’ll have to wait and see how Álvaro Obregón’s facelift changes the neighborhood (and the neighbors) – for better or for worse.

 

 

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Who Occupies La Roma?

Update: This article has been modified from its original version to more fully explain the situation that occurred at Merida #90 in the Roma Norte.

Every neighborhood changes. People move in and out and back again with shifts in politics, prices and prejudice. It’s often hard as a newcomer to truly appreciate the evolution of the past two years, ten years, or half century of streets where you live, but it’s important history for understanding the social fabric and politics of a location.

jane-jacobs_2I have a particular obsession with the elements that make cities livable, a passion  ignited by my first reading of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs.

In this urban planning bible, Jacobs evaluates why certain cities (and individual neighborhoods within them) either flourish or fail, why some parks are abandoned and others maintained, why areas with a certain mix of buildings have a more vibrant street life.

The old and the new in La Roma

The old and the new in La Roma

In Jacob’s view, the best neighborhoods develop gradually and mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones. This kind of development allows for mom and pop shops and supermarket chains, for low-wage workers and high-class executives to all take part in the social cohesion that makes neighborhoods safe, diverse and economically viable.

Mexico City’s La Roma is an example of one of those mixed neighborhoods. It’s had a long history of poets, artists and vagabonds (including such characters as William S. Borroughs, Jack Kerouac, Remedios Varo and María Izquierdo) and has also been home to Mexico City’s high society.

Where the colonia now sits was once acres of abandoned fields just outside of Mexico City surrounding a small rural town called La Romita. In 1903, developer Edward Walter Orrin presented plans to the local city hall for the building of a suburb with wide, tree-lined boulevards and European-inspired architecture – La Roma. It was to become the home of Mexico City’s second-tier rich moving out from the historical center, who fifty years later would abandon it for neighborhoods like Polanco, Anzures and Las Lomas.

In the past few decades the neighborhood’s location, architecture, and social scene has made it once again the place to live.

According to Ricardo Nurko, an architect who lives and works in La Roma,”Six or seven years ago this place was abandoned at night, no one was in the street past eight o’clock and to be honest, it wasn’t that safe to walk around after dark. Now look at it!”

Converted Space

Converted Space

That said older residents and some new ones are concerned that while gourmet restaurants, hipster bars and delightful outdoor cafes have provided La Roma residents with plenty of nightlife, they have also brought higher rents and a new population of residents with no long-term memory of the neighborhood.

Talking to some of those neighbors is what pushed me to investigate the housing and history of my new home and part of what prompted Nurko and photographer Livia Radwanski to study the neighborhood’s process of gentrification. Nurko and Radwanski set out in 2012 to map out what percentage of Roma’s buildings were new, how many had been taken over, or “occupied” by residents and how many could be considered gentrified. What they found were some interesting statistics, a complicated web of neighborhood politics and a tenuous sense of ownership for some of the neighborhood residents.

DSCF1777Gentrification is generally thought to be an increase in rents or home prices due to higher-income earners moving into an area that was previously working class. These new residents (and the businesses that either follow or attract them) can slowly drive out long-term residents. It’s a common pattern in big cities across the globe; most neighborhoods go from lower to higher income and back again at least once during their lifetimes.

Nurko and Radwanski’s interest in the changing housing landscape of the neighborhood was piqued by a particular situation happening at Mérida #90. Some apartments in this building (that were damaged by the 1985 earthquake) were being occupied by a group of tenants. They were in the middle of a legal battle with the owner when Radwanski moved into a building across the street. Radwanski wrote a book about what was happening there called Merida90 and it became the catalyst for she and Nurko’s broader, joint project later on.

Before you read the term occupied and immediately envision militant squatters huddling around trashcan fires, you must understand that in most cases buildings were occupied by residents already living in them.

This is how they came to occupy them as explained by Nurko: The process was directly related to two major moments in the neighborhood’s history. The first was the rent freeze law put in place after World War II by president Manuel Ávila Camacho in order to control inflation. This law made the neighborhood virtually rent controlled until the 1990s. Property owners claimed that the rising cost of maintenance and taxes were no longer covered by what they could charge in rent. In many cases owners simply abandoned their buildings, leaving them to either be taken over by the residents already living there or occupied by outside groups.

The second major factor was the 1985 earthquake that rocked Roma and left a wake of destruction in the form of dilapidated and unstable buildings. Many of these buildings were also abandoned by owners with no money to repair them.

Some occupations of abandoned or damaged properties were led by political groups. They organized residents to take over the buildings, providing them with housing in exchange for political loyalty. Much of the money flowing into the buildings’ renovation and the renovations themselves depend on political sway and control.

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According to Nurko, as the real estate boom has hit the Roma in the last five years or so, many children and grandchildren of the original owners of these buildings have come back to claim their property. In certain cases the government has interceded to purchase the properties and offer residents avenues to secure right of ownership.

It doesn’t always turn out the way tenants expect.

In the case of Mérida #90, residents petitioned the government to expropriate the building because the original owner was no longer around or keeping up the building. The government won expropriation and had five years to remodel the building before the original owner technically had the right to reclaim it. The government drug its feet, waiting until almost the entire five years where up and the residents, right before the deadline was about to expire, hired a lawyer to fight for their right of ownership, using the dignified housing defense which is part of Mexican law. They won their case, but were forced to move anyways as the government began the remolding process. It’s now been four years since the renovation began and families are still waiting to return to their homes. Most living in the periphery of the city, unsure when they will be able to return.

Complaints fly from both sides about occupied buildings, from families who depend on these buildings for affordable housing and others who see the buildings as eyesores and wasted potential. What is not often discussed is that these buildings are an integral part of La Roma’s social cohesion. They not only serve as a barrier to further physical gentrification of the neighborhood, but also provide space for lower income, long-term residents who play an important part in conserving Roma’s economic, political and social diversity.

Through their research, Nurko and Radwanski found that of the neighborhood’s entire area, public parks and green space constitute 3%, new residential buildings (built after 1990), 12.3%, occupied buildings 4.7%, and properties converted into shops or restaurants (their definition of “gentrified”), 2.77%. A stroll around the neighborhood will show you that the percentage of gentrified and new residential properties is only going to continue to rise as long as La Roma continues to draw investors with its growing economy and attractive cultural atmosphere. According to this business insider piece, La Roma as a neighborhood compares with some of the most gentrified U.S. cities, like San Francisco with 13% gentrified land and New York with 18%.

LEVANTAMIENTO COLONIA ROMA2013

According to Nurko, he and Radwanski’s project was conceptualized as a way to bring awareness to the issue of gentrification in this neighborhood, not an explicit political statement about what the solution should be. They believe that the statistics they discovered are important to look at as La Roma decides what kind of a neighborhood it will be and how it will develop in the future.

“I know that as a resident of the Roma, whether new or old, it’s easy to just go to your favorite coffee shop or restaurant and simply not be aware of what’s happening here. We just wanted to force people to see it,” Ricardo explains.

Healthy cities are organic, spontaneous, messy, complex systems, says Jacobs in her book, but they are also cities where city planners, politicians and neighbors all have a say in the future of their space. Neighborhood evolution is inevitable, but it may be worth thinking about how we want it to happen.

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Monumental Rain

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Sunday’s Game (the other one)

batter

I know that it’s blasphemous to talk about any other sport right now other than soccer, but Sunday I went to my first baseball game in Mexico, something I have been hankering for since I moved here. And the game – which when there wasn’t a chile y fruta or michelada vendor in front of me I could completely imagine I was at home watching – made me curious about the love of the game here in my adopted country.

Aquí se dice béisbol
Mexico’s big baseball influence was of course, the United States. Soldiers who were stationed here from the mid to late 1800s played the game and the North American businessmen who came to Mexico to build the first railroads around the same time started up leagues and teams for their workers.

Lots of places – Sinaloa, Monterrey, Nuevo León and others – all claim to be the place baseball was first played on Mexican soil and it seems to have been popular first in the northern Mexican states (where many local teams played against Southern US teams) and in the Caribbean and Southern Mexico with their influence from baseball-crazed Cuba and other Central American countries.

The sport’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over time. In 1904 the Mexican teams established two leagues, the Liga de Verano (Summer League) for amateurs and the Mexican Association of Baseball for semiprofessionals. Charlie Comisky brought the White Sox to play in Mexico in 1906. He came for the good weather and what he thought was a money-making opportunity (charging for exhibition games) but as William Beezley explains in his book, Judas at the Jockey club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico, “The crowds remained small, probably because of the extremely high ticket price of 3.50 a seat. The equivalent of seven pesos was nearly three times the cost of a seat in the sun at the bullring.”

In 1925, the Mexican Baseball League was established and continues today as an AAA minor league. Its founding was followed by a surge in excitement over baseball in Mexico, that petered out in the 40s and came back full swing in the late 1950s. According to MLB.com, the renewed interest was in part because of Mexico’s Monterrey Little league team winning the 1957 Little League World Series and putting the spotlight back on baseball south of the border.

Those Devilish Defeños
The Diablos, Mexico City’s team who were originally called The Reds, got their nickname when they “played like devils” in a 1942 game – coming back from a 13-7 ninth inning to win the game 14-13. The team has won 15 championships since they were founded in 1940 by Salvador Lutteroth and the famous Diablos manager Ernesto Carmona. Their original rival team was the Blues of Veracruz but in later years they have sparred most with Los Tigres of Quintana Roo (the league’s current champion), going up against them in various play-offs and championship games.

On Sunday we saw the Diablos play against the Olmecas from Tabasco. The Foro Sol, where they have been playing since 2000, was filled with noisemakers, doughnut vendors, beer hawkers and kids with tiny baseball mitts looking for a fly ball. It reminded me of the many minor league games I’ve watched the Charleston Riverdogs and the Asheville Tourists play. Although the crowd was small, they were dedicated. The Diablos started out with a run and continued to steadily score in almost every inning, knocking out two home runs, and ended up winning 12 to 7.

There are a handful of things I miss about my home country and summer baseball games is one of them. There is nothing like spending a Sunday summer afternoon watching baseball and having a beer in the sun, but it’s even better with salsa music and tacos. The Diablos made have just made my summer.

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Ablution on the go and a circus tent cathedral

In Mexico, anything is possible. Even a drive-up blessing.

basilica

During my parents’ recent visit, as a curious ex-Catholic is bound to be, my mother wanted to take a field trip to see the Tilma de Juan Diego with its miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it.

I suppose miracles never lose their magic in our minds, especially ones we listen to reverently as children. Spend even a little time in Mexico and you will often hear the story of Juan Diego, so much so that I hesitate to write it down here for fear of overkill. But I will. This is for all of you non-Catholics who have never been to Mexico and have no idea why a star-spangled virgin with a moon at her feet is plastered all over hats, t-shirts, bumper stickers and birthday cakes.

juan diegoAccording to the legend, in December of 1531, Juan Diego, a poor peasant, encountered a beautiful woman on the hill of Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City. She spoke to him in Nahuatl (the indigenous language of the Aztecs) and told him to build her a temple on the hill. When poor Juan Diego went to see the archbishop of Mexico City, Father Juan de Zumárraga, and told him about the apparition, the archbishop refused to believe him, asking for a sign if the virgin truly wanted her temple to be built there. When Juan went back to the hill, saw the virgin again and told her what the Father had said, she told him to go to the top of the hill and pick some Castillian roses (out of season and continent) and carry them to the archbishop in his cloak. He followed her instructions and as he lay the roses before the archbishop an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appear on the front of his cloak.

And then there are other theories.

Mainly that this virgin, with her honey-colored skin and Nahuatl speech was the Catholic church’s peace offering to the indigenous converts of Mexico. The old, “give them their own virgin” ploy to win their loyalty. Historians say the devil is in the details. One hand of the virgin is darker and full, the other paler, clasped together to signify the Europeans and indigenous joining together to form a new race. She is standing on a half moon. The origin of the word Mexico in náhuatl is metz-xic-co, which means “from the navel of the moon,” the virgin is therefore standing, literally in Mexico. Her cloak of stars represents the southern and northern constellations (on the right and left side respectively) which were extremely important to the native peoples of Mexico. I could go on, but you get the idea. She was a virgin people could relate to, one of them.

This miraculous cloak is housed in the Basílica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, just a short metro ride from my house. So naturally, we went to see it.

I didn’t know beforehand, of course, that this would be the ugliest cathedral I globoswould ever set my eyes on. The basílica looks like a giant circus tent, with seventies wood paneling on the inside and a hideous front altar made with what looks like sharp spikes of gold. We wandered into a Mass and didn’t see the Virgin anywhere, so we decided the cloak must be in one of the other, older, more beautiful churches in the Virgin of Guadalupe complex. There are five churches here and one up on the hill, none of which have clear information about them posted anywhere. Is this the temple built to Virgin or to Juan Diego, the parochial offices or the baptismal? The museum sign is nowhere near the museum entrance and two dark staircases announcing comedores were decidedly foreboding in nature.

Maybe a native speaker would have been able to sort it out easier or maybe growing up Mexican your mother or grandmother takes you to the basílica for the first time and explains the layout.

There is an Aztec Calendar in the back part of the courtyard along with a Roman Numeral clock, an astrological clock and a few other clocks thrown in for good measure.

Mexican Catholicism has always been a mix of official and not-so-official imagery and rituals. But an explanation or two would have been nice.

sinking basilicaThe original basílica (we figured that one out), in contrast to the new version, is gorgeously ancient and slightly off balance. The church is slowly sinking like so many other things in Mexico City, but still has the most charm of all the buildings on the square.

I finally asked a lady selling medals inside the old basílica where the original tilma was because I was pretty sure it wasn’t the one going virtually unnoticed as the midday prayer group chanted their prayers. She confirmed it was in the new basílica but that it was up front in a frame and that’s probably how we had missed it.

So back to the circus tent. By this time the Mass-goers were filtering out and we could get closer to the front altar, where a million miles away we could see a teeny, tiny framed image of the Virgin, who could have been Cher for all your could see of her from that distance. If with my zoom lens I couldn’t get a good shot of the Virg I could only imagine how people were faring with their iphones as they posed in front of the distant virgin for a snapshot souvenir. Suffice it to say, we were all disappointed.

virgin at the altar

I expected a continuous line of pilgrims slowly passing the virgin, pausing a moment to pray or light a candle, more solemnity, less iphone. This was the coldest expression of faith I had ever seen in Mexico – a place where people reenact the crucifixion, bloody Christ and all. It all seemed a little too hands off.

Regardless of its sterility, this church is one of the most visited Marian sites in the world, and I am sure is number one in Mexico. It was definitely hopping when we were there.

If none of the five churches or a visit to the Virgin fulfill your need for sanctification you can always stop by the blessings booth on the way out, where a priest stands all day long with an extra-long aspergillum and sprinkles visitors with Holy Water. It’s amazingly quick and convenient.

@MexCityStreets

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