Friday, December 23, 2011

Pictures from Mexico City: The Basilica, and the Centro Histórico

A market stall for a vendor of Christmas lights in La Merced, Mexico City's enormous downtown market for foodstuffs and household items. Yes, those are the real colors. Yes, they were all flashing in various ways. Yes, the display was potentially seizure-inducing. And yes, it's things like this that make me so fond of this basket-case of a city. Click on this and the following images to enlarge. All pictures taken by the Mrs.

For some time now, I've wanted to re-visit Mexico City on December 12th, which (as long-time readers of this blog have often been reminded) is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint and an iconic figure throughout the Americas. More often than not, though, logistics (here understood as the confluence of money and a 12th free of contractual obligations--exams and submitting final grades) made that trip improbable, if not impossible. This year, though, was to be different: Back in September, the Mrs. had a case of that weird sort of homesickness one can feel for a place that one has only visited once before; I had a look at the calendar and saw that I'd be giving my last exam on a Thursday and the 12th would fall on the following Monday; and after a quick perusal of flights via Expedia (and seeing that DFW-to-Mexico City flights on the 11th were already almost full) and telling myself that I'd have to be disciplined about grading if I didn't want to end up reading research papers on the flight down, I booked a five-day round trip and a stay at the same hotel (small rooms, but centrally-located, clean and cheap) that we'd stayed in three years before. Cut to Finals Week: I got my last grades turned in early Saturday morning; we packed; the Mrs. armed herself with a couple of good camera lenses that she rented; and very, very early on Sunday the 11th we drove to Dallas to catch our flight.

We had three main goals on this trip: 1) Visit the Basilica on the 12th; 2) Be a little more selective about where we ate some of our meals; 3) Relax. The first went well, though, due to what I assume were crowd-control measures (the Metro station closest to the Basilica was closed that day), we had to walk from what used to be the station closest to the Basilica--not all that far, but I got us a little turned around both in the station and out on the street. Also, due to the earthquake that had occurred on Saturday the 10th (no damage in the city, but power was knocked out in places), the number of pilgrims was much reduced. As you'll see below, though, there was still plenty to see.

Pilgrims entering the main gate that gives onto the plaza in front of the Basilica. In the background you can see La Avenida de Guadalupe, which, for blocks and blocks and blocks, is a solid mass of people either heading toward the shrine, leaving it, or wanting to sell just about anything you can imagine to either of the other groups.

A good shot of the interior of the Basilica, taken from just inside one of the entrances. To get a sense of the scale of this space, click to enlarge the image, then look just to your right and below the red of the Mexican flag; there you'll see a priest standing at a small lectern, delivering the homily while we were there. The only Catholic worship space that can hold more people is St. Peter's in Rome.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, taken from behind and below the altar in the Basilica. (The flag is not usually there, but the 12th is a national holiday in officially-atheistic Mexico.) In this space, there is a moving walkway that allows visitors to see and take pictures of the image without disturbing Mass (too much).

A pilgrim honoring a promise to the Virgin that if she honored his petition to her, he would walk on his knees to her shrine.

A group of pilgrims from the state of México (the state immediately to the north of the Distrito Federal, Mexico City's location) gathered in front of the original Basilica.

In the picture above, you can see that many of the pilgrims are dressed in elaborate Indian costumes. Ever since the beginnings of the honoring of the Virgin (this year, incidentally, is the 480th anniversary of her appearances to Juan Diego in 1531), indigenous ritual has been a prominent feature. Juan Diego was himself a devout Indian convert to Christianity, and the Virgin appeared to him as a mestiza; moreover, there's been a long-running debate over the extent to which (if, indeed, at all) the cult of the Virgin has appropriated rituals pertaining to Aztec deities. So, in and of itself, the presence of penitents dressed as Indians was not at all unusual; indeed, on my first visit to the Basilica on the feast day, I saw a fair number of them, but they were dressed very simply, as I recall. On this visit, though, I was struck by both the sheer number of these people and the elaborateness of their costumes. The pictures below are just a small sampling from the dozens the Mrs. took that day:

What follows here is some really superficial and underinformed speculation. I think that for a variety of reasons, indigenous issues (always a presence in Mexico, especially in the central and southern regions of the country) are particularly visible nowadays. Here in the States, we're familiar with the all-out war amongst the drug cartels and the Mexican government against them; less well known, though, is that the Zapatista Movement is still organizing indigenous peoples in various forms of resistance to the government and that paramilitary groups, with the tacit approval of the government, are capturing, beating and killing prominent indigenous community members. One such killing, according to a handbill given to us one night, had occurred earlier this month in the state of México--andthis cross, one of dozens set up in the Alameda in the heart of the city and likewise protesting recent atrocities in the state of México, was another, sobering reminder that for many, many people in Mexico, these are dark times. Given all this, then, it's hard to imagine a safer--and more appropriate--place for quiet affirmation of indigenous peoples than the Basilica, at least for the days surrounding the feast day. The Virgin appeared to an Indian, and as a mestiza at that; Miguel Hidalgo used a banner with the Virgin's image as his flag when he led his armies against the Spanish. She may yet again become--or perhaps already is becoming--a uniting symbol for Mexicans confronting these dark times.

More pictures from elsewhere below the fold.

What follows are cheerier pictures and reflections on what we saw.

Francisco I. Madero Street at dusk. Once a busy one-way street running from the Zócalo (the city's enormous main plaza) to the Alameda (a large park-like space half a mile away), it's now a pedestrian mall.

One could make the argument that no city should have 20 million people, but Mexico City's location makes it especially ill-suited for its size. Sitting well inland in its bowl-shaped valley over 6,000 feet high, rarely visited by prevailing winds of any real strength, whatever comes out of its smokestacks basically just sits there over the city. Back in the '80s, its air pollution was so bad that the U.S. considered its embassy there a hazardous-duty post; on my visits there while living in Durango back in those days, I certainly saw plenty of evidence to justify that designation. But things have slowly changed for the better since that time. There was still some smog, but nothing like the old days. Those older, dirtier-burning cars and trucks have left the roads. The city has greatly expanded its subway system and is also adding above-ground light rail systems that extend beyond the terminuses of the subway lines into outlying areas. It's in the process of building a bus system that runs in dedicated bus lanes along major arteries--thus, these buses won't be as susceptible to the city's traffic snarls as regular buses are. Just in the time since the Mrs. and I were last there, dedicated bike lanes have been installed, along with stands that rent bicycles that we saw lots of people using. And, as in the picture above, some streets have been converted into pedestrian malls.

Scenes from the Zócalo, which is decorated for Christmas and filled with people and activities (ice-skating rinks, a small fairground, dancers and singers) for the holidays.

El Palacio de Bellas Artes (The Palace of Fine Arts), which sits at the east end of the Alameda.

If there's one regret I had about this trip, it's that we didn't stay quite long enough to see the Alameda really geared up for Christmas. During the last two weeks of December, people set up elaborate Christmas-themed stands complete with their own Santa Clauses for kids to climb on and have their picture taken, and the park fills with food vendors selling Christmas tamales as well as more traditional street food. It's a joyous chaos of lights and smells and sounds, especially at night. But all in all, I think we did all right on this trip.

More pictures to come, these of some monuments and La Merced.


R. Sherman said...

This post reminded me of those of yours discussing the role of Virgin in Mexican/New World culture. I need to reread those.

But thanks for this one and the photos. I'd love to see it in person.

BTW, the market stalls remind me of the Christkindlmarkts in Bavaria this time of year. Same lights and vibrance. Same life.

It's something we don't have here, along with the introspection which should be a part of the season.


P.S. See Christmas Greetings below.

John B. said...


Thanks for the kind words.

Re its color and vibrancy: I think that's the surprising thing about the city: Seen from above, the spectacular post-'86 quake glass-and-steel skyscrapers notwithstanding, Mexico City's skyline isn't awe-inspiring. It's very built up, for miles and miles away from the city's center, but the vast majority of those structures are no more than a few stories high, even right downtown. You can stand in the heart of the city and, air quality permitting, easily see the surrounding mountains to the north. That's pretty cool; but, it must be said, the city's real appeal is at street level, in more ways than one.

Anytime you and yours want to visit there, let me know. I'd happily tag along to help out.

John Jenkinson said...

AAAAH! I wanna go back! Great photos, at least in terms of igniting my always smouldering love of Mexico. I'm not a photographer, and can't address the technical aspects of the art, but these are certainly lively and vibrant pictures, with intense color, at least on my computer. I love that stoopid city!! Seriously, I loved it in the 80's also, so what's wrong with me??! Bravo!