A friend who is a native Angeleno once described LA to me as not one place, but a thousand villages tenuously linked. Perhaps it’s just a more poetic way of defining urban sprawl, but while visiting Mexico City for the first time last month, I felt the comparison flood back into my mind. While I had a list of must-see destinations that overlapped neatly with most other US tourists (Casa Azul – absolutely worth the line), I felt the drive to hunker down in a local village or two.
A high priority was to spend some time in several of D.F.’s legendary mercados, markets where you can buy literally anything, be it a side of beef, spices, balloons, crafts, rich Micheladas that taste more like bouillabaisse than beer, delicious tacos filled with squash blossoms and barbacoa. I don’t know if somewhere can simultaneously be sprawling and dense, but there was fierce competition for the eyes. My favorite was the Mercado de Sonora, the witches’ market, where you could purchase a hex for your enemy or gaze upon Catholic shrines with equal ubiquity. Every potential need is served by an individual merchant; long-standing relationships play out across the narrow walkways.
My desire to visit Mexico was kick-started by an excellent professor. In college, I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Eulogio Guzman, a historian of the art and architecture of pre-Colombian and colonial Mexico. Eulogio’s classes were gripping; he insisted that we gringo art students learn to correctly pronounce and spell the names of the places, tribes, and deities as a matter of respect (no matter how many ‘X’s and ‘Z’s). It was my first immersion in learning about an ancient culture and I couldn’t wait to visit Teotihuacán, which we learned so much about. Making the pilgrimage was an incredible experience. The mystery that still surrounds the collapse of what was a highly sophisticated society imbues the location with a heavy weight – as does the knowledge that you’re basically standing in the middle of a gorgeous graveyard. Climbing to the top of a pyramid as high as a skyscraper, built and painted over 1,000 years ago, certainly helped to clock my existence as an insignificant blip in the universe. But it also provided a rush of adrenalin to have finally seen a place that had always seemed like a dream.
Our last evening was spent in Xochimilco, which upholds the city’s history from when canals connected neighborhoods. We took a pleasure cruise in a colorful boat down the canals, luxuriating in the greenery of the lagoons that form local backyards. On the streets, sequins and saints’ names decorated awnings to protect the community.
Decorative elements, ancient and contemporary, flourished everywhere I went in Mexico City. Far from frivolous, the colors and accents marked each location as a place – to be enjoyed, revered, witnessed. Each layer of the city’s history peeked out from behind its current iteration, sometimes joyously and sometimes heartbreakingly. The small pieces of the city I was able to visit filled me with inspiration. I am all for more decoration of and attention to the places we inhabit.