What makes a great city is not what it is, but who it is. More than the ghosts of its illustrious past, a great city must also be the real and ready smile of the present, and during this week of Bicentennial festivities, Mexico City was that and more, for all the world to see.
In eager, tri-color painted faces, frizzy wigs and flashing glasses, waving “banderas” of every description, Mexicans from all over the country filled the streets of the capital, flocking to the immense main square of the “zocalo” by the thousands, braving long but orderly security check lines with patience and good humor.
President Felipe Calderon was clearly looking to catalyze that elusive “mexicanidad,” a sense of cultural distinctiveness, when he sent a flag to every family in the country, and in a way, it worked. Not a state or a contingent was left out of the giant tapestry that is Mexico, and they came because they wanted to, college kids from Tijuana, friends and parents from Tlaxcala, grandmothers from Guanajuato, children and pets, couples and colleagues.
To unify a city of this size takes an extraordinary event, and what a show it was, without a single incident of the kind that has dominated recent negative coverage of Mexico, a tribute to the skills and persistence of thousands of organizers, officials, artists, soldiers and citizens.
With only three days in hand during the celebrations, we criss-crossed this vast metropolis in search of clues and color, of tastes, traditions, and a feel for this place where history is often right underfoot, from the “Plaza de las Tres Culturas” to the canals of Xochimilco.
There are the contrasts, of course, the old-world, cobblestone charm of Coyoacan against the gleaming steel of bank buildings along the Reforma, the sweet-spicy lime bite of a mango shaved-ice “raspada” against the flavors of this season’s patriotic dish, “chiles en nogada,” bright red pomegranate seeds, green poblano peppers, white walnut sauce.
But it is the people that make visiting this city memorable, the young skateboarder on the subway making sure I got off at the right stop, the father on his knees, carrying a newborn to the Tepeyac shrine of The Virgin of Guadalupe, at the zocalo, the burned woman in full traditional dress, knitting Bicentennial wool hats with her two prosthetic arms.
These are the “gente” of Mexico City now, from all walks of life, resisting definition. Whether Sect=they lived here or not, everyone had an opinion about the “Bicentenario,” most often expressed right on their brilliant red, green and white sleeves. Even though I hadn’t paid for a song, mariachi musician Victor Aranda was pleased to explain that business at the Plaza Garibaldi was great, “because people are in a good mood!”
When I asked what the commemoration meant to them, two university students at a bus stop answered, “It’s like they want us to have an identity, but we’re all so different.” Yet this is the strength and the endless possibility of the capital, and indeed of Mexico itself, that between the shopper's glitz of Polanco and the working-class grit of Ixtapalapa, between the poles of Cortez and Cuahtemoc, there lies the happy medium of today.
September 16, Mexico City