Last year, the great Mexico City chronicler, Héctor de Mauleón published a book titled La Ciudad Que Nos Inventa: Cronicas De Seis Siglos, (The City that Invents Us: Chronicles of Six Centuries). One of the most complete histories of the city recently published, it’s been met with broad critical praise.
For our purposes here, one of the most interesting chapters describes a book titled simply, La Ciudad de México, and found by the author in one of the capital’s many used bookshops. The volume turned out to be a very ample tourist guide intended for visitors in 1900, and indicating steps they might follow to enjoy a pleasant stay in Mexico City.
Travelers were informed of the best ways to get off the train, and where they’d likely be. For some 25 cents, they could hire a porter to carry their bags and assist the traveler to the next leg of transport. That porter was very likely the first Mexico City face to be encountered on this adventure.
Travelers are then advised on the types and prices of available cars. A streetcar might also be an option, depending on one’s destination. Tram stops ran widely through the city center for more than a century, and showed more of the streets, surrounding buildings and the newly opened, French-inspired avenues that were the pride of then-President Don Porfirio Díaz.
Options for lodging were also many and varied. The wealthy might stay in hotels with running water and even an elevator. The less well-heeled could find a night’s rest in something more modest, for as little as one peso for the night. Every place reserved “rights for admission,” and rooms could be only be had by women of good repute.
What’s a tourist guide without restaurants? Of course, a wide variety of restaurants offered “international fare.” This was especially French, even then. But the occasional cantina appears and mention is made of visits by some of the city’s poets. The book here lists a tremendous number of place names, such that a reader can almost perceive precisely what was happening amongst these very early 20th century diners.
It’s not known if another copy of this guide to Mexico City might be found. Mauleón has one, and perhaps among the many used bookstores, another is lost in that profusion. It is well known that the city of the time was full of running freshwater springs, trams, and exquisite European-inspired architecture and skies, perhaps still bluer than today’s. That instant of eternity when a traveler arrived and faced a city most transparent, smiled at everything the landscape offered, is charmingly presented, and very well recalled.
Though the internet makes lots more information available to lots more people, Mexico City libraries have simply not been supplanted. Charged with continually re-inventing themselves, and their places in the public imagination, one can still encounter eras gone by and great historical minds in a library as in few other places.
Knowledge, after all, belongs to everyone. Opening a book, reading it at a study, or just meeting in the silence of one these Mexico City libraries enhances concentration, and provides a welcome respite from everything going on out there in the world.
Of all Mexico City libraries, the oldest were part of the church and one or another of its offshoot organizations. Among these was the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, founded in the 1530s and surviving today as the Biblioteca José María Lafragua. Most of these ecclesiastical libraries were not truly open to the public, and Mexico had to wait for the National Library of Mexico, inaugurated by Benito Juárez in 1867 to enjoy the benefits of a truly public library system.
The list below is intended to let you enjoy some of that system, too.
Opened just ten years ago, in 2006, the Vasconcelos is visited by thousands for the sheer spectacle of its innovative design. Graced by the iconic whale from artist, Gabriel Orozco, it’s always a good library for art and visual spectacle. The facade retains something of a colonial appearance, but for sheer scale, and jaw-dropping space, the interior must be experienced.
We’ve written a lot about it in these pages, but the UNAM library with the Juan O’Gorman murals remains one of the most outstanding of all Mexico City libraries. As a UNESCO site with some 428,000 volumes in the collection, it’s the biggest in Mexico, but lots of folks visit just to see the facade and the surrounding grounds.
Opened by Benito Juárez in 1867, there’s still a good one million books inside, today administered by the folks from UNAM. Originally located in the San Agustín church in the city center, the current building was opened in 1979. Geometric, and massive, it’s an extraordinary place to visit.
Specializing in economic materials, this collection of some 86,350 books and 114,852 journals is administered by the Secretary of Finance and Public Credit. Founded in 1928, it’s one of the cities true public art spectacles. Inside the main nave of the old Oratory of San Felipe Neri “El Nuevo,” the baroque façade outside is just the beginning. Inside, the murals are futuristic, and not to be missed.
One of Centro’s truly outstanding historical buildings, for centuries it was the convent of the Clarisas from the 16th century. Today it’s something like a “Library of Congress” with a stunning collection of publications and artifacts, but also with a lush, deep, dark intellectual interior, that beckons from centuries past.
Address: Tacuba 29, Centro Histórico
Photographs this page: Flickr – Creative Commons
Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood has for a millennia history offered resistance, rebellion, and hope. Tenochtitlan relegated dissidents to Tepito’s crooked alleys. The “brave neighborhood,” even hundreds of years later, is still marginalized and bent on survival. Somehow residents seem to bear that history in the very DNA.
With a reputation for violence, deprivation, and overcrowding, some of the great characters of Mexican history have come from Tepito. The cradle of Mexican boxing, in the 1970s an important literary movement emerged in Tepito, and the neighborhood has contributed as much to the culture of the city and country as have many, much wealthier places.
Among all the stories of people whose hard work is performed with an enviable dignity, there are thousands of women who carry out similar work for their families. Resident Mayra Valenzuela Rojas remarked, “In Tepito there’s a matriarchy (…) Every woman has her own story. Each of us is a spark, but together we are lighting a candle for Tepito.”
German photographer, Anja Jensen, is currently exhibiting her work in a show called “Ciudadanas-Caminamos a oscuras” (Citizens-We Walk in the Dark). Having spent months in Tepito, she’s documented the women challenging the stereotypes of the neighborhood.
Jensen was assaulted and threatened, but she was also clothed and cared for by the women who opened their stories and lives to her. The result is a series photographs, “Las Cabronas de Tepito,” (Bad Girls of Tepito) a collective portrait of the matriarchy whose fervor makes the neighborhood better and regularly improves the lives of the people living there.
The photographs will be exhibited through February 12, 2017, as part of the Mexico-Germany Dual Year, at the German Pavilion on the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, in Roma Norte.