Mexico City gets named for all kind of tings happening here: The City of Trees, The Design Capital of the World, The Parade of Endless Events and Magical Neighborhoods. We could attribute all kinds of place-names to the demands of the people who visit and live here. Irrespective of all of their demands and expectations, a handful of qualities remain typical of the capital. These don’t exactly correspond to the aforementioned attributes, but a debate rages between the city’s accentuated surrealism and the chaotic character that gives it life. One of those characters is simply “creativity.”
In broad terms – even in international terms – the seat of Mexican creativity responds to impulse ranging from the ironic, and the folkloric to its many museums of Mexican art. Exquisite works found at both the the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes), and in the crafts of La Ciudadela and in various public facilities that make light of an entirely functional creative spectrum. Architecture and sculpture unfold in all kinds of dreamlike styles and imaginings. A disputed apology between Leonora Carrington and Javier Senosiain lives on, as do those between Juan O’Gorman and the spellbinding art deco he supplanted. Myths and legends are destined to show what’s already been mentioned: Mexico City is surrealism par excellence. Among its many magical neighborhoods, with their wealth of art and their valuable histories, there are also “artistic” districts that detonate with art and culture, even at just their local levels. For the consumption of the Mexican spirit, and for the joyful visitor, delights like these are what makes Mexico City art so very memorable.
These are just a few of the most obvious place in the capital where you’ll see street art battling it out with heavier, older and better-established traditions. Those traditions don’t always win. These are some of the best places to pick through the fascinating rubble that results from these magnificent encounters.
Although you can (and will) see references to Andy Warhol, Anime, lots of Frida Kahlo, and surprisingly little Mexican Mural Painting, the true love of the Mexico City street artist is with the pre-Hispanic past. Though graffiti has been with Mexico City since it was Tenochtitlan, street art has grown into more than just hopes for virality on Facebook, and into an essential means to better understand Mexico City art, thought, life, and spirit. Public spaces are today prepared and presented by the city government to artists and the results are like those at the intersection of Santísima and Emiliano Zapata streets where artist have converted an enormous space public wall into a space fit for contemplating. Many of the surrounding commercial spaces (such as that shown above) have received similar attention.
Within the Dolores Civil Pantheon in the City’s Miguel Hidalgo delegation, is a special section of the cemetery just for the most illustrious among Mexican historical personalities. Mexican cemeteries are always a treat, but here things are taken to even further extremes. You’ll find the tombs of such figures as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Jaime Nunó, Francisco González Bocanegra, Agustin Lara, Juan O’Gorman, and Francisco Montes de Oca, among others. Artistic, political and even scientific personalities are all represented, and monuments range from the highly surreal to the more sedate and even the somber.
Painted by Diego Rivera and titled “Water, the Origin of Life,” it’s probably among the least well-known, and certainly among the last of his many works. At home, underwater in the Cárcamo de dolores, in Chapultepec Park, the mural is almost entirely underwater and takes water as its central organizing theme. At times cartoonish, and often poignant, for a massive public work on this scale, you’ll see an almost jaw-dropping variety of contrasts, inside jokes, surrealist overtures and socialist outtakes, and all in the same work.
Surrealism meets JRR Tolkien and together they go to India: the work of architect, Guillermo Siliceo, Mexico City’s Tree House is a private complex of 25 houses, including some for rent on a short term basis and all surrounded by awesome forest in the of the Desierto de los Leones park in the city’s southwest. Each of the houses contain overtures to Hinduism and/or Buddhism, and all of the other esoteric symbols that continue the West’s long, long, longing for the East.
Definitely pre-European, the street markets of the capital always come with an enriching experience for all the senses. As traveling museum, they’re always ready to show off a long, mixed history of food, culture and usually some music too. The notorious Tianguis de ruedas – those neighborhood invaders, the “markets on wheels,” have been hitting the same streets for decades. But even the permanently installed variety of tianguis surrounding your local metro station – or better – at Tacuba or Pantitlan are possibly better places than the city’s museums of contemporary art to experience the contrasts, the diversity and the “art” of human experience.
Usually present at or near the city’s Zocalo, the Concheros continue a long tradition of defying European cultural hegemony — and in the starkest and most brazen terms. As if drawn magnetically to the area surrounding the Templo Mayor museum and grounds, the dancers draw on a mix of ancient history, modern wisdom and counter-cultural influences. But there is no question that the accompanying drums and the occasional cry of the fife echo through the very oldest parts of the city. Even the most cynical have their heads turned at how quickly memories are inspired to return to us, even those that were never ours.
Mexico City’s UNAM is city enough in itself. And like any city, the contradictions and the clashes are evident in everything from the plants to the stones to the buildings. To visit CU, (Ciudad Universitaria) is always to witness civilizations, as in the Ruta de la Amistad, clashing with ideologies, ideas and dreams as in Juan O’Gorman’s beloved central library. As a major contributor to the culture of the city, CU is a theatrical performance of styles, architectural theories and true history. You can decide for yourself if it’s more surreal than it is “traditional” but the debate will continue and the dreams will probably only get stranger.
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.