It has been just over one week since my last blog post. That one, about my decision to leave Mexico City, was my most-read post since I’ve been doing this blog. Judging by the number of views, likes, and comments, it caught many of you by surprise. To borrow an old expression, I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest this past month, and these final days will offer no respite.
That said, I plan to continue this blog, more or less in its current form. I still have a thousand other stories to tell. With the “end” in sight, memories of my time here have come flooding into my mind, most of them good, not bad.
Mexico City has its share of bad neighborhoods. It seems that every delegación (borough) has at least one. Cinder block houses, corrugated sheet metal roofs, stray dogs, reggaetón music blasting at all hours of the day or night….Often, these “barrios bravos” (“tough” or “brave” neighborhoods) are located along Periférico, the ring road that circles the city and is a proper high-speed highway for much of its length. Other times, they descend steeply down into canyons. Green city buses that ply the adjacent streets are subject to frequent robberies. Sometimes, police are afraid to enter. Many times, all that separates one of these barrios bravos from an upscale, gated community is a busy street.
In my wanderings of late, I have discovered a few barrios bravos that are close to the city center or, at the very least, are easily accessible by metro. I had long suspected that there are myriad points of interest inside these neighborhoods. “Oh, if these walls could talk,” the saying goes. In places like Tepito, Doctores, Tlatelolco, and Iztapalapa, they often do. Neighborhoods such as these are the sources of museums that will surprise you, of markets that will overwhelm you, of festivals that will enchant you, of churches that will humble you. Neighborhoods such as these are home to over a million real, living and breathing people, most of them just trying to make a living.
I believe that many of these places can be visited in relative safety, as long as you take reasonable precautions. My general rules are:
- Visit during daylight hours only.
- Do not wear your best clothes or your flashiest jewelry.
- Bring your camera if you’d like, but stash it in a backpack when not in use.
- Ask permission before photographing locals (a general courtesy anywhere you go).
- Frequently – but subtly – check your surroundings, especially when exploring narrow callejones (alleyways) or quiet streets.
- Have fun, but don’t be paranoid.
Here is Part One of my take on several of Mexico City’s barrios bravos. This installment focuses on the “Greater Tepito” area of the city.
Lagunilla and Tepito
The grid of streets north and east of the Centro Histórico is so dense that I don’t know where one colonia ends and another begins. The bustling area that I collectively refer to as Lagunilla and Tepito has been one big open-air market since Aztec days.
Lagunilla, which has two metro stations, is the more formal market. It has three permanent Mercado (market) buildings that each specialize in something different. The southernmost building focuses on furniture, the middle building on clothes, and the northernmost building on food. The clothing building is something of a curiosity, as seemingly every booth inside sells wedding gowns or quinceañera dresses. The furniture selections in and around the muebles (furniture) building are of surprisingly good quality, and stylish as well. So many Chilangos prefer shopping at high-end stores in San Ángel or Interlomas, and yet prices here are so, so much lower.
Weekends – especially Sundays – are the best times to visit Lagunilla. The whole area bustles with people, and I’ve always believed in the idea of safety in numbers. On weekends, a never-ending series of tianguis (outdoor stalls) spill out from the buildings onto every inch of sidewalk. The general idea is that the tianguis sell merchandise similar to what is on display in the adjacent market buildings, but this is not always the case. Close to its intersection with Comonfort Street, for example, the south side of Rayón Street boasts an impressive spread of used books. Table after table sell books in all genres and languages, with vendors looking appropriately Bohemian. Comic book geeks will find a treasure trove of rare issues – used but in good condition. I bought a Superman comic dating back to January 2000 for a friend at a cost of just 20 pesos (about 13 cents).
Just southwest of Lagunilla (and sharing one of its two metro stations) is Plaza Garibaldi. This lively plaza is where mariachis gather, waiting to be whisked away to play at parties. A decade ago, Plaza Garibaldi was sleazy and possibly dangerous; my first visit was less-than-impressive, as I shared the square on a lonely Monday night with a few stumblebums and winos but not many others. I remember one aggressive panhandler asking for money, and when I politely said “no” (I had left my wallet at the hotel for safety reasons), he proceeded to roll up a pant leg and display his leprosy – with considerable pride I might add.
Things around Plaza Garibaldi are better today. It has a strong police presence, its own guarded estacionamiento (parking garage), and the whole place was given a facelift perhaps five years ago. Now it bustles nightly with pulquerías, cantinas, taquerías, and the modern Museo del Tequila y el Mezcal, worth a look especially for its terrace bar. On weekends, many of the plaza’s mariachis are hired for impromptu performances on the spot, so it’s not uncommon to see couples – whole families even, including children – dancing in the square at 1 a.m. I love Plaza Garibaldi. The Eje Central bus passes my apartment and leaves me just one-half block from the plaza itself. Unfortunately, most of my local friends are still too afraid to visit.
And then there’s Tepito. Tepito shares the aforementioned Rayón – one of the area’s main east-west streets – with Lagunilla. In Tepito, the street is called Héroe de Granaditas, and my friends warn me that it is along here where only the foolish tread. I have journeyed into the wasps’ nest on perhaps five separate occasions, going deeper each time, and so far I’ve lived to tell the tale (no small feat according to my friends). If Lagunilla is a more formal market, then Tepito is an anything-goes market, and “anything” apparently includes drugs, contraband, and stolen merchandise. One thing I noticed during each of my visits: no cops in Tepito. Anywhere.
Tepito is one of a kind. Many boxers and luchadores (wrestlers) hail from Tepito, and they are among the few residents to leave. (A statue on the northern fringes of the barrio pays homage to Mexico’s most famous wrestler, El Santo.) For most, if you’re born in Tepito, you’ll die in Tepito. What I mean is that there is little focus here on getting an education or bettering oneself. Before you reach double digits in age you’ll likely be put to work at your family’s tianguis. When your parents pass on, the tianguis becomes yours. Tepito residents even speak their own language – a garbled Spanish indecipherable to many outsiders.
For the last several decades, Tepito has epitomized the idea of “rent control.” It is said that rents were fixed by the government in the 1940s, and that most efforts to raise them over subsequent decades have been unsuccessful. Supposedly, these low rents attracted a lower class group of families, and Tepito has never really “risen” out of general poverty. Today, many Tepito property owners are believed to be Chinese or Korean (and are collectively called “Chinese” by the residents), although most of these landlords don’t actually live in Tepito.
I looked up Tepito on Google Earth and my jaw dropped. From above, most streets had a series of yellow or orange dots over their entirety. Those dots? All-weather tarps, protecting the tianguis from the elements! And under those tarps? Controlled chaos. Two Saturdays ago, I went for a wander through Tepito, and I found vendors selling not only the requisite clothes and pirate DVDs (X-Men: Days of Future Past before it even hit theaters!) but also vehicle parts (possibly stolen), Enrique Peña Nieto t-shirts, and fried grasshoppers by the barrel-full! I saw not one, but two mobile carts selling draft beer. Of course, whenever a resident drives his car down the street – and a motorcycle approaches from the opposite direction – everything comes to a standstill as the cart vendors carefully wheel their wares out of the way.
The further northeast you wander, the more random the street market offerings. This stall has a Reagan-era Speak & Spell, that stall sells mismatched socks, and the stall across the street, depending when you visit it, may sell Barbie dolls with missing limbs one day, shoeboxes of batteries the next, or RC cars without tires the next. During one visit, a guy literally had an armful of puppies for sale! Puppy vendors notwithstanding, the streets around here seemed more deserted, the buildings more dilapidated, the residents more desperate. I don’t think I’d venture here after dark.
But Tepito, Lagunilla, and environs can enchant the hearty explorer as well. This is one of the oldest parts of the city, and you’ll find half-a-dozen colonial-era churches sprinkled around the area, often fronted by parks. Just two blocks from Plaza Garibaldi, for example, is Plaza de la Concepción, with a fountain, park benches, and young kids playing soccer. The church of the same name, across the street, will make your jaw drop. It is also sinking, which only adds to its aged charm. Further north, Galería José María Velasco houses contemporary urban art, much of it painted by Tepito residents and about their neighborhood. Check it out if you have the chance.
My friends here always roll their eyes when I tell them of my plans to visit “Greater Tepito.” But I’ve never experienced any problems, other than crowd fatigue following a long Sunday of navigating the endless market stalls in the area. My two most recent visits were photographically fruitful. I did receive several warnings from concerned locals to take extreme caution with my camera. One well-meaning male told me not to take pictures, but he seemed nice enough so I asked him if photography was prohibido or simply unadvised. After hesitating, he finally admitted that photography was allowed but unadvised – “not here, not there, and definitely not there, for your safety.” Note taken.
Last Saturday, the sun was blazing – even through the tarps – so I sprung for a draft beer from one of those mobile vendors. The beer was prepared michelada-style – with lime juice, salt, and chile powder – and served in a plastic cup, as if at a keg party. Before imbibing, I double-checked that it was okay to consume in public. The vendor said yes – as long as I didn’t leave the market area. I thanked him and continued on my way. Not even two minutes later, a local “tough” (wife-beater tee, tattoos, backwards cap, you do the math) sidled up to me with a donation plate asking for a coin or two “for the barrio.” He even called me “gringo.” D’oh!
I would love to hear from you, Loyal Reader, in the comments section below. On your travels – or even in your home city – have you ever visited neighborhoods that you felt were unsafe? Was your visit deliberate or accidental? And would you visit Tepito?
Below is a selection of pics from my various forays into Greater Tepito. I decided not to caption them this time, as I think they speak for themselves.