Posts Tagged ‘Mexico City’

An extract from The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene, an account of his travels in the Mexico of 1938. Thanks to Sir William Wilmot for giving me the book to accompany me on my travels.

El Retiro is the swagger cabaret of Socialist Mexico, all red and gold and little baloons filled with gas, and chicken a la king. A film star at one table and a famous singer, and a rich men everywhere. American couples moved sedately accross the tiny dance floor while the music wailed, the women with exquisite hair and gentle indifference, and the middle aged American businessmen like overgrown schoolboys a hundred years younger than their young women. Then the cabaret began – a Mexican dancer with great bold thighs, and the American women lost a little of their remote superiority. They were being beaten at their own game – somebody who wasn’t beautiful and remote was drawing the attention of their men. They got vivacious and talked a little shrilly and powdered their faces, and suddenly appeared very young and inexperienced and unconfident, as the great thighs moved. But their turn came when the famous tenor sang. The American men lit their pipes and talked all through the song and then calpped heartily to show that they didn’t care, and the women closed their compact and listened – avidly…

Then the Waikiki, on a lower level socially and morally. Armed policemen (later that night the place was raided for Perez, the drug trafficker).  Lovely sexual instruments wearing little gold crosses, lolled on the sofas; a man had passed out altogether beside a blue soda water bottle. Small intimate parties struggled obscurely with shoulder straps, and presently got up and made for the hotel a little way down the street. My friend thought I might be lonely and insisted on finding me an American girl – there was only one in the place, and she was called Sally. I said I didn’t want her, but she obviously had for him (he was a Mexican) the glamour of foreignness. He said, ‘She’s nice. She’s refined – and interesting. You’ll like to talk to her. You’re a writer. She’ll tell you all about her life.’

I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to her about her life.’ You could see it all around without asking questions – in the red velvet sofas and the blue soda-water bottles and the passed out Mexican. But my friend had got a girl and he wanted me to have an American – somebody I could talk to easily. He kept on asking everybody, ‘Where’s Sally?’ and presently they found her – so there she came, picking a refined way across the dance floor, pasty, genteel, and a little scared, and very badly dressed. She said, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ ‘Yes, sir’ to everything I said. The formality, the subservience, the terrible refinement were uncanny.

My Mexican friend said, ‘She’s pretty, eh?’ and I had to look at that infinitely plain pasty face with all the vacancy of drug-stores and cheap movies and say, ‘Yes, fine.’


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The conditions on the evening of Tuesday 15 September were much like the first six evenings I had spent in the Ciudad de Mexico. Rain was falling fast and continually deriding my packing decisions which focused largely on shorts and t-shirts. As we turned off the main road in to the Bosque Tlalpan, a vast forested area peppered with small, town like communities, I knew I was seeing a side to the city that I had not yet experienced. The streets became narrow and cobbled. Either side were colonial buildings, darkly silver from the afternoon rains. The sky flashed shades of purple as the daily electrical storm rumbled on over the hills surrounding the south of the city.

We came to a stop outside a beautiful apartment belonging to a friend of Julio (my host and childhood friend). Gathered inside were a group of young Mexicans, most of whom I had met before. Immediately the tequila bottle was produced, large shot glassed filled and quickly drained, for September 15 is the day that Mexico celebrates its independence from Spanish rule. The day itself is more symbolic than anything, as independence was not actually won formally for many more years. What did happen on the night of 15 September 1810 was that Miguel Hidalgo, a priest who became a pivotal player in the struggle for independence, ordered that the church bells be rung and his congregation gather in the town square in front of the church. There he addressed them and gave a battle cry which coincided with the beginning of the insurgency. The battle cry is believed to have included such niceties as “meurte a los Espagnoles”.

Thus, at 11pm we walked to the town square through an alleyway, or what had become an alleyway due to the many street vendors selling tacos, tomales, dried fruits with chilli, and a whole host of other things I will better be able to describe to you in a few months.

The square was packed with people, and I’m guessing by the fact that I towered over most of them, that nearly all were Mexican. They were already singing along with heaps of Mexican gusto to the mariachi band performing on the stage constructed next to the town hall. I always experience a slight feeling of envy when I am present at a celebration not my own. The crowd cheered and sang word for word with the band; they screamed for songs I could never have known, they became ecstatic at proclamations I could not understand. However the feeling was short lived when I realized that just wailing along was an equally entertaining alternative. The energy of this congregation, much of it coming from Julio, meant it was impossible not to be swept up in the moment.

The lead mariachi moved aside and onto the stage burst three women in traditionally lurid dresses frilled like particularly beautiful yet deadly jelly fish. They were accompanied by three men dressed in black with their heads cocked such that the large black sombreros de mariachi obscured their faces. The trumpets sounded and they sprang to life, dancing traditional Mexican dances. This was what I can only describe as the beginning of a parade of picture book Mexican displays. Next we were treated to pelea de gallos or cock fighting to you and me. Julio’s brother leaned over and whispered in my ear ‘one of them will die’, a prospect I was not to thrilled about if you want to know the truth. However, the gods were smiling on those roosters and they merely ruffled each other’s feathers before making a graceful exit stage right. Having said that, I can not vouch for the continued safety of said birds.

After a display of lasso technique, the lights went out and a tumult of drums began. We could not see the marching band as they were in the cloister like area of the town hall which was screened off from the square. However, we could follow the proceedings on a big screen. The band leader was carrying the Mexican flag, which was headed for the illuminated balcony directly above us.

The people fell into a feverish silence, feet shuffled as everyone tried to get a better view of the balcony, above which was the bell which would be rung as Hidalgo had instructed 199 years ago. A minute passed; the drums beat insistently, my heart began to beat impatiently. Then the brass end of the flagpole emerged tentatively form the balcony, followed by the green, white, and red of the flag. “Viva Mexico” was shouted by the compere as the bell began to ring and the people exploded into a response of ‘VIVA MEXICO” before falling into a joyous rapture. Various battle cries were thrown into the crowd to which we responded “viva Mexico” with a fist punched decisively in the air. Three more vivas before the most passionate rending of a national anthem I have ever heard. These few thousand Mexicans put a 70,000 strong Twickenham crowd of mumblers to shame.

The experience was strangely emotional for me; this was nationalism as I have never experienced. Although I am proud of being British, as I suspect many are, it is almost a pride that dare not speak its name. Regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, there are no celebrations back home where anyone would dare shout “Long Live Britannia” – it would be unthinkable. St. George’s day comes and goes every year without note in England.  The only serious national celebration in the UK is St. Paddy’s day sponsored by Guinness, although that is about as patriotic (in its non-Irish franchises) as the burrito is Mexican.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon of course; empire guilt, the association of nationalism with the extremism and racism of the far right, Britain’s burgeoning multiculturalism, and possibly plain old British reserve. Yet I can not help feeling that it would be wonderful to be able to congregate and party like Mexicans because we are British. Naturally such a development would have to be organic – no one is going to party because Gordon Brown gives us a Britain Day. Additionally we would have to be careful to avoid the American brand of patriotism whereby saying “God Bless America” almost as frequently as “have a nice day”, makes foreigners nauseous, and its citizens forget they live in a country stuffed to bursting with inequality and contradictions. But it would be nice. That’s all I’m saying.

The freshest part of the fiesta was when the flags of around 10 other nations were brought on to the stage. The compere shouted something about the glory of other countries of the world before welcoming to the front of the stage the Mexican flag. This is guilt free nationalism – we love the rest of the world, but mostly we love ourselves, our history and our culture. As we roared in appreciation the heavens opened. Enormous drops of rain closed the ceremony and we retreated to the comfort of the next bottle of tequila.

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