Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Three names in Mexico DF

DANIEL: AfroMariachi Economista

My story with Daniel stretches back almost seven years in the past, when we both were in our turbulent High School years in Barcelona. Back then neither of us knew what to choose for a career, but living at a slow pace, we dedicated ourselves to enjoyed life  by the Mediterranean. In the middle of our tenth grade, I insisted on opening our school to a representative of the United World College international network; and, after a rigorous,  nerve-wracking application process, neither of us got in. Somehow, though, I was suspicious that my friend Dani had not been accepted, taking into account his affable personality and rich cultural background. But a week later, by some mysterious miracle not to my surprise, he got a call congratulating him for his admission to this world-class, two-year program. I felt privileged to be the catalyst for my friend's life-changing experience, but, in the days before Facebook, we lost touch... until a few months ago, thanks to social networking.

From the public library in San Luis Potosí, I sent him a message asking him if he would be in Mexico City by the time I would arrive. I did not hope for much, as he was always busy with his Economy and Statistic studies in London, but by another happy coincidence, he happened to be in his native country for the week! We connected immediately and got his address in the Distrito Federal (DF).

I see... so chaos also affects architecture in Mexico City, right?
The drive down from Morelia was bumpy and slow, just a taste of what traffic in the city itself would be. The GPS worked flawlessly, and, with a hint of intuition and common sense, I was ringing at Dani's doorbell by 3pm. That day I took the first warm shower in a week and shaved my wanderer's beard, prepping myself for a boy's night out with three of the friendliest bankers you could ever meet.

Chicken enmoladas (chile and chocolate sauce) with fried banana. Absolutely delicious!
Despite not having seen Daniel in the last five years, talking to him again felt like hopping in the Wayback Machine to the times in which we would laugh our bellies off to Spanish politics, bad jokes, memories of funny classmates and exotic topographic names.

DON RICARDO: Detective Story

For those new to my life story, my grandfather –Ricardo Tomás González Diez– is one of my lifelong inspirations. After studying mathematics and algebra in the monastery of San Zoilo in Palencia, he fled like many of his fellow intellectuals in the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He stopped briefly by Cuba, where he almost starved to death, and soon hopped to Mexico DF to start his own private academy in 1954, right in the heart of the City. I always heard his legend in the family, which inspired me to leave for the United States to make a name for myself and leave an impact on others.

On August 27th, 2012, I proposed myself to do some real detective work and trace my grandfather's steps in Mexico City, trying to find and record all possible information along the way. My first stop was Google; the only record of his name belonged to the Centro Universitario Grupo Sol (CUGS), which had purchased my grandfather's school, the Colegio Español de México, in 1979, the year in which he retired back to Spain. I drove downtown to the Cuauhtémoc campus, where I asked a few, not-so-inspired-looking secretaries about D. Heriberto Solís, the person who purchased my grandfather's school. He happened to be out of the country, but was referred to D. Antonio Luna, a teacher at the center who, despite not having met D. Ricardo, knew a great deal about his story.

D. Ricardo Gonzalez Diez (left), serious as he always was! Picture from a family album.
After a nervous wait in a humble secretarial office, I was greeted into Mr. Luna's office. He received me with both reverence and surprise, as –in fact, Miguel-style– I had appeared out of the blue. Long conversation short, he told me the following two fun facts about his life:

1. He started, in a small, cramped room at the Spanish Casino in downtown Mexico City. Back in the forties he was a very active member of the "Club España", the Spanish Club, which included both sports and academics. He was handed the academic segment of the club, at the same time he was teaching mathematics at the Commercial University in the city, and in 1954 he purchased it from the club to turn it into a private academy that grew into a full-blown baccalaureate school.

2. The day he passed away, in 1980, his death was reported throughout Mexico on the radio, given his enormous contributions to Mexican education as a whole. I was not less than honored to know this... and I will be honest, it sets higher standards for myself!

Mr. Luna said that there were still a few coworkers and comrades of his that were alive, and scheduled a lunch for the next day with a retired teacher who knew my grandfather in person. From there, we shook hands and I left for downtown to see if the Spanish Casino was still standing.
The building in question. Took me a while to find it!
Opulence in the real of Spanish expats.
Many years later, it was me who crossed that same door at the Spanish Casino.
Would you imagine celebrating your end-of-year prom here?
A short drive later, I found out the Casino Español was still a working institution, right on Isabel La Católica Street close to the Zocalo (main square). I was more than delighted, and entered the fancy establishment with firm, proud stride. To my left I found a man with a fluffy white mustache, quietly reading the newspaper, who asked me if I was there to see somebody. From there, I told him my grandfather's story, to which he replied "Yes, Ricardo, I know him very well! He used to organize the annual end-of-year dance at the Casino! Some people in the afterparty, soccer players, would get drunk and pee on the billiard tables! You should talk to the President of the Casino, I think he also knew him". Ten minutes of conversation went by, and, just after I was done showing this friendly concierge the few photographs I had gathered, I was taken by a smiling Mexican lady to the office of the president, who awaited me with his elbows on a gigantic mahogany desk, his fingers solemnly interlaced. "So, how did you say you were related to Don Ricardo?", said Mr. Augusto Rodríguez Piñeiro, el Presidente. I narrated my grandfather's family legend and my person odyssey to trace his steps, to which he told me of some of his experiences as a student of his: "He was a very competent teacher, and the Colegio Español was one of the best institutions at the time; all companies were lined up to hire its graduates". From there he moved on to ask me about my journey: "Ah, the PanAmerican. Back in the fifties there was a very famous race going through, they have revived it now. I have a modified Porsche 911 to race in it, but never had the time; you know, stuff happens, so I had my friend borrow it from me". Automobiles and relatives? I was thrilled.

The President of the Spanish Casino (left), yours truly (center) and the animated live-in concierge (right).
As soon as we were done talking he called on the elderly concierge to take me to the place where my grandfather started teaching and were he formed his school: the Casino's library. And there it was, everything as it still was in the fifties, down to the books and the historical clock, all wrapped in the dense smell of aged leather and legend. I could not believe my eyes. The concierge suggested that I should go visit the third floor to see the head of the Andalusian Club, another oldtimer who may have known my grandfather. We shook hands and departed on our respective ways, cracking one last joke about how the Club España soccer team, despite ranking in First Division for many years, kept being beat by the Club Asturias, to which he was very, very partial.

And think that my grandfather started the whole legend amongst these walls!
Still laughing, I came out of the elevator and I was received by a crowd of elderly women. I was utterly confused, but soon found the head of the Andalusian Club, who invited me to seat with these charming ladies and eat. Twenty minutes later I talked to him, and, despite him not having known my grandfather, he felt a tremendous sense of camaraderie with him: "Well, us Spaniards; we leave and we set up private schools somewhere else. I founded the Universidad Europea, and can definitely relate to what he went through". By the end of my visit, I was called on stage to take part in a round of jokes, dance and singing. I told a very simple joke on Galicians (Gallegos) and tractors, and was waved goodbye amongst laughs and cheer. Man, what a day.

Don't call me señorita! It took me many years to get here!
Spicy jokes on death and infidelity. Who would tell?
The rest of the afternoon I walked around downtown Mexico City, admiring the mix of huste'n'bustle and diverse architectural styles, from century-old stone to cutting-edge skyscrapers. I changed some currency and eagerly imagined how the following days would roll, meeting the oldtimers who worked side-to-side with my grandfather at the Colegio Español.

I used to have a paperweight of the Torre Latinoamericana (1953); I always thought it was the Empire State...
El Zócalo (main square): iconic as Mexico City gets!
For the very little that remains from my grandfather's heritage, it felt overwhelming to receive so much information and get in touch with so many people who knew him first-hand in a single day. It felt immensely satisfying to trace the roots of a legend that has been inspiring me since I was a kid, down to the place where he started his school. For the reader that has gotten this far, I would like to encourage you to rediscover your family origins: you may be VERY surprised!

FRIDA: Flower in the Asphalt

Everybody remembers Frida Kahlo as the lively female painter who dressed in traditional Mexican garments and an proudly displayed her furry uni-brow as an anti-bourgeois statement; impersonated, back in 2002, by near-midget Salma Hayek in the film Frida. However, no one remembers the tragic extent of her existence, nor the strength with which she elbowed her way into the art world in a time where men had the last word in everything. I do not mean to give a history lesson here, but to remind you of two key elements in her life: her relationship (and eventually marriage, twice) with muralist Diego Rivera –the only constant to her turbulent love/sex life– and a tram incident that left her with a severe, crippling back and foot pain –showed in many of her imaginative paintings.

Frida Kahlo's family tree, including her father (middle), a professional photographer.
My first serious contact with Frida Kahlo's art was when I lived in England in 2006, when, walking along the Thames, I found out the Tate Modern had an exhibition exclusively dedicated to her work. I initially did not expect much outside of some Mexican folklore and bright colors, but as the exhibition progressed, I got an understanding of her motives that reached such visceral, such intrinsic aspects of myself I could not but feel a monumental respect for her and her work.

An oil painting by Diego Rivera, made during his deep grief after Frida's death.
Through an understanding of Frida I got a closer understanding of art, of life and the world, and now that I am not an overly-sensitive, angsty teenager anymore, I see the world with her eyes more than ever before. I marvel about how incredibly progressive her behavior had been at the time, from her open bisexuality –now an word of emptiness amongst artists– to her way of teaching and seeing her own reality way before the French surrealists started putting names on things .

The paintings describing her physical torment are more real to me than any X-Ray, than any scan of the nervous system can fathom. It touches on our basic sense of empathy, on what is, plain and simply, our sense of communion with our fellow human beings to express what is universal.

For this reason, one of my must-do's in Mexico was to visit her home. It lies in a street called after the British capital, painted in bright blue, very inconspicuous to the eye. Photography was forbidden, so the pictures in this section are limited to what I have managed to take furtively, and some others borrowed from Flickr. All I can say is that, besides the original paintings by Frida and Diego, the most relevant characteristic of the house was its sheer tranquility.

The texture of the "blue house", scarred by the years.
The peaceful atrium, shady and calm.
Her paints and wheelchair, right next to her bedroom. Courtesy of Cubamar on Flickr.
The nest of her suffering and eventual death. Notice the mirror on top. Courtesy of Cubamar on Flickr.
Her story is fascinating, to say the least. Not only she came into contact with some of the grandest intellectuals and artists of her time (André Bretón, León Trotsky, Luis Siqueiros and, of course, Diego Rivera), but had exhibitions in two of the world's foremost cities (New York, Paris), an army of lovers, and influenced several of her students at the Instituto Esmeralda to carry on her legacy of painting on a canvas what is within, what is the most real.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Spanish Colonial Galore

The big drive is progressing smoothly. In the last few days I have developed a strong adaptability to the seriously whimsical, chaotic way of driving here. As I said, to the average Westerner it may look like a maelstrom of little Nissan Tsuru taxis, run-down beaters and big American imports; however, there is a method to this madness. No ones cares the slightest way about what is painted on the road, or the signals ahead; instead, what seems to reign is the simple reality of what is around you. It's almost as if you were back in the old county fair and decided to have fun in the bumper cars, without crashes. For that matter, here's the music that echoes in my head as I drive furiously in traffic, making way for my PanAmerican wagon, Livingstone.

It's not that the fast pace of Foggy Mountain Breakdown sets the mood for my adrenaline supply; in the many miles I have driven I have noticed that as soon as I get into city traffic, my eyes start to dry because I do not dare blink and miss (yet) another taxi cutting in front of me. Dandy.

From San Luis Potosí to León... no shoulders; good training for the Bolivian Road of Death.
As soon as I got out of San Luis Potosí I climbed a mountain road at a calm pace, heading towards a town homonymous to my place of birth: León. On my way I cut through a rural road to test my navigation skills; if I had to backtrack, I would; this time I wanted to build the confidence of guiding myself by map and by compass. I crossed a small village, untouched by tourists and inhabited by farmers, who stared at the 30-year-old wagon with curious, shiny black eyes. Close to half an hour later, I had been though extensive fields of crops, a bridge crossing a brook and a road fresh with the scent of trees; then merged on the main road again.

Quixotesque adventures in the peace of the village whose name I do not remember.

Against what many people think, Mexico is not a deserted Speedy Gonzalez backdrop!

As soon as I arrived to León it started raining heavily. I circled around the city and all I saw was a 30-year-old promise of modernity; a run-down concrete shell built on the plan of an old Spanish colonial town. Most of the historical buildings had been torn down and replaced by hideous –and mostly empty– high-rises, shopping centers, supermarkets and shantytowns.

"Whoever does not OWE anything, doesn't OWN anything", says this bright sign.
I will apologize in advance before saying that I went to Kentucky Friend Chicken; however, I did not do it out of convenience, but out of want: as as kid I remember being in Yucatán and loving Mexican KFC. Many years later, in the USA, I had lunch at Colonel Sanders' –twice, on both coasts– and it was sickening. This time, in the center of Mexico, I ordered their classic breaded recipe and tasted as good as I remembered as a kid: the meat looked VERY healthy, just like real chicken should look, and it was fried in a different kind of oil. I do not mean to promote KFC, but just to draw the attention from my American friends on how products like Coca-Cola and KFC are utter garbage in its country of origin and surprising delights abroad. The methods used in the US to cut cots have really affected the quality of the product, from frying oil to meat processing, from the use of corn syrup to the genetic modification of seeds and animals. Take note, USA!

My impressions of León were not favorable, so I opted to push through the afternoon to Guanajuato, two hours away. I was glad to know that it had been declared a World Heritage Site!

The upcoming promise of exciting things to come!

Many of the roads were being renovated, so that made navigation very difficult. In the end I opted to stop in the neighboring town of Marfil (Ivory) and call it a day, relaxing by the local soccer field and watching the kids play, scream, cheer, play music, ride horses and eat sweet snacks. Then, after the sun set, I tucked into my wagon and slept in the quietest of streets.

Pinche perro! Pinche perro! The emotion of soccer in the play, not the victory.
Woke up with renovated energy... what does Guanajuato have for me?
The following morning I realized how dirty the wagon was getting. I was glad, as it made it camouflage as one of the beat-up USA imports rather than a precious German rarity. I had not seen many Mercedes in Mexico; most of them were either trucks, or the latest models.

I jumped out of my wagon and took a quick pressurized tank shower, fresh from the cool night. And so, with renewed spirit, I set on to explore the outskirts of my whereabouts. The first thing I did was to visit the local church, the Parroquia de San José y Santiago de Marfil, a very colorful temple built with humble materials, rivers of sweat, and weathered hands.

Such colors! Such happiness in their display!

Rich carvings at the door of San José y Santiago de Marfil near Guanajuato.
With this little architectural gem under my belt, brushed against my spirit and printed in my camera, I walked down the Road of Marfil. I was glad to find a small brook surrounded by Spanish haciendas, one after the other, with towers, high walls, carvings and balconies to the water.

Señor Llorente, su caballo espera –Mr. Llorente, your horse awaits.
Some fierce Conquistador I seriously hope I am not related to...
Just if the church 300 meters away was not enough.
Would you imagine retiring here like a noble Hidalgo of the Kingdom?
A better belt than the one I am actually wearing.
Some of these beautiful haciendas were actually being renovated into habitable homes.
A colonial dam built by the Spanish. Notice the ornate water level tower to the left!
Towards noon I went back to the wagon and drove to Guanajuato. In a town where parking is a chore, I snuck behind the Mining Museum and left on foot towards the historic downtown. I tried to stay away from the more tourist-oriented spots and made my way across monuments, parks, narrow alleys and winding cobblestone streets. Guanajuato was a World Heritage site for a reason!

Town of Guanajuato from the local Congress Center.
Skyline from a hill close to the famous Guanajuato Mummy Museum.
Classic Mexico Tourist pamphlet photograph. Ah, the flavour of their streets!
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato... true colonial beauty.
While some areas look like a little piece of the 19th century...
...others look as if you had walked into the Middle Ages!
Towards lunch time, I scouted around a 19th century square populated by Western-style cafés, and soon found a little makeshift cart that was serving gorditas (enclosed tortillas stuffed with meat) to some local Guanajuatans. With courteous Spanish I asked for two, and grabbed a guava soda to go with it. So far in all my travels, they have been the best $2 I have ever spent on a meal: boosting with flavor, juicy and laden with spices; calmed by short interruptions of sweet, sweet coldness out of a glass bottle.

This marveous meal was followerd by a much-needed haircut. I went down a couple steps in a hole-in-the-Spanish-colonial-wall establishment, and was greeted with a smile and fast, professional hands that left my head stylishly well-ventilated for a whooping $3. Happy and fresh I left Guanajuato for the next destination, San Miguel de Allende.

Onward to another mysterious, historic gem of a town!
Looking good from far away...
...until I realized it was a rich gringo trap.

What seemed like a beautifully renovated Spanish colonial town was soon revealed to be a theatrical set from a fictitious Mexico, a surgically clean town designed to accommodate wealthy Americans for vacation or retirement. In the neighborhood where I parked I found a few properties carried by Sotheby's, and soon found out in a local Real Estate office that some of these haciendas were million-dollar homes with all the luxuries of the Western World. I even heard some remarks on the radio about Superbowl, coming from a discrete stone palace and a camera-ringer. 

I parked in a plaza next to a Massachusetts Camry and a California Land Rover. It felt strange to be in a place so far away from home amongst more Americans than Mexicans. The only natives that I could see were chauffeurs or dog walkers... and that started to annoy me somewhat. The last straw came went I looked at a fifty-something woman, an obvious New Yorker given her accent, sporting a wide Pamela and walking in a wide, airy stride. She looked at my unshaven self and then –literally– turned her nose up, ignoring this wanderer next to his Kansas relic.

While my mind was kept busy in the deep dislike of the uppity, oblivious attitude of these tourists and their dark-skinned, submissive servants, I tried to look for some shreds of non-politisized beauty; and shot with my camera away from what –otherwise– I should've shot with a salt pellet.

Even that clean-looking Ford Crown Victoria belonged to American tourists!
Found it by accident and framed it not-so-incidentally.
For those curious on how much these properties are, they range from $150k to $1.5k in the historic district.
The next day I left this whitewashed town for Morelia, home of EVEN MORE Spanish colonial architecture, with special mention of their fabulous cathedral in the Churriguera Baroque style.

A very scenic drive indeed... full of tolls.
Morelia has nothing watered-down to it, even when it rains!
One of my first sights was this majestic aqueduct running along an entire avenue!
I parked in a quiet street, a few blocks from the cathedral, and set on my day-long walk across the big collage of 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings floating in the extensive cobblestone sea.

There were so many similar churches I lost my direction for 45 minutes!
And sure enough, the mother of all Spanish colonial churches in town came to sight.
Saint Peter's emblem carved at the main doors of the Cathedral.
The interior was very similar to the big basilica of Saint Peter's in Rome!
Touches of Art Noveau in this large stone maze...
You will notice that a large majority of the signs in Mexico are hand-painted. Much better!
The Alhambra? Nope, just a beautiful kindergarten in the historic district!
The first time I wanted to take this picture there was a couple making out. I did not blame them.

For the rest of the afternoon I managed to find fresh horchata (rice milk) and felt so tired after all the trotting of the day, I sat down in the local theater and watched Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that, despite not living up to the narrative solidity of its prequels, was more than entertaining and spectacular in its breakdown and redevelopment of Bruce Wayne's character. The new cat-woman, impersonated by beautiful Anne Hathaway, did not disappoint either.

The next day was the big day where I would enter the big monster of Mexico Distrito Federal, one of the most polluted and populated cities on the planet. I was up for the challenge to see my mariachi/economist friend Daniel, visit my grandfather's heritage, give the wagon a few mechanical touches, and feast my –and your– eyes on even more architectural candy.

Until then, I leave you with this curious picture I took of an abandoned 1960's propeller airplane by the side of the highway... just one of the many little treasures that hide in my secret album, accessible only by a minimum donation of $1 (cuppa coffee?) on my online fundraiser!

For those who have donated already: a thousand thanks! The proceedings of the campaign are currently going towards fuel, a few meager living expenses, and very soon to a get camera battery charger that has gotten lost somewhere along the journey.

Until then, thanks for following! I remind you that I have an extended invitation to meet anyone who lives along the route, so let me know if you want to be part of my story by sharing yours!

Capn', cap'n... where are we? Can anyone identify the airplane model?