Lazaro Cardenas Street in Mexico City is the unofficial dividing line that separates the Historic Center from the extending modern part. If you travel to the west, you soon arrive in the broad and beautiful expanse of Reforma, Mexico City’s Champs d’Elysees.Close on the western divide, sitting side by each, are the absorbing, persevering Parque Alameda and the magnificent, marbled Palacio de Bellas Artes. While the Palacio allows visitors of all dress code to view its elegant interior, on the occasions of its special events, concerts and plays, it is a more formal place. In contrast, Parque Alameda, close to the pulsing heart of a great city, serves both as an end unto itself and a great artery for those passing through to the center.It is said by the locals that all things are possible in Mexico City. If that is true of the city, then it is especially true of Parque Alameda. Every day, its many tree-lined paths are filled with street vendors, musicians, preachers, lovers and observers. There are artisans selling their colorful paintings, carvings and pottery. You will find food of all sorts, cheap, if not pirated, music CDs and DVDs of the latest movies. People sell most anything here, in some cases, themselves. If you’re looking to listen, eat, buy, stroll or get laid, Parque Alameda offers it at a good price or none at all.On the other side of Lazaro Cardenas is the massive, bustling, and for the uninitiated -intimidating, Historic Center.There are over 20 million counted people in Mexico City and if you go there on a Saturday afternoon, you can meet most of them. The Zocalo or central plaza is second in size only to Moscow’s Red Square. Surrounded by cathedrals and the centuries’ old buildings of the Mexican government, it is the home to great cultural events, light festivals, protests and concerts. Each Christmas the city constructs the world’s largest ice skating rink, hockey boards and all. A trip around the rink’s circumference can take the better part of a day. When the surface is empty for cleaning, it looks like the runway at an airport. When they open the gates and the public tumble out, it would have been better had they built it twice the size to accommodate the thousands of skaters of all levels of ability who have come to enjoy the ice beneath them and the bright sun above.Bu the Historic Center is more than the grand Zocalo. It was once home to part of the Aztec civilization and though you can’t see the ritual human sacrifices these days, you can marvel at the majestic and haunting ruins. Much architecture remains as well from the less than benevolent Spanish rulers. The Spanish influence, though they were booted out years ago, is everywhere, from language, to buildings, to religion.The Center is also a massive outdoor shopping center and food emporium. It is a massive bazaar, crammed with whatever you want and things you didn’t know existed. Its many long streets are jammed with shops of all description, often bunched by themes. If you want musical instruments, you will find streets with shops with nothing but. If you want auto parts or clothes or computer equipment, it is the same. For blocks, you can walk from one store to the next featuring only that which you came to find.
The competition for business is fierce. Though it may be your first visit to Mexico City, you will soon notice that a lot of people know you. Everyone selling something is your amigo and calls you so. Even if you’re the most miserable and unpopular prick in your home country; in Mexico, especially in the Historic Center, you’ll be hailed constantly by your new found friends.Mexico has a growing middle class and is much better off than many of its Latin American neighbors. Its poverty does not match that found in much of Africa and Asia. Yet wealth is still concentrated in the hands of the relative few.Some social safety nets exist but survival for individual Mexicans depends largely on them. Some have good jobs, some have jobs and the rest must find various ways to get by. Usually this means they become small business owners. But these are not small businesses with a number of employees looking for tax breaks. These are families with tents and shacks and stands looking to eke out enough to pass another day. There is no unemployment insurance as the western world would know it. Instead of money, the government gives you space, a spot on a park path, a small piece of a sidewalk, a booth in a row of booths, all so that people can offer their wares or their services, exist and be less of a burden on the state.In the Center, amidst the cacophony of sound, the cornucopia of color, the aroma of smells, the crush of humanity, the all-out assault on your senses, sits Calle Venustiano Carranza. Intersecting with Lazaro Cardenas, ten minutes on foot from the Belles Artes, it is a street made up almost entirely of sporting good stores. As you make your way from one to the next, it is apparent that many of them bear the same name – Marti. No one is singing Guantanamo, this is Mexico not Cuba, but if it’s sporting goods you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.Alejandro Marti owns most of these stores on Venustiano Carranza and many more throughout the country. If you want to play baseball, there is a store dedicated to that popular sport. If you want to box, there is no trouble finding gloves.If you’re looking for soccer equipment, you need look no further. If it’s sportswear you want, you can shop until you run out of money. Whatever it is – to play a sport or look like one, you need do nothing more than mosey down Venustiano Carranza. Alejandro Marti has it all.All that is, except a son.He had a son; a bright, handsome, energetic boy in love with life. Fernando Marti loved wakeboarding, soccer, competing and even had his own musical group. Given the wealth and love of his father, Fernando Marti lacked little.He lived a life foreign to most kids his age yet wanted nothing more than to be like them. The pictures of his lively eyes, his happy face don’t necessarily say more than the snapshot of that time. Still, it’s safe to assume that he was content, athletic, curious and set for life. He was also a target.The dark side of Mexico is corruption- at all levels. In a country with great contrast in wealth, those that have it can have even more by handing over a little and watching it grow. Some of those who don’t have but are in a position to improve their lot, willingly or desperately accept whatever they can.Over the last number of years, recently exacerbated by the deadly battle for control of the flow of drugs into the US and Canada, some not very nice people have taken to kidnapping the wealthy and not so wealthy, or members of their families. It is a well-organized industry in Mexico. The money from such kidnappings allows them to avoid the harder lives of their neighbors or buy the drugs they will sell to the lucrative market beyond the Rio Grande or to purchase the latest weaponry from the great gun dealer to the north.Like many Mexicans, not all of them rich, Alejandro Marti knew his son was a target. He took great precaution to keep him safe. Each day Fernando went to school in a chauffeur driven armored car. Sitting next to the driver was an armed bodyguard. They varied the route traveled each day to avoid the predictability that would have made an ambush easy.The strategy worked well until the one time it didn’t. On June 4th 2008, the car was stopped by the police. As the occupants waited anxiously to be moving again, the cops approached their vehicle to explain the problem. As it turned, the police were the problem. They attacked the vehicle, strangling the bodyguard and kidnapping, both the driver, who was later tortured and killed, and young Fernando Marti.Considering the fortune of Alejandro Marti, the ransom demand was high. With reason to suspect the police, Marti hired a private consultant and the money was paid according to instruction. Having said nothing publicly at the outset for fear of police involvement and after waiting almost two months for a response, in August of 2008, Marti went to the media. He pleaded for the return of his son and offered to pay more for his release. Like any loving parent, he would have given anything to have his boy back. Sadly it was a plea for naught. Fernando’s bullet ridden body was discovered in the trunk of a car in the same Mexican City neighborhood where Leon Trotsky met his violent end in 1940.The bodyguard, believed to be dead, somehow survived and was later able to identify the killers. Two of the three arrested in an ongoing investigation were police officers, one of them a woman.It’s unclear why the boy was killed. Perhaps the money didn’t arrive in the right hands; perhaps there was fear that he could describe his abductors. Most likely is that these are remorseless barbarians without empathy, who think nothing of targeting and slaughtering innocents, including children.In the early evening most days, near a park in the center of Mexico City, a middle-aged lady pushes a bulky, heavy cart laden with a water-filled cauldron, cobs of corn and sundry supplies. By the time she arrives at her space, she has pushed the cart over a mile, up and down rises, over uneven pavement, always with a watchful eye for the city’s notoriously impatient and aggressive drivers. Having repeated this task over many years, like a commercial Sisyphus, her arms are the size of cannons, not as sleek perhaps, but equally powerful. The guys at Petaluma wouldn’t have a chance.For the next four hours, she stands behind her cart, which can be turned into a three-sided tent when it rains, and sells corn on the cob or eskites, boiled or barbequed kernels of corn sold in a cup. Either can be served with any of mayonnaise, cheese, chili pepper or lime juice. On a good day, she might make seventy five dollars from which she must pay the corn, the cart the supplies and the storage. When she finishes for the night, she begins the return trek with the cart, sometimes against the elements – at least lighter now without the water and the corn. Tucking the wagon into the storage shed for the night, she begins the hour and a half journey home by metro and bus. In the morning, the preparation and the routine start all over.
On rare occasions her daughter shows up and helps out for awhile. A pretty girl of university age, she bubbles with the enthusiasm of the corn in the pot. She seems so happy and full of life. Maybe she won’t make it to the Louvre or St. Paul’s or Times Square. If she’s lucky, she won’t even make it to Ciudad Juarez. But it’s not likely she’ll end up pushing corn for a living either. Her mother through force of will and body has given her a chance at a less onerous life.The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca described his comrades in the Spanish Civil War as having “sad, infinite eyes, like those of a newborn beast of burden.” You see those eyes here. You can see them all over Mexico City, all over Latin America, Africa and Asia, wherever the overriding reality in daily lives is grinding, excruciating and unrelenting poverty.Amidst its majesty and pollution, its wealth and its poverty, its great mass of humanity, most Mexicans pluck out a hard, honest living, anyway they can. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.Thousands of men walk around with portable shoe shine shops. If you’re in Mexico City and you don’t have a military polish, it’s not for lack of opportunity. Five and six year old kids, put on clown suits with big balloons in the back making their asses enormous and maybe funny. When the light turns red, either performing alone or at the top of a pyramid of people so that drivers can better catch their act, they put on a brief show before walking among the cars seeking whatever change people might spare them. As the traffic moves again, they wait stoically on the boulevard until the next stoppage signals the start of a new shift.Mexico City is a grand and glorious destination. It is one of those places that should be seen at least once in a life, not as some sort of stupefied religious mandate, rather as an experience of the possible and the unlikely, the magical and the obscene.It is a hard city, one where you can be alone among millions but where you see countless acts of empathy and generosity, where many people who don’t have much try to look after those who have less. It is a noble place where much can be gained from its sharing.It is a world where youngsters put on Pagliacci suits and play for money, where tired women push unwieldy carts over long distances and where some, the country’s cowards, shoot 14 year old boys for sport.