Robert V. Kemper
Department of Anthropology
Southern Methodist University
Dallas TX 75275 USA
|[Note: this article appears in Melvin Ember and Carol R. Ember (editors), Encyclopedia of Urban Cultures, Volume 3, pp. 184-197. Danbury, CT: Grolier Publishing Co., 2002.]|
[Note: click on a term in the list below to go directly to the corresponding topic]
Capital of the nation of Mexico, Mexico City is known as “La Ciudad de México” in Spanish, the nation’s principal language, although often it is referred to as “México,” “México, D.F.,” or “D.F.” (“Distrito Federal” in Spanish; “Federal District” in English). The name of the city derives from the Nahua-speaking people called the “Mexica,” more widely known as the Aztec, and results from the combination of their terms for “moon” (meztli), “belly button” (xictli), and “place” (co). This place, symbolizing the moon’s belly button, served as the focus of Aztec life before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 and, five centuries later, continues to be the central place of the Mexican people.
Within the Mexican nation, all roads literally begin from Mexico City, since the geographic marker for the “zero point” is at the city’s main square, known as the “Zócalo.” Mexico City is located at 19º26’ north latitude and 99º09’ west longitude in south-central Mexico, at an altitude of 2,240 meters above sea level. Mexico City proper covers an area of 1,479 km.2 while the Distrito Federal is slightly larger at 1,546 km.2 The metropolitan area has extended in recent decades well beyond these limits and now occupies most of the the Valley of Mexico (a basin about 100 km. long by 50 km. wide surrounded by mountains on the northwest, west, south, and southeast). Because the mountains frequently cause thermal inversions, the entire valley is subject to serious air pollution problems, mitigated only when the spring winds blow or the summer rains fall.
In 1900, the population of Mexico City was 345,000; in 1950, the metropolitan population had reached 3.1 million (Unikel et al. 1976:Table I-A1). This grew rapidly to around 9 million by 1970, and many experts in the 1970s were projecting that its population might surpass 30 million by the year 2000. Fortunately, the natural growth rate has slowed in recent decades and the impact of cityward migration has declined considerably, especially in the wake of the specific damage suffered by the capital in the 1985 earthquake and the general chaos caused by the 1980s’ economic crisis. Despite these setbacks, the metropolitan area currently ranks among the largest in the world with its estimated population of between 18 and 20 million persons. Only the Tokyo urban area is larger, at 28 million. Mexico City’s population is on a par with that of Bombay, São Paulo, Shanghai, and New York City; and ahead of that of Beijing, Jakarta, Lagos, and Los Angeles. After Toyko (21%), Mexico City (20%) has the highest share of national population of any of the world’s great cities. Metropolitan New York City, with about the same population as metropolitan Mexico City, has only 6% of the U.S. population. And among the world’s great cities, Mexico City is the only one located on the ruins of an indigenous civilization subjected to European conquest and subsequent assimilation.
Preliminary results for the year 2000 Mexican government census for the Mexico City metropolitan area counted 17,437,634 persons (i.e., the Distrito Federal [8,591,309] plus 23 adjacent municipios administratively affiliated with the State of Mexico. In population, these include: Ecatepec de Morales [1,620,303], Nezahualcóyotl [1,224,924], Naucalpan de Juárez [857,511], Tlalnepantla de Baz [720,755], Chimalhuacán [490,245], Atizapán de Zaragoza [467,262], Cuautitlán Izcalli [452,976], Tultitlán [432,411], Valle de Chalco Solidaridad [323,113], Ixtapaluca [293,160], Nicolás Romero [269,393], Coacalco de Berriozábal [252,270], Chalco [222,201, La Paz [213,045], Texcoco [203,681], Huixquilucan [193,156], Tecámac [172,410], Tultepec [93,364], Chicoloapan [77,506], and Cuautitlán [75,831], Melchor Ocampo [37,724], Chiautla [19,559], and Chiconcauc [17,977] (calculated from preliminary results of 2000 Mexican census, available at www.inegi.gob.mx).
Mexico City concentrates an extraordinary proportion of its nation’s population, governmental infrastructure, economic resources, educational facilities, media, and cultural activities. It is a “primate city” – i.e., a capital whose size is disproportionately large when compared to other cities in the nation. This enormous population concentration is all the more unusual because of Mexico City’s high altitude and great distance from water-based transportation found at other world-class cities. On the other hand, the climate of Mexico City is generally mild, given its unique combination of high altitude and tropical latitude. The average annual temperature is 61ºF, with maximum/minimum temperatures ranging from highs of 80ºF/52ºF in May to lows of 69ºF/43ºF in December. With regard to rainfall, about 80% of the year’s average of 30 inches falls from June through October.
Mexico City is full of attractions for tourists as well as for residents. What is unusual is that so many of its attractions are public, rather than privately owned. It has no Disney World, no “Six Flags Over Mexico,” no “Universal Studios” to draw visitors’ pesos. Instead, it offers museum after museum, monument upon monument, architectural and historical delights beyond one’s imagination. Stroll on a Sunday afternoon from the Zócalo – with its Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace, Templo Mayor, and other grand colonial-era buildings – westward past the Plaza Garibaldi and its strolling mariachi bands – to the Alameda park. Passing the Fine Arts Palace and the Franz Mayer Museum, continue southwest along the Avenida de la Reforma, past the Monuments to the Revolution, to Columbus, to Cuauhtémoc, to Independence, and to Diana the Huntress before arriving at Chapultepec Park to see the Monument to the Niños Héroes, the military school cadets who gave their lives defending the hill of the Chapultepec Castle (where the National History Museum now is located) against the U.S. troops which had invaded Mexico in 1848. Then, after catching your breath in the thin, polluted air, continue walking westward along the Reforma past the Modern Art Museum, the Rufino Tamayo Museum, and the National Anthropology Museum, until reaching the National Auditorium. Then, board one of the Route 100 buses (the most traveled bus line in the world!) and travel northeast, arriving at the Basilica of Guadalupe at Tepeyac in time for evening mass. And, on a Sunday afternoon, when museum admissions are free, all this costs very few pesos!
Mexico City’s reason for being where it is derives from Hernan Cortés’s choice to build a Spanish colonial administrative center on the ruins of the capital of the far-flung Aztec empire. His choice has dictated that Mexico City has always been a place both dominant and dependent with regard to its hinterland. From the beginning, its leaders have had to find ways to provide water, food, building supplies, and even people – in effect, all of the stuff that any city requires – from considerable distances, even from across the oceans. Over five centuries, as the urban area has grown one hundred fold from about 15 km.2 to about 1,500 km.2, its inhabitants and those who live in its ever-lengthening shadow have had ambivalent views of the capital’s place in the world.
Major cities in the central highlands – Querétaro, Tlaxcala, Toluca, Pachuca, Puebla, and Cuernavaca – and the smaller communities in their own hinterlands are part of the capital’s zone of influence on a daily basis. Characterized as “leviathan” (Davis 1994), “megalopolis” (Messmacher 1987), “mega-city” (Schteingart 1988), Mexico City is overwhelming in its complexity, a nightmare for urban planners who endeavor to take it all into account (Scott 1982). In 1978, the federal government began the process of developing a National Urban Development Plan, the focus of which was better understanding and planning for the “National Urban System,” and the place of the ever-expanding capital within this national context. A critical element of this Plan was a governmental commitment to decentralization – that is, to encourage and even to require that government agencies and private sector corporations abandon the Mexico City metropolitan region in favor of other urban areas (Rosique Cañas 1999). Despite the government’s good intentions, few significant movements took place until after the 1985 earthquake brought down dozens of buildings in Mexico City. For example, with its main buildings in ruins, the National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Information was moved to the mid-sized city of Aguascalientes, in the state of the same name. Indeed, since 1985, fear of another earthquake has probably done more to reduce the demographic and economic growth of Mexico City than any actions taken by the government! In 2000, the eruptions of the volcano Popocatépetl added to concerns about the future of life in the entire Valley of Mexico.
Mexico City also operates as a global metropolis. As Mexico has expanded its political and economic policies in recent years, especially with the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and similar multilateral and bilateral agreements with Central American and South American nations, the capital increasingly has become involved in international affairs. Entering the twenty-first century, Mexico City’s reach may once again approach what it was in the eighteenth century.
Spanish is the language of Mexico City, although in recent years English has become the city’s second most spoken language. More surprising is that more than 200,000 city residents are speakers of indigeous languages. The most numerous group are the speakers of Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), followed by speakers of Otomí, Mixteco, Zapoteco, and Mazahua, but another 40 native languages may be heard in the streets on any given day. European and Asian languages also are used by those who have immigrated to Mexico City or have come to work there as representatives of multinational corporations. Latin used to be heard in Roman Catholic masses but Spanish has replaced it in nearly all urban parishes, and Hebrew is used in Jewish synagogues located in affluent neighborhoods like Polanco (Revah Donath and Enríquez Andrade 1998).
Although the site now occupied by Mexico City has been settled by different populations as far back as 20,000 B.C.E. (Valverde and Aguilar 1987), the beginnings of its urban development are not ancient by world historical standards. According to legend, in 1325 a fierce nomadic group known as the Culhua Mexica came from the north into the Valley of Mexico. When their priests saw perched on a cactus an eagle with a snake in its beak, they knew to build a temple to the sun god. This new place, known as Tenochtitlán, was built on a small island in Lake Texcoco and was connected by long causeways to the land beyond the lake. Ceremonial, administrative, economic, and military center of what became a vast empire in less than 200 years, the city and its hinterlands around the lake basin may have had a population (estimated at 300,000 inhabitants) larger than that of any European city of that time.
The fall of Tenochtitlán between 1519-1522 to Hernán Cortés and his small army of Spanish soldiers and native allies marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. The conquering Spaniards converted the Aztec empire into a colonial system subvervient to the King of Spain and his Council of the Indies. Mexico City – as Tenochtitlán came to be called – continued in its role as hegemonic center of a colonial space (called the Viceroyalty of New Spain) extending from Central America in the south to northern California and the Philippines to the far west. Even when the administrative changes known as the Bourbon Reforms were imposed by Charles III in the second half of the eighteenth century, Mexico City continued its central role in colonial life. In fact, by the late 1700s, Mexico City had become the largest and most important city in the Americas. It had “over 130,000 inhabitants and an architectural inventory that included 150 ecclesiastical buildings, a dozen hospitals, an Academy of Art, the most advanced school of mining, and one of the great universities of the world” (Kandel 1988:236). The exploitative, dependent character of Mexican urbanization during the colonial era reflected the economic, political, religious, and social institutions responsible for building and maintaining the hierarchy of places dominated by Mexico City’s elite.
Independence from Spain in 1821 did not usher in an era of rapid urban growth. On the contrary, the grand estates – which Wolf (1959:245) has called “the ramparts of power in the countryside” – assumed a central place in the economic and political struggles between the liberal and conservative forces in the new nation of Mexico. Mexico’s urban system changed very little between 1821 and 1860, a period whose close may be marked by the Reform Laws in Mexico. Although the political and cultural hegemony of Mexico City (with an 1862 population of 210,000) was unchallenged, the effects of the Reform Laws, especially the disentailment of the holdings of large civil and religious corporations after 1859, coincided with the emergence of Mexico City as a “primate city.” By 1884, Mexico City had 300,000 inhabitants, while the next three largest cities – Guadalajara, Puebla, and Monterrey – had 80,000, 75,000, and 42,000, respectively. The disparity increased by 1910, the year in which the Mexican Revolution broke out. Mexico City had grown to 471,000, but the other cities had reached only 119,000, 96,000, and 79,000 (Boyer 1972:157-158). There is a great irony that the repressive dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1877-1910) marked a period of considerable urban development for the capital (Johns 1997). Many magnificent public buildings (including the Post Office and the Palace of Fine Arts) were constructed in modern steel and cement so that Mexico City would take on the flavor of a European capital.
The 1910 Revolution brought a temporary halt to urban development while turning Mexico City into a place of refuge for both peasants and elites fleeing violence in the countryside. The capital captured 60% of the urban growth bewtween 1910 and 1921 and nearly half the urban growth between 1921 and 1940. In 1921, the metropolitan population reached 662,000; in 1930 it topped 1 million; and by 1940 it had jumped to 1.5 million. With the bureaucratic and institutional developments of the post-revolutionary period, Mexico City diversified and strengthened its social, economic, and cultural functions in the national system (Unikel et al. 1976:37). The city also expanded toward the peripheries of the Federal District. Large, upper-class subdivisions (e.g., Polanco and Lomas de Chapultepec in the west) were developed as many elite families moved out of their old homes in the increasingly crowded central city zone (Corona Rentería 1974:282). This shift in elite population opened the way for the creation of central city slums where rent-control and small vecindad (lit. “place of neighbors”) apartment houses were the forerunners of the ciudades perdidas (“lost cities”) of the 1960s and 1970s. The other effect of the city’s spatial expansion was the creation of the Department of the Federal District in 1929 to cope with urban problems beyond the narrow jurisdiction of Mexico City per se. Despite these changes in the capital’s spatial structure, urban life was still focused inwardly, toward the Zócalo, and differed relatively little from that of the late nineteenth century (Bataillon 1972:63).
With the 1940s came Mexico City’s urban and industrial “explosion.” Governmental policies of import-substitution industrialization emphasized the locational advantages of the capital. Its centrality in the transportation network, its relatively well-skilled work force, and its larger consumer population made inevitable the concentration of urban growth in the metropolitan area at the expense of other cities in the nation. This implicit centralization policy involved not only industry but also all other aspects of social and political life, from services to insurance companies, banks, labor unions, and institutions of higher learning. As the Valley of Mexico was being industrialized, its urban infrastructure and services were being improved, more water and electrical power were brought in from distant regions, more upper- and middle-class subdivisions were built, and more peripheral squatter settlements were established. The combination of public and private investment in the capital was so high that intensive centripetal forces were generated.
The escalation of oil prices in the late 1970s fueled a sense of euphoria among urban planners in Mexico, but their decline in the 1980s brought on a serious economic crisis from which Mexico City and the nation at large have, perhaps, still not recovered. The 1985 earthquake also awakened citizens to the possibilities of living and working elsewhere than the capital. From 1985 to 1990, the Federal District lost over a million people. During the 1990s, the capital continued to lose its own younger residents and failed to attract as many young migrants as it had in earlier decades.
Despite governmental efforts to decentralize the capital’s urban economy, Mexico City still contains far too large a share of the nation’s industry, service sector businesses, and commerce. It is still the single largest employment market in Mexico. The metropolitan area actually contributes more to the government’s revenues than it extracts in expenditures. Clearly, past, present, and future initiatives by the government and by the private sector must take into account these problems of urban concentration in the Mexico City metropolitan area.
Mexico City has been a migratory magnet throughout its history, first attracting Spaniards during the colonial period of restricted population movement between the Old World and New Spain and later attracting a wider range of international immigrants after Independence in 1821 (Ota Mishima 1997; Salazar Anaya 1996). Fearful rural dwellers swelled the city’s population during the Revolutionary period from 1910-1921, and the Civil War in Spain during the 1930s brought thousands of expatriate Spaniards (Kenny et al. 1979) to the capital, including a corps of intellectuals whose scholarly endeavors formed the basis of what later would become the prestigious Colegio de México.
The post-World War II industrial boom brought tens of thousands of new arrivals to the capital every day. It was during the early phase of this industrial expansion that the anthropologist Oscar Lewis followed migrants from the village of Tepoztlán (in nearby Morelos state) to Mexico City. His concept of “urbanization without breakdown” (1952) showed that these peasants adapted well to life in the capital – contrary to the expectations of U.S.-based sociological theories. Subsequent research documented the important role of migrants in urban growth during the post-World War II period (Cornelius 1975; Garza 1996; Kemper 1987, 1995; Muñoz et al. 1977).
Mexico City proved a fertile field for developing and testing ideas about rural-urban migration. Lewis’s work (1959) on the “culture of poverty” continued his studies among the Tepoztecans in the capital’s inner-city slums and the work of his student, Douglas Butterworth (1962), replicated his mentor’s work among migrants from Tilantongo (Oaxaca). These early studies of migrant adaptation were followed by others (Kemper 1977) that also emphasized the positive features of the migrants’ experiences as individuals and households in Mexico City.
By the late 1970s, research shifted away from migrant adaptation and individual decision-making toward their “marginal” and “informal” economic status in the urban setting. Lomnitz (1977) found that social networks allowed even very poor migrants to survive in Mexico City. The positive features of their social organization, including kinship, compadrazgo (co-godparenthood) and cuatismo (“being good buddies”), provided survival mechanisms built on respeto (“respect”) and confianza (“trust”). Rather than decrying the social disorganization of the poor, scholars (e.g., Montaño 1976; Vélez-Ibañez 1983a; Selby et al. 1990) celebrated their ability to cope with the extreme structural inequalties of life in the capital, thus providing an important corrective to Lewis’s earlier “culture of poverty” concept, which had led many observers to focus on the negative qualities of urban life (Muñoz et al. 1977).
Migration was also associated with ethnicity, especially among diverse Indian groups who came to the capital to escape the poverty of the countryside. For example, Arizpe’s (1975, 1978) study of migration among the Mazahuas in Mexico City demonstrated that the linkages between their communities of origin in the state of Mexico and their circumstances in the capital were consequences of changing relationships within the broader political economy. Migration came to be seen as an issue of labor and “cultural capital” rather than individual choice (Hirabayashi 1993; Nieto Calleja 1997).
By the 1990s, investigators were paying less attention to migration per se and more to the urban culture in which migrants participated, especially the populist movements that arose in response to the economic crisis of the 1980s (Nivón 1998; Sevilla 1998)and the ecological crisis of the 1990s. The role of women in these movements brought a heightened interest in gender issues and urban processes, including migration (Barrera Bassols y Oehmichen Bazán 2000). Local initiatives in community building also were examined as transformation of urban power structures (Moctezuma Barragán 1999). As a result, at a time when migration to the capital was in relative decline, migration was seen as a consequence of broader urban processes rather than as an independent force for urban growth.
The Zócalo, the popular name of the Plaza de la Constitución, is the heart of the city and its chief ceremonial center. Ever since Aztec times, festivals and public announcements have been celebrated here, and in recent centuries the Zócalo also has been the site of demonstrations to protest governmental actions – for here on the eastern side of this great square sits the National Palace, the seat of the national government, while on the south side are the offices of the Federal District and on the north side is the great metropolitan cathedral. On the northeast corner of the Zócalo, residents and tourists can see, since its partial excavation since the 1970s, the impressive stone remains of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor (“Great Temple”); and on the northwest corner of the square is the Nacional Monte de Piedad (“pawn shop”), which has served the needs of the people since the 17th century.
The Centro Histórico covers some 9 km.2 in the area immediately north and east of the Zócalo, and includes in the designated zone some 1,436 buildings which date from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Since 1980, citizens and governmental agencies have been working together to restore hundreds of former buildings, ranging from churches, schools, and hospitals, to former residences of the colonial nobility. In 1987, the Centro Histórico was added to the “World Heritage” list of cultural properties sponsored by UNESCO.
To the west of the Zócalo is the Alameda, an area containing a large park (laid out in 1592), the Palace of Fine Arts (famous for its Tiffany glass curtain and the Ballet Folklórico), several colonial-era churches and the outstanding Franz Mayer Museum. Unfortunately, the 1985 earthquake destroyed several important buildings along the Alameda and now only empty lots remain in their places. Between the Alameda and the Zócalo, at the intersection of Francisco Madero Avenue and Lázaro Cárdenas Avenue stands the 44-floor Latin American Tower – the tallest building in Latin America when it was constructed in 1956 – where, on the rare clear day, one can view the entire city from its observation deck. Across the street from the Tower is the Casa de los Azulejos (“House of Tiles”), built in 1596 as the residence of the noble Orizaba family but currently the anchor of the very successful Sanborn’s chain of “restaurants cum pharmacy and gift shop.”
Political power within the nation is concentrated in Mexico City. The head of the Federal District formerly was appointed by the President but since 1997 has been elected by popular vote of the city’s residents. In 1997, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (of the PRD party) won the first popular election as head of the Federal District and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also of the PRD party) won the post in 2000. The city is governed by “delegates,” one in charge of each of the sixteen “delegations,” and by a local Assembly of Representatives. The Federal District also is represented in the national Senate and Chamber of Deputies.
The Federal District – created in 1928 – is directly dependent on the federal budget for its resources. Since 1970, the Federal District has been organized into sixteen “delegations”: Azcapotzalco, Benito Juarez, Coyoacán, Cuajimalpa de Morelos, Cuauhtémoc, Gustavo A. Madero, Iztacalco, Iztapalapa, La Magdalena Contreras, Miguel Hidalgo, Milpa Alta, Alvaro Obregón, Tláhuac, Tlapan, Venustiano Carranza, and Xochimilco. These delegations and the municipios surrounding the Federal District have been cooperating in planning and public administration for the metropolitan area since the mid-1970s, especially for the development of the Metro; the expansion of the streets and highways through the region; the provision of water, sewage, and sanitary services; and efforts to deal with air and ground pollution throughout the Valley of Mexico.
Local-level political decision-making is not only carried out by bureaucrats, but often is influenced by citizens’ groups at the “colonia” and block levels. In the metropolitan area more than 1,800 colonias compete for scarce urban services and resources. For several decades, local-level politics has been dominated by issues related to the lack of housing for the rapidly growing urban population. The administration’s attitude toward illegal and quasi-legal housing developments has varied from violent repression to passive acceptance to active endorsement. Some squatter settlements have been bulldozed, while others have been ignored, and still others provided with “sites and services” infrastructure. Title to individual properties is difficult to obtain. It may take more than a decade of bureaucratic problems before a family can obtain legal documentation of their claim to a specific lot in a formerly illegal subdivision or to a house in an inner-city slum.
Grass-roots movements have been especially important since the 1985 earthquake devastated much of the older, central section of Mexico City. The inaction of the local government and the dominant political party (PRI) led to disaffection with the old political order. As a result, many citizens voted for opposition party candidates in the 1988, 1994, and 2000 elections. The challenges to the newly elected administration of President Vicente Fox are measured by the daily tensions of political action in the metropolis. Success will be measured by transforming a “culture of resistance” into a spirit of cooperation in the struggle to deal with Mexico City’s manifold problems (Eckstein 1977, 1990; Gilbert 1993).
In the 1990s, Mexico City has become a much more dangerous place in which to work and live than it was in earlier times. For the rich and for the poor, violence has replaced tranquility. Robbery, assault, kidnapping, and murder have become commonplace, even in broad daylight in crowded public places. The traditional corruption of the metropolitan police forces has been augmented by the impact of drugs and drug money on all forms of authority in Mexican society.
On a typical day more than 3 million children, adolescents, young adults, and adults attend schools in metropolitan Mexico City. The search for educational opportunities has been a major component in the growth of the metropolis since the middle of the twentieth century. Millions of persons have come to the capital so that they or their children might pursue studies in public or private schools. Despite spending more on education than on any other budget domain, the Federal District still suffers with many inadequate, overcrowded schools staffed by teachers whose real salaries have fallen dramatically in recent years. For decades, the public schools have offered double (morning and afternoon) sessions for children and then reopened in the evening to provide educational opportunities for adults. Many parents, especially those in working- or middle-class households, spend a significant share of their incomes to send their children to school. Aspirations for educating the coming generation are much higher than the real possibilities; current estimates suggest that more than two million adolescents are likely to be frustrated in their efforts to attend university.
Among the most important universities in the capital are: the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (established in 1551 and given autonomy in 1929); the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (1937); the Colegio de México (1940); the Universidad Iberoamericana (1943); the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (1946);the Universidad Anáhuac (1964), the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (1973); the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional (1978); and the branch campus of the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey (1943). These and other colleges and universities enroll more than 250,000 students at the bachelor’s degree level alone (Melgar Adalid 1994).
The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) always has been the nation’s preeminent university. Since 1954, its principal campus has been located in the architecturally and artistically acclaimed “University City” in the southern sector of the capital. UNAM enrolls some 142,000 bachelor’s level students and a total of 270,000 students. The full-time faculty numbers some 30,000, of whom almost 5,000 are full-time. Even more significant is that UNAM performs 50% of all university-based research projects and enrolls 55% of all doctoral students in Mexico.
University students, and UNAM students in particular, have been the focus of political activism and strikes since the 1960s, including the 1968 student movement that resulted in the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre on 2 October 1968. Although it now costs a mere 20 centavos (two cents U.S.) for a year's tuition at UNAM, the university administration has been stopped by protests each time it has tried to raise tuition fees. Not surprisingly, demand for admission has overwhelmed the university's capacity. For the 152,000 applicants in a typical year, only 40,000 places are available and, of these, 32,000 are reserved for graduates from UNAM's own high school system. In 1999, many of the “excluded” students took over the university's main administration building and closed down UNAM for several months to alert the public to their plight.
Even though it has some of the great boulevards – like the French inspired Avenida de la Reforma – typical of any world-class city, transportation (and its associated air contamination) remains one of Mexico City’s greatest challenges. Continuing work on the extensive grid of one-way “axial” roads, the “Interior Circuit,” and the “Periférico” ring road have provided only modest improvements in what are, day in and day out, some of the world’s worst traffic bottlenecks. Now that the government is selling off so many assets, a joke has begun to circulate: Question: “Which company should buy the city’s road system?” Answer: “Coca Cola – because they already are experts in making bottles.”
Traffic had become so burdensome by 1989 that the city government imposed a system called Hoy No Circula (“Don’t Drive Today”). Each car is restricted from being driven in the city one day during the Monday-Friday work week. Although initially this system reduced traffic, gas consumption, and air pollution, soon the city’s residents began to purchase second cars for their families to beat the system – and car sales and gasoline consumption surpassed previous levels!
Mexico City not only has a very large fleet of cars, trucks, buses, taxis, shared ride shuttles, motorbikes, bicycles, and even pedicabs; it also moves some 5 million riders daily on its Metro, one of the world’s busiest subway systems. The capital also is the center of bus, truck, and railway systems which daily transport enormous quantities of cargo and passengers into and out of the city in all directions. The national bus system departs from and arrives at four separate regionally-focused stations (the TAPO serves the east and southeast, Taxqueña the south, Observatorio the west, and the north terminal serves all routes connecting to the U.S. border cities). Rail lines from all points of the nation converge on the Buenavista station located just north of the downtown business district.
The Benito Juárez International Airport, located about 6 kms. east of the Zócalo, is continually being renovated as the federal government and some 35 airlines work to maintain domestic and international service to this, the only commercial airport in the metropolitan area. Once isolated on the city’s eastern edge, the airport now creates noise and pollution that threaten the peace and health of the several million persons living or working within a kilomter or so of its security perimeter.
For Mexicans, Mexico City is referred to simply as “México.” In a sense, the capital does encompass all of the nation. It is the macrocosm that mirrors the transformations of the Mexican people through the centuries, from two centuries of the Aztec Empire through three centuries of Spanish colonial domination to two centuries of independent statehood. But a deep ambivalence persists between those who live in Mexico City and all other places, collectively known as “la provincia” (“the provinces”). There is an old saying, “Fuera de México, todo es Cuautitlán” (“Compared to Mexico City, any place else might as well be the village of Cuautitlán”). The folks from the “provinces” respond by labeling all of the capital’s residents as “know-it-alls” and use the colloquial term “chilango” for this purpose, as in the phrase “¡Como son neuróticos los chilangos!” (“Those know-it-all Mexico City residents are so crazy!”) (Lara Ramos 1996:314).
Mexico City is the home to the nation’s media. Some thirty newspapers (e.g., Excélsior, La Reforma, Uno más Uno) and dozens of magazines (e.g., Nexos, Proceso, El Tiempo) vie for the attention of readers in a marketplace with the highest literacy rate (90%) in the country. The privatization of telecommunications has increased the number of television and radio stations and has made cable and satellite television available in many middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. No longer can the government dominate the news coverage as in early decades, when access to newsprint and official advertising was tightly controlled by the government and editors were beholden to bureaucrats (García Canclini 1998).
The capital is the largest center for book publishing in Latin America. The Fondo de Cultura Económica has translated thousands of foreign language titles into Spanish and assured their diffusion throughout Mexico and Latin America. Many commercial presses (e.g., Siglo Veintiuno) focus on contemporary issues, and several university presses (especially UNAM and El Colegio de México) and governmental agencies (e.g., INAH and SEP) pour forth a torrent of new titles every year. The annual week-long Book Fair, held in a renovated colonial-era palace, draws tens of thousands of eager book buyers. Specialized book expositions (e.g., the annual anthropology book fair at the National Anthropology Museum) are long-running successes. Book stores can be found in almost every neighborhood in the capital, and the best (e.g., the Librería Gandhi in Coyoacán) carry selections rivaling those of the best bookstores anywhere in the world.
In every neighborhood of the metropolitan area, restaurants large and small, elegant and economical, endeavor to satisfy millions of unending appetites. From a rooftop patio restaurant overlooking the Zócalo to the elegant colonial San Angel Inn in southwestern Mexico City, from the Metro’s subterranean vegetarian cafes to the cocinas económicas serving comida corrida (“home-style café with a set three-course meal”) in the northwestern industrial zone of Naucalpan – Mexico City’s inhabitants are never more than a moment away from a place to eat. If the saying attributed to Balzac is true – “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are” – then knowing Mexico City is a never-ending delight.
Literally thousands of restaurants, cafes, and food stalls dot the urban landscape. People walk down the street with taco and drink in hand. Sidewalks are overrun by restaurant tables topped with umbrellas to protect patrons from sun or rain. Vendors walk up and down the streets offering baked goods, gelatins, or corn on the cob with picante sauce and heavy cream. Little children run about holding tight a plastic bag, filled with a carbonated drink, sucking it out through a straw. Families go out at night to restaurants specializing in pozole, a stew with grains of corn, meat, and old and new spices. Mexico City’s residents crave antojitos, the traditional tacos, quesadillas, tamales, and similar tidbits made from corn with fillings of meats, cheeses, or vegetables.
The cuisine in Mexico City is not only cosmopolitan and international, but also includes regional cuisines from the states of Yucatán, Veracruz, Puebla, Oaxaca, Michocán, and beyond. Mexico City currently is enjoying a renaissance in its traditional cuisine. Going beyond classical French and Continental dishes, chefs are utilizing ingredients from prehistoric and colonial times in new and exciting combinations. Exotic ingredients – huitlacoche, a black fungus that grows on corn; nopales, the fleshy pads of catcus; cajeta, a sweet caramel flavoring made from goat’s milk – supplement the ancient triad of corn, beans, and squash. The chocolate-peanut based sauce known as mole (said to have been invented in the kitchens of a convent in Puebla in the 16th century) is produced in a tongue-boggling variety of flavors, usually served over chicken or turkey on holidays, birthdays, saints’ days, or other special occasions. And much of the local cuisine depends on the dozens of varieties of chiles (capsicum) produced in the provinces, brought to the capital’s wholesale markets, and then redistributed to restaurants, stores, and weekly neighborhood marketplaces for the gustatory delight of the capital’s consumers (Long Solís 1986). This new Mexican cuisine is even being exported to the U.S. and elsewhere.
Mexico City is a serious consumer of beverages, ancient and modern, hard and soft. Pulque, mezcal, aguardiente de caña (chirguirito), and tequila are high-proof alcoholic drinks with long lineages that compete with local and imported beers, wines, and spirits to quench a thirsty public (Lozano Armendares 1996). Mineral waters, national and international soft drink brands, carbonated drinks, and blended fruit drinks are available everywhere. And, because the local drinking water is not always safe from contamination, many families use bottled water for cooking and drinking.
New foods in new combinations appear every day: Coca-Cola® is already a staple; hamburgers and hot dogs are everywhere; fast-food franchises (e.g., McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Domino’s Pizza) open every day, but with a twist: hamburgers can be ordered with chiles and Mexican sauces rather than cheese and ketchup, and pizzas can include mole and other local flavors. The increased modernization and internationalization of the food system in Mexico City has potentially serious consequences, especially in the face of the inequitable distribution of basic food stuffs. The government maintains fixed prices on a basket of basic consumer goods (e.g., milk, tortillas, beans) and operates stores in low-income neighborhoods to facilitate the distribution of necessities. In many areas beyond the gaze of tourists or the local elite, women and children line up in the pre-dawn hours to get milk at subsidized prices. Nutritious foods seem to be giving way to highly processed foods full of empty calories. Obesity is a growing problem in affluent sectors of the city, at the same time that millions of children and adults in the slums lack adequate daily caloric intake and suffer from diet-related and water-borne illnesses (Vargas 1992).
In Mexico City, ethnicity is an “invisible” dimension of urban life. The indigenous groups are rarely visible in daily life in sufficient numbers to be recognized as significant actors in the urban setting. “Aztec”-style dancers perform at the Basílica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, while women and children dressed in “native” garb sit on sidewalks where they offer their artesanal goods for sale or put out a hand to beg from passersby. Such images of the indigenous population have so mesmerized the public that the tens of thousands of other indigenous persons in the capital go unnoticed.
Foreigners are not counted as “ethnic” persons in official Mexican census data, merely being listed accordingly to country and continent of origin rather than by ethnicity. During the last 100 years, the Federal District has received between 16% to 37% of all foreign immigrants (Salazar Anaya 1996). The lowest numbers go back to 1895, when the census reported 9,505 foreigners (of a national total of 54,737 immigrants) in the Federal District. The peak was in 1960, when 83,076 (out of 223,468) were reported in the Federal District. The most census data (for 1990) recorded only 55,412 foreigners (out of 340,824) in the capital, as many foreign companies dispersed their operations away from Mexico City either because of the 1985 earthquake or in response to governmental incentives to decentralize.
Class represents the great watershed in the metropolis. The poor are everywhere to be seen in the slums of the inner city and in the squatter settlements on the urban periphery. In between, the working and middle classes struggle to achieve a stable existence in the face of recent decades of economic crisis. Meanwhile, the elite goes on to new heights of consumption. The gap never seems to close, only to grow ever wider. In the folklore of the capital, the “Marías” (women of indigenous appearance who beg on the sidewalks outside tourist hotels, museums, and churches) characterize the suffering of the poorest; the “juniors” (children of high government officials and corporate leaders) epitomize the excesses of the political and economic elite.
During the 1980s and 1990s, when many middle class families faced mounting consumer debts, organizations like El Barzón came into existence to protest foreclosures and bankruptcies. Beginning in Mexico City and other metropolitan areas, these groups have spread across the land, so that even small town residents can find support in resisting banks which would take away property for non-payment of loans originally made at high rates of interest and now incapable of being repaid as the peso has continued to be devalued for more than a decade.
The city’s religious institutions have been dominated by the Roman Catholic Church ever since Cortés arrived, accompanied by priests, in 1519. The archbishopric of New Spain was established at Mexico City in 1546, with the cathedral intentionally constructed over the the ruins of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán. Even more important was the development of the cult honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared in a vision to an Indian peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 on a hill at Tepayac (in northeastern Mexico City), which had been a place of honor for Tonanztín, an Aztec goddess. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Virgin had emerged as the key symbol of Mexican identity. In 1754, Our Lady of Guadalupe was proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church as Patroness of Mexico.
The end of the official relationship between the State and the Roman Catholic Church came in 1858 during the Juárez presidency – with the disentailment of the Church’s property – and has extended to the present day. This separation of church and state also permitted the entry of Protestant missionaries and evangelists into Mexico in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and their influence has been felt in the establishment of numerous Mexico City-based denominations and seminaries. As Mexico City moves into the twenty-first century, the Roman Catholic Church is still the most dominant religious force, but Protestant groups are gaining followers in significant numbers. Pilgrimages to the Basilica of Guadalupe on December 12th continue as always, but evangelical and Pentecostal churches are growing rapidly in the working class neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area.
All but a handful of Mexico’s some 40,000 Jews live in Mexico City. The original Spanish (Sephardic) Jews were totally integrated into the general population, and lost their Jewish identity. Today, the community is primarily Ashkenazi. The modern day Jewish community has remained ethnically distinct and separate, despite its 450 years of history in Mexico.
Isolated individuals have a difficult time making a life in Mexico City. Nearly everyone draws upon an extensive bank of social resources, ranging from immediate families to neighbors and companions at work or in school. Membership in formal organizations is less important than establishing and sustaining personal social ties beyond one’s household. The presence of powerful social networks among even the poorest of the poor provides a way to survive in an unforgiving urban environment (Lomnitz 1977). And, at the other end of the power pyramid, social networks ensure that political and economic control are maintained among a relatively small number of elite families with the “right” connections within governmental and corporate circles.
The heart of social life in Mexico City lies in confianza, a cultural construct that “designates generosity and intimacy as well as a personal investment in others; it also indicates a willingness to establish such generosity and intimacy” (Vélez-Ibañez 1983b:11). Confianza is critical to building and maintaining social relationships beyond the immediate family, including compadrazgo (co-godparenthood), amistad or cuatismo (friendship or palship), padrino político (political godfather), asesor or coyote (consultant or broker), and cacique (political power broker). Reciprocity is the operating principle for relationships of confianza. These relationships operate at all levels of society in Mexico City and provide the social cement that bonds together persons of different socio-economic statuses, in different neighborhoods, and in different institutional settings.
Voluntary associations, especially those attaching city residents to their communities of origin, provide valuable social networks to millions of residents. For example, migrants from a Mixtec community in Oaxaca have established the “Allende Society” to provide a mechanism of helping their home town (Mora Vázquez 1996), and Zapotec migrants from other Oaxaca towns sustain their identity at both informal and formal levels through mutual-aid associations (Hirabayashi 1993).
Thousands of tandas (small-scale rotating credit associations) operate informally outside regular financial channels to provide individuals with a mechanism to purchase consumer goods that otherwise would be beyond their means (Vélez-Ibañez 1983b). For example, women representing twelve different households might agree to buy twelve televisions, one each month, from a local store. Each woman would pay in a monthly contribution (equivalent to one-twelfth the cost of a television) and would receive her television on a schedule determined by drawing lots.
Myths and stereotypes about gender roles in Mexican families abound in popular novels and in the social science literature (Solís Pontón 1997). The reality is much more complex. In recent years, a re-evaluation of family structures and processes has occurred, especially in light of the rise of feminist studies in Mexico City’s intellectual circles. A long-standing awareness of the “survival strategies” of poor families (Lewis 1959; Lomnitz 1977) has been extended to issues facing families in the middle and upper classes during the economic crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. The role of women in sustaining domestic units through time has received considerable attention (González de la Rocha 1993); at the same time, stereotypical views of male machismo have been re-interpreted. And beyond the household, women have played crucial roles in organizing the poor and middle classes to deal with neighborhood problems that affect their families, homes, and children. As Gutmann (1996: 255) has argued, “Grassroots activities and cultural creativity on the part of women who over men’s objections have expressed their desire to work for money, as well as on the part of women involved in popular urban movements, certainly constitute part of women’s initiative to make men change. . . For many, the most radical aspect of their politics is revealed in their determination not to be forced to adapt to the system but rather to be included in it on their own terms.”
Mexico City is the dominant economic power in the nation. As the nation’s largest source of production, focus of the national distribution system, and home of the greatest concentration of consumers, the capital would rank as the world’s thirty-fifth largest economy if it were a free-standing country. It is the site of the national bank and the stock exchange, and home to major corporations and financial enterprises. The economic crisis of the 1980s resulted in a dramatic decline in the availability of industrial jobs in the metropolitan area, although the services sector continued to expand. The trilateral NAFTA treaty among Canada, the United States, and Mexico has heightened awareness of the capital’s role in production, distribution, and consumption. International corporations are attracted to Mexico City because of its potential consumer and labor markets, even while the government is determined to encourage decentralization of economic activities.
Perhaps the greatest economic challenge to Mexico City is the growing gap between earnings and the cost of living at the family level (Coulomb et al. 1997). The number of minimum wage jobs needed to sustain a typical family has grown beyond the labor capacity of many households. High rates of “self employment” disguise the real unemployment and underemployment rates in the metropolis. A survey carried out in 1995 revealed that basic costs of living continued to rise faster (around 10%) than the increase in the minimum wage (about 7%). Years and years of such imbalances have placed many middle and working class families in jeopardy of homelessness and bankruptcy.
In such circumstances, many families pursue multiple economic strategies in order to survive. Ideally, one family member will have a steady job with a government agency so that all of the family is covered by the government’s medical plan and so that a modest pension can be expected upon retirement. Meanwhile, other family members look for work in the private sector or pursue opportunities in entrepreneurial self-employment – e.g., running a small store from a front room of the house. This combination of steady work and entrepreneurship provides a better hedge against economic failure than either strategy taken alone (Kemper 1977; Lomnitz 1977)
Mexico City has a wide spectrum of arts and recreation opportunities available to residents and tourists. On the western side of the city, Chapultepec Park (the oldest natural park in North America) contains several important museums – including the world-class National Museum of Anthropology, the National History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Modern Art Museum, and the Rufino Tamayo Museum – as well as extensive recreational spaces and facilities where, on any given Sunday, tens of thousands of families come to picnic, to row boats in the lake, to stroll through the zoo and nearby botanical garden, to play friendly soccer games, to visit the Children’s Museum (and see shows at the IMAX® theater), to ride the roller coaster known as La Montaña Rusa (“The Russian Mountain”) in the amusement park, and to hear rock concerts at the 18,000-seat National Auditorium.. On the eastern side of the city, the San Juan de Aragón park contains a zoo and extensive recreation fields; and other, smaller parks dot the metropolitan area. Many families travel on weekends to Xochimilco, an ancient but “at-risk” ecological zone in southeastern Mexico City where extensive canals and chinampas (“floating gardens”) are traversed by hundreds of canoes adorned with arcs of multi-colored flowers (Legorreta 1995).In 1987, Xochimilco was added to the “World Heritage” list of properties sponsored by UNESCO.
In the south-central section of the capital, the Plaza México – the largest bullring in the world, with seats for 50,000 persons – provides the best bullfighting in the republic. Other professional sports include soccer, baseball, jai alai, horse racing, auto racing, and wrestling. Every weekend witnesses hundreds of local amateur league soccer matches as well as a growing number of American football games at high schools and colleges throughout the metropolitan area. In addition to physical activities, almost everyone plays the lottery, run by the government for the benefit of public welfare programs.
Mexico City is home to several excellent classical music groups, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the National Opera, the Mexico City Philharmonic, and the State of Mexico Symphony. Theatres and cinemas are found throughout the city and its suburbs, with fine art and foreign films shown at the Cineteca Nacional in the southern part of the city. Several areas – especially La Zona Rosa (“Pink Zone”), San Angel, Coyoacán, Polanco, and Lomas de Chapultepec – feature fine art galleries and bookstores.
Life in Mexico City offers many attractions for its residents. The overall quality of housing is higher than in the rest of the nation’s towns and cities. Educational opportunities abound for qualified students, including more than 1,000,000 matriculated in thirty-five universities. Health care and medical research facilities are concentrated in the capital. Every week offers hundreds of cultural events, ranging from concerts to art exhibits to the theater. The world’s largest wholesale food market supplies more than 40,000 restaurants offering every flavor of international and Mexican regional cuisines. More than fifty radio stations, twenty-seven daily newspapers, and more than 100 weekly magazines compete with numerous television stations for the public’s attention. And more than 100,000 stores offer goods from every part of the world.
But the constant movement of life in Mexico City is very stressful. Everyday, people comment on the hectic pace of urban life and the need for peace and quiet to offset the city’s rapid heart beat. Many workers and students get up at 5 a.m. to get a spot on a microbus that takes them to the nearest Metro station. Then, they are jammed into the cars – men separated from the women and children during rush hours – to make their way across the city before climbing aboard another bus or pesero (shared taxi) to get close to their final destinations. Then, several million workers and students repeat the process going home at the end of the day.
So, when the air pollution is especially severe, the garbage has not been picked upon schedule, or the “Popo” volcano is threatening another eruption, moving away from the capital to the provinces or going northward to the United States seem like attractive alternatives. But Mexico City goes on, with eager migrants replacing those who abandon hope of succeeding in the metropolis. The people who carry on, day after day and year after year, are amazingly tolerant and resilient as they cope with the best and the worst that their country has to offer.
In a recent political campaign, the slogan of the winning candidate was “Una ciudad para todos” (“A city for everyone”). But which Mexico City? The megalopolis filled with unmanageable urban problems, or the city of a thousand neighborhoods where people survive and even prosper in the face of the endless problems and stress of residing in a place of impossible dreams? The end of the twentieth century brought with it the predictable commentaries on the challenges of urban planning for Mexico City in the new millennium (Beristain 1999; Ward 1998).
García Canclini (1998) has suggested that it is useful to recognize four great periods in the development of contemporary Mexico City: (a) that of its historical and territorial concentration of the nation’s demographic and economic resources into the Federal District, during a long process lasting until the late twentieth century; (b) that of industrialization and metropolitan growth, which in recent decades led to spinning off urban elements from the capital's core into the adjacent areas in the State of Mexico; (c) that of the global city, which has assumed a major role in services and communication systems reaching throughout Latin America and North America; and (d) that of multiculturalism and democratization, which has not displaced the three other features of Mexico City but has brought them into new relief. Going into the twenty-first century, the people of Mexico City are more aware than ever in their history that heterogeneity and multiculturalism are the norm of their lives together. Mexico City is becoming what García Canclini calls a “hybrid city,”an urban space in which local demands for fairness, equality, and diversity are expressed in the context of powerful forces for globalization. As he points out, the neighborhood organizations dedicated to renovating and sustaining the Centro Histórico zone in downtown Mexico City connect their efforts to international ecological movements and preservationist agreements. Protest marches to the Zócalo, the great square in front of the National Palace and the Cathedral, bring together persons of every class in their efforts to urge the government’s leaders to transform today’s urban problems into tomorrow’s achievements.
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