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Sunday paseo

1 March 2009

on-the-road-mexI spent most of the past week (when I wasn’t holed up with the aftereffects of minor dehydration*) here in Mexico City doing book bidness, so this morning, took a paseo down Paseo de la Reforma — which manages to live up to its name on Sundays from 8 until 2 in the afternoon.

While the Sunday paseo was originated in the 17th century as a means for the upper crust to show off their carriages and horses (and cruise for suitably well-set up prospective husbands for their dowered daughters), by the 19th century, the gachupine colonial show had been thoroughly Mexicanized.  The Mexicans appropriated it for their own uses.  In smaller communities, you will still see the girls walking around the local park clockwise and the boys counterclockwise (or is it the other way around?), doweries have little to do with it these days.

This may be the Twenty-first century, but tradition in Mexico finds a way to accommodate change.  In Matamoros, nicely meshing the old gauchupine carriage trade and the Mexican courting… and maybe with an ecologically conscious bow to “American Grafitti”, the weekend paseo is by bicycle.

Foreign guidebooks like to claim  Paseo de la Reforma was laid out by Emperor Maximilian, though the truth is that the path was that taken by the Emperor’s more intelligent Mexican horse from Chapultepec down to the Alameda.  By the way, Time Out: Mexico City (I drafted much of the history section) has the right story, making it probably the first European guide book to get it right.

Benito Juarez — who saw the Castle as a white elephant anyway — had better things to worry about than the Emperor’s European advisors’ unfinished civic improvement projects, but Porfirio Diaz — with his own European-influenced concept of the modern city,  created what was intended as a dramatic showcase of the elite and modern to tie his home in the Castle (Juarez never lived in the place) to his capital.

Diaz’ vision has largely held up, though the Parisian-styled architecture has long given way to international style.  It’s continually changing, with several new buildings either recently completed (like the 222 Reforma building, proudly displaying its address in Korean… the Koreans being the latest of Mexican immigrant groups to do well and put their mark on the capital) or in progress (like the new Senate building).  Incidentally, the number of cranes and building permits you see walking up Reforma sort of belie the idea that this is a failed state… failed states are not usually aren’t in the middle of a building boom).  While there are some unfortunately dull 1950s era constructions (the United States Embassy, which also requires security fencing that blocks parts of the street), Paseo de la Reforma has always been a monument to modernity.

Unfortunately, in the latter half of the 20th century, modernity meant automobile traffic.   Automobiles and Paseos do not mix easily.  Historical monuments, were relegated to traffic islands — still impressive, but impossible to study close up and stressful to contemplate.

Except for mega protests, when some version or another of Reforma took the form of massive Paseos with banners and music and gritos — a simple paseo down the Paseo was fraught with challenges.  Slightly less than a quarter of Chilangos travel by automobile.  While this is a significantly higher number of people than those who in the 17th century could afford a carriage,  the private auto is still not the people’s choice… and although the Mexican people are justifiably noted for their ability to adjust to incongrous inconveniences, they would just as soon let modernity accommode them.

paseo-1Modernity and tradition are — as they always eventually do in Mexico — converging.  Sidewalks have been widened, more trees planted, and — in the areas abutting the Zona Rosa where widening the pedestrian paths elminated what had been an oasis in the median — at least an aesthetically pleasing prospect (small pyramids) — keeps the traffic and people separated.

And… on Sundays… the automobiles must accommodate the people.  The main center lanes become bicycle, rollerskate, skateboard, Segway (the police travel on Segways) and pedestrian pathways.  Today, besides the people watching, cruising, biking, etc. there was also free entertainment outside the Secrtariat of Social Development, courtesy of whatever group is camped in protest out front, as well as a slightly more “official” rock-n-roll band — in the modernist way –with a corporate sponsor (wish I’d taken a picture …something about an “edican” waving a big flag reading “Bimbo” that’s photogenic), freebie aerobics lessons and bike repair.

The Paseo… and the traditional weekend “paseo” … is moving into the next stage… that of enlightenment and higher consciousness.  The park benches are meant not just as a convenience, but as a means of developing an aesthetic sensibility, a connection between the people and the city.


The kiosks display poems


Taking the park bench to new level(s)

* I should have known better, having lived in DF for several years.  But, having been at sea level for the last year, my “fergetter” kicked in, and I just forgot that the harder work the body does at high altitude (combined with aging) and the high and dry climate can take a lot out of you.  Literally.  The only thing to do is sit on the crapper, down a couple of liters of water and wait for everything to pass.  It will.  Or, rather, stop.

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