Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Travel ∩ Exploring Mexico City by ear

Hearing voices from fifty years ago and today

Part 2 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

On one level, Mexico City sounds like any other metropolis to a traveler. Business people in restaurants discuss the day’s meetings over breakfast. A hundred cars idle at a light as you cross the street. Sirens wail and young men mutter comments to women walking past. Mexico City adds other sounds. Mariachi music bounces from a store on Genova Street, while one block down a club band plays Chicago blues. Peppers sizzle on a street vendor’s griddle. And subway trains emerge from tunnels with a muffled whoosh thanks to fat rubber tires.

But have a conversation with a long-time resident or simply sit in one place for two hours, and more telling voices emerge. Tuesday morning takes me to the home of Carol Miller, a prolific writer and sculptress who has lived in Mexico City since she arrived here by bus from Los Angeles more than fifty years ago. At the time she was a nineteen-year-old eager to write about the “real” Mexico and make her mark in the art world. She barely made a living selling ads for tourist magazines but started meeting at parties some of the people who had moved to Mexico City during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s to flee Nazism, war and McCarthyism. Mexico had just come through a decades-long revolution of its own that left tens of thousands dead, and its government welcomed intellectuals, artists, writers and other individuals who could lend their talents to creating a new, national identity for the country while celebrating its ancient past.

Among the people Carol became friends with were artists Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, public health nurse Lini de Vries, gastronome Diana Kennedy and an architect who would become one of Mexico’s most famous, Louis Barragán. She turned small writing assignments into a full-time correspondent’s position with Life magazine and started writing books about Mexico’s people, civilizations and mythology. Soon she was traveling the world, comparing cultures in Asia, South America and the Middle East with the world she’d come to love in Mexico. And thanks to a Life profile she wrote about sculptress Charlotte Yazbeck, Carol learned to sculpt in bronze. Her human and feline figures “are another form of research,” she says, into learning about humanity and the forces that hold her fast to her adopted country.

Carol lives in Pedregal, a neighborhood thirty minutes south of the city center. Built on volcanic rock, while most of Mexico City rests on a spongy ancient lakebed that is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, Pedregal emerged in the 1950s as an exclusive neighborhood of walled homes designed by Barragán and several other Modern architects. Among their peers were the architects involved in the design of a new, central campus for the city’s largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Also in Pedregal, it represented the most modern thinking of the time while incorporating murals and other architectural details that reflected Mexico’s proud pre-Columbian heritage. Diego Rivera and Juan O’Gorman, another architect and artist, designed the campus’ most famous murals.

Today, college students walk past the murals chatting with friends and smoking. You smell weed in the air while other weeds grow between the volcanic paving stones and litter lies across lawns. The landmark buildings need cleaning and restoration. But as I sit on a low wall in one plaza, I hear groups of friends erupt in laughter, the persistent rhythms of student drummers practicing on a nearby lawn and dozens of simultaneous conversations coming from the open windows of classrooms in a long building with the starkness of 1950s Modern. Through a set of speakers perched by themselves on a balcony three stories above comes the distorted blare of a female voice reciting a speech. She talks of the university and their work. Then another female voice recites poetry about the sea, the sky and her place in the world. Students keep walking across the plaza below, smoking their cigarettes and holding hands. No one seems to be listening, but it is oddly comforting to see this makeshift sound system all by itself up there, while graffiti on the balcony above it reads, “Atención libertad: castigo a Fox, Peña, Nieto.” Look out, liberty: punishment for Fox, Peña, Nieto – a message for several Mexican leaders.

All photos by Ardis Berghoff. The first photo shows Carol Miller in her studio. The second photo shows the library, with murals designed by Juan O'Gorman on its walls, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico campus, University City, Mexico City. The third photo shows a classroom building on campus. The blaring speaker is the small, silver box perched on the third-floor balcony.The graffiti is barely visible on the uppermost balcony.


2KoP said...

What a wonderful exercise to write about a place you love through specific sensual observations. I'm really enjoying these posts.

Girl on a Hill said...

Thank you, 2kop. I appreciate your checking these posts out!