Close to Mexico City’s Heartbeat

<i> Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section</i>

New air fare reductions will be part of a program to increase tourism to Mexico which is needed to help cope with problems made acute by an international debt crisis and drastically reduced oil revenues.

In today’s troubled world, is it safe to walk the streets, parks and even the museums in a city with so many people forced to live below the poverty line of survival?

From Overview to Close

After an overview city tour, my wife Elfriede and I decided to go beyond the tour buses and try to walk by ourselves into the heartbeat of Mexico City. We wanted to look around and ask questions as an anonymous visiting couple, without tourist office guides or special privileges. We can handle enough Spanish to get along.

We walked together for about five hours, then I rambled on for another four before the function we were scheduled to attend that evening.

That was on Friday, the first day of spring. It was also a national holiday commemorating the 180th birthday of Benito Juarez, one of the greatest heroes in Mexican history who did so much to establish constitutional democracy in his country.

Mexican friends suggested it would be the best of days to walk among the people of the city. Schools, government offices, virtually all businesses and stores were closed. Families would be thronging the parks, streets and museums.

From our Camino Real Hotel beside Chapultepec Park it was only a few moments’ walk to the National Museum of Anthropology, one of the world’s great museums of the history, art and architecture of ancient American civilizations. Many groups of schoolchildren were among the people thronging through the entrance.

A Deep Interest

Most of the visitors were Mexican people taking the opportunity to get a perspective on their own history. The children carried notebooks and pens on what obviously wasn’t entirely a holiday. With deep interest and absorption they knelt and sat in front of historical exhibits, making notes from the descriptive labels.

Guards were courteous to everyone, but alert to prevent a recurrence of the theft that had taken valuable artifacts on Christmas Eve.

The museum has at least three miles of exhibits on its ground floor and upper level.

Stepping out into the sunshine, we walked into Chapultepec Park that on Sundays and holidays becomes a park of the people. They were there by the thousands on that first day of spring to picnic, boat on the lakes, play soccer, jog, sunbathe, snooze in the shade, visit museums. More young couples were cuddling and kissing on park benches and on the grass than we’ve seen along the Left Bank in Paris.

The park so completely belongs to the people that there are no “Keep off the Grass” signs. Yet the grounds are well maintained and reforestation is a continuous process within the mile-square park.

Aztec nobility came here to relax. So did the conquistadors. Chapultepec Castle was most memorably and tragically occupied by Emperor Maximilian and his bride Carlotta during the 19th-Century French conquest. When he was killed, she watched with heartbreak for his carriage to return.

Site for Family Outings

Juarez refused to live in the castle, and there is a nearby monument to nine young cadets who heroically became defenders against the U.S. invasion of 1847. Now the castle is the National Museum of History, and we watched a hand-holding young Mexican couple gaze with fascination into Carlotta’s marble tub.

As they entered the park in front of the castle, families happily toted picnic baskets. Frequently everyone in the family big enough to walk also was enjoying a lollipop. Vendors offered everything from tortillas to colorful balloons. One photographer had stuffed animals on which to photograph children.

The streets around the park were busy with family cars and vans, buses, regular taxis and the small VW taxis.

From Chapultepec Park we began a long walk along the boulevard of Paseo de la Reforma, the Champs-Elysees of Mexico City, then began circling the downtown area where the earthquake was centered. The quake damage has received worldwide press coverage, and we will only note what the visitor will perceive this spring.

Much of the debris has been cleared and much is still to be removed. The random pattern of destruction remains clearly evident. A modern high-rise with walls that seem to be almost entirely glass windows shows no cracks. Neither does an older building in the same block. Between the two, a complex of offices and stores remains a mass of rubble.

Hotels Operating Normally

We walked through a dozen of the hotels most popular with international visitors, from our own Westin Camino Real and El Presidente Chapultepec to the 800-room Maria Isabel Sheraton in the heart of town, and found all operating normally.

We talked with several hotel guests from the United States who said they’d be staying until Monday because all of the airlines were overbooked by Mexico City area residents outbound for resorts at that beginning of the Easter holiday.

We came upon the debris of half a dozen hotels that had been hit by the quake, and one site already resurfaced. We saw some people still camping beside housing units that had been shattered, but most have been sheltered in temporary housing. We were told that college student groups, churches and many private organizations are working with the government to help find and provide homes and home loans for earthquake victims.

“The quake brought us closer together,” one young church worker told us. “We hope visitors to Mexico City will feel that we are more like a family. We share a sense of loss for all who were killed by the quake, and we know this number will prove to be more than the present official count of about 10,000.”

She believes that as many as 300 low-rent housing units are still in danger of collapsing and will have to be replaced with the help of donations being received from around the world. Together with her fellow church workers, she expressed appreciation for visitors who would walk among the people, and then advised:

“Tell your readers not to walk in Chapultepec Park or out of the main areas of the city at night. Where there is poverty there can be crime; most of the crimes are associated with drugs.”

Flowers of Springtime

Back on Paseo de la Reforma the flowers of a new springtime were already blooming along the famous promenade. Two small boys were stunting with mini two-wheelers. A gray-haired jogger stopped under a shade tree and began to do calisthenics.

Anderson’s restaurant, which had moved into new quarters a block from its long-time location destroyed by the quake, had customers waiting along the sidewalk. We had already noted that the famed La Cava restaurant close to the university had not been damaged.

Walking Avenue Juarez into Avenue Madera on the way to the historic Zocalo district, the grand exterior of Bellas Artes, the Palace of Fine Arts, was just as free from quake damage as we had found the magnificent interior to be when we had enjoyed the Ballet Folklorico the previous Wednesday evening.

Zocalo square, the historic center of religious and political life in Mexico City, likewise showed no quake damage. Holiday crowds and vendors thronged the square between the National Palace built on the site of Montezuma’s royal residence, the great cathedral begun in 1562, the colonial architecture of the Majestic Hotel and the excavations that have brought to view the most sacred site of the ancient Aztec Empire.

In the spirit of Benito Juarez and his birthday, a group of teachers from Oaxaca was holding a rally to protest not being paid regularly. In Alameda Park, children from the Chinese community stood hopefully with Mexican children around vendors of brilliantly colored balloons.

Following Marathon Route

Eighteen springtimes ago, before the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, I started out from the Zocalo to walk for the first time into the heartbeat of the city, following the 26.2-mile route of the Marathon Run. Now as I was walking alone back along Paseo de la Reforma, ambulances, police cars, fire trucks and rescuer workers suddenly began converging with sirens on an earthquake-damaged building near the Cuauhtemoc statue to the last Aztec emperor. The building had just collapsed on a demolition crew that had not taken time off to celebrate the holiday.

Young rescue workers in hard hats lowered themselves fearlessly into the tangle of debris. I told a police officer that I am an American journalist and he let me get in close to take some photos. As I stepped back into the gathering crowd, a woman tearfully held out her hands as if praying that I could tell her the trapped workers could be rescued.

They were. I phoned The News, Mexico City’s English-language newspaper, to alert the city desk to the story. It was on the front page the next morning. Among the nine trapped workers rescued, the most critically injured was 15 years old.

Half a dozen blocks from Chapultepec Park and the Camino Real Hotel a young couple was embracing beneath the Golden Angel monument to Mexico’s independence. He was resting on two crutches, which left his arms free. By hugging him tightly, her arms helped him to stand.

All this was Mexico City on the birthday of Benito Juarez.