Our Man in Mexico: Colonia Guerrero - Tlatelolco
Big cities are, by definition, chaotic: they’re as alive as we are, and their constant struggle between changing or remaining as they are mirrors our own internal turmoil. As journalist Rodrigo Riquelme said, “Mexico City is a monster that inhabits its habitants every day, and not the other way around”. She is our great protagonist, and she reflects our own lights and shadows in powerful ways.
But let’s talk a bit more about that never-ending struggle that governs not only the spaces we live in, but also our lives. Since the only constant in life is change, there must also be a resistance to that change. And the traces of that resistance leave deeper scars in some places than others.
The Colonia Guerrero is one such place, and that’s where its beauty lies. Those who live there know this: more than a place, it’s a way of life. No neighbourhood in Mexico City honours their name as clearly as the Guerrero (“Warrior”) does. Her residents have fought for generations to preserve their identity, their homes and their history, and continue to do so to this day.
The Salón Los Ángeles has been a refuge for many who want to preserve exactly those things. “Who doesn’t know Los Ángeles, doesn’t know Mexico”, reads a poster by the entrance; personally, I agree. The live music, the lighting and the altar where the King of Mambo Dámaso Pérez Prado blesses his nightly visitors make you feel like you just walked into a movie.
Once you step into the building, time flows back to the past, and you don’t need to imagine the rumberas and pachucos glamorously heading to the dance floor because they’re right there, dancing the danzón like their grandmothers taught them to. They defy both the challenges of the present and the promise of the future with flair and style. Perhaps this is why it keeps attracting film makers from all over the world.
But this magic doesn’t belong to Los Ángeles alone. There are other places where you can also feel like you’re stepping into a different time and place. Between the streets of Mina and Violeta, deep into the heart of the Guerrero, the house of Antonio and Antonieta Rivas Mercado has also miraculously withstood the test of time. A few hundred years ago, the then called Bellavista neighbourhood used to be coveted by the Porfirian elite, many of which chose to live there. Among them, the architect that designed the Angel of Independence designed one of the most beautiful homes ever built in Mexico City: an architectural experiment, where he mixed and matched several different styles to create a work of art. Today it’s preserved as a museum, and it houses only the ghosts of a very powerful yet tragic family. However, that’s a story for another day.
Every film that has taken place in this part of town has a peculiar energy, an emotional intensity that is hard to ignore and that soaks through every nook and cranny in the neighbourhood.
Film Director Alejandro Iñárritu embodies the emotionality of these spaces to visually represent the rawness of his characters’ stories in Amores Perros (2000), and more recently in Bard (Or a False Chronicle of a Few Truths) (2021). You only need to take a stroll down Violeta Street to see what he saw in the famous vecindades (“tenements”) of the Guerrero. The facades are colourful yet decadent, and inspire a sense of raw closeness when you look at them. It’s no wonder the community is so tightly knit here. As Riquelme said: we inhabit the spaces that inhabit us, in a way.
The Violeta Street is, by the way, a pleasure to look at in march. In the early 2000s Comex painted the whole street in purple colours, and when the spring comes and the jacarandas bloom, everything turns violet. A sight to behold. Its vecindades are some of the oldest in the city, and they stand as evidence of their residents’ struggle to keep away the modernizing rage that tried to displace them in the sixties.
Their neighbours in Tlatelolco weren’t as lucky. In 1964, the government decided to demolish part of the most decadent vecindades in the zone (and some prehispanic ruins of tremendous value) in order to build one of the most ambitious urbanizing projects there have ever been in the capital: The mega apartment complex Nonoalco-Tlatelolco, which was never finished, but became one of the capital’s most emblematic and emotionally charged places I’ve ever seen.
In Tlatelolco, time seems to collapse on itself: futuristic buildings from the sixties blend into colonial churches, which were in turn built on prehispanic ruins. The past, the present and what some imagined the future looked like in a different point in time merge into a very tangible picture of the deep scars that change (progress, as some call it) has left in our collective history.
The Plaza of the Three Cultures stands as a monument to the movements that have emerged - and failed - in response to such massive transformations.
First, the prehispanic resistance to colonization.
Second, the colonial resistance to modernization.
And third, the students’ resistance to authoritarianism.
Today, however, new life blossoms where tragedy occurred. Young taekwondo students take their class in the plaza, in front of the ruins of a forgotten city. A little further ahead, the incomplete dream of a city within a city that the architect Mario Pani dreamed almost sixty years ago stands in quiet contemplation. Beautiful murals cover their buildings, triggering our imagination with ideas of what our history, our identity and our legacy mean to us. Two men seem to argue on the facade of the Chihuahua building, next to the Victorian Santiago Park.
Who could they be? Why are they arguing? The deeper layers of their story might be linked to Mexico’s darker history, but we’ll never know. The artist himself, Escif, never acknowledged it either.
But that’s not what matters; just like in Duck Season (2004, Fernando Eimbcke), it is not about what is; it is what we, as spectators, make of it that gives it its meaning. We’re not looking at murals and buildings. We’re looking at ourselves.
Until the next time,