On our last day in the city, we went up 42 floors to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana to take a bird's eye view.
My first, and second, and probably final impression was how vast this city really is. It seemed like a video would show it to you better than any other way, so I took this one, walking slowly around the periphery of the cage at the top of the building. (It shows you a little of adolescent Mexican life, too.) If you use the full screen view you'll be able to see much better.
The Tower is located on the western side of the Centro Historico. The video starts looking north, approximately; the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadelupe is below the hills in the distance. Then it moves to the northwest; the white building in the foreground is the Palacio des Belles Artes, and the beautiful park beyond it is the Alameda. Then we move directly west, toward the business center with its skyscrapers and modern architecture. The video proceeds to the south and zooms into the neighborhood where we were living: Escandon. Finally, we look toward the east. The Zocalo is the large bare rectangle in the center; the Palacio Nationale is on its far side, and the Metropolitan Cathedral is on the north side. The camera moves down Avenue Francisco Madero, which is now for pedestrians only, and then back to the Zocalo.
Looking at this video now, I just want to be back there. I'm kind of amazed to realize how much we've learned about this enormous place in a short time, mainly because of studying maps and Google Earth and traveling around using different modes of transportation. The city begins to make at least some geographical sense to me, whereas at first - flying in for the first time a year ago - it just felt overwhelming. I'm very fond of Mexico City now, and in spite of being one of 25 million souls there, I felt like it welcomed me. Everywhere we went, including this tower, we met and talked to people who were warm, curious, open, and direct. They have made this place, over many centuries, and it reflects them.
We went down in mid-afternoon, walked around the Centro, had something to eat, and came back up to watch the sunset.
Our first day in Mexico was a national holiday as well as being a Monday - the day when most museums and many shops and restaurants are closed. A good time, we thought, to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Villa, as it's popularly called, since the site contains several churches and other buildings, is the most-visited shrine to the Virgin Mary in the world (over 20 million annual visitors) and the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Latin America -- reason enough to visit. But I wanted to try to understand something deeper about the devotion to "Our Lady" -- this particular apparition of the Virgin Mary -- whose image appears everywhere in Mexico City, and who seems embedded in the hearts of the people, whether overtly religious or not. I wondered what I would feel.
We reached the site after quite a long ride by Metrobus to the northern part of the city, and a walk through a residential neighborhood full of first-floor souvenir shops and small retail stores. Within the walls of the shrine, one finds a huge stone plaza, and around it, the new basilica shown above, and several former basilicas, progressively older from left to right, dating back to the 16th century. Two of these are shown in the picture below; all of these buildings are very large, and suffered considerable damage from the Mexico City earthquake in 1985; one was so slanted that it felt extremely unsafe, but people were still worshipping in it.
On the top of Tepeyac Hill, in the upper right, is yet another church, the final destination of most of the pilgrims who come here.
Here is the official Catholic account of the story.
On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac. Speaking to him in Nahuatl (the dialect of the tribe of the Aztecs) the girl asked that a church be built at that site in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the "lady" for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The first sign was the Virgin healing Juan's uncle. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found Castillian roses, not native to Mexico, on the normally barren hilltop. The Virgin arranged these in his peasant cloak or tilma. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Under the revisionist painting shown above, the caption reads "The Conversion of the Indians." You can see the Franciscan friars administering baptism from water held in an Aztec vessel, now serving as a font; above them, the Virgin of Guadelupe appears wreathed in smoke that billows from Popocatepetl. Through the Spanish Requirement of 1513, which was read aloud to the native people in Spanish, the Spanish monarchy had declared its divinely ordained right to take possession of the territories of the New World and to subjugate, exploit and, when necessary, fight the native inhabitants. Resisters were considered evil, in defiance of God's plan for Spain, and were forced to convert to Christianity or were killed. (Diego Rivera's murals in the Palacio Nationale depict what really happened.)
Below the painting is a reproduction of the famous image as it appeared on Juan Diego's cloak or tilma; the original tilma is displayed in the new basilica, above the altar, in an enclosure containing gases to help keep it in a state of preservation. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin became Latin America's first indigenous saint when he was canonized at this site by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Why, then, did so many native people become attached to Our Lady? Before the Spanish Conquest in 1591-21, Tepayac Hill had been the site of a temple to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. The Spanish destroyed it and built a chapel there in honor of the Virgin Mary. After they were converted to Christianity, the Indians continued to come there, addressing the Virgin as "Tonantzin." Whatever the truth was about the story of Juan Diego -- an indigenous man -- only a decade later, the Indians formed the core of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe: a devotion that continues to this day. As we visited the shrines and walked around the site, we saw hundreds of native people who had come with their families. There were very old women, walking with difficulty, supported by a daughter or son, and there were many young woman with newborn babies in their arms, bringing them to meet the Virgin for the first time, or to be baptized at a special building that is part of the Villa.
At the far end of the plaza is a raised area which affords a beautiful view of the entire site. I stood there and watched pilgrims crossing the rough stone plaza on their knees, toward the new basilica.
In the previous picture you can see a sign that reads "Mercado," or "market." Behind the main buildings is a large typical Mexican market -- a warren of interconnected tents and buildings -- full of souvenirs, and things to eat and drink. We stopped there for lunch: roast chicken with freshly-made corn tortillas.
You can see the roofs of the mercado behind this earliest church, where Juan Diego is interred.
Just above that church is this astonishing larger-than-lifesize bronze tableau of native people presenting gifts to the Virgin; from it, a path leads up the hill through beautiful gardens to the shrine at the top, the "shrine of the roses."
All along the path and through the gardens, people stopped with their families to be photographed.
There were professional photographers with tricky printers that produced large-format photos on the spot. Each of them had a shrine-themed photo-spot, some more kitschy than others. Here we have not one but two Virgins, a Pope, multicolored roses, and every stereotypical Mexican symbol you can think of. At the shrine, Pope John Paul II, "Juan Pablo," seemed second only to the Virgin in popularity; there is a huge bronze statue of him in the plaza. I didn't see a single image of Pope Benedict, but I'm sure Pope Francis will become popular here too.
A view of one of the older basilicas and plaza, as we climbed up the hill.
And some of the beautiful plantings. I loved seeing women carrying their babies in their arms, wrapped in a blanket.
The Shrine of the Virgin of the Roses, at the top of Tepayac Hill. Photography was not allowed inside; it was a simple, very old structure with a small dome, an altar, and some large paintings of the miraculous events.
Finally, we descended, becoming part of the large crowd enjoying a beautiful day, completely at ease in this shrine that clearly belongs to them. They were families on an outing; devotees coming to pray; people seeking some moments of peace and beauty in a crowded city -- but by their manner, their respect was clear: this was not a park like any other.
What did I feel?
At one point, crossing the plaza, I looked down at a stone beneath my feet and saw that, unlike its neighbors, it was covered with Aztec carvings. That is Mexico City: the past coexists with the present. They weigh upon each another in the stones of the buildings, mingle in the faces of the people. Our own past always seems both real and unreal, and so perhaps in this place with its unfamiliar and miraculous history I was able to suspend judgements and simply be present.
Did the Virgin appear to Juan Diego half a millenium ago? Does it really matter?
She is present today on this streetcorner in Escandon, and thousands of other corners, shop windows, tree notches, and public nooks throughout the city; as people pass by, they notice, pause, cross themselves. Her image appears in all the churches, and she is present in nearly every home in a ceramic statue, an image woven of palm fronds, or embroidered on a blouse, or molded into a folkloric retablo. She moves through the city around people's necks, or on their backs, and travels with strangers back to a far northern city: a dim image seen through a tiny crystal set in the cross of a rose-scented rosary.
In the end, I was touched by the beauty of the shrine, and I was moved by the old women, many of whom were probably not much older than me. There was a lot that I didn't understand, because I am neither Mexican nor Catholic, and a lot that I did, because I am human. I'm content to leave it at that.
The Jumex is a three-month-old contemporary art museum in the Polanco district of Mexico City area, established by Eugenio Lopez, whose family fortune was made through the Jumex fruit juice empire.
Before our recent trip, we had read an excited review of the museum in the New York Times. As longtime readers of this blog will know, modern architecture is an interest of ours, and a big part of why we wanted to see Museo Jumex was to see the building itself and its slightly older neighbor, the art museum of another Mexican billionare, Carlos Slim. Lopez has been collecting since the mid-90s and the Jumex collection now stands at over 2,750 pieces; the museum is the largest contemporary art museum in Latin America and Lopez has said that he intends to eventually donate the building and its contents to Mexico.
Quebec, still mired in nationalistic debates, provincialism, and insecurity about its place in the international cultural scene, might take note of the following:
...[previously] Mexican collectors had mostly stayed within the few socially acceptable categories of pre-Columbian, -Colonial, muralism, and so on, all of which focused on a nationalist past. Lopez instead wanted to position Mexico City to be a part of what he calls “the network,” the intellectual and cultural circuit that connects New York, London, Berlin, Bejing, and other global centers. “I saw an incredible opportunity in doing a collection that was not just Mexican or Latin American,” Lopez says, noting that before him, very few people were doing that. They all had Diego Riveras, Frida Kahlos, but no one bought a Jasper Johns. “I said, ‘I want to do it on an international level.’ ”
A 1997 visit to London’s Saatchi Gallery hatched Lopez’s vision for a Jumex corporate collection that would be open to the public—then, a novel idea in Latin America. The art adviser Patricia Martín, a key mentor, got him to think beyond that trophy mentality to imagine instead a foundation that would not only collect art but also dispense scholarships for arts education, provide grants for young Mexican artists, and fund acquisitions of Mexican art abroad...
When we visited, on a Friday, we were told by a cheerful, laid-back attendant in the sign-less lobby that the museum was free that day. He sat at a table with computer cords snaking away from wall sockets, while the room next door was a sleek, minimalistic black cafe; it seemed either like the lobby was unfinished, or had deliberately avoided the designed-to-impress entrance of so many of its peers.
The entire building is clad in a creamy travertine marble, and the use of that material on the interior floors as well enhances the typical Mexican porosity of indoors vs. outdoors. We rode to the top floor in a sleek elevator and worked our way down; on the top level was a curated show of works from the collection, more memorable to me for the spaces themselves than for the works, although I really liked a Basquiat portrait and a floor-to-ceiling graphite "drawing" by Carlos Amorales on one of the exhibition walls itself.
On the floor below was a very fine show about the work of the late performance artist/sculptor James Lee Byars, co-curated by the Jumex Fundación’s Magalí Arriola and MoMA PS1’s Peter Eleey: a travelling collaboration that may be a good indication of Lopez's intentions for the future.
Much of Byars' art was made of paper, linen, silk and gold-leaf; it had a Zen aesthetic and was provocative, intelligent, and often amusing, while avoiding excessive cerebralism.
The museum's internal staircase is unexpectedly brilliant.
But my favorite physical space was the second-floor wrap-around outdoor "porch" which the architect, David Chipperfield of Britain, uses to frame vistas of nearby architecture and far-away horizons, making statements about the Jumex as both a physical and psychological presence within Mexico City. Beyond that, it was simply beautiful: I stayed out there a long time, while the sun went down, and then we finally exited to take some more photographs of the museum's exterior before leaving Polanco and heading back to our hotel.
If Carlos Slim's astonishing, shining tile-encrusted hourglass is a statement piece set amid Polanco's tall monuments to corporate success and Mexico's future, then the Jumex, with its straight sides and saw-tooth pate, is an understatement. It sits like a slightly smug, self-contained toy block set down amid much snazzier neighbors, but seems quite well-positioned both to stay, and to be heard.
Yesterday was the first day I needed my winter coat. But it was a gorgeous, clear, bright day, and I walked up to work, taking photographs as I went. The leaves are mostly off now, except for some of the protected areas in the parks, and along a few streets planted with late-shedding varieties. Somehow the new bareness always makes me see more.
Metro Tunnel Entrance/Exit, Dupont Circle
Antiques in a shop window.
Greenwich Villagers. I love her sharp gray peplum suit, and the pink baseball hat with his seersucker.
Just in front of Washington Square.
A great striped sweater-coat. And a bow in the hair.
Washington Square: fountains, guitar music, hanging out.
Dog-walkers. (There's a dog-run in the Square; always a scene.)
Oops, he caught me. That dubious look over the specs...
After that we met our friend at her nearby apartment and went out for pizza, and then walked down Lafayette to Chambers Street.
The new tower, from the back of the courthouse.
And back across the Brooklyn Bridge.
So...back to New York. This was the view when we emerged from the Fulton Street subway station in lower Manhattan; that's the new building at the World Trade Center site in the background. It's incredibly tall, and looked almost unreal in the early morning light.
Two spires: St. Paul's Church in the foreground. J. and I stopped in a deli for a bagel and coffee, and then we split up; he went off to a camera store and then to visit a cousin whose office is nearby, and I decided to walk uptown on Broadway. I was headed for 12th Street, about 30 blocks north, and we planned to rendezvous at our friend's apartment in Greenwich Village around 2 pm. The only problem was the heat, which was beastly. My solution was to walk until I couldn't take it anymore, then step into an air-conditioned store for a while, of which, of course, there are many. But the focus of my walk was the street.
Construction. Always. In the middle of everything.
Suddenly, upscale retail: this is a window display at Kate's Paperie, SoHo.
Street scene looking north, Chrysler Building in the far distance.
Street fashion and make-up.
Typical, incredibly beautiful building facades of lower Manhattan. When I reached Canal Street I took a detour to Utrecht Art Supplies, where I bought some blocks of Arches watercolor paper in interesting sizes, and stood letting their big fan blow on me for a while. Then I headed back to Broadway and resumed my walk.
And we've got some for you...a whole store devoted to Converse All-Stars.
At Dean&Deluca, an ultimate deli. I went in to cool down.
Some of their fancy cookies. Those purple octopi are $4.50 each, but they're certainly cute. I didn't buy anything to eat, but somewhere around here I bought a loose black tank top, much cooler than what I was wearing, on sale for ten bucks, and changed my clothes in the store's dressing room.
Houston Street, the dividing line between SoHo (south of Houston) and Greenwich Village.
Grace Episcopal Church, Astor Place.
And its interior.
Finally, my destination: The Strand: "18 Miles of Books." I had a quick sandwich across the street, and then went in to browse. A whole huge store of English language books!
(next post: back down to Washington Square, and a long walk back home across the Brooklyn Bridge.)
And here's the full image. We rode down Vanderbilt Avenue from our bed-and-breakfast, down along the old navy shipyards, along cobblestone streets, and finally onto this boardwalk and under the Brooklyn Bridge.
It's quite the view of lower Manhattan.
And at the far left, there's Lady Liberty, presiding over the harbor.
We've been up on the Esplanade in earlier visits, which is really beautiful, but you don't get the same connection with the water and the city beyond as you do in the new park. They've done a wonderful job; rolling berms separate the park from views and noise of Brooklyn, and there are thick plantings of native shrubs, lots of grass, and while there are some nice kiosks for food and ice cream, it's not at all commercial. There are low-key, low-intensity spots for sitting, for families to cook a barbeque, recreational areas including some huge lovely playing fields and a rocky park with fountains and waterfalls for kids to play in, and this end of a pier, fitted out with stainless steel sinks and bait-prep areas for fishermen.
"What are you catching?" I asked. "Striped bass," this fellow told me. He was from Puerto Rico, and a veteran fisherman. "Des catchin blues ovah deyh," he said, pointing toward Governor's Island. "And deyah too," indicating the tip of lower Manhattan. "Bluefish?" I said. He nodded, grinned, and shook his head. "Not heah! Dunno why." I asked him what they used for bait and he explained and showed me: a big fish that they cut up into pieces. Each of the fishermen had four rods, which they bait, cast, and then set against the railing, waiting. Seemed like a contented way to spend a hot day, down by the water in the breeze.
Then we rode back up into the city of Brooklyn, and stopped for lunch. The service was very slow - a new chef had come on that day, they said, so I had time to sketch the people at the next table on the butcher-paper that covered ours.
We were really hot by that time, and unfortunately a little sunburned, so we went back to the B&B. I took a shower and then went out to explore the neighborhood and visit The Community Bookstore, which TC and friends has shown me on a previous visit.
I also found a fabric store with a beautiful selection of Indian cottons, including the piece above. Couldn't resist. And at the bookstore I bought, appropriately enough, the latest issue of Granta, titled "Travel," in which there's an excerpt from Teju's forthcoming book on Lagos. Smaller and larger, both, our world.
On Sunday, the newly-formed Urban Sketchers of Montreal were outside on the first comfortably-warm day of the year, sketching along the Lachine Canal. It was also opening day for our community garden; our work bees are always on Sunday mornings. I would have liked to be in those two places too, but I was singing instead -- and happy to be doing that.
Still, it was such a nice day that I sat outside after lunch, in-between the services, and -- in the spirit of urban sketching -- did this sketch of the monument in Phillips Square, which is located kitty-corner and across Blvd St. Catherine from the cathedral. It was so warm and bright I was actually worried about getting sunburned! I only had 45 minutes so there wasn't time to add color; I just did the basic sketch and then added the watercolor later in my studio. The base of the monument had a lot of tricky angles and slants, and I struggled with the perspective, and against my normal tendency to rush. See how everything is slanting to the left? Another tendency of mine when drawing, which seems odd for a right-hander.
I'm always too critical. What makes me feel good is that I know I couldn't have done this well a year ago. Practice, practice really does pay off, as does being disciplined and gentle on yourself at the same time. Listen to me and get out your pencils, you would-be sketchers! (or piano-players, singers, writers and painters!)
I think we bloggers should have a NaDrawMo. Anyone want to join me? October is the Big Draw month in many countries, but I'd opt for a warmer time of the year. One drawing a day - it's not much, and the subject can be a paperclip or your coffee cup - doesn't need to be anything elaborate. The point is to build up a habit of sketching every day. The best I've ever done has been in April this year: not quite one a day, but a lot. It would be fun to try.
As for the Phillips Square statue itself, here's what the Wikipedia says:
The square features a bronze monument of Britain’s King Edward VII, who ruled from 1901 to 1910. He visited Montreal in 1860, when he was still the Prince of Wales, to open the Victoria Bridge. The statue was designed by Louis-Philippe Hébert and was erected in 1914. The four allegorical figures at the base of the monument represent Peace, the Four Founding Nations, Abundance, and Liberty.
Phillips Square is a meeting place for small-scale demonstrations, strikes, and protests, of which there are many in our fair city, and a convenient and visible downtown end-point for protest marches. Often when we are rehearsing for Evensong in the mid-afternoon, we hear megaphones and chanting coming from the Square over the sounds of our a capella Renaissance and Baroque motets. There was even a very loud student demonstration, against tuition hikes, in Phillips Square on Good Friday afternoon, right during the most solemn part of the religious observance. It felt disrespectful to me, but that's how far the tables have turned here. Fifty years ago all of Montreal's shops would have been closed up tight on Sundays -- by law -- and certainly on holy days like Good Friday, when practically everyone would have been in church. I don't think that it was good at all for the Church to have such a hammer-lock on Quebec society; nor was it good to have Christianity trump every other religion. However, after a lifetime, literally, of spending Sunday mornings singing in church choirs, it's odd to know that in Quebec anyway, we're an anomaly, a relic of a quickly-forgotten past. In a short few decades, the universal assumption has been turned upside down: now it's simply assumed that you're free on Sundays. No wonder it's becoming o difficult to keep the youth choir going, in spite of the great musical education the kids receive -- even the most gifted and enthusiastic of the kids are under tremendous peer pressure to do something more cool. Fortunately I have enough excellent company on Sundays that my own uncoolness feels like it becomes cool all over again!
There were no demonstrations or shouting in the square yesterday: just a lot of happy Montrealers enjoying the sun, like these tulips, ahead of themselves, in the stone-warmed cathedral plaza.