My new neighborhood claimed it could make me many memories. I’ve been here since September and can believe it to be true, though graffiti won over the wall that had told me so in an ongoing battle between the street art of public initiatives and the vomited symbols of gangster spray paint that find their glory in rebellion.
Walking the streets, I sometimes feel the pull of suspicious stares and glances that I would never get in the trendy, hipster part of the city where I used to live. In Santa Maria la Ribera, there’s a reputation for unlawfulness that keeps most foreigners at bay. “Santa Maria la Ratera,” it’s been donned: the rat, the thief. Yet so far, I have more tallies marked up to witnessing delinquency in my former home, la Colonia Roma. As people start to recognize me, their hesitation turns to grins, and they nod their heads and wave to greet me as, “güerita,” “blondy.”
Down the street from my apartment there’s a local shop and eatery run by a group of biologist who are trying to make the world a better place. They sell biodegradable shampoos and deodorants, essential oils, one-of-a-kind handmade jewelry, stuffed animals filled with recycled styrofoam, local and organic beer, chocolate, coffee, mezcal. Their specialties: tostadas, rabbit-meat hamburgers, and community. They know me by name, and when visiting I think, “This is how it ought to be,” as I daydream about leaving my work behind and forming part of their collective.
A few more blocks away, there’s a contemporary art museum hosted in a salient building that I guess to be the offspring of a love affair between industry and worship. Its iron skeleton towers climb into the sky like beanstalks from a fairytale; they frame a vast façade of crystal windows, and their pointed green patina caps are topped by weather vanes, telling us in which direction the wind will blow us next. “Jugendstil-style,” I’m told, “German Art Nouveau.” In 1902, it was built for a textile exhibition in Düsseldorf, Germany and then reassembled in Mexico a year afterwards. Like its vicinities, El Museo del Chopo has a history that flows in and out of grandeur and abandonment. Today, it boasts exhibits with subject matter like punk culture, human trafficking, forgotten regions, bureaucracy, and the feminine role in a misogynist and capitalist labor force. Among its events, it offers open-mic poetry nights in a framework of expanded literature and hosts an international festival of the Japanese theatrical dance Butoh. Modern day cultural ecstasy.
Turning and strolling down the sidewalk, the streets are a hodgepodge of cheaply-made constructions and splendid colonial homes. Their conditions range from slightly unkept to completely discarded with occasional buildings restored to their originally intended beauty. It was in 1859 that several ranches were converted into a district for the growing middle class to form one of the first neighborhoods developed outside of Mexico City’s historic center. History has taken its toll, but it has also left behind its mystique.
Arriving at the indoor food market, I feel romantically urban as I pull my two-wheeled grocery cart through the aisles. My doubts about buying a pear shipped in from the U.S. set off a political discourse from the vendor who is trying to sell it to me. In reaction to Trump’s nationalist position, Mexicans have proposed resistance in the form of a citizen-driven boycott, but the fruit man insists that politics are one thing and human relations something else. “We just have to work harder and treat one another with kindness and respect—this will be our reaction, not fear or anger.” I appreciate his warmth and positivity, but still wonder if I should buy the pear. A few stands over, the cheese man showers me with samples, trying to convince me to get a little bit of everything: queso menonita from Chihuaua, quesillo from Oaxaca, or a special gouda all the way from the Netherlands. I lament that I’ve cut back on dairy and will stick with the lightweight panela for now, but I might return for something special later, maybe if I host a party.
Today, tourism magazines gloss-over crime alerts, calling Santa Maria la Ribera a Barrio Mágico, magical for its culture, architecture, and history. The rising costs of rent elsewhere in the capital are pushing artists and young bohemians to set up shop here, and there’s talk that it will be the next “place to be.” Crossing the eje central to arrive at a tree filled park bordered by the streets Jaime Torres Bodet, Salvador Díaz Mirón, Manuel Carpio, and Dr. Atl, the scenery will quiet those who argue differently. Anchored at the center like a royal throne is the neighborhood’s jewel: el Kiosko Morisco, the Moorish Kiosk.
Gossip about the gazebo’s intricacy and exotic appearance told tales of it being a gift from a Turkish Sheik, but in reality, it was designed by the engineer José Ramón Ibarrola to represent Mexico at the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans. The elaborate structure also stopped by Chicago and Saint Louis before arriving to Mexico’s Alameda Central park, where it stood until Porfirio Díaz had it uprooted and replaced with a monument to Benito Juárez. The residents of Santa Maria received el kiosko with open arms and celebratory dance. To this day, its enchantment lives on and the dancing continues.
“The light here is different,” insists my friend from Australia, as if under a spell. “It’s true,” I confirm, having drunk the same potion. And while several streets over the impatient traffic of Avenida Insurgentes is unyielding in reminding us that we’re in the center of one of the world’s mega metropolises, this colonia popular keeps a tight grip on its history and tradition. Maybe the accounts of danger and robbery are only rumors spread by locals in efforts to preserve a charm they’re afraid they’ll lose to lookalike apartment towers and fashion-forward restaurants and cafes that threaten to paint the city in undertones of sameness.