Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 3, 2013

Welcome to Mexico City

Filed under: Mexico,Travel — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Like most of my readers I imagine, the idea of taking a Club Med or Carnival Cruise vacation is the last thing that would occur to me. So when my wife proposed that we spend 5 days in Mexico City en route to her conference in Costa Rica, I said sure, why not.

But after buying a tour book for Mexico City, trepidations set in. It warned that you’d better not go out after dark and that if you needed a cab, you’d better have the hotel call one for you. It seems that from time to time some thug hijacks a cab and then picks up an unsuspecting fare that is driven to an ATM machine in some remote location and forced at gunpoint to withdraw oodles of cash. But even if you have the hotel call a cab for you, how are you supposed to get back? All in all, it sounded like that Denzil Washington movie “Man on Fire” that pitted our plucky hero against an army of narcotraficante kidnappers in Mexico City. Every street in that movie seemed to harbor a bunch of bad guys with hand grenades in each pocket and a willingness to use them against 3 year olds. Since Malcolm X’s grandson had been killed in Mexico City shortly after we booked our reservations, my anxiety deepened.

Of course anybody who has lived in New York City in the worst of times, as I did in the 60s and 70s, would realize how stupid my fears were. Not only was Mexico City much safer than Avenue C after dark; it was one of my most rewarding experiences as a traveler ever. Since my interest in touring is much more about picturesque architecture than scuba diving, this city was made to order. Unlike Istanbul, another mega-city that has grown like Topsy from the inpouring of impoverished rural folk, Mexico City is utterly dedicated to the preservation of the city’s indigenous and colonial past—even as they were mortal enemies. Spread throughout the city is 500-year-old churches and Aztec ruins that take your breath away. I suppose if the AKP were in charge of Mexico City, the Aztec ruins would be carted away to make room for a shopping mall.

Furthermore, you really don’t need a cab to get around. Mexico City has a subway system that is second to none (even if the cars are not air-conditioned.) It costs 3 pesos to get on a train. Since the exchange rate is just under 13 pesos per dollar, the fare amounts to 23 cents!

We ended up staying at the Sheraton Maria Isabela Hotel on Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city’s major thoroughfares and along a stretch of blocks that amounted to Embassy Row. This is basically a four-star hotel that cost us about $150 per night. The hotel was located near Zona Rosa, the city’s burgeoning gay and bohemian neighborhood. We were located a block from the famous “El Angel” monument and pleased to see male couples making out on its steps. As you may know, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009, something that befits the city’s progressive traditions.

For decades now, there has been a leftist Mayor in power. This gives the city a great vibe as you can see evidence of its effects everywhere, from free bikes (as opposed to Bloomberg’s that cost $95) to low-cost subways. The city also pays for yearly check-ups for its citizens.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere you look there are signs of the city’s radical and indigenous roots. Streets are named after Aztec rulers or objects, or after well-known figures of its own revolutionary past or that of Latin America as a whole. Even longer than Paseo de la Reforma is Avenida de las Insurgentes, the second longest street in Latin America (the first is in Buenos Aires.) The “Insurgentes” is a reference to the insurgent army that fought for Mexican independence from 1810 to 1821.

Besides the metro (cabs are also cheap), restaurants are bargains as well. On our first night an old friend from my Trotskyist youth accompanied us to a Uruguayan steakhouse that he heard good things about. I had a skirt steak for $10 that was far better than the $35 steak I ate at Ben and Jack’s a year or so ago. All in all, your money goes a long way in Mexico City.
If you are looking for an inexpensive but vastly rewarding place to take a vacation this year or next, I can’t recommend Mexico City highly enough.

I have a couple of more posts on my visit pending. The first will deal with the organized left in Mexico City and the country as a whole based on my discussions with my old friend and comrade Peter Gellert mentioned above. After that I will post about the Aztecs, getting into the thorny question of human sacrifice. And finally there will be a review of Adolfo Gilly’s history of the Mexican revolution. Gilly and Peter belonged to the PRT, the Mexican section of the Fourth International, which at its height had 3000 members, many of whom were peasants. If the USA had a group comparable in size, that would amount to 9000 members. Back in 1975 we in the SWP thought we were hot shit because we had 2000 member. What self-important idiots we were. I have to mention, however, that the PRT no longer exists so there’s something that needs to be taken into account about its particular problems as well. More anon.


  1. Very informative and entertaining, Louis, and I look forward to your future posts on the topic. Also, I am proud of you for bursting out of the NYC bubble after your fabled experience in Houston, “the City of the Damned”.

    Comment by gulf mann — June 3, 2013 @ 6:45 pm

  2. “For decades now, there has been a leftist Mayor in power. This gives the city a great vibe as you can see evidence of its effects everywhere, from free bikes (as opposed to Bloomberg’s that cost $95) to low-cost subways. The city also pays for yearly check-ups for its citizens.”

    And who says reforms are impossible these days. Jeez.

    Comment by Pham Binh — June 3, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

  3. Not visiting the Trotsky museum, or the Frida Kahlo house?

    Comment by Peter Myers — June 4, 2013 @ 12:19 am

  4. If you like the local architecture, make sure you visit the National Museum at the University.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — June 4, 2013 @ 1:17 am

  5. Dear Pham:

    You & I know & lots of others know that that objectively OWS was at minimum a historic working class victory in the short term re: this fact — the huge ruling class austerity onslaught in the USA that was definitely brewing in the commercial media just before OWS was ultimately pushed back, prolonged, for however long, as it did wipe that immediate ruling class agenda off the table, for the time being.

    That was it’s greatest tangible objective victory, delaying austerity measures, totally wiping that debate off the MSM news cycle, but it also had less tangible successes insofar as Marxism is the history of the working class, not a dogma but a compass for action, and the untimely demise of OWS has laid the groundwork for lessons of fecund mass actions of the future — just as the defeat of the Paris Commune taught future Revolutionists.

    Sure reforms are possible but obviously the key, in terms of the Mexico City article at hand: “has been a leftist Mayor in power” for decades. Unfortunately that’s hardly the case in the USA albeit there are progressive cities here with legacies of progressive mayors to be sure so your point is valid but limited to the extent that if you ever watch Mexico’s National elections you’ll notice their Congress has at least a dozen reps dressed in black (guys to be sure) that look very similar to Che Guevara with identification that labels them “Socialist”.

    Mexicans are just not historically scared of that word: “Socialist” — on the other hand the Mexican bourgeoisie are.

    One of the keys to organizing I noticed as a young Red student of the world is that classic “Red Baiting” tactics have never, ever, been effective amongst non-whites in America. Think about it. In the USA red baiting has always been an effective tactic amongst white workers, but has always fallen on deaf ears amongst the historically oppressed, that is Blacks & Latinos. I cannot think of a single case in the USA where Red Baiting has been an effective tactic. On the contrary, to their credit orgs like the CPUSA have always made great inroads with historically oppressed minorities.

    Back in the 90’s when I used to lecture college students as a TA there was a State Dept. memo issuing warnings to American tourists about a spate of blah blah blah in Mexico City. I pointed out to my students that in the same month there were 3 Dutch and a couple other European tourists with their throats slit or shot in the head in Miami, in other words there were few greater hypocrites in all of history than Uncle Sam for just prior to that I myself travelled far & wide through Mexico City with my old mother on a shoestring budget and it was an incredible experience & tourist value. Cheap to live & eat plus totally safe — so long as you had urban street smarts.

    The subway system was still exactly 3 pesos back then (like 11 cents so inflation has doubled) and was the first rail system in the world to use hard rubber (wheels or tracks?) so it was quieter than any railroad on the planet.

    The museums were cheaper and better maintained than the great ones in Chicago (where I grew up next to) and the architectural/ historical/ cultural attractions were endless, plus the destitute squatter/peddlers weren’t harassed & kicked out of the public parks by soulless prick cops fresh out of a tour of duty in Iraq.

    There’s no doubt the collapse of the Soviets plus Uncle Sam’s escalation of the Drug War has further ground down Mexico City’s inhabitants thereby making it far more dangerous but that’s just one more crime you can blame squarely on the shoulders of US imperialism, the greatest scourge on planet earth.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 4, 2013 @ 1:35 am

  6. Peter, the line was too long to get into the Frida Kahlo museum but we did go to Trotsky’s house, which was a deeply moving experience for me. I will be writing about in my next installment.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 4, 2013 @ 2:58 am

  7. For an excellent history of Mexico City I highly recommend the Book El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City by John Ross. A very complete history up to Calderon. Mexico city is on of my favorite places on the planet. the Templo Mayor museum right in the heart of the Zocalo is not to be missed.

    Comment by Vince — June 4, 2013 @ 3:56 am

  8. Thank you for this travelogue 🙂 looking forward to the next installment

    Comment by William Crain — June 4, 2013 @ 8:25 am

  9. The shantytowns that surround Mexico City are not places for strangers to be. I doubt you went to them, because it’s not on the tourist grid. I took a local bus through one of these areas and it was commandered by three guys with guns. The bus driver had knife scars from a previous robbing. Also, if you ‘jaywalk’ be prepared to pay a cash fine to a cop. Again, these type of things happen in the neighborhoods where tourists rarely go. In sections, Mexico City is a cool place. But it is also a place with widespread and brutal poverty that is hidden away from the city’s nerve centers.

    Comment by purple — June 4, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  10. “And who says reforms are impossible these days?”

    In case you may not be aware, Mexico City is outside of the USA.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — June 4, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

  11. Of course purple, but that cavet goes for just about every big city in the US as well. Pity the white tourist that got caught after dark in some neighborhoods in Chicago, for example, as I’d wager some lost gringo would still be safer in a Mexico City shanty district than some lost Swede in Altgeld Gardens or parts of the West side where life is also very brutal & poverty rampant. The implementation of NAFTA & the “ending of welfare as we know it” (both thanks to Clinton!) plus the escalation of the Drug War combined with the militarization of the border has made virtually every big city in this hemisphere far more dangerous than it was 20 years ago.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 4, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  12. LP discovers the Mexican revolution.

    Comment by fonscx — June 4, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

  13. Hong Kong has never had a “leftist mayor” in its history yet I took a ride on its more-extensive, airconditioned subway system two years ago and it cost me about 45 cents. Hong Kong also has about 3 times the GDP.

    There are whole cities in places like Belgium (and California and North Carolina) with totally free public transporation, even though they’re headed by people about as “leftist” as Obama. Plenty of “capitalism with a human face” folks can get behind it, especially with arguments like the one heard in Sweden: “it helps employers plan work hours better” (e.g. exploit workers more reliably).

    $150 a night — must be nice, even if its off limits to probably 99% of the population of Mexico.

    Look forward to the human sacrifice post.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — June 4, 2013 @ 8:11 pm

  14. […] Welcome to Mexico City (louisproyect.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by Man on Fire (2004) | timneath — June 5, 2013 @ 11:16 am

  15. Avenida Rivadavia in Buenos Aires was the longest in the world in 1914, when it was 69 kilometers long. Today it changes name to Avenida President Perón, at the 35th km, although the house numbers continue. Insurgentes is 29 km, a bit more than Manhattan’s Broadway (24 km). There is considerable debate whether Yonge Street which crosses Toronto is the longest: in theory it is 1898 km long, but some question whether it is a street at some points. Western Avenue in Chicago runs 38 km and probably holds the title.

    See http://www.chequeado.com/mitos-y-enganos/1403-ies-rivadavia-la-calle-mas-larga-del-mundo.html

    Comment by Cecilio Morales — June 6, 2013 @ 1:15 am

  16. The coolest things I saw in MC, many years ago, were Diego Rivera murals.

    Comment by michael yates — June 6, 2013 @ 2:37 am

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