On Mexico City
by Ben Gerlofs
Over spring break, our class took an eight-day journey through Mexico City, generously funded by the Program in Latin American Studies (PLAS) and the Learning Across Borders program (LABs) here at Princeton. The course, Mexico City: Geography, Politics, and Everyday Life, was an interdisciplinary undertaking, and this trip provided us many opportunities for active learning and experiential knowledge production, both individually and collectively. Students were asked to take field notes throughout the trip, documenting the full range their sensory impressions and social interactions with people and place. We were privileged to have along our Program Coordinator, Eneida Toner, and a recent PhD in History, Jessica Mack, whose work has focused on Mexico City and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Our goals for the trip were to learn about and experience Mexico City through visiting significant sites, interacting with a range of differently-situationed ‘experts’ on various topics, and sampling as great a range of the cultural and culinary scene as possible in eight days.
Our lineup of generous and informative experts included: a university professor (who discussed their ethnographic research on the politics of artisanal markets in Coyoacán); a guide to the city’s fashion and nightlife scenes (who showed us around la Condesa and walked us through a special tasting menu at Molino el Pujol); the city’s Transit Minister (who discussed the challenges facing the city’s transit infrastructure and the initiatives underway to combat these); a recent Princeton PhD in History (Jessica Mack, who led us on a wonderful and highly informative tour and discussion of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s midcentury campus); and an architect and community organizer (who took us on a walking tour of a rapidly changing colonia Juárez). Strolling, dining, and conversing with these persons allowed our students a rare opportunity to learn about the city’s history, politics, geography, and culture, and to explore their own areas of interest with the help of local experts.
We also took every chance to stroll through Mexico City’s changing constellation of neighborhoods, and to use several forms of mass and public transit. A central focus of the trip were the aesthetic, demographic, and political expressions of the changes we were seeing and reading about, and the tools we use to understand them within and beyond the academy. Our itinerary included long walks along the historic Paseo de la Reforma and through Chapultepec Park, down the famed Avenida de los Insurgentes, and along the scenic Avenida Álvaro Obregón. We wandered through many neighborhoods, including Condesa, Roma, Juárez, Cuauhtémoc, el Centro Histórico, Coyoacán, and San Angel. We visited markets specializing in everything from artisanal foods and handicrafts to high-priced contemporary fashions, including traditional neighborhood markets (‘mi mercados’) and the famous Ciudadela. Exploring these spaces and their offerings, speaking with venders, and taking note of the changing visual surroundings and publics allowed us a special glimpse of how neighborhood change is produced and experienced in a rapidly changing city.
Our trip also took a guided tour of Teotihuacán, the ancient prehispanic city of pyramids north of Mexico City, and the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, one of the most significant religious sites in the country. We also visited several iconic museums, including the famous Palacio de Bellas Artes, which features a number of Mexico’s most significant revolutionary muralists (including Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros), the celebrated National Museum of Anthropology, and the Castillo Chapultepec, the historic residence of Emperor Maximiliano and a host of Mexican Presidents, including Porfirio Díaz. We also walked through the Zócalo (central plaza) and had the opportunity to view both the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los Cielos and unearthed Aztec pyramid known as El Templo Mayor in the Centro Histórico.
As a culinary capital, Mexico City provided us an unparalleled dining experience, from street stalls to fine dining. Our lunches, dinners, and snacks included trips to historic establishments like the San Angel Inn, El Pialedero de Guadalajara, and La Ópera (famous for the bullet put in its ceiling by Pancho Villa—and still lodged there), popular new eateries like Delirio and Molino el Pujol, standby taco establishments and churrerias, and a tour and tasting at a trendy speakeasy.
In all, our trip allowed us a rare vantage on an under appreciated cultural and political capital of Latin America, as we turned our full range of senses on one of the most dynamic urban places on the planet.