In Mexico, life happens on the street. You see it as you wander through small towns, dodging bicycle taxis carrying old women, just as you do in the cities, avoiding endless Volkswagen buses spitting wet exhaust from bent tailpipes. The street is where everything goes on. This is where food is bought, from a dixie-cup of syrupy shaved ice to a slab of raw, fly-speckled beef. This is where thousands of hellos and goodbyes are exchanged. This is where little boys run with improbably high stacks of the Mexican dailies, shouting in glorious singsong voices, "DiarioDiarioDiarioDiarioDiario." Making your way down a humid street, covered solid with pedestrians, the twin cries of "Conelados" and "Hamockas" add to the cacophony of sounds and smells, splitting the air in every direction, badgering passersby to purchase an icy treat or a locally produced hammock. Old men in cowboy hats and Guyaberas, the traditional Yucatec cotton shirts, in soft blues, yellows and white, walk with their heads pitched slightly downward, as they bustle through the thick human traffic. Every few yards, Mayan women have set up shop, an overturned cardboard box or blanket covered in fruits and vegetables. They peel fruit all day, and spears of mango and grapefruit sit beside peeled oranges covered in chili powder, stuffed by the dozens into plastic bags.
When you walk a street in a Mexican city, you can understand some bit of what it was like to live in a major Western city one hundred years ago. When people werenėt buying books on the internet and going grocery shopping in warehouses the size of a neighborhood, they conducted the commerce of their daily lives on the street. We tend to forget when we look at the sepia-toned pictures of turn-of-the-century cities, but the colors that filled those streets were vibrant, created to draw people in. Street colors, hard, fast, and exciting, still cover the faĒades of the Mexican street.
In La Ciudad Blanca, Mrida, these people, sounds, foods and hues are on constant display. In a region made famous by the plastic CancŅn, the city of Mrida embodies the combinations and contradictions that make modern-day Mexico feel like living in a saturated Super-8 film. It is in Mrida that one can best see the peculiar mixture of the indigenous with the colonial, a sideshow fusing a pre-modern city with a postmodern one.
Mrida is the capital of Mexicoės Yucatan Province. The city was literally built atop the Mayan City of "t-ho" in 1542 as Spanish settlers removed stones from the crumbling Mayan temples to build the foundation of their city. Since the time of the conquistadors, Mrida has been the colonial seat of power in the Yucatan. But unlike most Mexican cities blanched of native presence long ago, Mrida remains home to a huge number of indigenous descendants. Indeed, more than 70% of Mexicans in the Yucatan are able to trace their ancestry back to the Mayans. The resulting conflict between local and foreign can be seen everywhere in Mrida , even in its name. Dubbed "La Ciudad Blanca" for the cityės encouragement and occasional enforcement of white painting on all faĒades, modern day Mrida has, defiantly, color in every shape and form.
The fight is also lived on the street. When the colonial governors designed Mrida, they laid it out according to a European model. Streets were numbered out from the center, Calle 1, Calle 2, etc. This was all well and good for people designing maps to send back to Spain for approval, but in the city itself, the residents understood the streets by different names. If someone wanted to know what street you lived on, youėd tell him to come to the "old woman street" named for the old woman who used to own a bakery there. Soon, people began to refer to streets solely by their colloquial names. "Las Dos Caras," the street of two faces, was named for a well-known liar who lived there. "El Dgollado": the headless man, the street where a localės head was cut off by a falling plate-glass window. City planners never even bothered formally putting up numbered street designations since no one used them. In fact, they eventually relented to putting up tin plaques picturing the local names. By the early 1970s, these signs were deteriorating so badly that they had to be taken down. They were soon replaced with proper street signs, for the city was trying to attract investment, and no businesses or banks would want "Las Dos Caras" on a piece of stationery. City officials decided that Mrida would modernize one way or another. The sentimental among us simply sigh on these occasions, as people do with the destruction of a historic building; it marks the passing of an era.
But where one era ends, another begins. In order to encourage tourism, the City of Mrida soon began reproducing the earlier tin signs. By 1996, they had put up hand-painted replicas of them all over the city. While no one is sure the city put them in the right places, there are not so many people who still remember if theyėve gotten them wrong. Not surprisingly, these days the signs have little practical meaning to life in Mrida. If youėre asking for directions, no one points you to "La Dvoesita" ā theyėll send you to Calle 61 and 58. In the new millennium, these signs have become markers of a past, a time and place when the residents of the city carved their own meaning inside the colonial model. But they have also become something quaint, picturesque, something for people to point to as they walk by, like a chance spotting of an antique car.
I succumbed to all of these sides of Mrida: the new, the old, the fabrication of the old for the new. Like so many Westerners visiting a third world country, I wanted authentic experience. We want to go to bullfights in tiny towns that no one else knows about, eat bags of mysterious seeds that an old man with speckled gray whiskers gives you with a smile. We want stuff you canėt read about in Fodorės, Lonely Planet, or even Letės Go. We photograph people making tortillas and little children playing in tires, thinking of ourselves as adventurers. We train the cameraės eye on women in traditional Mayan dress, click, and a second later they are peddling cotton handkerchiefs emblazoned with touristy pictorials.
"One dollar," they say in fractured English.
Mrida simply bundles these contradictions up. You buy fresh-squeezed, pale, pinkish grapefruit juice in reconstituted water bottles, and drink it with a smile. You walk onto the street, waving off each hammock salesmen, dreading the ones that try to press a business card into your closed hands. At almost every corner, you point at these beautiful signs and picture yourself in a different time, a different place. But just as you observe these things, in your cleverness, your white sneakers and backpack betray easy connections to a pre-modern Mexico, that old world you feel like you can almost touch. Because just as you relish the oddity of the street signs, the curiosity of fruits and vegetables on the street, the revolting bins of French fries mixed with diced hot dogs, the Mexican street, the one you are standing in, marches on. The residents of Mrida donėt seem to care what the streets they live on are officially called. As successive governments have decided to call streets by one name or another, the city keeps on living in the ways it deems best. The ways that the people of Mrida live have virtually nothing to do with the way the city has been designed and redesigned to be lived. Markets spill out past their designated areas, bleeding into more appealing neighborhoods. Whitewashed storefronts are splashed with kaleidoscopic posters, signs and advertisements. The commerce of daily life carries on in ways unimagined by city planners. This is the Mexican street. It doesnėt matter if you call it "La Granada" or Calle 61. This is where the Mexican city is living and evolving. It will roll on, unhindered, though not entirely unaffected, by periodic invasions of conquistadors, turistas, and whoever appears next in line.
Photographs by Robert B. Gilpin.
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