Protests in the Zócalo
My early Sunday morning pedalling trips around the centre are never dull or repetitive. This city of 23 million inhabitants is invariably surprising. There's always something going on somewhere, an unexpected event, a strange sight, a person I meet...Last Sunday I had a particularly eventful morning, literally. What started out as a quiet cycle ride ended up with me being swept along in a very large crowd.
I hadn't even swapped my four-wheels for two wheels when I hit the first event. A plastic tape across Reforma barred me from advancing, with a police car in front of it and a sleepy agent behind it who didn't even look up from his cell phone. That's how they do it here. You suddenly come across the road blocked, with no warning at all, and then have to make some very quick mental calculations as to how on earth you can get to where you had hoped to go, preferably without getting stuck on the Periférico or in some unknown barrio.
The blockade was in honour of a 10km race for runners. I didn't feel so bad. At least it meant the chilangos, residents, were getting out and doing sport. Since starting my early morning cycling trips, a whole new world has been uncovered. I realise there are a lot of people running at 7.30 am and a growing number who don T-shirts and numbers on their backs and compete. For example, last Sunday 18,000 women participated in Bonafont's Yo Puedo race (an Obama-inspired slogan along the lines of "I can!") and I found myself unable to cross to the other side of Reforma for a good 10 minutes, as a swift-flowing stream of pale-orange clad women, girls, children, and dogs advanced to the sound of loud music and loudspeakers reminding them YOU CAN DO IT. I finally waded across the river with my bike in tow when I realised that if I waited for the current to dry up, I would be there for a very long time, given the sheer number of participants.
Runners in the Bonafont race
This Sunday, when I finally got pedalling, joining several dozen cyclists, I headed towards the Historic Centre. Loud brassy blasts of military music were reverberating near the Monumento a la Revolución so I went to investigate. This second event turned out to be a disciplined bunch of uniformed men, women and youngsters all taking part in some kind of parade. I pedalled on.
Parade at the Monumento a la Revolución
As I approached the Alameda, I didn't need my Sherlock Holmes instinct to tell me this was no ordinary Sunday morning. Instead of the relative peace and quiet of the park of other weeks, there was an unusual buzz of activity, people hanging around in groups, clutching banners and flags, and of course, all these extra crowds were being fed and watered by an impressive array of food vendors and mobile eateries. Scores of buses were parked nose to tail along the far side of the park and that invariably means "marchers" or "protesters" are in the vicinity. Policemen had sprouted up like overnight mushrooms. Yes, something was definitely brewing.
Marchers in front of the Plaza Juarez
Getting ready to march to the Zócalo
Outside the Palacio de Bellas Artes, my gaze caught sight of dozens of brightly-dressed women and men wearing hats. This group had obviously been bussed into the capital from a rural setting. It was also clear this was probably their first visit as they were looking around wide-eyed at the buildings and surroundings, chattering like excited schoolkids on a long-awaited outing. I was soon swept along in a crowd of bubbly, flag-bearing people making their way down to the Zócalo. I guessed it must be some kind of political mitin... things are hotting up here.
People from other parts of Mexico
The Zócalo, the world's third largest public square, was filling up quickly. As we poured out of Calle F. Madero into the large open area, a group of stud-bearing Mexican punks were handing out leaflets, their spectacular spiky hair creations sparking off a few raised eyebrows among the villagers. It did seem a little bizarre to see these two extremes meeting together here today. In between the two were the SME (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas) group of protesters who have been camping out in the Zócalo for months to protest for what they say was the unjustifiable lay-off of more than 40,000 workers.
Mexicans are masters at transforming events into colourful fiestas. Take All Saints' Day or Day of the Dead. While in most countries the celebrations are sombre or even macabre, in Mexico they've managed to turn it into a graveside celebration. Something similar was happening yesterday. It was a day of protests, a political meeting, a day to SALVAR A MÉXICO (the slogan was SAVE MEXICO), but the Zócalo was surrounded by stalls, some of them with serious political undertones, others selling Productos de Zacatecas or artesanias de Michoacán. Alongside the usual red and black banners starring the Heroes of Mexican Independence were hastily-written signs on fluorescent card offering sustenance for the stomach: 8 taquitos x 10 pesos... 8 small tacos for 10 pesos, a give-away. Entire families were sitting on the pavements tucking into breakfast, cauldrons were bubbling with carnitas and boys were frosting large plastic tumblers with lime, salt and chilli powder ready to add crushed ice and aguas de sabor (water with some kind of fresh fruit juice or pulp added). The sun began to make a warm appearance and scores of hat and umbrella vendors were eagerly seeking overheated abuelas and niños.
Crowds in the Zócalo
Family having breakfast
Serving up breakfast
Small girl in colourful dress
In front of the Cathedral
Graves and crosses representing deaths and lack of justice
Boy serving drinks
I cycled around the square, amazed to see so much humanity in one place. Bouncing off the colonial buildings were decibels of arousing, passionate political speeches with plenty of loud applause. A stage and an enormous screen in front of the Palacio Nacional were feeding the crowds a visual cacophony. Apart from my two wheels, there were no other bicycles, only the three-wheeled food stalls with enormous pots of steaming tamales doing the rounds. I felt a bit out of place, being so obviously a güerita, a light-skinned foreigner. The people were staring at me curiously as if I was some kind of rare animal which had escaped from the zoo.
Crowds in the square
I left and pedalled to the Plaza de Santo Domingo, thinking I'd had my fill of events and happenings for today. Wrong! The square was full of women and girls with buckets and mops, slopping water from the fountain over the flagstones. I watched them bemused, balancing on my bicycle. Suddenly everyone came to a halt and stood still, absolutely still. Buses and cars turned off their engines. No noise. As if they'd all been frozen in a photo frame. How odd! I was somewhat flummoxed. They motioned for me to do the same. After a minute or two, a shout from the far corner sent everything back to normal, and the square resumed its usual bustling activity. I discovered they were filming an advertisement for Nescafé.
Plaza Santo Domingo
On my way back to the car, I encountered more groups with banners and flags about to join the thousands in the Zócalo. I wanted to tell them not to go, there probably wasn't any room for them now. But I kept silent and headed back home after an event-ful morning.
The Zócalo overflowing with people (Photo: Newspaper)