The public sphere and the wonderful cultural offerings of Mexico City (CDMX)

I grew up enjoying so many cultural amenities and opportunities in Mexico City, including museums, cultural centers, libraries, parks, open air concerts and art cinemas. I had forgotten that these offerings were actually available to me as a high schooler, and later as a university student, for free or at very low prices. As a middle class young kid full of curiosity, I would not have been able to afford an opera, spend every other afternoon at the Cineteca Nacional, stroll into fantastic museums and art galleries anytime I wanted, or attend creative writing classes, had their cost not been publicly subsidized. I realize now that all of these were to a large extent the benefits of living in a country where the State has a firm commitment to supporting the arts and culture. I do not deny that such public spending is probably regressive, in that the rich are able to benefit from those amenities more readily than the poor, particularly the most destitute, who cannot even imagine having the free time for these leisure occupations. But I must say that the social mobility I have enjoyed, and the possibility of becoming a scholar and a professor, is a direct consequence of those cultural opportunities, that were paid by the Mexican government.

The Cineteca Nacional before it burned down in 1982 — a truly traumatic event for those of us who remember it

Yesterday I took a walk around downtown Mexico City and was able to see how this cultural milieu is still thriving. The places I visited were all minor cultural institutions, not the landmark museums everybody would recognize. I first discovered a wonderful space in the park of the Ciudadela, where multiple groups of men and women, of almost every age were learning to dance danzón. Some were informal groups and couples with their own boombox in a small corner of the park, but there were also some more formal classes being taught in a stage by what I believe was a group sponsored by a labor union that had its headquarters by the park. Then I walked into the museum Centro de la Imagen, which was bustling with activity as a group of artists were putting up their new show of photography. I was still able to see two small exhibits with thought provoking pieces on the nature of words, books and, of course, images.

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Some of the works in the Tierra Incognita Exhibit. I did not keep track of individual artists, but these are some of the examples of the re-inventions of America by artists Irma Palacios, Raúl Herrera, Gabriel Macotela, Alberto Castro Leñero, Santiago Rebolledo, Francisco Castro Leñero, Gustavo Monroy, Guillermo Olguín, Jesús Reyes Cordero, Demián Flores, Tomás Pineda Matus, Óscar Camilo de las Flores, Víctor Mora, Humberto Valdez, Jesús Miranda, Javier Cortéz, Óscar Aguilar, Carlos Jaurena, Fernando Cortés, Teresa Zimbrón, Mayra León, Edgar Cano, Gerardo Martínez, Beatriz Canfield, Miguel Vives, Argelia Matus, Eber JC, Elsa Madrigal Bulnes, Emmanuel López López, Mónica Muñoz Cid, Alfonso Vélez, Sergio Chávez y Ricardo Ánimas

Next door is the Biblioteca de Mexico, located in a beautiful building that used to be a tobacco factory, where I found not just students that were spending their Friday afternoon seriously working in the beautiful reading rooms, but a huge covered courtyard completely full of people sitting in tables. The energy was simply wonderful. Some were playing chess in a few tables at the far end. Others were just engaged in conversation. Still others came with their young children, probably just spending the afternoon. The library had an unexpected exhibit on Edmundo O´Gorman´s work and in particular his book on the Invention of America, and commissioning artists to transform a map New Total Description of the Americas by Dutch mapmaker Frederik de Wit from 1660 into unexpected works full of symbolism and political statements. And to top the whole experience, there is a truly striking room commemorating Octavio Paz with dim lighting some beautiful portraits and a mysterious spiraling sculpture.

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Octavio Paz courtyard at the Biblioteca de México

I continued my walk past the Museum of the Police (the first police station in the city with an unusual watchtower) ambling through the streets along majestic colonial buildings.

The bustle of the street vendors in downtown and the electrifying energy of the Friday crowds, passing by street art in the form of some huge murals behind the Convento de las Vizcaínas, approaching its quiet courtyard next to the bustle of the Eje Lázaro Cárdenas (which I am old enough to remember as San Juan de Letrán.

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Before and after of the Callejón de San Ignacio behind the Convento de las Vizcainas https://www.centrohistorico.cdmx.gob.mx/proyectos/arte-urbano/cromatica

I continued my walk with a surprising encounter of a living Atrio Verde in the Convent of San Francisco. The atrium of the convent has been transformed, through some understated rock and red clay flower beds, into a garden and a relaxing space with hammocks and lounge chairs, where people can just sit down, talk, watch and be watched.

I ended in Plaza Santo Domingo, where a public concert was taking place, the way I always remember that square (I listened to Lila Downs there, probably some 20 years ago, and I just was fortunate enough to listen to her here at Stanford last week!). It was already too late to enter any of the downtown museums, but I could have seen everything from the Diego Rivera murals to a special exhibit in Bellas Artes, the great temporary exhibits in the Palacio de Iturbide, or the archaeological site of the Templo Mayor. Except for Santo Domingo, my walk did not involve any major site. And as I walked around downtown I noticed theaters, and cultural centers, mingled with bars and nightclubs. The city is truly alive, and exciting for anyone with a young attitude.

My children, who have been growing in the United States over the past 20 years, have not had these same opportunities. The US has a very different approach to the support of the arts than Europe or Mexico. While public libraries are fantastic institutions available in almost every town, no matter how small, in the US there is little commitment by governments and taxpayers to provide significant funding to culture and the arts, particularly for the kind of large public events that may take place in parks, or town squares. This creates a very different sense of the public space than the one you get in Mexico. Although private philanthropic generosity make it possible for museums and other cultural venues to be financially sustainable, the general admission or ticket prices are quite high. Taxpayers in Mexico -as in Europe- supported the arts and myriad cultural activities to create a public space that is vibrant and available.

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View of the Golden Gate from my plane window this morning before landing at SFO

In a place like Mexico City anyone who makes the effort can gain access to incredible artists and exhibits. And I have seen this public spaces also in many other cities throughout the country, in every end of the country from Tijuana to San Cristobal de las Casas. it is not just the commitment to art and culture, but their location in the public arena that makes a difference in the life and soul of a young mind that wants to absorb it. San Francisco and even Palo Alto where I live has many cultural offerings and opportunities. But they do not create a sense of belonging to a larger community, but they feel to me rather like spaces of privilege and to some extent they create barriers between those that can enjoy them and those that do not. This is not just an issue driven by socioeconomic status, since any American who goes to a major sporting event spends far more than those that attend the opera or a classical music concert. The striking feature that I was considering as I walked and thought about my adolescent children, is that in the US culture is lived more in a private space, while in Mexico cultural activities are primarily public affairs. Public in their funding. Public in their communal character and their visibility in all sorts of unexpected places. And public in their possibility as spaces for discussion of societal problems and the construction of political action.

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