Interamerica: (Untitled)

a poem by Mariana Romero

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Mariana Romero currently lives in a green house in San Luis Obispo. She has been writing for years now and has traveled in some parts of the western world. Many of her pieces are inspired by those experiences and the people she has met. This particular piece began when she traveled through the U.S. Southwest and South in 2011 (Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, to be exact).

10 Literary Spots to visit in Vancouver (and what books to read when you’re there)

Vancouver might be a young city, but its literary culture is deep and diverse—thanks to a rich immigrant history and strong indigenous roots. Here are ten great spots for the literary traveler, along with recommendations for what to read when you get there.

1. Douglas Coupland’s “Digital Orca”

By Philip Jama (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Digital Orca is one of the first sculptures that any tourist might encounter when visiting Vancouver, thanks largely to its prime location—located adjacent to the Vancouver Convention Centre, the Cruise Ship Terminal and Waterfront Station (where trains, regional rail and rapid transit all converge). It was created in 2009 by artist and writer Douglas Coupland, who is best known for his futuristic (or modernity-obsessed, depending how you look at it) books, including Generation X, Microserfs and JPod. His voice is one that transcends the usual Canadian experience (he does not write about snow, loneliness or being a Protestant in Southern Ontario…typical Can-lit tropes.) Instead, it’s emblematically ‘Vancouver’, imbued with the forward-looking perspective of a city that faces west, instead of east, towards Pacific—where immigration, marijuana, real estate speculation and adamant secularism are par for the course.

Coupland’s writing and art tend to be obsessed by technology as well sense of place. Digital Orca, a ‘pixilated’ sculpture combines both, creating a very modern view of that definitive animal of the British Columbia coast: the orca.

Books to Read: JPod, set in a Vancouver game design company. For a non-fiction alternative, check out City of Glass (if you spin away from the breathtaking ocean views in front of Digital Orca, you’ll see why he gave it that name.)

2. Chinatown

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Ok, Chinatown isn’t really one “spot”. It’s comprised of many places, including the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Millennium Gate, antique stores, tea shops and bakeries. But once you’ve visited all these, and want to take a rest, Chinatown is also a great place to sit and read and watch a small slice of history (and still living culture) go by. Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the largest and most historic in North America. But it’s also endangered, not because the community is dying, but rather, because the centre of Chinese-Canadian life has shifted. On one hand, Vancouver’s Chinese population has become much more integrated into the city as whole. On the other hand, the southern suburb of Richmond has become the glitzy new heart of a very different, very modern, and much wealthier Chinese population.

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Lion dancers at the annual Chinese New Year’s Parade

Chinatown is changing, not only because of this southward migration, but also due to new arrivals: young entrepreneurs, many of whom are not Chinese, attracted to the heritage buildings and comparatively low rents that make this area unsurprisingly desirable. Some of these businesses have helped to boost the economy and vibrancy of Chinatown. But others have come across as threats—of gentrification, “whitification”, hipsterfication, or whatever you might call it: attracting condo developers, selling $4 coffee and posting English-only signage in an area where many residents are low-income and speak only Cantonese. Many threats come from new Chinese immigrants too, who are more likely to speak Mandarin and put up signs of their own, endangering the Cantonese language that has defined Vancouver’s Chinatown for over 100 years.

Chinatown’s future is uncertain, but its literary heritage is palpable. Hopefully that will not be all that remains in the future.

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Inside the Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden

Books to Read: The Jade Peony, by Weyson Choy, set in 1930s & 1940s Chinatown. The book is narrated by the Canadian-born children of Chinese immigrants, exploring intercultural relations of many different kinds. Most notably, it addresses the relationship between the city’s Chinese and Japanese communities (the latter of which suffered terribly during wartime, and lost its neighbourhood almost completely.)

For Nonfiction, check out Evelyn Lau’s Diary of a Street Kid, a landmark Chinese-Canadian book which gave voice to a much more modern, and yet still very ‘Vancouver’ vision of growing up between cultures. The book is the diary of Lau’s life as a homeless teenager, prostitute and drug user on the streets of the city’s notorious Downtown East Side (adjacent to Chinatown).

3. The Public Library

By rodefeld [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

This one seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? Libraries are always an interesting touchstone of a city’s literary culture, and Vancouver’s central branch is especially unique. Designed by the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, it bears a striking resemblance to the Roman Coliseum, making it quite out of place in its glass-and-steel-filled surroundings. But the library works, not only in its evocation of classical forms, but in its capacity to serve as a gathering place for readers, writers, festivals, and concerts.

Books to Read: Anything in the stacks! Seating abounds both inside and out, though the front plaza (facing Robson Street) is the most scenic. On sunny days it’s a crowd scene, and many outdoor festivals take place there in the summer and fall. Joseph Montague’s Roman mosaic pool and fountain, tucked a little bit to the side (against the curving wall of the library), shouldn’t be missed.

4. Siwash Rock

Siwash Rock, in 1923

Siwash Rock is a stone outcropping located in Stanley Park, along Vancouver’s famous seawall. It has been a landmark for longer than the city’s history, a place of legend for the local Squamish people. They call it Slhxi7lsh, and in their cultural tradition it stands as a testament to the dedicated fatherhood of a young chief named Skalsh. The name Siwash comes from the Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trading language of the northwest coast (combining First Nations and European words), meaning “First Nations Man.” You can only get to Siwash Rock by foot, bicycle, or boat, making it an especially worthwhile and lovely place to visit.

Books to Read: Legends of Vancouver, by Pauline Johnson. Johnson was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an English immigrant, who used her mixed background to act as a bridge between Canada’s colonist and indigenous cultures. One of her literary projects was Legends of Vancouver (which includes the story of Siwash rock). The book is a Canadian classic, but also comes with controversies—it was written a woman who, despite indigenous heritage, was not a member of a local First Nation. The stories are mostly Squamish and were told to her by Chief Joe Capilano, bringing up interesting questions about written vs. oral storytelling. For a more modern and local voice, try Lee Maracle’s Ravensong.

5. Cates Park, North Vancouver

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry, is considered one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. It also happens to have been written in this very park, in a squatter’s shack near the beach where Lowry lived with his wife for almost fourteen years. The setting is a bit unexpected, since the novel was written by a British man, and takes place in Mexico. As it turns out, Lowry’s arrival in Canada was unwilling. He had been forced to come to Vancouver when his Mexican visa ran out.

Malcolm Lowry outside his North Vancouver beach shack

He didn’t like the city when he first arrived, but it gradually became his lifeline and spiritual heart. Living in a beach shack on Vancouver’s rural outskirts, he had limited access to the very things that had made him most vulnerable—namely alcohol. He found a home within the cycles of nature, and called the stretch of shoreline he lived on ‘Eridanus’. Its mystic seasons, he wrote, are “like that which is called the Tao.”

Lowry became part of a squatting community that had been around for almost a hundred years, the first inhabitants being sailors who had jumped ship and married local First Nations women. Lowry’s shack is no longer there (it burnt down), but a stone marker remains to commemorate where he lived, and the nature that inspired him, of course, is eternal.

Books to Read: Under the Volcano, obviously! Also, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lowry’s posthumously published book of short stories, all set in Vancouver. One of the stories, The Forest Path to the Spring, is a tribute to Cates Park itself.

- from Malcolm Lowry's

from Malcolm Lowry’s “Happiness”

 6. Granville Island

Granville Island, as seen from the Granville Street Bridge (with Downtown in the distance)

Granville Island, as seen from the Granville Street Bridge (with Downtown in the distance)

Granville Island doesn’t need much publicity. It’s already Canada’s second-most visited tourist attraction, with Niagara Falls coming in at number one. Almost every tourist who goes to Vancouver ends up at Granville Island, a postcard perfect combination of artist studios, public market, design workshops, and shimmering waterfront (but watch out for the evil, food-snatching seagulls!). What most tourists don’t know, however, is that it’s also a hub for book-lovers. Granville Island is home to the Vancouver Writers Fest, one of the country’s premier literary festivals (several others take place at the Island as well!), along with a wonderful art library (at Emily Carr University), and a much more miniature outdoor one.

Photo Credit: vancouverisawesome.com

Books to Read: If it’s a sunny day, then head on over to the island’s “Little Free Library” in Railspur Park. The library isn’t run by any one individual, it’s crowd-sourced and relies upon the honour system. The concept is simple: if you take a book, either return it when you’re done reading it, or replace it with another. The Writers Fest quite frequently donates books, as do local denizens. Some are great, others are strange (unless romance novels or medical manuals are your thing.) Recently, the choices included Caroline Adderson’s Ellen In Pieces, Kathleen Winter’s Boundless (both Canadian authors!) and the Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine and Nursing (among many others.)

Joshua Ferris at the 2014 Festival. Photo Credit: US Embassy Canada

If art’s more your thing, check out the Emily Carr Library, where you can read local arts & culture magazines, or peruse their collection of books dedicated to the form. Visions of British Columbia is an especially intriguing title, created by the Vancouver Art Gallery in combination with an exhibit of the same name. The book combines writing and art in order to speak to the diverse visions of British Columbia, through both its peoples and its histories. Last but not least, if it’s Writers Fest season (end of October), you can check out their bookstore (behind Performance Works) or attend an event in order to see (and hear) the authors in person.

7. Café Deux Soleils

The Vancouver Poetry Slam, the city’s most popular spoken word event, is hosted weekly at Café Deux Soleils. Located on Commercial Drive, the city’s hub for activism (and old cigarette-smoking Italian men), the Café attracts a diverse and enthusiastic crowd of young poetry lovers and poets trying to make their mark. Like all slams, it’s a competition. Anyone can sign up, and they’re given limited amounts of time to get what they want to say across. The judges are chosen from the crowd, and round by round, poets are eliminated. Shane Koyczan is one of the most famous products of the Vancouver Poetry Slam. His resume includes performing at the the Vancouver Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, having his “To This Day” Project video going viral (reaching over 14 million views), presenting at Ted Talks and performing his poetry all over the world. This past year, his novel-in-verse, Stickboy, was adapted to the musical stage and performed at the Vancouver Opera.

What to read: Considering that Café Deux Soleils’ mandate is spoken word, the best thing to do would be to attend a poetry slam! Poetry slams happen every Monday night at 8pm. But If reading’s more your thing, Shane has several books in print, including Stickboy. Ivan Coyote, a storyteller whose performances are legendary in Vancouver, is also worth checking out. Many of their stories feature Commercial Drive as a main character. Loose End is a particularly evocative book, and could be in enjoyed in one of many of the cafés that line The Drive. Café Deux Soleils is nice for the poetry slam, but to truly understand the flavour of the neighbourhood, it’s important to check out an Italian coffee shop too. Café Calabria’s an old favourite, especially for its gaudy Sistine Chapel ceiling and colorful staff. Be warned: if you bring a Starbucks cup inside or ask for butter on your panettone, they will make you very, very sorry!

8. Kits Beach

Kits Beach in Winter

Kits Beach in Winter

Kits Beach is not known for its literary qualities. ‘Eye candy’ is probably its number one attraction, since it’s one of the most popular beaches in Vancouver for the young and buff. It’s also popular with dog owners (there’s an off-leash dog beach), basketball and tennis players (there are public courts), swimmers (there’s a pool too!) and just about anyone who likes a nice view. Kits Beach is also a great place for readers, at least those who enjoy their books with a little sun and sand attached! But literary? Come on! Yoga pants, old hippies, young yuppies and organic food—that’s what defines Kitsilano, apart from the beach, of course. The old hippies still maintain a few bookstores (esoteric Banyen Books among them), but there isn’t much knowledge of the neighbourhood’s place in literary history floating around.

As it turns out, however, Kitsilano onced housed one of the greatest writers of the 20th century: Alice Munro. Though she’s mostly known for her tales set in Southern Ontario, Munro lived across from Kits Beach for a year (when her husband started a job in the city), and set several stories in the neighbourhood. Her Kitsilano, and her Vancouver for that matter, was a very different place. As a recent article in the New York Times said “In Alice Munro’s Vancouver nobody eats sushi. Nobody jogs along the seawall or browses Granville Street galleries or shops for organic herbs at the Granville Island market. Ms. Munro, the 74-year-old Canadian whom the novelist Jonathan Franzen dubbed ‘the best fiction writer now working in North America,’ set a handful of her marvelous short stories in the damp British Columbian metropolis, and the urban geography is so exact you can practically map the city off her fictions. But though the addresses match, the vibe is unrecognizable. Young but hopelessly uncool, lustful without being sexy, dowdy, white, blind to its own staggering beauty, Ms. Munro’s Vancouver is an outpost where new wives blink through the rain and wonder when their real lives are going to begin.”

You won’t find that Kitsilano any more (thank goodness), but you can still map your way around the neighbourhood through her stories. Winter might be the better season to do so, however, when the rains come in, and everything feels a bit bleaker.

Books to Read: The Love of a Good Woman and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage both feature stories set in Vancouver. “Cortes Island,” a story from that first collection is perhaps her most vivid, auto-biographical fictionalization of her life in Kitsilano.

9. Hogan’s Alley

hogan's alleyHogan’s Alley doesn’t really exist any more. With the exception of a few buildings, it’s been demolished and covered up, replaced by the grey asphalt of the Georgia Viaduct. The viaduct was the first phase of a planned interurban freeway which, thankfully, never got built. The project would have destroyed Chinatown and Gastown too, part of a 1960s regeneration plan, which like so many ill-advised projects of the era, swept people out of their neighbourhoods and replaced them with cars. Vancouver’s activist community stopped the highway from being built, and the city has benefited ever since, retaining an urbanity, walkability and density that still remains rare in the suburbanized world of North American city planning. But Hogan’s Alley didn’t get saved, and so Vancouver lost a cultural treasure: it’s only predominantly black neighbourhood.

It’s a sad truth that many black neighbourhoods all across North America were demolished by similar highway projects in the 1960s and 70s. While Vancouver’s government might not have been officially racist, its policies implied, at least, a lack of care when it came to ethnic minorities. Japantown was wiped out during WWII, when thousands of Japanese were forced to leave their homes and sent to rural internment camps. Their property was confiscated, and so, when the war ended, there was very little reason for them to return. The buildings were not destroyed, but the neighbourhood, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. Hogan’s Alley’s destruction was a little more subtle: a plan that claimed to be about progressive urbanization that just happened to target people for whom it was much harder to fight back. Unlike Japantown, the population did not leave, but was, rather, dispersed throughout the city, leaving a hole where a community had formerly thrived. Many Vancouverites, to this day, do not know about Hogan’s Alley, or if they do, they’re unaware of the depth of its cultural contribution to the city. But a new movement, which includes literary projects, is now bringing that awareness back, reminding Vancouverites that their cultural history is much more complex than they ever knew.

Wayde Compton, a writer, is one of the spearheads of that movement–founder of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, and editor of the first comprehensive anthology of black writing from British Columbia. He’s bringing new light to an old tradition: art in Vancouver’s East End, produced by people of African descent. Jelly Roll Morton, a pivotal figure in early Jazz, is one such example. He was from New Orleans, but lived part of his life in Vancouver, performing at the Patricia Cabaret. Nora Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother, was also a legend in the neighbourhood. In fact, Jimi spent part of his childhood living in her house on Union St, in one of the few blocks that has still survived (between Main and Gore Street). Less famous figures included Leonard Gibson, who choreographed and performed stage shows.

bluesprintYou can visit what remains of the neighbourhood, in the blocks just south of Chinatown, on foot. The African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel (co-founded by Nora Hendrix) is still there, though it’s now a private residence. The diners and speakeasies that onced defined Hogan’s Alley are sadly gone.

Book to Read: Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature, by Wade Compton. Bluesprint is a “groundbreaking, first-time collection of the creative output of B.C.’s black citizens, and includes an astonishing range of styles: journal entries, oral histories, letters, journalism, poems, stories, screenplays, and hip-hop lyrics.”

10. The University of British Columbia

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Wreck Beach, UBC

The University of British Columbia is the most important research institution in western Canada, as well as the only major Canadian university to have a Creative Writing program, Theatre conservatory and Film school. It’s connection to all things literary is longstanding. In 1961, TISH, a Canadian poetry newsletter, was founded there, by poets who were inspired by North Carolina’s Black Mountain College experiment. Several contributing writers went on to become our nation’s most renowned literati, including George Bowering (Canada’s first Poet Laureate). TISH was also the launch pad for numerous other publications, including Vancouver’s alternative weekly, The Georgia Straight. According to George Fetherling, “The journal started by George Bowering, Frank Davey, David Dawson, Jamie Reid and Fred Wah is probably the most influential literary magazine ever produced in Canada, of greater significance than even Preview or First Statement, the two that brought poetic modernism to the country in the 1940s.”

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Photo source: Carleton University Library

While the days of TISH are long over, the landscape and environment that inspired its authors remain just as powerful. UBC is a sprawling campus, with large portions of its grounds devoted to laboratories and ugly architectural relics from the 1960s. But a visit to the north side of campus (where you can find the Museum of Anthropology, the First Nations Longhouse, the Nitobe Garden and Wreck Beach) will quickly remind you of the power of this place–culturally, geographically and spiritually, all providing wonderful fodder for the authors of today and tomorrow.

What to Read: Back copies of TISH, which can be found in the UBC Library. Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems. George Bowering’s Burning Water. Fred Wah’s Waiting For Saskatchewan. In any season, it’s worth taking you reading down the steep steps to Wreck Beach, the most beautiful place on the UBC campus (beware: if you go in summer, it will be more than TISH that will give you a flashback to the 60’s!)

InterAmerica: Blackbirds and Light (a tale of two cultures)

P1130839 This object is located in Bogotá’s Gold Museum, home to a national collection of artifacts and memory-pieces that tell the story of the country’s pre-Columbian past. Unlike Peru or Mexico, Colombia’s indigenous heritage did not play out in magnificent constructions or sprawling, ancient cities. The civilizations that lived here were smaller, less centralized, leaving records that are much harder to disseminate. That’s why gold is so important here — it provides a glimpse into cultures that have largely disappeared, whether through genocide or societal integration. And the pieces are not just about adornment. Many tell stories of daily life, mythology and the place of humans in the cosmos.  They are finely crafted, the work of master metallurgists, and are by-and-large astonishing.

When I walked past this piece in the Gold Museum, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, next to it, was a caption that read: “According to ancient myths, a number of black birds, ancient shamans, brought light to the earth in their beaks at the beginning of time and gave the first clans their land.” The protruding pieces of gold are obviously the beaks, the dangling ones the sun, a literal representation of a myth about the creation of the world. While many cultures have unique conceptions about how the world came to be, the specificity of black birds and light amazed me. You see, where I come from, we have almost the same myth. It originates with the Haida people of the Northwest coast, and is taught to children of all cultural backgrounds in schools and cultural organizations across British Columbia. It’s called Raven Steals the Light, a tale of another black bird who illuminated a very dark, early world.

It’s perhaps less ironic than it seems that Colombia and British Columbia share almost the same name. They are different in so many ways, and yet thousands of kilometres apart, they share a similar root. It’s not even an influence that comes from globalization or internet culture. This is a similarity that goes back tens of thousands of years in time. One that, whether accidental or not, tell us something about the unity of our indigenous cultures, and what we have or haven’t inherited in our general, modern populations. How could it be that both cultures would choose black birds to bring light to the world? Is it a coincidence, or were the indigenous cultures of the Americas more fluid than we could have ever believed, influencing each other through trade networks that stretched far and wide? Or was this story a memory brought south when the first peoples migrated into this continent tens of thousands of years ago, a relic of a long forgotten place?

light The Colombian myth: Before there was anything else in the world, when darkness filled everything as an eternal night, there was only one being, and it had no form or face. Inside it there was a light, called Chiminigagua. One day, Chiminigagua’s giant belly was injured and a beam of light appeared through the wound. From this first light arose life. Then Chiminigagua created large black birds and released them to shed their breath on the mountain tops. From their mouths came mild breaths of light and transparent air, which caused the earth to be finally seen, clear and bright.

The Haida myth: Before there was anything else in the world, an old man lived in a house on the bank of a river with his only child, a daughter. The whole world was dark, and so he did not know whether she was as beautiful as hemlock fronds against the spring sky at sunrise or as ugly as a sea slug. The old man was responsible for the darkness. In his house, he had a box which contained many boxes each nestled into a box slightly larger than itself, until finally there was a very tiny box that contained all the light in the universe. The Raven also lived at that time (because he had always existed and always would) and was unhappy with the state of the world. He couldn’t see anything, it was hard to hunt, and he was always blundering around and bumping into things. One day he stumbled upon the house of the old man. He heard a small voice saying “In the smallest of my boxes is all the light in the world, and it is all mine and I’ll never give any of it to anyone, not even my daughter, because, who knows, she may be as homely as a sea slug, and neither she nor I would like to know that.” At that moment, the Raven decided to steal the light for himself, though he couldn’t find a way to get into the house. Then he came upon a solution: he changed himself into a single hemlock needle, dropped into the river and floated down just in time to be caught in the basket which the girl was dipping in the water. When she took a deep drink from the basket and swallowed the needle, the Raven slithered down into her belly. There, he transformed himself once more, this time into a very small human being, and went to sleep for a long while. And as he slept he grew. Months later, the Raven emerged triumphantly inside the house in the shape of a human boychild, albeit a strange-looking one. Thankfully, because it was dark, no one could see how strangely he looked: with a long, beaklike nose, a few feathers here and there, and the shining eyes of a Raven.

The Raven child slowly gained the affection of the old man, and pleaded for the big box as a gift. That box, said the Raven child, was the one thing he needed to make him completely happy. The old man finally relented, and gave him the box. Little by little, tantrum after tantrum, the Raven received box and after box, until he was finally allowed to hold the light for just a moment. The old man lifted the light, in the form of a beautiful, incandescent ball, from the final box and tossed it to his grandson. In that exact moment,  the Raven transformed back into his original form, snapped up the light in his jaws, and flew through the smokehole of the house into the huge darkness of the world.

The world was all at once transformed. Mountains and valleys appeared, starkly silhouetted, and the river sparkled with broken reflections. Everywhere life began to stir. Far away, another great winged shape launched itself into the air, an Eagle who could see for the first time and spotted the Raven as his target. The Raven flew on, rejoicing in his wonderful new possession, admiring the effect it had on the world below, revelling in the experience of being able to see where he was going, instead of flying blind and hoping for the best. He was enjoying himself so much that he never saw the Eagle until the Eagle was almost upon him. In a panic he swerved to escape the frightening, outstretched claws, and in doing so, dropped a good half of the light he was carrying. It fell to the rocky ground below and there broke into pieces — one large piece and too many small ones to count. They bounced back into the sky and remain there even today as the moon and the stars that glorify the night. The Eagle pursued the Raven beyond the rim of the world, and there, exhausted by the long chase, the Raven finally let go of his last piece of light. It floated gently on the clouds and started up over the mountains lying to the east. Its first rays caught the smokehole of the house by the river, where the old man sat weeping bitterly over the loss of his precious light and the treachery of his grandchild. But as the light reached in, he looked up and for the first time saw his daughter, who had been quietly sitting during all this time, completely bewildered by the rush of events. The old man saw that she was as beautiful as the fronds of a hemlock against a spring sky at sunrise, and he began to feel a little better.

What can we see in common between these two tales? Both contain light, hidden inside something. Both contain black birds, who carry the light in their beaks. Both feature mountains as the first things exposed by the light. Both cause the world, as we know it, to finally appear.

This version of “Raven Steals the Light” has been adapted from the Bill Reid book of the same name.

Off the Beaten Track in Mexico City: Santa Maria La Ribera

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It’s easy to go to Mexico City and miss Santa Maria La Ribera. West of the historic centre, and north of fashionable districts like La Roma and La Condesa, it’s a place that’s often forgotten, and rarely just stumbled upon. Not that stumbling upon things is all that common in “el Distrito Federal”, what with it being one of the world’s largest metropolises and all. But in the tangle of Mexico City’s streets, subway lines and bus systems, it can sometimes feel very difficult for visitors to discover a place that’s really not that far away. Santa Maria La Ribera is one such place, a neighbourhood in transition, for better or for worse, that’s really worth the effort to visit. And the effort isn’t huge, either, a mere 4-6 subway stops from many of the city’s main attractions.

Santa Maria La Ribera doesn’t have the ruins that attract tourists to the centre, nor the late-night bars and galleries that draw local fresas (rich preppies) and the international art set to La Condesa and La Roma. But maybe that’s exactly what has kept it rather special, and a little bit off the radar. It’s not cool and obnoxiously trendy, but it’s not touristy and swarming with trinket-sellers either. It’s very traditional and very Mexican, but unlike large swathes of the city, it’s not comprised of 2-story concrete buildings in muted tones, with electrical wires jutting out in every direction, or 10-lane expressways. “Faded glory” is the phrase I’d use to describe Santa Maria La Ribera—beautiful, even baroque, peeling in places, but colourful nonetheless; lively, if a little down on its luck.

Santa Maria la Ribera’s star has fallen since its glory days, the first thirty years of the twentieth century, when it became a haven for middle class Mexicans trying to escape the city centre. In fact, “la Ribera” means “the shore” in Spanish, presumably a reference to the beaches of the Aztec lake, which used to house the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. When the Spanish came and the lake was filled in, Santa Maria la Ribera suddenly became connected to the city, though it was still far enough away to be considered remote. By the early twentieth century, however, it had become a new type of shoreline—an inner suburb, offering a calmer, greener alternative to the hectic life of the city’s historic centre. It grew by design, as one of Mexico City’s first planned neighbourhoods, with grand buildings and stately homes built for the burgeoning middle class.

But growth moves quickly in Mexico City, and so, by the 1950s, Santa Maria La Ribera had become just another part of the growing conurbation of Mexico City. Apartments started replacing many of the grand houses, buildings started to deteriorate (some were even abandoned), and petty crime moved in. These days a reverse trend is slowly, but surely, happening, though gentrification is not yet particularly obvious (though neither is much crime). The neighbourhood is only just, shall we say, on the verge…at least by the standards of Mexican real estate (which thankfully moves a little more slowly than its northern counterparts.) There are no dog boutiques yet, but it doesn’t feel derelict either. For the large part, Santa Maria la Ribera is lively and old-fashioned, like a small town in the city, home to mom-and-pop shops and sidewalk tlacoyo ladies, as well as several museums, grand buildings, and if you’re willing to take a slight diversion, two cultural icons of a much more modern Mexico: the architecturally significant and futuristic Vasconcelos Library, and the El Chopo, the city’s biggest countercultural market.

Both the Vasconcelos Library and El Chopo are located directly outside of Buenavista station, the neighbourhood’s nearest subway stop, and hub for suburban train and rapid bus lines. Buenavista’s surroundings are not the most pleasant, a bit industrial, with train tracks where many old streets used to be. Technically the station (along with the library and market) is not located in Santa Maria La Ribera. You have cross the street (Insurgentes Avenue) to get there. But it’s worth visiting those latter two things before crossing into the heart of the neighbourhood, as their provenance and influence cannot be separated from it.

By ProtoplasmaKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vasconcelos Library is a new addition to Mexico City, an almost megalithic edifice that spreads across 38,000 square metres. Sculptures by famous Mexican artists adorn the building, including Gabriel Orozco’s Ballena, a floating whale-bone piece. But it’s not a touristy site. Most people in the library are just going about their business—reading, researching, accessing computers and using the library’s special facilities. One such place is the musical instrument room, where all you need is a piece of ID to be granted access to a digital piano, or electric guitar and some headphones to listen to as you play. Even foreigners are welcome, as long as they hand over their passport before trying out the instruments. But for most travelers, the library’s draw is first and foremost its architecture: suspended steel and glass, floating stacks, and an orthogonal plan.

By ProtoplasmaKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Right up the street is El Chopo, a tanguis, the Mexican equivalent of a temporary street market. The word “temporary” is important, because it only occurs on Saturdays, attracting metal, goth, grunge, ska, reggae and punk kids (and grown-ups who still want to be kids) from all over the city. It has a little bit of a Camden Market feel, you know, that rock ‘n’ roll theme park aspect where you can buy your “rebellious” style for a fixed price. But it’s still a fun place, simply because the diversity of its subcultures, styles and materials is so large. This is not the oppressive world of lily-white hipster culture. It’s not $4 espressos or trust-fund artists telling you what’s cool. It’s just kids with a passion, real Mexicans from all different backgrounds, with faces that reflect the same—straight out of Aztec reliefs, except their t-shirts scream “Anthrax” and their lip jewelry says punk, and their hair might be purple, or dreaded, or styled in the fashion of that much more northern indigenous group, the Mohawk. You see, that’s one of the great things about Mexico City…it blows away all the stereotypes of Latin America that you could ever imagine, because there are so many subcultures there. People don’t just listen to banda or salsa or reggaeton. They love rock music too, and metal and well…whatever you can imagine. More than anything, El Chopo is a gathering place where you can talk to passionate people, buy their handmade fanzines or bootlegged music, and at its worst, chuckle at the kitsch. And there’s usually live music too, a chance to see up-and-coming Mexican bands.

By Luisalvaz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When the chaos of El Chopo becomes too much, it’s a good time to head into the quiet side streets of Santa Maria La Ribera. Because the train tracks block the most direct route, it’s fastest to return via the library and train station in order to cross Insurgentes Avenue. Within a block, you’re in a whole other world, calm and slow, with little old ladies pulling grocery carts, and families out for a stroll. A three-block walk along Calle Salvador Diaz Mirón takes you to the community’s hub, the Alameda de Santa Maria. It’s just like any Mexican central square, except even better. Besides the usual trees, benches and food vendors, there’s also a gigantic, colourful pavilion built in the Moorish style. Called the Kiosco Morisco, it was constructed for the Mexican pavilion at the New Orleans Exhibition of 1884/85, and then later moved to Mexico. Many locals are not aware of this fact, and will try to tell you that it was donated by an Arab Sheik. But no, it is simply a nod to the deep Spanish (an therefore Arab) roots of Mexican culture. Like most kiosks in Mexican plazas, it’s a place for bands to play in the evening, occasionally with community dancing on the side. In the daylight hours, it’s simply a nice place in which to wander around, or take a rest.

There are many places to eat near nearby. Street food is the cheapest option, with fresh potato chips, chile-and-cheese corn on the cob, fruit salad and paleta (homemade popsicle) vendors ambulating around the plaza. But for something a bit heartier, hole-in-wall antojitos joints are a better option. Antojitos are basically anything that you can eat with your hands, usually masa-based, made from fresh corn dough. Tacos, tamales, and gorditas are probably the most famous varieties of antojitos, though they represent but a tiny percentage of the myriad of options. Never tell a Mexican that all antojitos are the same. Even though sopes, gorditas, tlacoyos and huaraches can be difficult to distinguish sometimes, especially depending on the neighbourhood, they are all technically different, thanks to the thickness of their dough and the nature of their fillings and/or toppings.

By ProtoplasmaKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Technically, Mexicans consider antojitos snacks, but many shops in Santa Maria La Ribera sell them in very large portions. One of them, La Jirafa y la Mula, makes giant quesadillas, which are a world away from the ones your mother probably made you as a child (if you grew up north of the border, that is.) In fact, a Chilango friend once told me that quesadillas in Mexico City are different from pretty much everywhere else in the country, where cheese dominates as a filling (as the name suggests, since the Spanish word for cheese is queso!) But in Mexico City, cheese is only one of a myriad of options. Chorizo, huitlacoche (corn fungus), chicken, mushrooms, and roasted Poblano peppers are some of the most popular. Squash flowers and Oaxaca cheese are my personal favourite when the season is right. Another important feature of Mexico City’s quesadillas is that the cooks don’t use flour tortillas. The dough is made from corn, hand rolled and cooked on the spot, so that outside melds deliciously and smoothly into its filling.

One peculiarity of Alamada Santa Maria is a restaurant on the corner called Kolobok. It’s Russian, serving Chiburekki (labeled as “empanadas”), borscht and other traditional foods of Eastern Europe. Why it’s there is a little unclear, since Russians are not a noticeable ethnic group in the city. But its popularity is not subject to debate, since it’s always full. That being said, unless you’re craving Russian food, I recommend walking on by and eating some antojitos instead. They’re cheaper and far tastier.

By JEDIKNIGHT1970 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you want something sweet to cap off your meal, be sure check out a panaderia. They’re a staple of the neighbourhood (and a wonderfully cheap option for budget travelers.) They all operate the same way. Walk in, grab a tray and some pincers, pick what you like off the shelf and pay for it at the counter. Cookies, pan dulces (sweet breads) and pastries tend to average about 5 pesos, about 30-40 cents each. Pastries in Mexico tend to be especially good, thanks to a range of outside influence. Some say it’s because Maximilian I brought Viennese bakers with him when he declared himself Emperor of Mexico. Others point to the convent nuns, who have maintained baking traditions in the Spanish world for time immemorial. The famously Francophile dictator Porfirio Diaz may have also influenced the country’s baked goods in his constant quest to emulate French culture. Whatever the reason, Mexican pastries are tasty and cheap, an easy way to quell a sweet craving.

With a full belly, and rested feet, it’s worth it to make one last stop at one of Santa Maria La Ribera’s museums. My personal favourite is the Museo Universitario del Chopo, which, a bit confusingly, bears a very similar name to the previously discussed market. Apparently the street it sits on (now called Calle Enrique Conzález Martínez) used to be called “Chopo,” named, presumably, for the poplar tree (poplar translates as “chopo” in Spanish). The El Chopo market actually began on the museum’s grounds and ran there until it became too large, and had to move to its current location.

By Patricia Alzuarte Díaz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The El Chopo museum is located a few blocks south of the Alameda, and like the Kiosco Morisco, is of foreign extraction. Many Mexicans refer to the museum as the “Crystal Palace”, because they believe that it looks like the London building of the same name. However, El Chopo’s origins are German not British, as it was manufactured in Oberhausen in the Art Nouveau (or as the German say, Jugendstil) style. Like the Kiosco Morisco, it originated as a pavilion, in this particular case from the 1902 art and textile exhibition in Dusseldorf. Unlike the Kiosco, it was not designed to represented anything inherently Mexican, however. Rather, it was bought after the exhibition and shipped to Mexico, where it was used to house the Japanese Pavilion at the Universal Exhibition of Mexico in 1920, and later became the home the National Museum of Natural History.

In 1964, the museum closed and the building lay empty for almost ten years. In 1973 it was bought by UNAM, Mexico’s most important university, and re-inaugurated as a modern art space. Apart from its many galleries, it now also houses workshops and performing arts events, as well as a movie theatre, which shows art films. It’s not a huge museum, but one that is substantial enough for an hour or two of wandering. Though it’s certainly not a replica of London’s Crystal Palace, it does bear many cool architectural features. More than anything, it feels almost like an old railway station, with turn-of-the-century industrial design mixed in. Like the El Chopo Market it gave its name to, the museum has a very alternative feel—except in this case, it’s one that’s grown up and curated. It’s not necessarily as innocent or raw as the market, but it’s a lot more educated. It’s fun to experience them both on the same day, and take the best from each.

image source: Louise Ranck. Via Wikimedia commons.

As for the rest of the neighbourhood? Well, that’s yours to explore. It’s the kind of place that just likes to be wandered in…or, if you’re too tired, it’s the kind of place in which it’s perfect to just watch the world go by, preferably while sitting on the steps of Kiosco Morisco, or a nearby bench just as the evening’s music begins.