We spent an exhilarating and exhausting week hustling ourselves all over Mexico City photographing libraries. For some bizarre reason, the ride share company Uber decided to terminate our app this week without any explanation. We had committed some unspeakable crime against their corporate sensibilities, and we are now perhaps banned for life. Probably this came about because we never used their app back home in San Francisco, and we didn’t fit the profile of a profitable customer. So, we switched over to a Chinese app called Didi Drive.
The sensual experiences of Mexico City can be a little overwhelming. The sights, tastes, smells, and sounds seemed to be intensified. We also had a little difficulty breathing because of the higher elevation and bad air pollution. This was amplified by insanely gridlocked traffic and the rule by the Mexican government that all taxis had to leave their windows opened all the time because of Covid. While sitting in the heat in our Didi ride-share while the traffic was stopped with the car exhaust pouring through the windows, the question did occur “is this worth it”? But once we arrived at all these marvelous libraries the answer was “Of course”!
The food here is some of the best in the world. One librarian explained some of the reason why both Mexico and Peru have such world-class cuisine. Both cultures are truly a blend of the Indigenous Mexican cultures with the Spanish in Mexico and the Incan culture with the Spanish in Peru producing a unique blend of people and their fascinating food.
Because of the pollution, my sense of smell tended to shut down at times. But I will always remember the exciting smells of the food the flowers, and the intense smells of the city. It is not for the faint of heart, but is a robust expression of a city unlike any place that I have been. After the initial shock, one accepts Mexico City as it is.
The strongest sensual experience from this week in Mexico City was of sound. Every cab driver had his music cranked way up. As we traveled the city, we toured a wide range of music from really bad pop music to Spanish-language hip-hop, to beautiful corridoes. The organ grinders were everywhere on the street playing a type of instrument imported in the 19th century from Germany. We also listened to endless Spanish-language talk shows. At one point, in the cacophony of words, I heard a familiar voice speaking in English about “fighting to save the soul of America”. It turned out to be Joe Biden announcing his next run for re-election. Go Joe! It seemed that every shop we walked by had loud sparkling music booming from inside. At night, when we were trying to sleep, I heard even louder music coming from a nearby café. In my half-dream state just as I was about to pass out, I sometimes heard the voices of what sounded like young people chanting, screaming, and having a really good time. The strangest sound came a truck with a loudspeaker that seemed to be driving all over Mexico City. It was blaring out a recording of a woman offering to buy or sell your stuff. Her voice sounded sad, tired, and persistent and I wondered who she was and what her real life was like.
Like the food, the libraries we visited this week were mostly world-class. We started with one of the best at the world-famous National Library of Anthropology and History. We were shocked and honored to spend an hour with the Director of the entire museum, Balthazar Brito Guadarrama. He had just returned from doing work verifying Aztec codices at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. His generosity and personality made me feel that our crazy quest for visiting libraries in Mexico was really worth it. The next library was completely different. The library of the Mexican-Jewish Documentation and Research Center housed the records of Jewish immigration into Mexico, mostly in the 20th century. It was housed in an old synagogue and contained a fascinating history which was brought alive by the librarian Charlie. Even though he didn’t speak English and we spoke little Spanish, somehow, we understood each other and felt we had become friends.
The next day we visited the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. In 1970 the library moved to the main nave of the old 18th century San Felipe Neri “El Nuevo” Oratory. In 1982 the Russian Mexican artist Vlady created huge, spectacular murals that dominated the main reading room. Our next stop was the massive City of Books which is a project by Federal government to create libraries of famous Mexican writers and publishers. It is housed in a large one-block area with six new starchitect-designed libraries for the writers along with wonderful reading rooms, libraries for the blind, public libraries, and a bookstore. It was truly an inspiring place!
The next morning was a visit to the huge Vasconcelos Library. It is a large beautiful underutilized urban library plagued by budget cuts which opened in 2008. Surrounded botanical gardens, it contains the skeleton of a large whale that dominates the massive interior space. Next stop was the Library of the Congress of Mexico. The building was originally part of a Poor Clares convent founded in the 16th century. Today it houses Mexico’s records of its legislature since Independence. We then traveled on to the Library of Mexican Gastronomy which is part of the Hendez Foundation. It contained the history of Mexican cooking, mostly in the form of old cookbooks and a small museum.
The National Library of Mexico Reserved Fund is located on the campus of UNAM, the largest and most respected of Mexico’s public universities. It is one of the largest libraries in Mexico and Latin America. As a National Library, it is the preeminent bibliographic repository of Mexico and is subject to legal deposit. In addition to the Special Collections, it includes the National Library of Mexico, National Newspaper Library of Mexico, and the Institute of Bibliographic Research. We were shown a tiny slice of their rare book and manuscript collection by the head librarian Dr. Manuel Rivera. His knowledge of Mexican history was staggering, and I struggled to ask him every question I could think of about this country that he knew so well. His youth and hip appearance went against the stereotype of librarians being old and stuffy. The depth of his knowledge and his enthusiasm for sharing with us made it hard to leave what had become one of the highlights of the trip. We pulled ourselves away and finished the day at the Library of the Revolutions of the Revolutions of Mexico. It is housed in the beautiful neo-classical House of the Two Patios with displays to Revolutionary memory.
Finally, by Friday, we were a little road weary but took another Didi to CEHM – Centro Estoria de Mexico which housed the private book collection of the Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, one of the rich men in the world. We have wanted to be as inclusive as possible with our definition of what is a library and this collection seemed appropriate. No surprise, because of Slim’s wealth it turned out to house some incredible items. The people working here were also doing a great job to preserve and copy the rare books and manuscripts.
We ended the day once again exhausted but happy to have seen such great work. The great puzzle of Mexican libraries was becoming a bit clearer after our frantic week of travel around Mexico City. Next week we visit the beautiful historic cities of Oaxaca and Puebla and photograph some of the most important libraries in the Western Hemisphere. Stay tuned…
6 responses to “A WEEK OF LIBRARIES, GREAT FOOD AND DIDI TAXIS IN MEXICO CITY”
Bob and Ellen,
What an enlightening and enthusiastic report! you two are beautiful adventurers! Thanks for sharing the news of your discoveries!
And once again, a lovely and interesting description of your visit in Mexico City!! We’re staying tuned for the next adventure. Love Tina and Ken
fantastic work and write up…
Bob, Thanks so much. These are tremendous photos, and it’s wonderful to see them. All best wishes, Anne
Hello Bob and Ellen,
Our friend, Georgia Scott has been living in Oaxaca for the past six months. She has been there many times and now spending half time in New Orleans and Mexico. She’s there until May 15 when she returns to New Orleans. Let me know if you’d like for me to make the introduction. It is absolutely wonderful to follow this journey. We miss you!Â
Fantastic ! Continue your marvelous travels. Don’t give up! There is an incredible culture in Mexico. We share so much of it here! 🌈🎉🌈