August 1, 2004
Mexico City's mosh pit
Every weekend at 'El Chopo' the underground surfaces for a day ofmusic, art and plenty of counterculture commerce.
By Reed Johnson
Times Staff Writer
MEXICO CITY It takes a certain fearlessness, or sublime indifference,to be a punk, Goth or other type of tribal provocateur in this tradition-mindedmetropolis. Strangers on the subway gawk and jeer. The requisite apparel long black coats, bovver boots, a spiky headful of gel can seem borderlinemasochistic with summer temperatures hovering in the mid-80s. And what'sthe point of wearing a "Never Mind the Bollocks" T-shirt if almost nobodyhere knows what bollocks are?
But you can't keep a good anarchist or "Oi" skinhead down. That's why,for nearly a quarter-century, Mexico's young and disaffected, along witha number of their graying elders, have flocked to El Tianguis Culturaldel Chopo, an open-air flea market that every Saturday commandeers a three-blockarea of this capital city.
Since its humble beginnings in the early 1980s, "El Chopo," as it'spopularly known, has mixed anti-authoritarian politics and under-the-radarlifestyles, and, more recently, cash and commerce. It's not only whereyou can pick up a bootleg copy of the Clash's "London Calling," buy a Rastacap, recruit a bass player for your band, grab a quick snog with your boyfriendor girlfriend (away from prying parental eyes) and get one or more bodyparts pierced, all in a single afternoon. It's also where many young Mexicanswho don't fit in elsewhere seem to wind up.
Punks in plaid pants and leather jackets and Goths (or darketos, asthey're called here) in Nosferatu chic dominate the scene at El Chopo.But on a typical Saturday you'll likely run into biker chicks, dreadlockedRastas, grungy death-metal heads, tie-dyed hippies, skateboarders, 'zineartists and neo-Bolshevik booksellers hawking battered copies of the holytrinity of underground literature: Chomsky, Bukowski and Che. Maybe evena cluster of Rude Boys in porkpie hats and 2-tone suits who notwithstandingtheir Mayan and Zapotec facial features look as if they'd just time-traveledin from Brighton, England, circa 1980.
"We're all strange in some way, and El Chopo is a place where everyonecan show their strangeness," says Tania Magali, 16, trying on a pair ofknee-high boots with her friend, Luz Adriana, also 16.
Both girls' attire reflects El Chopo's aggressively retro aesthetic.Adriana, in a black skirt and fishnet top, could be channeling punk princessJoan Jett. Magali's makeup, white powder with a slash of black lipstick,augments her early-Blondie ensemble: white button-down shirt, black suspenders,skinny black tie and a pair of satin gloves that originally went with hermother's white wedding dress. After Magali dyed them black her grandmotherwarned her, "Now you'll never marry." In Mexico, superstition still countsfor something, and young people know they transgress at their peril.
City officials estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 people jam El Chopo'snarrow aisles every Saturday. From 11 a.m., when the market's roughly 200vendors open their tarp-covered, metal-frame stalls near the Buena Vistasubway station, to around 4 p.m., when the last customers straggle off,El Chopo hums with raw energy and jackhammer blasts of reggae, ska andheavy metal.
Most browsers stop to check out the live bands that thrash and snarlin a small performance area on a street corner near the market's northend. According to legend, the acclaimed Mexico City alt-rock group CaféTacuba took off when a pirate version of its music began circulating atEl Chopo. On this Saturday afternoon, a 3-year-old band called Tenziónis leaping and power-chording its way through a 45-minute set.
"It's cool that there are places like this to promote the diversityof the young people," says group vocalist Jacob Israel Fuentes Obrajero,18, taking a break after the show.
Though its population is more than twice that of L.A.'s, Mexico Cityhas few, if any, equivalents of places like Melrose Avenue that fuse conspicuousconsumption with funky, alternative mise-en-scène. Mexico's middle-classmusic shoppers generally head for climate-controlled U.S.-style malls thatsell legal, full-price CDs from a fairly circumscribed sonic spectrum.Younger, poorer Mexicans favor bootleg CDs that cost one-tenth the priceand can be bought from the hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal vendorsoperating across the city.
But if you're looking for some underground garage rock band or obscureBritish ska septet, El Chopo is pretty much the only game in town. "There'smore variety here, and not just commercial music," says Santiago Días,26, a photographer, browsing the stalls with his friend Makia Lara, 28."Here you find not just what's on MTV. Here you find things that are moreinteresting."
Mario Alberto Camacho Soriano, director of public safety for the MexicoCity borough of Cuauhtemoc, says trouble rarely occurs at the market. Thebiggest problem is public drinking, by minors and adults who buy alcoholfrom the surrounding bodegas. But overall, Camacho says, El Chopo benefitsthe area. "Everybody is free to dress the way they want and have the ideologythey want as long as they respect the laws. El Chopo is the only one ofits kind in Mexico City, and it provides a space for young people who otherwiseface a tough time."
Over the decades, El Chopo has grown bigger and broader, absorbing adizzying array of music-inspired subcultures and sub-subcultures into itsmosh-pit phenomenology. Somehow, the disparate groups all get along. "It'sa space of coexistence," says Javier Hernández Chelico, who hasbeen selling left-wing books and magazines in El Chopo since the early1980s and writes a regular column about the market for the Mexico Citydaily newspaper La Jornada.
El CHOPO sits alongside a former railroad yard in an aging, neglectedpart of the city, the type of neighborhood that Mexicans call a barriobravo, a term connoting hardship, pride and wild, unruly creativity. Originallythe market occupied a section of the museum of the University of Chopo,a few blocks from its present site. In those early years, old timers say,El Chopo was almost exclusively a guy thing. Heavy metal and gut-bucketblues were all the rage; the punks and New Wavers hadn't yet arrived.
Back then, the prevailing spirit of El Chopo was more experimental thanentrepreneurial, says C. Armando Barreiro Perez, a city municipal servicesdirector who grew up in the neighborhood and whose administrative territorynow includes the market. "To find music that was unavailable elsewhere,to feel like part of a new form of expression and protest it was simplya joy," says Barreiro, who's also an amateur guitar player. Initially themarket ran on a barter-only system. Over time it has become more businesslike.Today, El Tianguis Cultural del Chopo is a full-fledged civic associationthat elects its own leaders and pays the city for its weekly use of theneighborhood.
But El Chopo still has an insurgent edge. In the United States and WesternEurope, punk, Goth and other rock genres with outlaw attitude sometimeshave confused trendy nihilism and suburban ennui with political passion.But in lumpen pockets of Mexico, decades of official corruption, status-quopolitics and economic bumbling have bred deep disillusionment and a profounddesire for change among many young people.
"In the U.S. the people are much more drawn to the aesthetic ratherthan the politics of punk. Here it's much more about politics," says "Gypsie,"a Seattle native sitting with friends on an abandoned, graffiti-smotheredred station wagon near the market entrance.
"We stole it," Magali says of punk culture. "It was born somewhere else,but it doesn't matter. The music can speak to everyone."
Well, maybe not everyone. Magali admits that her music and fashion tasteshave made her something of an untouchable at school and in her neighborhood,a few miles outside Mexico City. "In the pueblitos [small towns] you'remore easily insulted," she says. "They say that you look naco [low-class]."
Indeed, tourists visiting El Chopo may wonder if something has gottenlost in translation. "The Satanism, the tattooing, the piercings it'sall a little strange," says Jacob Garb, who works for a New York City publicpolicy institute, while wandering the market. "It's kind of depressing,actually," adds his companion, Frida Ida. "What about their own culture?This is not London. This is not New York. It's Mexico."
But as some El Chopo regulars see it, hard-core punk is now Mexican-made.Juan Carlos, a self-taught graphic designer, comes to the market most weekendsto unload his scathing satirical images a Mexican migrant scaling a U.S.flag with barbed-wire stripes and swastika stars, grotesque mug shots ofMexican presidents which he prints on small fabric swatches and sellsfor a few pennies apiece. With his screaming-red mohawk and multiple impalings,he's a hard man to ignore, and his political views are no less reticent.The Iraq war? "Idiotic," he says. The conquest of Mexico's indigenous civilizations?It's not over yet, Juan Carlos (who declined to give his last name) asserts."They're still massacring people."
As for the founders of U.S. and U.K. punk Sex Pistols, the Clash,the Ramones, L.A.'s own Black Flag well, "they were the initiators,"he concedes, but they're "a little too commercial.
"Punk is too interested in money," says Juan Carlos. Then he goes backto laying out samples of his wares along the sidewalks of El Chopo, wherethe discs are cheap, the clothes are dark, and London and New York areirrelevant.
Times researcher Dan Vazquez in Mexico City contributed to this report.