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Dark days for macho men
By Adam Thomson Published: September 19 2008 18:06 | Last updated: September 19 2008 18:06

Night has fallen on Mexico City, it is getting chilly and raindrops are starting to trickle down the windowpane of room 407 of the Hospital Angeles where Alejandro Juarez is visiting Jorge, his boyfriend. Jorge, a 24-year-old Mexican journalist, is recovering from an operation on his left arm, the entire length of which is now splinted in an open “L” shape and strapped tight with bandages. The back of his right hand is fitted with a catheter that leads to a couple of drips hanging from a metal stand and, for good measure, hospital staff have hooked him up to a heart-rate monitor. People come and go constantly and a steady flow of nurses check Jorgeʼs progress, bringing him juice made from the dried petals of the hibiscus plant and reminding him – much to his despair – that he cannot drink Coca-Cola for at least the next 24 hours. It is hardly a romantic scene. But as conversation turns to the coupleʼs wedding next summer, the inconveniences of hospital life give way to amorous glances and discussion of the ceremony, who to invite and, above all, how thrilled they are at the prospect of formalising their love in a way that heterosexual couples have taken for granted for centuries. “We all have a need for ritual,” says 32-year-old Alejandro, swivelling the gold engagement ring on his finger. “In our case, it is going to be doubly special because it is about basic rights. All this is the product of a very long struggle.” A couple of years ago, the coupleʼs plans would have been unthinkable. Official gay unions did not exist in Mexico City. But since Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican capitalʼs leftwing mayor, took office in December 2006, the city has taken huge legislative leaps in several areas, all of which form part of his plan to make Mexicoʼs capital one of the most liberal places on earth. “That was always the plan,” said Ebrard – a tall nerdy-looking man in glasses that look like they were a gift from his parents in 1977. “A very important part of our programme has to do with making it a very liberal city and putting everything in place to meet that goal.” Taken together, Ebrardʼs reforms form an eclectic – and, at times, baffling – public policy cocktail. Last year the local government granted women the right to an abortion. Every Easter, Ebrard installs beaches throughout the city by filling large and normally abandoned public areas with hundreds of tons of sand, portable swimming pools, deck chairs and even palm trees. Last Christmas the 48-year-old Ebrard fitted the cityʼs main square with an ice rink, covering an area of 3,000sq m – in other words, the worldʼs largest. This year the cityʼs legislature passed a blanket ban on smoking in public places, and a few weeks ago measures were brought in to improve air quality by restricting the circulation of vehicles on Saturdays. Thereʼs more. Before the year is out, and under Ebrardʼs direct orders, the cityʼs public employees will have to start learning Nahuatl, the ancient indigenous language. Over time, the idea is to promote its use so that metro stops, signs and even street names are written both in Spanish and Nahuatl. Adolfo Lopez, who heads the local governmentʼs indigenous languages programme, says a clear theme runs through the changes. “Itʼs all about social inclusion, pluralism and recognising individualsʼ rights,” he says. “We are a leftwing government and we have an obligation to do this.” But many of the reforms passed so far are daring for a conservative, deeply Catholic country such as Mexico. Even in the US, federal law does not recognise same-sex marriage or even same-sex civil unions along the lines of those now on offer in Mexico City. And Latin America has some of print article

the worldʼs most restrictive abortion laws. Is the worldʼs second-biggest metropolitan area ready for these changes? Twenty million people live there now, and the population grows by roughly 200,000 a year – only greater Tokyo is more populous. And even if it is ready, is it capable of absorbing them? After all, Mexico City may be the capital of a country with an economy of about $1,000bn a year and be home to a growing chunk of North Americaʼs industry; but it is also crime-ridden and traffic-clogged, has a notorious pollution problem, an alarming absence of recreational space and a police force that often seems more concerned with collecting bribes than arresting brigands. A couple of weeks ago, armed only with a pen, a notepad and an avowedly unscientific approach, I tried to find some answers. And, as is so often the case with Mexico City, I discovered that appearances can be deceptive. ... Take Maximo, an overtly camp wrestler with a pink mohican and a cheeky glint. Over the past few years he has grown in popularity among the countryʼs millions of “lucha libre” fans. Tonight he skips down the ramp towards the ring in the heaving Arena Mexico, one of the cityʼs two main wrestling venues. As he wiggles his hips, moving the flap of his black and gold wrestling tunic from side to side, the crowd lets out a mighty cheer. Later, he wins his bout against Sangre Azteca by pinning him to the canvas and sidling his bottom up to within inches of his face. But Maximo is far from being a champion of gay rights. In the dressing room after the fight he said that he was happily married, had a baby on the way and was not even remotely homosexual. More importantly, he confessed that the wrestling authorities had given him strict guidelines as to how far his wrestling persona could go. “Itʼs a family sport,” he told me. “You have to be careful what you do.” El Mirador, a cantina on the edge of Chapultepec Park, one of Mexico Cityʼs few green spaces, is an upmarket sort of place in a fairly smart neighbourhood. Outside, expensive cars line up. Inside, expensive suits and fat wallets are the order of the day. The cantina is a large space with creamcoloured walls and a floor of sea-green linoleum tiles; the blinds are pulled firmly down over the windows. In one corner a group of eight businessmen are playing dice. A man with slicked-back grey hair and neatly trimmed moustache shouts the words “Aire, aire” (air, air) into the cup just before he throws. As he does so, a friend sends a crisp green 200-peso note – about £11 – gliding on to the table. The bets are made, money is won and the cycle starts all over again. But just then, a young man and woman walk in through the glass swing doors and are greeted by an instant barrage of whistling so loud and intimidating that they are forced to retreat to the street. Their speedy exit produces a prolonged guffaw from the patrons and copious self-congratulation. Mexico City may have outlawed sexual discrimination long ago but you wonʼt see a woman sitting in El Mirador during the week. “Technically, they are allowed,” explains Juan Carlos Castillon, one of the cantinaʼs white-shirted waiters. “In practice, nobody lets them in.” This place has nothing to do with Ebrardʼs revolution: it is almost its antithesis. Surprisingly, perhaps, things look more promising at La Pirata, a grimy and foul-smelling establishment in the working-class neighbourhood of Escandon that sells pulque, an alcoholic drink made from the ubiquitous and sacred agave plant. A brand-new sign hangs on La Pirataʼs powder-blue walls; it reads: “In this place there shall be no discrimination along lines of race, religion, sexual orientation, physical or socioeconomic condition, or any other motive.” Surely, this is proof that even traditional Mexico City is gearing up for the 21st century? Many pulque drinkers mix the fermented white liquid with a flavoured juice – both to make it weaker and to improve its texture, which has sometimes been compared with that of semen. But this afternoon, 78-year-old Jose Valdivia is chugging pulque straight – just as he has for 30 years. Valdivia is happy enough with Ebrardʼs decision to ban smoking: he has never smoked in his life. But he is less happy with the decisions to allow gay weddings, and to legalise abortion. “Women print article

can do what they want these days,” he says, his mouth full of the chopped kidney and onions that come as a free snack with the pulque. “Everything is going downhill. Itʼs all very liberal.” Almost all the customers in La Pirata feel that way. Later, I learn that the sign was not the ownersʼ idea – it was given to them by the cityʼs local authorities, and they were told to display it. Mexican historian Guillermo Tovar de Teresa believes that La Pirata and El Mirador, as well as huge swathes of Mexico City, typify what he calls the capitalʼs “Meso-American reality”. In many ways, he argues, things have changed little since pre-colonial times, when the Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan on a series of small islands in a lake where modern Mexico City now stands. When the Spanish formally took over the city in 1521, society remained organised along clearly demarcated and profoundly static class lines and for centuries they did little, if anything, to change the long-established hierarchical political system or tax structures. Even today, with Mexico Cityʼs modern democratic and capitalist system, the old Meso-American reality survives. One result is the huge gulf that separates rich from poor: according to Ebrard, the average salary of the cityʼs population is about $13,000 a year but more than half the population lives on less than $3,600. As Ebrard fully admits, he has his work cut out. Roman Lopez is a member of that poorest half. With 28 years and 33 tattoos to his name, he lives at the top of the Cerro de la Estrella in Iztapalapa, the most populated of the cityʼs 16 so-called delegaciones or divisions. At his humble house, which he shares with his girlfriend, her two children and six other people, the air is relatively clean and the view of the rich corridor of skyscrapers that rises up along the elegant Reforma Avenue is breathtaking. He has two big problems: no steady work and no water. The work woes are not always disastrous because he is gradually building up a network of people in the neighbourhood who can use his skills as a builder and handyman. And his partner has a steady job in a nearby factory that pays about 600 pesos (£33) a week. But the lack of water is a real challenge. His house is not on the mains supply, and the local governmentʼs water truck, which is meant to call at least weekly, often does not. Moreover, he says that even when it does, the driver demands a tip for a service that is supposed to be free. When there is no truck, Lopez and his family have to beg water from a neighbour who is on the grid, a few hundred yards away. This is far from ideal: “Itʼs tough carrying the water all the way back,” Lopez says. “And I donʼt like asking. Itʼs embarrassing.” Although Lopezʼs case is extreme, water rationing affects millions of people in and around the capital. Meanwhile, Mexico City is sinking: more than two-thirds of the cityʼs consumption comes from a huge reservoir hundreds of metres beneath the ground, and as the cityʼs water authority pumps it out so the clay bed on which most of the city is built starts to sag. Parts of Chalco, a populous area in the south-east, are subsiding about one millimetre every day. Poverty and glaring deficiencies in basic infrastructure are serious obstacles to making Mexico City a more liberal city because they act as a break on equality. Through bigger budgets and publicprivate partnerships, the city government plans to spend about 27bn pesos – roughly 24 per cent of its total annual budget – on infrastructure projects this year. A total of 11 dedicated bus lanes and a new metro line will, in effect, expand the existing metro system by more than 50 per cent. There are plans to complete the southern portion of the “circuito interior”, a loop around the city centre. There is even a proposal to run a tram system through the overwhelmingly baroque historic centre. If everything works out, transport times for getting to and from work will eventually fall significantly, improving quality of life for many of the cityʼs residents, particularly the poorer ones. But there are still more barriers to turning Mexico City into a truly liberal place. One of the biggest obstacles is machismo, says Marta Lucia Micher Camarena, head of the local governmentʼs Womenʼs Institute. For decades, starting in the 1950s, Mexicoʼs traditional macho culture was reinforced in the capital by the huge migrations of peasants from the countryside. It was then protected in part by the countryʼs trade policies, which had the effect of isolating Mexico print article

from the rest of the world. Today, Mexico City can claim – sort of – to be a rich and sophisticated capital. The Polanco area at lunch has swanky restaurants in which conversations in 10 languages echo. Santa Fe, an almost space-age neighbourhood of steel and glass on the cityʼs western fringe, could almost be in Dallas. Most big multinationals have large offices in the city, and many millionaires and several billionaires have made it their home. ... Economic stability in Mexico over the past decade has helped expand the middle class, and given rise to ever-greater numbers of cultural events. Stroll around the streets of La Condesa or La Roma and the choice of theatre, music, art and poetry can be overwhelming. Yet none of that means to say that machismo has disappeared. As Micher Camarena told me: “We are still the ones who get beaten, raped and discriminated against. We are going to go to our graves debating this issue.” In the historic centreʼs Plaza de Garibaldi, Bonifacio Landero, a bright-faced guitarist, stands in a tight black suit studded with tin horseshoes and embroidered with flowers of silver thread. He holds his instrument tight to his chest, his eyes fixed firmly on the mother and young child before him, and, with the backing of the rest of his mariachi troupe, he starts to sing a traditional song from a list he has for almost every occasion. As the rhythm picks up, the trumpets fire off short bursts of notes, the rising and falling violin bows become increasingly frenetic and a crowd of about 100 people gathers. Everywhere else in the square, dozens of mariachi groups play for paying customers, onlookers wail and yelp in excitement and the tequila flows fast and furiously. At 31, Landero is younger than most mariachis who perform daily in the square. But his views on homosexuality are traditional. “You have to accept it because it exists ... I just wish they would keep it within the privacy of their homes.” As for abortion, “Iʼm really against it. Itʼs a blessing to bring a child into this world, regardless of the circumstances.” On the other side of town, “Argentina” is making the final adjustments to her wig before going out to entertain the predominantly gay and transsexual crowd at Histeria, a popular nightclub near Mexico Cityʼs airport. One final tug, one last look in the mirror, a little more hairspray, and sheʼs ready. Born in the northern border state of Coahuila, Argentina has been dancing on and off in Histeria for five years and, once inside, she is in her element. “I want to dance forever,” she says, throwing her large masculine hands with painted nails up in the air as if she is about to explode. But outside the fantasyland of Histeria, Argentina admits that life is a lot tougher. Things may be changing – she does her bit by going on the annual gay pride march – but they are not keeping pace with Ebrardʼs legislative revolution. She looks in the mirror one last time, accommodates her breasts beneath a tight black dress and then, gripped by a rare moment of reflection, says to me: “Itʼs a conservative world out there.” Adam Thomson is the FTʼs Mexico correspondent
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