Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Maze of Stores and Stories

Like other large cities, Mexico City has streets which are known for a particular type of store.  Customers know they will be able to compare prices, brands, and designs in numerous stores all selling similar items. They can easily go back to purchase at the store where they found the product they liked the best.  However I doubt other cities have a street as interesting as the one along the west side of Mexico City's Zócalo.  

The street’s name changes every couple blocks. For the first block from the Zócalo it is called Plaza de la Constitución.  As it continues north and passes the national pawn shop it takes its name and becomes Calle Nacional Monte de Piedad. A block further along it becomes Calle República de Brasil.  The types of stores change block to block but they all have one thing in common--preparations for a wedding could be made without straying from this street.

After purchasing an engagement ring in one of the jewelry stores facing the Zocalo, a soon to be married couple can buy a wedding dress for the bride, a tuxedo for the groom, order wedding invitations, arrange for the wedding to be celebrated in the Templo de Santo Domingo, and a few blocks farther along even buy furniture for their new apartment.  

First the jewelry stores. Myriad aisles lined with jewelry stores wind their way into the buildings facing the Zocalo.  Continue north, past the multistoried pawnshop, and you will see stores and stores of beautiful wedding dresses.  Then men's suits and tuxedos take over on both sides of the street. 

Continue to the block-long Santo Domingo Plaza. There you will find an arched walkway running the length of the west side of the plaza. Inside each portal are print shops with hand-set printing presses. Each print shop is a 3-meter high, 2 meter by 2 meter wooden structure housing a manually-powered, movable-type printing press.  In these shops they not only print fancy wedding invitations but also letterhead paper and business cards.  Rumor has it that you can get any type of document you want at Plaza Santo Domingo, much like MacArthur Park in Los Angeles.  

Opposite the printing presses, under the arched walkway, sit the Evangelistas.  They aren't pushing a religion. They are evangelists in the true sense of the word -- the ones who write good news.  Each sits with his back against the wall behind a desk facing the plaza. On each desk is a manual typewriter.  They operate Escritorios Publicos, public desks.  For a fee the Evangelistas will fill out forms that need to be typed. They'll also type whatever the customer wants.  Frequently what they type are letters for illiterate people.  The customer dictates and the Evangelist puts it down on paper.  

Seeing the Evangelistas always brings to my mind the principal character in Gabriel García Marquez's Love in the Times of Cholera.  Florentino Ariza's services at his public desk were the most solicited in town because of his fame for writing love letters.   He'd always known he was good, but he had no doubt he was really good when he'd gone full circle.  That’s when people started bringing him letters they had received -- which he recognized as letters he had written -- asking him to write the reply. 

You’ll want to notice the east side of the Plaza Santo Domingo, but not for its stores.

Here in the Customs House Dominican priests serving the Inquisition reviewed every book imported to New Spain to make sure it was not listed in the Index of Prohibited Books.  Next door the headquarters of New Spain's Inquisition occupied the real estate that became the School of Medicine. It now houses a medical museum and a macabre museum of the Inquisition.  If you don't visit the museums, at least step in to see the beautiful and unusual 18th century courtyard architecture.   An arched walkway surrounds the courtyard.  Each arch rests on a capital supported by a column that it shares with the adjacent arch -- except at the four corners.  There, where two perpendicular arches meet on a capital, there is no column beneath the capital.  Quite stunning.

Continue north on Calle República de Brasíl, beyond the Santo Domingo church, which faces onto the Plaza.  Here furniture stores line both sides of the street. 

Retracing your steps back to the Zócalo, finish your walk by rewarding yourself with coffee and pastries under the spectacular stained glass ceiling in the lobby of the Gran Hotel at the southwestern corner of the Zócalo.  You may remember the lobby from the movie “Frida” starring Salma Hayek. Although filmed in Mexico City, in the movie it is in Paris that Josephine Baker and Frida Kahlo ride the elegant 19th-century caged elevator together. (You may find it easier to get into the lobby if you enter from the garage on Calle 16 de Septiembre as the staff is not always friendly to non hotel guests.)

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