Axolotls in crisis: the fight to save the 'water monster' of Mexico City

Like many residents of Mexico City, my experience of the floating gardens of Xochimilco has mostly been tinged with alcohol. After all, every weekend, this Unesco world heritage site turns into a bacchanal, with groups aboard the canals’ iconic boats celebrating everything from high school graduations to engagements and weddings. But this is a weekday morning, and Carlos Sumano, who is steering my canoe through the floating gardens, or chinampas, says that sort of unfettered use has taken its t

A year after the Mexico City earthquake, many Jewish organizations still don’t have a home

MEXICO CITY (JTA) — This capital city has yet to recover from last September’s earthquake, which killed over 300 people and left many more homeless. In the trendy Condesa neighborhood, once a predominantly Jewish area here, many buildings have been demolished and others are in a state of abandonment and disrepair. Among the most affected structures is the cherished Nidje Israel Synagogue, known locally as “Acapulco 70″ for its street address. The massive building, used by generations of Jews —

A Family History of Mer-Kup, a Modernist Hub in Mexico City

In 1961, a Polish-Jewish woman opened a small gallery in Polanco, a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City. Over the following decade, the space became a cultural force, hosting solo and collective exhibitions by artists like Mathias Goeritz, Sebastián, and José Luis Cuevas. That woman, Merl Kuper, immigrated to Mexico from Poland in the 1930s. She was my great-grandmother. Her daughter, my grandmother Alinka, worked in the gallery as well. After they died, our home, my mother’s studio, and m

The Ghost Architect of Vienna

Vienna is a city of ghost-buildings: 180,000 Jews lived in the Austrian capital before World War II; the infrastructure that served them is long gone. The Hakoah Sports Center, with its famous soccer fields, was seized in 1938. The iconic Leopoldstadt Synagogue, which seated 3,000 members, was destroyed by the Nazis during the November pogrom. Of the 80 synagogues and temples in use before the Nazi’s rule over Vienna, the Stadttempel is the only one that survived. Now the central religious inst

Tour Guide Monica Unikel Preserves Mexico City’s Jewish History

To mark Day of the Dead on Nov. 1, thousands of Mexican families will flock to the Pantheon of Dolores, one of Mexico City’s biggest cemeteries, to light candles, play mariachi songs, and eat food on the graves of their dead relatives. Right across the street, in the smaller Ashkenazi cemetery, Monica Unikel will be leading an exclusive tour to make up for the lack of Jewish-Mexican rituals to mark the day. Unlike most Mexicans, Jews in Mexico don’t set up altars to their deceased ancestors or v

Where to Eat Kosher in Mexico City

La Muertita—the Little Dead Woman—sets up her quesadilla stall every evening on a busy commercial thoroughfare called Prolongación in the hilly neighborhood of Bosques de Reforma on the western outskirts of Mexico City. She and her staff of eight drive 90 minutes across the largest metropolis in the western hemisphere to get here by 5:30 p.m. and set up her tent, tables, chairs and cooking station with military efficiency. La Muertita repeats this ritual every evening of the week. Every evening

In Mexico City, this Jewish NGO is the go-to agency for earthquake relief

MEXICO CITY (JTA) — I was on the 11th floor of an office building here when the ground started moving. There had been a mock evacuation that same day in remembrance of the 1985 earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people, but this was no drill. According to protocol, everyone ran toward the building’s columns — structurally the safest place to be in an earthquake. I closed my eyes as the rumbling worsened, focusing on my breath and hugging the concrete structure as ceiling lamps came down, b

Secret Crypto-Jewish Diaries Rediscovered in New York, Displayed in Mexico City

After renouncing Judaism, Luis de Carvajal was granted mercy: Instead of being burned alive, he was tied to a pole, noose around his neck, and slowly asphyxiated to death. His body was consumed in a massive fire organized in a public plaza in 1596 at a Mexico City auto-da-fé, in which his sister and mother also died. During the trial, a collection of manuscripts in Carvajal’s distinctive calligraphy was used as proof of the family’s Crypto-Jewish practice. Found beneath Carvajal’s hat and behin

The black plague: Mexico City’s war on chewing gum

Each night dozens of trucks carrying 15 people depart from Mexico City’s downtown to Francisco I Madero Avenue, the most famous pedestrian street in the capital. Armed with 90C vapour guns called Terminators, the group begins the laborious task of combing the street looking for small, black circles fastened to the ground. It takes them three days, working in eight-hour shifts, to go through the 9,000 sq metre avenue. By the end, they have removed a total of 11,000 pieces of chewing gum.

Trying to Save Ladino: Sephardic Culture Conference Lands in Mexico City

I expected, over the course of a three-day conference in Mexico City about global Sephardic culture, to hear more Ladino. But I was surprised, if not a little disappointed, to hear mostly Spanish being spoken at Erensya, an annual meeting run by the Madrid-based Sepharad-Israel Center. Founded in 2006, the SIC’s flagship program, the Erensya (“Heritage,” in Ladino) summit, is an annual meeting of Sephardic dignitaries that has previously been hosted in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Spain.

10,000 Hardboiled Eggs and the Art of Pedro Friedeberg

Most Sundays, Pedro Friedeberg spends $50 to $100 buying junk in La Lagunilla, Mexico City’s massive flea market. Whatever he happens to find there—let’s say, a midget-sized Superman figure or a Simpsons-themed chess-set—will either be dismembered or placed into whatever nook is left among the doll heads, cabalistic drawings, I-Ching books, hand-shaped chairs, and other objects populating his house. At 82, he realizes he will never be able to organize his “collection,” though perhaps his son wil

Stories of Emancipation: Aztecs and Israelites

Every Monday morning, in elementary school in Mexico City, I would line up next to my classmates in the main yard. As we looked up the red, white, and green flag we would sing a hymn to the Mexican flag, with our hands to our chests. The ritual was, and still is, repeated across Mexico. Atop the flag is a ubiquitous Mexican emblem: an image of an eagle, standing on top of a cactus, devouring a snake. The story behind this image is known to everyone in Mexico but to me, as a Mexican Jew, the

The Non-Jewish Family That Serves 'Kosher' Quesadillas to Mexico City's Jews

Every day, at around 5:30 in the evening, a white van loaded with kitchen utensils, cooking ingredients, chairs, tables, and a tent departs on an hour-and-a-half ride across Mexico City towards Bosques de la Reforma, a wealthy enclave on the outskirts of the megalopolis. As soon as it parks on Prolongación, a busy commercial street with heavy traffic, eight people get off the van and work with military efficiency to set up the tent, laying the tables and organizing the chairs in the sidewalk. Th

City Trash “Archaeologists” Head to the Beach in Australia

​In San Diego, 325,000 tons of household trash will be collected this year. According to New York City, its residents generate 12,000 tons of waste each day. In 2012, the World Bank reported that “world cities generate about 1.3 billion tons of solid waste per year,” and estimated that figure would be 2.2 billion tons by 2025. While cities around the world set goals regarding recycling and improving collection services, one group of artists in Mexico City looks at trash as an important agent in
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