Mexico City's rivers reborn

In Mexico City, the name Viaducto Río de la Piedad conjures images of a noisy, polluted, traffic-ridden eight-lane highway that turns into hell-on-wheels, with cars inching by at a mere six kilometres per hour during rush hour. It’s not a place to go for an afternoon stroll, let alone hang around. Yet in 2012, that’s precisely what a group of activists led by environmentalist architect Elias Cattan did. After scaling a fence on a bridge, they sat down in a circle on the concrete structure that c

Roma, the Mexico City setting of Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar frontrunner, used to be a Jewish neighborhood

MEXICO CITY (JTA) — Alfonso Cuaron’s film “Roma” has already won two Golden Globes, and many think it will be the first Netflix film to win the Oscar for best picture. The film is set in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City — where Cuaron grew up — and follows a well-off family and its beloved housekeeper, as they navigate life there in the 1970s, a politically fraught time for the country and the city. Not mentioned in Cuaron’s autobiographical film is that in past decades Roma used to be an i

New Jewish Documentation Center, Containing 100 Years of Jewish Life in Mexico City, Opens This Week

A catastrophic 1985 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Mexico City and destroyed the (back-then) Jewish neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa also left the archives of the Ashkenazi community in a state of complete disarray, stashed away in makeshift boxes in the damp and dark basement of the Nidje Israel synagogue, colloquially known as Acapulco 70 for its street address. In the early 1990s, Alicia Gojman de Backal, a history professor at the National University of Mexico, decided to mak

Mexico City’s Jewish mayor wants to be identified by her policies, not her ethnicity

MEXICO CITY (JTA) — It was during her ultimately successful campaign for Mexico City mayor that Claudia Sheinbaum made a reference to her Jewish heritage. Speaking before a group of Jewish women, she said she was proud of those origins. “We celebrated all the holidays at my grandparents’ house,” she recalled. For Sheinbaum, the capital city’s first elected Jewish and female mayor, the reference to her Jewishness was rare. Like many other liberal, secular Jewish politicians around the world, Sh

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.
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