Mexico City's mosh pit
Every weekend at 'El Chopo' the underground surfaces for a day of music, 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-minded metropolis. Strangers on the subway gawk and jeer. The requisite apparel — long black coats, bovver boots, a spiky headful of gel — can seem borderline masochistic with summer temperatures hovering in the mid-80s. And what's the point of wearing a "Never Mind the Bollocks" T-shirt if almost nobody here 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 with a number of their graying elders, have flocked to El Tianguis Cultural del Chopo, an open-air flea market that every Saturday commandeers a three-block area of this capital city.
Since its humble beginnings in the early 1980s, "El Chopo," as it's popularly known, has mixed anti-authoritarian politics and under-the-radar lifestyles, and, more recently, cash and commerce. It's not only where you can pick up a bootleg copy of the Clash's "London Calling," buy a Rasta cap, recruit a bass player for your band, grab a quick snog with your boyfriend or girlfriend (away from prying parental eyes) and get one or more body parts pierced, all in a single afternoon. It's also where many young Mexicans who don't fit in elsewhere seem to wind up.
Punks in plaid pants and leather jackets and Goths (or darketos, as they're called here) in Nosferatu chic dominate the scene at El Chopo. But on a typical Saturday you'll likely run into biker chicks, dreadlocked Rastas, grungy death-metal heads, tie-dyed hippies, skateboarders, 'zine artists and neo-Bolshevik booksellers hawking battered copies of the holy trinity of underground literature: Chomsky, Bukowski and Che. Maybe even a cluster of Rude Boys in porkpie hats and 2-tone suits who — notwithstanding their Mayan and Zapotec facial features — look as if they'd just time-traveled in from Brighton, England, circa 1980.
"We're all strange in some way, and El Chopo is a place where everyone can show their strangeness," says Tania Magali, 16, trying on a pair of knee-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 princess Joan 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 her mother's white wedding dress. After Magali dyed them black her grandmother warned her, "Now you'll never marry." In Mexico, superstition still counts for something, and young people know they transgress at their peril.
City officials estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 people jam El Chopo's narrow aisles every Saturday. From 11 a.m., when the market's roughly 200 vendors open their tarp-covered, metal-frame stalls near the Buena Vista subway station, to around 4 p.m., when the last customers straggle off, El Chopo hums with raw energy and jackhammer blasts of reggae, ska and heavy metal.
Most browsers stop to check out the live bands that thrash and snarl in a small performance area on a street corner near the market's north end. According to legend, the acclaimed Mexico City alt-rock group Café Tacuba took off when a pirate version of its music began circulating at El Chopo. On this Saturday afternoon, a 3-year-old band called Tenzión is leaping and power-chording its way through a 45-minute set.
"It's cool that there are places like this to promote the diversity of 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 City has few, if any, equivalents of places like Melrose Avenue that fuse conspicuous consumption with funky, alternative mise-en-scène. Mexico's middle-class music shoppers generally head for climate-controlled U.S.-style malls that sell legal, full-price CDs from a fairly circumscribed sonic spectrum. Younger, poorer Mexicans favor bootleg CDs that cost one-tenth the price and can be bought from the hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal vendors operating across the city.
But if you're looking for some underground garage rock band or obscure British ska septet, El Chopo is pretty much the only game in town. "There's more 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 more interesting."
Mario Alberto Camacho Soriano, director of public safety for the Mexico City borough of Cuauhtemoc, says trouble rarely occurs at the market. The biggest problem is public drinking, by minors and adults who buy alcohol from the surrounding bodegas. But overall, Camacho says, El Chopo benefits the area. "Everybody is free to dress the way they want and have the ideology they want as long as they respect the laws. El Chopo is the only one of its kind in Mexico City, and it provides a space for young people who otherwise face a tough time."
Over the decades, El Chopo has grown bigger and broader, absorbing a dizzying array of music-inspired subcultures and sub-subcultures into its mosh-pit phenomenology. Somehow, the disparate groups all get along. "It's a space of coexistence," says Javier Hernández Chelico, who has been selling left-wing books and magazines in El Chopo since the early 1980s and writes a regular column about the market for the Mexico City daily newspaper La Jornada.
El CHOPO sits alongside a former railroad yard in an aging, neglected part of the city, the type of neighborhood that Mexicans call a barrio bravo, a term connoting hardship, pride and wild, unruly creativity. Originally the 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-bucket blues were all the rage; the punks and New Wavers hadn't yet arrived.
Back then, the prevailing spirit of El Chopo was more experimental than entrepreneurial, says C. Armando Barreiro Perez, a city municipal services director who grew up in the neighborhood and whose administrative territory now includes the market. "To find music that was unavailable elsewhere, to feel like part of a new form of expression and protest … it was simply a joy," says Barreiro, who's also an amateur guitar player. Initially the market ran on a barter-only system. Over time it has become more businesslike. Today, El Tianguis Cultural del Chopo is a full-fledged civic association that elects its own leaders and pays the city for its weekly use of the neighborhood.
But El Chopo still has an insurgent edge. In the United States and Western Europe, punk, Goth and other rock genres with outlaw attitude sometimes have confused trendy nihilism and suburban ennui with political passion. But in lumpen pockets of Mexico, decades of official corruption, status-quo politics and economic bumbling have bred deep disillusionment and a profound desire for change among many young people.
"In the U.S. the people are much more drawn to the aesthetic rather than the politics of punk. Here it's much more about politics," says "Gypsie," a Seattle native sitting with friends on an abandoned, graffiti-smothered red 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 tastes have made her something of an untouchable at school and in her neighborhood, a few miles outside Mexico City. "In the pueblitos [small towns] you're more easily insulted," she says. "They say that you look naco [low-class]."
Indeed, tourists visiting El Chopo may wonder if something has gotten lost in translation. "The Satanism, the tattooing, the piercings — it's all a little strange," says Jacob Garb, who works for a New York City public policy 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 weekends to unload his scathing satirical images — a Mexican migrant scaling a U.S. flag with barbed-wire stripes and swastika stars, grotesque mug shots of Mexican presidents — which he prints on small fabric swatches and sells for 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 back to laying out samples of his wares along the sidewalks of El Chopo, where the discs are cheap, the clothes are dark, and London and New York are irrelevant.
Times researcher Dan Vazquez in Mexico City contributed to this report.