a beginning of the rest of my life…
by Pancho Shiell
Mexico City has amazed me ever since I was a child. I went there for the first time with my parents and their best friends and neighbors, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and his gorgeous wife, “my auntie Allene”. My first impressions are still vivid. I remember landing at the Mexico City airport and, as we stepped out of the plane, Johnny gave his Tarzan call. Several convertibles drove up to the ramp as we walked down from the airplane. Some cars were carrying mariachis playing fabulously, and others were for us to sit on top of the back seat in parade formation. Then they drove us around the city, and I loved the way everybody was waving and cheering, so friendly, happy and welcoming. Immediately I knew that Mexico City was much more exciting than Beverly Hills!
We stayed in the then swanky Hotel del Prado across from the Alamada Park, and I still remember that enormous epic mural high on a lobby wall, Diego Rivera’s “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”.
The Prado Hotel was irreparably damaged in the 1985 earthquake, but the mural was miraculously spared. The entire 77,000-pound wall upon which Diego painted the mural was removed from the crumbling hotel by a giant crane and loaded onto a wheeled flatbed that was gently transported inch-by-inch by hundreds of workers. It took several days to move it 100 yards across Avenida Juárez and into the Alameda Park where it was installed on a permanent concrete platform. The Museo Mural Diego Rivera was then built around the mural.
My parents and Johnny and Allene always took me everywhere, even to nightclubs when I was way under legal drinking age. (My father said beer would put hair on my chest.) I still treasure my memories of the Villafontana, an exquisite Mexico City supper club with waterfalls and dozens of violinists playing enchanting music.
Inside the Palacio de Bellas Artes I was awestruck looking upward in the immense marble halls — things appear even bigger from a child’s perspective — and I was startled by those huge murals staring at me (I later studied about Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros, with the advantage of a much appreciated head start, right here).
One day we went to the pyramids of Teotihuacan — speaking of big — and climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, an appropriate place for Johnny to give his echoing Tarzan call.
Recently, I was reminiscing with Allene and she reminded me of a lovely Sunday when we all went to Xochimilco and had lunch on a trajinera boat among the “floating flower gardens”. Mariachis were playing, and people were always waving and smiling at us. I thought all this was normal behavior in friendly Mexico, but of course Johnny’s presence had plenty to do with it. (He always said he was loved more in Mexico than in any other country in the world).
Xochimilco, with its canals, boats and floating gardens and orchards, is a small untouched area that remains much the same as the entire city was originally, before the Spaniards arrived in 1521 and changed everything. It was originally called Tenochtitlan, the flourishing capital city of the Aztec Empire. When Hernan Cortes and his band of conquistadors first saw the dazzling metropolis, looking down from the pass between the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, their chronicler said it reminded them of Venice, only more beautiful. The twp volcanoes, usually snowcapped, present an inspiring view at dawn, sparkling at well over 17,000 feet above sea level. We could proudly pronounce and spell their names, and Allene showed me how Ixtaccihuatl resembled the silhouette of a sleeping lady. (At their home, Allene and Johnny had a big white pet standard poodle named “Popo”.)
That Sunday afternoon, we also enjoyed a totally different aspect and era of Mexico City, a strong tradition ever since New Spain was colonized here by Cortes — we went to the bullfights. Hemingway was there.
We continued to Acapulco, where Johnny and Allene, along with some of the so-called “Hollywood Gang”, owned the then glamorous Los Flamingos Hotel which remains perfectly maintained just as it was, and the memories live on, especially in the lobby photo gallery and the clifftop restaurant that still serves superb ceviche. A romantic trio still plays in the bar. We made subsequent trips over the years, always having a royal time in “Mexico” (as Mexico City is simply called by Mexicans), then on to Acapulco in the days of cha-cha-cha. Allene taught me to water ski on slalom (one ski, and not easy). Starting at the Club de Yates, we would ski all the way across the bay, past the naval base (and its one and one-half grey ships usually docked there), then around to the cove at Pichilingue, on the beach of the estate of “Uncle Miguel” — Miguel Alemán, then President of Mexico. I remember amazing parties on the beach where the waiters wore tuxedos, but were barefoot.
During high school, I returned to Mexico to spend a summer, enrolled in a course at the Ciudad Universitaria to learn Spanish. I liked the exotic feeling of the campus atmosphere with its stone architecture, especially the landmark Central Library building covered entirely by the “world’s largest mosaic mural” by genius artist Juan O’Gorman. But I only went to the campus a few times because there was so much else to do and see. I lived in a lovely mansion owned by Señora Laura Uribe Torres, a widow with two young children. She offered accommodations for students in her upscale homelike atmosphere. That was my home, on Calle Dublín, just off Paseo de la Reforma and close to the Zona Rosa which was truly elegant then. I was impressed by the fact that shop windows were more meticulous than those on Rodeo Drive –the clothes on display had absolutely no wrinkles, and jeweled watches were synchronized with correct time. I discovered fabulous restaurants, fun cantinas, peñas and piano bars where I “yaked it up” and drank tequila with the special satisfaction that I was still under “legal USA drinking age”. I explored picturesque Coyoacan (visiting, of course, Diego and Frida’s and Trotsky’s houses). I even went to agricultural villages out in the rural countryside — nevertheless still within the city limits of the Distrito Federal — such as Milpa Alta, known for delicious mole, and San Pedro Actopan famed for a hundred flavors of ice cream made from avocado, cheese, mole, and every fruit imaginable.
I revisited Bellas Artes and other places I saw when I was younger, and I gradually began to understand more about this complex city with layers of history. I delved into the colonial Centro Histórico, which has recently undergone a brilliant refurbishing. (Both the Historic Center of Mexico City and Xochimilco were proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987.). I still gaze in wonder at Diego Rivera’s murals upstairs in the National Palace, especially el Gran Tenochtitlan which is mesmerizing. It dramatizes the arrival and brutal conquest by the Spaniards, their ethnic fusion with the Aztecs, and the transformation of Tenochtitlan into one of the most European cities in the Americas. (The Spaniards were Europe’s most ethnically mixed people – Iberian, Visigoth, Phoenician, Ancient Roman, Celtic, Jewish, Arab – so their blending with the Aztecs, as well as with various indigenous cultures in other regions of Mexico, formed one of the richest gene pools anywhere).
It is astonishing that the scenes Diego Rivera painted from his imagination on the walls of the National Palace actually happened just outside. It also awesome to be inside the Museum of the Templo Mayor, a block away, viewing displays of Aztec artifacts and sculptures of their gods, then look out the big museum window, right there at the Templo Mayor excavation site where these precious objects were found. You also see the dramatic remains of the pyramids that once rose to the height of the adjacent Cathedral towers! It gets even more surrealistic in the evenings: while the Cathedral’s chiming bells beckon Mexicans to mass, you also hear the drums and smell the incense of the Aztec danzantes right there in the Zócalo (the immense main square of Mexico City, either second or third largest in the world) passionately reenacting the ceremonial dances of their ancestors. To take it even further, during Christmas season the entire square is specatularly illuminated with Christian scenes and biblical icons. Yet, as a National Palace guard once told me, beneath the pavement of the Zócalo lay thousands of “pagan” Aztec souls who sometimes get agitated and stir around late at night.
During the entire month of September, the Zócalo is also illuminated but with a different theme: the grand celebration of Mexican Independence Day, September 16. On the night of September 15 at 11 p.m., the President of Mexico gives the traditional cry of independence, el grito de independencia, from the presidential balcony of the National Palace while he simultaneously rings the overhead Campana de Dolores, the same bell that the hero Hidalgo rang in 1810 proclaiming Mexico’s independence.
Years ago, I had the honor of being invited to the Presidential chambers and the Salón de las Banderas (Hall of the Flags) for el grito. Just before the ceremony I happened to wander out unknowingly onto the presidential balcony to get some air. ¡Madre mía!… I was looking out over the vast Zócalo packed with hundreds of thousands of rejoicing Mexicans who seemed to be gazing up at me! What an unexpected thrill! At a subsequent year’s festivities, I was standing in the square at ground level squeezed among the throngs, this time under that balcony, looking up at the President while he gave el grito chanting !Víva México! That was a different kind of thrill.
Year after year, I have been privileged to marvel at the spectacular lights in the Zócalo during both the Christmas and Independence holidays. And a monthly must-see phenomenon in the Zócalo in the light of the full moon. On Sundays there are major concerts in the Zócalo, and the annual Festival Cultural del Centro Histórico in the spring rivals any festival in Europe.
I never feel alone in Mexico City because I have hundreds of friends — in restaurants, cantinas, shops, newsstands, even organ grinders greet me with a smile. There are 110,000 taxis in the city, and on two unrelated occasions I experienced the uncanny coincidences of getting the same drivers who remembered me from before, even where they took me and our conversations along the way. Taxis are typically the user-friendly VW bugs, and drivers invariably share with me some enlightening anecdotes about their city, or some wisdom about life in general. The capitalinos (inhabitants of Mexico City) have a characteristicly sharp memory for people and details about them; they are highly tuned-in and connected. They love to laugh and never cease to tickle me with their lightening-wit albures (playful puns and double entendres) exercising their innate mental agility.
Because I am based in New York, I am impressed with the efficiency and quietness of Mexico City’s subway. It moves five million passengers daily and ranks among the best of the world. In fact, Mexico City, or Mexico D.F. is a place of superlatives. It is the highest city on the North American continent with an altitude of 7,349 feet which, for some reason, has an exhilarating effect on me, even when I swim laps (Weissmuller style, of course). It is the oldest city in the Americas, founded by the Aztecs in 1325. With 26 million inhabitants, it is one of the most populous cities in the world. It has more museums than any city and, after New York, London and Toronto, it has more theaters. As far as eateries, Mexico must run a close second to Madrid (which, by the way, is where I ended up going to school and deeply learned Spanish…also flamenco).
In addition to major restorations in the Centro Histórico, the Alameda Park has been refurbished, and there are mounted police wearing traditional charro outfits. The sidewalks along the entire Paseo de la Reforma have been repaved in sand-color quarry stone and lined with rose gardens and statuary. New hotels are opening, and restaurants, nightlife and the art and cultural scenes are burgeoning. As Madrid was to Europe in the 1980s, Mexico City is presently blossoming into the most vibrant and exciting city on the North American Continent.
I am grateful for my early and unusual “family travel” introduction to Mexico City — for my vivid memories, the friends, experiences and extraordinary surprises the city has given me ever since.
One can develop a special bond and endearment with a city as I have with Mexico.
post data 2008: Allene lives near Lake Arrowhead in the Southern California mountains and enjoys luxury cruises down the pacific with en route stops including Acapulco and Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. So, I fly from New York to ACA and meet Allene as she disenbarks for a day in port. Our Acapulqueño driver, Rosendo, takes us to visit Johnny’s grave. Then we go up to La Quebrada to see the legendary cliff divers, and word travels that the esposa (wife) of Tarzan is present. So the divers and their uncles, fathers, etc. come up to the restaurant-bar were we sit, to greet Allene and pay their respects. They loved Johnny who was always generous with them. Then we drive up to the Hotel Los Flamingos to reminisce. The hotel was once owned by “The Hollywood Gang” (Johnny and Allene Weissmuller, John Wayne, Fred MacMurray, Red Skelton, etc.) Allene loves a margarita and we eat ceviche and listen to the trio singing songs of yesteryear that I remember from my childhood visits with my parents. Photos of Allene and Johnny are among the celeb photos in the hotel lobby gallery, along with others of “Jane” (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Cheeta who recently celebrated his 75th birthday in Palm Springs where he lives and enjoys painting…he has had successful exhibits of his art. John Junior (“Little John”) sadly passed away a few years ago. He wrote a biography-memoir book called “Tarzan my Father”. Cheeta, the oldest known living chimp, and still sharp as a tack, has his own book coming out in the U.S. in February 2009 aptly titled “Me Cheeta”. (A version of the same book has already been published in the U.K.) Check amazon.com or bn.com for both books. I look forward to Allene’s next cruise and our meeting again in Acapulco. From there we always have a second rendezvous: her ship sails overnight to Zihuatanejo, while I drive there so we can meet the next morning at the Zihuatanejo municipal pier where the passengers tender in. We spend a day in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa visiting more favorite places (and people): previously Villa del Sol (before it changed ownership and name), and now we go to Loma del Mar Thalasso Spa in Ixtapa, “the greatest!” as Allene says. See old black & white photos of Allene and Johnny and gang, also click to see video and pics of Los Flamingos: http://www.hotellosflamingos.com/history.htm And, some good photos here: Allene and Johnny with Anthony Quinn
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New York to Acapulco 23 April 2010 for the annual Tianguis (nahuatl for “marketplace”) Turístico, big tourism marketing pow-wow, marketing networking, trade show, luncheons, extravaganza cocktail receptions and dinners, a big reunion of amigos and collegues, a few of whom join me to play hookey and return to Hotel Los Flamingos for hilltop reminiscing and the best ceviche and live trio music, and yet anothe perusal of the lobby photo gallery of the “Hollywood Gang”, featuring Johnny and Allene, her parents Ward (“3-Iron Gates, or Ward Gates and Martha gates) who gave me my first pet, a collie named “Tammy” for his pedigree name, Golden Pancho of Tamarack, my childhood best friend.