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>We’re There: Guadalajara & Mercado Juarez

February 7, 2010

>The photos in this week’s post were taken in December, 2009. With my wife and daughter, I traveled to Guadalajara for the express purpose of revisiting the landmarks of my youth: my school, the homes we lived in, the public markets, as well as other places. I needed to know if what’s there today corresponds with the wonderful memories I have, if there’s continuity. Happily, the answer is yes, everything is there and intact, although with the changes I have to expect after fifty years. For example, the gallery atop Los Arcos now houses art exhibits, rather than the flags mentioned in the post. It’s reached by a winding staircase that takes you past a wonderful mural that sprawls across all four walls. The market photo is of Mercado Libertad, rather than Mercado Juarez, but it still conveys the ideas of size, complexity and hustle of the markets. Enjoy, let me hear from you – your comments are my payoff. Thanx – and enjoy!


We’re There – Guadalajara!
            On the road again, one more time. The final time. We left San Blas, turned east, inland, and then south, following the highway through Tepic, the capital city of the state of Nayarit, into the state of Jalisco and one-hundred seventy miles on to Guadalajara. My album is blank here, there are no snapshots, real, imagined or remembered. I recall only that the road twisted and turned like a piece of string dropped to the floor and that this part of the trip was much cooler as we ascended to Guadalajara’s five thousand foot altitude.
We arrived in Guadalajara (population: 456,000) in the early afternoon, completely clueless as to where we could, or should, stay, what part of the city we were in, or where to go for information or assistance if we needed it. But I don’t think that bothered Mom one bit. Her adventure, our adventure, was turning out at least as well as she had dared hope, and she had made it happen. She had brought all of us, including Felice, safely to this point. Where or what this point was didn’t much matter. If it didn’t work out here, we’d soon be on the road again to some other place.
Almost as soon as we came into Guadalajara we saw a sign that proclaimed “CALIFORNIA COURTS – TOURISTS WELCOME”.
“From California to California, kids. Let’s check this out.” Without hesitating she turned into the drive that led past the sign to the office.

SNAPSHOT: The California Courts sit on a patch of land struggling to grow grass. Half a dozen one-story, pink-stuccoed units cluster around the weary office like hangers-on surrounding a fading celebrity,
We spent our first two weeks in Guadalajara at the California Courts, located just off Avenida Vallarta, a principal east-west thoroughfare. The Courts were in the shadow of Los Arcos, Guadalajara’s answer to the Arc d’Triomphe, on the edge of town. There were two arches standing over Avenida Vallarta, one arch guiding two lanes of traffic into the city, the other watching two lanes leave. They were tall and ornate, with, I learned later, a gallery across the top displaying the flags of all the Americas. 

We pulled up to the office, leaving a min-dust storm trail behind us. Val stayed behind with Felice as Mom and I went into the office.

SNAPSHOT: The owner is a small, thin man with a bushy mustache and a kindly, pock-marked face. He sits on a stool behind the counter in the small office, smiling at us.
He had learned his limited English from checking in tourists over the years and spoke it well enough to answer questions about the units, about where to buy groceries and gas, and about Guadalajara in general. After we registered, he took down a key from a hook on the wall and walked us to our two bedroom unit. Inside, he showed us where the light switches were and how to get water from the garafon, a metal frame holding a five-gallon bottle of purified water that swivels down in order to pour, something we would use daily for the next five years. He told us about the temperamental toilet (we would find out that most toilets in Mexico are temperamental) and not to put too much in it and to make sure we jiggled the handle. Mom, only half listening, was also checking for cleanliness and roaches or other life forms. Satisfied, she thanked the man and he left.

SNAPSHOT: Felice lies on the top shelf of the closet, paws tucked underneath her, tail nestled along her flank. She’s as far back as she can get, right up against a wire mesh screen that lets in air. And rain.
Long-suffering Felice was happy to be somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t moving. She took over the shelf in the closet in the bedroom that Mom and Val shared. The shelf was an unfortunate choice. It had an open vent that let in the rain (and this was the beginning of the rainy season), was constantly damp and covered with mildew. Even under normal conditions mildew has a strong, distinctive smell to it, musty and dank. Felice’s shelf was mildew heaven and when we moved out it was like she’d been recruited to bring mildew to the rest of the world. For days after we moved into our first house people who dropped by would sniff the air and ask, “What’s that smell? Mildew?”
Mercado Juarez
             This photo is in our family album:
SNAPSHOT: A fruit and juice stand in an underground passageway. There’s so much fruit here there’s almost no room for the vendor behind the counter. Pineapples are stacked everywhere, bananas cram a bottom shelf, slices of watermelon and cantaloupe are stuffed into a bowl, lemons and limes are stored in a dozen square, one-gallon jars, stacks of apples appear ready to collapse, nets of grapefruits hang from the ceiling, papayas are sitting on a high shelf and there are wire bins of fruits I’ve never seen before.
Our time at the California Courts was spent resting and making exploratory trips into the city. Valerie and I still had most of summer stretching ahead of us, no thoughts at all about school. We made trips to the two large public markets, San Juan de Dios (later changed to Mercado Libertad) and Mercado Juarez. We drove the thirty miles to Lake Chapala and spent a day there. We walked around Guadalajara’s downtown shopping district and made a delightful discovery, or at least I thought so: Some of the major intersections had underground walkways that connected all four corners, allowing pedestrians to cross the street and live to tell about it. These subterranean passages were full of tiny shops selling food and drink, souvenirs, leather goods, hats, newspapers, books, comics, and candy. On one of our trips I bought some comics in Spanish and tried to read them back at the Courts: “El Pato Donald,” “El Raton Miguelito,” “Superman,” and “La Pequena Lulu.” We also discovered the Benjamin Franklin Lending Library, primarily for Americans, not too far from the Courts. My sister and I checked out books to help pass the time.

SNAPSHOT: Two policemen lean against the cool stone wall. A deliveryman trundles his hand truck laden precariously with several odd-size boxes that look like they’re about ready to topple over. A small boy, five or six, dressed in rags, tries hard to avoid being jostled by the throngs as he hawks small packages of chicles. An old man on handmade crutches is missing a foot and his lower jaw. A large woman herds two older boys, each carrying a rickety wooden cage with chickens. A man locks his bike to an iron gate, next to the policemen. A priest hurries in, intent on an earthly errand. An attractive young woman walks by, elegantly dressed, head held high. A skinny dog darts through the opening and into the cool interior. Construction workers. Shopkeepers. Students. Housewives. Beggars. Truck drivers. Nurses. Professional men. A bus grinds to a stop and a dozen people are getting off and heading inside. I’m one of them. This is Mercado Juarez.
“I’m going to Mercado Juarez,” I told Mom one morning. It had taken me a while to screw up the courage to go out on my own but I wanted to explore without guidance or supervision and the market was where I wanted to start.
There was a pause while Mom pondered her answer. “Okay,” she said, “Are you sure you know how to get there? And back?”
“Yeah. We’ve done it a couple of times on the bus, remember?” Mom gave me some money and I left.
I waited for the bus on a corner near California Courts, feeling like I should have gone to the bathroom before leaving. I clutched the exact fare in a sweaty hand. When the bus came I flagged it down, just as we had done before. I handed my money to the bus driver and, without looking up, he handed me a ticket. I walked quickly to the back of the bus, head down, avoiding any eye contact, and took a window seat.
Two blocks later, a surprise. A man and a boy boarded the bus, guitars slung across their backs. They each wore a beat-up straw hat, white shirt and pants and huaraches. They moved past the driver without paying and stood in the aisle, even though there were seats available. My curiosity got the better of me and I actually looked up to see what they were going to do.
The man announced something in a large voice to the passengers and then he and the boy unslung their guitars, braced themselves against the lurches of the bus and started to sing and play. I watched and listened, fascinated that people in Mexico actually did this and captivated by the music itself. This was the first time I really listened to a piece of Mexican music (and here only because I had to) and I discovered I liked what I was hearing!
After two songs, the boy went from seat to seat, hat in hand, asking for donations. And everyone put something in the hat. Everyone except me. I had no idea what to do so I turned to the window and ignored him, hoping and praying he wouldn’t say something to me. A great sense of relief as he simply walked on by. He gave the money to the man who then paid their fares to the bus driver and got off, ready to catch another bus in another direction.
Meanwhile, my eyes were glued on each block as it glided by, interrupted regularly by jarring stops and starts and the grinding of gears. I was desperately afraid of missing my stop and I fought back visions of me lost and forever wandering uncountable and nameless streets with no way to ask for help.
I need not have worried. Mercado Juarez was too big to miss. Too many people made it their destination, including most of the other people on the bus. I got off along with them, feeling suddenly very much out of place with my much paler skin, lighter hair and blue eyes. I just knew everyone was looking at me and my skin tingled as if their eyes were crawling all over me. I hurried towards the market.
As I entered, I felt at once both bewildered and intimidated. I was on my own and the market seemed even bigger and more overwhelming. Fruits, vegetables, meat, masa and tortillas, lunch counters, leather goods, guitars, huaraches, serapes, rebozos, men’s wear, hats, knives, tools, scribes, minstrels, musicians, newspapers, hand-worked metal lamps, equipales (tables and chairs made from eucalyptus and leather), souvenirs, photo stands, records, religious objects, baked goods, candles and much, much more. It was a cornucopia of life’s necessities and pleasures.
I walked its maze-like corridors, Spanish spoken and shouted all around me. Rounding a corner into the produce section, I watched, mesmerized as a vendor and a customer engaged in a heated transaction. The vendor was a small but sturdy-looking middle-aged woman, her long braided hair bouncing off her shoulders as she shook her head back and forth like someone watching a tennis match. She jabbed the air with a finger, gestured and spoke angrily to her potential customer, a pretty girl a few years older than me. When the woman had finished her harangue, it was the girl’s turn. She picked up one of the tomatoes they were haggling over and stuck it in front of the older woman’s face, shaking it as if it were a maraca. She put it down and picked up another, pointing out all its flaws. Back and forth they went for another couple of minutes as I watched, partly in fascination and partly in fear that the verbal abuse would turn physical. None of the other shoppers, though, seemed the least bit concerned. Then, at the peak of their passion, the vendor smiled, picked out half a dozen tomatoes, put them in a paper sack and handed it to the girl. The girl, also smiling now, paid and the two of them chatted amiably for a few seconds longer before the girl walked on. Her place was taken by another customer who began loudly complaining about the quality of the carrots she held up in front of the vendor, whose braid was once again bouncing. I was beginning to get the feel of the market.
I continued exploring, wondering how anyone could find what they needed. All you could do, it seemed to me, was wander around and hope to stumble across it. Little by little, though, I began to discern order from apparent chaos. It was divided into distinct sections. All the carnicerias, for example, maybe a dozen of them, were bunched together in one section. I walked down one of the three aisles of white ceramic-tiled stalls with different kinds of meats hanging from hooks and displayed in cases. There was sawdust on the floor, and I watched butchers cutting, weighing and wrapping meat. I tried to ignore the swarms of flies.
Next to the butchers were the tortillerias with their wonderful warm and subtle smell coming from the stacks of hot tortillas wrapped in towels. Women and girls were softly patting little balls of masa into more tortillas and placing them on the propane-fired griddle, turning them, turning them again, and then again. Even on this first visit I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop at one of these stands and buy a couple. I’d no idea how much two tortillas would cost but I figured the light blue fifty-peso note Mom had given me ($4.00 American) should be more than enough. A woman took my money and handed me several bills and coins in change.
Beyond the tortillerias was the lunch counter area. There was no table seating here, just tall stools at tile counters, with one or two people preparing orders. I was hungry but too scared to take a seat and try to order something. The tortillas would have to do.
I wandered the market. I discovered two kinds of places to buy medicine. In the market itself were the farmacias with their professional pharmacists and trained staff. Outside the market were mestizos, people of mixed Indian and Spanish blood, squatting on the sidewalk selling medicinal herbs and other natural and folk medicine remedies. When I looked in the pharmacies, the customers were almost always professional, educated people. The outside vendors of homeopathic remedies attracted the peones, the albaniles (day construction workers), people from the surrounding countryside who had come into the market to sell their goods and buy necessities.
Another family album photo:

SNAPSHOT: An old man squats silently against a wall under layers of old, torn posters advertising bull fights, boxing matches and cheap movies. Laid out along the wall to his left is an old piece of canvas with several small piles of powders, leaves, twigs, seeds, berries and other things I couldn’t identify. Each pile had a crudely lettered sign indicating what it was to be used for.

Later, I found out what the signs said. There was, for example, a pile of reddish-brown bark that was advertised as being for measles and fevers. Next to it a mix of white seeds and brown grains for those suffering from liver pain and “vesicle colic.” A pile of dark brown powder was labeled “sterility and problems of the uterus.” Between this and the next one (marked for pimples, wounds and skin infections) was what looked to me like a dried cuttlefish. His final pile fascinated me. It had a sign indicating it could be taken to relieve high blood pressure and low blood pressure. Wow! I remember exclaiming when it was translated for me, that’s pretty cool! If you have high blood pressure you simply take some of his medicine. And if you take too much and wind up with low blood pressure, all you have to do is take some more to correct the low blood pressure!

The market was seemingly endless. Walking up one passageway I heard a constant tappity-tap-tapping that got louder as I neared a large annex. The tapping sounded like a warm-up session for a couple of dozen tap-dancers. Standing in front of the opening to the annex I saw instead a couple of dozen scribes, sitting in front of their old, beat-up Olivettis and Remingtons who, for a few pesos, would type your love letter, your response to a government official, a letter to your family, or whatever else you dictated. They would fancy up the language for you as well. These scribes didn’t make their living from people without typewriters, but rather from people who couldn’t read and write.
I wandered past Tarot card and palm readers, jewelry stands and book stalls, toys and toiletries, furniture, maps and candy.
I spent time watching people, as well. They were from all walks of life, although the majority were poor and working class, including many servants. Wealthy families sent one of their servants on the bus to the market early every morning to purchase food for the day’s meals. Many of them knew each other and did their shopping in little groups, laughing, glad to be out of the house and out from under their mistress’s eye. There were mothers there, with their four or five or six children in tow, and maybe one slung across the back in a rebozo. Deliveries in a market that large were never-ending and the delivery men also crowded the aisles, pushing hand trucks or carrying large loads of goods and yelling at people to get out of their way. There were dogs in the market, stray dogs who were willing to brave the occasional kick or hurled object in the hope of finding scraps of food.
 The market was a hubbub of activity and noise, a sensory feast. There was never any reason to be bored when you could pay a visit to Mercado Juarez.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2010 7:49 am

    >Having visited a few mercados as an adult, with knowledge of at least a few words of Spanish, I find it hard to relate to the experience it must have been for a thirteen year old. You have indeed painted a vivid description of the market experience, with its hustle, confusion and many distractions. A job well done on this piece, amigo. I know you had some trepidation about revisiting the "old neighborhood", and I'm glad you found enjoyment once there – and perhaps some enlightenment regarding the fascinating worlds of old-Dave/new-Dave. Probably was a lot scarier for Val…

  2. February 8, 2010 4:17 pm

    >I can't say that that first visit to Mercado Juarez changed overnight how I felt about being in Mexico, but, even at thirteen, it opened my eyes and my mind to the fact that here was a way of life not just different from mine ( I knew that already) but a way of life that was as normal to them as mine had been to me in the States. Inside a year, the Mexican way of life was normal to me, also.

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