Mexico City

When Gentrification Comes to Roma

What happens when there's no one left to listen to our stories?

Translated by Katy Van Sant

We do not choose our birth, our parents, our country or when we will die, but we do choose, or can choose, what we will hang on the wall. Whether the choice be spontaneous or despairing: to hang or be hung, the affirmation of a person on the earth, the proof of our love, our legacy, our destiny, our place on this planet, our reason for living. The big little things in our lives are the symbols of our identity and the space we inhabit: the picture on the shrine that deepens the mystery of a love life, the amulet, the pressed violet, the love letter, the lucky deck of cards, the first communion medal, the wedding ring or any one of those magic objects that when lost makes us go insane.

A nail can stop life, a nail can burst it as it bursts the flesh of the crucified. We hold on by the nail, and with a nail and a hairpin it is easy to pick a lock, steal a car or force a confession from a suspect. The Pope hangs from a nail with his leitmotif: “Mexico Always Faithful.” The pin-up girl, the prayer to the Sacred Heart with his doleful hand pointing to his chest, the white baby shoe for good luck and the picture of the father who left the business to his children also hang from a nail. On a nail is twisted the necessary wire: the wedding photo is hung, the poster of the soccer team Los Leopardos, the mariachi with his inevitable festooned sombrero, the greasy baseball cap, that one used on motorcycles rides, because at Rodolfo Mendoza’s shop they love motorcycles and the walls are covered with them. A nail is driven out by another nail, and those from the holiest of homes, the ones with proven virtue, have a nail from Christ’s cross stuck in the forehead like an evil thought.

Some may identify with the gates of Chapultepec or with the two lions at the entrance, perhaps the Angel or the aggressive Monument to the Revolution. They may have other totems, but most Mexicans see ourselves in that which is so easily overlooked: the saint card, the ribbon, the scapular, the visual symbols of the past, the ones that connect us to ourselves, giving free rein to the imagination and to the exercise of personal liberty. The big little things are proof of our passage through life, the evidence we leave, our legacy, the treasure-hunting clues, our story, our travel log, the dance card, the itinerary, the fruit stand that preserves the memory of the cantaloupe and watermelon seller, the little old lady from the other day that Olga Costa painted to make us a gift of fruit and colors.

This shop was operated by the grandfather who inherited it from his father, the tailor, and is being handed down to his sons.

What is found in the local shops has been indispensable for years. It is the raison d’être, the axis of emotional stability. This shop was operated by the grandfather who inherited it from his father, the tailor, and is being handed down to his sons. He taught him the trade: “Look son, you can earn a living.” Nothing is in the way here, nothing has been thrown together or left to chance. Within an absolute chaos it is illustrative to hear the owner of the welding shop say: “Better not touch anything because I know where I keep my things.” “Better not take it because I might need it.” “Don’t throw it out, I’m going to use it someday.” Yes, we make our way through life each morning when the metal roll-up door is raised, but everything on the walls of the businesses—the upholstery shop, Lupita and Marcos’s Beauty School and Hair Stylist, the café, the laundry, the store that specializes in coloring and retouching photographs, and the paper recyclers—has its purpose. Settling there 70 years back, the intimacy is anchored. Here, within these four walls, are the pillars that keep us going, customs that are cures similar to time, the clock that strikes three in the afternoon (the time of death of Jesus Christ), the space within which we blindly move because it is our inner life, a game of blind man’s bluff, the place of our sacrifice and our survival.

“Each time I change my car’s slipcovers I feel like I’m getting a new skin too,” says Don Ramón to the car tailor, Don Benito Mirón.

What a beautiful word alcayata (hook) is! I hang the curtain of my soul, my humility, my sorrow on an alcayata.

But in Mexico City, the elimination of a way of life in the name of progress is destroying the big little things.

In the neighborhood of Roma, if you prick up your ears, you can hear the corner stores shout out in protest, the mom-and-pop hardware stores, the greasy spoons, the grimy workshops, the tailor’s place. None of them belong to the first world, and none of them want to! In those stores that are often an extension of the street because the customers linger and chat, the magic of our grandparents and great-grandparents congregates, and of the aunt who died of a broken heart, of Don Anselmo who saw ghosts and of the girl who said she was going to the States and disappeared. Only there, at the corner stores, can we delve into our everyday history and rescue the welders with baseball caps on backwards, the men and women who recycle newspapers and take breaks to read the police blotter, the talacherías (repair shops), the tiny makeshift businesses called changarros where shoes are resoled, buttons replaced, hems raised, suits tailor-made, batteries charged; blenders wait their turn rusting in the sun, with roasting radios from the olden days, and record players from the time of María Conesa, The White Kitten, are repaired. These businesses have been there for your whole life and they are passed down from father to son, from one generation to the next, like the holy office of the mass, the family’s coat of arms, the crest, the emblazoned weapons, Mexico’s X on the forehead. Viewed from the street, they are merely little boxes—but boxes of light, stages at a tiny theater where the actors place their chairs, their sewing machines, the lit cigarette that burned the table a long time ago, the suit jacket over the back of the chair. Suddenly, without thinking about it, our friend Roy, the one who plays the violin on the corner, hangs a portrait of his daughter Mina on the day of her first communion, and the picture of the soccer team—and he nails in an alcayata to hang the house keys on so he won’t lose them. The alcayata can also be used to escape the sea of emotions caused by a city as harsh as Mexico City, which has the dubious honor of being the world’s largest, with its twenty million inhabitants.

It is impossible to understand a man without his attributes and the tiny thumbtack that pins the scrap of paper with the phone number scrawled on it is an anchor point, as is the candle on the shelf in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe and by her side, like a lady in waiting, the buxom Jane Mansfield or a open-legged Marilyn Monroe, whose appalling innocence ended up being a double-edged sword because it killed her.

They say that the photographer Tina Modotti wrote work orders to herself and what today would be considered self-help messages on the wall by her bed. Anything that might uplift her: the week’s engagements, her calendar in plain view, loved ones’ phone numbers. All of these directives gave her strength: yes, yes, there is a tomorrow; yes, yes, you have a lot to do; yes, you are needed, indispensable; yes, you are loved, you are wanted, you are missed. An oval-shaped photo of Julio Antonio Mella became a spotlight, yes, of course I’m going to go; yes, I must be deserving of you; yes, yes I’m on my way there with my camera and my endless desire to do what I was meant to do in this goddamned and beautiful world, and do it well.

Gala Narezo studied painting from the age of eight to the age of twenty-five, and then turned to photography. Living in Roma and walking the streets each day revealed to her a fascinating world where a secret life churns, one unimaginable to most. Gala Narezo took up the habit of greeting: “How’s it going, Doña Luisa?”, “What you been up to, Don Fermin?”, “You guys gonna play cards in Don Pepe’s back room tonight?”, “When does Jesusita turn fifteen? She’s become so beautiful.” Belief in community is one of her tenets of faith: she cultivates her relationships from person to person, from parrot to canary, from dog to cat. She asks at the frame store if they’ve had a lot of business, and she asks the tailor which he likes to do more, button holes or zipper flies. By inquiring about the well-being of one or the other, she feels among friends, a part of the human condition.

In Roma, neighbors know and greet one another. The grimy shops covered in years of dust are safe-havens not just for the family, but for the compadres, friends, grandparents who come out to stroll in the afternoons. As is done in the countryside, they take their chairs out onto the sidewalk and chitchat until night falls. “Come on, neighbor, let’s catch up on the latest.” They offer opinions and critiques—and what more is there to life than pronouncing judgments on events that concern us, and those that don’t? In Roma, Gala Narezo collects the bowels of the businesses, which she calls “little theaters of light”. First opened one hundred years ago, they are now disappearing, wiped out by green-energy stores. The tailor places his sewing machine by the window for better light, and the pants and jackets wait on their hangers for the client’s approval. Oftentimes, the shop owner cannot even afford a counter, making due with four or five wooden boards, a shelf, a peg board upon which a pair of scissors shines, a hammer, a screwdriver, pliers, a saw. The business is actually a tunnel through time where the years are superimposed like the successive phases of construction that stack up within the pyramid through which we descend until we reach the bottom, the root, the source, our own grave. Thick with dust, heavy from so many stares, the busty calendar girl is gradually covered in wrinkles: the Comex blonde, topless with her black lace panties (if you’re old-school you call them drawers), and Marilyn Monroe await the last call, and in the meantime they rub shoulders with the Virgin of Mercy, Queen of Peace, who keeps watch over a roll of electrical cords. Having no paper, the owner wrote a phone number on the wall, similar to how kids today will write a cell phone number on their hand knowing nothing of the digits the Germans printed on the forearms of prisoners at the concentration camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz.

But in Mexico City, the elimination of a way of life in the name of progress is destroying the big little things.

“To me it is delightful to see all there is inside there,” says Gala Narezo. “It makes me very sad to think that the families who have been there for eighty years must leave because they can’t afford the rent anymore.”

The shops and their owners, reminiscent of the Renaissance era, are the history of the neighborhood, the chaos, the grime, the filtered ray of light that falls on the bottles of oil, the shears, the receipt books, the brass frame and its glint in the sunlight that makes one think of Vermeer and Van de Velde from the Dutch School. His entire life can be read from within this limited space. “I was a mariachi. I sang in the States.” The evidence of their identity is on the tips of their tongues. What is the history of the Walmarts and the Home Depots? Will the past resist Wall Street? Where is the seamstress who does piecework, her feet working the pedal of the outdated Singer? Soon we will no longer greet Doña Lupe from the notions shop, or Don Benito Mirón, who makes slipcovers for automobile seats, and no one will ask how we’re doing this morning or tell us that the cold has got their rheumatism acting up. There will be no one to tell our trials and tribulations to, nor anyone with whom to celebrate the miracle of being alive. The entrepreneurs don’t realize that they are choking out a way of life, issuing a death sentence to the conversation between the bell founder and Ramón López Velarde who, thanks to him, learns that it’s been a bad year for the wheat crop, that Juan is dating a rich and beautiful cousin of his, that Susana died. They are killing what we most love: they are killing dialogue, they are killing the soul.

We all have our stories, but if there’s no one to listen to them, aaay, what will become of us? What will become of the community if Don Ricardo can no longer shake hands with Don Fausto, and there is no Ramón López Velarde in our future? Who the hell in Office Depot is going to comfort us with the upholsterer’s “see you tomorrow?” Who will ask how our kids are, if they’ve all moved to the United States, if they’re sending money back, if they’ll ever come home, if all is now lost? Doña Lilia from the notions shop complains that Doña Carmen from the café hasn’t come to visit her. Could she be sick? “You know what? My brother, the one you met, the one who ran the marathon, he suddenly died from one day to the next and you have no idea how much I miss him.” Doña Lilia knows that an altar will be made for the dead brother who ran a marathon, and she’ll see him soon in a picture, surrounded by other runners, cherished by the family who will light candles, and place flowers for him. In the neighborhood, everyone has their story. Through those stories we learn to be brave, to think of others, to know that nothing is stronger than community, which resists and which, at the right moment, dives in. That sense of community is a feeling that makes everything personal. Together we know everything, together we can do anything.

Don Benito Mirón, pushing eighty years old, makes slipcovers for automobile seats. His family lives next door, but in his shop he has his bed, a kitchen, his television and his radio; the Charrita del Cuadrante—the Country Girl of the Dial—keeps him company as he outfits seats in navy blue and burgundy. His work and his life are one and the same. Sometimes he makes slipcovers for baby strollers. His very identity is here in his shop: his age, his personality traits that make sure he bundles up, like his slipcovers, because with age the bones get chilled and we must protect against pneumonia.

Coca-Cola and Fanta distribute their posters and, whether we like it or not, become icons of popular culture. “They hand them out for free, so I just put it there,” Don Benito Mirón explains. But he did pay for the pictures of the Virgin, and he hung them next to the rolls of fabric for slipcovers, the Buddha and the heavy wooden rosary. Don Benito has his paperwork stapled together and hung on the wall of his shop, “to keep it handy,” next to his wedding photo and his work permit from the Finance Minister, his RFC and his CURP—these are super-modern saints because they protect him from the inspectors who would like to shut down his business.

In the past few years Gala Narezo’s vocation has led her to capture in her photographs shops like the hardware stores, greasy spoons, welding shops, high voltage electrical boxes, home repair services, mechanics, paper recyclers—places that are passed by without notice because no one cares to wonder about what treasures hide there. Like finding a needle in a haystack, like getting a camel to go through the eye of a needle, Gala photographs the alcayata, the cotton-wool, the clock that no longer kills time. Gala knows the meaning of personal space, skin clinging to the walls, the insistent gaze always resting on the same thing. “I am my house,” wrote Pita Amor, and she was right. We are what we hang. House and body, walls and skin are the same. A window is an organ and when the faucet is turned on the liquid that comes out is like saltless tears. Gala photographs innards, a meticulous creation that must be cared for like the human body.

I suppose that the inhabitants of Roma watch Gala go by like Dante watched Beatrice Portinari on the Ponte Vecchio, because she is the chronicler of its hours and days; she will leave proof that the sewing machine, the lathe, the bucket were all reasons to live, and that their genealogy is in all of those obscure objects that no one sees nor cares about.

The entrepreneurs don’t realize that they are choking out a way of life

In Mexico City, skyscrapers have smothered not only the Baroque churches, but all of the mom-and- pop stores as well. The city of the future destroys the city of the past, and rips the community to pieces. Homes made of volcanic rock that were palaces during the era of the viceroy are shrinking in fear of the back-stab, change, ruthless demolition, the ignorance of brutality. “Hide, hide, you don’t want to get axed.” Modernity destroys what was a city of palaces and lays waste to its customs, its personal decorum, its nostalgia. In the neighborhood of Roma there are hardly any more notions shops and the shutters behind the balconies stay closed. Sixty years ago, Doloritas who mended silk stockings had to find a new profession because stockings came to be thrown in the trash. As are brains. And hearts. There is not a single woman who says, as they used to, “Ay! There’s a run in my stocking!” Before the lovely ladies at the notions shop sold thread, needles and thimbles, interfacing and scissors waiting to take flight; they had names like Agueda and Fuensanta, but now housewives go to the mall. The tailor’s shop that Don Beto passed down to his sons, Beto and Lalo, because he inherited it from his father, and the shoe shop owned by Herman who can resole a shoe like no one’s business, close from one day to the next because the rent has gone up so much they can no longer pay it. “I have to leave, Miss Gala. I hear they’re going to make this an Oxxo. Or was it a 7-11? They’re the only ones who can afford the millions of pesos they’re demanding for rent now.” With his departure the neighborhood loses not only its decency, but also its history. Walmart wipes out social harmony. As Alfonso Reyes asked, “What have you done to my metaphysical high valley?” in his Vision of Anahuac, residents could also inquire what has been done to their ability to choose, to their interpretation of space. Were they even asked what they wanted? Without personality, without history, without human touch, people now stand in checkout lines at the supermarket to pay for their purchases without even exchanging a single word about the quality of the oil, how fresh the lettuce and radishes are, how the price of milk has gone up, or the high quality of Mexican beer. Time is running out in the shops and it’s not worth waiting for the alarm to go off. “We’re leaving because they told us they’re putting in an Office Depot here.” “This will be the last time we see each other, Miss Gala, because we’re closing down.” Gala feels twice orphaned. Before she could speak with the cashier. “How are you doing today Doña Celia. How’s life treating you?” She would answer that her daughter had fallen in love with a man who’s no good and that the family was very worried. But dialogue isn’t possible anymore, and the mailman even stopped coming by because so many have email on their computers. The upholsterer who would take his pencil out of his mouth to say “Happy New Year” has also left. Families who had been in Roma for sixty years have to emigrate to make way for the white elephants and the hyenas with raw meat stuck in their predator gums: the supermarket, the mall, the self-service store, automation, robots that cannot tell you if the fish is fresh or if the apples came in that morning from Zacatlán.

Each of our personal stories, yours, mine, that of the man who ran a marathon, of the guy who went to McAllen to be a mariachi, the gentleman who made slipcovers for car seats, no longer fit in Doña Celia’s market bag. It is impossible to ask the taxi driver Julio Galán if the baby shoe hanging from his rearview mirror was his son’s, or if Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the most helpful because even the Sacred Heart with his open chest rejects penitents with his damning look.

In Mexico City, skyscrapers have smothered not only the Baroque churches, but all of the mom-and-pop stores as well.

Why were yesterday’s cobblestones removed in Mexico City? Why don’t we know what lies beneath the round stones? Why can we no longer smell the hallowed fragrance of the bakery? Why does that smothering blanket—that black carpet of asphalt—that covers plazas and gardens cause despair? We repeat that we don’t want any more mile-high buildings that rob our light and endanger the lives of our children who no longer play ball in the streets. Why does the delirious construction of residential areas, increasingly more populated, terrify and offend? “Where are we going to end up?” asks a frightened Don Nestor.

It may be Gala Narezo who has the answer because, camera on her shoulder, with an eye both tender and critical, she was able to peer into the lives of the artisans who know how to find a solution for that which is broken: affixing a button, replacing a zipper, unclogging the drain, hand-sewing an invisible mend. In life we don’t know if there are invisible mends (that is why they are invisible), but by delving into a neighborhood like Roma we know how its residents interact, who they are, what bothers them, what they expect from others, and what their way of life is. Gala Narezo, with her camera, knew how to show us that with the loving patience of Ramón López Velarde. By entering these tiny shops as if she were entering into Renaissance paintings, by discovering mirrors, keys, moods, protests and desertions in the chiaroscuro, Gala Narezo was able to weave a spider’s web—like the one that frequently hangs between the portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Coca-Cola bottle, between the picture frame and the shelf, between objects that have nothing to do with one another, yet nonetheless are communicating vessels. Puzzled, one may ask why Gala is documenting filth and chaos, electrical cords, three miserable thumbtacks and two sheets of craft paper—but they are a remembrance, a memento from the notions shop owner who would ask, “Is your son over his sore throat? I want to give you this cough syrup that works miracles.” The dialogue between you and me, between man and woman, between child and elder, between the welder and the man who makes slipcovers for automobile seats, is the only thing that can stand up to the inherently spineless power of money.


Elena Poniatowska

Elena Poniatowska is the author of more than forty books, including La noche de Tlatelolco and Leonora. She was the recipient of the 2013 Cervantes Prize, a lifetime achievement award for Spanish language writers.

Gala Narezo

Gala Narezo is a New York-based artist and educator. She is the founder of mindful+ and teaches workshops and classes on social impact art.

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