The city begins to sing!

I walked out onto the plaza in front of the museum. Suddenly, I perceived what I’d been looking for—the joyful Mexico City! Here, on these art-deco tiles, people from all walks of life strolled and gathered: girls in their quinceanera dresses, couples holding hands, whole extended families on their way to picnic in the park next door. The atmosphere was light and open.

I spied a woman cranking an organ-grinder’s handle. The government apparently hired these grinders in various public areas. The ones I’d seen on the way to the museum had annoyed me. Their music had seemed cloying. Now the calliope sound really seemed as if it might be churning out the whole delightful scene I was witnessing!

I walked over to the lady and dropped a ten-peso coin in her donation box.

“Do you want to play it?” she asked, smiling.

“What?” I said, and when I realized I had heard her properly, exclaimed “Sure!”

She let go of the handle and invited me to turn it. I did, and felt myself contributing to the joy—like  Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man! The organ-grinder lady asked for my cell phone, walked several paces away with it, and snapped a photo of me. I felt so proud!

The author trying out being an organ grinder - A very full first day in Mexico City

The author during his brief stint as a Mexico City organ grinder.

Afterwards, I strolled down the sidewalk along Avenida Benito Juarez, the boulevard straddling the Plaza. The people here, too, seemed happy—so different from the people near the Zocalo and the ones on the very commercial pedestrian walkway! This was almost like some kind of great Jazz that we were all part of!

A different kind of museum

The exterior of the Museum of Memory and Tolerance - A very full first day in Mexico CityAfter a block or two, I saw something that brought me a déjà vu feeling. But wasn’t that impossible? This was my first time in Mexico City!

Then I remembered: several months before, a couple I know, friends on Facebook, had visited and posted photos of this place. It was called the Museum of Memory and Tolerance. I recalled their descriptions as well, and knew I just had to go in!

This museum moved me to the depths of my being. It’s a visionary institution, founded several years ago by a group of Mexican women. They were aware of the terrible things that had happened on Earth in the past century, including the Nazi genocide before and during the Second World War, as well as several other genocides before and after.

They came to the conclusion that the citizens of a country are responsible for what happens in that country, and that only active, responsible and knowledgeable citizens can keep fascism and genocide at bay. And so they started the museum as an educational enterprise, to make Mexicans aware, so that “it” won’t happen there.

One floor contains the most explicit and all-sided documentation of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis that I’ve ever seen. In photos of concentration camp inmates who were liberated by the Allies just before they would’ve starved to death, I saw myself looking into the camera.

Picture of concentration camp inmates at museum - A very full first day in Mexico City

“Everyman” as Nazi concentration camp inmate.

I don’t necessarily mean that I’m the reincarnation of one of them, but that this is what can happen to everyman, if people in the nations on Earth lapse in carrying out the active responsibilities of citizenship. I was deeply moved to see young Mexican couples, who may or may not have been exposed to this history in their schools, holding one another and crying as they perused this and other parts of the museum.

Other floors document genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Darfur. Mexico, though not cited for genocide, is the subject of an exhibit calling attention to citizens who have “been disappeared” or have been murdered extra-judicially over the years.

The final exhibits that a visitor sees have to do with positive things going on in Mexico and elsewhere: activities, such as education and extending the rights of women and minorities, which extend tolerance and serve to fortify a country against its own potential worst side.  The very last room features short videos on the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa.

"Speed" mural at The Museum of Memory and Tolerance - A very full first day in Mexico City

”Speed,” a 25-ton (about 907 kilograms) mural by David Sequeiros, graces a courtyard of the museum. The sculpture has acquired a status as a kind of angelic symbol of the Museum of Memory and Tolerance, although it has a long history and its recent proximity to the museum can be seen as either coincidental or Providential.

An eventful walk back to the hotel

upbeat crowd strolling along Avenida Benito Juarez in Mexico City - A very full first day in Mexico City

Part of the upbeat crowd strolling along Avenida Benito Juarez.

I felt like I was getting to know Mexico City—even more, to feel Mexico City—as I made my way down more thronged pedestrian walkways, back towards Hotel Isabel.

It was now late afternoon, and the crowds seemed to be swelling. Every block or two, I passed a band, busking. They were all good! The first one had 10 musicians playing consummate jazz. I stopped, listened, made a short video and donated a coin. I didn’t record the second band, but when I heard the lead singer do his impression of Jim Morrison in a cover of The Doors’ “Riders of the Storm,” I wished I had!

All the way back, I felt like we—all of us on the streets—were celebrating something! I personally celebrated having broken through to the heart of Mexico City, after my grey beginning!

That night I stayed in, ordering enchiladas with mole sauce for dinner, from the hotel restaurant. Afterwards, I watched Mexican TV and listened to the gentle rain outside my 4th floor hotel window.

I had to get plenty of sleep. Another big day was on the way!

* There are listings of the largest pipe organs in the world, and the National Cathedral of Mexico one isn’t on there. But it’s still MIGHTY BIG!

Read about the conclusion of the author’s Mexico City stay: FURTHER ADVENTURES IN MEXICO CITY: Travels in Latin America [Part 3]

Read the first part (of an eventual five) of this series of travel articles: THE WONDERS OF OAXACA: Travels in Latin America [Part 1]»

image 2: Wikimedia Commons; image 16: Wikimedia Commons (Lightened from original); all other images: Max Reif

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