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MEXICO CITY —Most travel guides would steer you to the historic center of this metropolitan capital, with its grand colonial plaza and Aztec temples, stunning Diego Rivera murals and oh-so-many museums, a visual feast of Mexican heritage.
Yet a few blocks north lies another cultural stronghold, albeit not the kind you'll find on a tourist map. Even for many city residents, the neighborhood of Tepito is a no-go zone, 72 blocks of Latin America's biggest black market, a labyrinth of stalls that serve as refuge and home for outcasts: drug dealers, pickpockets, transvestites, thieves and sellers of contraband.
If outsiders venture in to buy marijuana or pirated DVDs, they know they risk a mugging — or worse. No wonder it's the so-called "barrio bravo,'' or fierce neighborhood.
Alfonso Hernandez wants to change that.
The unofficial historian of the barrio, Hernandez, 68, is the self-appointed guardian of its subculture, and he oversees an archive of news clippings, photos and books that document this tricky spot. He also gives tours.
While Tepito has a bad reputation among average Mexicans, it fascinates artists and academics who pay Hernandez $8 a head for three-hour tours. Once each month he holds “safaris” for groups who want to view the landmarks or maybe even recover a stolen camera under safe escort.
“The shrine of Holy Death? Counterfeit bags? Murals?” he asked a recent caller, going down the checklist of options.
The odyssey begins right outside the “tianguis,” or open-air markets that have existed since pre-colonial times. Centuries ago, traders bartered plants and skins, while these days it's more likely to be fake Gucci.
Hernandez is apt to throw a protective arm around the shoulders of visitors as he guides them through the swarm of 7,000 vendors, who sell anything from used jeans to pornography to purloined televisions.
Authorities have largely ceded control of the district to gangs and community organizations, which post trusted youths to patrol the market with walkie-talkies. They bristle at the sight of strangers, but Hernandez gives them a nod to note that his group is OK. He explains that confrontations with the police are common and points to graffiti near the public toilets that translates as "Tepito Exists Because It Resists.''
Barricades and stalls often are staffed by women, who are the glue of families while men chance prison terms. To celebrate the tough matriarchs, Tepito erected a cement pedestal on which any woman can climb to have her picture taken. It was inspired by a documentary about heroines of Tepito, who go by the name "Cabrona." The epithet holds the same meaning as female dog, but in this case is meant admiringly.
Lourdes Ruiz is one of the best-known cabronas, and when not selling children's clothes or giving media interviews she indulges in “albures,” or dirty word plays. Greater Mexican society frowns on salty women, but not in Tepito, she explained. “This is more of a matriarchal place than macho. Men here only wear pants to the dry cleaners.”
Besides its feisty dames, Tepito is renowned for workshops that reputedly fix all things broken. Hernandez introduces a watchmaker who will repair any Cartier, real or fake.
The make-do approach extends to leftovers turned into a culinary art. Hernandez heads for La Guera, a storefront eatery where the family of Jose Luis Fraustra has stirred cauldrons of migas for nearly a half a century. The soup of pork bones and yesterday’s bread is Tepito’s signature dish, best taken at breakfast.
“It’s good for hangovers,” said Fraustra, handing over a bowl.
Near the sidewalk tables, the “sonidero” band Los Jibaros de Tepito was readying for a street party. This local brand of entertainment originated in the 1960s when tropical music imported from elsewhere was broadcast from loud speakers after markets closed. DJs call out greetings to homeboys in the crowd.
Hugo Master of ABC Tepito, a local sound company, tested his sound system, and encouraged visitors to return for the annual match of the Gardenias, a soccer team of transvestite hairdressers and cooks that for 30 years has played on a grassy lot in honor of a saint’s day. Tepitenos are fond of these native sons, said Master.
“Being a marginalized barrio, we’re gay friendly,'' he said. "We’re all on the fringe of society.”
With masterly peripheral vision, Hernandez then crossed the line into the most dangerous section, Mineros Street, the scene of many a drug shooting.
In homage to those killed, artists painted the “Mural of the Absent.” The wall depicts Christ pulled by lions amid ghostly figures. Martin Camarillo, a young man in a wheel chair who survived a machine-gun attack, said he visits the mural every day to remember his fallen comrades.
“You can always find me here, in the company of the dead,'' he said.
Onwards to a housing project that was the site of “The Children of Sanchez” by anthropologist Oscar Lewis. The classic on urban poverty, a bestseller in the 1960s and later turned into a movie starring Anthony Quinn, takes place in a "casa de vecindad," or overcrowded tenement. Vecinidades have been the scene of street fights with authorities trying to destroy suspected drug warehouses and laboratories.
The final stop was the altar of Holy Death, a skeleton wearing a pink dress that is fondly known as "Skinny” or Flaquita. Worship of this female Grim Reaper remained underground until 2001, when Enriqueta Romero Romero, 57, moved her home shrine to the street. Devotees today line up to offer apples and lit cigarettes. During processions the smell of pot serves as incense.
Catholic elders condemn the cult, but that doesn’t stop the bushels of lilies and sunflowers left in front. In contrast, the shrine of Virgin Mary down the street enjoyed a single bouquet of carnations.
Because of her association with death, Skinny is popular among gangsters and narcotics cartels, which irritates the caretaker to no end. Romero stopped a woman from placing chocolates, on the grounds that she was asking for “bad things.”
“People like that give Tepito a bad name. Most of us are decent people,” Romero sighed. Hernandez nodded gravely in agreement, and ushered the visitors back to the safety of the metro station outside.