GUADALAJARA, Mexico — "Give me a break! Not another 'gem of the ocean,' 'pearl of the Orient,' 'star of Siam.' . . ." That's the way my travel-weary mind responded when my endlessly energetic partner suggested that we visit yet another Mexican market--this one Guadalajara's El Mercado Libertad.
After three weeks of working among the people in village after village, we had come to Guadalajara for a little culture of another sort, for the roses and fountains that grace this elegant old city. For the art and architecture. Not for more markets.
"But," he implored, "Libertad has class! It has a reputation! It's avant-garde! Innovative! Fun!"
Not one to turn down the latter, I called up some energy of my own and we set off on foot down the street in front of our hotel. Down the street was as far as we had to go, because our Mexican connection had forgone any thoughts of elegance and lodged us in central Guadalajara two blocks from the market. He must have wanted us to pick up a little local color (like street soot, maybe), or enjoy a Mexican fiesta (impromptu concerts took place outside our window throughout the long night).
But as we approached El Mercado Libertad, we forgave him everything. It may not have been fun exactly, but innovative and avant-garde, yes. Even classy.
A departure from traditional Mexican architecture, this open-air structure was patterned on the proposal of a young architecture student, Alejandro Zohn, more than 25 years ago. The old market was torn down and this new one erected in its place in 1960. Its accordion-like roof stretches across a huge central square and juts toward the sky, marking its identity for blocks in all directions.
It was not meant to be a tourist attraction, and Americans here are conspicuous. Well-behaved gringos are treated like everyone else, but cameras are not appreciated. If they're a must for you, camouflage them and whip them out on the sly, focused perhaps from behind the bananas.
The atmosphere of El Mercado Libertad was electric, inside and out, charged with a sense that something was happening here--although what was happening was a centuries-old Mexican tradition.
Outside, hansom carriages, fancifully painted, lined the curb. Mustachioed men in white suits smiled from their perches on the carriages. Were it not for a blazing sun and the sounds of Spanish-speaking children at play, it might have been 19th-Century London.
Very Much in Motion
Inside, however, 20th-Century Mexico was very much in motion. We arrived during lunchtime, traditional hours for shopping, socializing and eating. The maze of paths on street level was crowded with men, women and children meandering from stall to stall, getting their fruits and vegies wrapped in wonderful pastel plastic bags, every color I could think of.
The large, tight rolls of opaque plastic dwindled quickly, reappearing as a patch of sky blue under someone's arm, or a corner of lavender protruding from a woven basket.
Upstairs, the sun streamed in under the jagged roof in bright corridors of light. That is where the lunch counters are, on a mezzanine of sorts overlooking the shoppers.
Women behind each counter tried to entice customers to sit down by calling out their special ties: "Lamb!" "Chicken!" "Chili Rellenos!" Sample dishes were tastefully displayed on clean counters in earthenware crocks or plates, usually near a vase of fresh flowers.
As we walked from counter to counter the melody of voices faded in and out, backed by music from a faraway radio. The smells and sights were in sharp contrast to other markets we had seen, where the skinned head of a goat, say, might be prominently displayed.
In a corner behind the lunch counters several women ground corn behind their own small counter, making it into dough and shaping tortillas. They worked effortlessly, chatting and smiling at the spectators, until they noticed a camera lens zooming in on their activity. (No bananas nearby.) The message clearly said that cameras were an intrusion. Tortilla-making at El Mercado Libertad, therefore, remains to be experienced firsthand.
Intrigued by a Dour Queen
We returned several times to the market, more for the people than its design or bargains, both of which were excellent.
An especially intriguing woman ruled like a dour queen over the tomatoes, sitting on a stool three feet above her prospective buyers. She never smiled, until she caught us taking her picture on the sly. Instead of confiscating the camera or escorting us to some terrible fate, she simply grinned and wagged a finger of disapproval at us.
Outside the market on our last day, we discovered an ice cream parlor. Uno sencillo choco roco (a single dip of rocky road), in any language, was still the best way to end a trip to the star of Siam . . . the rose of Texas . . . the salsa of Guadalajara. . . .