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Mexico City's mosh pit

Every weekend at 'El Chopo' the underground surfaces for a day of music, art and plenty of counterculture commerce.

August 01, 2004|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

It takes a certain fearlessness, or sublime indifference, to be a punk, Goth or other type of tribal provocateur in this tradition-minded metropolis. Strangers on the subway gawk and jeer. The requisite apparel -- long black coats, bovver boots, a spiky headful of gel -- can seem borderline masochistic with summer temperatures hovering in the mid-80s. And what's the point of wearing a "Never Mind the Bollocks" T-shirt if almost nobody here knows what bollocks are?

But you can't keep a good anarchist or "Oi" skinhead down. That's why, for nearly a quarter-century, Mexico's young and disaffected, along with a number of their graying elders, have flocked to El Tianguis Cultural del Chopo, an open-air flea market that every Saturday commandeers a three-block area of this capital city.

Since its humble beginnings in the early 1980s, "El Chopo," as it's popularly known, has mixed anti-authoritarian politics and under-the-radar lifestyles, and, more recently, cash and commerce. It's not only where you can pick up a bootleg copy of the Clash's "London Calling," buy a Rasta cap, recruit a bass player for your band, grab a quick snog with your boyfriend or girlfriend (away from prying parental eyes) and get one or more body parts pierced, all in a single afternoon. It's also where many young Mexicans who don't fit in elsewhere seem to wind up.

Punks in plaid pants and leather jackets and Goths (or darketos, as they're called here) in Nosferatu chic dominate the scene at El Chopo. But on a typical Saturday you'll likely run into biker chicks, dreadlocked Rastas, grungy death-metal heads, tie-dyed hippies, skateboarders, 'zine artists and neo-Bolshevik booksellers hawking battered copies of the holy trinity of underground literature: Chomsky, Bukowski and Che. Maybe even a cluster of Rude Boys in porkpie hats and 2-tone suits who -- notwithstanding their Mayan and Zapotec facial features -- look as if they'd just time-traveled in from Brighton, England, circa 1980.

"We're all strange in some way, and El Chopo is a place where everyone can show their strangeness," says Tania Magali, 16, trying on a pair of knee-high boots with her friend, Luz Adriana, also 16.

Both girls' attire reflects El Chopo's aggressively retro aesthetic. Adriana, in a black skirt and fishnet top, could be channeling punk princess Joan Jett. Magali's makeup, white powder with a slash of black lipstick, augments her early-Blondie ensemble: white button-down shirt, black suspenders, skinny black tie and a pair of satin gloves that originally went with her mother's white wedding dress. After Magali dyed them black her grandmother warned her, "Now you'll never marry." In Mexico, superstition still counts for something, and young people know they transgress at their peril.

City officials estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 people jam El Chopo's narrow aisles every Saturday. From 11 a.m., when the market's roughly 200 vendors open their tarp-covered, metal-frame stalls near the Buena Vista subway station, to around 4 p.m., when the last customers straggle off, El Chopo hums with raw energy and jackhammer blasts of reggae, ska and heavy metal.

Most browsers stop to check out the live bands that thrash and snarl in a small performance area on a street corner near the market's north end. According to legend, the acclaimed Mexico City alt-rock group Cafe Tacuba took off when a pirate version of its music began circulating at El Chopo. On this Saturday afternoon, a 3-year-old band called Tenzion is leaping and power-chording its way through a 45-minute set.

"It's cool that there are places like this to promote the diversity of the young people," says group vocalist Jacob Israel Fuentes Obrajero, 18, taking a break after the show.

Though its population is more than twice that of L.A.'s, Mexico City has few, if any, equivalents of places like Melrose Avenue that fuse conspicuous consumption with funky, alternative mise-en-scene. Mexico's middle-class music shoppers generally head for climate-controlled U.S.-style malls that sell legal, full-price CDs from a fairly circumscribed sonic spectrum. Younger, poorer Mexicans favor bootleg CDs that cost one-tenth the price and can be bought from the hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal vendors operating across the city.

But if you're looking for some underground garage rock band or obscure British ska septet, El Chopo is pretty much the only game in town. "There's more variety here, and not just commercial music," says Santiago Dias, 26, a photographer, browsing the stalls with his friend Makia Lara, 28. "Here you find not just what's on MTV. Here you find things that are more interesting."

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