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The `best' of Mexico's bravest barrio

January 22, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — They call it el barrio bravo, which more or less translates as "the brave 'hood." But it takes more than courage and a certain ferocity of spirit to survive in Tepito, this tough metropolis' most Darwinian precinct.

Humor probably helps. A sense of camaraderie too. Above all, caution.

Then there's the tremendous pride that Tepito residents feel about their much-stereotyped and stigmatized neighborhood just north of the capital's historic center. Tepito lacks many things -- clean streets, decent housing, honest cops -- but it doesn't want for a strong self-identity.

"They think they're the best of everything," says photographer Francisco Mata Rosas, 47, "the best dancers, the best boxers, the best cooks."

Tepitenos, in their full, unvarnished humanity, are the subject of "Tepito ¡Bravo el Barrio!" a striking exhibition of Mata's intimate photo portraits and impressionistic street scenes that's running through Feb. 11 at the Jose Maria Velasco Gallery here.

The fruit of a two-year project, during which Mata and his digital camera became as much a fixture of the 36-block zone as the mob of pirate-DVD hawkers, the show consists of about 500 images, some of which are being displayed in the Zocalo subway station a few blocks south of the gallery.

To the urban anthropologists who've been studying it for decades, Tepito hardly needs an introductory photo op. A rabbit warren of narrow streets crammed with tianguis stalls cobbled together from wood, metal and colorful plastic tarps, Tepito is Latin America's ground zero of stolen and pirated merchandise, its mecca of making a living by any means necessary.

You name it, they sell it in Tepito, and what legal goods the vendors don't import from outside they make or buy in knockoff form, courtesy of the mafias that run vast networks of copycat contraband: CDs, perfumes, electronic equipment, firearms. Entire blocks are given over to shops specializing in stolen auto parts or ersatz designer jeans. Many vendors, though, stay in business simply by offering legal goods at rock-bottom prices.

Scrappy and muscly, the barrio is famous for producing some of Mexico's best boxers. Tepito even has its own dark supernatural guardian, La Santa Muerte, or "Saint Death," a hooded, scythe-wielding skeleton who totes a globe in one bony hand. Though reviled by the Roman Catholic Church, La Santa Muerte is venerated by the legions of cabdrivers, housewives, drug dealers and prostitutes who visit her shrine to make offerings (cash, tequila shots) while soliciting favors that more genteel divinities won't grant, such as rubbing out a business rival.

Like characters in an epic

The hyper-real neighborhood begets hyper-real personalities, and Mata's show is full of them. Like characters in some sprawling movie epic, the nearly life-size portraits stare out at gallery strollers: A man kissing a Santa Muerte statue as tenderly as he might a lover. "El Mago Karlo," a 64-year-old magician with blazing eyes and an imposing beard. Reyna "La Guerrillera" Guadalupe, 35, a veteran vendor in denim shorts, her bra straps slung backward from her tank top, sizing you up with a mischievous stare. "Mike," 45, and "Richie," 3, a father-son street-clown act.

Young lovers. A homeless man. "Roxana" Guzman, 40, a transsexual, flashing a fake breast. The well-known dancer known as "The Suspenders," who sometimes stages impromptu sala sessions in the middle of Tepito's traffic-clogged thoroughfares.

Gaining the neighborhood's trust was a slow, delicate process, says Mata, who has worked for Mexico City daily newspapers and occasionally for The Times. To better to blend in with Tepito's frantic ambience, he recruited his subjects straight off the street and posed them against a large white screen that he carried with him and hung between market stalls. He always tried to use the most ostentatious setup and conspicuous equipment possible, so no one would mistake him for a police spy, and he always shot his subjects head-on at close range, never with a long lens from far away.

He avoided the barrio's dodgiest areas, where the narcotics fabricators operated. And he asked his subjects for only three bits of information: name, age and occupation -- when not legally compromising. (One guy asked Mata if he could use an alias because the law was after him.) "So we established a level of complicity," Mata says, smiling. All the participants later got free copies of their portraits.

The barrio's daily trials and obscure heroics have been heavily documented and depicted, most memorably by U.S. sociologist Oscar Lewis in his classic 1959 book "The Children of Sanchez," later made into a film starring Anthony Quinn. Desperadoes and hustlers have given the barrio its international low-life rep.

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