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Kissing ban gets Mexico hot under the collar

A town famous for an Alley of the Kiss passes a law against public displays of affection, sparking a passionate outcry.

February 14, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

GUANAJUATO, MEXICO — Once upon a time, there was a city where people came from far and wide to kiss.

The place was blessed with gold and silver, but its kissing legend, passed down like an heirloom, made it rich beyond measure. It tells of a fair maid named Ana who fell in love with Carlos, a poor miner who lived across a narrow alley. The young lovers met on their balconies, stretching across the tiny gap to kiss in the moonlight.

But their love was star-crossed: Ana's father forbade the romance and threatened to kill his daughter if he discovered the lovers together again. The next night, he caught them and, true to his warning, stabbed Ana with a dagger. Dying, Ana reached out and Carlos kissed her hand -- the couple's final kiss.

The children of this city have learned this lovers' saga by heart and told it over and over to the hopeless romantics who come to see the spot, known as the Alley of the Kiss, and to share a good-luck kiss there.

So it came as a terrible shock to people here last month when word spread that the city's leaders had issued an edict: Kissing in public was forbidden. Violators would be punished.

The news set off a storm over smooching that, weeks later, still has tongues wagging in picturesque Guanajuato, a mining town in central Mexico -- and reveals a lot about the ways of Mexico, where you don't need to get a room to express your love for each other. Like any good Valentine's Day story, this one ends with a kiss.

The affair blew up in January, when Guanajuato's City Council, led by the socially conservative National Action Party, or PAN, approved an ordinance on public behavior to replace a 32-year-old law. The ordinance tackled problems such as unlicensed street vendors and jaywalking. But it also targeted offensive language and "obscene touching."

The mayor, Eduardo Romero Hicks, was asked what sort of public act would be punishable. He said the law would ban agarrones de olimpiada, which translates roughly as "Olympic fondling." (In an interview later, he explained that this meant "fondling far beyond the norm . . . extreme eroticism in public places.")

Garden-variety kissing, the mayor said, was never the target.

But leftist opponents depicted Romero and his PAN colleagues as latter-day inquisitors bent on imposing strict morals on the rest of Guanajuato, a tranquil town with cobblestone streets and hillside homes painted in eye-popping hues of orange, pink and electric blue.

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The outcry was swift. Protesters gathered in front of City Hall to kiss en masse. The news media got into the act, and pretty soon Romero and his city were at the center of an unflattering national controversy. A satirical video posted on YouTube played a familiar cumbia-style tune with reworked lyrics and depicted Romero in a priest's collar. One editorial cartoon showed a couple kissing in a bird cage suspended by a fixture shaped to spell "PAN."

It mattered little that the mayor announced within days that the measure would be suspended. All of Mexico seemed ready to take to the ramparts in defense of a treasured institution: the kiss.

"The attitude toward kissing is a good thermometer of the tolerance of a society," columnist Federico Reyes Heroles wrote in the Reforma newspaper. He said trying to limit public kissing was like outlawing miniskirts -- the stuff of totalitarian countries. "Eros is part of life," he wrote.

In liberal Mexico City, officials have rallied to the cause of the kiss by summoning residents to a massive Valentine's Day kiss-in on the main plaza. Organizers are hoping for thousands of kissers at today's event, perhaps enough to land a spot in the Guinness World Records book.

In unveiling the kiss-athon, the city's tourism secretary, Alejandro Rojas Diaz Duran, appeared to toss a dart in Guanajuato's direction by pointing out that PAN members were welcome to join in. He said Mexico City "has always been the example of what Mexican society's values should be."

If so, public kissing would be high on the list. Compared with the United States, Mexico is a very smoochy place. Mexicans of all stripes kiss each other on the cheek when saying hello and goodbye. Children and parents slobber over each other with abandon. Even strangers merit a kiss; Americans might be taken aback by the Mexican custom of kissing someone on the cheek when being introduced.

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Take a walk through many public parks in Mexico City and it can feel as though you've stumbled onto Lovers' Lane, with couples in tight embrace on wrought-iron benches or entwined on the grass beneath shade trees. The capital's vast and woodsy Chapultepec Park is so well known as a make-out zone that it has a racy nickname: Chapul-tetrepo, the last part of which can be translated as, "I climb you," as one would a tree.

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