Whenever you visit a public plaza anywhere in Mexico, you’re sure to encounter a man with small cages of live birds inside (typically canaries and parakeets). These aren’t just some pretty-looking birds, they’re magical birds and they can predict the future. For just a few peso,s your future — really, a generic prediction — will be revealed in the form of a little piece of paper, which the bird will remove from a box or cup.
Caution: These magical creatures also love money and sometimes they’ll go into a paper-grabbing frenzy and, you guessed it right, you’re gonna be charged for every single piece of fortune telling. Those greedy birds!
This is a nearly extinct “profession” nowadays, maybe because people are no longer easily fooled. Merolicos appear where people abound; they’ll set a small, improvised stage and start their act. This can be anything: sometimes they’ll sell miracle products, others will try to read your mind, while still others will use animals like snakes or birds to grab your attention.
The common factor here is that they’ll never shut up (they frequently use recurring phrases, almost like mantras), and the miracle manifests several minutes after they begin their ramble: people will actually start buying the products announced or donating money in exchange for a stamp with some holy image they were forced to take. These guys know their business.
The typical Mexican phrase “Detrás de la raya que estoy trabajando” (stay behind the line while I’m working) is an obscure reference to the chalk lines merolicos paint on the floor before beginning their show.
No merolico act could be possible without an ever-faithful palero — a plant in the crowd how pretends to have witnessed the miracle cures or offers himself to assist the merolico with his street experiments and demonstrations. No street-scam act could survive for long without these guys.
In México, some people still go to their local chaman to get a limpia, in order to get rid of bad luck and whatever evil lurks inside them. The procedure is pretty much standardized and normally involves a heavy beating with herbs, some eggs, a couple of prayers, and enough incense to leave you smelling like a cathedral altar.
Although this is more common in little towns around Mexico (Catemaco in Veracruz is famous for its witching habits), you can also find cleansing ladies in some markets and public plazas around Mexico City (Mexico City’s central plaza, Zócalo, has its fair share of them). The price of a limpia can vary, but if you’re güero or güera (fair-skinned) you’ll surely be asked for a VIP price, which unfortunately doesn’t include VIP treatment.
Everybody loves sweet potatoes and those cooked bananas covered with condensed milk. So, what’s so nightmarish about that? Well, these urban delicacies are sold in a very distinctive cart that also serves as an oven. The steam that accumulates inside the car is not just used for the cooking, but to announce the arrival of sweet-potato time. The vendor turns a valve and the innocent-looking cart releases a whistle that sounds as if all the souls of purgatory were suddenly released through the cart’s fucking chimney. Believe me, you don’t want to be standing next to one of these things when they whistle! I’ve always wondered if the vendors wear any earplugs.
He’s just come out of jail and is fully reformed, so instead of mugging you, he’ll show you his recently gained ability of smashing his back against pieces of broken beer bottles in exchange for some money. This man won’t just lay on the pieces of glass, but execute a perfect somersault onto the glass. It’s a fairly common sight in the Metro of Mexico City during off-hours.
You have probably encountered a lot of street vendors in your travels, but toreros (bullfighters) certainly win the prize as the most proficient in the art of disappearance. The nickname comes from the piece of cloth they use to display their merchandise (similar in shape to a bullfighter’s cape, thus their name), which is also the tool they use to vanish from local authorities before an inspection. One distant whistle is enough to empty a whole street of vendors in a matter of seconds without leaving any trace. It must be seen to be believed!
One of the typical sounds of Mexico City comes from an instrument of German origin: the street organ. Mexican melodies (essentially old Mexican melodies) have taken over the repertoire of these instruments and have become a cultural trademark of Centro Histórico. The street organ is always accompanied by two persons, one who turns the handle and one who passes the hat around. These characters are always dressed the same way: a beige uniform with a distinctive cap, inspired by troops of the Mexican Revolution.
Dressed in Aztec attire and blowing into a conch shell, the conchero prepares himself to participate in a dance full of pre-hispanic imagery and symbolism. Part cultural spectacle and part religious ritual, the conchero’s impressive folk dance is exactly the cultural display you thought you were never going to find in Mexico. The dance will take forever and you are free to join at any time. You will normally find these guys in Coyoacán and Zócalo, and they are always willing to talk to anyone interested in mexican culture and traditions.
Some people just love to take possession of everything and public spaces are no exception. Viene viene (come come) or franelero (flannel man) are the common names given to that guy who decides to take possession of some random street and charge you for parking there. Sound outrageous? It is, and they are everywhere…everywhere!
Another classic of Mexico City’s Metro. This guy is perfectly camouflaged, he steps into the wagon next to you, looking perfectly casual, he’ll maybe remain like that for a couple seconds, but all of a sudden he turns on his backpack to full volume (because it’s also a sound system, with subwoofer and everything) and starts promoting the latest compilation of cumbia, salsa, reggaeton, rock classics, or música de los dioses (a weird mix of orchestrated pieces). Even with the bulky load they carry, vagoneros manage to go through the whole wagon during peak hours.
I’m sure that a lot of Mexicans will not recall these guys, but back in the day people with huge tanks of boiling water attached to their backs travelled through the city just after sunrise serving hot coffee or tea, especially in the areas near downtown. Nowadays, cafenautas are a rare sight, but you can still find them behind Mexico City’s Cathedral.