Alfonsina Peñaloza’s San Ángel, Mexico City
Name: Alfonsina Peñaloza
Neighborhood: San Ángel, Mexico City, Mexico
Occupation: Alfonsina works for Ethos, a nonprofit that conducts research and advises governments and other organizations on economic, gender equality, and human rights issues. Though she lives in the hip Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, Alfonsina has been coming to San Ángel since she was a child. “Anyone who comes to visit me gets a tour of San Ángel,” she says.
This story appeared in the March/April 2010 issue. Photo by Holly Wilmeth.
A hundred years ago, before San Ángel was absorbed into Mexico City’s urban sprawl, it was so far from the city center that it served as a country retreat for city people who built haciendas there. It is so utterly traditional that, blessedly, nothing has changed. The neighborhood—which is what it’s become—still has a sedate, rarefied atmosphere that sets it apart from the city’s buzz. San Ángel just stays the same, growing old gracefully.
My mother and I always spent Saturdays at the bazaar. She hates resorting to Pottery Barn–esque bridal registries, so she comes here to buy wedding gifts instead: local pewter jugs, embroidered linen tablecloths, big, bold talavera bowls to use as beautiful centerpieces.
The pewter and antiques vendors have their own stands, but there are indigenous women walking around selling place mats. This is where Mamá bought the orange and red woven straw place mats that I grew up eating on, and when they’d wear out, she’d just come back and get more. When I moved into my own place, I got some of my own—pink and blue. I also bought an ex-voto here for my place. They’re offerings made to a saint after the fulfillment of a wish, often very endearing, occasionally kitsch. Frida Kahlo collected many of these. Mine is a painting of a man, a jaguar, a cactus plant, and a saint, and there’s a little story about how grateful the man is to the saint for curing his injuries from a jaguar attack in Chiapas. The spelling is appalling. It’s quirky and very Mexican, and I love it.
There are four or so stands that sell silver: rings, necklaces, bracelets—all good quality and very cheap. Some vendors even make their own jewelry. Actually, the ring I have on my finger right now came from the bazaar. I must have bought more than 30 rings by now.
My mother won’t eat the street food, but I beg to differ. There’s a phenomenal quesadilla stand at the market. It’s run by three women. They don’t have a stall; they just set up informally. The simple cheese ones are good, also the one with the potatoes, or the mushrooms, or the chicharrones (pork rinds). My favorite is with flor de calabaza, squash flowers. It is so good.
There’s so much going on behind the stone walls in San Ángel—you just don’t know what. A friend of mine got married in a church right near the bazaar, and her grandmother owned the house next door, part of an old hacienda. I had never noticed it before—just a long stone wall. She used her grandmother’s garden for the party, and it fit 800 people. I had no idea! There were paintings and all this cultural richness behind this totally inconspicuous wall. That’s what San Ángel is, to me. Full of hidden treasure.