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This Mexico City café was the favourite haunt of Latin America’s biggest icons

November 16, 2019

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At one table in Café La Habana, Fidel Casto and Ché Guevara would plot revolution. At another, Gabriel García Marquez could be seen scribbling into his notebook. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, used to read quietly in the corner, while punk poet laureate Patti Smith once performed here in homage to the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, another regular who immortalized the café in one of his novels.  

There can’t be many cafés in the world as steeped in history as La Habana.

A quiet establishment founded in Mexico City’s Juárez neighborhood in 1952, it looks pretty unremarkable from the outside. Step inside, however, and it feels like entering a 1950s film set. With wooden furniture and large black-and-white photos of Havana lining the sepia walls, the decor has hardly changed in almost seven decades.2

Few people know La Habana’s history better than 76-year-old Ricardo Mendoza, who first visited in 1970 and has studied its past extensively while working here for the last 17 years. Over a flaky Mexican pastry and a glass of La Habana’s signature drink – two shots of espresso topped with condensed milk – Mendoza tells me it was founded by a diminutive Spaniard known as “El Centavo”, who came here from Cuba and had developed a taste for gambling.

“He liked to play cards and one day he lost heavily and had to sell the café. Since then it’s changed hands several times,” Mendoza says.  

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Located near a Cuban neighbourhood home to several cigar factories, La Habana proved a convenient spot for a young Fidel Castro to hang out without drawing attention to himself. Having led a thwarted uprising in his homeland four years earlier, Castro began to rendezvous with Ché Guevara here in 1956 when they were planning the Cuban Revolution. 

“Fidel was known as cuate, the Spanish term for buddy, because the Cuban secret service were after him, so he couldn’t go by his real name. He rented a number of properties in the area. He was stockpiling firearms and would keep 10 or 20 rifles at each place, so that if one house were raided he wouldn’t lose all of them,” Mendoza tells me. 

“Fidel used to meet people here to make plans but he’d only stay for 10 minutes at a time. He wouldn’t sit here eating or smoking cigars. He’d meet Ché and others for a quick coffee and perhaps not even finish it before leaving because of the danger he was in. He couldn’t stay anywhere for long.”5

 They soon left for Cuba, but as the years went by La Habana’s popularity only grew. 

“A lot of journalists used to come here because all the most important newspaper offices were nearby. Artists started showing up because they knew a lot of entertainment reporters came here. If they hadn’t made the papers for a few months they’re turn up and buy the reporters coffee to make sure they were in the next day’s edition,” Mendoza says.

The café’s proximity to government offices also made it a popular hangout for public officials, he adds: “A lot of politicians would come here to be seen, especially at election time, to make sure they’d appear in the papers.”16

Even Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran leftist and former Mexico City mayor who won a landslide election last year, used to be regular. 

“Other politicians come in with six or seven armed bodyguards and they won’t let anyone come near their tables, but he would come alone and read quietly in the corner, drinking his coffee. He would speak to anyone who approached him or take photos with them,” Mendoza says.

Today, La Habana has a loyal clientele of local teachers, doctors and priests, among others, but draws surprisingly few tourists. Those who do come from abroad tend to be drawn by its mythical status in literary circles. 7

Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, widely considered Latin America’s greatest ever author, used to visit and is rumoured to have drafted part of his magic realism masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, here. He and the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who both won the Nobel Prize for Literature, would come to mingle with other writers, Mendoza says. The conservative Paz would often argue with the more bohemian Roberto Bolaño, who was at the forefront of the city’s infrarealist movement. 

“Roberto Bolaño arrived from Chile without any money. He came to the café and, because it was cheap and they would let him stay for hours at a time, he ended up writing his book here, as well as some of his poems and short stories,” Mendoza tells me.

Bolaño was particularly fond of the chilaquiles at La Habana and was so enamored with the place that he included it in his classic 1998 novel The Savage Detectives, under the name Café Quito. That thinly-veiled reference has made it a Mecca for his fans.

“Students come from countries like Chile, Argentina and Colombia just to see where Roberto Bolaño used to write,” Mendoza says with pride. 13

Legendary singer-songwriter Patti Smith was so inspired by Bolaño’s work that she not only tracked down the café, but in 2017 she performed and exhibited her photography there in the Café La Habana sessions, thus becoming the latest in a long line of iconic visitors. 

With so many storied figures writing chapters in La Habana’s history over the years, I ask Mendoza if he thinks a future icon could be writing their masterpiece here today. He sighs, before lamenting how today’s clients are always glued to their smartphones. 

“It’s difficult to see that happening because of the Internet. People still come here but they’re not going to write anything.”

‘It breaks my heart, but I have to keep going’: The Honduran women forced to leave home

November 13, 2018

Almost 5,000 members of the caravan arrived at Mexico City’s “Palillo” stadium last week

MEXICO CITY – After 23 days of harsh travel through pouring rain and tropical heat Suyapa takes a much-needed break at a sprawling shelter for members of the Central American migrant and refugee caravan in a sports complex in Mexico’s capital.

“It’s been really heavy going, especially for them,” she says, pointing to her two youngest sons, aged 7 and 10. “One of them got sick but thank God he’s better now. We’ve walked a lot. They get exhausted, they’ve lost the skin on their feet and had to walk barefoot at times.”

Like many of the thousands of people traveling in a series of caravans from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, Suyapa left home out of necessity rather than choice.

Suyapa fled Honduras with her two youngest children after gang members threatened her and took her eldest son

While President Trump has called the caravan members “criminals” and deployed over 5,000 soldiers to prevent them from crossing the United States-Mexico border, a great many of them are women and children simply searching for a safe place to rebuild their lives.

According to Mexico City authorities, children accounted for 1,726 of the 4,841 people registered at the shelter as of Nov. 8, including 310 infants under 5 years old. About 30 percent of those registered were women.

1,726 children were registered at the shelter last week, including 310 infants under five years old

Suyapa fled the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula after members of violent criminal networks known as maras extorted her modest food business, demanding all her weekly earnings, and then forced her eldest son to join them.

“These aren’t idle threats, they follow through with them.”

The gang gave her three days to leave and never come back…

Click here to read this feature in full at the Washington Post’s The Lily

A Massacre in Mexico: book review

October 4, 2018

An estimated 15,000 protesters marched through Mexico City last week on the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of the 43 students.

A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students – By Anabel Hernández

It takes a lot to stir up sustained national outrage in a country that has been ravaged by more than 200,000 murders and 30,000 disappearances in the last decade. Mired in a disastrous drug war, Mexico’s population has grown so accustomed to news of decapitations and bodies dissolved in acid that only the most nightmarish of crimes could provoke nationwide demonstrations or threaten to bring down the government.

That was precisely the kind of atrocity committed on 26 September 2014, a rainy Friday night that will never be forgotten. That evening, a group of trainee teachers from the Ayotzinapa college in the rural southern state of Guerrero arrived in the town of Iguala to commandeer buses to take them to Mexico City the following week. They intended to participate in an annual march to commemorate the massacre of scores of student demonstrators by the Mexican army in October 1968. Little did they know they would face a similar fate.

Local and federal police repeatedly attacked the students as they tried to leave Iguala aboard five buses. Officers shot dead three students and three bystanders, wounding dozens more. One student was found the next morning with his face flayed. Another remains comatose to this day. Forty-three students detained by the police were never seen again.

Mexico’s president elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to reopen the investigation into the disappearance of the students.

Before that night, Mexico’s handsome young president, Enrique Peña Nieto, could boast of undertaking major reforms and imprisoning Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán. He even posed for Time’s front cover, appearing under the headline ‘Saving Mexico’. But when he leaves office in December this year, the lasting memory of his six-year term will be his government’s sinister efforts to cover up the disappearance of the forty-three students.

In A Massacre in Mexico, Anabel Hernández, a fearless journalist known for exposing the corruption and impunity that have undermined Mexico’s war on drugs, digs determinedly in search of the truth. She has conducted over a hundred interviews and trawled through more than a thousand official documents, and she examines the case in greater forensic detail than the government investigators, who hid, manipulated and fabricated crucial evidence, did…

Click here to read this book review in full at the Literary Review (subscription required)

 

Cabrito al pastor is the perfect blend of Jewish and Mexican influences

October 3, 2018

Cabrito al pastor is often served with steamed goat’s head and machito (innards tied up in tripe)

Scraping gray strips of flesh off a kid’s skull on a recent trip to Torreón in northern Mexico, I was a little apprehensive about my first bite. Next to the head sat a ball of organs tied together with guts that glistened with fat.

But I’ve long since learned that in Mexico, it’s worth trying everything. Besides,cabrito al pastor, a spit-roasted baby goat dish not to be confused with pork tacos al pastor, is the source of great pride here in the state of Coahuila and neighboring Nuevo León.

Cabrito al pastor is one of northern Mexico’s most iconic dishes

Like tacos al pastor—a much loved Mexican take on shawarma, which Lebanese immigrants introduced to the central city of Puebla in the 20th century—cabrito al pastor is the product of Mexico’s Mestizo identity and the glorious fusion of indigenous flavors with European and Middle Eastern ingredients and influences.
My first taste came in La Majada, a local institution known for serving the best cabrito in the arid, industrial city of Torreón. Tucking into a generous plate of tender shoulder meat and crispy skin, I was immediately struck by how much gamier the flavor was than the goat birria I’ve grown to love down in Guadalajara.

Cabrito al pastor was a style popularized by Sephardi Jewish shepherds who settled in northern Mexico

The next morning I went back to meet Federico Chávez, the head chef who has worked at La Majada for 34 years. He tells me they sell 35 to 40 goats per week, with each one serving seven people…
Click here to read this article in full at Munchies

Mexico students v the state: Anniversary of 1968 massacre reopens recent wounds

October 2, 2018

Mexican army snipers from the Chihuahua building fired on student protesters in this square in Tlatelolco on 2 October 1968.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre, when the Mexican army slaughtered scores of student demonstrators in the heart of Mexico City on the eve of the 1968 Olympic Games.

A memorial to the murdered students stands beside a colonial church and ancient Aztec ruins in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas.

I took a few photos at the scene of the massacre for this BBC news report by my friend Stephen Woodman.

Every 2 October, demonstrators gather at the scene of the massacre to commemorate those who were killed.

Beach-hopping in Baja California, Mexico

February 7, 2018

La Isla Espiritu Santo in the Sea of Cortez is a must-visit site.

Almost 800 miles long, Baja is scattered with unspoilt beaches and enchanting towns that are more affordable than the Americanised resorts at its southernmost tip. Complete with a thriving culinary scene and a flourishing wine region, this peninsula is ideal for exploration by road and sea.

n two weeks it is possible to soak up winter sun and explore everything the region has to offer, beginning with a taste of mainland Mexico in nearby Mazatlán and ending in rapidly evolving Tijuana. Air-conditioned buses cover the route but there are affordable car-rental deals with companies such as BestDay.com.

Mazatlán

Known as the Pearl of the Pacific, Mazatlán is a port in the western state of Sinaloa famed for its seafood and annual carnival (8-13 February this year). With floats, fireworks, dancing, games and pageants, this family-friendly event dates back to 1898, making it one of Mexico’s oldest carnivals. For a quieter experience, admire the neoclassical and French baroque architecture in Mazatlán’s historic centre, though adrenaline junkies could try parasailing and take in spectacular views of the city and its long, palm-fringed beach.

Baja California’s desert landscapes are spectacular.

Get a taste of traditional Sinaloa with a stop in El Changuirongo (21 de Marzo 1326, Centro), a seafood joint close to the seafront that serves aguachile, a fiery local speciality made with raw prawns seasoned with lime, chile, onion, cucumber and avocado. It’s also worth visiting La Puntilla on the seafront to try its signature dish, pescado zarandeado: freshly caught fish grilled with a coating of garlic and spices…

Click here to read this article in full at The Guardian

Financial pressures are undermining Latin America’s media

January 8, 2018

Latin America is home to a growing number of independent publications, like Venezuela’s Efecto Cocuyo, that do not depend on government advertising.

With general elections scheduled in six Latin American countries this year, and another six to follow in 2019, the relationship between the media and democracy could have a major impact on the future of the region. However, mounting financial pressures are robbing many media outlets of their objectivity and forcing them to toe pro-government lines.

With traditional advertising revenue in decline, Latin American governments are using vast publicity budgets to keep cash-strapped publications afloat. In return, the media are expected to portray their benefactors in a favourable light.

According to the NGO Freedom House, much of the media in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico is heavily dependent on government advertising, resulting in widespread self-censorship and collusion between public officials, media owners and journalists.

“The history of journalism in Latin America is a history of collusion between the press and powerful people,” said Rosental Alves, a Brazilian journalist and founder of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, in an interview with Index. Sections of the media have become subservient, he explained, as any critical coverage could be punished with audits or a loss of advertising revenue…

Click here to read this article in full at Index on Censorship