As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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March 12, 2006

by Wendy A. Luft

It’s surprising to find a sumptuous mansion in the heart of a working-class neighborhood, but during the colonial era, the Tacubaya area of Mexico City served as a weekend getaway for wealthy families who lived in what today is the city’s Historic Center.

The mansion, known as Casa de la Bola, is now a museum that gives visitors a taste of life of the Mexican aristocracy. The structure dates from the 1600s and over the centuries it was inhabited by some of Mexico’s most prominent families, including an archbishop and one of Empress Carlotta’s maids in waiting. Its most recent occupant was don Antonio Haghenbeck y de la Lama. In 1942, this debonair man of refined tastes, a curious combination of bon vivant and devout Catholic, purchased the property and planted the garden with banana and fig trees, ferns and magnolias. He covered the rooms, including his "summer" and "winter" bedrooms, in rich silks, filled them with inlaid furniture, Japanese urns, canopy beds, magnificent crystal chandeliers, and ivory crucifixes, set the dining room table with silver service plates and cut crystal, and lived as a gentleman of the 18th century. Throughout the house, resting on dressers and end tables, just as he left them, are Don Antonio’s personal effects, including a collection of watches, his reading glasses and calling cards.

At his death don Antonio left the Casa de la Bola to the foundation that bears his name, but he made no provisions for supporting it financially. In fact, he left the bulk of his considerable fortune to "support Mexico’s animal life." He inherited his love for animals – and a good deal of money, as well – from his paternal grandfather, Doctor Carlo Haghenbeck, who founded the Stellingen Zoo in the outskirts of Hamburg before immigrating to Mexico.

Just a few blocks away, but light years apart, is the home, now museum, of another man of the 20th century, Luis Barragan. Like Haghenbeck, Barragan was also debonair, a bon vivant, and devout Catholic, and he also moved into his house in the 1940s. But there is where the similarity ends. Their two lifestyles couldn’t have been more distinct.

The exterior of Barragan’s home is austere, blending in with the drab surroundings of the neighborhood. But inside, it is brilliant, exciting, and completely free of formality. The furnishings are sparse, with warmth provided by the spatial design, light and color, intense colors like Mexican pink, yellow, and terra cotta. Each piece of furniture, each ornament is specific to the particular space and reveals Barragan’s interest in popular art, seen in the clay pitchers, blown glass, and parchment shades.

Like Casa de la Bola, Barragan’s home also feels inhabited, and actually is. A stipend in his will allows the couple who kept house for him until his death to live there during their lifetime.

Barragan is considered one of Mexico’s foremost architects and his home one of the most important examples of Mexican architecture. Although his degree was in civil engineering, Barragan was a recipient of the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1980. He had a profound influence on younger generations of Mexican architects, including Ricardo Legorreta who designed Mexico City’s Camino Real hotel.

A treat for another of the senses is located a few blocks from the museums: Casa Merlos, one of the city’s best Mexican restaurants. Charming and colorful, it is very popular among locals, but you won’t find it listed in guidebooks. The specialty is the cuisine brought here by the proprietor, Lucila Molina de Merlos, from her home state of Puebla. Mole in a variety of colors, including the traditional mole poblano (Puebla-style) is featured on the menu. Lucila carefully blends 35 ingredients to make her version, including bitter chocolate, fruits, pumpkin seeds, nuts and a variety of chilies. A perfect balance of sweet and piquant, it is served on chicken or enchiladas. Another of Lucila’s specialties is pollo en pipián, chicken cooked in a subtle blend of green pumpkin seeds, herbs, garlic and chili. In the late summer and fall, the menu features chiles en nogada, poblano peppers filled with a mixture of meats, nuts, fruits, and raisins, served with a sauce made of fresh walnuts and cream, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Accompany your order with a cold michelada – beer (your choice of brands) and lime juice served over ice in a salt rimmed glass – and you’re in culinary heaven.

Casa de la Bola Museum, Parque Lira 136 (corner Observatorio), Col. Tacubaya. Tel. 5515-5582. Open Monday through Friday, by appointment ($4 admission fee includes guided tour in Spanish; $5 for guided tour in English). Sunday the museum is open to the public without prior appointment. Admission fee:$2.

Casa Luis Barragan, General Francisco Ramírez 14, Col. Tacubaya (between General José Ceballos and Constituyentes). Tel. (525) 272-4945. Open by appointment Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Entrance fee: $4 includes tour in English.

Casa Merlos, Victoriano Zepeda 80, one block off Observatorio, Col. Tacubaya. Tel. 5277-4360.


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