On a street named Moliere

On my last night in Mexico City this July — I was visiting at the invitation of an old college friend — I went out with my host family to a lovely restaurant on a street named after Moliere. I was surprised to find that the streets in that neighborhood were named after figures from other countries – from the world of writing or art or politics. Moliere was just off the main road named after Masaryk. Not far, I was told, were roads named after Jules Verne and Voltaire. Earlier on my trip, I had walked past statues of Tito, Gandhi and Churchill along Paseo de la Reforma near the wonderful National Museum of Anthropology. Downtown I had walked streets named after the countries of Latin America and I have learned that in the Zona Rosa there are roads named after world cities.

I did not get a chance to find out how universal this naming was: perhaps it was heavily oriented towards Europe and Latin America. I would be curious to know if the celebration extends further.

But still.

Now, Mexico is fiercely nationalistic and on one major intersection I saw flying high the largest flag I have ever seen anywhere. And there are plenty of streets and monuments named after figures from the country’s rich history. But with these street names and other gestures oriented towards the world, Mexico City seemed to be expressing another message to its citizens and visitors.

That message, of course, is that we are part of the world and we celebrate the whole world’s heritage.

I was impressed by this because in parts of the world I am familiar with, one is hard pressed to find such outward-facing celebration. In the U.S., there may be streets and monuments named after figures from other countries, but they seem to happen only when the personality in question had something to do with the U.S. and its history: note streets in the East named Lafayette or Kosciuszko. Sometimes immigrant communities have been successful in honoring persons from their heritage. San Francisco has United Nations Plaza but that commemorates the founding of the world body in this city. Perhaps the only exception I can think of is Mandela. Not far from where I live in Oakland is a new stretch of highway called Mandela Parkway.

Other countries, former colonies, for example, have streets named after ‘outsiders’ as a result of leftover baggage. My hometown in Dhaka, Bangladesh still has English, Minto, and Bailey roads, but it would be rare to find a street simply named after a figure from the outside world who had no connection to Bangladesh. (And unlike the affluent neighborhoods of Mexico City, Dhaka’s prosperous suburban areas have the most ordinary names, simply by number: Road Number 30, 42A.)

It was also fascinating to find that the most common bookstore chain in Mexico City is Libreria Gandhi.

I don’t know how streets got named in Mexico City. Of course with older roads, there has been a great deal of renaming. I visited the Museum of the City of Mexico where I saw a listing of the names carried in different periods by the city’s major thoroughfares. Such renaming takes place as a result of politics. Streets are often named for political reasons in the first place, and as hated regimes are overthrown, the elimination of those old names is a near universal certainty.

But how often do we find the public honoring of people from the world of art, music, literature, no matter which country they were citizens of and neglecting any connection they might ever have had with the country in question? Isn’t that a wonderful message to bring to a country’s children as they begin to explore their geography?

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4 Comments

  1. Ajit Sanzgiri

    Calcutta is full of streets named after world personalities. These include, among others, Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, Shakespeare etc to name a few.

  2. Mahmud

    Thanks for that example. I remember those street names from the time I lived in Calcutta in ’71. The Left Front government began to replace many colonial-era place names, a nod to decolonization and, in one instance, an in-your-face gesture (Harrington Street, where the U.S. Consulate sat, was named Ho Chi Minh Sarani). However, if memory and a quick web search are accurate, the three streets you mention are the only ones that got named after international figures. Most of the renamed streets were given names of personalities from Bengal or India as a whole. Many people have been reluctant to use a lot of the new names. People still refer to Lenin Sarani as Dharamtala/Dharmatala Street and to Shakespeare Sarani as Theatre Road. Renaming is often contested territory for a variety of reasons.

  3. Mahmud

    It looks like I was wrong. A more thorough web search revealed a few more streets in Calcutta that have been named after political and artistic figures from elsewhere: Marie Curie; Helen Keller; Karl Marx; Picasso; and Martin Luther King. I am not familiar with those streets and do not know if any of these names have really been embraced in daily use.

  4. Raghu Krishnan

    Congratulations on the interesting blog!

    I worked and lived in Mexico City for a year and return most years to visit. Mexico, and Mexico City in particular, has to be the least xenophobic and, historically at least, most outwardly-oriented place I know. I think this developed through three major phases in the contemporary period, but obviously has deeper roots, extending back through the initial struggle for independence in the mid-19th century and even into the pre-Hispanic period.

    The three contemporary phases are the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921), the Cardenas years in the 30s and 40s (in addition to the oil nationalization, and the radical land and education reforms, Cardenas also gave exile to Trotsky) and the student radicalization (mostly associated with the magnificent and massive UNAM) from 1968 through the 1970s. The daily newspaper La Jornada is the best enduring representative of this lineage, and has provided the most reliable coverage of the uprising in Chiapas from 1994 onwards — proving that the tradition of anti-imperialist and “universalist” Left nationalism is alive and well in Mexico…

    Librería Gandhi is a product of those heady days of the 60s and 70s. I lived near the flagship store at the Miguel Angel de Quevedo metro stop. It opened in 1971 and now has 10 branches across Mexico City and in a couple other cities.

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