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.
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?