The Sounds of Mexico City

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
I share my fascination with the rich variety of sounds to be heard in Mexico City.

Submitted: March 17, 2017

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Submitted: March 17, 2017

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The Sounds of Mexico City

Dedicated to the Guadarramas, past, present, and future.

I have fond memories from my childhood when I heard the ice cream truck making its way through my neighborhood.  The distinctive music and bells were easy to recognize. My brother and I would rush to find our mother, shake her down for some change, and then dash out to the street hoping to catch the truck before it had passed.  More often than not, we wouldn’t be fast enough and we would miss the truck.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed the challenge and looked forward to the next opportunity to score some ice cream.

About ten years ago, I married a Mexican woman and began to make occasional trips to Mexico City to visit family. There I was introduced to a rich variety of sounds.  In addition to the usual city sounds—buses, horns, car alarms, and the nearly constant sound of planes circling the city counter-clockwise as they approach Benito Juárez Airport—there are many sounds that are unique to Mexico City.

The day begins with birds chirping and the gentle “swish swish” sound of our apartment building’s concierge, el conserje, sweeping up the leaves that fall every day from the rubber trees that tower alongside the building. He sweeps them into a neat pile in the street, just off the curb. Later in the morning, a man with a hand cart will pass by to pick up the leaves and take them away.

Many vendors work the streets and announce their presence with signature sounds.  They pass by in cars, trucks, bicycles, and tricycles.  The tricycles have two wheels in the front to support a large platform that carries anything from drinking water to fresh baked bread. Young men on tricycles who sell tamales broadcast a loud recording of a man with a nasally voice saying

Hay tamales oaxaqueños, tamales calientitos.

Pida sus ricos tamales oaxaqueños.

Llévese sus ricos y deliciosos tamales oaxaqueños.

Acérquese y pida sus ricos tamales oaxaqueños.

Other vendors use strong voices or horns—the kind we had on our bikes when we were kids—to let the neighborhood know they have arrived. There are trucks that cruise the city looking to buy old appliances and house fixtures. They blast a recording of a young woman shouting

¡Se compra! ¡Colchones, tambores, refrigeradores, estufas, lavadoras, microondas—o algo de fierro viejo que venda!

Then there are the whistlers, vendors who use mechanical whistles to draw attention to themselves.  The first I heard is man on a bike who sharpens knives.  His whistle, which is essentially a flute, makes a short, pleasant sound that starts with a high pitch and then drops lower. The sharpening stone is on his bike.  He props his bike onto a hefty kickstand, cranks the pedals, and sharpens your knifes as you wait. One day I heard a whistle, and proudly announced to my family that the knife-sharpener guy had arrived.  My wife jumped in and corrected me. “No, he’s the guy who sells camotes.”  Camotes are yams, and vendors sell them from an oven on wheels that they push up and down the street.  The whistle is actually a steam whistle. Every few minutes, the vendor opens a valve, and the whistle sounds.

One afternoon, I heard the sound a lone trumpeter down on the street. I looked out the apartment window to observe. He was wearing black slacks, a white shirt, and a black vest. He was facing our building and playing away.  When I asked what he was up to, my mother-in-law explained that some man has a crush on a young lady who lives on our side of the building.  He had hired the trumpeter to serenade her. In general, music permeates much of Mexico.  Jump in a taxi and you will be treated to the favorite music of the driver—from traditional Mexican ranchera music to John Lennon. Many restaurants and cafes have house musicians.  Other musicians carry their instruments on the backs and play here and there wherever there are people to be found.  Once, while riding Mexico City’s subway system, El Metro, my wife and I were treated to two young men doing a wonderful rendition of Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.”

In busy markets and plazas, one can often hear organilleros, organ grinders who, wear old and dusty uniforms and crank battered, out-of-tune street organs that were built in Germany nearly a hundred years ago. Most of the organs sound awful.  Some people scorn the oranilleros as beggars.  Others pity them and offer a few coins.  I read that, after paying for the rental on the organ, most organilleros will be lucky to bring home the equivalent of 10 dollars per day.

There is one sound that Chilangos, residents of Mexico City, dread to hear—that of the earthquake siren, Alerta Sísmica.  In 1985, an earthquake devastated Mexico City, killing thousands. Recently the city installed sirens that announce that an earthquake has occurred in a neighboring state, giving people roughly 90 seconds to dash out of buildings and find open space before the shock waves reach Mexico City.  This sound Mexicans take very seriously.  It is an eerie “wow wow wow” sound that gave me chills the first time I heard it. I was in a park when it sounded.  Not knowing what it was, I looked carefully at the other people in the park.  They too looked concerned, but they stayed put and surveyed their surroundings.  Later, when I returned home, I learned what the siren was for. When it sounded, my wife and mother-in-law had rushed out of the apartment and down four flights of stairs in hopes of escaping the apartment building before the shaking began.  Fortunately, this time there was no shaking.

For me, the grand finale of sounds is the trash truck.  When the truck arrives, one of the crew jumps out and rings a hand-held bell. For a minute or two, he walks up and down the block while ringing the bell to make sure that everyone nearby knows they have arrived.  The various homeowners and building concierges haul their trash out to the truck.  The trash is separated on the spot.  Cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles, etc. go in their respective containers.  Cardboard is flattened, neatly stacked, and strung together with twine. It seems that just about anything that can be reused or recycled is set aside, leaving only “real” garbage to be taken to the landfill.  When I watch the men sort it all out, I think about how wasteful we are here in the United States.  Now it seems to me that the blue buckets our city provides for recycling paper, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles with the “accepted” recycle codes on them are just a minimal effort to make us look good. We could do so much more.

My wife’s father died about 2 years ago, and her mother recently moved to the United States.  I don’t know when or how often I will return, but I will always remember the sounds of Mexico City. Ironically, I never did hear an ice cream truck.

Notes:  

Videos with some of the sounds described here are easily found on the internet.  Have a look!

Others have written about the sounds of Mexico City.  See, for example, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105837804

For more information on organilleros, see http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/the-slow-demise-of-mexico-citys-organilleros/


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