Superhero Chilango (Otherwise Known as Gyde & Seek's Paco)
With friends from the trendiest Condesa kitchens to the forgotten villages of the Sierra Madre, Paco has a way of bringing an almost small-town warmth to a first experience of the Mexican megalopolis—and local knowledge that transcends disciplines. He can tell you how to find that market full of murals by the pupils of Rivera, where to eat chiles en nogada in September, and why you should be making room in your itinerary for a jaunt to Toluca (just ask!). When you're with Paco, the gallery owner knows you're coming, the chef delivers the handmade tortillas, himself, and it almost starts to seem like Mexico City is showing off.
We sat down with our favorite matador-supertaster-aesthete for a sunrise hot chocolate and a chat about growing up in the bullring, his omnivorous enthusiasm for Mexican art and cuisine, and what makes working as a guide in the D.F. so damn fulfilling.
So, what's your failsafe strategy for a bullseye first day in Mexico City?
I will forever be talking people out of trying to see the Zócalo, the Anthropology Museum, and Casa Frida Kahlo all in a matter of hours! The Centro Histórico really deserves the better part of your first day. It's not just the cathedral or the ruins of Tenochtitlan (though these are certainly a wise place to begin); it's the whole incredible labyrinth. There's the former monastery of San Francisco, where over 1,000 monks were trained in preparation for the spiritual conquest of New Spain. There's the Casa de los Azulejos, home to the first 24-7 drugstore in the city—and a little known mural by Orozco. There's always an interesting exhibition at the Palacio de Iturbide, and the building itself is breathtaking. There are so many hidden corners and secret places. Not even I know all of them.
You practically grew up in the neighborhood, right? Has it always held a certain fascination? How did you experience it as a child?
My mother's office was in a colonial building right in front of the house where years later they would discover the Templo Mayor. I remember there were Aztec idols just lying around the courtyard—one that was shaped like a jaguar, another like a beautiful seashell. Once, when I was with her at work, my mom opened a little gate and stepped down a few stairs into a sort of hatch. On one side of the staircase, there was just a wall, but on the other, you could actually see the steps of what appeared to be a pre-Hispanic pyramid. Looking back, I wonder if maybe that was the moment I realized, or at least began to realize, that I wanted to dedicate my life to exploring who we are.
But first you became a bullfighter...
Indeed. Bullfighting is in my blood. My mother's father was from Spain. His brother, Rodolfo Gaona, my great-uncle, was the very first bullfighter to achieve celebrity in both Mexico and Spain. He was a pioneer matador, known as "the king of elegance". He died in the 70s when I was a kid, but one of his sons became a bullfighter as well, and I started training with him when I was 15 years old.
How does an aspiring matador get his education? Is there a formal bullfighting program or academy?
Nope, no academy. You have to learn from a retired matador who is willing to show you his secrets. But first, you have to find your huevos. They take you to the countryside and throw you into the arena. Depending on how you respond, they either say, "This guy better go to college," or, "Maybe, just maybe, you may work." Bullfighting requires a very particular kind of athleticism. To maintain composure in front of the animal is so difficult. I was a nobody at first, performing in little towns no one knew existed, towns where there were not even doctors—not even roads. I always tell clients I will show them my scars, but only at the end of the mezcal tour.
Many of us hear the word 'matador' and immediately think of Spain. Does Mexico have its own unique bullfighting tradition?
After Cortés destroyed the capital of the Aztecs on August 15th, 1521, what was the very first thing he did? Celebrate the victory with bullfights. The fiesta brava is one of the deepest and oldest traditions of our mestizo heritage. It has been a fixture of local cultural festivals, religious ones mostly, ever since the conquest. Take the Corrida de las Luces. It's a candlelit bullfight held annually in honor of the Virgen de la Caridad, patron of the town of Huamantla. The townspeople carry the image of the virgin around the bullring and all throughout the streets of Huamantla—until dawn. It's called "la noche que nadie duerme". In Mexico City, there's a whole season that runs from October until March, with regular events each Sunday.
After retiring from the bullring, you studied art history at UNAM. How does a teenage matador end up with a refined aesthetic sensibility?
Art played an important role in my most formative years. My father studied art at the Academy of San Carlos. Founded in 1781 by Carlos III, it's been Mexico's most prestigious visual art school since the colonial era. He trained under artists like Antonio Rodríguez Luna, who came to Mexico fleeing Franco's dictatorship, and Luis Nishizawa, the Mexican Japanese muralist. After graduating he became a professor and then director, an office once held by Diego Rivera, himself. As a boy, I was always finding nude women in his studio! And my mother, who worked as a secretary during the day, danced flamenco in nightclubs. So my house was always full of these crazy people.
Where do you like to take the Diego fans who have seen it all?
Have you seen the Cárcamo de Dolores? In Chapultepec? It was a monumental hydraulic undertaking that took many years to build. And many lives. It was finished in the late 40s, when Rivera was already in poor health—and the capital was beginning to suffer from water shortages. The new system, which is still in use today, was designed to pump water all the way from Río Lerma. Rivera was invited to make a commemorative mural inside the cárcamo or tank, which is to say, underwater. It was the first time he would face an aquatic element, and the engineers persuaded him to use a polystyrene emulsion to seal the mural, which was called "Water, Origin of Life". It was a spectacular failure. Within five years the mural was already badly damaged by the water. I remember going to see it on a school field trip; it was in terrible shape. Luckily, in the 90s, the city decided to divert the water in order to rescue the mural, which has now been fully restored, along with the fountain outside the tank: an enormous mosaic sculpture of the Aztec god Tláloc, which Rivera intended to be seen from the sky, by landing planes.
We've heard friends call you the 'commelier'. Is there also an epicurean gene that runs in your family?
No actually! Like any good barbarian from the north, my father was very frugal. He grew up in the desert of Zacatecas, where meager meals of beans and corn had to be wrestled from the earth. When the revolution happened, he and his eleven brothers migrated to Mexico City, where they lived in a tiny "vecindad" with two or three rooms for 14 people. So my father was a man who ate only because he needed to—to survive. He disliked excess and never had a taste for sweet things. But somehow I turned out to be exactly the opposite. Me, I have always been a comelón.
Say a traveler wants to deep-dive into the roots of Mexican gastronomy. What would you suggest?
That we get an early start for the town of Tlaxcala, not quite two hours from Mexico City. The Tlaxcaltecas were smart guys. They hated the Aztecs so they made a deal with the Spanish. A deal which I have to say the Spanish honored for almost 300 years, allowing the native population to self-govern. What does this mean? It means that Tlaxcala is one of the few places in Mexico where indigenous gastronomy has survived almost untouched by European influences. Here we'd visit nopaleras home to 80 different varieties of nopal. We'd meet the local tiempero—the shaman who prays for the rain. We'd have lunch with the traditional cocineras who are the true bridge between modern Mexican cooking and ancient cuisine. Tlaxcala is beautiful, maybe even as beautiful as San Miguel, and few people know about it.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of your work as a guide in Mexico City?
For me, this is about so much more than earning a living. It's work in which there is both great honor and great responsibility—responsibility to show people the real Mexico, not the image of Mexico that the media or any government or glossy travel brochure projects. As a true ambassador of my country, I get to help visitors move beyond these superficial layers. I get to help them really connect, human being to human being.