MEXICO CITY— La Lagunilla market can best be described as "labyrinthian.” It's a maze of color, sound and bustle in a city already incomprehensibly saturated with activity.
A sprawling weekend market and tianglis, or vintage flea, it technically begins at the south side of Eje 1 Norte, but has no fixed borders, growing in size and density depending on the day and vendor population. Inside, it offers everything from knock-off Luis Vuitton, to fresh tortillas, to stacks of hand painted (and often fairly gory) retablo votive paintings—depictions of the lives of the saints. It's also got a ton of Nazi gear.
On our first visit just a few weeks ago, for what was supposed to be a quick look and a bite to eat, we ended up unearthing a full SS outfit (with cap), swastika armbands, Deutschland insignia and even vintage Nazis war medals shipped from Europe via “specialty dealers.” The sheer amount of Nazi-themed gear we encountered—new, old, even homemade—was, to put it mildly, enough to make us forget all about the aguas frescas we'd come for.
In service of full disclosure, both of my paternal grandparents are survivors of the holocaust, so maybe I’m a bit more sensitive to this material than the average person. But then again, what person encounters so many swastikas without a visceral reaction? Multiple booths, in full, open view, of Nazi paraphernalia, sold by smiling men and women haggling over prices—shocking, yes, but as we soon learned, not an anomaly in the D.F.
In most parts of Europe, especially areas formerly under Nazi subjugation, open displays of Nazi insignia are illegal. If you ask the right questions of vintage dealers, however, they’ll lead you to hidden drawers or back closets filled with the stuff. In Mexico City, we were told by local sources, you can simply walk up to markets like La Lagunilla, the Tanguis in Doctores (between Av. Cuauhtémoc and Doctor Carmon), and even El Chopo, the “punk market,” and buy it.
You can also purchase copies of Hitler’s memoir, Mein Kampf, and the widely discredited anti-Semitic text “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” at various bookstores and kiosks throughout the city. These are often sold alongside popular fashion magazines, as well as abbreviated biographies of Nietzsche and other philosophers. Near our hotel in downtown DF, on Calle Brasil, just a few hops from major tourist destinations like Templo Mayor and the Capital Building, we saw a thin volume entitled “Hitler: His Life and Magic Secrets.” Taking a cab from the trendy Roma Norte district, the city’s equivalent of Williamsburg, we saw crudely drawn swastikas scrawled on buildings. It reminded me of the way a disaffected adolescent with authority issues might casually throw up an anarchy symbol. But that might just be the wishful thinking of an outsider. So then: why Nazis, and why Mexico City?
“One day I went into the shop to buy some cigarettes and the clerk was wearing a black shirt with a huge swastika print,” says Alexander Kracer, a 25-year-old writer, web host and Mexico City native. “I asked him if he knew what the symbol meant. He said he’d gotten it at El Chopo and thought it was a logo that represented heavy metal as a whole. I didn’t sermonize him or anything. I just found that to be really funny and curious and told him what it really meant.”
The clerk’s ignorance can in some ways be forgiven; Nazi imagery has frequently turned up in punk and metal subculture, from Sid Vicious’ infamous swastika shirt to the album art of Japanese hardcore band G.I.S.M, who used a swastika on the cover of 1984’s Detestation.
“It’s funny because most of the people who buy these sorts of merchandise here in Mexico have a really superficial idea of what the swastika means,” he said. “I know for a fact that many find it attractive for being something extremist and controversial—and at times linked to music and its subcultures. Its meaning is distorted in all of Latin America, due to lack of information. In the end, it’s a powerful symbol that makes heads turn.”
Ignorance, whether real or forced, is so common that when we asked many of the dealers in La Lagunilla, admittedly in broken Spanish, why they were carrying such culturally- loaded goods, we often got a shrug.
“They’re for ‘war games’ or reenactments,” one said. Another admitted he didn’t know much, or even care, about the politics. “I don’t know why people like them [the medals and armbands],” he admitted. “But they’re good sellers for us. I try to stay out of the politics.”
It seems that Swastika imagery is on the rise throughout Latin America. In 2014, Michael Kaminer of the Jewish web publication The Forward, then an ex-pat living in Caracas, Venezuela, came across several instances of swastika-use in public and often bizarre situations, from a run-of-the-mill smattering of Mein Kampfs in local book stores, to a “Hello Kitty Hitler” shirt emblazoned with an anthropomorphic feline Fuhrer, which he saw both in person and in a local fashion magazine. Kaminer posits that the rise of casual anti-Semitism in Venezuela might be tied to Chavez’s anti-Israel policies (anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are often conflated both in LatAm as well as the world-at-large these days). But, in the end, he seemed just as baffled as we were.
Ulie Haro, a journalist and fixer who grew up in Mexico City creates documentaries with his wife (and fellow journalist), Deborah Bonello. He's seen the swastika pop up in and around the area for decades. “When I was a child I saw the swastika and thought it was just a cool sign. German airfare [without context] seemed cool. For others, it seemed like [an extension] of the Camisas Rojas.” (The Camisas Rojas were a radical communist group in the 30s, intent on tearing down the government and burning churches. They were mostly male, and with few members over 30. With their black and red shock-troop uniforms and don’t fuck-with-me-attitude, they were something of Mexico’s proto-punks.) “Nationalism in Mexican society runs very deeply. I don't know at what point they [Nazism ideals] meet. It's this cult.”
A purely sartorial interest in fascism shouldn’t overshadow Mexico’s very real involvement with Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism. Ilan Stavans, a native of Mexico City with relatives who perished in the holocaust, is a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and has written several books and articles on Mexico’s fraught relationship to fascism, anti-Semitism and “Aryan culture.”
According to Stavans, anti-Semitism in Mexico can be traced back 500 years to the Spanish Inquisition, when many Jews expelled from Spain arrived in Mexico, assimilating into the population and even into the ruling Catholic Church. “Mexico was a safe haven for crypto-Jews and ‘new Christians’ who kept their Jewish identity and religion hidden. So where there was a public face in Mexico of anti-Jewish propaganda from the church in the colonial period—1492 to1810, when Mexico became independent—there was also a tacit, hidden Jewish presence that you can see in a number of different ways: on tombstones, in letters and records and diaries that you have of that era.”
Despite the pivotal role Jews played in the region, particularly in the development of Mexico City as a center of power and culture, the average public school curriculum makes little or no mention of this Jewish heritage and the Inquisition, let alone the Holocaust. “There is an ‘ambivalence of the duality’ in [Mexican] society,” explains Stavans. “Though there are things that are very open, there are also things that are very hidden.”
According to Stavans, in the early 20th century there was a more populist, let’s say “Henry Ford-esque,” approach to anti-Semitism. Rather than labeling Jews as Christ-killers, they were accused of controlling the nation’s banking industry and leading the country into ruin. In the 1920s and 30s, Aryan theories that were gaining steam in Germany and Austria “mutated” in Latin America, given credence by many of the day’s prominent ideologists and thinkers. This included Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959), one of the founders of Mexico City’s National Autonomous University of Mexico, the largest university in Latin America.
The European concept of “Aryan”—blonde, blue eyed—wouldn’t have absorbed the average Mexican person into its racial narrative. But Vasconcelos admired Hitler’s ability to rally the population behind a nationalist cause, knowing full well that the man himself would have considered Mexicans an “inferior people.” So he created a nomenclature, which gained steam in the 1960s, called the “la raza de bronce" (“the bronze race”) or La Raza Cósmica. He argued that it wouldn't be pureblooded Northern and Central Europeans that would dominate but, ironically, the “master race” would come as a mix of races, the mestizos, who would conquer the world and “achieve what the Aryans failed to.” Trying to follow this logic could give you a stroke, but yes, it appears that it is possible to be both Mexican and a Nazi.
Stavans doesn’t deny that neo-Nazis most likely do exist in Mexico City today, as they may almost anywhere over the world, but believes what we saw at La Lagunilla to be a rather benign version of anti-Semitism, if that exists. “What you saw was purely at the pop level,” he says, a by-product of video games and movies that feature Nazis as macho men soldiers—in a recreation of a sort of twisted play on "cowboys and Indians". “It is not connected with the larger vision of neo-Nazism that you have in, say, Austria or Germany or in Scandinavia, or even in certain parts of Argentina. In Mexico it’s mostly theologically empty. It is just images of these ‘warriors’. I wouldn’t say that this is an orchestrated movement.”
In countries such as Brazil, Argentina or Paraguay, with complex histories of harboring former Nazis, and even occasionally rehousing them in the same neighborhoods as Holocaust survivors, the presence of swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia might foretell a more sinister force at work. But here, in Mexico City, their abundance seems to be either a byproduct of curiosity, a lack of historical education or even the aesthetics of machismo gone haywire.
This begs the question: Can a city strewn with copies of hate books and propaganda, even empty propaganda, really be a safe place for Jews, or gays, or communists, or almost any group persecuted by a far right ideology?
We reached out to several local synagogues for comment. Monica Unikel-Fasja, a rep for Synagogue Justo Sierra, who has also given Jewish-themed walking tours of Mexico City for over two decades says, well, basically the area isn’t any worse than any other for Jews: “Yes, there are groups that follow the Nazi ideas, but they are not strong.” In Mexico, “there have always been anti-Semitic ideas, but Jews [here] have never experienced direct violence. Though threats, yes, there have been some.” As a result, most Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues in the community have a security system in place. But at the end of the day, “the Mexican Jewish community does not feel unsafe.”
And, apparently, despite the presence of oh so many terrifying swastikas, neither should we?
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.