We are three hours into a four hour concert, I just had my 4th hot flash of the evening and am feeling slightly queasy. I’m in my seat at the end of a row, against the wall of the Auditorio Nacional, Mexico’s national performance hall, a gigantic space that seats 10,000 people. The show is sold out.
Sergio asked me last week to a concert for Valentine’s Day. It features four singers from the 1960s that he and his dad used to listened to, apparently quite often because he has a whole catalog of old songs memorized.
I’m happy with my wallflower perch as it gives me a view of 9,999 Mexicans all at one time, including my sweet man beside me. The wall space on one side balances out claustrophobia on the other as I realize exiting the row will not be easy.
I’ve worn very cute, impractical platforms which make me look 6 feet tall, which is great. They also make me totter like I’m on stilts, which is not so great. Getting to my seat was the final leg of a typical urban Mexico City hike.
We crossed busy streets, uneven sidewalks, climbed up multiple flights of stairs to our section, and finally finished up by navigating a narrow row filled with elderly senoras, most with a big purse on their lap. They gave me as much room as they could to let me pass, but the rows of seats, like most public areas in Mexico City, are maximized for capacity, not personal space. I barely had space to walk, in my platforms, in the dark, with nothing to hold onto, hoping I wouldn’t fall off the ledge and into the row just below ours.
I'm excited because this is my first time inside the Auditorio Nacional - an imposing venue built in 1952 that continues to perfectly complement the energy and scale of Mexico City. For architecture fans, it’s a must see. It is a strong, balanced huge modernist space; less harsh than the Brutalist structures of post WWII Russia and Europe, and with no trace of reference to Mexico’s colonial past.
Instead it’s a grand space for la gente , the people, a design with roots in the socialism that fed the Mexican Revolution and formed the genesis of many institutions and federal programs today - strong unions, bloated bureaucracy, compulsory military service for young men, universal (and evolving) health care and education.
We didn’t have any luck buying tickets ahead of time, so we decided last minute to try to get tickets from a seller out in front of the venue. We arrive outside the Auditorio and a seller approaches, assuring us that he has excellent seats in the middle. We all know he’s lying but it doesn’t really matter, we just want two seats together.
He then shouts to a muchacho across the way. There ensues a confusing rush of young men racing across the wide stairs leading up to the plaza, whistling to one another. Whistling is a common form of communication among men en la calle in Mexico, probably dating back thousands of years. Sergio’s son Jarkof still knows his dad’s whistle; they use it to get one another’s attention when we are out walking and have drifted apart.
The reason for the running around is to compare tickets and find two seats together. One boy, who looks about 10, comes racing up with a match; the muchacho who is handling the sale with us double-checks them. He gives me my ticket and tells me to enter the gate first. This will prove to Sergio, who waits outside, that the tickets are valid.
I enter without issues, feeling slightly shady. Sergio then pays for the tickets and joins me inside. Sergio is very frugal, he’ll compare prices for 20 minutes at the mercado to save 10 pesos on avocados. The cost of the tickets represents about 2 days of Ubering for him; I am touched that it meant that much to him to invite me.
Arriving in the central plaza, given the scale of the venue, you would expect to find banks of elevators to ferry guests up to the upper levels. You would be wrong. There are 2 small elevators and tonight one is out of service. In many older buildings in Mexico, elevators are more of a last resort than a main option.
The alternative is not bad. The building has long sweeping staircases that force you to take your time as you move upward through the space. I enjoyed the climb in spite of my shoes; unexpected urban obstacles like this remind me why I work out and keep me motivated to do so.
By the time we reach our seats, the first singer is about 2 songs into his set, with live backup singers and band. He’s singing old standards, the crowd sings along and applauds. I notice an annoying hiss that is too erratic to be feedback or static - its kind of like a high pitched Darth Vader sound. Soon I also notice that whenever he moves away from the mic, it stops.
I look at the big screens hung up above the stage. I can’t see the one that is along the same wall I’m up against, and the other screen is dwarfed by the distance across the big hall, but I think I can make out that he is wearing an oxygen tube. I think the sound is coming from him!
I try to follow along the lyrics and applaud on cue. He alternates between sitting on a tall stool and standing. He leaves the stage after his last song and lots of applause, taking the hissing sound with him.
I check the time. One hour exactly.
Uh-oh. I begin to get a sinking feeling I get sometimes when I'm in Mexico and I realize I'm about to enter an alternative Latino time space continuum. There are four singers on the program.
My gringa brain is in denial. NO way this could be a four hour concert. At the same time I know that resistance is futile and that actually, yes, guey, not only is it possible, but in fact it IS a four hour concert.
In the United States, we grab time by the throat on a daily basis and think that we can force it to submit to our agenda. In Mexico, time is considered something outside of your control, like a leisurely river that passes no matter what. If you get caught in a slowly swirling eddy of a long line at the bank, a friend who is 40 minutes late, a colossal traffic jam, or 4 hour concert that you expected would be 90 minutes, oh well. Que sera sera.
The second singer arrives on stage. He is in good form, with a balance of old school Sinatra chit-chat and singing. Near the end of his hour, he sings a heartfelt finale for the crowd of faithful gathered here - “I Did It My Way”- in English, no less. He exits the stage to great applause.
The crowd, thinking it is 5 minute break time, starts chatting and moving about, some heading for the restrooms. Suddenly the band starts up again as the singer re-appears to sing his actual final song.
It’s a bit awkward given that there had been no call for encore, but everyone adjusts and enjoys an entertaining cover of an old mariachi song in which the songwriter assures us that even though he may not have much, he is still the king, his word is law - and goes on to lament the absence of a queen in his life - go figure.
Third singer up, the only woman on the playbill. She tearfully confesses to the audience after her first song that she has been sick and lost her voice. The crowd rallies, begs her to continue in what became a pattern as she croaked along for her full hour, too. The back up singers (the same ones who were three hours into their four hour gig with almost no break) deserve double pay - without them, there would have been no 3rd performance, really. In between songs, the diva finds enough voice to introduce her entourage in the front row, including friends, relatives, and her promoter.
Then she returns to lamenting her lack of voice and saying no, no, I can’t go on, before giving in to the crowd’s supplications that she continue.
She’s obviously a beloved icon, but I found her to be self-indulgent and unprofessional - she should have either canceled her appearance or cut it short - both of which would probably offend her Mexican fans, as no doubt she knows her market better than I do.
I thought about this later. Why did I judged her harshly? It was more than just feeling increasingly uncomfortable hemmed into my seat. It is partly because I am a gringa exigente - a picky white lady - but it is also because she was full-out channeling the latina diva persona just like in the telenovelas. It’s a mixture of over-amped drama and emotional helplessness that disrespects how strong most Mexican women really are, and does nothing to help defuse the sexism they struggle with in most areas of life.
Finally she says goodbye, running from one side of the stage to the other, and not one minute before her hour was up.
Tres down, uno to go. The final singer comes out. We are in the home stretch with an octogenarian channeling Dean Martin, complete with off color jokes in Spanish and a glass of whisky off to the side.
In spite of not knowing many of the songs, I enjoyed the evening very much. It is fun to be dressed up, out in the city at that venue with my sweet man. He is so happy to be there - he is a big romantic at heart and sang along to many songs, including tearing up while he sang one of his dad's favorites to me “Eres Todo Para Mi”.
At my request, we leave about 30 minutes early, something I have always thought old people do, but not in Mexico, where most of the crowd stays in their seats.
Holding my arm as I totter down the long stone staircase, Sergio comments good-naturedly, “Ai mi amor, tu no eres por la carrera larga” - meaning, I can’t handle the long haul.
I say ”What? That was 3 ½ hours in the same seat!”
He just smiles as if he knows something I do not. We reach the bottom of the stairs, cross the plaza and walk out into the night, our long evening with los viejos reminding us that, if we are lucky, they are where we are headed, and every moment is more precious than the last.
Join our email list and receive our stories from the road, every Sunday.