As a shoeshiner labored away at his feet, glad to have a customer, businessman Francisco Gonzales glanced over the top of his newspaper with a smile at the near-empty expanse of Reforma Avenue. The day after tomorrow it would be full of frantic traffic. Horns would be blaring and pedestrians would be coughing from the fumes of countless thousands of cars. But today, the next to the last day of Holy Week, it is all but deserted.
"You know, right now this is not Mexico City," said Gonzales. "Not at all. You can find a place in a restaurant with no problem, there aren't many people, there's no traffic, and, ahhh," he took a breath, "there's no smog.
"Really, right now this is the only place in the country you can rest," said Gonzales, who was born here more than 40 years ago. "Everywhere else everything is full. There are no rooms, no food, the majority of people go back to their villages and to the beaches, especially the beaches." He glanced down at his paper. "Last Saturday there were 80 cars a minute leaving Mexico City," he said, referring to an article he had been reading. "Tomorrow night there will be 100 cars a minute coming in."
The whole nation of Mexico turns upside down in the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. Offices are closed, shops pull down their corrugated shutters, the vast cogs of the government bureaucracy grind to a stop, and the pattern of migration from the countryside that has swelled Mexico's cities nearly to the bursting point -- and has pushed the capital's population to 14 million -- is for these few days reversed.
By some estimates more than 3 million people have left the city this week. They go to tourist spots on the coast such as Acapulco and Veracruz, or to the mountains. They go to the border areas for a day's shopping in the United States where just about every consumer good, especially electronic gadgetry, is 20 to 50 percent cheaper. According to U.S. Border Patrol officials the illegal as well as the legal traffic across the line continued the steady seasonal rise that begins each year after the Christmas holidays, but many illegal Mexican aliens journey home to be with their families.
Towns in Zacatecas that have been all but abandoned by men going north to work in the United States or south to the capital are the scene of emotional reunions. Villages in Michoacan that have seen their populations steadily dwindle over the last few decades suddenly are almost full again -- now always with pleasant results.
A woman standing at the corner of the town square in a little Michoacan village earlier this week watched three men stagger drunkenly through the town. They were born there, she said, "but they don't belong here anymore. They left us, and now they come back and act like this."
The peace of Mexico City this week is matched by a kind of bacchanalian madness in the rest of the country, and of course with so many drunks on the road the casualties are high. More than 32 people have been killed on the highways this week.
Many of those who stay in the capital seem to be like Gonzales, who prefers simply to take it wasy for a change and hope, against all certainty, that things won't return to normal tomorrow night. There are some encouraging stories. The afternoon papers are saying that people without reservations are crowding bus terminals and airports all over the country unable to get back to the capital. But Gonzales knows the peace can't last.
"Monday," he said, "everything will be the same as always."