Adventures in Mexico City: Being a woman in public space

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Coyoacán neighbourhood of Mexico City and the Frida Kahlo museum, in typical tourist style. As I am still getting used to the city and applying to jobs, I have had some time to wander around and get to know the city.

I realized something about Mexico City that week, that I had not noticed before, as I am usually with my boyfriend or other friends: Women are not supposed to be alone in public spaces. At least, this is how you are made to feel. Allow me to explain.

As I left the museum, I walked towards the city center of Coyoacán. I had already been to this neighbourhood and I knew where I was going; the center was less than 20 minutes by foot. However, I was asked many times by idling taxi drivers if I needed a lift. When I did not respond, thinking I didn’t speak Spanish, they asked me in English. I kept walking, explaining that I simply did not need a cab.

Arriving in the main square of Coyoacán, I walked around and eventually went to eat in a nearby café. A small parenthesis here, but if you sit outside in cafés in Mexico City, you will be asked over and over again if you want gum, cigarettes or someone to read their poetry to you (no jokes). As I was sitting many musicians arrived, performed for a bit and left, asking for our “cooperation” (i.e. donation). I enjoy music, and I do not mind being offered things in the street, but it can be incessant, and as a woman by herself, it can be uncomfortable, as I am the easiest person to approach; it is much easier to approach a single person than a group.

After leaving the café, I decided to walk around the plaza and the park and sat down by myself on a bench. In the space of a few minutes, a man had come over to me. He was selling small bracelets and, exasperated, I said immediately that I was not interested. He got angry, saying that I should listen to him. I explained I just wanted to sit alone, quietly, I am sorry, but I am not interested. He got angrier, told me I was in Coyoacán and if I wanted to be alone I could go home, or back to my own country (Spain. Apparently I am from Spain. As a side note, I was slightly elated in this moment for him thinking I was Spanish and not noticing my accent).

He eventually left. In the moments after the encounter, I looked around me and realized that there were no other women alone in the plaza. It was not late, about 6pm. However, the park was full of small groups, couples, mothers and their children, and some men by themselves, but no women. There is a part of it that I enjoy: People do not sit alone, but rather carry out their daily activities with their family, friends and loved ones. However, as a women who is new to the city and who does not yet know many people, it can be uncomfortable, as I inevitably end up alone at times, but still want to experience the city.

I told a few people about this experience afterwards and they explained that it is perceived as harsh or aggressive to say “no” straight away in Mexico. This is especially true for women, who are expected to play along.

The square in Coyoacán is not the only place where it is an issue to be a woman. In Parque México there is a gang of adolescents who sell cupcakes. It seems benign at first, but it becomes very annoying if you regularly pass through the space. One day, when I said, “no, I am not hungry”, the boy responded, “qué linda!”, ironically, suggesting that I was being unfriendly. In addition, many streets in Mexico City are very poorly lit at night, making it very uncomfortable to walk alone. This does not only apply to women, but is especially relevant to them.

I think it is true to say that in many parts* of Mexico City, women cannot use the public realm in the same way that men can, and if they try, it is considered dangerous, or unfriendly. Dangerous, when she walks alone on poorly lit streets, and unfriendly, when she tries to sit alone in a public space and read, make a phone call or just be.

* This is not a rule. There are some spaces that I have felt comfortable in, and there are many men who respect women in the public realm. However, it happens often enough and for this reason I have decided to write about it.

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Plaza Jardín Hidalgo, Coyoacán

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