Tepito, Barrio Bravo
By William Brandt
One vast market-place, ten city blocks of color, commerce, crime and contradiction packed into the heart of Mexico City – this is Tepito. Known as the "Barrio Bravo," Tepito has a long-standing tradition of defiance of external authority, but today it has a less admirable reputation for internal chaos, lawlessness and violence. Tepito is the place the guide books warn you not to go; a place where you can buy anything, from the latest Hollywood blockbuster, to a spider monkey, a bag of cocaine, or an AK-47. It’s a place where muggings and street violence are so common they pass almost unremarked.
Tepito is a Sony executive’s vision of hell; a crazy upside-down world where copyright piracy is so prevalent that the very concept of authenticity is rendered meaningless. In this commercial underworld morality and law are turned on their heads – a mother-and-son team work through the night churning out pirated porn DVDs, delivery boys openly smoke joints the size of cigars in the street. In Tepito it is generally assumed that a man should know how to fight, and that the only policeman to be feared is an honest one.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people from this neighborhood suffer from intense prejudice. Just a mention that you’re from here is enough to fail a job interview. But there is another side to the Barrio Bravo. Generations have been born and raised here. There are sporting clubs, churches, art galleries. Older residents remember a different time, before the current influx of drug dealers, violent criminals and pirates, a time when the community was tightly knit and to live here was a source of pride.
Religion is still a very strong part of everyday life: though traditional Catholic beliefs must live alongside the powerful cult of the Santa Muerte, a ghoulish skeleton-goddess whose origins reach far back to pre-Columbian Mexico. She is worshipped by criminals and ordinary citizens alike – they come to her to pray for the recovery of health, stolen items, or kidnapped family members. As one local resident says: "people come here, all types. It doesn’t matter. Dentists, murderers, narcos, teachers, it makes no difference at all. If perhaps you have something you don’t want to go to God with, you come here. Say your cousin is in jail. You make an offering and you ask her to help him. It makes no difference to her who you are or what you ask."