Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Colorful guests check into cheap Hotel Arizona in Mexico City

Colorful guests check into cheap Hotel Arizona in Mexico City

Mark Shaffer
Republic Mexico City Bureau
May. 19, 2004 12:00 AM

MEXICO CITY - No one here along busy Insurgentes Avenue can say exactly why the Hotel Arizona got its name back when this was a high-end tourist hub in the mid-1950s.

But Oracio López, a co-owner of the rough-around-the-edges six-story building, can give an earful these days about Arizona, the wide-angle shot of Monument Valley in the lobby and the huge tile mosaic of a desert scene at the front desk.

After all, López said, some of his best customers are Guatemalan undocumented-immigrant smugglers who use his cheap digs ($16 a night for a single, $18 for a double) as a stop off point on the way north while trucking their Central American clients to cross Arizona's southern border.

"I've even had Africans stay here who said they were heading to Arizona to illegally cross the border," said the 43-year-old López, who proudly displays two posters of revolutionary figure Ernesto "Che" Guevara and a calendar of Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos on his office wall.

Not that the Hotel Arizona doesn't attract legitimate business clientele.

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Like Kameni Pierre, an artist from Zaire living in Paris, who on a recent stay was admiring a variety of tiny cactuses in a planter box lining the bottom of the picture window in the lobby.

'Cheap but nice'

"We are trying to open new markets for our products in Mexico," Pierre said. "This hotel is very cheap but nice and comfortable and is close to where we want to do business. I had heard about it even when I was back in Africa."

Which comes as no surprise to Irineo Judhó Martinez, who has been a bellhop at the hotel for the past 25 years and is like a walking textbook of the hotel's history.

Martinez said the original four owners of the Hotel Arizona, all from Spain and all now deceased, still owned the building, which was constructed in 1956, when he started work there in 1979. He returned to Mexico after a short stint picking vegetables in Texas.

"They never told me why it had this name," Martinez said. "But I think it had something to do with all the Western movies from the U.S. being popular during that time in Mexico and so many of them being filmed in Arizona. They were all fans of John Wayne and those kinds of movies."

During those days, the Hotel Arizona was right in the middle of all the tourist action, because it is only a block from one of the country's most impressive structures, the massive Monumento a la Revolución, which honors the Revolution of 1910 and the end of the reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz.

Martinez fishes out a postcard from his cubbyhole, located beneath a stairwell, of the hotel during its glory days in the early 1960s.

A fine-dining room was located on the fifth floor. Two theaters featuring live productions - now dank, grungy apartments - were on adjoining street corners across Insurgentes Avenue.

Two other multistoried hotels were just across a side street from the Hotel Arizona. But the area suffered a serious blow during the Mexico City earthquake of 1985.

Martinez said he had just come into work that morning when the earthquake struck and pancaked the two hotels, killing dozens. The two sites remain open lots nearly 20 years later.

"We barely even had a crack in our walls or foundation, and it knocked the two hotels down across the street," Martinez said. "That changed this whole area and the tourists started staying in other places after that."

Martinez also said he remembers only one regular visitor at the Hotel Arizona from Arizona in recent years, a businessman from Tucson who came to Mexico City every three months, "but I guess he retired because I haven't seen him lately."

Gonzalo Ramirez, a businessman from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, said the Hotel Arizona is well known in his home area.

"It's centrally located, cheap and clean. I think it is a magnificent hotel," Ramirez said.

An 'alternative'

Julio Gonzalez, a native of Guatemala City who works as a convenience-store manager in Miami, said he always stays at the hotel during his return bus trips to his home country.

"I don't have the money to stay at the Hilton, but this is a nice, cheap alternative," Gonzalez said, camera in hand as he set out to tour the downtown Zocalo district. "I wish every hotel cost less than $20 a night."

López, the co-owner, said he has plans to make the hotel even more Arizona-like, beyond the decorations in the lobby and the neon sign at night highlighting the hotel's name and a green saguaro cactus.

As he gives a visitor a tour, López notes that all of the aging, multicolored carpets in the hallways of the various floors will be replaced by a uniform Arizona desert brown carpet.

"But we're not going to be changing our original 1950s furniture," said López, holding a trash can covered by green vinyl. "That's the thing all our customers like."

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8057.


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