São Paulo vs Mexico City

Despite being born and raised in the U.S., when I first moved to São Paulo, I instinctively compared it to Mexico City, a place where I’ve traveled to throughout my life because of family. Being both Latin American mega cities, I can’t help it. The similarities are easy to spot, but it’s the differences that are the most interesting to me.

What’s Similar:

1. Social Life — Gatherings are spontaneous, you invite your friend of a friend of a friend, and you give a kiss to everyone in the room. There’s also no end time, and you say good bye about five times before you actually leave.

2. Bikes — Bike culture is slowly growing in both, thanks to the implementation of bike lanes and bikes to rent. On Sundays, both Mexico and São Paulo close off lanes in their major avenues — Reforma and Paulista respectively — for cyclists.

La Roma, Mexico City

La Roma, Mexico City

3. LGBT Nightlife — Mexico has la Zona Rosa, SP has Frei Caneca (plus the largest Pride parade in the world), but despite these two major hubs, I would consider neither city to be that queer-friendly.

4. O Jeitinho — In Spanish, there’s no real name for it, but both cities heavily employ the famed jeitinho, or creative solutions to everyday problems.

5. Bookstores — In both cities, books are expensive yet somehow bookstores are found everywhere. Not that I’m complaining, I just wonder how they stay in business.

6. TV — Both have their one nearly omnipotent network — Televisa and Globo — that are the major source for cliché telenovelas and government propaganda.

7. Traffic — It’s always congested, drivers need to have the instincts of a hawk, and pedestrians never have the right of way.

View from Ibirapuera, São Paulo

View from Ibirapuera, São Paulo

8. Appearances — They are vital. In both cultures, bad behavior is called being feo/feio, or ugly, and particularly on women, there’s pressure to be bonita and appealing.

What’s Different:

1. Formalities — Mexico City culture has much more formalities than São Paulo, evidenced by the use of usted. São Paulo is much more informal and relaxed. I’ve been called senhora a handful of times in São Paulo, but people generally say você. In Mexico, if a stranger called me tú, they’d be considered mal educado.

2. Informal Sector — Both have a strong informal sector, but it’s much more evident in Mexico City, where you can see people everywhere with their stands on the corners, performing at stop lights, directing you to park, selling just about any kind of item in traffic and more. São Paulo has these things too, but it’s not as intense as it is in Mexico.

3. Diversity — São Paulo’s immigrant history is definitely more apparent than Mexico’s. While Mexicans certainly don’t look alike, there’s much more diversity in São Paulo, physically and ethnically speaking.


4. Concentration — They’re both enormous cities, but Mexico is the national center for culture, commerce and government. Brazil tends to spread its sectors out, with the capital in Brasilia, and commerce and culture shared between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There’s definitely the sense that everything important goes through São Paulo, but it’s not the one and only center for everything like Mexico City is.

5. History — Mexico City’s character and history are evident the moment you set foot there. Hundreds of years of history are felt, in part because it was the capital of the Aztec Empire, Spanish Empire and now Republic of Mexico. São Paulo is a rather old city too, but it started off as a town and didn’t become an important city until several centuries later. In the Centro, there are definitely older looking buildings, but old as in late 19th century. Mexico’s National Palace dates back to 15th century Aztecs.

Post office in Centro, São Paulo

Centro, São Paulo

Centro, Mexico City

Centro, Mexico City

6. National Brands — In Mexico, American brands are king. It can be rather difficult to find Mexican brands, although that’s slowly changing with small indie labels. In Brazil, almost everything’s made in Brazil, and anything that’s not is 10 times more expensive. That said…

7. Patriotism — Mexicans make a big deal out of Independence Day, while in Brazil, you wouldn’t know it was Independence Day unless you consulted a history book. Mexicans tend to be very proud of their country, while Brazilians tend to not show any (until the World Cup comes around…and even then, until Brazil is disqualified.)

8. Corn — This is basically the backbone of my culture, so I take this one seriously. Both cities sell corn as street food, but in very different ways. In Mexico City, the roasted white elotes come with mayonnaise or crema, lime, fresh white cheese, and chili powder. Esquites are the same thing but in a styrofoam cup, with the corn shaved off the cob and in its juice, like a thick soup. In São Paulo, vendors serve steamed yellow milho simply with butter. They also have canjica, which is like a corn porridge with condensed milk, and pamonha, which are the same thing as Mexican tamales except they’re plain with no filling.

Credit: Passamal

Credit: Passamal

Credit: Raul Macias [raulmacias.com.mx]

Credit: Raul Macias



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