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



A Different Face of São Paulo


Awhile ago, I wrote about attending the Bolivian Independence Day celebration at the Memorial da América Latina, my introduction to the Bolivian community in São Paulo. I got the opportunity to further explore the community in a piece for the South American gastronomy site Como Sur entitled Bolivian Gastronomy in São Paulo: Why It’s More Than Just Food.

I didn’t realize just how many Bolivians are in the city, an estimated 100,000. São Paulo likes to celebrate its immigrant heritage, highlighting the contributions made by Italians, Japanese, Arabs, Jews, etc., and I wondered : why are Bolivians being left out of the conversation when they have such a strong presence here?

So I made it my mission to find out through the angle of food given it’s the most popular way to share culture and because well, I’m writing for a gastronomy site. As I discovered different networks and spaces, I ended up seeing a side of São Paulo I hadn’t seen before. It confirmed my belief that there are many cities within a city. Case in point: I took the metro one Sunday to go to Praça Kantuta, the square that holds a weekly Bolivian fair. At the station, I asked several Brazilians how to get there. They weren’t sure. A group of Bolivian teenagers passed by and I asked them. Without missing a beat, they pointed me to the square, only a few blocks away.

I interviewed a number of Bolivians in the food industry and while their experiences were rather diverse due to age, generation or personality, they were all extremely passionate individuals working to provide a pleasurable experience on a plate. With the number of labels thrown at Bolivians (poor, dirty, primitive, strange, seedy) they’re determined to defy expectations and put forth a positive image of their culture.

It was an extremely interesting experience putting together this piece. It took me awhile, longer than any other piece I had done in the past, because I really wanted to be accurate and do the topic justice. My hope is that people, particularly Paulistanos, will become a little more aware of a community that is very much a part of São Paulo.

Check out my piece Bolivian Gastronomy in São Paulo: Why It’s More Than Just Food at Como Sur.


Brazilian-ized Hot Chocolate

I love hot chocolate, and I love making my own. I decided to come up with a sort of Brazilian version based on what’s commonly consumed here. Condensed milk is an obvious choice — I think there’s an unwritten law that condensed milk needs to be added in every Brazilian dessert. I also chose cashews as they’re a pretty Brazilian nut (and fruit!), and they add a nice buttery flavor.


I’m lucky they sell regular milk next door. It’s much more common to find only UHT milk, which just tastes strange.

-2 cups whole milk
-125 grams (about 4 oz) bittersweet chocolate
-1 cinnamon stick
-2 T raw cashews
-2 T condensed milk
-2 tsp cacao powder (optional)
-1 tsp salt

Heat a pan to toast the cashews for a few minutes, then grind them finely. I’d do it with a food processor, but food appliances are expensive here, so I’m stuck with the romantic yet tedious mortar and pestle.

A mortar and pestle seems romantic, but it's a pain. Unfortunately most food appliances are expensive here.

This photo is titled Patience.

Heat the milk to a medium heat and add the cinnamon stick and chocolate. Stir until the chocolate melts. Add the ground cashews, condensed milk, and salt, which enhances the chocolate flavor. If you like dark chocolate, add the cacao powder. If you prefer milk chocolate, leave as is. Stir, stir, stir until it’s well blended and serve.


Note: This is a thick drink, like dessert in a mug. If you want a slightly lighter version, add another cup of milk. Stay with whole milk! brchocolate3

And because it’s typical São Paulo and the weather has been gray and rainy one day and burning hot the next, I froze some of it in an ice cube tray to make ice cream. Cheers!