Post-mortem: A meditation on Mexico City’s Glorious Central Post Office

Confession time: I’m hopelessly sentimental about mail, the postman and the post office. It conjures up memories of long-distance romances, draft notices, treasured letters from home received in faraway lands, college admission news, acceptance and rejection letters for jobs or freelance writing gigs. As I write this I’ve got Spotify tuned to one of my favorite songs–the Beatles’ cover version of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” I love getting mail, even proxy letters from Charles Schwab.

Which may help explain why the Palacio de Correos de México or “Correo Mayor” (main post office) is one of my favorite buildings in Mexico City, a capital justly famous for its architecture —from ancient pyramids and colonial-era Gothic churches, neo-classical government buildings, Art Deco apartment blocks, Modernist homes and hotels, ultra-modern towers of steel and glass, not to mention billionaire Carlos Slim’s stunning Frank Gehry-like Museo Soumaya.

Designed by Italian Adamo Boari and dedicated by Mexican strongman and francophile Porfirio Díaz in 1907, the Correo Mayor, on the west side of the historic center of the city, is an eclectic mash-up of styles—Spanish Renaissance Revival, Spanish Rococo, Elizabethan and Venetian Gothic, Moorish, Baroque and Art Nouveau.

Built on an innovative U.S.-made foundation of concrete reinforced with steel beams, the ornate building features marble, plaster of Paris, white cantera stone from nearby Puebla, brass from Italy, bronze and iron window frames made in Florence.

It’s a wonder, with the feel and flourishes of a real palace. It almost rivals the Palacio de Bellas Artes performance hall and cultural center across the street, with its Neoclassical and Art Nouveau exterior, Art Deco interior, Tiffany glass curtain and murals by Diego Rivera and others.

Look around: We humans erect huge, elaborate and soaring monuments to institutions that once loomed large in our lives, inspired us, controlled us or promised us a better future on earth or wherever—cathedrals, legislative houses, railway stations, movie theaters, shopping malls, post offices.

The Correo Mayor still functions as a post office. And I used it on a recent visit to Mexico City to send a card.

At the newsstand on the sidewalk outside I bought a post card of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, paid 11.5 pesos (about 60 cents) for a stamp and handed it to an unsmiling and bored-looking woman behind the counter.

It took nearly six weeks to arrive at my home in northern California. About what I expected given my experience mailing cards and letters to and from Mexico.

How that’s possible when there are scores of flights every day from Mexico City to the United States is beyond me —and very much at odds with my long experience of Mexicans as an incredibly hard working and entrepreneurial people. You can’t help but smile when you consider the Spanish word “correos” (mail) is derived from the Latin word for “I run.”

But that’s the story of government or government-sanctioned monopoly “services.” Think Ma Bell, taxi cab companies, airlines, public schools, government highways or the post office.

Faced with their inefficiency, cost and incompetence we are on a perennial search for workarounds and more and better choices.

In the U.S. in the case of the post office that’s taken the form of UPS and FedEx, email and texting, e-bills, electronic bank and brokerage statements and online bill payment options.

Hardly anyone I know —except for Yours Truly— sends cards or letters anymore. This has made our post office try a bit harder—with cooler stamps (like postage featuring the likenesses of Elvis and John Lennon), Priority Mail that can be tracked online, and the latest innovation —daily emails that show me scanned images of what’s coming to my mailbox.

Of course, truth be told, Amazon is what’s keeping the U.S. Post Office going these days—if you can call losing $4 billion last year “keeping going”—until Jeff Bezos figures out a more efficient and cost effective way to deliver his packages. A friend in southern California tells me Amazon has a fleet of its own trucks delivering packages down there. And come July, I read recently, you’ll be able to return your defective or unwanted Amazon purchases for free by taking them to your closest Kohl’s store.

It’s the same story in Mexico, where the post office—because of legendary inefficiency and the real risk of loss or theft—is largely considered something to avoid. I’m told some utility companies have employees or contractors who hand-deliver bills rather than mailing them. Customers then pay them at the utility office, at a bank or the ubiquitous Oxxo, a convenience store that’s the Mexican equivalent of 7-11.

My American expat friends in the colonial cities of San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato about 200 miles northwest of Mexico City mainly rely on a nifty company called La Conexion. For a monthly fee they get a mailing address and a dedicated post office box in Laredo, Texas, where their mail is collected and from there it’s driven across the border to a storefront in San Miguel, where they pick it up every week or two.

The Mexican post office has tried to stem the tide with MexPost, a more expensive but supposedly speedier and safer Priority Mail-like service that features tracking. But I sense that Mexicans have turned their backs on the post office in even more dramatic fashion than we have in the U.S.A.

My daughter accompanied me on my recent visit to CDMX, as Mexico City is now known. The ten-day trip—filled with great food, sidewalk cafes, shopping and architecture– was a gift to mark her 21st birthday.

She was impressed by the Correo Mayor, but it clearly didn’t resonate with her as much as it did her old man—largely, I suspect, because the post office means next to nothing to her. I would guess that she could count the number of cards and letters she’s mailed in her life on the fingers of her two hands and that might be generous.

As I wandered around the building, snapping pictures and taking notes I glimpsed her standing on one of the soaring staircases doing something on her iPhone. Talk about a picture worth a thousand words.

Who needs cards and letters and stamps and lines at the post office when you can send text messages, photos and videos to virtually anyone anywhere in the world for essentially nothing? By the time her kids are grown (assuming she has any) I suspect the post office will be as quaint and remote as horse-drawn carriages and telegrams.

By then, if it’s still standing in earthquake-prone Mexico City, maybe the Correo Mayor will have been privatized and converted into a restaurant and bar —with one corner reserved as a small postal museum. I’m sure the Depression-era Moderne-style post office building in downtown Redding, California, my hometown, will be long gone and repurposed too.

Freelance writer Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among his former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C. and an electricity company in Hawaii.

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