January 30, 2008 / 3:49 PM / 10 years ago

Hundreds protest closure of oldest cantina

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - With beers in hand, hundreds of former patrons Tuesday protested the closing of Mexico’s oldest cantina, where Cuban President Fidel Castro, revolutionary Che Guevara and Mexican leaders all once drank.

Supporters called El Nivel (The Level) a national cultural treasure. The drinking dive, which was handed the first cantina license in 1855, closed on January 2 after losing a long legal battle against the owners of the building, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Demonstrators, many drinking from beer cans, protested outside the padlocked door of the bar, nestled in a side street near where the Aztecs’ main temple once stood.

“Today we declare El Nivel a Mexican cultural and drinking heritage site,” read a sign they placed on the cantina’s door.

“We consider it a place of learning at the university of life,” said protester Marco Rascon, reading from a manifesto in defense of the cantina signed by dozens of demonstrators .

Mexico is dotted with cantinas, mostly no-frills bars where tequila and beer dominate the drinks list and hearty traditional food is served.

The protesters say they want the university to agree a deal with the owner, Ruben Aguirre, to allow El Nivel to reopen.

Failing that, they will ask Mexico City’s government to expropriate the cantina and grant it a permit to continue.

The government and the university have yet to respond.

Men enjoy a drink in front of El Nivel bar in Mexico City January 29, 2008.REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar

The cantina was named The Level because authorities used to measure the height of the city’s flood waters in the building.

Aguirre told Reuters several years ago the original first cantina license was kept in a safe at the central bank because it is a valuable historical document.

A framed copy of the license hung on one wall of the cantina when it was open, alongside eclectic art, old maps, drawings and faded photos of the cathedral, Mexico City’s main Zocalo square and the bar itself.

Men enjoy a drink in front of El Nivel bar in Mexico City January 29, 2008.REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar

FROM CASTRO TO ZEDILLO

Many Mexican presidents from Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada in the 19th century to Ernesto Zedillo who ruled from 1994 to 2000 all called in for a drink while in office. The presidents used to work out of the nearby National Palace.

When Cuban President Fidel Castro lived in Mexico in the 1950s he too frequented the bar with guerrilla icon Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Castro set out on his Cuban revolution from Mexico.

Aguirre said the legal case to stop the university taking over the premises became impossible to sustain because all the documents were in the name of his dead father, Jesus Aguirre, who bought the cantina more than 40 years ago.

Many supporters of keeping El Nivel open say its closure is just another sign that Mexico City, one of the world’s biggest urban areas, is bulldozing its history to make room for new apartment blocks, hotels and office buildings.

“I am 80 years old and I used to come here when I was 18,” said local artist Ricardo Ruiz. “What has happened here is what is happening to the whole city. They are destroying it, taking away the historic buildings,” he added.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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