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There's a new political and social vibe in Mexico City. The local government there has recently passed measures allowing abortion and gay civil unions. The very fact that these laws can pass shows that attitudes in Mexico City are not what they used to be.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports that Mexico City is becoming the most liberal capital in Latin America.

(Soundbite of church bell)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a chilly Sunday morning in Mexico City. The cathedral bells have just chimed. Here in the main plaza, the Zocolo, now this square, the largest in Latin America, is usually a staging ground for political protests. But today, a very different scene is unfolding. Below me, I'm on a balcony overlooking the square, is a veritable sea of naked humanity.

Around 18,000 people showed up to pose for the photographer Spencer Tunick, a record breaker for the artist who shot large groups of people in the buff in cities all over the world. Tunick spoke after the shoot and said that all eyes should now be looking here. Mexico City, he said, is changing.

Mr. SPENCER TUNICK (Photographer): There's something happening in Mexico City. It's cultural. It's going to explode. It's going to be great. I think the greatest and the newest things can come from Mexico. The people are most warm. And they have the hugest hearts. And in my mind, the heart of Latin America now is Mexico.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tunick tapped into something that Mexico City residents have been feeling lately. Their city and the people in it are on the cutting edge.

Mr. JAVIER PEREZ CARLO(ph) (Resident, Mexico City): (Through translator) Mexico City was a closet liberal. Today, we're coming out of the closet. Mexico City is changing, and I'm happy to see it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Javier Perez Carlo, who took part in the shoot. Another participant, Julio Torrijos(ph), says that thousands of people getting naked in front of the national cathedral would have been unthinkable years ago.

Mr. JULIO TORRIJOS (Resident, Mexico City): (Through translator) Mexico City is as cosmopolitan as Paris and Barcelona, Madrid and New York. This is one of the great cities of the world, but we do come from a conservative background. And an event like this shows our liberation from that past. I think there is an awakening by the residents of Mexico City.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you don't need a one-time event to see it.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: So now I'm in the Zona Rosa on Amberes Street. And this is a place filled with cafes. Over the past two years, they have been catering to the gay community. And right in front of me are two young girls. They're kissing openly. People who walked past the street are not even looking at them twice.

I interrupt them and asked them about being young and gay in the capital.

Ms. MARIA LUISA VASQUEZ(ph) (Resident, Mexico City): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Luisa Vasquez is 20 years old. She says my parents are cool with my being gay, and the young people too. It's not like it was before. Mexico City is not as conservative as it was, she says. They don't give you hassle because you're a lesbian or gay. We don't really see that anymore, she says.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And all these changes in attitudes are being reflected in the politics here. The capital has been ran by consecutive leftist governments for years, but the current Mexico City Assembly and mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, have launched the most ambitious liberal agenda to date - gay marriage, abortion. Euthanasia is next.

Leticia Quezada is a leftist legislator in the Mexico City Assembly.

Ms. LETICIA QUEZADA (President of the Mexico City Legislature's Commission on Equality and Gender): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says we want to show the difference between the left and the right. We want the whole country to cast their eyes towards Mexico City. She says now is the right moment. We have the majority in the Assembly. We had it before but no one wanted to touch these issues because of the political risks. Now she says we feel that the society has changed so much that the people will support these reforms.

And that's putting the city in direct confrontation with the federal government, headed by the conservative Felipe Calderon of the PAN Party. Denise Dresser is a professor of political science in Mexico City.

Professor DENISE DRESSER (Political Science, Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico): Mexico City is being used as a laboratory to send the message throughout the rest of Mexico that the left can govern. That here it can be different and it can actually get things under control and provide an alternative to the National Action Party and its conservative views.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a message that was not getting out after the contentious national elections last year. Losing leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tried to lead a movement of confrontation with the government after he said he was robbed of his electoral win. But says Dresser.

Prof. DRESSER: The left discovered that its post-electoral strategy of constant confrontation was actually helping Felipe Calderon and his popularity instead of undermining it. So Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, who's a very savvy politician, he changed course. He decided to actually govern instead of simply trying to bring the Calderon government down.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so far the changes here are attracting notice, not only in Mexico but outside of it too.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.

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