Mexico City Chronicles

According to the latest version of the dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, a crónica is both “a history that obeys the order of the times” and “a journalistic piece … about ...

According to the latest version of the dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, a crónica is both “a history that obeys the order of the times” and “a journalistic piece … about current events.” But it is more. Starting in the 19th century, crónica and urban life became inseparable; to the mere recording of a city’ life for posterity, the genre added flânerie and modern investigative reporting. Together, crónica and la ciudad (the city) inform a typology of “essaying” a pie (on foot), in which walking is to thinking what seeing is to reading, and cities’ “intensification of nervous stimulation” (G. Simmel) becomes social and cultural criticism.

There are crónicas of one or two lines: “Alguno que otro árbol / quiere dar clase de filología” (some tree or other / wants to lecture on philology), wrote Salvador Novo, making sense of his walking and listening in 1920s Mexico City. And Lucio Mariani chronicled the sidewalk as revelation: “Finalmente come un platano urbano / cresciuto a furia di pisciar dei cani / utile e triste” (at last, like an urban plane tree / grown by dint of pissing dogs / useful and sad). The genre has encompassed the Benjamin-like “essaying” of the thoughts engendered by, and of the words heard in, cities. In this “essaying,” walking becomes thinking at its most frustrating. Thus crónicas tend to embrace irony with gusto, avoiding absolute truths.

In 1920s Madrid, Manuel Chaves Nogales, like many city dwellers, failed to distill tantalizing knowledge from an urban walk, but not from frustration itself: while inhabiting the city, “one must flee from all descriptive attempts, without claiming the city indescribable … giving up pretentious enumerations, filled with sterile rhetorical figures and evocations dilapidated by the weight of an, if not indigestible, undigested erudition. For, at its best, the crónica blurs the confines of high- and lowbrow, as it requires getting lost in the in-betweens of the city’s social map.

Some of Mexico City’s great cronistas have been popular songwriters. “Se ha soltado una epidemia de hijos de la chingada” (an epidemic of motherfuckers has been unleashed), went one 1970s tune from the banda chilanga (band from Mexico City) per excellence, El Tri. Another Mexico City “rockero,” Rockdrigo, wrote crónicas of the 1980s megalopolis that mocked the myth of the spiritual retreat to “authentic” small towns like Tepoztlán: “en las aventuras en el Distrito Federal / ya mejor me desafano y me voy a Tepoztlán / pa’ ser más espiritual” (in the adventures in the Federal District / I’d rather quit and head for Tepoztlán / just to be more spiritual).

More recently, and in English, Daniel Hernandez has lucidly chronicled Mexico City’s countercultural tribes (Down & Delirious in Mexico City, 2011). Starting from a Chicano’s search for roots, he ends in the liberating orphanhood produced by the city: “I join the many tired pilgrims who lean against the terrace’s volcanic brown ledges to rest. At La Villa, to the Virgen de Guadalupe, the sinner is indistinct from the saint, the native paisano cannot be told apart from the foreign pocho. With the other pilgrims, I silently watch the city simmer below us in the wide yellow heat.”

<i>Circuito Interior y edificios de Plaza de las Estrellas (Plaza Galerías)</i>. Photograph by * CliNKer * / Flickr

Circuito Interior y edificios de Plaza de las Estrellas (Plaza Galerías). Photograph by * CliNKer * / Flickr

Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit is a crónica of two summers (2012 and 2013) in the life of Mexico City. The book borrows its title from the name of one of the city’s highways (circuito interior). It is an account of the author’s return to the city, where he has lived intermittently for years. There, he hopes to make sense of the loss of his young wife, Aura, who died in a Mexico City hospital in 2008, after a tragic accident on the coast of Oaxaca. So does Goldman join the tradition of the great city’s cronistas.

The phrase “Mexico City is not really Mexico” had long been the motto of English-language books on the country, whether written by travelers or scholars, and this because the appeal of Mexico had been limited to that of mythical (racial) authenticity and tradition, an appeal that Mexico City—like any city—refuses to satisfy. In the last few decades, however, the great cronistas of 20th-century Mexico have been made accessible in English by Rubén Gallo (The Mexico City Reader, 2004). Moreover, to the Mexican crónica one can now add a small but solid list of cronistas originally composed in English—from the unparalleled chronicles by Alma Guillermoprieto (included in The Heart that Bleeds, 1994) to Hernandez’s insightful exploration of the city’s underworld; from David Lida’s Mexico City (First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, 2008) to Francisco Goldman’s new account. English readers can now access Mexico City as something more than an inferno of pollution, corruption, and violence.

The Interior Circuit unambiguously uses the chronicle genre as a way to overcome conventional English-language tropes about the city. Early in the book, Goldman recalls a physician’s angry reaction to this challenge. Tired of Goldman’s praise for the city, the doctor cried: “Oh, come on, what a bunch of bullshit … Everyone knows Mexico City is violent, corrupt, overpopulated, and polluted as hell! How can you be talking about it like that?” By the end of the account of the 2012 summer, Goldman responds to this in the third person: “One thing he discovers … is that a place, Mexico City, has become an essential part of his own story.” The city thus becomes more than the unfamiliar space of corrupt and violent “aliens”; it becomes an all too human common experience, one that brought him “back to life.” He feels he owes the city a chronicle that might serve as a belated reply to the physician: “Hopefully he can respond more articulately now, with more knowledge and less innocence.” And respond he does, with immense esteem for the much-maligned city. But more knowledge and less innocence are cunning companions to profound grief.

The book’s narrative follows three impulses—the inner search of a healing process, the investigative reporting of urban reportage, and the gaze of the ethnographer.

Like Goldman’s previous book, Say Her Name (2011), The Interior Circuit is the author’s attempt to cope with the tragic loss of Aura. The city hence becomes both stage and therapist’s couch for, as it were, Goldman’s Joyce-like “agenbite of inwit” (remorse of conscience), constituting not merely an external reality check for the persistent grief and guilt derived from Aura’s death, but also being revealed as an intrinsic element of the “inwit.” This certainly is what great cities do: as we walk them, their circuits become our neural wiring, thinking becomes a matter of the feet, ambulation a matter of the brain. Goldman’s chronicle starts with an inner trip, exploring his anguish with pained honesty, and concludes with the discovery of Mexico City.

The narrative follows three impulses—the inner search of a healing process, the investigative reporting of urban reportage, and the gaze of the ethnographer. No single impulse wins the day; just as Proust-like inner search seems to be taking over the prose, investigative reporting and ethnography kick in. The book’s first significant narrative device is the metaphor of relearning how to drive in the city, using the Guía Roji—the enormous, immensely detailed, and frequently updated street guide and map.

The goal clearly is to explore Mexico City beyond the shores of its hipster islands. Yet the center of gravity is a near-unconscious hipsterism, thus the ethnographic effect of his incursions beyond hip spaces. Goldman tells us that the first times he lived in Mexico City he was based in Coyoacán—that of Kahlo, Rivera, and Trotsky—but later, tired of “millionaire communists,” as he puts it, he abandoned the neighborhood—as did anyone who was hip in the early 2000s. He moved to Amsterdam Street in La Condesa, ground zero for hipness in the megalopolis; then to a loft in gentrified parts of Colonia Escandón, near Condesa. Finally he decamped to Plaza Río de Janeiro, in La Roma, the current hip Mecca of Mexico City. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. The only problem with such locations is the effects they have on the chronicle. It makes the reader experience city dwelling as a series of safaris into popular barrios (always accompanied by a scout friend who knows the terrain); it’s crónica without its necessary aimless wandering.

In prosperous but grossly unequal societies like Mexico City’s, class hinders the geography of strolls and perception. Class determines where and how one walks and whether one observes urban panoramas in the context of a stroll or as part of a safari. Goldman chronicles the city’s terrible classism as if he were immune to it. In truth he lived, socialized, drank, and everything else in the places and with the kind of people who most express this sort of classism. Entrenched in a hipster garrison, the rest of the city becomes a frontier for the courageous reporter to explore, a way for the grieving husband to find a new path.

<i>Grafitiame La Esquina</i> (2008). Photograph by Gonzalo Saenz / Flickr

Grafitiame La Esquina (2008). Photograph by Gonzalo Saenz / Flickr

The book’s first summer is one of mourning amid the discovery of the city’s social movements. Goldman takes note of #YoSoy132, the student movement launched at the city’s Jesuit university against the manipulation of the media by the old authoritarian ruling party (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) during the 2012 presidential elections. He explores the city’s complex politics through the conflicts between former mayor Marcelo Ebrard and the then newly inaugurated mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera—both from the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The narrative includes a bus party with rich Mexican youngsters, which ends in a street brawl, injuring Goldman’s sense of dignity more than his body. The second summer focuses on the author’s deep healing process during his investigation of the disappearance of thirteen young men and women from a bar in the Tepito district—the most prominent of the city’s barrios bravos, or “fierce neighborhoods.” He concludes with the tragic discovery of their bodies and discussions about the end of Mexico City as an island of relative peace in a country swamped by the violence.

Through both summers, Aura and her wisdom reappear everywhere. This is Goldman’s great accomplishment, for it is only through great literary skill and honesty that a voice such as Aura’s emerges. Once, Goldman writes, Aura “scolded” him when he commented on Mexican politics, “said that I had no idea what I was talking about, and forbade me ever to opine on Mexican politics in her presence again. She didn’t seriously mean it, but it’s also true that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I had never paid much attention to Mexican politics.” Any reader familiar with the megalopolis’s complicated politics and society would on the contrary conclude that no, Aura truly did mean it. Goldman reports what he reads in newspapers, or hears in commentaries on radio and TV. What he does not address or translate are the contentious urban debates that surround every issue.

Goldman’s central political question is the right one: how has Mexico City remained an island of relative peace? His discussion and answer are unfortunately based on a series of almost eulogistic interviews he conducted with his neighbor in a “cool” barrio: former mayor Marcelo Ebrard. Goldman describes Ebrard—a descendant of French immigrants—as a man with “classic Gallic features” and of “Napoleonic chin.” It is he who speaks the book’s political chronicle. A reader may agree that, in context, Ebrard’s administration was relatively good for the city. But nobody, especially not a cronista, should take at face value the utterances of this savvy politician, a former distinguished member of the PRI and perennial campaigner for the Mexican presidency. Ebrard’s opinions ought to have been treated as politician’s speech—not as the words of a wise man who has created the city Goldman and I love. At times, The Interior Circuit reads as an anthology of aphorisms and sound bites by this “wise man”—never checked against the facts or treated with any skepticism or irony. Aura’s “you have no idea …” echoes again and again.

The cronista must discover the unofficial paths by which cities’ histories emerge, intricate itineraries for which the words of politicians prove sorely inadequate guides.

Over the last few decades, the city has undergone quite a transformation, a stealthy revolution involving sexual, political, musical, and cultural experimentation. More recent years have brought greater visibility to this revolution, which is even more moral than social. Ebrard did things that long seemed undoable in Mexico. With his advocacy, great gains were made in relation to gay marriage and abortion rights. But he was sanctioning a cultural revolution already in the making, a transformation that no mayor—that no single politician—can take credit for. The city’s gay barrios have come out into the open, as has gay marriage; the city’s nightlife, counterculture, and vivid intellectual debates are more on display than ever. The extent of this transformation can best be observed in contrast with places like Guadalajara, Puebla, Monterrey or, for that matter, many US cities. Yet neither better policing nor a lasting improvement in social welfare accompanied this revolution. Long in the making, this moral revolution emerged and grew thanks to the cosmopolitanism, enormity, and power of the city. Goldman confers too much credit on two PRD administrations (those of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Ebrard). True, sometimes local and national governments, both PRI and PRD, lent support; but the cronista must discover the unofficial paths by which cities’ histories emerge, intricate itineraries for which the words of politicians prove sorely inadequate guides.

I am indeed proud of my city’s transformation; I delight in my walks through Glorieta Metro Insurgentes, witnessing men and women free to express their sexual preferences without major hassle. Whereas López Obrador’s administration, in the moralistic fashion of the old PRI, was alien to the city’s “sinful” transformation, Ebrard was the product of a modern chilango PRI, morally progressive and willfully “sinful.” Yes, he might have passed gay marriage and abortion laws, but this does not make him the Moses of Mexico City’s exodus from the yoke of Catholic morality. Likewise, small subsidies to the city’s seniors do not make the PRD administrations’ programs into radical experiments in income redistribution. In truth, PRD administrations, with their corruption, their favoring of cars over pedestrians, their focus on real estate development and profiting from the gentrification and “hipsterization” of parts of the city, have only promoted the profound inequality that has remained unchanged despite the revolution of mores. Contrary to Goldman’s idealization of Ebrard’s management of the city’s security apparatus, the relative peace of the city is not the result of a coordinated strategy for better policing but of the toughness of Mexico City’s social tissue, which, corrupt, messy, and unfair as it may be, has remained by and large relatively functional. The enormous monster somehow works and remains the center of and pole of attraction for economic investment or human capital development.

Goldman is right: the city somehow works and is indeed safer than many parts of the country—or even parts of Washington DC or Chicago—but this is not the result of Ebrard’s policies. Most of all, Goldman is either too naive or too close to Ebrard when he sustains, time and again, that the recent increase in visible activity by organized crime in Mexico City is the result of a strategy by the PRI to destabilize the megalopolis with a view toward retaking the city’s government, which they lost in 2000. Goldman appears to take at face value the view of certain reporters that current PRD Mayor Mancera is but a PRI agent charged with making a mess of the city. Seriously? In Mexico City? Would the author apply such simplistic theories to politics in New York City?

Indeed, Goldman’s paraphrasing of Ebrard cannot even begin to grapple with the causes of Mexico City’s enduring blend of violence and relative stability, of profound poverty and outrageous wealth. For a long time now, entering the ranks of the urban poor has been a way to gain access to social and economic rights. However, the kind of citizenship acquired is, first, undemocratic and, second, dependent on political middlemen and informal negotiations, as Guillermoprieto showed in her unforgettable account of early 1990s garbage collectors in the city. In terms of rule of law, these types of arrangements have had lasting consequences.

Goldman’s paraphrasing of former mayor Ebrard cannot even begin to grapple with the causes of Mexico City’s enduring blend of violence and relative stability, of profound poverty and outrageous wealth.

Violence in the megalopolis has overwhelmingly been that of common crime—as in any other major city. Yet such crime could not be neatly ghettoized, racially or otherwise, as it has been in American cities. The megalopolis and the welfare state were both outcomes of massive inequality; the poor have always been too many, the rich too few and too rich. From such conditions emerged the neo-feudal megacity, in which rich and poor live side by side, regardless of elite efforts to close themselves off, whether in La Condesa or La Roma or Santa Fe. For this reason, in the growing megalopolis, crime was not necessarily equated to poverty—a situation similar to that of India’s giant cities. The growing ranks of the urban poor were treated more as political clients than as subjects of fear and criminal persecution. Thus until the 1990s, Mexico City’s crime rates were relatively low, especially vis-à-vis major American cities throughout the 1970s.

Today criminal organizations may indeed bring down Mexico City at any moment. They could fill its busiest streets with their macabre displays of dead bodies. And they would do so with total impunity. In a place where most crimes go unsolved, where the exact figures of reported and solved crimes are unreliable, the policing system does not work, and everybody knows it. The 20 million inhabitants of Greater Mexico City are indeed unmanageable in terms of violence prevention. But why was this not the case when the metropolitan area’s population was 10 or 12 million, four decades ago? Certainly the police were just as ineffective back then, the rule of law just as inexistent. In effect, despite its real crime and bizarre rule of law, Mexico City has functioned—“feamente” (terribly), perhaps, but it has worked.

The precarious order of Mexico City bespeaks a social tissue that must be treated with care. The simultaneous dismantling of the welfare state and the new methods of omnipotent international crime are currently destroying the odd and fragile balance. Ironically enough, it is also being weakened by the new “democratic politics.” The megalopolis developed its delicate socioeconomic balance—always unjust but somehow socially inclusionary if not necessarily democratic, and always threatened by violence—through the soft-authoritarian welfare-statism to which Goldman’s heroes, López Obrador and Ebrard, very much belong.

After a decade of essentially democratic rule in Mexico City, the old (and often violent) politics have more or less adapted to party competition. Housing projects, taxi and public transit concessions, street vendors, prostitutes, street markets—these are still organized in the old fashion, but they are now attached to different parties, which in turn deliver results, when they can, in exchange for political support. And yet, neither a democratic welfare state nor a working megalopolis without a welfare state has yet been developed. The city has not, I’m afraid, figured out how to function without these old forms of political negotiation, networks of clientelism, and the strong backing of corrupt welfare institutions. Even before the escalation of violence, the ongoing economic crisis and the dismantling of the welfare state had brought Mexico City closer than ever to a scenario of “¡sálvese quien pueda!” (every man for himself!). I worry about my city.

The strength of Goldman’s book is its account of grief in its urban setting. In the best moments of The Interior Circuit, a paragraph might segue from a personal intuition derived from deep sadness and introspection, to a second level of intuition in the form of lucid self-help axioms, and, finally, to humor, as in this instance: “For whatever reason, enduring a complicated grief was a vastly different experience in Mexico City from what it was in New York,” is followed immediately by: “Maybe I’ve never really fitted in in New York, have never felt truly at home there, and the loneliness of grief starkly exposed that.” It then concludes with humor: “Maybe it was only because New York doesn’t have cantinas.” Or later, addressing Death herself: “I’m not who I was before I met you, and now we go everywhere together. It’s my duty to know you, Death … I’ve unexpectedly supplied my own rite, made it with my body kneeling … I kneel before Aura’s death like a medieval knight kneeling before his queen to make a vow.” Then the self-help axiom: “What now? Just to keep going, but also to try to live responsibly with knowledge of Death, and to try to be good, and also fearless when it counts.” Finally, humor: “Try to quit smoking again, I think, but that comes under trying to be good, as does so much else. Those are my vows.”

This moving, insightful treatment of grief makes The Interior Circuit valuable reading. If only there had been more care in the editing, for the book is full of names, places, phrases, city slang … in Spanish, all almost invariably mistakenly written. It would be tedious to list all the misspelled Spanish words and phrases, which look like transcriptions from an un-codified Amazonian language that no one knows how to write.1 This would be nitpicking, if not for the unavoidable connotations of such sloppiness: the crónica seeks to overcome conventional English-speaking views of a place called Mexico City and neither the author nor the editors deemed it necessary to pay attention to the language. After all, it’s only Mexico; it’s only Spanish. If the book were about Berlin, would there be such disregard for language? For me, this neglect echoes that other disdain: the lack of nuance, the muted color, the Manichean approach to the city’s politics and social map. In my mind it is difficult to detach this linguistic disdain from the larger carelessness about the city’s politics.

This being Goldman’s second book on grief, the reader takes comfort in seeing him regain his joie de vivre. It has been a painful path, and this return to, and reappropriation of, the city was part of the process. But as Goldman suggests, the city is larger than his grief … and more generous. The megalopolis teaches us much about Goldman’s grief, but Goldman’s grief does not teach as much about the city. This brings to mind Emerson’s words on mourning his son: “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” Commenting on Emerson, Thomas Dumm—in an admirable inquiry into pain and loss, Loneliness as a Way of Life
(2008)—speaks of the lesson taught by mourning: the realization of the power of loneliness and death, and the constant effort to overcome that realization. Grief teaches us to try and try again, until we can envision the mere possibility that, as Dumm suggests, “our loneliest moments may be behind us.” Goldman achieves and recounts such a recognition in The Interior Circuit.

Goldman’s book is a welcome attempt at overcoming common prejudices about Mexico City in books in English. As he does, I take solace in loving and hating, in inhabiting and escaping, my city, a sentiment that could make such cronistas as Carlos Monsiváis declare that, in the megalopolis, “lo peor ya pasó” (the worst has already happened)—a postapocalyptic comfort. Nevertheless, as a novel by Fabrizio Mejía puts it, “the city loves me,” “aunque no me lo demuestre” (even if it doesn’t let me see it). And yet, as Goldman’s crónica shows, it certainly does. icon

  1. “Desierto de Leones” or “Trabajadores de Hierro” sound like poetic utterances to chilango ears. Replacing the definite articles missing in Goldman’s text makes them what they actually are, the name of a part of the Federal District (“Desierto de los Leones”) and the name of a neighborhood (“Trabajadores del Hierro”). And the book includes: “Peréz” (please, Pérez), “cuayamas” (“caguamas”), “gueyes” (“güeyes”), “salio a caminar su perro” (it’s “salió,” but really it’s “sacó a caminar a su perro”), “pinche putos de mierda” (if they are “putos”—and God only knows—they are “pinches”), and a very long etcetera.
Featured image: Taxi Shrine, Mexico City (2010). Photograph by Shiralee Saul / Flickr