monday musing: df

Flying in at night affords a remarkable sight. You can’t imagine such a blanket of lights. And they end so abruptly at the ever widening borders of the city. Beyond them is nothing, just the blackness of the land at night, as if the entire cosmos were merely lights and void. It’s beautiful and big and strange.


They just call it DF, for Distrito Federal. Those from the US know it as Mexico City if they know it at all. And my general impression is that we, Americans, don’t know much about Mexico and don’t care very much that we don’t. The very fact that we call ourselves Americans (what about the rest of the Americas?) is kind of a give away to that basic neglect. If you’ve ever known any Canadians you know that the neglect is felt up North too. Come to think of it, if you’ve ever been anywhere else on the entire globe you’ve probably realized that Americans aren’t generally recognized for their great knowledge and concern for the rest of the world. And that is nothing new. Everyone knows it. No one much knows what to do about it. And if the center of world power really does shift toward China in the generations to come we’ll all find out that xenophobia and self-centeredness weren’t invented in America either.

But still, it sucks. Being in DF just last week I was struck with a sense of shame at my own lack of knowledge and paltry understanding of all things Mexican. Americans on the whole, I’ll wager, tend to think of Mexico as dusty towns where nothing is going on, as a kind of no man’s land that simply produces streams of human beings headed for the borders of Texas and New Mexico and California, of poverty and corruption with a dash of violence and drugs. And those things exist. The history of Mexico from the Conquistadors in the 16th century up until the present is partly a history of continuous political upheaval, economic turmoil, and sometimes just straight up weird shit. And through it all the US, to its enduring shame, played little role but to take advantage of the bad times whenever it seemed convenient (see the snatching of a good chunk of Mexico during the 19th century with as shabby a causus belli as has been offered since, . . . well, I guess they’re usually pretty shabby).

Which brings up a number of questions that ought to weigh on the mind in this newish century. Why is it that Mexican history followed a course so different from American in terms of political stability and economic development (and this applies to much of Latin America as well)? And why have the burdens and inequalities of Mexican history maintained themselves so stubbornly against the proposed solutions from all sides of the political spectrum? One answer, of course, is that the American colonists achieved two things simultaneously that proved difficult to do in the Mexican context. The Americans maintained a kind of political and economic continuity with the old country and decisively achieved their own independence at the same time. Mexico, by contrast, continued to be seen as a cash cow for Spain much longer and the process of independence was much more tumultuous. The hacienda system by which the Spanish colonists extracted wealth and labor was so brutal and retarding to political and economic development it boggles the mind. It is still having its effects. In the 19th century, the Mexican constitution was a document to re-write at ones leisure after the seemingly endless coups, revolutions, dictatorships, upheavals, and so forth.

On the other hand, US stability was achieved at a price, a pretty terrible one. The indigenous populations of North America were essentially wiped out. Things were less complex because they were made that way . . . by a genocide. There was genocide in Mexico too. The collapse of the indigenous populations through disease and maltreatment at the end of the 16th century was staggering. But the population and the history wasn’t wiped away completely. There was too much there.


We bought a huge bundle of bright orange flowers and I trudged into the cemetery carrying them on my shoulder along with a stream of thousands of families on a Wednesday morning, bright sun, Dia de los Muertos. The great tombs to Mexico’s modernist poets and artists and intellectuals are like tombs to modernism itself with their spheres and blocks and slabs and geometric severity. We put flowers on some of the great ones. But that is not the most compelling part of the cemetery by a long shot. In truth, we weren’t at all prepared for the human emotion of it. Because the Day of the Dead in Mexico is about bringing people back to life again, if but for a moment. The care with which whole families are washing down and cleaning up the tombs of their loved ones becomes almost overwhelming. They are preparing whole meals for themselves and for the dead. They have hired Mariachi bands to play the favorite songs of the dead. They have resurrected the loves and needs and desires of the people they have lost. It is done with a sense of celebration that seems appropriate to the act of making life out of death. But a sadness is in the air too. Because the dead are dead. And if you can watch these families in their tender acts at the graves of those they have lost without your throat tightening up then you just aren’t paying attention.


In America, in the US version of America, it is easy to think of the New World as really a new world. The civilizations of the indigenous populations of North America were relatively easy to wipe away. They weren’t as complicated, intricate, and urban as the civilizations of the Teotihuacans or the Aztecs or the Mayans, to name a few. The Teotihuacan pyramids outside of DF are the ruins of a civilization that was not screwing around. It was big and organized and complex and it mobilized vast amounts of surplus labor to build some truly stunning, crazy crap. God knows it must have been awful to have ended up in the slave labor teams that carried the stones that built these monuments.

Ironically, one of the reasons that the Conquistadors were able, with such small numbers, to defeat such massive civilizations was because the peoples of Mesoamerica were already so busy exploiting the living shit out of one another. Divide and conquer. Play grievance off of grievance. Of course, once the Aztecs were laid low the indigenous peoples of Mexico down to the tip of South America were exposed to a kind of brutal oppression that would have made the Aztecs, with their rather curious need to pull human hearts from people’s chests at the tops of their temples, look rather touchy feely. It is difficult to think of all the human misery without feeling sick. The rare figures like the Spanish theologian Bartolome De Las Casas who argued in the 1540s that the Indians might, in fact, be human beings worthy of being treated as such, were notable precisely in how much they were the exception to the rule.

But there was too much of a civilization in Mexico, too many practices and beliefs and ways of life to wipe them all away completely. One of the most amazing things about being in Mexico, DF or elsewhere, is in realizing the degree to which these identities still survive in various ways. They are still part of the self-understanding of Mexicans today, especially now, after all the independence struggles and the way these struggles reached back into the pre-Columbian history in order to forge a new sense of nationalism that was not simply borrowed from Spain. The Aztecs are still around, kind of. Quetzalcoatl lives, sort of.


The Metro in DF smells exactly like the one in Paris, which is mildly disconcerting. It turns out the French built it. It’s a pleasure to ride. But I think I prefer the microbuses. You can take one for two and a half pesos (10.75 to the dollar). The back door is usually swinging open as the minibus putters along. People jump on and off almost as if it’s a Frisco streetcar. You can really get a feel for the vast seemingly limitless city in the microbus. DF isn’t a beautiful city in the standard sense of the term. It is too ramshackle and helter skelter for that. It includes the fanciest of contemporary architecture and the most miserable in shanty town construction. You’ve never seen people as rich as you can see ‘em in DF and you can find people with absolutely nothing too, literally dirt poor. The streets wind every which way without much reason, across spindly overpasses and back down into the heart of tree lined neighborhoods and then, whoosh, into a giant square or roundabout that spits you into the colonial center with cobblestone roads lined with old world structures and the occasional 16th century marvel. The Zocalo is a square that dwarfs anything of human scale. It is a square built to say something, though I’m not entirely sure what. If nothing else, it says, “we can do some serious shit here, too.” The cathedral explodes in the middle of the square in a fit of Churrigueresque Baroque that makes regular Baroque look like it was holding back. And then maybe the road keeps going out away from the center again, through neighborhood after anonymous neighborhood until the structures drift away into hastily built concrete boxes no one had time enough to paint. And those drift away into things thrown up with even less time and less material, merely the stuff that could be scrounged. And now the streets are barely streets, just winding dirt passages between shacks of all manner and size. And then those thin out as well and there is only scrubby brush and mild rolling hills and the dull rumble of the city whirring away in the distance.


In Samuel Huntington’s most recent pique of civilizational hysteria he lamented that Mexicans aren’t doing as good a job of assimilating into US culture as other immigrant groups have. This, he surmises, constitutes some kind of threat to the integrity of the American project. I’d say he has it ass backwards. There is a historical opportunity here to become a little more Mexican and I think we ought to take it up. It would be a start, at least, in redeeming ourselves after centuries of being an overall shitty neighbor in every conceivable way. Or look at it from a more selfish point of view. There is too much interesting shit about Mexico and Mexicans to let them get away with keeping it all to themselves. Becoming a little more Mexican would be a way to take better advantage of everything the North American continent has achieved in the way of human beings and the funny dumb amazing things they do. That’d be the chingon thing to do, becoming a little more Mexican.