El Monstrou: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City
By John Ross
Nation Books, $28.95
Reviewed by Steve Bennett-- Express-News [reposted from mySA]
The Mexico City of the '50s, a pivotal period in its clamorous history, must have been one of those time-machine moments. Frida Kahlo was dead, and Jack Kerouac was writing verses that would become "Mexico City Blues." While Ernesto P. Uruchurtu, "a racist, xenophobic, puritanical tyrant" ruled as the mayoral "Iron Regent," Che Guevara's path crisscrossed with Fidel Castro's — all to the soundtrack of Perez Prado's infectious "Mambo No. 5."
"As far as I can tell, Uruchurtu was the first to use the term monstruo in connection with Mexico City, although the metaphor was contemplated as far back as Aztec mythology," says journalist John Ross, whose new book titled "El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City" offers a unique "street-level" view of the megalopolis from its primal roots to the present.
"There are references in the literature to the city as a kind of animal. But you really couldn't talk about Mexico City as being a monster until Uruchurtu in the '50s. He was a real right-wing guy, but also a preservationist. And the second world war was instrumental in bringing people in from the countryside, to work in the factories. That period from, really, 1940 to 1960, that's when the city became much more of a monster."
Meticulously researched and imaginatively reported, "El Monstruo" is not your typical history book. No dry, crinkly prose here. As it does in Ross' journalism, Mexico erupts, like PopocatÈpetl, from the page.
Ross, who flew in to cover the 1985 earthquake and has lived in Room 102 of the Hotel Isabel — "my cave . . . in the heart of he old city" — ever since, has scored coups over the years for his work on the 1993 Zapatista rebellion and as a "human shield" early in the Iraq war. A winner of the American Book Award and the Upton Sinclair Prize, he is an old-school journalist for whom the status quo is to be viewed with mistrust, for whom the term "shoe leather" means beating the streets to tell the real story. Among the many voices in "El Monstruo" are cafÈ owners, cops and hotel porters.
"My perspective is from the bottom up, from the street," Ross said in a recent telephone interview. "And that's always been the way I've always written. I worked for years for the Pacific News Service (a nonprofit service known for writing from and about the margins of society), where the rule was you always began the story in the street and then worked it into the larger picture.
"Other books try to give you a picture of the city from the top down," he adds. "There's a lot of flyover."
The 71-year-old Ross has had "the privilege" to witness up close the major political and social upheavals of Mexico City over the past quarter century. He has had a ringside seat at the bar of a cafÈ called La Blanca, just off the ZÛcalo, where, he says, "I've eaten two meals a day for the past 25 years."
"Interspersed throughout the book, there are 15 interviews that I did right around the counter at La Blanca, which is a place where officials from city hall and the federal government intersect with the people from the markets and people that sell in the streets," Ross said. "It's where writers from the local newspapers come to talk with the Chilangos. So there's a lot of interchange there from different strata of society. It's a great cross-section."
Ross says "El Monstruo" has been "percolating for a long time."
"I walked in on the earthquake," he says. "From the earthquake came this kind of incubation of the rebirth of Mexican civil society. And that led to the elections in 1988 when Cardenas actually won Mexico City by, I think, 4-to1, and the left actually never let go. So I was part of that whole process in the city itself."
Mexico, Ross argues, "doesn't really register" in the U.S. media "unless it's drugs and drug violence."
"It's just that that is the story from Mexico," he says. "There's precious little understanding of what the political dynamic is in the country, what the economic situation is in the country or any of the inherent contradictions that are always part of the Mexican dynamic."
Living in a city that is referred to as El Monstruo is not easy, Ross concedes. But he loves it.
"Why do I live there? It's the place where the Aztecs arrived on this desolate island, where the eagle grasped the snake in the thorny arms of a nopal bush. That prophecy really has determined why people have lived in Mexico City down through the years. That's where the prophecy was, and that's what all of Mexico knew — that's where the power emanated from, and that's where tribute was paid.
"So, why do people stay there? Despite the eternal battles with the environment, with the lack of water, with the threat of earthquakes, with the traffic, with the poison air? I think it's because of that sense of power, that sense of being in the center of things."