Monday, May 31, 2010

John Ross: El Montsruo

John Ross moved to Mexico City after the earthquake in 1985 (I can't believe that's 25 years ago) and never looked back. I mean, maybe he looked back, "El Monstruo" isn't an autobiography, but he identifies as a Chilango- someone from Mexico City or el Distrito Federal (DF) or El Monstruo as he lovingly calls it. And it's monstrous, according to Ross, and only kind of in a Sesame Street, adorable, huggable, squeezable, I don't want to leave you, kind of way. Some of the statistics Ross scatters through the book make you wonder why Ross doesn't leave: 35,000 people a year dead from air pollution, 1/4 of the citizens of Mexico City suffering from Mental illness, 5 rats for every Chilango, 3.4 pedestrian deaths A DAY? Ok, I live in Oakland, so I know I don't really have a leg to stand on- everyone has somewhere they call home, and that somewhere is somewhere atrocious to someone else. And I love Mexico. I would live there. I would not live in Mexico City, though. I spent 3 days there and decided that those 3 days were enough torture to my lungs, and retreated back to the industrial burbs of Cuernavaca. When I returned for my second stay, I was in Oaxaca, and had no interest in revisiting Mexico City.

Ross is right, though, in many ways, Mexico City *is* Mexico. It's the center of an extremely centralized country. The mayor of Mexico, for many years appointed by the President, has control over a huge megalopolis which is steadily growing due to push/pull economic and social factors in the rest of the struggling country (and world). Ross starts from the very beginning, practically, with how the earth moved around to form the valley that Mexico City was built on. It's really not a great place to have a megalopolis, kind of like San Francisco/Oakland. Mexico City (unlike San Francisco) used to be a lake and some islands. Like Oakland, it's earthquake central, and as more people that build up their lives on unstable ground, the risk factors increase. Ross moves on to the Indians that predated the Spanish that predated the Mexicans. And then the growing growing growing that led to the never-ending revolution. Mexico was a democracy/dictatorship for a very long time- the PRI held power for over 70 years through coercion, bribery, force, and all kinds of other ugly words as every day Mexicans attempted to sort through how to revolutionize their lives and government. I don't think Ross thinks the revolution is really over: just when democracy and civil society really started to take off in Mexico after the quake in 1985, the Presidential election was stolen through massive voting fraud in 1988. And then again in 2006. In 2006, people took to the Zocalo for 6+ weeks and even held an alternative inauguration for the popularly elected president, refusing to accept the PAN stand-in.

I was in Mexico in the fall of 2001, when Vicente Fox of the PAN had just become the first democratically elected President of Mexico. The PAN is a right-wing party, but it was exciting- the revolution had finally produced a Mexico that could elect people, not just rubber stamp the PRI. The country was full of oversized posters of Fox (he's a tall guy anyway) and his guacho self with his famous "HOY" (today) slogan, fingers in a peace/victory sign. Fox is very rich and very guero looking. When I was in Mexico, the Zapatistas were very much at the forefront of Mexico's and the world's attention: would Chiapas be a leader in indigenous independence? Not if Fox had his way- he would deal with it in "15 minutes." The man Fox helped (illegally) to defeat in the next term is stood up for the poor and the brown. (I'm having a Florida moment) We didn't learn the intricacies of the Mexico City politics, though we did learn that PAN was all about neoliberalism, and his ties to the WTO/structural-adjustment programs. Basically, Ross brings it home: Mexico, though finally breaking through in the late '80s to have an active civil society, has an entrenched history of top down government preventing effective social change on any sort of rapid, local level, partially due to its extreme centralization in Mexico City. This doesn't mean it can't or won't happen, only that it happens slowly, at a snail's pace as Rebecca Solnit describes in her description of the Zapatista Movement, 15 years later. The Mexican government spends much time and energy catering to a much larger and more powerful US government: expensive and costly (money and in human lives) drug wars, structural adjustment programs, privatization of companies. Corruption, as described by Ross, cripples any attempt at trust in government or stopping crime. A tiny elite controls the vast majority of capital.

It's the United States, all over again. Same Same, but Different.