Departing from Mexico City’s Benito Juárez airport becomes a stunning exercise in the optics of saturation. Unlike many more predictable urban departures, there is no quick cut away from a traffic-embroiled grid, no shocking glimpse of urban borders and geography, no single moment when the shape of a city becomes clear as a map: the slipper of Manhattan, the ragged sprawl of Houston, the tempting coasts of Miami.
For an impossible extension, Mexico City unfurls below the traveler without discernable beginning or end. At lower altitudes, a passenger can make out the yellow, rose, cobalt-blue facades of family homes stacked one next to another like a child’s blocks. Once one reaches a certain height, the eye grasps nothing but tar roofs and concrete, the occasional flicker of a glass tower volleying sunlight or a tiled cupola, the curves of beltways eclipsed by wider beltways like lassos unsuccessfully trying to contain an urban sprawl of some 21 million people.
Yet between the 21 million people and the vertiginous perspectives of aviation, a difference gapes. So often the facts, numbers and figures only distort reality, putting it safely at arm’s length or seemingly just within our grasp.
On the morning of December 22, 1994, the headline on the front page of La Jornada explained that the Mexican peso was released into free fall on the currency market and could lose as much as 15 percent of its value, wiping out savings, plummeting wages. Below the story, a photograph of the Volcano Popocatépetl appeared, a huge plume of smoke and ash clinging to its crater, the scorched carcass of a tree in the foreground.
Not a fully illuminated image, but a glimpse: a newspaper headline, a desperate encounter at a common intersection, a moment when someone suddenly grabs the wheel of the car you are driving, or the familiar that sparkles from an anonymous mass of urban expanse through the thick glass of an airplane window.
From where I sat that morning, looking out over the wing of a plane, I could see an ice-rimmed volcano on the fringe of Mexico City producing an enormous gray cloud of smoke and ash and steam that appeared immobile. But it was slowly expanding, and beneath it, out of vision, nearly 75,000 people were being evacuated.
The city hummed and purred below me, hardly appearing to be worth 15 percent less than it was the day before.
The effects of the government’s decision to allow the peso to free-fall on the international market in order to deal with an ever-increasing trade deficit were not immediately predictable. While no one suggested it would be easy for the country, the events surrounding the peso’s devaluation have come to be called “the errors of December.” In order to gauge the severity of the economic crisis it provoked, I offer these statistics from The Washington Post. In the year following the devaluation:
15,000 companies closed their doors;
2 million Mexicans lost their jobs;
inflation raged at 52 percent;
the annual wage of a typical worker shrank from $3,981 to $2,650 U.S.;
interest rates soared to as much as 140 percent;
austerity measures slashed public spending by as much as
$100 million U.S.; experts called it the worst Mexican recession in 60 years.
But it is not my interest here to simply narrate the 1994 Mexican peso crisis and the escalating rise in violence that surged in its wake as an example of national trauma. As a foreigner who lived these experiences in Mexico City from 1992 to 1997, I realize that mine is just one of many possible perspectives on such an event. Still, one of the things I hope to demonstrate is that it was neither a crisis—that is to say, a passing abnormality—nor limited to 1994, but rather part of a perpetual state of emergency. Instead of envisioning this as a single event, we might consider it part of a chronic way of being whose shape and form we are only beginning to discern.
From the San Antonio-Express News, December 28, 1994:
If anything serves to remind Mexicans of their country’s economic turnaround and commitment to free trade, it is the gleaming new 50-story World Trade Centre that dominates the skyline of this sprawling metropolis.
“The World Trade Centre Mexico City is the symbol of Mexicans’ efforts to penetrate international markets,” President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said when he inaugurated the building, the tallest in Mexico City, on November 19.
“Mexico’s joining the United States and Canada in the North American Free Trade Agreement was the impetus for Grupo Gusta to purchase the shell of the building, once envisioned as a grand hotel, and convert it into the World Trade Centre,” according to Gusta president Juan Diego Gutierrez Cortina.
When construction is completed in 1996, the complex, built at a cost of more than $500 million U.S., will include a Presidente Intercontinental hotel, a convention center, a mall with Dillard’s and JC Penney as anchor stores, and a parking lot for 8,500 cars.
Eclipsed by its newer incarnation, the Hotel de México is a perpetual absence. While it loomed, a monstrous bulk of concrete along one of Mexico City’s busiest thoroughfares, it never properly existed. You will find only tersely optimistic reference to it in old tour books predicting vague dates of its inauguration. But the project for the grand hotel was left unfinished when the money ran out because of the peso crisis of 1982 (or that of 1976 or that of 1988). So the stunted skyscraper sulked and towered, throwing its concrete shadow over David Siqueiros’ mural project, “The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward the Cosmos.”
When the building was reborn as office space and a convention center in late 1994, Mexico braced itself for entrance into a first-world economic system.
I will always remember it as it stood when I first arrived in Mexico City. In a city of Aztec ruins and earthquake rubble, it was skeleton, a 50-story building planned as a luxury hotel complete with rotating restaurant on top, with gaping holes where the rooms should be.
This essay is another fragment, another looming skeleton, which begins with a view from a 737, stares long and hard at the skyline and the sidewalk before stopping at the barrel of a handgun pressed into the ribs.
What can I offer you but memory’s ragged shards, vague pieces that attract me because of their odd shapes and sharp edges, because of their refusal to conclude and their tendency to reverberate in an incomplete web of delicate connections?
An unfinished dialogue, an inconclusive monologue, a stretch of some 1,760-odd days? Not a story, not another story.
From the U.S. State Department’s “Mexico: Consular Information Sheet, February 17, 2000”:
Crime in Mexico continues at high levels, and it is increasingly violent, especially in Mexico City, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Low apprehension and conviction rates of criminals contribute to the high crime rate.
Kidnapping, including the kidnapping of non-Mexicans, is increasing. So-called “express” kidnappings…are an attempt to get quick cash in exchange for the release of any individual, and they do not appear to target the wealthy.
Tourists should not hike alone in back-country areas, nor walk alone on lightly frequented beaches, ruins or trails. In 1998, three Americans were killed in separate incidents when they ventured alone into such areas.
Lightly frequented beaches. Secluded trails. Newly-uncovered ruins. Mexico: a trip to the past, an encounter with the primitive, the promise of the pristine.
From the 1972 “Guide to the Best of Everything in Mexico City” by Rudi Robins:
Hotel de México—Insurgentes at Montecitos, Phone 5-36-28-07, about halfway between Reforma and San Angel. Tallest building in Latin America, rooftop restaurant, shops, gardens, surrounded by good eating places, Siqueiros Polyforum and murals next door, elegant accommodations, you must see it even if you don’t stay there. Open 1987?
When it failed as a site of upscale lodging, the Hotel de México was reconfigured to fit the image of Mexico being sold in 1994. While the “Lonely Planet” travel guide continued to bill Mexico as “a land of extraordinary diversity” with “teeming modern cities, timeless villages, and posh resorts,” local chambers of commerce from McAllen to Mexico City were promoting the country as “a good investment” and “a developing market waiting to be conquered.” The country had entered into economic partnership with the United States under NAFTA. Mexico City was a combination of cell phones and cholera, Internet connections and gangs of street kids living in unused sewage pipes.
When the hotel began its transformation into internationally marketed office space, a blue glass facade was hoisted over the concrete husk, an impenetrable mask of modernity reflecting the viewer’s gaze.
I kept pepper spray in my purse. I carried two wallets, one with street money—a few pesos for coffee, my metro tickets, coins for the subway panhandlers—things I would easily surrender.
I kept pepper spray in my night table, and a squealing panic alarm. I kept a baseball bat by the door. I had an iron gate. I had barred windows. I remember one day glancing down from my bedroom balcony to find two well-dressed men with semiautomatic weapons on their laps parked in a blue sedan in front of my house.
Not torture by the state. The perpetrators in Mexico’s crime wave were not men in uniforms, not organized behind flag or cause other than poverty or, perhaps, impunity. Still, between the functioning of systematic and unorganized forms of terror, similarities remain. The minute we acknowledge terror, we empower it. The minute we articulate its spell, we fulfill its needs.
This is not to say that as citizens (or consumers) in a first-world economy, we can look upon violence in other countries with any sense of comfort. Surely the events of September 11, 2001, and the barrage of warnings and alerts from the Office of Homeland Security remind us of that. I do not think it is appropriate to view Mexico in the 1990s in terms of post-colonial circumstance or external/internal blame. The difference between the terrorism we saw on that horrible day in the United States and the terror that continues in Mexico is this: In Mexico, there is not even the guise of clear villains, no “axis of evil,” few heroes—just an endless list of victims. There are no safe spaces from which to speak.
Do I tell you about Christmas? Mexico City’s Zócalo gloriously overburdened with miniature lights, the bowls of pozole around the corner? Or the hummingbirds that visited the hibiscus plants in my walled garden? The monarch butterfly emigres? About how I learned to drink tequila, not fizzing at the bottom of a shot glass, not sweetened with icy, lime confections, but straight and aged and stinging?
Do 1 tell you about drinking on the canals of Xochimilco, its floating gardens, its rowing mariachis? The singer from Veracruz with his harp and gold tooth?
Do I tell you about an American journalist and colleague of my ex-husband who was attacked, tortured, strangled with a rope, his corpse thrown into a ravine while reporting on the adventure of hiking through rural Nayarit?
Do I tell you about the snake goddess in front of the anthropology museum, the flaming pirú trees of the Colonia Condesa, el Templo Mayor, Parque México, Cine Diana, la Libreria el Péndulo, la Casa Lamm, el Museo Carrillo Gil, la Calle Juan de la Barrera?
How do I avoid sounding like the uninformed, the paranoid, the outsider, la güera?
But this is an essay on trauma, on the trauma of the everyday in Latin America, on the crisis of modernization and privatization, crisis of narco-democracy and post-colonialism, crisis of political dinosaurs and the neo-mexicanistas of the avant-garde, crisis of thermal inversions, crisis of postmodern hybridization, volcanic reverberation, crisis of national identity.
All I can tell you is that when I try to consider that time in my life, I must wade through the detritus of images grayed and blurred, clippings from newspapers, scraps from a notebook, a marriage contract, the outlines of an unwritten thesis, plans for a house purchase still shifting below my feet like the ruins of some seismic catastrophe, like the layers of dust gathering on the concrete floor of the abandoned shell of a building.
From the home page of the World Trade Centre Mexico City:
The beautiful architectural complex that houses the World Trade Centre in Mexico City will bring together under one roof all the various types of services and support required for dealing with foreign trade and concluding all types of business transactions. The complex includes a 50-story office tower topped by a spectacular crown, where the main services of the WTC are provided, as well as a functional International Exhibition and Convention Center (CIEC). The modern WTC Plaza Shopping Mall and a five-star hotel will also be part of the complex.
Stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Juan de la Barrera and the extension of Avenida Revolucion, underneath the rusted legs of the elevated highway, I watched a taxi driver burst out of his car with a large piece of scrap wood and begin violently beating his own, immobile vehicle. His hair was carefully trimmed. He wore the neat, white shirt and blue tie that had been prescribed as the uniform of registered drivers when taxi-cab crime warnings began appearing on U.S. State Department reports. His tie swung out from him each time he lifted the plank above his head and brought it crashing down against bumper or chrome. The fender buckled and pursed; a headlight shattered. The yellow Volkswagen rocked a few inches forward, toward the crosswalk. He raged and kicked at the wheels, blood purpling his face with his efforts. But his work was not methodical. And it became clear that destruction was not his aim. The car was already crippled; that seemed the catalyst for his rage. His purpose was performative, expressive, satisfying only in the way his bones must have rattled with each impact, in the squeal of metal, in the way his heart sprinted through his rage.
As the light changed from red to green and the taxi I was riding in eased through the intersection, a moment of compassion made me look away, bow my head down, stare into my hands folded neatly in my lap.
From the U.S. State Department’s “Mexico: Consular Information Sheet, February 17, 2000”:
Tourists and residents alike should avoid driving alone at night anywhere in Mexico City In a new tactic, thieves stop lone drivers at night, force them to ingest large quantities of alcohol, and then rob them of ATM and credit cards. A U.S. citizen was killed in such an assault in 1998.
TAXICAB CRIME: Robbery and assaults on passengers in taxis are frequent and violent, with passengers subjected to beatings, shootings and sexual assault. U. S. citizens visiting Mexico City should avoid taking any taxi not summoned by telephone or contacted in advance at the airport. In December 1997, a U.S. citizen was murdered in a taxi robbery.
Reported crimes in Mexico City jumped 35 percent in 1995 and 33 percent in 1996. “This is war,” a criminologist from the National Autonomous University of Mexico told a reporter from the New York Times. “It is very difficult to find examples anywhere in the world of a crime increase of more than 30 percent in one year.”
But his metaphor is misplaced. Even, as history has painfully demonstrated, when there are no logical motives for war, there are at least two sides. There was war in Mexico between the government and indigenous rebels of Chiapas and Oaxaca, between the ruling party and rebellious groups within the government, between drug traffickers and certain groups within law enforcement and the ruling party, between drug traffickers and drug traffickers. But the daily onslaught of street-level violence motivated by necessity or greed or frustration (or the ease with which one could get away with it) was not part of these conflicts.
We do not even have a vocabulary for this type of violence.
A young Canadian translator walking home from the supermarket is grabbed by a boy with a pocket knife. Her assailant pushes her up against a parked Nissan Sentra and demands she give him her wallet. When he realizes she has only 10 pesos, he takes her plastic sacks of groceries.
A Mexican computer tech gets into a taxi. Moments later the car is boarded by two gunmen, who force him to the floor and threaten his life. They take him to an ATM and make him withdraw as much as his bank will permit. After dragging him back into the taxi, the assailants drive him to a taco stand to eat and wait until after midnight, when he will be able to withdraw money from his ATM once again.
A Cuban writer is kidnapped walking his dog. He is taken to several ATM machines, stripped of his wallet and jacket, and left on the fringes of the city. When he returns to his apartment several hours later, his dog is waiting on the corner below his apartment.
Another writer becomes so flustered while he is being assaulted that he has to call his wife from his cell phone at the ATM because he has forgotten his pin number.
An American journalist is kidnapped in a taxi. After making the usual tour of ATM machines both before and after midnight, he is brought to an unfamiliar part of the city and pushed out of the car. The assailants take his wallet, his cell phone and his briefcase. In the days following the assault, his wife begins to receive phone calls every morning shortly after he leaves for work. “We’re watching him,” the voice on the line tells her. “Have you started getting your money together? We can see him walking down the street. He’s getting in a taxi now. We suggest you start getting your money together.” Within days the journalist and his family move to a hotel and then to Buenos Aires.
In the epilogue to his book “The Mexican Shock,” Jorge Castañeda outlines a series of overarching theories to explain what he deemed “Mexico’s dilemmas” as they appeared to him in 1995:
…the third theory—that Mexico’s current state is neither transition nor a crisis but rather a period in and of itself, with its own logic and laws, and devoid of a purpose or foreseeable conclusion—while highly pessimistic or even despairing, is well rooted in the country’s history.
You could start with Conquest.
You could start with the death mask of Emiliano Zapata.
You could start with the hundreds of student protestors killed during anti-government demonstrations on October 2, 1967.
And here the narrative frays. Are we really to believe that a country itself is born with a propensity to violence? Are we not coming close to the idea of 18th-century explorers who would ruminate that it was the burning sun or the volcanic landscape that was responsible for such an explosive national character?
But we have to start somewhere. Don’t we have to start somewhere?
So we start with the murder of Cardinal Posadas in May 1993.
So we start with the indigenous uprising in Chiapas on January 1, 1994.
So we start with the assassination of ruling-party presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio only three months later. The Zapruder-like images of his murder flooding the national news outlets. Gruesome, concise, irrevocable. Eerily shot from above, the young, smiling candidate is jostled along through a crowd in a working-class barrio of Tijuana. His back is turned to the camera, his head barely distinguishable through the mob until you see the pistol thrust to his temple. The impact.
So we start with the peso devaluation of December 22, 1994.
And this is only one chain out ofany series of events that could be placed here. Surely there are other events, more wreckage piling silently at our feet in our quest for cause and effect; villains and heroes; spheres of action, exposition, climax, denouement.
So we start with X…
From The Plain Dealer, October 8, 2000:
More than 40 percent of all Mexicans live on less than $2 per day; don’t tempt them.
I lost my wedding ring, a Casio watch, a gold and enamel pendant depicting the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre from Cuba, a thin, gold chain with a difficult clasp that ripped easily off my neck when my assailant demanded it.
I lost my passport, my work visa, a new leather wallet and a bracelet I vaguely remember buying only days before, although I cannot for the life of me recall what it looked like.
I was not injured. The entire event is marked by absences, what was taken from me.
So we start with X, a bead for our worry. We repeat the prayer and move on to the next repetition and oration. My chains of dates and numbers keep forcing your gaze away from that which is right in front of you (“Don’t look at me,” the man with the pistol in the back seat kept saying. “I’ll kill you. I don’t give a fuck.”), keep forcing your gaze from the fact that after a while I was afraid to walk two blocks from the metro station to my house after dark, to sleep in my house alone, to hesitate at a red light.
The image I least expected: my hands knotted tightly in my lap.
Late one evening, as we were returning home from the airport, three men, each carrying a pistol, surrounded our taxicab while we were stopped at a traffic light and got in the car with us. They were faceless. (Were they wearing ski masks?) And the gun of the man who stood directly in front of the taxi with threatening aim was silver, a beautifully shining, silver handgun that looked as if it were lit under a bank of stadium lights.
Two of the men entered the front seat. One slid into the back next to my ex-husband. When I first saw the man with the shining, silver gun, I started to open my door and step out of the car, telling Joe, “We’ve got to get out of here.”
A man pulled me back in. “Keep your head down. Don’t look at me! I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you all.”
Our taxi driver rode between the two assailants in the front seat. Days later he called me to say that the assailant on his right had pushed the silver pistol into his side with so much force that it left a bruise.
It was raining. I was not hurt. I really did not lose anything.
Joe was bargaining. “Please, our suitcases are in the trunk. You can have them. Just let us go.”
“Shut up or we’re going to kill you. Keep your head down.”
I did not see the faces of the three men, who must have taken off their masks when we started driving. I did not see the face of my ex-husband bartering for our lives. I did not see the city, which sparkled and accelerated and dimmed in the corners of my eyes.
The image you least expect: your hands knotted, white and small in your lap. The hard beads of worry. With my head bowed like that, it might have looked as if I were praying.
In his essay “El estado del disimulo” (A State of Dissimulation), Venezuelan writer José Ignacio Cabrujas compares all of Latin America to an enormous hotel in which the residents are anonymous guests and the state is an ineffectual manager:
To live, that is to say, to assume life, to pretend that my actions are translated into something, to move in a historical time toward an objective, is something that clashes with the rules of the hotel, given that when I stay in a hotel I don’t try to transform its accommodations, nor to improve them, nor to adapt them to my wishes. I simply use them.
We moved back to the United States in November 1997. We left because of jobs and fellowships, because we missed our families, because we were tired of the pollution and overcrowding. But we really left because we were scared. We were afraid not only that it would happen again, but also that we might actually come to believe that if we would just not drive after certain hours, not stop at certain traffic lights, not walk down particular streets, we could prevent it. As much as I was frightened of becoming a victim, I was frightened of surviving the incident, of incorporating its terrifying potential into anything that might be considered a life. The young translator, the Mexican computer technician, the Cuban writer—they all stayed.
But I did not.
Hotels do not locate us in place as much as organize the space around us. The carpets that line their corridors do not remind us of the names of explorers who first navigated the rivers that flow past their windows or the name of the princess in a folk tale told by a city’s first inhabitants. With their stark corners and uneasy repetitions of patterns in the wallpaper, of perfectly spaced doors, their hallways tell you that you could be in Paris or Kinshasa or Monterrey or Wichita Falls.
I suppose they are meant to be comforting: No matter what happens beyond their revolving doors and the uniformed valet and the reception desk, no matter what budget gets slashed, placard is raised or missile falls, you can always be sure that Room 208 follows Room 207.
Security. Conformity. Progress.
On December 1, 2000, Vicente Fox, a former director of Coca-Cola in Latin America, took over as president of Mexico. A member of the right-wing Party of National Action (PAN), his administration is the first of an opposition party to rule Mexico since the 1910 revolution, when the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) initially came to power. At the time of Fox’s inauguration, 40 percent of all Mexicans still lived in poverty.
The World Trade Centre now boasts a shopping center (“one of the most important and exclusive in the country”) with 947,000 square feet of “gross leaseable area,” a luxury hotel and a 14-screen movie theater. Skyscraper.com lists it as one of Mexico’s most important buildings.
In 2002 former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was hired by Mexico City’s chief of police to serve as a consultant for a year to help reduce crime in the Mexican capital. Giuliani’s expertise at reducing New York City’s crime rate during the ‘90s—not his expertise at dealing with the terror of September 11 —became the most frequently cited among his qualifications for the job. Giuliani himself explained, “Sure, there are differences between New York City and Mexico City, but I’m not sure those differences are relevant to crime reduction.”
Construction was recently completed on the Torre Mayor, a new skyscraper in Mexico City. The largest office building in Latin America, it rises 55 stories above Avenida Reforma. As of January 2003, some 59 percent of it remained unoccupied. Still, it dominates the Mexico City skyline, reconfiguring the city’s silhouette, a steel and glass and granite tower complete with a diamond pattern of glimmering lights, should the gaze stray from it.