On John Ross' Mexico City

(Truthdig, March 12, 2010)

The first time I saw the writer John Ross he was standing in the middle of the Zocalo, Mexico City's sprawling central plaza. It was close to midnight on July 6, 1997, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who lost the presidency in a stolen election in 1988, had just become the city's first democratically elected mayor. A spontaneous celebration erupted in the rain-soaked Zocalo, and Ross was there – his arms crossed, his posture erect, his bearded face exuding satisfaction and contentment.

I wasn't surprised to see him that night in the plaza: With his left-anarchist politics, Ross has never been the kind of writer who steps into a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. Originally drawn to Mexico as a teenager by D.H. Lawrence's "The Plumed Serpent,"he has lived there off and on since 1957, chronicling the country's grass-roots political milieu for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, The Texas Observer and other publications. Foreign correspondents in the Mexican capital tend to reside in posh districts such as Coyoacan, but since 1985 Ross has made his home in Room 102 of the low-budget Hotel Isabel, situated in the bustling, polluted core of the old city, between the Alameda central and the Zocalo. His room, which has large French windows and a decaying balcony, contains four tattered armchairs, two writing desks and unruly stacks of newspaper clippings. In the springtime, the airshaft adjacent to his bathroom echoes with the cooing of small birds.

From those cluttered confines, Ross has produced stirring (if rather shaggy) books: "Rebellion From the Roots," published in 1995, was one of the first – and most vibrant – accounts of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas; it is currently out of print. In 2004 Ross published "Murdered by Capitalism," a phantasmagoric memoir that garnered a rare blurb from Thomas Pynchon, who praised it as "a ripsnorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics." He has also written poetry chapbooks with titles such as "12 Songs of Love & Ecocide" and "The Psoriasis of Heartbreak."

His latest book, "El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City," is an impassioned and melancholy history of Mexico's most complex, boisterous and exhilarating city. It's a subject well suited to Ross' talents and present circumstances: Nonfiction books about Mexico City (in English) are surprisingly rare, and open-minded visitors to "the monster" will want this volume in their hand luggage alongside the requisite titles by Malcolm Lowry, Juan Rulfo, Alan Riding and Lonely Planet. But do not expect dispassionate writing or journalistic objectivity: Ross' prose style imparts the coiled rage of Howard Zinn; the hallucinogenic sensibility of a beat poet; and the punchy rhythms of a tabloid scribe. (His father was an entertainment columnist for the old New York World Telegram, and the young John Ross inhabited the bohemian precincts of Greenwich Village, reading his poetry at the Half Note while Charles Mingus took a break from the bandstand.)

By and large, "El Monstruo" unfolds chronologically, its principal emphasis not on politicians and elites, but on workers, intellectuals, students and jodidos (the underclass or "the screwed ones"). The narrative is punctuated by pithy oral histories from denizens of the venerable La Blanca restaurant, where Ross has eaten two meals a day for the better part of a quarter-century, and from which he always emerges with a banana to take back to his hotel room. Interviewing one's own comrades for a book can be a slothful journalistic device. But Ross has a sharp ear for dialogue, slang and absurdity, and his interviews at La Blanca – with the restaurant staff, a watch salesman, a street musician, a tailor, an undercover cop, a young female jewelry maker and the Hotel Isabel's porter – enliven his narrative and expose us to an authentic cross section of chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known.

"El Monstruo" begins, as it must, with the Aztecs, who built a city – Tenochtitlan – that astonished the invading Spaniards in 1519. It was a city of lakes and canals, replete with tens of thousands of canoes; a city of floating gardens, where amaranth, tomatoes and beans were grown; a city with intricate and ingenious systems for hydraulics, road building and waste disposal. If it was a city of flowers, it was also a city of extreme cruelty: Every year thousands of victims were marched up to the Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc temples and slaughtered in macabre rituals, after which the corpses were tossed down the stone steps and hacked to pieces.

The Spanish conquest, which destroyed Tenochtitlan, radically altered both the demography and the geography of the region. Diseases imported from Europe decimated the Indians – they died "in heaps like bedbugs," one Spanish eyewitness declared. Hernan Cortes, who spearheaded the conquest of Mexico, made a fateful decision: to rebuild the old Aztec city in the image of a Spanish metropolis. Forests were cleared, lakes and canals were drained: The city would be choked with dust forever after. But, as Ross (and many others) have noted, Cortes selected a "cursed geography" for his new city: The Valley of Mexico, an earthquake zone, is a self-contained basin surrounded by mountains and active volcanoes. Centuries later, chilangos would be forced to endure toxic air pollution, chronic water shortages and many other urban ills in a place that Carlos Fuentes has described, in his novel "Christopher Unborn," as "Make Sicko Seedy." (My Mexican friends call it "Mexico Shity.")

Ross offers a guided tour of the city through many of its traumas, cataclysms and humiliations: the American invasion of 1847, when Gen. Winfield Scott conquered the capital and planted the American flag over the Zocalo (but only after his troops were pelted by paving stones hurled from rooftops in the Centro); the aftermath of the ill-fated French intervention of the 1860s, when "the Mexican capital was billed as the most dangerous metropolis on the planet. [U]pper class victims were kidnapped in broad daylight. Serial killers stalked prostitutes in the seamy La Merced district"; and the fratricidal Mexican Revolution, which, following a plot hatched at the Café Berger, erupted in the capital on Feb. 9, 1913, and resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths in what the author calls "Bloody Sunday."

At the heart of Ross' book is the devastating earthquake of 1985, which destroyed 954 buildings, killed at least 10,000 people and exposed the weakness and corruption of the entrenched ruling party, the PRI, whose initial response to the disaster was feeble: Bureaucrats and police fled, and soldiers looted badly constructed buildings that lay in ruins. Citizens quickly realized they were on their own, and a vibrant social movement emerged from the chaos of the earthquake, which Ross refers to as "both urban cataclysm and civic redemption."

The last third of "El Monstruo" shows how that social movement helped to launch the doomed presidential candidacies of Cardenas in 1988 and 1994, and the takeover of the capital under the auspices of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), many of whose leaders grew up in the PRI. When Ross writes about the left in power, a doleful tone rises from the pages. It was axiomatic that the PRD's idealism would collide with the pragmatic reality of power politics in a colossal, unruly city and radicals like Ross were bound to be disappointed. Regarding Cardenas' three-year term as mayor, Ross concludes that he "committed many errors but he also committed many acts of nobility." Still, despite breathtaking political machinations from the PRI and the conservative National Action Party (PAN), the left has managed to keep Mexico City. Ross' account of how this happened, and the price that was paid as a result, is lucid, sobering and persuasive.

While much of "El Monstruo" is devoted to politics and political skulduggery in the capital, Ross does not neglect the city's flourishing artistic milieu, and he does not genuflect before the gods of Mexican culture. He expresses impatience with Carlos Fuentes and Diego Rivera, dismissing the latter as "an eccentric sort of society painter." He reserves his enthusiasm for the splendid cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada; the film "Los Olvidados" by Luis Buñuel; and the gritty black-and-white photographs of Nacho Lopez and Hector Garcia, whom he describes as "Mexico's Weegees." The cultural sections of "El Monstruo" would have been strengthened by sustained attention to Octavio Paz, who wrote luminous poems about the city; Elena Poniatowska, whose achievements in both fiction and nonfiction have not been properly appreciated in the U.S.; and Roberto Bolaño, whose "The Savage Detectives" contains chapters set in the ragged downtown streets that Ross has navigated for decades.

Four years ago, on a cool spring evening, I encountered Ross again in the Centro. My wife and I had just stepped out of our hotel, and there he was, walking toward La Blanca for his dinner. I was shaken by his appearance: He was remarkably frail; his back was bent; and his frayed clothing hung awkwardly from an emaciated frame. It turned out that he was recovering from a near-fatal bout with pneumonia. Indeed, in the final pages of "El Monstruo" we learn that Ross, who was born in 1938, has been undergoing treatment for liver cancer in California. We sat with him at La Blanca's lively counter, where the waiters greeted him with warm familiarity. We kibitzed about Mexico's political circus, the trajectory of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, the travails of the PRD, and the blurb that Thomas Pynchon had written for his memoir. (Ross insisted he never met Pynchon.) I asked him what he missed most about the U.S., and he quickly replied: "Jazz." Soon his energy began to wane, and we exchanged our goodnights. Fortified by La Blanca's Spanish bean soup, and its aromatic coffee from Veracruz, he shuffled out the door, banana in hand, toward Room 102 of the Hotel Isabel.