“The city has become a monster, an urban disaster, a planner’s nightmare,” wrote Ruben Gallo. “Glorious Mexico City, once known as the city of palaces, is now gasping for breath in a sea of people, poverty, and pollution,” Diane Davis bemoaned in the opening to her deeply influential history of the city, Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century. Indeed, over the course of the twentieth century, countless scholars offered similar assessments of the Mexican capital; Octavio Paz assailed Mexico’s leaders for their technocratic modernizing efforts which failed to solve the overcrowding and rampant expansion that had “converted Mexico City into a monstrous inflated head, crushing the frail body that holds it up.”
For some, even revisiting the city’s establishment and place at the center of the Aztec empire provoked deep ambivalence. Jorge Ibargüengoitia characterized the city’s founding as a mistake, only “one of the most belligerent tribes in history” would think to build a city “in the middle of the lake,” he opined. Once the lake “dried up” and the surrounding tribes and Aztecs came into close proximity, local hostilities abated. “What remained was mud, unstable ground, and dust clouds. So our first conclusion can be that the city is here because it was put here, although there’s no good reason for its continued presence on this spot.”
“And yet not everything in Mexico City is all that bad,” Gallo later admitted. The city’s history as the magnet of MesoAmerican Empire in the pre-Columbian period, a colonial metropole, and later a capital of Latin America—culturally, economically, and politically—undoubtedly bestows upon Distrito Federal no small measure of gravitas. The DF can claim “influential publishing houses”, “a booming film industry, a lively music scene”, “spectacular museums … And above all it is one of the most vibrant urban spaces in the world.” Gallo paraphrases Juan Villoro, “we have fallen in love with the bearded lady.” It might be a mess, but no other city matches its chaotic charm.
Consider its centuries of importance; an echo over the North American landscape that shaped not only policy in Latin America and Mexico, but brought dollars, culture, and politics to the Yankees up North. The city witnessed Aztec conquest, the unimaginable wealth and exploitation of Colonial Spain, the dizzying liberation of independence, the struggle of revolution, and the burgeoning modernism of the 20th century. Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo called it home for periods; the Menshevik communist famously died at the hand of Stalinist assassin in the DF.
Anyone who has ever visited the city marvels at the architecture, a compelling mash up of colonial, modernist, and post-modernist styles. Its people hail from across the Americas, Europe, and even on occasion Asia; indigenous faces and culture are sewn into is fabric. Like many cities, the DF struggles with inequality, poverty, and corruption, but to focus only on its problems misses the point.
As with every Metropolis of the Month, The Metropole has compiled a bibliography for anyone interested in reading more about the history of Mexico City. Our list leans heavily toward the modern and the English language, a weakness that can undoubtedly be ascribed to our own specialization in the twentieth century history and our sadly inadequate language skills. As always, we hope readers can improve upon our start here by providing further suggestions in the comments.
Over the course of May, several scholars will publish posts with The Metropole on various aspects of the city’s history. First up will be Columbia University’s Pablo Piccato, who provides some perspective on crime and justice in the DF while also giving readers a taste of his new work, A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico. Several other posts will follow including travelogues by non-specialists such as Georgia State Professor and Tropics of Meta Senior Editor, Alex Sayf Cummings on his 2016 visit to the city.
John Kandell, LA Capital: The Biography of Mexico City, (New York: Random House, 1988) – L.A. Times review
David Lida, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City and the Capital of the 21st Century, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008) – NYT review
Edward E. Calnek, “Patterns of Empire Formation in the Valley of Mexico, Late Post Classical Period 1200-1521”, in Inca and Aztec States, 1400-1800: Anthropology and History, Eds. George A. Collier, Renato I. Rosaldo, John D. Wirth, (New York: Academic Press, 1982), 43-62.
Christopher P. Garraty, “Aztec TeotihuacaÌn: Political Processes at a Postclassic and Early Colonial City-State in the Basin of Mexico,” Latin America Antiquity 17.4 (December 2006): 363-387.
Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Barbara E. Mundy, The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015) – CAA review
Eighteenth – Nineteenth Century
Anna Rose Alexander, City on Fire: Technology, Social Change and the Hazards of Progress in Mexico City, 1860 – 1910, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)
Claudia Agostoni, Monuments of Progress: Modernization and Public Health in Mexico City, 1876-1910, (Mexico City: UNAM, 2003) – Bulletin of the History of Modern Medicine review (via project muse)
Linda Arnold, Bureaucracy and Bureaucrats in Mexico City, 1742-1835, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988)
Silvia Maria Arrom, Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774 – 1871, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) – Social History review (via Jstor)
Jurgen Buchenau, Tools of Progress: A German Merchant Family in Mexico City, 1865 – Present, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004) – EH.net review
Vera S. Candiani, Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2014) – H-Net review
Donald B. Cooper, Epidemic Disease in Colonial Mexico City, 1761-1813: An Administrative, Social, and Medical Study, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014)
R. Douglas Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994) – Scholar Commons University of South Carolina review
Linda A. Curcio, The Great Festivals of Colonial Mexico City: Performing Power and Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004) – Journal of Social History review
M.E. Francois, A Culture of Everyday Credit: Housekeeping, Pawnbroking, and Governance in Mexico City, 1750 – 1920, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007) – AHR review
Sharon Glasco, Constructing Mexico City: Colonial Conflicts Over Culture, Space, and Authority, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) – H-Net review
Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Crime and Punishment in Late Colonial Mexico City, 1692-1810, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999) – The Americas review (via project muse)
Katherine Elaine Bliss, Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001) – Hispanic American Historical Review (via project muse)
Ann Shelby Blum, Domestic Economies: Family, Work, and Welfare in Mexico City, 1884-1943, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009) – H-Net review
Luis Castañeda, Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) – H-War review
John C. Cross, Informal Politics: Street Vendors and the State in Mexico City, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) – H-Urban review
Diane E. Davis, Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994) – Review by SDSU’s Lawrence Herzog (though the review is incorrectly linked on his page)
George F. Flaherty, Hotel Mexico: Dwelling on the ‘68 Movement, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2016)
Ed. Ruben Gallo The Mexico City Reader, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)
Mathew C. Guttman, The Romance of Democracy: Compliance and Defiance in Contemporary Mexico, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) –
San Diego History Center review
Daniel Hernandez, Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty First Century, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011) – Kirkus review
John Lear, Workers, Neighbors, and Citizens: The Revolution in Mexico City, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001) – Hispanic American Historical Review (project muse)
Larissa Lomnitz, Networks and Marginality: Life in a Mexican Shantytown, (New York: Academic Press, 1977)
Carol McMichael Reese, “The Urban Development of Mexico City” in Planning Latin American Capital Cities, 1850-1950, edited by Arturo Almondoz Marte, 139-169. London: Routledge, 2002.
Julio Moreno, Yankee Don’t Go Home! Mexican Nationalism, American Business Culture and the Shaping of Modern Mexico, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003) – EH.net and H-LatAm review
Patrice Olsen, Artifacts of Revolution: Architecture, Society and Politics in Mexico City, 1920-1940, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008) – Review by University of Tulsa’s Andrew Grant Wood
Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings, (Mexico City: Grove Press, 1950)
Kathryn E. O’Rourke, Modern Architecture in Mexico City: History, Representation and the Shaping of the Capital, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)
Jaime M. Pensado, Rebel Mexico: Student Unrest and Authoritarian Political Culture During the Long Sixties, (Stanford: Stanford University, 2014) – Journal of Latin American Studies review
Keith Pezzoli, Human Settlements and Planning for Ecological Sustainability: The Case of Mexico City, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998) – Review by UCSD’s Mark Spalding
Pablo Piccato, A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2017)
Jeffery Pilcher, The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City, 1890-1917, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico press, 2006) – Latino America blog and AHR review
Ageeth Sluis, Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900-1930, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016)
Tovar de Teresa, The City of Palaces: Chronicles of a Lost Heritage, (Mexico: Vuelta, 1990)
Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Century, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012) – AHR review
Germán Vergara, 2015,“Fueling Change: The Valley of Mexico and the Quest for Energy,” 1850-1930.” Ph.D. diss., UC-Berkeley.
Matthew Vitz, ““To Save the Forests”: Power, Narrative, and Environment in Mexico City’s Cooking Fuel Transition,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos. Vol. 31, No. 1 (Winter 2015): 125-155.
Matthew Vitz, “’The Lands with Which We Shall Struggle’: Land Reclamation, Revolution, and Redevelopment in Mexico’s Lake Texcoco, 1910-1950,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 97.1 (February 2017).
Notable works of fiction on Mexico City
Jessica Abel, La Perdida, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006) – Kirkus review.
Carlos Fuentes, Where the Air is Clear, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958).
Juan Pablo Villalobos, I’ll Sell You a Dog, (High Wycombe, England: And Other Stories Publishing, 2016) – NPR review
 Ruben Gallo, “Introduction”, The Mexico City Reader, Ed. Ruben Gallo, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 5.
 Diane Davis, Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 1.
 Jorge Ibarguengoitia, “Call the Doctor” in The Mexico City Reader, Ed. Ruben Gallo, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 196.
 Gallo, The Mexico City Reader, 5-6.