To be frank, when compared our April Metropolis of the Month, New Orleans, the Journal of Urban History’s record of publication in regard to Mexico City is not as robust. During the 1990s, the JUH published articles on the city’s demographics in 1811, class and urban space in the Porfirian era, and an epic essay by Diane Davis exploring the DF’s social construction during the mid-20th century.
Reflecting broader changes in the field, over the past twenty years or so, historians have focused to a greater degree on gender and sexuality–notably their relationship to political meaning and expression–while others have examined the city in a more transnational and regional context. Provided below is a listing of those articles on or related to Mexico City published since 2000. As always, members might need to login into the UHA website to gain access.
This concludes our coverage of CDMX as May’s Metropolis of the Month. The scholarship that our contributors have highlighted represents the newest wave of research on the city. Read together, Sharon Bailey Glasco’s piece on eighteenth century efforts to reform drunken behavior at pulquerias and David Yee’s description of the city’s attempts in the twentieth century to develop affordable housing reveal continuities in how the city’s governors used architecture to influence the behavior of the lower classes. Sarah Selvidge’s close reading of three examples of integración plastica, the use of art and sculpture in architecture, similarly reveals how the city’s developmentalist goals often overshadowed humanist values. Matthew Vitz’s intellectual history of how Mexican environmentalists and engineers viewed the city’s precarious water conditions highlights how a Mexican elite existed that was deeply critical of this development policy. And Pablo Piccato’s newest book, which he wrote about for us, provides insight into the popular critiques of the crime and corruption that were rampant in the modernizing, mid-twentieth century Ciudad de México.
Next week, we will head northwest to Seattle—our Metropolis of the Month for June. As always, we will kick off our coverage with a bibliography of essential historical texts about the city. Throughout the month we will feature new research on Seattle, including a historiographical piece by Maki Smith that positions the city transnationally. We hope you’ll pull out your flannel, pour a nice cup of coffee, and enjoy exploring the Pacific Northwest with us.
My first introduction to Mexico City was in December of 1988. I was a college junior, returning from a semester abroad of study in Central America. As my plane flew over the city for what seemed to be an eternity before landing at the airport, I marveled at the astounding space and scope of the urban metropolis. While I only spent one week there, the city would later capture my imagination and attention, as I chose it as my professional focus in the realms of teaching and research.
As a historian of Mexico, I focus on late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Mexico City, and explore its transition of the city from a colonial capital, to an emerging “modern” city. More specifically, I consider how Enlightenment values – and their specific manifestation in New Spain through the Bourbon Reforms – both changed the city landscape, but also revealed tensions that existed in late colonial urban society over how to define and use space.
My first book engaged this dynamic by looking at a series of urban reforms, around the themes of potable water and public sanitation, garbage collection, drainage systems, paving, and the renovation of public spaces like markets, plazas, and parks, considering both the intentions of the architects, urban planners, and public officials – but also the resistance to change by the wider urban population that these projects entailed. My most recent work – exploring the ways in which alcohol consumption by the plebian classes in Mexico City shaped conceptions regarding urban space – continues in this trend, and offers us a way to explore both class dynamics in the urban setting, while also examining contested visions of tradition and modernity as Mexico City started to transition away from the heart of the colonial Spanish empire, to the capital of a newly independent nation.
During the late eighteenth century Mexico City was a study in contrasts. On the one hand, it was the wealthiest city in the Americas. The highest level of State and ecclesiastical power resided there and it was the center of culture and propriety in the empire. It was the playground of the elite. Colonial powerbrokers like the Viceroy and the Archbishop put their material wealth on full display in their patterns of consumption, dress, palaces, and celebrations in their honor. Wealthy elites, who had amassed fortunes in agriculture, mining, and trade and commerce, also preferred the vice regal capital, and many could be seen flaunting their status, riding their carriages throughout the streets, attending the theater bedecked in jewels and the finest styles imported from Europe, and spending Sunday afternoons leisurely strolling through the Alameda, a large and beautifully appointed green space in the city center. The apex of colonial power and wealth were concentrated in Mexico City, and it was near impossible not to encounter the trappings of this wealth on a daily basis.
Yet, at the same time, roughly 80% of the population of the capital was classified as poor, meaning that they could not meet the most basic needs of food, clothing, and housing, and struggled to survive on a daily basis. In search of opportunities in the city, many had fled drought and poor economic conditions in the countryside.. Yet, the opportunities were few, and many urban residents lived day to day on the material edge. One outlet for dealing with the stress and uncertainty that a marginalized existence in Mexico City entailed was drinking – often to excess. Elites blamed the abuse of alcohol as the source of a number of social ills, including violence and crime, immoral sexual activity, and the persistent problem of public nudity and loathsome hygienic practices.
We must put the place of alcohol in the colonial world in its proper context. Historians have argued that from the beginning of the colonial enterprise, the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages played a prominent role in the lives of different social groups; from rural indigenous communities to the urban popular classes, alcohol was an important part of the larger social milieu in which people lived. It played a role in a variety of social and cultural contexts, and was often defined by class culture. Elites tended to consume alcohol socially, at home, in a contained and moderate manner (or so they would say). The types of spirits that they consumed were considered more refined – wine and brandy in particular. The popular classes’ consumption of alcohol was also social in nature, but focused on the pulquería – or public tavern. The public nature of drinking for the masses is not surprising, as they lacked contexts of privacy in their lives. The drink they consumed was also considered much less refined than their elite counterparts – pulque, a rough fermented alcohol from the agave cactus, and aguardiente, a less refined sugar cane spirit.
The production of alcohol – especially pulque and aguardiente – was controlled through a monopoly by the colonial State, and the product was heavily taxed, thus providing significant revenue for Crown coffers. One of the other key colonial institutions, the Church, also made significant profit off the production of alcohol. Yet at the same time, they were one of the most vocal moralizers when it came to critiquing the social dangers of alcohol consumption and its destructive tendencies.
The vices of alcohol could been seen all around, as much of this drinking was done in public, at local pulquerías, and colonial elites in particular often complained about the social ills such as violence, crime, and social delinquency that came with an abuse of alcohol. One aspect of this research that I am particularly interested in is the connection between the material consequences of drinking, and how they intersect with emerging and growing debates about the physical order of the city – in a sense trying to reshape popular practices which then reinforce emerging ideas about modern urban spaces. What were the efforts of city political leaders, urban planners, architects, and engineers to contain the physical consequences of alcohol consumption, in particular the common practice of peeing and defecating in public spaces. In particular, by examining how the ever present problem of excessive drinking amongst the popular classes impacted and shaped emerging policies about the ordering and control of urban space, we can see larger tension between the cultural practices of the urban masses vs. the “new culture” of the reform minded Bourbon elites.
In Mexico City, these connections between alcohol consumption and the immoral excesses of the plebeian classes made by elites coincided in the late eighteenth-century with increasing debate about the condition of the city’s physical infrastructure and spatial organization. Building on ideas about Enlightenment order and rationality, and embodied in a larger sense in the Bourbon Reforms, engineers, architects, urban planners and political leaders justified, in part, the need to clean up, organize, and thus “modernize” the city by citing the immense social and physical problems that resulted, in part, from the consumption and abuse of alcohol. Indeed, the latter decades of the colonial period saw a concerted effort on the part of city leaders to improve both the physical condition of Mexico City as well as its image as the capital of a great empire.
The apex of this process is reflected in the leadership of Viceroy Juan Vicente Güemes Pacheco y Padilla, the second Count Revillagigedo, who served as viceroy of New Spain from 1789-1794. His programs, which are often referred to as “beautifying the city”, encompassed a number of issues, including sanitation, drainage, paving, widening of streets, construction of new plazas and markets, and potable water. As an enlightened Bourbon elite, Revillagigedo viewed the streets of Mexico City, and the people who occupied those streets, as disorderly; spaces where garbage and filth, along with the diseases they perpetuated, wreaked havoc. I like to say that he wanted to see a city “without the poor, garbage, or dogs”. We should note here that reform of urban space was not just about the infrastructure – about the space. It was also about reforming and modernizing the people themselves. Colonial leaders’ desires to pull the capital into the modern era included efforts to modernize the masses themselves. This included a refinement of manners, propriety, and the setting of standards as to what was considered appropriate public behavior. What elites viewed as inappropriate activities attached to excessive drinking, such as peeing in the streets, bathing in public fountains, sleeping in the streets, markets, and abandoned structures, public sex, public drunkenness, and public nudity, were the antithesis of modern, civilized, and rational behavior. Seen as chaotic and disorderly, these acts constantly challenged not only elite sensibilities, but also elite culture and social power, and were considered a threat to molding Mexico City into an urban milieu exemplifying beauty, hygiene, safety, efficiency, order, and reason.
While Revillagigedo’s plans for the physical environment of Mexico City encompassed a number of different elements, he paid particular attention to what he considered one of the most onerous and vile realities of widespread drunkenness among the popular classes: the commonly accepted practices of public urination and defecation, as well as the dumping of human wastes in public thoroughfares, fountains, and canals. New laws for the containment of these activities were part of a larger set of regulations issued on August 31, 1790. For a city with an extremely large poor and homeless population, it should not be surprising that these problems were commonplace. City officials, however, viewed this public display of an intimately private act as the ultimate in disorderly behavior. Revillagigedo himself denounced those who dirtied city streets and plazas as “indecent…committing abominable excess”. Neighborhoods throughout the city were witness to this activity daily, as he wrote:
The abuse, disorder, and liberty with which the neighborhoods of this Capital are accustomed, with all classes of people ridding themselves freely of their natural functions, dirtying whatever place, lacking in modesty and with damage to the public health, must be remedied with vigilance.
To Revillagigedo, most urban residents lacked discipline and self-control, two important characteristics he was trying to instill in the city’s population. To him, this activity represented the unruly nature of the urban masses. It also represented the danger that this activity posed, both in challenging the cultural norms upon which elites based their social superiority, as well as the potential to transgress established boundaries between the classes. If plebeians could not control their actions when they drank, including their bodily functions, and chose to perpetuate these activities in public rather than private, then they had the potential to lack control in other situations. To elites, the all too common practice of public urination and defecation had the promise to digress into other types of public disorder, including violence and crime. More importantly, these actions reflected badly on the state, illustrating its lack of influence and control over the residents of the city and undermining its legitimacy.
Revillagigedo’s approach to this problem was multifaceted. One part of his reform plan involved the creation of citywide dumping sites specifically for human waste. He also instituted stiff penalties for public defecation, with time in the city stocks as punishment. Like his contemporaries who used corporal punishment against indigenous garbage collectors who improperly disposed of public waste, the viceroy did not institute monetary fines for public defecation. While this activity did indeed cross class lines, he associated this activity with the plebeian classes, especially those who were destitute and forced to live on the street. As with earlier regulations from the 1760s and 1770s, monetary fines would have been seen as inappropriate for this particular urban group; it was impossible to enforce this type of punishment to change behavior. Consequently, physical penalties became the norm, as those did not assume any type of financial stability. Also, the public and humiliating nature of the stocks would not only send a message to the larger community that this type of behavior was unacceptable, but it would in theory entice the perpetrator to change the offending behavior.
Revillagigedo also called for property owners (including pulqueria owners, for example) to construct, at their cost, latrines for residents and patrons to use. By establishing sites throughout the city where personal functions could be tended to in private, he hoped to force public urination and defecation back into the private realm, where it belonged and could be contained. These sites would reintroduce ideas of modesty and control, which Revillagigedo felt so many residents lacked. Through his sanitation programs, he tried to force the cultural expectations of elites into the realm of the popular classes. Also, by criminalizing the very act of public defecation (and to a lesser extent the dumping of human waste into the streets), he hoped to instill a notion of containment, order, and self-control in city residents, one that was reflected in their personal hygiene habits. Greater emphasis was placed on the public nature of these acts, and how they offended the sensibilities of others. After all, the Bourbon state was trying to establish a greater sense of order and efficiency in the colonial world; this applied even to the everyday habits and activities of urban residents.
Despite his best intentions and seemingly well-formulated plans, community practices and ideas about the uses of public space, along with the realities of densely populated neighborhoods, compromised the success of Revillagigedo’s system from the very beginning. Throughout the colonial period, the lines between private and public space for most city residents was decidedly blurred, and choices about how space was used was often left to residents themselves. Pulqueria owners complained bitterly about these reforms, and it is not clear from the record how much they were enforced. In the case of waste disposal, systems had developed over time in accordance with the needs of residents and urban barrios alike, systems that were convenient to the user, if not the best designed. Popular perceptions viewed the new systems as inconvenient at best, and, at worst, insufficient for the disposal needs of most neighborhoods. They were also seen as unnecessary and unwanted intrusion by the State into the private lives of city residents.
A good example of these tensions, tied directly to the effects of alcohol consumption in Mexico City, is the case of pulqueríael Águila. On June 15, 1796, Don Joaquin Alonso Alles, a city judge and member of the city council, reported that the public space adjacent to the pulquería was constantly dirty and overflowing with human waste, and that people had resorted to dumping it in a nearby canal. This should not be surprising – pulquerías were notorious for their dirty and unhealthy environments. Even though Revillagigedo passed major tavern reforms between December 1792 and February 1793 in an attempt to deal with the social and physical problems connected with overconsumption of alcohol, it was not uncommon for drunken patrons to relieve themselves wherever they pleased. Residents in the neighborhood surrounding the pulquería told Alles that people really had no other options because the public dumping site near the tavern was always full; the cleaning carts that passed by were never able to pick up all the waste that accumulated; the site was too far away so to be inaccessible; and that in general the new system was inconvenient for most. This was not a new problem for the tavern. Similar complaints of excessive garbage and public defecation had been lodged against the establishment earlier in October, 1794.
The very actions that the viceroy hoped to contain continued unabated. This was due, in part, to how society viewed public space. A tension existed between two cultural modes and practices; one a more baroque model from earlier generations, the other one grounded in the new, modernizing and enlightened vision of the Bourbon Reforms. The material wealth of elites allowed them to carve out private spaces where they could be removed from the dirt and disorder of the city — in the construction of their homes, their use of carriages, and their dependence on servants to help them negotiate the public sphere. They rarely had to contend with the down and dirty conditions that most urban residents lived in. For the rest of the urban population, a lack private space meant that many of the mundane activities of life were carried out in full public view. Public spaces, such as streets, alleyways, and plazas, were merely extensions of their living spaces, and treated as such
Revillagigedo left office in 1794, and those who followed him seemingly lacked the vision and commitment necessary to end Mexico City’s problems with the structural and material consequences of alcohol abuse in colonial society. Indeed, filthy conditions in many public spaces throughout the city continued. The Plazuela del Conde de Santiago, located just south of the central plaza near the magnificent home of the Conde de Santiago de Calimaya, was repeated cited as one of the worst examples of public sanitation gone awry. It was also a perfect example of the blurring of space within the city, where the palatial homes of the wealthiest of colonial citizens stood in sharp contrast to the teeming masses.
In 1795, a year after Revillagigedo left office, a resident complained to the city council that the plazuela was being used as a public toilet. Convicted of disorderly activity, offenders faced corporal punishment; male offenders were to spend time in the city’s stocks, while female offenders were to be sent to jail. The plazuela was singled out again in 1798, in an ongoing discussion between the Junta de Policía and Revillagigedo’s successor, Viceroy Branciforte over new fines for dumping garbage in public spaces. Garbage in the plaza continued to pile up, and the problem of public defecation had not been remedied. With this in mind, city police advocated increased fines for those who dumped waste in public spaces. As with earlier punishments meted out to those dirtying public space, the police used physical punishment for public defecation, and monetary fines for those dumping garbage, suggesting that the former was viewed as a vagrancy issue, while the latter was not. It also points to the continued use of corporal punishment as an attempt to bring plebeian behavior more in line with elite norms.
Using the city stocks for male offenders also reflects the fact that colonial officials believed that public shaming, or “teaching the larger society a lesson”, would be an effective way to combat the problem. Major streets in the city center, such as Calles de San Bernardo, Capulinas, Cadena, and Zuleta, as well as the area around the Hospital San Andrés – the city’s largest hospital – continued to face problems with people either dumping bodily waste in the street, or simply relieving themselves when the need arose. Those dirtying public spaces also slept in and around the plazas, public fountains, churches, and abandoned buildings that dotted the city. They also used the cover of night to participate in all sorts of “offenses against God,” a term used by city and ecclesiastical officials for a variety of activities, but most often referring to sexual acts.On May 16, 1809, city resident José María Gómez wrote to the viceroy, Pedro Garibay, regarding the problem of people defecating and bathing around the Puente de la Merced, one of the major streets running east out of the Plaza de Volador and fronting the Convento de la Merced:
…likewise, men and women at all hours come around [the street] without modesty, to attend to their bodily needs, and after washing or bathing they stay partially or entirely naked….they cause serious harm to those who see them. They inflict the worst on the eyes of the cantos like those of the Convento de la Merced, whose windows open to the street , the many young women who travel by and live in the area, and ultimately the many young people who are around during the day.
Punishment in the stocks was designed to also send a message to other members of colonial society; lack of modesty and decency, as well as threatening the moral sensibilities of more vulnerable residents of the city, would be dealt with through public example. Yet these punishments remained largely ineffective in shifting practices.
Battles over issues of public sanitation pitted elite reformers against large segments of the urban population. To the former, cities represented the civis – or civilization – with Mexico City representing the model of Bourbon Reforms put into practice. That residents of all walks of life either openly resisted the attempted changes, or merely ignored them, only reinforced elite perceptions that most people in the vice regal capital did not share the enlightened visions of their leaders. The continued presence of more specific polluting activities associated with alcohol only re-enforced elite fears and anxieties about the urban poor as drunkards, prone to violence and lacking in modesty, morality, and self-control.
To me, non-compliance with new sanitation regulations was not so much a question of a power struggle, or even open defiance and resistance. It was more a reflection of the lack of authority and legitimacy that the State had in the day-to-day functioning of the city. People did not feel compelled to follow city leaders’ dictates on matters of sanitation, such as the Revillagigedo’s tavern reforms. Residents juxtaposed their preferences against a reformed system that they saw as inefficient and unsuccessful in dealing with problems of urban sanitation. But they also resisted against a State apparatus that they probably found too evasive. Therefore, there was little incentive to change their behaviors.
This brief look at one aspect of the intersection between alcohol use, elite concerns about its disorderly consequences, and goals for eradicating this disorder raises some interesting questions regarding the nature of urban spaces and how they are organized and functioned, as well as the influence of State authority vis-à-vis the urban population in the waning years of colonialism. Certainly, urban groups had their own ideas about how spaces should be organized and used; that in the realm of popular practices – especially the use of alcohol – city leaders and other colonial representatives lacked an element of authority necessary to push people in the direction it desired. Control over daily aspects of life – even at the neighborhood level – was important.
While political leaders in Mexico City were indeed concerned about what they perceived as the destabilizing influences of the over-consumption of alcohol which permeated society, and articulated programs aimed at moving the popular classes more in line with elite cultural sensibilities, they also walked a fine line, and had to strike a balance between themselves and those that they ruled. While elites may have feared the masses to a certain extent – their potential for inciting urban unrest, the fact that elites were demographically outnumbered – the very nature of elite identity and superiority depended on the seemingly disorderly plebeian classes. In a colonial world ordered by the Bourbon rationality, urban planners and reformers needed the existence of lower class groups and their practices to justify their new ideas and systems of order, efficiency, and control. While they may have wanted to create a cleaner, safer, and more orderly city, state leaders had to be careful not to alienate or anger people too much, lest they revolt.
The reforms programs directed at taverns were a profound failure; attempts to remodel popular plebeian practices – public urination and defecation – can be seen in the same light. There was indeed a certain amount of ambivalence regarding the uses and abuses of alcohol, and its impact on both society in general and public space in particular. Many elite families in the capital city had direct ties to the production and sale of alcohol, and the state gained tremendous revenue from taxes on it. Reigning in excessive use of alcohol, as troubling and negative as some of the consequences of its use were, had profound economic consequences that elites and the State did not want to engage. So in the end there continued to exist an uneasy tension between the popular use (and abuse) of alcohol by the urban masses, and anxiety on the part of elites in regards to the urban disorder and perceived chaos, which they believed this consumption produced.
Sharon Bailey Glasco is an Associate Professor of History at Linfield College in Oregon where she teaches courses on Latin American History with a particular focus on Mexico. She is author of 2010’s Constructing Mexico City: Colonial Conflicts Over Culture, Space, and Authority and a forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban History, “Alcohol and the Concept of Modernity in Late Eighteenth-Century Mexico City”.
 William B. Taylor, Drinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press), 1979; Michael Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform in Late Colonial Mexico City”, Hispanic American Historical Review, 60 (4), 1980, 643-671.
 Juan Pedro Viqueria Albán, Propriety and Permissiveness in Bourbon Mexico (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources), 1999; also see Scardaville’s work above for discussion on tavern reforms and the effect on alcohol consumption in 18th century Mexico City.
 A more detailed discussion of the ideas of civilization as a specific transformation of human behavior can be found in Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994).
 Archivo Historico de la Ciudad de México (hereafter AHCM), Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 39.
 24 hours for the first offense, 48 hours for the second and third offenses. ACHM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 39.
 Ibid., Exp. 42. In the ordinances, property owners were given three months to comply.
 Apparently, the re-issue of the 1790 bando in late 1792 did little to encourage property owners to get behind the law. The regulations were issued a third time, in 1793, in yet another attempt to execute this part of his sanitation program. Revillagigedo argued that he felt compelled to because of “in the observance of measures that were in the best interest of the cleanliness and dignity of the vice regal capital, as well as the health of its inhabitants.” Archivo General de la Nacion (hereafter AGN), Bandos, Vol. 17, f. 77.
Pulquerías were similar to taverns, whose business was specifically focused on the sale of pulque, an alcohol fermented from the agave cactus. It was very popular with the plebeian classes, and accounted for a large percentage of colonial revenue through both production and taxes.
 See Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform”, pg. 658. Pulquerías were specifically targeted by a number of different viceroys for reform. Revillagigedo’s were by far the most extensive, however. The number of taverns operating in the city, their physical structure, interior design, and operating hours were all regulated. The main underlying goal of these reforms were to discourage patrons from hanging around these establishments for hours on end, causing social disruption, etc.; rather, alcohol was to be consumed quickly, and then patrons were to be on their way.
 AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3241, Exp. 64.
The Museum of Mexico City now occupies that former palace of the Conde de Santiago. It is located on Calle Piño Suarez, which feeds south out of the central plaza. For a discussion on the design and building of the palace, see Ignacio Gonzalez Polo, El palacio de los condes de Santiago de Calimaya (México: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1973).
AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 69.
AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 81. The system of fines for public dumping of garbage had not changed significantly since the 1790 regulations put in place by Revillagigedo.
AHCM, Licencias para limpieza de la Ciudad, Vol. 3242, Exp. 103.
As discussed earlier, corporal punishment had been advanced as a solution before, but obviously was ineffective as a deterrent, as the problems existed. Why city leaders continued to advocate its use is unclear.
 See Scardaville, “Alcohol Abuse and Tavern Reform” for a more detailed discussion of the conflict of interest that elites and the state faced in dealing with issues of alcohol reform.
Most visitors to Mexico City gain their first, and perhaps last, insight into the close relationship between art and politics from the murals of Diego Rivera. Located inside the former Secretariat of Education, a neo-colonial building on the capital’s grand central plaza, the murals date to the 1920s, a period of political consolidation after the 1910 Revolution. Rivera’s work is indeed, important evidence of the ways artists have shaped the narrative of Mexican history.
But Rivera and the other great muralists were active well beyond the 1920s—state sponsorship of the muralists actually peaked after WWII. During the post-war period, muralists worked with modernist architects to produce another distinctive and highly controversial practice.Integración plástica is the use (or “integration,” hence the awkward English translation “plastic integration”) of art and sculpture in architecture. In the decades after WWII in Mexico, during a period of sustained economic growth and rapid urbanization in the capital, it became something of an official architectural style of the federal government, leveraging the symbolism of muralism to promote a narrative of development.
Lauded by some as the truest expression of Mexican modernism, integración plástica was criticized by others as contrived, didactic, and even absurd. The architect Max Cetto once compared the “ludicrous” combination of murals and modernist architecture to “feather head-dresses on the heads of businessmen in city clothes.”
The Mexican government had been an important patron of modernist architecture since the 1930s, from functionalist schools in rural towns to headquarters of new government agencies along the grand boulevard of the capital, hospitals, and even some low-cost housing. These buildings were concrete symbols of the post-revolutionary state and its commitment to the basic promises of the revolution, such as delivering primary education, health care, and housing to the masses. By the 1950s, however, the federal government’s architectural and planning efforts became loftier and more ambitious, as did its promises to citizens. Grand plans replaced individual buildings, and the scale of state intervention in the built environment grew exponentially. Yet this expansion of scale was accompanied by a narrowing of political scope, and architectural modernism turned from a radical vision for change into a prosaic tool of development. This shift towards a greater focus on economic development, epitomized by the so-called “businessman president” Miguel Alemán (1946-1952), was reflected not only in overall economic policies, but also in specific building programs.
At first glance, integración plástica seems almost too perfect as a metaphor for this post-WWII agenda. And, even today scholars and critics echo Cetto’s critique, noting the limited formal success of this practice. But if anything, integración plástica accurately reflects the tension between radical pretensions and developmentalist goals, the first mostly confined to figuration in two dimensions, the latter unfolding in three-dimensional space, a tension that reveals the contradictions of a political paradigm in its relationship to the urban built environment.
The Central Library at the National University and the Centro Médico Nacional la Raza are two of Mexico City’s major sites of integración plástica. Both projects helped shape the capital’s urban development and the national political imaginary. They were part of a larger endeavor that combined institution building with urban planning; two modes that were far more complementary than the image of the feather headdress on the business man would suggest.
The Ciudad Universitaria and the Central Library
The Ciudad Universitaria (University City, or CU), inaugurated in 1952, was the most comprehensive planning endeavor and largest construction project in modern Mexico. A vast collaboration among leading architects and artists, it was a showcase for the government of Miguel Alemán and the commitment to training professionals with the technical skill and academic preparation to carry out the promise of a fully industrialized Mexico. Its exterior murals and extensive sculptural programs symbolized a commitment to the radical goals of the revolution, but simultaneously projected the goals of modernization and development. The CU probably has more examples of integración plástica than any other site in the world, including one of the most widely regarded, the University Library, designed by Juan O’Gorman, Gustavo M. Saavedra, and Juan Martínez de Velasco, with murals by O’Gorman.
The Library rests on a base of local volcanic stone that includes a large-scale sculptural program based on Mexica (Aztec) and Maya cosmology. Architecturally, the building emphasizes the relationship between surface and interior, content and mass. Sitting atop two stories of reading rooms supported by ground-level pilotis, the imposing structure is entirely covered in an intricate mural that depicts what O’Gorman referred to as “A Historical Representation of Culture.” The mosaic mural, composed of stones that O’Gorman collected from across Mexico, occupies the entire surface of the building. It is intricate and complex, but focuses, like the building itself on dualities: life/death, history/future, Mesoamerica/Spain. Resembling the Codices of the early colonial period, the surface of the library purports to be a pictorial narrative that illustrates a framework for understanding the world of Mexico, both in great detail and as a cohesive entity. Like most of the art work on the campus, it directly addresses both history and the potential of the future, as tied to the institution it adorns. The history of Mexico, the mural suggests, should be learned at the CU and from the collection of knowledge within the four walls, a proposal that links progress (through education) to the former greatness of Mexico.
The IMSS and Centro Médico Nacional la Raza
While the CU is considered the best example of integración plástica, the government agency most closely associated with the practice is the IMSS, Mexico’s Social Security Agency, the leading provider of medical services. From the agency’s founding in 1943 it embarked on two decades of what architectural historian Rodolfo Santa María González calls “a heroic era of hospital building.” This culminated with the Centro Médico Nacional La Raza, designed by Enrique Yáñez, completed in 1961. The complex includes various hospitals, centers of education and research, as well as a cultural center and an auditorium. Hailed as a state-of-the-art medical facility, the complex draws on architecture to emphasize the future, art to connect to the past.
The site contains murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Chávez Morado and sculptural works by Federico Cantú and Francisco Zúñiga. The main building combines the rectilinear lines of the international style with a sculpted covered portico designed by the artist Federico Cantú, the artist whose original sculpture became the logo for the agency. The artwork monumentalizes medical service in the context of the legacy of pre-Hispanic cosmology and the historical experience of Mexico, from the colonial period to the revolution. Among the canonical noble peasants, colonial priests, and pre-conquest leaders are doctors and healers. Like the library, the artistic program at Centro Médico tells a story of development and of progress, rooted in history: a narrative that embraces the past but emphasizes the future potential of Mexico.
Much less known than the murals of the 1920s, these examples of art and architecture demonstrate the ongoing engagement of the government with the urban built environment. However limited their aesthetic, they are fascinating examples of material and symbolic interventions that reflect an ambitious and complex moment in the history of Mexico City after WWII.
Sarah Selvidge received her PhD in history from the University of California Berkeley in 2015. She currently now lectures on Latin American history at Berkeley and Stanford. She is currently at work on a book examining housing, architecture, and urbanism in Mexico City.
 Though they have since been incorporated into the canon of Mexican official culture, the murals were very controversial in their day. On this transformation, see Mary K. Coffey, How a Revolutionary Art became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
 Cetto, Max, Modern Architecture in Mexico. New York: Praeger, 1961, page 29.
 While free-standing and relief sculpture were a part of integración plástica, it was primarily used as surface decoration.
 Rodolfo Santa María González, “Arquitectura para la salud integral: La Obra del IMSS, 1958-1964” in Enrique Ayala Alonso, Marco Tulio Peraza Guzmán, Lourdes Cruz González Franco, eds. Segunda modernidad urbano arquitectónica: proyectos y obras. México: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana 2014, 215.
A few weeks after co-editor Ryan Reft and I decided to feature Mexico City as the Metropolis of the Month for May, I received a call from my parents inviting me to accompany them on a short trip to Mexico City over Memorial Day Weekend. The coincidence seemed auspicious, and so I accepted the offer despite my suspicion that they invited me to serve as their private translator. None of us have been to Mexico before, and so after booking my flights I headed to the public library to begin my preparations for the trip.
I learned to travel from my father, who is also an academic and an elite-level trip planner. We share an appreciation for a well-constructed itinerary of long walks, museums, meals, and a solid afternoon nap. From him I learned what to do before a trip to ensure the optimal balance of stress-free sightseeing when visiting a new destination: familiarize yourself with the geography, brush up on the language, book the essentials (hotel, car, meal reservations) in advance, pick a few must-see sites and events, and play the rest by ear.
I began preparing by reviewing some travel guides. I usually borrow physical copies from the library, preferring to peruse several guides rather than buying just one (though my favorites are often the guides published by Lonely Planet). Depending on availability, I have also downloaded guides for free from Amazon through their Prime or Kindle Unlimited programs. I use the guides to read up on the history of the destination, discover the neighborhoods I am likely to visit and stay, and glean some basic advice such as if I will need immunizations or an adaptor for my iPhone charger.
Through my undergraduate coursework in Latin American Studies I studied Mexican history from pre-Columbian civilizations to post-WWII neoliberal “reform.” The historical background provided in the guidebooks refreshed my knowledge of the Spanish conquest, Mexican Independence, the Porfiriato, and the Revolution. For a deeper but still national review of the country’s history, I re-read the sections on Mexico in John Charles Chasteen’s classic textbook Born in Blood and Fire. Finally, blog posts on The Metropole by Pablo Piccato, David Yee, and Matthew Vitz provided insight specifically about Mexico City, including more particular elements of the city’s past.
Desiring to also gain a more contemporary understanding of Mexico and Mexico City, I also sought out works of literature and non-fiction. After finishing my dissertation, I picked up Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo—an old favorite of mine, with the added benefit of being very short. Although the book was published in 1955 and the story is set in a fictional rural town far to the east of Mexico City, the fractured and surreal narrative of the inhabitants of Comala evoke the upheaval that the Revolution and industrialization inflicted on Mexicans in the early twentieth century. I then savored Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Centuryby Daniel Hernandez. Hernandez excels at providing readers with a thick description of the city’s subcultures, particularly of punk rockers and religious sects. Hernandez also evocatively portrays the transnational, postcolonial in-betweenness felt by many Mexican-Americans living in Mexico. Just from reading his descriptive forays throughout the city, I have a better understanding of the city’s geography and the character of its neighborhoods. I’m taking Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City by John Ross with me to read on the trip.
In the midst of all of this reading, I have also been brushing up on my Spanish. Despite nine years of formal language instruction, five months living in Buenos Aires, and a bachelor’s degree, my conversational Spanish eroded throughout graduate school. To ensure that I would be able to say essential phrases like “más vino, por favor,” I used the DuoLingo app to refresh my vocabulary and practice verb conjugation. I also began watching Spanish-language videos on YouTube. As a devoted fan of beauty and makeup tutorials, I found several makeup artists and influencers who produce videos in Spanish. Although I’m not sure I’ll have a chance to discuss como contornear el rostro (how to contour the face) with anyone in Mexico City, the videos got me to actively listen with a level of attention that that language-instruction videos usually fail to inspire.
Since we will only be in Mexico City for two full days, I have only picked out a few must see sites beyond the Zócalo and the Museo Frida Kahlo (my mom’s sole request). I’m hoping to check out the Museo del Estanquillo, a collection of popular art assembled by writer and DF resident Carlos Monsivais, and the Museo Casa de León Trotsky. And, just as I do everywhere I travel, I have to visit a grocery store and try out the city’s public transportation. I truly derive no greater pleasure in life than perusing the aisles of grocery stores abroad, finding new foods to try while simultaneously marveling at how similar grocery shopping can be throughout the developed world.
We leave on Friday, and so I’d love to hear recommendations from readers of The Metropole for where we should eat near Centro Historico, Roma, and Condesa. The only thing that could make this a more historically informed trip would be to have the input of UHA members in the creation of our itinerary. ¡Gracias por adelantado!
Avigail Oren is co-editor of TheMetropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her travel writing can be found here.
Until images of Beijing air pollution captured the world’s attention several years ago, few megalopolises rivaled Mexico City in the global imaginary of urban disaster and unsustainability. In the 1980s and early 1990s, news of black smog clouds asphyxiating Mexico’s capital and of birds falling to their death from pollution circulated in major media outlets. A 1985 earthquake toppled hundreds of buildings, killed thousands, and created a dystopian and eerie urban streetscape. Reflecting on daily smog, twisted steel, and concrete ruins, Mexico’s leading cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis wondered if the city’s inhabitants might have already lived through the apocalypse. If Mexico City had had a Hollywood, it, not Los Angeles, would have been the global icon of apocalyptic and dystopian imagery at the end of the twentieth century.
But Mexico City’s environmental woes do not end there. In fact, while Mexico City continues to experience toxic levels of air pollution, government regulations on gasoline, automobile usage, and industry have at least mitigated it and brought to the world’s attention other ecological problems of a more insidious nature. These problems stem from one element: water. One might say, albeit ahistorically, that these environmental dilemmas have a single origin—an environmental original sin if there ever was one: the Aztecs’ decision to build Tenochtitlan on an island surrounded by a vast lake system and in an enclosed basin at 7,250 feet above sea level. Ever since, Mexico City has been unable to escape its destiny; it is a city on a lake, an environmental paradox: a city with simultaneously too much water and too little, flooded while desiccated.
Of course, the explanation of urban ecological crisis is much more complex than assigning it to geographical determinism. Over centuries, colonial and postcolonial authorities, engineers, planners, landowners, and others have transformed Mexico City’s environment to suit landowner interests, capitalist urbanization, public health, and state builders’ dreams of a Mexican modernity where nature would be subdued and controlled. Two monumental and costly drainage projects from the early colonial era to 1900 drained most of the largest lakes including Lake Texcoco; the drinking water imperative depleted much of Lake Xochimilco and its canals, the iconic space south of the city where indigenous peasants relied on a healthy waterscape to practice the productive agricultural technique known as chinampería.
Sanitary engineering of this sort promoted urban expansion that accelerated after 1940 as streams of campesinos (country-people) fled precarious rural conditions for the promise of a job and urban lifestyle in the capital. Mexico City’s manufacturing output skyrocketed at mid-century, but a sparse few of the millions of recent migrant arrivals secured a job in the industrial sector and even fewer could afford a home with adequate urban services like water, sewerage, and electricity. Many eventually settled in the flood-prone dried lakebeds or in the foothills at the edge of the basin’s mountainous walls, on land once used for conventional farming, chinampería, hunting, fishing, or forestry. They bore the brunt of the city’s environmental troubles: dust storms from the dried Texcoco lakebed; land subsidence caused by desiccation and aquifer overexploitation, the effects of which resulted in exacerbated flooding; and sporadic, or non-existent, water supply.
Mexico City’s environmental crisis is part and parcel of a larger social crisis rooted in an unequal geography of settlement. But the crisis is also felt by the affluent. Whereas urban elites might succeed in isolating themselves from poverty and the social problems associated with the lower classes, flooding can occur almost anywhere in the basin; water supply is, indeed, a long-term problem of sustainability; and land subsidence threatens to impair all kinds of infrastructure, both above and below ground. It was in this context, one of fantastical urban growth (the population increased from 2 million in 1940 to nearly 15 million by 1980), that a host of urban professionals—engineers, planners, scientists, and artists—began to question the urban growth model’s dependence on draft-and-drain hydraulics.
Dissenters among Mexico’s lettered elite expressed nostalgia for a lost Tenochtitlan, for a time when the basin’s inhabitants ostensibly lived in harmony with their natural surroundings. The eminent Mexican essayist Alfonso Reyes wrote of the Aztec capital: “Two lakes occupy almost the entire Valley: one saline, the other fresh. Their waters mix together to the rhythm of the tides within a narrow straight formed by the surrounding sierra…In the middle sits the metropolis, like an immense stone flower (flor de piedra), connected to the mainland by four gates and three causeways.” He went on to praise the bustling canoe-based trade within the lacustrine space, a sine qua non of any paean to the Aztec city during this era of nationalist myth-making and revolutionary indigenismo. The juxtaposition with modern Mexico City was made explicit in Reyes’ later essay, “palinodia del polvo,” in which he rued over the desiccated lakebeds and the tormenting alkali dust storms that rose from them.
Engineers and scientists centered their critique on the environmental blindness of past engineering philosophies and the absence of a conservationist ethic. To be sure, they too often tapped into memories of a lost past, but their objectives were not literary let alone to muster a social critique of unequal capitalist urbanization; rather, they sought to pursue new means of intervention in the material environment that might better sustain such urbanization. These “engineer ecologists,” as one vociferous opponent pejoratively labeled them, wholeheartedly believed Mexico City’s growth was imperiling urban health and prosperity. They promoted a new environmentalist engineering, along with a liberal dose of family planning, to place the city within the limits of nature. This represented “sustainable development” avant la lettre. It was also highly technocratic; only experts could conceive of the city’s environmental predicaments as an integral whole of interwoven elements—both human-made and natural—and devise the appropriate prescriptions. In Mexico’s mid-century authoritarian political climate, this philosophy lent itself to contempt for the urban working classes, perceived as threats to ecological balance and as profligate users of resources.
Influential experts such as scientist Enrique Beltrán, agronomist Gonzalo Blanco Macías, and architect Guillermo Zarraga drew on Pan-American scientific dialogues in the wake of WWII and the oncoming Cold War to craft their environmental thought. Mid-century U.S. environmentalists Tom Gill and William Vogt had spent time in Mexico City where they shared ideas with Mexican professionals confronting emerging environmental problems and fast-paced growth. Zarraga perhaps best captured the tenor of the times: “The different issues that constitute the problem of the Valley of Mexico are interconnected in such a way that one cannot refer to one of them without alluding to the rest. Water and subsidence, for example, are intimately united, just as water and sewerage are and the latter to flooding. Deforestation, erosion, and dust storms are other threads of the same warp.” They decried “ecological disequilibrium” spawned by past hydraulic engineering projects. The cornerstone of their environmental vision, in fact, was a return to the city of lakes. Ecological balance hinged on a healthy waterscape to curtail dust storms, facilitate aquifer recharge, and curb flooding by storing water. Layers of development, infrastructure construction, and the twin processes of lakebed sedimentation and land subsidence meant resurrecting Mexico City as an environmentally healthy land of lakes necessitated additional artifice, that is, more engineering.
These ideas were both reaction against Mexico City’s development and a remedy to ensure the continuation of it. Only one planner, the socialist architect Alberto Arai, seemed to upend the principle of growth, but did so only partially. He proposed descaling the city, in which five urban centers positioned along the rim of the regenerated lake Texcoco would reorganize urban life. This descaling and reorganization would usher in a new era of urban development for the city, one that supposedly adhered to the precepts of environmental health. Development was (and remains) the hegemonic script in Mexico City, as it has been throughout the urbanizing global south, and has hampered the imaginaries of environmentalists and social justice advocates for decades.
Thus far ideas of environmental rebirth have outpaced action. Besides a partially revitalized (and artificial) Lake Texcoco and the much-maligned Lake Xochimilco “ecological park,” little has been accomplished to deal with Mexico City’s water woes. Indeed, even these so-called solutions have tended to aggravate social inequalities, exemplars of the technocratic and decidedly neoliberal urban environmentalism currently sweeping the globe. Other Mexican architects and planners now follow in the well-trod path of history, presenting proposals for urban sustainability through lake regeneration in ways that would reproduce—even exacerbate—existing social and economic inequalities throughout the urban fabric.
If air pollution and the devastating 1985 earthquake temporarily displaced water in Mexico City’s environmental imagination, a wide array of chilangos (as residents of Mexico City are known) are now contemplating Mexico City’s water predicaments like never before. The Mexican Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennial featured Tania Candiani and Luis Felipe Ortega’s work “Possessing Nature,” which juxtaposed Venice’s aquatic environment with Mexico’s legacy of drainage and desiccation. A social movement has surged in the last 6 months to rescue the place long depicted as Mexico’s Venice, Xochimilco, a synecdoche for the world-renowned chinampería, which depends on the area’s iconic and fast-drying canals. NGOs and community organizations, meanwhile, are working to achieve a more equitable distribution of environmental services and cultivate environmental consciousness, including an appreciation for lost waterscapes, around the city.
The vast lake system of the Basin of Mexico is mostly gone now, but it has not been vanquished. It has persisted in all kinds of foreseen and unforeseen ways. The lake has helped define the city’s social geography and its cultural imaginary. It has haunted planners and has been at the heart of social and scientific disputes over equality, the distribution of resources, and the very nature of growth. The story continues: President Peña Nieto broke ground on a multibillion dollar airport on Lake Texcoco’s eastern fringe, a project that promises to unleash another round of debates about the place of the lake in urban development. Urbanization around the airport will no doubt induce further subsidence of the spongy clay soil, flooding, and community land dispossession. Mexico City’s rich past of environmentalist thinking is laudable, but it has not been up to the task of tackling the city’s intricate social and environmental problems. In fact, they have been more about reaffirming the power relations and structures responsible for the problems in the first place. A new vision is necessary, one that borrows from long-standing dreams of a city of lakes and environmental equilibrium but one that also learns from past limitations in confronting Mexico’s deep-seated developmentalism and its obdurate inequalities.
Matthew Vitz is assistant professor of history at UC-San Diego. His book, A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, is forthcoming from Duke University Press
At the end of the 1940s, Mexico City was at a crossroads. Massive waves of migration from the countryside doubled the city’s population in less than ten years. The city’s old tenements (vecindades) began to buckle under the weight of overcrowding and talk of a “housing crisis” became commonplace. The problems surrounding Mexico City’s housing crisis emerged at a time when the post-revolutionary government began to envision a modern social welfare system as a key step towards national progress. Nowhere was this convergence more vividly expressed than in Mexico’s first public housing complex – the Multifamiliar Alemán.
The Multifamiliar Alemán was a collaboration between the government’s civil pension department and architect Mario Pani. Born into a powerful family, Pani returned to Mexico City after studying architecture at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 1930s. As a student, he attended a lecture on social housing by Swiss architect Le Corbusier and was profoundly influenced by Le Corbusier’s modernist vision of a “radiant city.” Le Corbusier’s call to “build the city vertically” in order to increase both population density and available green space appealed to Pani, offering a viable means to create a more rational, ordered urban landscape. After Pani was commissioned to design the Multifamiliar Alemán in 1947, the young architect was confronted with the challenge of finding a synthesis between the modernist “internationalist style” and Mexico’s postrevolutionary nationalist ethos. At the time, government officials were apprehensive about Pani’s proposal and questioned if it represented the continuation of a dominated society forced to import ideas from Europe due to a lack of national identity.
Fortunately for Pani, he was given the freedom to experiment and design the Multifamiliar Alemán far from the confines of the bustling city center. The Department of Civil Pensions acquired a large plot of undeveloped land to the south of the city in an area that would become known as Colonia Del Valle. In a sign of things to come, the Multifamiliar Alemán was not the product of urban renewal but a harbinger of urban sprawl.
Due to a tenuous alliance between historic preservationists, the tourism industry, and Mayor Ernesto Uruchurtu who took a firm stance against urban growth, Mexico City experienced relatively few slum clearance campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s (the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco complex being a notable exception). The first residents of the Multifamiliar Alemán were not drawn from impoverished slum dwellers displaced by the wrecking ball, but the more formally educated migrants who were flooding into the ranks of Mexico’s expanding public employee sector. In midcentury Mexico, housing would serve as a visible marker of social distinction in a growing divergence between Mexico City’s rising middle-class (la gente decente) and the informal masses relegated to the distant shantytowns.
Before the Multifamiliar Alemán was inaugurated on September 2, 1949, aerial photographers were hired to capture “the grandeur” of the complex from above. The image of six towering buildings rising out of a barren field was quite striking. The six high-rise buildings were laid out in a diagonal “zig-zag” pattern in order to maximize greenspace and sunlight. At the center of the complex was a swimming pool, surrounded by gardens and walls that featured pre-Hispanic symbols. Although a relatively minor feature, the pre-Hispanic symbols can be seen as a precursor to Pani’s next housing project – the Multifamiliar Juárez – where a pre-Hispanic aesthetic was more prominently featured through a collaboration with Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida. The designs reflected Pani’s attempt to synthesize the international and the local, in what can be called a form of mestizo modernism.
The government viewed the housing complex as a “grand human experiment.” It was conceived as a “city outside of the city” equipped with its own daycare centers, medical facilities, stores, and laundromat. Social workers visited mothers to instill the values of keeping a clean, hygienic home. One government official proclaimed “tenements were places just to sleep…husbands used to spend their free time in bars and pool halls, now they go to work and return to their collective home, where they have everything.” The success of the government’s state-led socialization campaigns in public housing complexes remains an unresolved question for scholars. Nevertheless, the material benefits and social capital bestowed upon residents living in public housing during the 1950s and 1960s ultimately proved to be key factor in the ruling party’s consolidation of political support among Mexico’s urban middle-class.
David Yee is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at Stony Brook University. His current research explores the historical ties between housing and inequality in Mexico City.
 Mexico City’s population grew from roughly 1.6 million in 1940 to 3.4 million in 1950.
 The full name for the building complex is the Conjunto Urbano Presidente Alemán, but it is commonly referred to as the Multifamiliar Alemán. A multifamiliar is broadly defined as a large-scale, mixed-use housing complex where each unit is designated for one family.
 Quote is cited from speech by Antonio Acevedo Escobedo in Mario Pani, Los Multifamiliares de Pensiones (Mexico City: Arquitectura, 1952), 45.
In 1933, the visionary designer Charles Eames absconded from St. Louis to Mexico, in an effort to “[take] stock of and ultimately [change] his approach and situation in life,” notes his grandson Eames Demetrios. Charles spent about ten months traveling in San Luis Potosi and Monterrey, now and then dipping into more rural areas of the Mexican countryside. He got by doing occasional manual labor and selling sketches and paintings for sustenance. When he returned, in 1934, he brought with him numerous depictions of churches and vistas, which so impressed his fellow Midwesterners that the St. Louis Museum deployed them as an exhibit; much of this art work later appeared in the color rotogravure section of the St. Louis Dispatch. Clearly, as one friend confided, Eames ate up “the visual culture of Mexico, the colors and textures, and all the materials things that one has there to see.” His Mexico trip remains, according to his grandson and biographers, a moment of demarcation in his personal and professional life.
While I would never compare Eames’s apparent Mexican epiphany with my own recent experience in Mexico, a trip to the nation’s capital can surely inspire even the most quotidian of us.
Five days in Mexico City put myself, to quote Raising Arizona, in “the proverbial catbird seat” of life. The food, the neighborhoods, and the history combined to create a vibrant atmosphere. The walking paths that extend down the middle of Mexico City’s numerous boulevards — populated by joggers, dogwalkers, and others — allow for moonlight strolls and morning constitutionals. Numerous parks dot the city as well. The mix of colonial architecture and hyper post modern monstrosities simultaneously emphasize the city’s history and modernity. It might be sinking several inches a year, but its international esteem seems to only treble annually.
District Federal (Distrito Federal more accurately), or the DF as Mexico City is often referred, remains one of the truly great cities of North America. I know Georgia State’s Alex Sayf Cummings (ASC) recently compared the DF to New York City but I have to respectfuly disagree and suggest Professor Cummings might be guilty of a touch of East Coast bias. Mexico City reminds this former SoCal resident of Los Angeles. Sure, it’s less racially diverse and has existed as an influential metropole for much longer, but the flora, the spatial layout, and the weather all scream Los Angeles. Besides, L.A.’s preponderance of Latin American residents juxtaposes neatly with the DF’s own brimming reserve of Central and South American citizens.
Nor is it all about the now. You can visit pre-Aztec ruins; Teotihuacan is not more than 90 minutes outside the city, where one can climb the intimidatingly tall steps to the top and take in the majesty of what is considered the lesser of ancient ruins located in Mexico. Of course, some of this will depend on your tour guide. Mine believed in numerology and kept trying to convince his skeptical audience that the Mayans and Aztecs predicted Jesus Christ, Hitler, and the atomic bomb.
Still, for an American, the nation’s emphasis on its indigenous heritage offers an insight into the United States’ own shameful history of the same. Granted, most North American Native Americans did not construct the kind of awe inspiring cities that their Meso American counterparts did, but the most indigenous peoples in the U.S. get are the occasional Kevin Costner flick or a film like The Last of the Mohicans in which a white guy adopted by Native Americans serves as the film’s protagonist. Sure, you get the once-in-a-blue-moon Smoke Signals (1998), but even 1992’s Thunderheart featured a very white Val Kilmer as the hero. In any case, I’m getting off the subject. Mexico embraces this history, or at least it does to a much greater extent, which is still miles and miles ahead of its neighbor to the north.
To be fair, this was not always so. When the aforementioned Charles Eames showed up in one Mexican town with a book devoted to pre-Columbian art, the local police locked him up. The book depicted the nation’s “primitive” phase and insulted the general body politic, the police informed him. Though Professor Cummings correctly notes that inequalities remain, to some extent this dynamic has clearly changed over the ensuing decades.
We checked into the very designer oriented Condesa DF and stayed five nights and four days, using it as a central node for exploration of the city. While it had a great rooftop bar (if you happen to be in the DF, definitely check it out for drinks/eats), the rooms were small and apt to bleed noise. One night the room adjacent to ours had an all out drug-induced shindig (or it at least sounded drug-induced; I have no evidence and need none in the game of conjecture).
Needless to say, sleep was not to be had and much resentment harbored by this writer. The next night they were filming some sort of interview/video and asked that all the floor’s peons hush. That said, very cool layout, solid breakfast and so on. From CDF, we branched out to various sites around the city ranging from Frida Kahlo’s crib to Leon Trotsky’s surprising large abode nearby (judging from the mural pictured below in the photo essay, Trotsky loved big butts on the level of Sir Mix A Lot; note also PRI scrawled into his forehead).
In the hipsteresque neighborhood Roma, we visited the Museo del Objeto del Objeto for a pretty great exhibit dedicated to Mexican wrestling.
I could go on, but I’ll spare you the commentary. As an addendum to Cummings’ recent photo essay, the Metropole would like to provide a second opinion on the DF, one that doesn’t stray too widely from ASC’s take but offers some different scenes and commentary from the ancient city.
From the ancient to the colonial to the frighteningly post modern modern
Trotsky before the Stalinist ice pick
Totally checked out Frida Kahlo’s blue house but regrettably they charge money for photos — not that much but my inner miser pretty much always kicks in during those moments. Still, definitely check out her home, very cool part of the city as well, Colonia de Carmen section of Coyoacan. Plus, it just so happens a certain Soviet exile lived just around the corner.
The National Museum of Anthropology is pretty dope
La Lucha Libre in Roma
Writing in The Mexico City Reader, José Joaquín Blanco described the Roma neighborhood as having “fallen on hard times.” In the 1950s, Roma had an air the aristocratic but by 1979, “despite the persistence of a handful of antique, emblazoned apartment building and mansions”, its famed Avenida Álvaro Obregón proved little more than a “seething track of people and vehicles between hotels, baths, trade academies, gyms, taco holes, and luncheonettes, cantinas, Chinese cafes, and all manner of stores…” Yet, for the most part, today, Roma falls somewhere in between those two poles: it’s aristocratic buildings refurbished, sometimes transformed into small museums or hipster enclaves; the dizzying, incoherent businesses more organized and middle class than Blanco’s depiction of the neighborhood.
Few things demonstrate its quirky, charm than Museo del Objeto del Objeto (MODO). If you’ve ever seen Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, and I’ll spare you the ubiquitous insight about it’s shift from fiction to fact, former porn star and pro-wrestler, Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho serves as commander in chief. Mexico’s long tradition of wrestling and the possibility of future political leadership rising from such ranks (take the U.S. for example) meant I had to visit MODO’s “La Lucha Libre De Todos Los Dias” exhibit in Roma.
I am not exactly the world’s most cosmopolitan traveler. I never got on a plane until I was twenty years old, and I’ve only really visited a handful of countries. When my wife and I decided to go to Mexico City for a week this Fall, we went into it with some unwarranted assumptions. The biggest city in the Western hemisphere, we thought, would likely be a dense, chaotic metropolis akin to Karachi or Bangkok. The stereotype of the overcrowded and congested Third World city loomed large in our minds, and Mexico City seemed like it would fit that pattern.
I was afraid of the capital, influenced by the propaganda dismissing it as a teeming, overpopulated, polluted bedlam, full of horrific testimonies of insuperable poverty. I imagined the armless beggars of Calcutta brandishing their stumps in tourists’ faces, hoping the display would result in a handout.
As it turns out, our expectations were very far from the truth. The small slice of Mexico City that we saw, in any case, was affluent and orderly compared to, say, Karachi. Undoubtedly much of Mexico is poor and rural, but the capital appeared to lack the evident and inescapable signs of extreme poverty that one finds in other megacities of the developing world. (As Lida points out, the city “has eighty-four hundred people per square kilometer, while Mumbai, Lagos, Karachi, and Seoul have more than double that figure.”) There were beggars and homeless people, of course, but one finds as many or more in American cities like New York or San Francisco.
The foremost financial and cultural center of Latin America was more distinguished by other hallmarks–those of capitalist prosperity and gleaming skyscrapers, gentrification and hip urbanism, tourism and historic preservation. Indeed, more late model cars clogged its crowded highways than we see at home in Atlanta, a sign of growing affluence, at least, among the population of the urban core, if not the poorer districts that surround the capital.
A few scattered observations of the city:
A mind-bogglingly extensive and accessible public transit system, that stretched over a vast urban landscape encompassing as many as 20 million people.
A remarkable predilection for PDA (public displays of affection), with couples kissing, groping, and practically dry-humping everywhere from escalators to subway cars to Starbucks.
Lots of pizza places.
A rich history as a destination for artists, writers, and political radicals, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Leon Trotsky.
A large number of bookstores and even a surviving Blockbuster Video.
Bootleg media, albeit seemingly not as prevalent as in many Asian cities.
A visible legacy of radicalism, embodied in the ubiquitous paintings of Diego Rivera and other artists who contributed leftist depictions of class, race, and historical struggle to the nation’s iconography and mythology–as well as contemporary graffiti denouncing the murder of 43 students at the hands of government authorities and crime syndicates in 2014.
The utterly comprehensive embrace of American popular culture–fashion, food, entertainment, and technology–by the urban middle class (if not necessarily everyone else), in a way that surpasses even the zeal for all things American in South Asia. The affluent shopping mall we visited in Coyoacan/Copilco featured every American brand imaginable, from Skechers to Burger Fi to Quizno’s, with few local or national retailers to speak of. (“While foreigners here, principally Europeans, complain about the proliferation of Starbucks and Wal-Marts,” Lida notes, “middle-class Mexicans revel in the First World status bestowed by these establishments.”)
And while notions of race, class, and ethnicity clearly function differently in Mexico than the United States, it was impossible to miss a gradation of economic inequality shading from European to indigenous ancestry. In the most lavish new shopping malls, consumers were overwhelmingly fair-skinned and middle-class, sporting designer clothes from America and Europe. In the metro (disdained by some affluent residents as a form of transit), darker faces were numerous–except, of course, in the nicer, newer train line (the one that had air-conditioning) where we noticed (surprise!) whiter ones.
In the end, we found a profoundly beautiful and varied built environment, from the grand Baroque structures of Zocalo, the historic downtown district, to the Spanish colonial architecture of Coyoacan and San Angel to the more contemporary commercial landscape of the city’s younger neighborhoods. Like New York–the metropolis that Mexico City most reminded me of–a visit of a week is far too brief to get a sense of its vast and heterogenous social geography. But, as the great urban historian Ken Jackson once said, you don’t have to drink the ocean to know it’s salty. Here is a brief taste of the sights and textures of the capitol of Latin America, as seen from Copilco looking out.
In City of Suspects, published in 2001, I tried to understand crime as an urban phenomenon, a product of the interactions between actors and institutions suddenly brought together by the rapid expansion of Mexico City in the late nineteenth century. The most important sources for that project were the judicial records kept by the city’s judicial power in the basement of one of its main penitentiaries, which I consulted around 1995.
In the years since, those trial records were moved to the Archivo General de la Nación and, paradoxically, became harder to consult, at least for the decades following those covered by the first book. When I decided to return to the history of crime, starting the project that resulted in A History of Infamy, I tried to understand the urban setting of crime in different way.
While in the first book I looked at the spatial and demographic expansion that produced the capital’s colonias, neighborhoods often built during the late 1920s and 1930s on expropriated urban land for workers, the new book focused on the debates about crime and justice that took place in courtrooms, newspapers and crime fiction. These were also essentially urban settings, but they reflected the realities of crime and punishment in different ways. Judicial records demonstrated, for example, that the lack of interest of the Porfirian state in the welfare of urban working classes forced urban communities to deal in their own terms with the problems of theft and interpersonal violence. Thus, neighbors and relatives could intervene to negotiate the return of stolen property, or fights could be arranged in order to solve long-standing disputes—all of this without the disruptive intervention of the police.
By the mid twentieth century, however, the tabloid newspapers centered on crime (the publications were known in Mexico as the nota roja) became a record of the critical views of urban dwellers toward the police and the judiciary. While crime rates declined, reflecting the diminishing frequency of people’s use of violence to solve conflicts, the pressure of public opinion became the most important driver in the pursuit of justice. Newspapers reflected, and shaped, the emergence of the urban publics that demanded investigations and the solution of the most egregious crimes.
Newspapers became the main, although not the only, source for what I call criminal literacy–the knowledge that any inhabitant of the city had to possess in order to navigate the dangers of modern life. This knowledge included a map of the dangerous areas of the city, the colonias where it was better not to walk at night, the practices of thieves and con men, and the risky attractions of night life. At the heart of criminal literacy were the stories of famous criminals, like Goyo Cárdenas, the man who killed four women and buried them in the backyard of his house, in a new working class neighborhood north of the city.
One piece of criminal literacy of particular importance required to understand the transformation of the city between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1950s was the emergence of the pistolero. This was the name given to the gunmen who worked for politicians, usually under the guise of bodyguards, and were charged with intimidating, beating and in some cases eliminating adversaries.
Pistoleros became a highly visible component of post-revolutionary politics with their violent interventions in strikes, agrarian conflicts, and elections. People knew about them and their threat, but they also knew that they were protected by powerful interests and seldom faced punishment. Impunity also allowed pistoleros to maintain other profitable activities on the side: they could extort prostitutes, protect drug traffickers, engage in robberies and, in some cases, murder for money. For the inhabitants of Mexico City, pistoleros embodied the corruption of post-revolutionary politics but also the legacy of the revolution itself. They were perceived as a byproduct of the violent rural politics that in the second decade of the century exploded with the civil war and invaded the city after the end of the conflict. With their brutality and ostentatious impunity, pistoleros seemed to represent the occupation of the respectable spaces of the capital by strong men from the countryside. Yet pistoleros also evoked the dizzying pace of modernization: with their tailored suits, Texan hats, shiny cars, and general similarity to U.S. movie gangsters, they were only appropriating the goods that all city dwellers aspired to have.
Looking beyond the judicial and police records, in other words, allowed me to appreciate how crime and justice, or the lack thereof, became central aspects of urban life in modern Mexico. Newspapers and crime fiction reflected on impunity, a key shortcoming of the state that emerged out of the revolution. Public debates involving actors from all social backgrounds proved that the concern about violence and corruption was a constant of everyday life for city dwellers, even as violence was, in general terms, becoming less frequent. The city that I had initially explored as a space for social practices was also, I realized, the virtual space of a public sphere where crime and justice were central themes.
Pablo Piccato (B.A. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1989; Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin, 1997) is professor at the Department of History, Columbia University. His research and teaching focus on modern Mexico, particularly on crime, politics, and culture. His books include City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931 (2001) and The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere (2010).
A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico (University of California Press, 2017) explores the broken nexus between crime, justice, and the truth in mid-twentieth century Mexico. Facing the violence and impunity that defined politics, policing, and the judicial system in post-revolutionary times, Mexicans sought truth and justice outside state institutions. During this time, the criminal news beat and crime fiction flourished. Civil society’s search for truth and justice lead, paradoxically, to the normalization of extrajudicial violence and neglect for the rights of victims. Ordinary people in Mexico have made crime and punishment central concerns of the public sphere during the last century, and in doing so have shaped how crime and violence took form over time.
“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.
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.