Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My current work is a social history of mass housing and inequality in Mexico City. The dissertation traces the rise of Latin America’s largest shantytown, Ciudad Neza, as it grew alongside a government-built housing complex named San Juan de Aragón. Both Ciudad Neza and San Juan de Aragón are representative of a crucial historic juncture for Mexico, and Latin America in general, an era when the optimism of modernist urban planning was eclipsed by the rise of the urban shantytown. I focus on housing to explore how it contributed to “a great divergence” among the millions of migrants who arrived to Mexico City in the middle of the twentieth century. During this period, public housing evolved into a mechanism for upward mobility among the city’s incipient middle-class at the expense of the informal poor, producing a new set of political subjectivities and cultural sensibilities among the city’s residents.
The project stems from my life-long fascination with the historical experience of people leaving the countryside for major cities. After pursuing several different ideas (street vendors, migrant associations), I found that struggles over housing provided a focal point and entryway into this experience and allowed me to highlight the diversity of the people arriving to Mexico City during the 1950s (erroneously portrayed in the press and scholarship as a monolithic mass of poor, illiterate campesinos.)
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
In the past, I have usually taught courses on Latin American history, but this past summer I was able to teach a course called “Cities in World History.” It was great to go beyond Latin America and teach about housing and architecture in places like New York and Paris. We also went up to the present and covered the rapid growth of refugee camps, a socio-spatial formation that exists in a peculiar kind of limbo state that contains both elements of transitory encampments and permanent neighborhoods. The refugee crisis is creating human settlements of millions of people and they’re challenging what we think of as “urban.” Ben Rawlence’s account of a massive refugee camp in Kenya (City of Thorns) and the UNHCR’s online resources on camps/cities in Syria were very eye-opening for the students.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
There has been an effervescence of literature on Latin American cities in the past few years. The best of example of that work can be found in Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America, which is really a great collection of cutting-edge work that spans across various disciplines and countries. I’m looking forward to the release of two books on Mexico City – Matthew Vitz’s A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City and Andrew Konove’s Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy of Mexico City (both due out next year).
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?
In general, there is no perfect dissertation topic. I found it was better to go through an early process of trial-and-error, doing some initial archival research to see what existed and where it would take me as opposed to trying to conceptualize and formulate everything in my head. Specifically, with urban studies, it is by definition multi-disciplinary/ interdisciplinary, opening up the opportunity to reach out to other scholars outside of your own department for advice, leads, or possibly to serve on your committee.
As a historian who studies the built environment and housing in Mexico, what has your response been to the two massive earthquakes that just hit the country?
More than anything else, there has been a tragic loss of life (361 people so far) that stretches from Mexico City to Chiapas. They were jolts that revealed the underlying divisions in Mexican society, while producing acts and sentiments of solidarity that transcended those divisions experienced in one’s everyday life and daily routines. At the time of this interview, I see hundreds of volunteers throughout the city as I go through my day. The memory of the more devastating 1985 earthquake is palpable in every sphere of society. There is a large void to be filled among historians in regards to the urban social movements that preceded the 1985 earthquake, its role in the expansion of Mexico’s civil society, and the urban reconstruction phase in the aftermath of the earthquake (one of the largest since the Marshall Plan in Europe). Two great pieces for further reading are: Elena Poniatowska’s Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake (a book on the 1985 earthquakes) and a recent article by Pablo Piccato, “Lessons from Mexico’s Earthquakes: 1985 and Today.”
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.
“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.