MEXICO CITY, Mexico — This sprawl of 20 million people has been dubbed the “monstruo” and slandered as an urban disaster for its chaotic slums, murderous gridlock and mountain smog.
But less touted is how La Capital is a paradise for bohemian Americans and Europeans, hub of fashion designers and driving force of Latin American youth culture.
Or how it is the cradle of a new brand of the Mexican left and spiritual center of folk saints who have become wildly popular across the hemisphere.
Three recent books hail these diverse sides of the Aztec metropolis, and what a wonderfully flawed megacity it has become at the dawn of the 21st century.
By three very different U.S. citizens who have found their home here, the books also shed light on the search by Americans for the best and baddest city on the planet at the turn of the millennium.
First out was “First Stop in the New World,” by New York native, journalist and editor David Lida, who stumbled into Mexico City on a flight layover in 1987 and was so impressed he has been here more two decades.
Subtitled “Mexico City, The Capital of the 21st Century,” the book argues that if Paris was the envy of the 19th century and Manhattan the jewel of the 20th then it is Mexico City’s turn to take the stand.
While the Big Apple’s edgy sides have been turned into a “Disney Land fit for family consumption,” Lida writes, Mexico City “has largely maintained its idiosyncratic identity.”
“Mexico City makes the great capitals of the last century seem somewhat less relevant and certainly less spontaneous,” Lida goes on. “To those of a bohemian bent, it’s the best thing since Paris in the 1920s, complete with cantinas, dance halls.”
Lida takes the reader from better-known spectacles such as Lucha Libre wrestling arenas and Aztec pyramids to conceptual art galleries and even to meet a pornographic film director.
Delving even deeper into the underbelly of the beast, Los Angeles Times reporter Daniel Hernandez parties from ghetto punk rock shows to cocaine-fueled transvestite bars in “Down & Delirious in Mexico City.”
The youngest of the writers, Hernandez shows how Mexico’s youth cultures have been as post-modern and vibrant as those of London or Los Angeles.
“Rock and resistance isn’t just for sale it’s in the air. It lives with trepidation,” Hernandez writes of a countercultural market.
Following “La Banda” (“the crew, the tribe”), Hernandez chronicles the untold stories of how punk rockers formed the backbone of a resistance to slum evictions in the 1980s and how there were riots against “emo” teenagers in 2008. (Emos were beaten up across Mexico for being perceived as a weird and effeminate other.)
He then effortlessly crosses worlds into the hedonistic parties of fashion designers in gold headbands and Burberry shades.
A native of the Tijuana-San Diego border, Hernandez frames the narrative in his own personal tale of being a Mexican-American finding his roots south of the Rio Grande.
“In Mexico City, I am a real gringo too. After three years of living here, I am still referred to as a guero – white boy – by strangers on the street,” Hernandez writes. “I am a gringo regardless of how dark my skin might be. I am a Mexican gringo, if you will.”
Switching to a more political focus, John Ross pens a definitive people’s history of the metropolis entitled, “El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City.”
Ross, who died this year after completing his last work, was a legendary alternative journalist who tore up his draft card in 1957 and moved to Mexico to drink with the Beat poets.
For his last 25 years, Ross lived in a decaying hotel room in Mexico City’s historic center, filled up with piles of books and newspapers, blocking his “cave.”
Ross writes how D. H. Lawrence drank in the same hotel in which he wrote his Mexico classic “The Plumed Serpent,” while his contempory Wilfred Ewart was accidently shot dead by a festive bullet on the hotel balcony in 1922.
Ross traces the glory and inequality of the capital to when the Aztecs brought a foreign king to the throne in 1375 and follows the trend through the centuries of conquest and revolution.
But his most novel contribution is writing on the leftist political movement that rose to take power in Mexico City in 1997 and looks unlikely to lose it anytime soon.
A militant in this movement himself, Ross chronicles its rise from the citizen brigades digging people out of the 1985 earthquake to when the Zapatista army first descended on the city, hit the central Alameda park, “and shat their rebel brains out in this little patch of rain forest deep inside the belly of the beast.”
“Cities themselves are a kind of biblical curse,” Ross concludes. “But urban catastrophe is our bread and butter, and even if the walls fall down tomorrow, there will still be a city here. In the end, the Monstruo is the people who have lived in this place and built it up over and over again.”