Chilango backbone

Drudgery and inequality may be among the defining characteristics of Mexico City, but David Lida explains why it is still the ‘capital of the 21st century’


First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century
David Lida
2008, Riverhead Books
336 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

THE WAY IN which ordinary people struggling to make a living are buffeted by the urban rapids of Mexico City is the distinguishing characteristic of David Lida’s foray into the bursting bibliography of introductory books about Mexico by foreign observers.

The perceptiveness of First Stop in the New World as a portrait of life in the megacity against which all others are now compared derives from the author’s self-evident fascination with the Mexicans’ gritty durability and genius for improvisation.

Lida’s candour is also refreshing, in particular his willingness to make sideswipes across the spectrum against fellow gringo visitors wowed by the prospect of affordable comforts and “maids they can bully”; hypocritical Europeans who whine ignorantly about Americanisation; and Mexicans themselves to whom the Atlantic point-scoring goes blissfully unnoticed as they rush headlong into the aisles of Wal-Mart.

The debate over such unedifying developments as the proliferation of supermarkets is, he points out, framed by the idealistic notion that so many visitors have of the place. He writes: “Certain foreigners pine for an ‘old Mexico’ about which they have a romantic notion – the Mexico of a Casasola photograph from 1910… Mexico is not really a Casasola photograph for them, but is for nearly half the Mexicans, who live on or over the edge of poverty. ‘Old Mexico’ is a charming conceit for those who are sturdily anchored in the twenty-first century. For an impoverished Mexican, ‘old Mexico’ is not quaint or nostalgic – it represents misery and servitude.” [pp. 97-98]

Tastes and pecadillos

First Stop in the New World provides an unrivalled insight both into that misery but also the aspirations of those who populate this behemoth, as well as their tastes and pecadillos.

We hear from Paty, the fichera – a Mexican equivalent of a geisha girl – whom Lida admits to visiting, but only as a trusted source, and who tells of how one client would take her to a four-star hotel then ask her to strip and eat rose petals.

Lida interviews Claudia Tate, the star singer at the jaded and rather off-key Club Savoy cabaret who, in her heyday, turned down a personal invitation from Mexico’s president by sending away a squadron of soldiers dispatched to pick her up against the entreaties of the club’s owner. “Send your mother,” Tate told him. “I’m not going.”

His chapter on Mexico City as a sex capital is a lubricious tour de force, even though the author admits that it is a “thorny proposition to try to make sense of the sexuality of twenty million people. But it’s even trickier when that sexuality is baroque, misleading, confusing, surprising, and secretive.” [p. 138]

Despite the theatrical sexism of Mexican men and a strong phallocratic culture, there is a real vacuum of knowledge about sex. It is the cult of the mother that often helps to explain high levels of sexual dysfunctionality among both women and men. Lida interviews a sex therapist, for example, and writes: “According to the psychologist, the ominous mother figure is one of the reasons for the high incidence of anorgasmia among women here. Mexican mothers also cause complications for their male offspring. Boys are usually pampered and babied in the home, taxed with no domestic responsibilities while their sisters shoulder many. Most men want to marry women who will similarly spoil them, yet have difficulties square-rooting the sexuality of a woman who treats them like their mother.” [p. 143]

It is also interesting to note how Lida’s observations about male bisexuality in Mexico, the byproduct – if you’ll excuse the pun – of an exaggerated machismo and the anxieties it causes, coincide with those found in another recent introduction to the country, Bandit Roads by Richard Grant. Lida writes: “Circumstantial evidence of male bisexuality, homosexual confusion, and even panic is overwhelming in Mexico City.” [p. 149]

Anyone who has visited a cantina in the Mexican capital will also be entertained by the chapter on drinking, which will provoke a sense of nostalgia for the drunken revelry that the country indulges in with such unabashed vigour. A Mexican will never order la última copa, we are told, because that’s the one you down before you die. It is more prudent, no matter how many have been consumed, to ask for la penúltima. The traditional, grimy and hard-nosed pulquerías – where cactus beer is served – are slowly disappearing like the gin palaces of old London, displaced by the impact of globalisation, gentrification and social mobility.

Daily struggle

But there are serious observations to be made about how chilangos live when aspects of their lifestyle are stripped away to reveal a grinding and often desperate daily struggle.

For this seething metropolis is populated by millions of people who eke out a living in the informal economy as street traders, newspaper vendors, pistoleros, security consorts and prostitutes. Lida provides fleshy insights into less orthodox sectors of the economy that have evolved as a function of its particular characteristics, not least the business of security and kidnap-negotiation.

One constant that many visitors to Mexico City will be familiar with is the high degree of inequality among its 20m residents. There are still those who only survive by rummaging on the garbage dumps hidden behind the shining corporate and commercial centre at Santa Fe, while the telecoms magnate Carlos Slim enjoys net worth of up to $70bn.

Such contrast, Lida points out, ensures that Mexico City’s business class has a large surplus of cheap labour at hand with which to multiply its wealth.

If a little apologetic about the entrepreneurial drive, and very often schadenfreude, with which most Mexicans respond, and hence over-optimistic about the human cost of this drudgery, Lida does at least recognise the indomitable spirit that ensures so many people adopt innovative survival strategies. It is, in turn, realistic for him to imply that it is this creative edge that is one of Mexico’s greatest assets.

What is most important about First Stop in the New World, however – and other such books in the expanding genre of thought-provoking introductions to the city and country such as Rubén Gallo’s The Mexico City Reader, Grant’s Bandit Roads and The Life and Times of Mexico by Earl Shorris – is that it seeks to get behind the stereotypes and generalisations that shape much US and European sentiment about the Mexicans and to provide a much more nuanced and mature understanding of them through their own words.

Georgina Jiménez is a Mexican freelance writer

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