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« If on a Winter's Night a Traveler | Main | The Valley of Fear »
Monday
Jan192009

First Stop in the New World

We have become both urban and urbane.  The relationship of those two words, as any old pedant will tell you, has as much to do with technology and society's development as with a persistent snobbery about those who live among strangers, who govern and shrive and housel and judge.  Nature should not be forgotten, and we can learn so many things from naturalists that our schools cannot or would not teach; but it is residing in a community with thousands or millions of others sharing similar goals and opportunities that defines modern existence.  Having spent my life almost entirely in capital cities I have a fondness for the countryside that is, in its essence, both Romantic and unrealistic, and what should be admired about the surroundings in this novella or this novel I may not want to experience for myself.  As the last two centuries have demonstrated, city life can be absolutely fabulous and absolutely miserable, paradise and penury lurking on opposite banks of a river that neither party really intends to cross.  And as our cities have grown, magnificent and proud structures, tributes to man's ingenuity, supremacy and sweat, art has reflected this shift: it has become more self-assured, less deferential, less keen on the mysteries of nature and more focused on the achievement of earth's most evolved species.  This is, for a variety of reasons, good and bad.  The bad consequence of our manmade landscapes is that we have come to believe that there is nothing beyond our grasp, that forests and hills and oceans are unkempt studies for true perfection.  While not all of us are so convinced, we can still revel in fine surveys of some of our more riveting urban sprawls.  One such location would be the former capital of the Aztec empire, now the Mecca of all sorts of empires, none of which seems to be unstinting towards its impoverished minions – which brings us to this recent book.

Mexico City is the most populous city in the Western Hemisphere, yet few have ventured a study into what makes it tick.  The habitual excuse will likely contain synonyms for "crazy," "unwieldy," "dangerous," and "colonialist," or maybe even those very words, leaving the curious reader who does not have the privilege of visiting quite cold.  As it were, the Distrito Federal (also known as D.F., in the spirit of Americans' D.C.) cannot be categorized as particularly safe, placid or easy to manage; if that's what you want in life, Geneva is still available.  No, D.F. screams tantalizing opportunities, huge disparities in those opportunities, and a certain ability to handle the vicissitudes of urban life that would make most spoiled Westerners quail.  In fact, given the plethora of negative information on Mexico City over the last few decades, there would be hardly an American of non-Mexican heritage that would ever want to consider a life there. 

Yet there are exceptions such as David Lida.  A New Yorker by birth and disposition, Lida has been a resident and proponent of D.F. since 1990 when he moved there after a succession of pleasant short-term stays.  All those years have given him access to changes and persons that would completely escape the casual observer, researcher or intrepid journalist armed with a handful of popular guides and a pocket dictionary.  Lida's knowledge is therefore profound, biased and laced with small chains of detail that could not have possibly occurred to someone unwilling to make a home out of his subject matter.  He bleeds and fights for a place that is not kind to its majority (and oftentimes pernicious to its minority), stubbornly persuaded that Mexico City will be the future.  Whose future is the only question:

People who complain that Mexico City has become agringada [Americanized] are in fact revealing that they never stray beyond the affluent neighborhoods.  However globalized, the city resists becoming the stereotype of a place that has lost its identity or become ruined due to contemporary capitalism.  There are probably many reasons, but the principal one is poverty.  Globalization functions for the middle class and the well-to-do, who increasingly find themselves living, working, and shopping in enclaves modeled after their counterparts in the United States.  The poor cannot afford such places, and globalization passes them by (106).

Unfortunately, there is nothing more commonplace and banal than poverty.  Lida's contribution aims to harpoon the traditional notions of mythic beasts such as postcolonialism, sexism, and the particularly Mexican malinchismo, which may be loosely rendered in English as a preference or prejudice for foreigners and foreign things, by adjusting the chiaroscuro.   Yes, Mexico City is poor (minimum wage is five dollars a day; only twelve percent of the working population earns more than twenty-three dollars a day).  Yes, Mexico City is as corrupt, unsafe and unpredictable as you might expect from a city that has only had non-appointed, elected mayors since 1997.  But what Lida finds is remarkable: he casts his eyes about and discovers the art and food of La Condesa; the vocabulary of death, fate and sexual interaction; the gentle winds that blow in from other nations and their impressions of Mexicans, by most accounts some of the friendliest people in the world.  One remarkable short chapter (there are thirty-three chapters, a tidy, unintentionally Christian number) relates the legend of the Island of the Dolls; another, longer entry surveys Mexico's diverse and brazen culinary combinations; and a lengthy chapter, fittingly the physical center of the book, is devoted to the sex industry at home, work and play.  Perhaps such prurience is unavoidable in our day and age consecrated so unabashedly to hedonism; whatever the explanation, it is not out of place given what the Spaniards accomplished and what we come to think about repressed lusts in countries that will overtly preach the contrary.

Lida may be a journalist accustomed to deadline, but he does not hurry his conclusions.  He admits that he did not immediately understand the complexity of the allusive phrase, "Soy chino libre"; and he has come to see the value of religion (which he clearly does not endorse) and Catholic motifs and rituals.  There is also an artistic touch to so many of his expressions, such as when he describes the inequities of daily existence: "people with money perceive the poor as abstractions, blurs who only come into focus when they wait on them" (29); or when he addresses the city's notorious penchant for gangdom: "Criminologists' explanation for the discrepancy has to do with the chilango's [Mexico City native's] perception of time. When surveyed, victims nearly always believe that the crimes have occurred more recently than they did" (209).  Would you want to read an urban diary whose author was not in love with that city, who wasn't prone to fits of exaggeration, who wouldn't place a charming twist on the most morose and sordid details?  This is neither obstruction nor propaganda, this is love.  When we love, we may espy the faults of our beloved, but we bask in the glory of her advantages, her ecstasies, her passions.  Lida took his time and found almost everything praiseworthy about an ancient city that most dismiss with a careless gesture.  Another chaotic valley of trouble, perched high above even less fortunate warrens of humanity?  That's only one way to look at it.

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