Part of the unbearable pride of living in New York City comes from a dubious perception: Americans consider it a city with a sort of Old World flavour. For a long time, Buenos Aires considered itself the Paris of the Americas. Washington D.C. was modelled by Pierre L’Enfant to look like Rome and people from Toronto describe their city as the Canadian New York. Mexico City’s inhabitants tend to define it only as peculiar, and don’t aspire to understand it through comparisons with more glamorous places. There is arrogance in that sense of uniqueness, but it’s involuntary.
The Federal District – DF for those of us who call it home – is chaotic, sloppy, raucous and tasteless. The sidewalks are so broken that they are slowly going back to their cobblestone origin, the puddles of primal matter stay alive for months, and the traffic lines on the tarmac are never repainted. It’s attractive in its own defiant way: what is graceful about it is not in its smooth, well-designed corners but in the places where the scars are visible. There is a charm in the distressed futurism of El Viaducto – the city’s first freeway – organic and gentle in its shape because its purpose was not to let cars move fast and freely but to cover the pestiferous Piedad river. The Viaducto is so old, and so much water flows under it, that its median strips have developed small, unexpected forests. There is an unnoticed architectural lesson in the functionalist colonias (“neighbourhoods”) Nápoles and Narvarte – once projected to be affluent, then abandoned to a striving middle class that luckily never had the money to remodel them. There is an astonishing beauty in the variety of trees that were planted by improvised city planners and have thrived thanks to the monsoon that floods the city for five months of the year. And that muscular thing: it’s so big and wide that a plane has to fly for a quarter of an hour to cross it before landing. It has mountain and valley weather. It has three skylines: one in the south, in Avenida de los Insurgentes, one downtown, in Paseo de la Reforma, and one in the west, in Santa Fe, a neighbourhood that feels like it was torn off Hong Kong.
Mexico City can look broken and is commonly defined by the people who suffer it every day as post-apocalyptic, but it is conscious of its value even to a nominal degree: it has two names, each of a different gender. It’s “el DF” – masculine – and “la ciudad de México” – feminine. Capricious and bisexual, he is a boy when exasperating and a girl when we adore her.
Working-class folk singer Rodrigo González said in his “Manifiesto Rupestre” that he belonged to a generation of musicians who “play like carpenters from Venus”. He was the quintessential underground singer of Mexico City during the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Rockdrigo”, as he wrote his name, was a sort of impoverished Billy Bragg: the three albums that survived him were recorded in the National University’s radio station and his own living room, because he never had enough money or recognition to use a proper studio. Like all heroes, he died as a propitiatory victim: he was crushed when his apartment building collapsed during the huge 1985 earthquake. In his delirious ballad “Hybrid Times”, he defined Mexico City as a town “with cyclotronic street vendors, supersonic fire eaters and sidereal peasants”. He was not the most refined of poets, but his talent for juxtaposing things that don’t go together – let me stress the idea of him as a musician who defined himself as a “Venusian carpenter” – may be the reason his songs are considered classic in a city where none of them were ever played on a commercial radio station in his lifetime. He was the town’s incarnation, its dark twin, our comfortable ghost.
What Rockdrigo perhaps understood was that Mexico City has been the laboratory of all hybridisations since the 17th century. The town was mainly populated, in those years, by Nahua Indians and white people. During the late 1700s most of the city dwellers were black, with large communities of Filipino migrants. During the 19th century the town received large-scale Chinese immigration, and in the 20th – catastrophic for Europe – it was repopulated first by whites and then by indigenous Mexicans migrating from the rest of the country in search of a place in the capital’s incipient service economy. Two unknown writers arrived in the second half of the 20th century, one as a failed journalist in 1958, the other as a teenager in 1968: Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. The first wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude when he was just arriving and stayed until his death. Bolaño left to live in Europe, but Mexico City haunted him for the rest of his life. His master novel, The Savage Detectives, is a love letter to DF. Both books changed our understanding of literature on a global scale and may owe part of their dense richness to the landscape in which they were conceived. They are novels in which worlds that shouldn’t be together collide, generating a multiple reality, as eccentric as fluid.
During the 1970s, the classrooms in which I spent my childhood received waves of kids from Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Lebanon, running from brutal regimes and circumstances. All of them stayed and mixed. If the people of London or Chicago keep having interracial sex for another 300 years, they will look like us.
That eccentric comfort with multiplicity may come from the fact that DF, instead of demolishing and rebuilding, adds and mixes: it puts things together that usually stay separated. No one ever designed a general urban plan for Mexico City’s development. Its Renaissance outline was made by one of Cortés’ soldiers and its first buildings of European style were constructed by redistributing the stones of the Aztec edifices. Cortés built a palace on the foundation of Moctezuma’s Palace. In 1562 the Spanish Crown bought the house of the conquistador and made it the Viceroy Palace, which then became the National Palace in 1821.
All of this happened in what today is the Centro Histórico. In 1521, that part of the city was a small island in the centre of the salty and sulphurous Texcoco Lake. The rest of Tenochtitlan, by then bigger than Seville, according to the first Europeans who saw it, was a system of artificial islands connected by channels – that’s why Miguel de Cervantes proclaimed that “the magnificent Venice has now found a city that may be compared to herself” in his enigmatic Exemplary Tale “Doctor Glass-Case”. DF is, in this sense, a statistical impossibility: the only city of the Americas that has been a capital since the 14th century was built on water.
This spring, Mexico City turns 690 years old. All foundation dates are mythical, but archaeologists have still not found any evidence to deny that the first temple of Tenochtitlan was built in March 1325. Seven centuries of continuous development is a respectable age for any city in the Americas.
DF was the heart of the Aztec empire and, as time went by, another three empires occupied it. It was the jewel of the Spanish crown and during the imperial expansions of the 19th century it was – for a shorter time – part of France and the United States. The world powers arrive, show off and decline; Mexico City scratches her head. No matter how many Zaras and Starbucks prosper above ground, people will embrace them, use them and then eat a taco of squash flowers and grasshoppers at a corner stand.
Maybe what is most attractive about the city is the fact that those seven centuries of hybridisation in a continuous cultural flux can be seen by simply walking around. They are not displayed as medals but just left there. Instead of removing its ruins (as New York does) or fencing them off (like Rome) or keeping them safe in a museum (like Paris), DF adds new functions to spaces without erasing the previous ones.
Pino Suárez metro station is an underground stop and an archaeological site: as one shuffles onto the platform, a pyramid found during the construction of the station in the 1970s just pops up. An 18th-century palace of the Barrio de la Merced is a lower-middle-class rental building, a clothes store, a car-repair shop and a small restaurant that’s usually quite good if you dare to eat there. Nothing is conserved or destroyed; everything is recycled as new layers of function are stretched out. This kind of multiplication of uses for space is not only characteristic of the historical neighbourhoods. The Aztec Stadium was constructed for the 1970 World Cup, at a time when the automobile was a luxury and most people moved around in public transportation. The stadium has a capacity of 104,000 and very few parking spaces. No one has suggested constructing a new parking lot, because on game days, people in the neighbourhood open their private garages and charge a modest sum for a space. They sell, too – football merchandise and, of course, food and drinks to take to the game, to celebrate a victory or forget a defeat. A house is a parking lot, a sports store, a deli and a bar.
So it’s not, as is often said, that in Mexico City things are not what they seem; they are what they seem and much more, all put together in layers, like a cake. To navigate the town is like being a speleologist in a patisserie. It’s not by accident, I suspect, that the universally beloved, early 20th-century ultra-eclectic Palacio de Bellas Artes was re-baptised by novelist Ángeles Mastretta as “the First Communion cake”.
In Héctor Toledano’s cult science-fiction novel Las puertas del reino, the entire country is depopulated after a war, so the capital returns – as would happen the second we stopped our epic everyday fight against water – to the bottom of the lake. There is a scene in which a character navigates a raft over the city. The sun hangs diagonally as the day is fading, and he sees the top of the massive Revolution Monument and its beautiful Art Deco surroundings underwater, criss-crossed by fish and covered in algae.
Toledano’s pages about the post-apocalyptic DF have a correspondence with the most visible and debated of all the city’s 21st-century public-engineering works. The Vial Distributor consists of a series of very long and very high bridges that connect distant parts of the city like a web of concrete – nicknamed the “Second Floor” by people with cosy ingenuity. Driving over it, it is not clear if one is in Mexico City or Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.
Cities are shaped and grow in accidental ways, but they do so in agreement with the fantasies and nightmares of their inhabitants. The Second Floor is simultaneously a megalomaniac solution for the problem of moving cars through a town that has reached the dimensions, population and wealth of a small republic, and a meditation on our condition as inhabitants of a ruin in progress. More than a system of aerial roads, the Second Floor is an archaeological sky drive. One progresses through it watching the city beneath with the same curiosity and foreign disregard with which one strolls by the fenced walkways that cross the ruins of cities long gone.
I can’t imagine a more precise allegory for life in today’s DF: the city as a ruin and its inhabitants switching on and off the archaeological walkway of the Second Floor. Ascending, speeding over the treetops, snaking through the buildings, is to inhabit the future – everything that stayed underneath, a ruinous past to which one will return. The nerve of DF, its vital, eclectic drive, is as powerful as the apocalyptic feeling it produces: a city speeding to the future that feels like the relics of itself, a machine that makes the past and future tenses simultaneous. Jorge Luis Borges’ Aleph could be the emblem of contemporary Mexico City, “the only place on earth where all places are – seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending”: DF, Aleph, all of it all at once. §