Smell that? It’s the smell of Deep Time. Not in the scientific sense of the fathomless vastness of geological time, but in the mythic, plumed-serpent, under-the-jaguar-sun sense. The Mexican sense.
You’re in D.F. (the Distrito Federal, La Ciudad de México—“Mexico City” to norteamericanos), as I was this March, and it’s late, and the smell on the night air is the ever-present smell of exhaust from some of the D.F.’s four million cars (by the Mexico City writer David Lida’s reckoning), a hint of vegetable decay that my gabacho nose translates as jungle rot, the greasy aroma of something sizzling in oil, concrete dust from the unending construction projects that are a running joke among chilangos (as D.F. residents call themselves), and somewhere down in the bass register, the unmistakable reek of raw sewage, and below that, the dusty smell of antiquity, all those sedimentary layers of Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec civilization pressing down on the present like some Jungian version of geologic strata—depth psychology’s answer to Deep Time.
These days, the smell many Americans imagine drifting on the night air of Mexico City is the smell of fear and contagion—the pestilential reek of swine flu, la gripe porcina, which the CDC insists we call H1N1 but wags are calling everything but: “snoutbreak,” “parmageddon,” “aporkalypse now.” Now that the epidemic seems to have peaked, with a global body count far lower than the Andromeda Strain horror scripted by the U.S. media, reasonable minds on both sides of the border are taking a hard look at the media etiology of the panic. When American anxiety was at its height, Right Wing frothing heads like Michelle Malkin and Michael Savage helped spread the hate, blaming the Creeping Pig Death on the engulfing tide of “uncontrolled immigration” (Malkin). “Make no mistake about it: illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico,” Savage barked.
Throughout the outbreak, David Lida, a New York journalist and short-story writer who has lived in D.F. for nearly 20 years, was a voice of reason, keeping a dryly funny yet deeply felt Journal of the Plague Year on his blog Mostly Mexico City (www.davidlida.com). On April 29, he posted a portrait of chilango bravado in the face of viral siege: “The CDC says that surgical masks are absolutely useless in preventing swine flu...Yet everyone and his brother has one in Mexico City...Some people move them to the side while they puff on cigarettes, while others pull them down while they eat street tacos. Everyone and his brother talks through them on their cell phones. At a cantina last Monday, the customers were wearing them around their necks jauntily as if they were scarves.”
In a series of video interviews with the citizen journalist Dyana Nafisi for her YouTube show, Dyana in Mexico, Lida lamented that “Mexico City, once again, is the world’s poster boy for disaster and death.” It’s a dreary commonplace among press critics that the American media turns its vapid gaze toward Mexico only when the disaster du jour—narco decapitations, earthquakes, El Niño—demands it. But there’s so much more to this metastasizing megalopolis, whose greater area has a population of about 22 million, making it one of the most populous conurbations (megalopolitan sprawls) in the world. As Lida told Nafisi, “If you look at the history of Mexico City, you’ve got 700 years of flood, famine, earthquake, killer diseases, corruption, crime, poverty, pollution, yet somehow this city survives all that. All I can hope is that this crisis will pass quickly and that people will get back to the image that they should have of Mexico City because it is indeed culturally, historically, architecturally—any way you look at it—one of the great cities of the world.”
Despite getting—and kicking—the dreaded flu himself, the expatriate New Yorker remains an exuberant devotee of the city. In the new paperback edition of his justifiably acclaimed First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, he rips and remixes the “hypermetropolis, the ur-urb of the American continent” into a fast-moving mashup.
The book is no Travel Channel puff piece: in the chapter on crime, “Who’s Afraid of Mexico City?” Lida describes his harrowing hours, in 1996, as the victim of what locals call a secuestro express (express kidnapping), in which a pair of goons held him and his then-wife at knifepoint on a cab ride from hell, trying his credit card at various ATMs.
Two hours is a long time under such circumstances, and we were able to engage in a little Stockholm-syndrome dialogue. The Gorilla was the most voluble. Soon after the joyride began he informed us that what was happening was not his fault but the government’s, for turning its back on its neediest citizens and forcing them to steal to survive. [My wife] was quick to point out that neither she nor I had any connection with the regime.
“Les tocó,” he said, in a perfect illustration of Mexican fatalism.
Your number came up.
Still, as Lida notes in the same chapter, American reporting on D.F. is “exaggerated and poorly researched, if not blatantly irresponsible,” painting the city in tabloid-gothic tones as “a locale of impossible and insane danger—Mogadishu in Spanish.” To be sure, the city’s no Disneyland, but as Lida usefully reminds his American readers, you have a far greater chance of getting murdered in U.S. cities such as D.C., Detroit, and Philadelphia, to name just a few.
At times, First Stop feels like a videogame based on The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz’s poetic inquiry into the Meaning of Mexico. Or maybe a cross between Amores Perros and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, with a Mex-tech soundtrack. (The book’s title riffs on Benjamin’s description of Paris as the capital of the 19th century.) Lida writes in a gently cynical New York deadpan reminiscent of Luc Sante (with whom he’s friends, by the way; they met while working at the Strand bookstore in the East Village). First Stop balances the author’s Tom Waits-ian fascination with losers, hustlers, and unforgettable grotesques with a political conscience that never sleeps and a profound affection for the bulletproof chilango spirit of toughing things out, improvising on the fly.
Like a good and (in the best sense) garrulous friend, Lida wants to show us every nook and cranny in the city, his city—wants us to live it on the page as he does in everyday life. He introduces us to a “hyperrich” socialite, the “svelte and golden” former Miss Argentina, who confides to Lida, without a hint of irony, that despite her maids and mansions and millions she has come to realize that the Things of the Spirit matter more, far more, than mere material pleasures. “She is to entertaining what Fred Astaire was to dance: you never see her sweat,” writes Lida. He chases that snapshot with a day in the life of a homeless girl “with the enormous eyes of a gazelle” who lives on the streets, sustained by toxic inhalants. (In Mexico City, the gap between rich and wretchedly poor is almost pre-Columbian. Just like Manhattan, in other words.) He offers a hair-raising brain scan of the typical chilango motorist, in a city where driving combines the adrenaline buzz and white-knuckle terrors of speed trial and demo derby. “If someone turns his blinkers on, other drivers take it as a sign to speed up and detain his passage,” notes Lida. “To avoid getting caught by the police going the wrong way down a one-way street, [drivers] will drive in reverse for two or three blocks.” He insists we accompany him to a lucha libre (masked wrestling) match, where “watching the crowd—entire shrieking families, the musclebound stud with the hopelessly bored girlfriend, the toothless grandmother who gets so carried away that she drops the cross-eyed baby—is often more fascinating than the spectacle of the matches.” He devotes an entire chapter to the Mysterium Tremendum of Mexican street food, pausing for a reverent moment to rhapsodize about puerco profundo, taco filling made of “hunks of pork shoulder or butt, mixed with the rest of the pig—liver, heart, snout, skin, even reproductive organs.” He rejoices in the seedy delights of cantinas, neighborhood bars where a drink comes, gratis, with little plates called botanas and where chilangos “drink exuberantly, enthusiastically, passionately—anything but prudently.” Cantina waiters often behave like the proverbial Jewish mother, scolding clients for not eating enough: “During two and a half hours at a cantina called La Auténtica, a companion and I between us consumed—apart from an avalanche of tequila and beer—cream of chile soup, beef broth, steak tartare, chiles stuffed with cheese, and an enormous pork shank that, once picked clean of its meat, appeared to be a lost dinosaur bone. After coffee, I asked for the check. The waiter, a wounded expression on his face, asked, ‘So soon?’”
Speaking of pork shank, there’s a delicious irony in the fact that, to many Americans, Mexico City is now synonymous with the Pig Death from Hell. All of Mexico was inducted, by the Spanish conquerors, into what Lida calls the Cult of the Pig, but D.F. is especially swine-ocentric: the city’s signature dish, the apotheosis of chilango street cuisine, is the taco al pastor, a sublime concoction that draws its inspiration from the shawarma introduced to Mexican gastronomy by Lebanese immigrants: pork, spiced and tinted a traffic-cone orange by the liberal use of achiote (annatto), then roasted on an upright spit and shaved into a corn tortilla, where the tacquero tops it off with pineapple, onions, and cilantro. To eat it, in situ, is to touch the face of God. Greasily. But still.
When I lectured in the city this March, as part of the venerable Festival de Mexico en el Centro Historico, Lida was gracious enough to take me on a taco crawl through the streets of D.F., where we gorged ourselves on tacos of puerco profundo (slaughterhouse sweepings, by any other name, but delicious nonetheless—I loved the tacquero’s droll touch of plopping a fist-sized pig’s heart amid the scraps of mystery meat on the grille, to be cleavered into bite-sized pieces as needed); fried tacos with a schmear of pig’s brains; tacos de carnitas (braised pork, so meltingly delicious it’s almost erotic); and of course tacos al pastor.
At one point, I bought a handmade tortilla, hot off the comal (griddle), which I eat, standing in the street, chilango-style. Seasoned with a little salt and a dash of fresh green chile sauce, it’s sublime: hot and subtly sweet and soft as calfskin. I wonder, aloud, why even the best handmade tortillas, north of the border, never taste like this. What gets lost in translation? I mean, corn is corn, right?
“No, no, absolutely not!” says Lida. “It’s not like the corn that you get in the U.S. It’s starchier, it’s less sweet, it’s just sort of cornier-tasting. It’s more like hominy, the corn used in pozole, than it is like that sweet corn that you get in New England in the summer. This is a big issue right now: the U.S. is trying to get genetically engineered corn here and there’s a great fear that it will destroy some of the indigenous breeds of corn” (of which there are some 5,000 varieties, he later tells me). An incomparable loss, I think, since the tortilla is the soul of Mexican gastronomy, every bite a time machine back to the world before the conquistadors.
Later, I ask Lida what it is, exactly, that draws a certain sort of norteamericano—Ambrose Bierce, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, him—to Mexico? Obviously, there’s a powerful, mythic pull that makes some gabachos want to cut to the beating heart of an alien culture. Because, just as obviously, they don’t feel it’s alien. In such instances, Mexico is a Rorschach blot; our attraction to it says as much about ourselves as it does about the country.
“Foreigners find whatever they’re looking for here,” he says, “and sort of mold Mexico to suit their obsessions or preconceived ideas. Mexico spoke to a need in me that being in America didn’t fulfill. Its contradictions and sometimes downright hypocrisies, and its cynicism, answered to a world view I was developing when I first came to live here in 1990. I’m from New York, which as you know is traditionally a geographical and cultural extreme of the U.S. And I’m Jewish. So I always felt a bit removed from my cultural identity as an American. When I saw a picture of fat blonde people lined up at Disneyland, I didn’t feel like one of them. I always had the impression that the world was a dark and dangerous place and if one wasn’t in dark and dangerous circumstances it was a stroke of luck. In Mexico, that’s more obvious. Many Mexicans wear this on their sleeve. It corresponded to my world view.
“On one hand, I’ve ‘become Mexican’ inasmuch as a way of thinking here has permeated my perception of the world. On the other hand, I never felt so American as I have after living in Mexico so long, because that’s how the Mexicans perceive me, whatever my own perception of myself is. Who are we, after all? The person we perceive ourselves to be, or the person the world sees us as?”
I think of the May 11 post on Lida’s blog, in which he counterpoints photos of chilangos in surgical masks with some ruminations on Octavio Paz’s ruminations, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, on the deeper meanings of the mask in Mexican culture: “At all costs,” wrote Paz, “Mexicans resist revealing themselves to others. Doing so would be a sign of weakness, and expose them to all sorts of terrifying vulnerability...I wonder what the poet would have thought of those days when so many in Mexico City wandered its streets wearing officially sanctioned surgical masks, disguising (or perhaps exposing) whoever it is that they are. Perhaps he would have seen it as their shining hour.”
Mark Dery is a cultural critic and the author of The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. He blogs at www.markdery.com.