The water was drained, yet the city is still sinking…
The water was drained and now we must pull it uphill, for miles on end…
The water in this city drives it to its ruin…
Water, in its geological nature, belongs where Mexico City now stands. The valley, now home to over nine million people, used to be the lacustrine system of Texcoco, a body of water extending over 1,200 square miles, the core of which became the heart of the Aztec empire, namely its capital, Tenochtitlan. In hindsight the obvious question arises: Why build right on the lake and not around it, taking full advantage of the pristine resource?
Recent excavations suggest that Mexicas—the first Aztec tribe—settled on the lake with strategic military purposes, using the water around them as a defensive barrier. It is believed that the official myth of Tenochtitlan, which states that the Aztec empire would be built where an eagle perched over a cactus was found devouring a snake—an image forever captured on the Mexican flag—was an embellishment created to eclipse the gruesomeness of their own military actions.
Regardless of the myths, legends, or actual military strategies, the empire began to grow right on the lake, becoming one of the most powerful in Central America. The first technological hydraulic efforts were perfected under the lifespan and reign of Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor, circa 1500. The city developed an agricultural method called chinampas—superficial parcels nurtured by the lake beneath them—which became the city’s building blocks, enabling Tenochtitlan to thrive above the surface of the water. The city continued to grow, leading to the placement of more land on the water, gradually sucking in more of the diminishing lake.
Moctezuma’s death at hands of the Spanish conquistadors and the fall of his empire led to the complete draining of the lake and its tributaries. Through conquest and the new Spanish rule, Mexico City’s landscape began to resemble what it has become. The lake was gone, but its trace remains as an eerie reminder of this unnatural path to progress. It is believed that Moctezuma had plans to sustain the city’s growth and preserve the metropolitan system that relied so heavily upon the lake. His death, though, and the consequences of the dry cityscape of his former, sacked empire, would make his figure return via the city’s contemporary vernacular.
Mexico City’s water supply system is the costliest and, probably, the most absurd in the planet. Sistema Cutzamala, developed in the 1940s, is the engineering project responsible for the water supply of the city and the rest of the metropolitan area—populated by nearly twenty-four million people.
A few facts to illustrate its absurdity: water is hydro-elevated from dams in neighboring states for at least seventy-five miles, then treated at chlorination plants, and finally dropped into Mexico City’s valley through more pipes and aquifers—collecting pollutants as it travels, and being chemically modified in its treatment plants and throughout the trajectory before gushing from taps or travelling further in tanker-trucks. This system renders Mexico City’s water as the most expensive in the world, providing a quality that hardly matches the investment, since the majority of the cost goes to propelling it uphill to make it available.
To make matters worse, the draining of the Texcoco Lake is not only directly linked to poor supply, but has presented a grimmer problem: getting the waste water—the infamous aguas negras (black waters)—out of the city. Once the questionable water is used, discharging it has become hazardous and expensive. Since there are no natural bodies of water left—no natural escape routes—the government has implemented pumping stations and a sewage system best known for its impossible blockages (I wonder which other city employs waste-divers to unclog sewers from everything ranging from fecal matter, electronic waste, dead animals, the occasional dead human body) to drive the water away.
As capitalism and our obsession with urbanism has taught us, the dirty water—once freed of the blockages by the divers—is tossed into the outskirts of the city, into underdeveloped, rural communities that have historically earned a living from agriculture. Their produce, sold en masse in Mexico City’s markets, has been cultivated in black waters, in which unique specimens of bacteria have settled and seeped into the food. Moctezuma’s figure is thus summoned to the present. As writer and photographer Kurt Hollander discusses in his book Several Ways To Die In Mexico City (2012), the cultivation of food in waste-waters causes grave gastrointestinal illness, cholera and salmonellosis as the clearest examples (source of inspiration for a photographic series of his, shooting a variety of bathrooms throughout Mexico, all of which were used to violently discharge what he previously ate). Yet, best known as “Moctezuma’s Revenge,” one of the severest consequences of the foul water affecting mostly tourists and visitors is a lack of acclimatization of the immune system to the bacterium that swims in our black waters, a type of helicobacter pylori unique in the world, that has managed to thrive in the city’s water supply.
It is thought that Moctezuma, dead at the hand of foreigners, represents the loathing of outsiders, and to some extent he has been reduced to this image. But what if we trace back—to fully understand the source of this revenge, and the appropriation of his name by a severe stomach ailment—to the draining of the lake after the downfall of his empire? The first misstep in this horrid spiral is the treatment of water since conquest, of going against nature’s ways.
But of course, diarrhea, salmonellosis, or even Moctezuma’s Revenge are not powerful enough evidence to seek a reversal towards sustainability. Vestiges of the lake manifest themselves in a variety of ways.
On September 19, in both 1985 and 2017, the land, appealing to its geological knowledge, reminded us that its power leaps far beyond Moctezuma’s ghost.
Merely weeks ago, a 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico City—on a day when we were not only commemorating the deadly earthquake of 1985, but also performing simulacra across the city to be reminded of how we remain at nature’s mercy, and even perhaps, of how we are enslaved by our past mistakes.
The earthquake’s shockwaves ran into lacustrine area, now overtaken by a superficial layer of pavement and buildings. Below this layer, the lake continues to bemoan its presence. The foundational base of a large part of the city is an unstable sediment of compressible sands saturated in water, where the alleged eagle once chose to devour the serpent, or where Mexicas found their concept of military safety. According to seismologist Victor Manuel Cruz-Atienza, who has studied the effects of shockwaves in the lacustrine area, what the soft, sandy matter beneath us does is exponentially amplify the oscillatory potency of the earthquake’s waves (in the case of this recent earthquake, the shockwaves reached a potency of at least 300 times their actual strength in the lacustrine area alone—the highest case of amplification documented in the world). We saw buildings crumble to the ground, all of which were erected where there was once water.
As we hurried through the city in the earthquake’s aftermath, offering the little help we could, it took only the naked eye to see the surviving slanted buildings lazily leaning and resting on each other as the soft terrain continues to sink. What treacherous personification—for it is only when they are toppled and reduced to rubble that they seem to convey true alarm.
As I write this, sensing for absolute stillness, I try to avert my eyes and mind from the depleted state of our streets and our communities, from our post-traumatic symptoms, and try to zoom back in the mind’s eye, picturing the lake extending over the valley, the hills and firm ground in the surrounding areas. But the image ultimately vanishes and is overtaken by what I’ve endlessly seen through the ready-made screen of an airplane window during approach: buildings as far as the eye can see… no water.
DIEGO GERARD is a writer and editor based in Mexico City. He is the co-founding editor of diSONARE Magazine.Tatina Vazest
TATINA VAZEST (Acapulco, 1993) is a graphic designer and illustrator. She’s the co-founder of Fluo, a Digital Media & Design Studio in Mexico City.