Dec 11, 2013
Scott Sherman on John Ross’ Mexico City
Posted on Mar 12, 2010
The first time I saw the writer John Ross he was standing in the middle of the Zocalo, Mexico City’s sprawling central plaza. It was close to midnight on July 6, 1997, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who lost the presidency in a stolen election in 1988, had just become the city’s first democratically elected mayor. A spontaneous celebration erupted in the rain-soaked Zocalo, and Ross was there—his arms crossed, his posture erect, his bearded face exuding satisfaction and contentment.
I wasn’t surprised to see him that night in the plaza: With his left-anarchist politics, Ross has never been the kind of writer who steps into a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. Originally drawn to Mexico as a teenager by D.H. Lawrence’s “The Plumed Serpent,” he has lived there off and on since 1957, chronicling the country’s grass-roots political milieu for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, The Texas Observer and other publications. Foreign correspondents in the Mexican capital tend to reside in posh districts such as Coyoacan, but since 1985 Ross has made his home in Room 102 of the low-budget Hotel Isabel, situated in the bustling, polluted core of the old city, between the Alameda central and the Zocalo. His room, which has large French windows and a decaying balcony, contains four tattered armchairs, two writing desks and unruly stacks of newspaper clippings. In the springtime, the airshaft adjacent to his bathroom echoes with the cooing of small birds.
From those cluttered confines, Ross has produced stirring (if rather shaggy) books: “Rebellion From the Roots,” published in 1995, was one of the first—and most vibrant—accounts of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas; it is currently out of print. In 2004 Ross published “Murdered by Capitalism,” a phantasmagoric memoir that garnered a rare blurb from Thomas Pynchon, who praised it as “a ripsnorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics. …” He has also written poetry chapbooks with titles such as “12 Songs of Love & Ecocide” and “The Psoriasis of Heartbreak.”
His latest book, “El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City,” is an impassioned and melancholy history of Mexico’s most complex, boisterous and exhilarating city. It’s a subject well suited to Ross’ talents and present circumstances: Nonfiction books about Mexico City (in English) are surprisingly rare, and open-minded visitors to “the monster” will want this volume in their hand luggage alongside the requisite titles by Malcolm Lowry, Juan Rulfo, Alan Riding and Lonely Planet. But do not expect dispassionate writing or journalistic objectivity: Ross’ prose style imparts the coiled rage of Howard Zinn; the hallucinogenic sensibility of a beat poet; and the punchy rhythms of a tabloid scribe. (His father was an entertainment columnist for the old New York World Telegram, and the young John Ross inhabited the bohemian precincts of Greenwich Village, reading his poetry at the Half Note while Charles Mingus took a break from the bandstand.)
By and large, “El Monstruo” unfolds chronologically, its principal emphasis not on politicians and elites, but on workers, intellectuals, students and jodidos (the underclass or “the screwed ones”). The narrative is punctuated by pithy oral histories from denizens of the venerable La Blanca restaurant, where Ross has eaten two meals a day for the better part of a quarter-century, and from which he always emerges with a banana to take back to his hotel room. Interviewing one’s own comrades for a book can be a slothful journalistic device. But Ross has a sharp ear for dialogue, slang and absurdity, and his interviews at La Blanca—with the restaurant staff, a watch salesman, a street musician, a tailor, an undercover cop, a young female jewelry maker and the Hotel Isabel’s porter—enliven his narrative and expose us to an authentic cross section of chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known.
“El Monstruo” begins, as it must, with the Aztecs, who built a city—Tenochtitlan—that astonished the invading Spaniards in 1519. It was a city of lakes and canals, replete with tens of thousands of canoes; a city of floating gardens, where amaranth, tomatoes and beans were grown; a city with intricate and ingenious systems for hydraulics, road building and waste disposal. If it was a city of flowers, it was also a city of extreme cruelty: Every year thousands of victims were marched up to the Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc temples and slaughtered in macabre rituals, after which the corpses were tossed down the stone steps and hacked to pieces.
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