Reviewed: El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City, by John Ross (New York: Nation Books), 512 pages.
In El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City, long-time journalist and author John Ross summons the magic of Mexico’s history, making it shine through the political blood and city smog. This monstrous work is spiced with humor, murder mysteries, gossip, and haunting detail.
By focusing on El Monstruo – Mexico City – Ross tells an epic history of the region, from the Aztec Empire through the Mexican Revolution, to the 2006 presidential elections and the city’s struggle with swine flu.
The book is interspersed with brief interviews Ross conducted with local characters in and around the hotel he lives in down in the Centro Histórico of Mexico City. In one such exchange, the local Alfredo spoke to Ross about his work buying and selling gold jewelry. He told the writer that he has “never knowingly bought or sold a stolen watch.” Alfredo called himself an urban gold miner. “Your never know where you will encounter gold in this city.”
Ross himself is a kind of urban gold miner. He digs up one story from 1928, when the cartoonist José de León Toral drew a picture of a President Álvaro Obregón while the leader was celebrating his re-election. Toral placed a pistol under the drawing before showing it to the president and shot Obregón five times. Or did he? The case isn’t closed, and the truth about who pulled the trigger “went to the grave with Toral.” At the end of this unsolved mystery, Ross tells us that “Unrepentant, Toral sucked down his last cigarette – a Faro, the slim-jim cheapos that were then the smoke of choice… The term chupando [puffing] Faros has since become Chilango slang for giving up the ghost.”
Such details pop up in the most unexpected places throughout this history. We’re enlightened about the fact that on the night of the Zapatista uprising, on January 1st, 1994, President Carlos Salinas’ New Year’s Eve party put away three bottles of Dom Pérignon and was contemplating a late night cruise on the presidential yacht. Before the party could cast off, Salinas received a phone call from one of his military officials about a certain masked insurgency taking place in Chiapas, declaring war on the Mexican state. Ross then leads the section on the Zapatista uprising with, Feliz Año Nuevo, Cabrones.
Ross is rightly skeptical of most politicians. When reflecting on the results of one mayoral election in Mexico City, he writes,
The Monster was powered by its own internal contradictions. It could not be made to wear the bridle of the Left or the Right. El Monstruo had no political party, or perhaps it was its own political party. Those who sought to rule here had to make peace with the beast. There were certain protocols to follow. As in all 12-step programs, those who claimed to be in charge had first to admit that they had no power over El Monstruo. Once that was established, negotiations could begin.
Perhaps the same political analysis could be true for the entire nation. This is one of the many strengths of El Monstruo: that in gaining an understanding of the city, we gain an understanding of Mexico itself.
After all the tragedy and glory covered in this book, Ross writes that the “social immune system” of those living in Mexico City “is still healthy enough to resist the bullshit of their rulers…” And it’s that people’s energy that keeps El Monstruo from chupando Faros.
Benjamin Dangl edits of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, covering activism and politics in Latin America. He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007), and the forthcoming book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, 2010).