There are dozens — if not hundreds — of books by Americans about Paris. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough even wrote a 500+ page tome about Americans in Paris. And yet, prior to 2008 there was not a single English-language book dedicated to the world’s third largest metropolis, and the capital city of America’s southern neighbor. As Richard Feinberg writes in his review of First Stop in the New World:
If Mexico City were located in western Europe, it would be a must-see tourist destination in the same league as London, Paris, and Rome. The metropolis’ extraordinary museums, architectural masterpieces, vast cultural scenes, and extravagant restaurants are world-class; many Mexican elites are refined and erudite, their dinner conversations unsurpassed displays of verbal virtuosity.
Then, in 2008, David Lida published his first English-language book, which is built on nearly two decades of journalistic work in and around Mexico City. The following year John Ross, a self-described “rebel journalist” published El Monstruo. And in 2011, Daniel Hernandez published Down and Delirious in Mexico City, which I reviewed here.
Why this explosion of English-language books about Mexico City by Americans after decades of disregard? Ironically, it has much to do with the city’s cultural and economic rise over the past five to ten years. I say ‘ironically’ because none of the three above-mentioned authors chart the city’s progress. Rather, they romantically portray the city as still stuck in the past: old men falling over in sepia-tinted cantinas, mariachis roaming back alleys, burlesque shows struggling to stay in business with the rise of US-style strip clubs. All three men make it their mission to preserve the 20th century capital that is slowly disappearing without paying much attention to the impressive social, economic, and urban planning progress the city has made over the past ten years. The result gives readers a glimpse of Mexico City through an Instagram vintage filter: exotic, seductive, but not the full picture.
Hernandez’s Down and Delirious in Mexico City is written in a vibrant, experiential prose that perfectly captures the energy and angst of the Mexico City youth that are making up a new set of social mores informed by new economic opportunities and greater global connections. David Lida, by comparison, has a more understated, mature voice that leaves much to be interpreted. Occasionally he falls victim (as we all do) to ranting about the worst aspects of the city, but in his defense, as Andrew Paxman writes in his review:
Mexico City is often so infuriating and so riddled with injustice (I speak as a former resident), it would have been easy for Lida to stray into sermonizing, but he never does … The tone is chiefly celebratory, at times meditative, often playful, as befits a city with an endless capacity for improvisation, in defiance of many predictions of collapse.
Throughout the book, Lida proves himself a skilled ethnographer. His descriptions of daily life and the city’s collective psyche are astute, yet rarely do those first-hand accounts seek sociological explanation. Lida is less interested in explaining why Mexico City is like it is (for that, I would recommend Mañana Forever and Why Nations Fail). Rather, he offers readers a compelling portrait of the city through the eyes of a longtime foreign resident. (The one exception is his chapter on sex, which is the most insightful analysis of Mexican sexuality that I have encountered.)
Chilangos (as residents of Mexico City are known) constantly complain about their city, but they are notoriously sensitive to an outsider’s criticism. I sympathize with the frustrations of young Mexico City change-makers that have done so much to improve their city and yet are consistently ignored by international writers that focus on violence or a nostalgia for the past. But that doesn’t mean Mexicans should ignore Lida’s writings. Just as many Americans revere Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Mexicans too can benefit from outsiders’ perspectives without taking insult.
For a book titled First Stop in the New World, it’s ironic that Lida’s only mention of the city’s future comes in the book’s final pages. He juxtaposes two alternative futures for the city, one utopian, the other dystopian. In the dystopian version, the city’s urban sprawl continues in all directions, eventually encompassing Cuernavaca, Puebla, Queretaro and Toluca to create a mega-mega-metropolis of 40 million people that spend all their day in gridlock traffic behind bulletproof glass while choking on pollution and fighting for the diminishing access to water. In the utopian version, the city begins to grow upward rather than outward. Public spaces are recovered, and development becomes more inclusive. Access to public services expands throughout the city. Levels of contamination reduce year after year. Public transit and bicycle paths extend throughout the city. Entrepreneurs and independent designers create new alternatives to the big monopolies.
The past ten years have made significant progress toward the utopian vision. But that story is yet to be told — both in English and Spanish.