Mexico City: Cradle of Empires
By Nick Caistor Reaktion, 240pp, £14.99/$20
Mexico City has not had a very good press. One of the largest cities on earth, it is a byword for urban sprawl, pollution, traffic, poverty and crime. And yet, and yet … the huge urban area of the Federal District (as Mexicans usually call it; “Mexico City” is an Anglophone name) contains some of the most interesting, exciting and beautiful things on earth.
Nick Caistor’s book is partly a guide and partly a history, falling into two distinct sections. The first 123 pages take us from the earliest settlements in the Valley of Mexico, right up to 2016. The rest of the book is devoted to bite-sized chapters on individual districts and locations. This division perhaps was the bright idea of some editor, and it is worth pointing out that the best travel writing (think, for example, of Augustus Hare’s Walks in Rome) manages to fuse guidebook and history in one, finding the piquant incident in the street corner, the square or the building described.
Caistor mentions the city’s most arresting domestic building, the Casa de los Azulejos, the House of Tiles, and his book provides some nice pictures of it. This house encapsulates in its beauty much of the history and many of the contradictions of the city. It is now a department store, and property of the country’s richest man, Carlos Slim. The tiles in question supposedly come from China, and were perhaps brought to Mexico via the “road of Asia”, the trade route that ran via Guam, the Philippines and Acapulco.
Mexico City stands more or less at the highest point in the Central American isthmus, half-way between Acapulco and Santa Cruz, the latter port being the gateway to Europe. Similar tiles must have made it through Mexico City to Spain, via the “road of Europe”. This essential trade route, so incredible to us, but which made perfect sense in an age of sail, is one reason for the city’s existence; and the House of Tiles is its greatest relic.
It is odd that Caistor does not make anything of this, or of the irony of the place falling into the hands of the oligarch Carlos Slim.
Caistor’s book takes the reader out to Coyoacan, once a village, now swallowed up by the city, where Trotsky lived, died and is buried. David Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s greatest artists, and, we are laconically informed, “a follower of Moscow’s hard-line communism, led a machine gun attack on the house” where Trotsky lived. See how these lefties love each other, one might remark.
In fact, Caistor’s major fault as a historian is to pass over the sheer brutality of much of Mexican history. He seems little interested in the religious persecution launched by President Plutarco Elías Calles, for example, and the subsequent Cristero Rebellion (1926-29), and appears to take the Mexican Revolution (c1910-20) at face value. If the revolution achieved what it set out to do, why is poverty still so widespread? But that is the trouble with brief histories: in summarising, authors tend to simplify or even omit the difficult questions.
On the eccentricities of contemporary Mexico City, Caistor is more successful. One of the most interesting chapters deals with the city’s obsession with lucha libre, a form of masked wrestling. Another short chapter deals with the pseudo-religious devotion to Santa Muerte. Both are modern cults, indeed mythologies, and quite incomprehensible to the Western mind, regarded with contempt by many educated Mexicans.
By describing these things Caistor perhaps gets to the root of what makes Mexico, both City and country, so enthralling. It is not as other places are.
It can look as if it were, but scratch beneath the surface and one discovers elements of the sort of society that must have existed before the coming of the Spanish.
I noticed on my last visit little handwritten notices attached to lamp posts outside the cathedral, advertising “las limpias”, literally, cleaning, meaning ritual purification in order to lift curses.
Inside the cathedral is a statue of the saint who can do something similar, and whose shrine is piled with padlocks, symbolising how he can shut your enemies’ mouths and stop them saying nasty things about you. The faithful bring the padlocks, and the clergy routinely clear them away almost as soon as they are brought. But on my visit there were plenty in evidence.
A vast Aztec shrine was demolished to make way for the cathedral. But the destruction of the old gods, and the eradication of the preoccupations that dominated ancient Mexico, has not been so easy.