Quakes, Strikes and Power: John Ross’s Mexico City

Photo by Marcia Perskie, courtesy of Nation Books

Photo by Marcia Perskie, courtesy of Nation Books

John Ross’s sweeping new book, El Monstruo, takes on a subject as wily as any: Mexico’s sprawling, chaotic cultural and political center — Mexico City.

The book chronicles the Distrito Federal’s development from its founding on an island in the center of Lake Texcoco, to the 23-million-person-strong megalopolis it is today. Along the way, Ross presents the takes of regular people — community activists, pot-dealers, porters and street musicians — on their lives in the city’s tumultuous history.

Ross, a journalist, beat poet and activist has lived in Mexico City since 1985. He reads from his new book tonight at Modern Times at 7 p.m. Mission Loc@l spoke with him about the city, social movements and what may be in store as Mexico — wracked with mass unemployment, huge strikes, and persistent social inequality edges toward the centennial of the Mexican Revolution.

ML: How has Mexico City changed during the nearly 25 years that you’ve lived there?

JR: Basically, I’ve seen this cultural change that has been very important and it’s really the result of the social movements that began with the earthquake of 1985 as I talk about in the book. People learned that they didn’t need the government to maintain their lives, that they in fact had the power to run things particularly after the government abandoned them in the earthquake.

That changed people’s attitudes toward the city as to who was in charge in the city. By rejecting the idea that they needed the PRI, the party that was in power [for over 70 years], to make their decisions for them, they changed everything. They changed their way of looking at the city. They changed their defense of the city. They changed their relationship with the city. And that evolved down to a political resolution where the left took over the city about 12 years ago.

In some cases it’s been good and in other cases and moments it’s not been so great. But when the people feel that they’re in charge they can often change what the government or rulers propose to do and impose upon them. And I’ve seen that happen time and time again and it’s very good for people’s morale.

Culturally, the city has changed enormously in terms of all of these social accouterments that we see here in San Francisco, for example, in terms of gay unions, same sex marriage, bicycles and recycling, just all those things you wouldn’t have imagined Mexico City could actually evolve into. Into being an environmentally-minded, if not an environmentally-clean city at this point, but trying all the time. That’s been a remarkable change as well.

So, I think in peoples’ attitudes, in terms of who runs the city, they’re much more invested in the city now. They don’t just let one party or one ruler or one government tell them what to do any longer.

ML: Looking at the strength of the left in Mexico City and looking at things like access to abortion and recognition of same-sex unions, is Mexico City an anomaly —

JR: Oh, definitely.

ML: — or would you say it’s leading other municipalities and cities in that direction?

JR: Well, it’s leading the way in a certain way, but 16 states around the country have now criminalized abortion as a reaction to Mexico City’s abortion-on-demand law. And they’re working up to a constitutional amendment that would criminalize abortion. In fact, if they have 16 out of 31 states they now have enough votes. They haven’t introduced this legislation and it will be a big fight, but the truth is there has been a reaction by the right and those 16 states – they’re not all P[artido] A[cción] N[acional] states, but they are all states that have been run by the PAN, the right-wing party, for a long time. And its not like Mexico City is leading the way — it’s moving ahead in spite of reactionary thinking around the country.

That’s always been true. Mexico City is not always able to impose its will on the rest of the country but it always has a profound impact on the rest of the country. All power emanates from Mexico City.

ML: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between Mexico City dwellers – Chilangos – and the rest of Mexico? How do they see each other?

They see each other uneasily. In the book we talk a lot about what happened in the Mexican Revolution and how Zapata’s revolution was really a revolution against Mexico City. That’s what normally happens. People out in the countryside see this place where all the power comes from and that’s what they consider to be the enemy. In Mexico City’s case, the Sodom and Gomorrah, the place where all the evil and the sins and the crime takes place.

So, there’s always been this residual sense that’s expressed in the pintos or wall writings that say, “Make a country – haz patria – Kill a Chilango.” I saw that most recently during the swine flu epidemic in the state of Guerrero when cars with Mexico City license plates were driving past they were always stoned because people felt that the flu itself came from Mexico City although it didn’t. It was just that main reportage about the flu came out of Mexico City where there are the most hospitals, where statistic-keeping is much more in order. But the illusion was it was Mexico City flu and it became symbolic of the dislike and resentment that people out in the provinces feel about Mexico City.

ML: The centennial of the Mexican Revolution is coming up next year, and in the book you point out how Mexican history has run in these century-long cycles and there have been a lot calamitous transitions. I’m curious: What is the mood on the ground? What are people feeling as 2010 approaches?

JR: It’s a very complex situation. One of the things is that the economic situation in Mexico is very much like it was in 1909. There was a depression in 1907 that played out during 1908 and 1909. There were armies of unemployed and poor people on every corner, beggars everywhere. It’s not quite that severe at this point but we do have certainly long lines of unemployed people. Mexico City has its own unemployment insurance – way ahead of the rest of the country – so some of that has taken the burden off the social pressures, the pressure cooker of unemployment. We have probably, because the government never gives you correct figures, probably 40 percent unemployment. And that’s a heavy one to deal with.

And there are all these other social pressures that seem to me to be somewhat artificial. The budgets have been cut back so social programs have been cut back. The government just made a move that I thought was one of the stupidest things they could have possibly done by trying to privatize the electricity company and firing 50,000 workers in a single night. [They] sent the military in to the electricity-generating plants in Mexico City. The company’s called Lúz y Fuerza [Light and Force] and they’re trying to privatize it. And they fired 50,000 people in a country that has 40 percent unemployment. That doesn’t compute.

There’s been just last Friday a general strike in Mexico City. We had a quarter of a million people out in the streets, and that’s happened pretty repeatedly in the last couple of weeks. Of course, Mexico City s the place everyone goes to demonstrate, but we’ve had much bigger demonstrations, too. And there is a lot of social conflict and the feeling that people are saying, “We can’t change this thing,” and they’ve turned kind of internally into self-loathing and that’s not good for social amenities.

And then because it is 2010, the hundred year anniversary of the revolution, people are thinking, “Well, maybe it’s time for another one.” …

There are two schools of thought on that. There’s one school that says that this is not a good thing. I think in the book I point out about people whose families lived through the revolution who do not really want another one to happen because so many people were killed and the country was destroyed.

And then, there are probably 15 armed groups in the country. And they’re small. They’re small focos and usually in places that are not very accessible and don’t have too much access to power but I’m anticipating that we’re going to see this historic opportunity that’s presenting itself be met with uprisings in certain parts of the country.

That may not change the power balance in the country, but then you have this whole social movement that is not armed, it is civil society, which is really pissed off at the government and is really pissed off at the economic situation, so we’ll see them in motion as well.

And then you’re looking at this country that has this phony war on drugs that Calderón declared in 2006 in which 13,000 people have been killed since then. And you know you could possibly think about alliances between the narcos and the armed guerilla movements. So I think it’s dicey. And the government is right on it. They know this is coming. They’re trying to pour a lot of money into rural states where there’s a lot of social discontent. They’ve upped their intelligence gathering. They have a militarized police plus the military. They’re prepared for it.

One of the interesting things about this is that in 1910 one of the immediate causes of the revolution was the fact that the dictator Porfirio Diaz spent all this money to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mexico’s independence, because it’s also the bicentennial of independence from Mexico next year. And so he spent what would be the equivalent of millions and millions of dollars to build all these useless monuments and fireworks shows every night and that kind of thing.

Surprisingly, these guys that are in power now don’t learn much from history. They’re doing that too. They’re building a monument almost on the same avenue where Porfirio Díaz built all those monuments. In Díaz’s day that accounted for almost the entire education budget and the social budget as well. And that’s what really got people pissed off. And now we’re looking at the present government repeating these same historical mistakes because I guess they don’t believe in history.

I was reading one of your articles in Counterpunch about the explosion of drug use in Mexico and the huge number of people who have died since 2006 – 13,000, right? —since Calderón declared war on the cartels. Can you talk a little more about the situation?

Mexico City, as the book points out, is never the center of the drug trade, although it’s the biggest market in Mexico. Mexico never really had much of a drug problem. The big problem was huffing glue. And then the Colombians found the Sinaloa cartels and used them to move brown and black tar heroin into the U.S. and rented them out and used them as their guides. And Mexico became the most important trans-shipment state.

But most of that’s focused in the north. We see a little bit of drug violence in Mexico City, I think in the book I point out a lot of different incidents of drug violence in the city, but there isn’t the kinds of beheadings, although there were some at the airport, but the kinds of mass beheadings and just incredible violence that takes place in Ciudad Juárez, for example, is far away. Mexico City has always been somewhat tolerant of drug use and it’s a big city, it’s a cosmopolitan city. There’s certainly a lot of mota [marijuana] smoked everywhere…

The reason this war was declared in 2006 was purely to curry favor with the Bush administration. Calderón came in, he was not elected president, he stole the election or his party stole the election and he needed legitimacy. He needed to develop legitimacy in terms of Washington as well, and so by jumping on that right away, A) he put the military on his side, and B) he portrayed a person with authority. And, on the other hand he won lots of kudos and compliments from the white house. And that’s continued down through Obama.

ML: And what do you think we’re going to see from El Peje, Andres Manuel López Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor who many believe actually won the 2006 presidential election?

JR: I don’t know. I’m not even clear that he’s going to run for president again in 2012. He’s built a movement; it’s got millions of people in it all around the country, in the smallest possible places. He spent the last four months or so traveling to every indigenous majority municipality or county in Oaxaca. There’s like 412 of them. And maybe [he'd] get out 15 people here maybe 12 someplace else and always with the threat that people would be cut off the social programs if they attended these meetings and in each one of those places he’s left an organization.

He has not yet called upon that organization to act, and I think that may be a problem. People need to act. People need to have work to do. People need to do more than just go to meetings. You’ve got to give people what I call chamba – work – in order to sharpen their commitment and mobilize them and to make them feel more than just being a voter. And so I think that still is a decision that López Obrador needs to make

The main social movement in the last month or so since mid-October has been the defense of the electricity workers and as I say its turned out the kinds of numbers that López Obrador would have turned out a couple of years ago. And, actually López Obrador turned his movement over to the electricity workers so in many respects it’s the same people.

ML: Can you say a little more about the situation with the electricity workers?

JR: This is the oldest union in Mexico – 95 years old. It was founded in 1914 at the height of the revolution, at the hottest part of the revolution against the transnational that ran Mexico’s power and light system and has existed as an independent union for almost a century. It’s interesting to me that Calderón tried to break the union on the eve of the centennial of the revolution. It’s kind of like saying, that doesn’t count anymore, forget about that, forget about history. And they in a single night put 44,000 workers out of work and threatened the pensions of another 22,000 and these are people that were part of López Obrador’s movement in 2006. He can always bring out at least 20,000 to whatever social movement.

So, they’ve always been a social force that has opposed the government and posed a formidable threat to the government. So, this was like killing three birds with one stone. You get to prize the company and sell off the fiber optics, which seems to be one objective of this. You grievously wound the most militant union in the country and you get to strike a blow against López Obrador at the same time. But there’s a lot of fight back. That’s the thing about Mexico City, there’s a lot of fight back.

ML: You’ve covered Mexico for many, many years. I’d be curious to hear how you think reporters on this side of the border can do a better job of covering Mexico and also the Mexican Diaspora. What are we missing?

JR: Well, one thing is papers in border states need to devote a lot more time to covering the border. That’s part of their beat … Independent reporters here need to cover this issue very closely, there’s lots of access to it. And the diaspora exists everywhere. It’s not just at the border, in every major American city there are Mexicans that are skulking around in the dark and they’re having babies and their having the babies taken away from them because they can’t speak Spanish [or English] because they’re indigenous people, as happened in Mississippi recently, no? Those stories are important to cover. It gets taken care of because immigration’s a hot-button issue, but there needs to be more advocacy reportage of the diaspora and what it means in terms of the Mexicanization of the United States as well.

And, well, U.S. reporters in Mexico have a number of strikes against them. And people were very clear about making a distinction between Brad Will and the New York Times. And Brad is indeed an icon in Mexico. And we just had the third anniversary of his death and the government has still made no moves, the U.S. government has still made no moves, to clear up this situation. They’ve got a guy in jail that they framed, and the U.S. has decided that that’s great, that justice has been served and Brad’s still dead and this guy Juan Manuel Martínez has been in jail for the last year. But people distrust – although, there’s a certain admiration for the New York Times, I have to say that when a story appears in the New York Times, it kind of validates it for the Mexican press. Which is totally weird. But there’s a real feeling that the U.S. press is not a friend of the Mexican people, and that reporters like Brad Will, and I would hope to say myself, are a different breed that tries to bring the story from the ground up back home.

I do it because I think it sets a model for social movements here … Solidarity is often an excuse for not doing work in your own backyard, but I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the way [Mexican social movements] operate.

ML: When you say advocacy reportage, what exactly do you mean?

JR: I mean reportage that says which side are you on? Reportage that says, “I’m on this side. And I’m going to report on what this side is doing.” And that’s where I report from. What the government does is always in the rest of the papers. I don’t have to go out and cover that, it’s always right there in front of me. I’m talking about accompanying social movements and I think that’s an art that is not well practiced here in the US.

This is an edited transcript.

Filed under: Art, Front Page

6 Comments

  1. sid

    Way to go, John.

    Thanks for the indepth report on Luz y Fuerza.

    We in Oaxaca salute you.

    Sid

  2. Que buena entrevista! muy interesante la palabra del Sr. Ross. Gracias.

  3. John Ross -
    I spoke with Marshall Curatola last night, about various things Mexican, and your name came up. I was wondering if you know Ralph Meyers, formerly a Journalist in DF and now living and writing in Oaxaca? Or John Lilly, recently passed?
    Hoping to hear from you,
    Bill Player (Orlando, FL)

  4. Bill,

    I forwarded your note to John Ross.

    Thanks for reading,

    Bridget

  5. frank spehar

    I need help finding Marcia Perskie. Our Reading,PA high school class of 1955 is having the 55th reunion this year (2010). Any help that you would provide will be appreciated. Frank. I was a patient of her fathers’ when he practiced denistry. Thank you for reading my request.

  6. Jim Hight

    I’m reading El Monstruo now and it’s terrific. But re: the breakup of Luz y Fuerza, I heard when I was in DF in April that that the outfit was incredibly inefficient, that when moving into a new apartment, people in Mexico City often hired contractors to illegally tap into the lines because it takes a year to get a new electricity account. Also, the state-run company wasn’t privatized but incorporated into the other, larger state electric utility CFE. This “government position” was probably all in the papers, as John says, but I doubt readers of this website know the background.

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