Un cabrone from the past

Un cabrone from the past

Fri 20 Sep

Work in Progress: Mexico City

In 1521 the Spanish Conquistador Juan Cortez took the stones that had formed Aztec pyramids. He made a cathedral and municipal buildings from them.

As he felled the pyramids and temples, the water table shifted. The pavement is falling away from my feet. One side of the Metropolitan Cathedral is higher than the other. I feel slightly nauseous; vertigo, jetlag, disorientation. The city is sliding back into the lake.

Towers of Aztec stone in dark, battleship grey – filthy and imposing, rise around me. The carvings remind me of hellfire baroque and of the Prado’s gnarled faces, Goya and Velazquez and death in the afternoon. 

“Does one take flowers along to the land of the dead?

Flowers are only lent to us, the truth is that we go.

We leave flowers and songs and the earth.

The truth is that we go.”

A verse from an Aztec poem.

The first shop I see is a jeweller’s called Liliana, the name my father gave me. I have no link to Mexico except this – my name is Liliana. Unlike the author of the travel book I read on Mexico, my ancestors did not leave estates behind them. In Italy they were stevedores in the port of Ancona. These stevedores did not entirely vanish into the obscurity of a remote genealogy. In the 1930s the port workers of Ancona harboured the great Malatesta in their midsts. They were the first anarchists in Europe. On my mother’s side, we don't do so well. She was born into a family of single mothers and ne’er-do-wells. The only ancestral links I share with Mexico are the genetic consequences of poverty, alienation and revolt.

At the back of my hotel is Alameda Park where Aztecs sold gold and jade and cloth made of feathers. I pass the Sears building, black Art Deco marble rising like a pyramid in deathless grim-faced stone. Two of its galleries are housing impromptu displays. One is by an artist who makes dead babies, aborted foetuses, slimy creatures slipping through the hands of careless nurses, crimson and bulbous. They hang from a translucent gristly umbilical cord. I don’t want to get too close to his exhibit in case I reel from the intensity of his vision. The other recess houses a young woman who rescues dogs and cats. The cats sit in baskets on a raised pediment, the dogs are on leads. Some of the cats are trusted to roam freely. She is feeding them from plastic bowls. A hand-written sign encourages contributions. The passers-by linger and stroll and do their shopping and march home. The density of passing pedestrians reaches a climax. I stop in my tracks as a column of commuters looms over me. I can feel their life force – a wave of energy rushing through me – it is the crowd.

This is the crowd that Baudelaire talked about.

Of course I knew the obvious things about Mexico. I knew that there is a chain of restaurants in London called Wahaca, the phonetic spelling of the name of the state that boasts the most palatable cuisine. I had heard of the narco-trafficantes. But I had no idea that Mexico was called the Estados Unidos de Mexicanos, or that the bottom half of America had once belonged to Mexico. So I was pleased when I was told that Mexicans were taking it back. The immigrants crossing the border are taking their land back. America is rightfully theirs. And looking at Mexico I realized how small America was. There are more languages spoken. There is more tragedy, more comedy, more stuff you couldn’t make up, more terror and more joy. 

Most of all, there was more profundity. México Profundo was where I wanted to go. The world of los indigenas and disadvantaged mestizos slumbering in the shade of sierras and desert and lost empires. And I wanted to do this without being enabled by contacts who worked in NGOs or newspapers. I wanted to go alone.

 The paracaidistas land on the hills.

They build shacks at the edge of town

Where anything goes when the sun goes down.

Vertiginous climbs up and down, new adobe 

Walls in pink and damson against the brown

Of the dirt, like plums in a tree under the

Slumlord sun, the racketeer in the sky.

They swarm and they glide and they build themselves

A new city.


There is history in the veins and in the sewers and the subsidence.

The stones are sliding back to the mud.

The Zocalo is ringing with re-enactment and protest and ceremony.

A shaman showered me with smoke.

She blew smoke in my eyes and commuters passed by

And shoppers and tourists and hawkers and performance artists

Doing the old dances and rites.

No obvious signs of sacrifice 

except in the presence of the mestizos’ and Los Indios

Banners and megaphones. Lamenting their land and asserting their rights.

I walked round and round, and then, under an arcade a couple stood as still as a statue.

Posing for the moment, they were 

Stupidly self-consciously oblivious to anything but this moment.

This moment that revolved around themselves.

A lone Mariachi plied his violin in a forlorn serenade

for their entertainment.

Their blunt features were like those carved in stone in Tenochtitlan

Except their heads were coyly tilted. Their eyes intent on each other.

They were entranced not by the music or the city not even each other, but by the image of love that they presented.


Day two: Mexico City

We drove past ...


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The White Cliffs of