Interiorizing Mexico City
Between 1977 and 2000, I traveled to Mexico City a dozen times or more, exploring the neighborhoods and suburbs of this bewildering megalopolis which often feels more like an endless series of villages than one giant city. After an absence of nearly two decades I began to read Francisco Goldman’s recent book The Interior Circuit (Grove Press, 2014) and immediately felt that I had been plunged back into the heart of Mexico City. The book’s title refers both to the expressway that rings the interior of the city as well as a poem by Efraín Huerta. But it also serves as a trope for Goldman himself as he restlessly tries to define the power that his adopted city holds over him.
On the fifth anniversary of the death of his wife Aura from a bodysurfing accident, Goldman, at nearly sixty years of age, decides to take driving lessons as a way of conquering his fear of Mexico City’s notorious traffic. It’s a way of pretending to take control over an uncontrollable situation. By the end of the book, Goldman has successfully navigated his rental car to a site chosen by chance on a map of the city, and his journey has led the reader through his ongoing grief for Aura, the dismaying 2012 election of Enrique Peña Nieto, and the disturbing expansion of violence brought down on the country by its infamous drug cartels.
Goldman blends his novelist’s prose skills with a journalist’s instincts to produce an absorbing and closely observed portrait of a city and of a foreign resident coming to terms with the complex and often dark realities of the city and country he loves.
Once, after a 2006 presidential election debate, when I said something favorable about [Andrés Manual López Obrador], [Aura] scolded me, said that I had no idea what I was talking about, and forbade me ever to opine on Mexican politics again…I had never paid much attention to Mexican politics. For years, I’d considered the DF my place of escape from, or my neutral place between, the two bordering countries where before I’d spent almost all of my adult life: the United States and Guatemala, countries whose politics are impossible to ignore if you live in either, and that can exhaust, sour, and depress anybody.
But Goldman’s curiosity overwhelms his once blithe attitude toward Mexico and he finds himself obsessed with the politics, corruption, and violence that surround him, actively investigating the deaths of twelve young men and women who were kidnapped from a bar in the Zona Rosa in May 2013 and then the September 2014 disappearance and murder of forty-three students from the rural state of Guerrero. As cartel-led violence begins to creep into the daily life of Mexico City (or DF, as Goldman calls it, after its official name, the Distrito Federal), Goldman ponders why the country’s politicians continue to say that the drug cartels haven’t taken hold in the DF.
As long as the cartels aren’t warring violently with each other in the streets, as the cartels do throughout much of Mexico, as long as they are not massacring each other and each others police, to say nothing of innocent bystanders, as the cartels do throughout much of Mexico, as long as they are not leaving corpses strung from overpasses and strewing decapitated bodies and heads all round the city, as the cartels do throughout much of Mexico, as long as they are not kidnapping girls and women off the streets and selling them into sexual slavery or taking them to torture-rape safe houses and tossing their corpses away like trash, as the cartels do throughout much of Mexico, as long as they are not killing reporters and bloggers in the DF or terrorizing media into complete silence about their activities, as the cartels do throughout much of Mexico, as long as they are not trying to take over the city through extortion and terror, burning down businesses or murdering their resistant owners and their families, steeping the city in violent death and savagery in order to terrorize its citizens into submission, as the cartels do throughout much of Mexico, as long as they are not upsetting the equilibrium of the city, of nearly everyone’s daily routines, as long as people aren’t afraid to leave their homes to travel to work or school or to go out at night, as people are throughout much of Mexico – then it is as if the cartels are not there.
The extraordinary level of corruption among Mexico’s politicians, bureaucrats, police, and judiciary, combined with the billions of dollars in the coffers of the drug cartels, does not suggest an optimistic future for Mexico. But Goldman somehow maintains a level of optimism that perhaps only a resident can hold.
Who can predict what Mexico will be like in 2018, when the country is scheduled to next hold its presidential elections? Will there be a new political party or parties or even a new form of civilian organizing? When I spoke to Father Alejandro Solalinde – the prominent Catholic priest and human rights activist – in Oaxaca in 2014, he said that he believed two sectors of society in particular will drive change in Mexico: youth and women. “The two, each on their own side, have been the most punished, abused, infiltrated, massacred, disappeared,” he said. “People are going to give their all. The movement isn’t going to stop.”
We can only hope this is true.