First Take: Latin American Cities

The Legacy of the Vanquished

by | Dec 7, 2003

The great cities of the world are usually on their best behavior. Well-designed, well-built, they search for the embrace of a river in order to feel blessed. The sweet chestnut trees of París comfort the Seine and Hyde Park covers itself with the tender green of the English countryside watered by the Thames. And so does the Rhine. The cities built along rivers sing. Their houses sing and also their cobble stone streets; their bridges sing because all rivers flow towards the sea. And their islands. L’Ile St. Louis and Manhattan are two vessels ready to sail; Amsterdam is the Flying Dutchman, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade look at the sunset over the Danube; Warsaw sees it on the waters of the Vistula, Lisboa on the Tajo. Venice at dusk is the epitome of nostalgia. To see Venice and to die is the wish of young lovers. Washington lies on the side of the Potomac and the Hudson rocks New York. The St. Lawrence has Ottawa and Montreal to protect, but Latin American rivers divide. The waters of the huge Río de la Plata gush between Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Argentinians and Uruguayans say good-bye to each other from different river banks.

The ferocious new continents with their aggressive capitals consider Europe a handkerchief. Gardens are washed and pressed like precious handkerchiefs. America is the continent of Kleenex (when we don’t blow our noses in our sleeves). America is the continent of waste, and above all, Latin America is the territory of hunger. Our poverty is the poverty of indifference.

Although Mexico City was never visited by any king of Spain, it waited with patience to give its famous welcome: “My house is yours.” The city was designed to please the monarchs, but King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia rejected the invitation, although condescendingly registering the fidelity of Latin America to “la madre patria.” The palaces of stone built in their image, the baroque churches, the huge convents, the plazas of the Latin American continent showed a submissive and loyal architecture from Rio Bravo to Patagonia that never lost the hot seal with which the Conquistadors marked their subjects.

Nevertheless, under its classical appearance, the indigenous city breaks through the pavement, shakes its bell towers, liberates itself from its crosses, howls in the night looking for its children and scaring the white men. Under every stone a god raises his arms and comes out to the surface like the Nahuatl Indian Alonso Mixteco that emerged out of the rubble of the 1985 earthquake just by crawling toward a ray of sun that came in at a distance of a hundred feet. “My head is good and hard, my bones are hard as iron, and even if I went bald I was going to open that hole —he said—and I opened it so much that I was able to pull the rest of my body, and I excavated about a hundred feet of tunnel by creeping until I arrived at the place where there was light. ‘Motherfucker, this was tough,’ I said although I never speak like this. Then I saw my eight–story building compressed into one.”

These are the kind of Mexicans that populate the city.

Mexico City is a menace not only to Mexicans, Mexico is the biggest city in the world, a city inhabited by a few wealthy politicians, a few bankers and those that could be considered the losers of our continent, those on foot, those who pick up the garbage and live from it, the inhabitants of the slums, the masses who trample each other to see the Pope, those who travel on crowded buses (if they are lucky) those who cover their heads with rebozos and straw hats, those who have nothing to lose except their lives. They take their dead children to be blessed and photographed so as to transform them into “Angelitos: Holy little angels.” They tumble from the military parade platforms and suddenly, effortlessly, are responsible for the failure for all good neighbor policies.

This anonymous mass, obscure and unpredictable is slowly populating every corner of Latin America; the people of the bedbugs, the fleas and the cockroaches, the miserable people that at this very moment are gobbling down the planet. This formidable mass extends and crosses frontiers, they work as carriers and mechanics, ice cream vendors, dish washers and sweepers of everything and anything, errand boys and garbage dumpers. If 400 million people inhabit the Latin American continent, 200 million live in poverty. They look up north and even if Mexico prides itself of having the first social revolution in the 20th Century, in 1910, (7 years before the Russian social insurrection), that started an extraordinary social and cultural phenomenon, ours is still the vision of the vanquished.

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2

Elena Poniatowska is a Mexican writer.

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