The Special Chaos of Mexico City
Travel Stories: In an excerpt from "Down & Delirious in Mexico City," Daniel Hernandez endures smog season in Mexico's famously polluted capital
06.06.11 | 3:53 PM ET
You can’t really appreciate the enormity of Mexico City until you leave it on the ground. Merely landing at or departing from Benito Juárez International Airport belies the city’s physical contours, the ranges of mountains that ring its basin. Flying in or out conceals what you’re really dealing with. You must experience Mexico City’s hugeness as a journey of distance, inch by inch, mile by mile, traffic allowing.
On a late afternoon, nearing sunset, during the smoggiest season of the year, winter, your bus or car is climbing the mountains to the east. The road curves and pitches. You can feel the air outside get colder and colder. The mountains in every direction are suddenly covered in brilliant green trees. To the west the sun disappears behind a dark cloud hanging over the enormous valley. It is not a rain cloud. It is a blanket of pollution permanently fixed over the city. A nasty thick black cloud, so dark in the shrinking light of dusk that you cannot see anything underneath it. The only way you can tell the city exists below is because from miles away you can still feel its hum. It’s almost impossible to believe, like a vision of some futuristic hell. People live there?
I survive my first smoggy winter in Mexico City by applying a gee-whiz sort of awe to it. I hack up alien-looking green phlegm in the mornings for weeks at a time, but I can’t really comprehend just how toxic the city gets around Christmas and the New Year. In my second winter, I have moved to the Centro, to a second-floor apartment facing a street choked constantly in the daytime with traffic. It is a Saturday in late January when I wake up with a violent cough. Throughout the day the air feels as if it is sagging on my back. By Sunday I have a nagging headache. It is cold at night, but it still feels hot out somehow. Something on the skin, a stickiness, a barely perceptible unnatural film.
The news bears out my suspicions. It is a thermal inversion, an unkind weather phenomenon that afflicts places dense with people and pollutants. In the mountain bowl of Mexico City, a thermal inversion can be acute and dangerous when it strikes during the dry season. Warm air that gathers in daylight is trapped on the valley floor by cold air that moves in at night. The warm air mixes with what’s already there, all the pollutants of everyday urban activity. It has been an especially polluted weekend in the capital. Toxicity levels spike to a point that prompts the D.F. government to activate its environmental contingency plan, calling for limited outdoor activity, temporary restrictions on the manufacturing sector, and circulation restrictions on certain vehicles such as older models and cars from neighboring states. I scribble in a journal, My throat feels like a cat pissed in it and my head feels like it’s spent four hours listening to the same Daddy Yankee song on full volume, on loop.
A few merciful breezes visit the city. By that afternoon, the government lifts the contingency alert. All activity returns to normal, but the following day the air still feels outrageously toxic. This makes me a little nervous. Mexico City’s current official slogan is Capital in Movement, so by necessity we can have it no other way. A Mexico City with fewer cars and trucks on the streets, with less commercial and manufacturing activity, less movimiento, is a Mexico City that loses money by the hour. Can’t have that. So eyes are puffy and dry, coughs are chronic, and just a few flights of stairs leave you winded. That pinched sensation of nastiness lingers on the skin. In the schools, recess is held indoors. TV Azteca reports that scores of city children show up at doctors’ offices complaining of bronchitis. They say the chief pollutant that weekend is ozone. But . . . whatever. No one really knows what to call the cocktail we breathe in Mexico City. It is a mixture of ozone with nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons—inhaled and exhaled in a continuous cycle by some 20 million people, day in and day out. What can you call that, really?
In the dryness of winter, the form and effects of the pollution are strongest. But winter or not, it is always there, hanging invisibly over your head, even when the summer rains come and clear away the sitting atmosphere for a few hours a day. At 7,300 feet, the valley’s altitude, the air pressure is dramatically lower than on coastlines, which heightens the pollution’s least favorable effects on the human body. People get sick chronically. The Mexico City smog affects your entire person, body and mind. Knowing you are inhaling an atmosphere once famously described as being equivalent to a habit of daily chain-smoking (which plenty of capitalinos do anyway) is enough to make you question your and your neighbor’s sanity.
On the worst days, the cocky cigarette-sucking of so many proud Mexico City natives grows exponentially. What else can you do but gather friends and hunker inside, to booze up, suck in the nicotine—“Might as well”—and to think fondly of the days before the birth of the world’s first Smog City, a capital internationally known for being caked in pollution. It was just the way the story went, when Mexico shifted from a largely rural society of communal farmland and the slow lifestyle of the hacienda to a rapidly urbanizing one of crowded highways and factories coughing purple fumes. Starting in the late 1950s, people came to the big city in the valley from the provinces, near and far. They kept coming, and kept coming. Urban immigrants came looking for work because in Mexico City, they were told, it did not matter how poor or marginalized you were, you could find a hustle and provide for yourself.
The city was irresistible. Slums sprang up around the outskirts, unplanned and all but ignored. The same phenomenon would eventually change cities in East Asia, in other parts of North and South America, and in Africa and Europe, but for much of the 20th century it did not happen at the scale and velocity anywhere else that it happened in high central Mexico. A lack of proper infrastructure in an accelerating grid of humans and industry soon bred the first poisonous clouds over Mexico City, never to leave. Environmental misery followed. Planners and regulators would dub it uncontainable, a city whose apparent destiny of failure was rooted in its ability to attract endless streams of new residents. The city grew, by the thousands a day, by some accounts, and its situation worsened. During a memorably bad period of thermal inversion in 1991, when the city’s smog was at what is now considered its historical peak, the New York Times quoted a local expert: “If the meteorological conditions remain the same, then we could have a thermal inversion that could equal the killing smog of London in the winter of 1950-51.”
There is no such panic today, even on bad days. The city has grown accustomed to itself. In the bowl, no one seems to notice the poison. The sky above you is some shade of blue, right? Why complain? The locals say it is normal. They don’t seem to mind. They look at you with pity. During this extra-smoggy weekend in January, residents in my building make an effort to go outside as little as possible. We open beers and talk. In the darkened interior of an apartment upstairs, my neighbor Ponce, a cartoonist and illustrator born and raised in the capital, calmly explains the air of normalcy while smoking a few singles. “We’re mutants,” Ponce says.
I down my can of beer, ask for an extra smoke, and retreat back to my apartment. What Ponce says makes my eyes pop in recognition. To be raised in Mexico City, or to willingly assimilate yourself to it, is to relinquish control over your natural state. The environment physically alters you. Because we’ve physically altered it. Ponce has uttered a cosmic truth. The Mexico City mutation is real.
Smog levels have steadily been dropping in Mexico City in recent years, but it remains above us, operating more than anything else as a totem. It symbolizes our species’ irrevocable dominance over the planet. In places like the Valley of Mexico, where industry, urbanization, density, and the centuries have made the earth our violated dominion, the consequences of this reality haunt us. It is, as Ponce says, unnatural. It leads us into conflict with the elements, with fellow men, and with the gods.
The planet seeks payback in Mexico City. Earthquakes remain a spectral threat. The massive 8.1-magnitude temblor that swept the city on Sept. 19, 1985, is a wailing ghost that still rings far in the back of people’s minds. An estimated 10,000 people died, but no one knows for sure. The city was brought to its knees. Off in the distance, usually invisible behind the smog, the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes pose a subdued terrestrial menace. They’re dormant, but—could they wake up one morning? There are the freakish rains and thunderstorms, bringing pounding blasts of wind. Neighborhoods flood, drowning kids and old ladies. Hills or asphalt streets give way. Trees snap and crush small cars. The land and sky remind us every day that they remain older and more powerful than anything we can bring to them.
Among people, the threatening qualities of the environment sometime ignite a primal urge—the urge to kill. Mexico City is by no means the most dangerous metropolis on earth. Cities such as Washington, D.C., for example, have higher homicide rates. But in the Aztec megacity death and murder acquire a disquieting intimacy with everyday life. In page after page, the red-note papers are filled with practically gleeful reports on the cruelest deaths, often accompanied by graphic photographs. A French scientist who is held up on a busy road and shot in the face after being followed from the airport, dying days later. An Italian man who is shot dead after refusing to cooperate with thieves on a bus. The transgendered sex worker in Ecatepec whose head is rammed to mush by a huge cinder block at the hands of a client. Bodies are found beheaded, burned in tanks of gasoline, mutilated, or beaten to death, blow by blow. There are robberies gone bad, executions carried out in shadowy alleys, and crimes of violent passion. In the age of narco warfare and the growing cult of the Santa Muerte—the unofficial saint of “holy death”—the killings numb us. News of a death to start off the day and news of a death before going to bed at night. Killings presented as common and as in-your-face as the traffic and smog.
Every day the papers tell us how the urban claims its victims. There are drownings, freak car accidents, vehicles turning over, indoor carbon monoxide poisonings, and horrible falls. The claiming of victims is indiscriminate. A wealthy person dies just as terribly as a poor one, and only the opulence or humility of their gravestones will mark their differences during life. Living in Mexico City becomes a long risky slog through an infinitely treacherous landscape. Some people are keenly aware of it, and it can drive them mad.
William S. Burroughs once described Mexico City as “sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream.” That was in the late 1940s, when D.F. had a small fraction of the population it does now and the mountains and volcanoes that ring the basin were crisply visible on the horizon. “No Mexican really knew any other Mexican,” Burroughs wrote, some 50 years after the experience, “and when a Mexican killed someone (which happened often), it was usually his best friend. . . . Mexico was basically an Oriental culture that reflected two thousand years of disease and poverty and degradation and stupidity and slavery and brutality and psychic and physical terrorism.”
Reading this, I instinctively respond with disgust of my own, tallying up all the offensive phrases. Then I think about it again. I think about all the writers whose attempts I’ve seen to sum up the soul of Mexico in a single argumentative statement, from the romantic or the nationalistic, to the postmodern or celebratory. Few are as raw, and as honest. Burroughs looked in the city’s heart and it looked alien, violent, and sinister to him, like a pathogen. His experience illustrates the city’s ability to swallow and permanently transform an individual. This was where Burroughs perfected his dark bohemian lifestyle—drug use, alcohol abuse, chasing young American guys for sex, fixing up his heroin on Dolores Street in Centro, just around the corner from where I sit. In Mexico City, Burroughs forged his twisted relationship with death. It is said Burroughs never lived or wrote the same again.
The problem that Burroughs and so many others have identified, and which is not going away anytime soon, is a sustained struggle over equilibrium, a lost balance with the elements and with history. The Aztecs who witnessed the original encounter with the Europeans must have felt the coming chaos. Their entire system of things, they believed, was at the mercy of their gods, the custodians of the elements. The earth they knew demanded sustenance. To them, the citadel of temples at the center of their city—Tenochtitlan—was the “belly button of the moon.” As it was the center of the universe, according to their spiritual logic, all their gods were present. The god of war, god of fire, the god of earth, the sun god, the moon goddess. They had to be thanked somehow. So the Aztecs built their empire on sacrificial credit, submitted untold amounts of human souls in ritual sacrifice to ensure the rising of the sun, the rains, and their way of life.
They fed the land with blood. Children and infants were sacrificed to Tlaloc, who required the tears of the young to wash over the earth with rain. Slaves, virgins, and prisoners of war were slaughtered to dedicate new temples and to ring in the new year. Their severed heads were placed on tzompantli racks on the city’s central plaza for all to see.
When they arrived, the Spanish regarded these practices as barbaric. But in conquering Mexico, they replaced the system of ritual sacrifice with something arguably bloodier and more brutal. The Conquest was a spectacularly violent encounter, a “foundational holocaust.” Once subdued, the surviving Indians watched their cities and temples be dismantled. Their gods were replaced by images of Jesus Christ, his saints, and the new mother, sweet Guadalupe. In the early years of the consolidation of New Spain, indigenous survivors succumbed to disease in overwhelming numbers, killing off entire lineages and turning thriving urban settlements into ghost towns. Their world had been upended. Cities disappeared, their ruins willowing into the brush, forgotten. The force of the Conquest was so fierce, many Indians, one troubled priest wrote in the late 16th century, became “apathetic.” Many refused medicine when they became sick, the priest wrote, choosing instead to “die like brutes.”
I can’t imagine the agony, unable to render to their gods—Tonantzín or Tlaloc or Huitzilopochtli—as they had done since the dawn of their world. But history marched on. In the ensuing generations, Mexicans of all castes intermixed beyond order and recognition, spawning the new, idealized mestizo civilization. With the boost from the Virgen de Guadalupe, everyone became a Roman Catholic. Mexicans eventually let go of the Aztec gods, but that didn’t mean the deities just disappeared into the cosmos. In Mexico City it is regarded as a sad spiritual irony that the Metropolitan Cathedral—built on pre-Hispanic holy land—is sinking into the earth.
The spiritual imbalance heightens the sense that Mexico City is a geography of real, physical risk and hostility. But to blame the awesome power of a hostile environment on human religious practices alone would be impertinent. Historians often categorize Mexico into three major periods: its pre-Hispanic, its colonial, and its modern. During all three, the society’s center is Mexico City, and in all of them, the city is driven by a culture of violence. Violence against humans, violence among humans, and violence between the human race and its surroundings. At each defining step in the history of Mexico, blood and death were on the watch. Something deeper is at play here.
In another one of those awful smoggy winter days spent huddling indoors in the Centro, smoke choking the room, Ponce and I meet again for an afternoon tequila. His hair is wild and his skin is earthen bronze. He is always dressed as if he’s ready to run out his door and never come back, in trainers and sweatpants. Ponce is so inspired and terrified by the air outside that he paces around, tensely holding an invisible ball of energy between his two open hands. I am sprawled on the floor, illogically looking for cool air from the wooden planks.
“Mexico City,” Ponce whistles, “is a lake of fire.”
He sits down to keep drawing a psychedelic comic strip taking shape before him. My mind races back to that winter bus ride to the east, at dusk, turning back to the image of a futuristic hell. Mexico City shrouded in poisonous smog, proof of man’s dominance over the elements. In the shrinking light, I imagine brontosaurs lumbering up the hillsides and an orange pterodactyl soaring above me. Is this how it looked since the beginning of time?
Around the first or second century A.D., on the south end of the valley, the geological record tells us, the Xitle volcano erupted near the Cuicuilco settlement, washing over the land in scorching lava. This primordial violence wiped out the earliest known civilization that existed on the basin’s ring. The settlement was virtually liquidated, leaving hardly an archaeological trace. The lava cooled, slowly transforming into the stone with which later Mexicans built their pyramids and, later, used to build the Spaniards’ churches.
A dramatic painting depicting the Xitle eruption is sometimes on view at the Museo de la Ciudad de México. On one side, a few of the earliest human inhabitants of Mexico—nearly naked, holding spears—stand bravely above the hot hell below them. Their expressions are grim but determined, as though they are thinking, This is where we were made to live. This is who we are. The valley at their feet is a belching sea of red and orange.
Excerpted from DOWN & DELIRIOUS IN MEXICO CITY by Daniel Hernandez. Copyright (c) 2011 by Daniel Hernandez. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.