The Monster

Pub date October 6, 2009
WriterJohn Ross
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

El Monstruo: Dread & Redemption In Mexico City is a perverse love letter to the most contaminated, crime-ridden, corrupt and conflictive urban stain on the western side of the planet, where I have been touched to live for the past quarter of a century. My life is now hopelessly entangled with the life of this monster of a megalopolis.

El Monstruo was indeed a monstrous book to write. The slagheap of materials that I sucked up — hundreds of volumes of history, slagheaps of newspapers, mountains of personal recollections — fill my threadbare room at the Hotel Isabel in the old quarter of this city from floor to ceiling. The narrative I have assembled spans 50,000,000 years give or take a few minutes, dating from the Paleocene to last spring’s Swine Flu panic with significant stops for the doomed Aztec empire, the war of liberation from Spain, the Mexican revolution of 1910-1919, the student massacres of the ’60s, the Great 1985 earthquake, and the erratic governance of the electoral left for the past 12 years.

It is a long story.

The Mexican Revolution was in many ways a war against Mexico City, a capital for which the rest of the country was named and from which all power continues to radiate. The great revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa viewed Mexico City as a Sodom & Gomorrah that had to be destroyed if the country was to be redeemed and they did their best to do so. The excerpt that follows speaks to the Monstruo on the eve of the downfall of dictator Porfirio Diaz and the inception of the first great revolution of the landless in the Americas.


Back home in Morelos, Emiliano Zapata was elected village leader, entrusted to recover Anenecuilco’s lost lands, granted to the Indians by the Crown in the 17th century. The sugar planters, many of whom were foreigners, had gobbled up the Nahuas’ land and water without remorse.

“Land and Water” was in fact the slogan of Madero ally Vicente Leyva’s campaign for governor of Morelos in 1909 against Díaz’s gallo (rooster), Pablo Escandón, the scion of an immensely wealthy criollo family that had first struck it rich in real estate during Juárez’s Reform, and also a sugar planter who rarely bothered to visit the tiny state. Zapata aligned Anenecuilco’s fortunes with Leyva and Madero. Escandón won by a landslide of course, without ever having to leave El Monstruo. To Zapata, Escandón WAS El Monstruo.

By 1910, 2 percent of all Mexicans owned all the land—save for 70 million hectares held by foreigners with family names like Rockefeller and Hearst and Morgan. One hundred percent of the good farming land in Morelos was occupied by 17 haciendas operated by absentee patrones (bosses). The haciendas sucked up all the groundwater, leaving villages like Anenecuilco dry as a bone. The unequal distribution of water continues a century hence. Wealthy Chilangos have overrun Morelos with their golf courses and palatial second homes, leaving the villages just as thirsty as they were in 1910.

Years ago, I rented a large house in Olintepec, a colonia that shares ejido land (communal farmland) with Anenecuilco, and was able to see how the land must have looked to Zapata when he rode through these fields. I walked out through the tall sugar cane along the irrigation canals to the Caudillo’s humble adobe home, now a museum, on a back street in Anenecuilco, and each young horseman barreling down the country lanes could have been the Caudillo all over again.

But an hour and fifty-five minutes later, when I stepped down off a bus in the belly of the Monstruo, the urban hurly-burly swirling all around me, I always got a whiff of the profound culture shock Emiliano Zapata must have suffered when he was forced to visit this city he so detested.


Francisco Madero’s call for the revolution to commence November 20, 1910, stirred sparse response. Up in Puebla, Díaz’s agents murdered Madero’s lieutenant, the revolutionary shoemaker Aquiles Serdán, and his family, two nights before the festivities were slated to kick in. In Morelos, Zapata and the peasant army he had assembled bided their time, waiting to see who would make the first move first.

Mexicans are never on time. Finally, in January, Doroteo Arango AKA Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a popular Chihuahua desperado of Hobsbawmian proportions, and his ruthless cohort Pascual Orozco, declared themselves in revolt and were immediately joined by the Maderista governor of Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza and his “Constitutionalist” Army. Díaz’s Federales were beaten back at Ciudad Guerrero, Mal Paso, and Casas Grandes. Villa laid siege to Ciudad Juárez on the border, the vital railhead that linked Mexico City to the United States and was the lifeblood of the country’s commercial transactions.

By February 1911, with the synchronicity that sometimes made the Mexican Revolution work, the Zapatistas had advanced to Xochimilco. Workers in the heart of the city suffering from what the Porfirian rag El Imparcial tagged ”huelga-manía” or strike fever, declared seven major strikes that paralyzed the Monstruo in 1910–1911. Demonstrators were emboldened enough to assemble in the Zócalo and shout “Death to the Dictator!” beneath Don Porfirio’s balcony by spring. Others menaced his mansion on Cadena Street in the Centro Histórico and were repelled by the gendarmes.

Pablo Escandón fled Mexico for Europe, kvetching to the press that Mexico had fallen into “niggerdom.” Don Porfirio’s class of people was stunned by this threat to their carefree lives and comforts. Indeed, the leisure class had not changed all that much from when the criollos and Gachupines cowered inside the city as Hidalgo’s Indiada advanced on El Monstruo.

After three and a half decades in power, the Dictator remained a figure of adoration in the mansions of La Condesa. For the university students, largely the sons of the ruling class, Don Porfi was the epitome of modernity. To them, Villa and Orozco and Carranza were the Barbarians of the North, Zapata the Attila of the South, and they cast the Dictator as the savior of civilization as they knew it.

But the old man was 81, and it hurt just to keep a stiff upper lip. The medals weighed heavily on his chest. He knew in his heart of hearts what his adorers could not admit—the jig was really up. Ciudad Juárez was days away, even via the modern rail system he had built, and the army’s mobility to supply his troops was restricted. Don Porfiriopochtli, as political cartoonists were drawing him now, had, like the Aztecs, expanded his empire to a point where he could no longer defend it.

In May, the Dictator sent his vice president, Francisco León de la Barra, to the north to negotiate an easy exit to his 34 years on the throne of Mocuhtezuma, and on May 24, 1911, having brokered an agreement with Madero that León de la Barra would remain as provisional president for the next six months, the old man set sail from Puerto, México, for Paris, France, aboard the German steamer Ypringa with this famous caution: “The wild beasts have been loosed. Let us see who will cage them now.”

Wild celebrations broke out in Mexico City as if to underscore the old man’s dictum—15,000 workers invaded the Chamber of Deputies and marched on the National Palace, where the Dictator’s police opened fire, wounding scores. The offices of the Porfirian mouthpiece El Imparcial were set afire. By July, the Monstruo was shut down by a general strike. The wrath of the Mexicans had indeed been loosed, and Madero’s intentions to cage it up again would dictate the next phase of Mexico’s cannibal revolution.


After a discreet pause to make sure the old man was really gone, Francisco Madero started off on the long train ride from Ciudad Juárez to Mexico City in early June. There were many treacheries up ahead and he had plenty of time to consider his options as the train lurched from state to state. As he passed through Zacatecas and Aguascalientes, jubilant mobs overran the train depots waving Mexican flags and shouting “¡Vivas!” until they were hoarse and Madero’s train long out of sight.

The presumptive president of Mexico arrived in the capital at Buenavista terminal, the great northern station, on the morning of June 9, and the tumult was overwhelming. Kandell compares it to Juárez’s return to rekindle the republic. I stare at the news photographs. People are excited, even exhilarated. They push and jostle for a view of the little Lenin look-alike. But some are more reserved. They stand back from the jubilant throng. They have come more out of curiosity than conviction. Their faces seem to ask, what next?

From Buenavista, Madero rode through the city in a Dupont motorcar, the sidewalks bursting with well-wishers and flag wavers. Many residents of the metropolis were relieved not so much because of the hope the little man brought with him as for the fact that this change of power had taken place with a minimum of damage to themselves and their city.

When Madero entered the old city for the final jog to the National Palace, he mounted a white horse. In the Palacio, he met with León de la Barra and they reaffirmed their bargain—Porfirio’s stooge would govern for the next six months while Madero campaigned for presidential elections set for November 2. The two emerged on the president’s balcony and “¡Vivas!” erupted from the joyous mob that filled the Zócalo below.

But the old Gods of Tenochtitlán were skeptical about Francisco Madero’s grasp on the presidency. At 6:00 that afternoon they rendered their verdict, upstaging his triumphal arrival in the capital with a deadly earthquake that surged out of the Pacific Ocean along the Jalisco coast and wrought havoc throughout that western state, killing 400 in Zapopan and setting off the Volcano of Colima before smashing into the north of Mexico City and leveling Santa María de la Ribera and San Cosme. There were no Richter scales in those days to measure the quake, but an uncounted number of lives were lost in the capital—perhaps hundreds, reported El Imparcial, which published three extras that day but paid scant attention to Madero’s arrival, burying the story beneath the fold.

Hear Ross read from El Monstruo and sign copies Nov. 18 at Modern Times, 888 Valencia, 7:30 p.m.