Skip to content

John Ross: El Monstruo

Of all the Mexico City books I brought there, John Ross wrote the biggest, heaviest, and most ambitious. Just as I recorded a Marketplace of Ideas interview with David Lida during the trip, so I would have recorded one with Ross, had he not died in January. Ross’ lifespan, 1938-2011, nearly matches that of my friend Tom, 1937-2011, who passed five months later. Since the dying Ross composed El Monstruo in as much an autobiographical frame of mind as an urban-historical one, I assembled the author’s storied life and persona in my mind as much as I did Mexico City’s.  While my concepts of “Tom” and “Mexico City” remain distant from one another, I now can’t quite make out where my concept of “Tom” ends and my concept of “John Ross” begins.

Neither man, dare I assume, would take offense if called an “old lefty” — or would much hesitate to refer to himself that way. In many an online back-and-forth over political and economic issues that now seem unimportant, I butted my head against certain elements of Tom’s worldview. It seemed to me then that he put too much faith — or assumed too much usefulness — in the notion of heroes and villains, or at least of rightheaded and wrongheaded figures who, when installed in power, could and would steer the world right or wrong. Milton Friedman often came up as his bête noire; the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and Naomi Klein represented, for him, the team that knew what was up.

Klein tends to conflate Friedman with harsh dictators like Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile in the seventies and eighties with very little patience for political opposition. I don’t know if Tom, who had a lot of involvement in Chile over the decades, did the same, though he did tend to bring the subject back to the market reforms advised by economists trained at Friedman’s University of Chicago. Tom had a favorite phrase to use in these conversations: “greed barons.”

By John Ross’ standards, “greed barons” would count as an exceptionally civil way to refer to his own political villains. Though it takes the form of a history of Mexico City from the Big Bang to 2009, El Monstruo devotes the bulk of its pages to a chronicle of wrongs visited upon the city and its precursors by the powerful, be they Conquistadors, traitorous Indians, trespassing gringos, military strongmen, bloated tycoons, misguided intellectuals, or any of thousands of corrupt politicians at every conceivable level of influence. Ross covers natural disasters, too — he makes especially fascinating points about the 1985 earthquake and the subsequent rise of a downtown civil society — but mainly as opportunities to show the rulers, elected or otherwise, failing yet again to meet their obligations to the poor, the very poor, and the sort of poor alike.

Ross’ uncompromising ideological views shape each and every one of El Monstruo’s 453 pages, but he mitigates objections by (a) cramming more raw facts about Mexico City into the book than any other chronicler has and (b) admitting everything. Throughout the text, he delivers an unceasing stream of asides pointing out who in the historical and political life of el D.F. he considers conniving, slimy, devious, sociopathic, solipsistic, black-hearted, or — the best most high-profile Chilangos can do in Ross’ cosmology — well-intentioned but rendered ineffectual by the scheming opposition. He writes as a fount of judgment, but hey, so did Hunter Thompson.

With tendencies similar to those of his Freak-Powered generational (1937-2005) and professional compatriot, Ross includes much of his personal history in this city’s history. One paragraph you’re reading about a president draining Mexico’s coffers or a covered-up student massacre or the formation of a rebel Indian paramilitary unit, and the next you’re reading about John Ross getting hit by a speeding Hummer, John Ross sleeping under the stars in the Zócalo, or John Ross chatting with the waiters, watch-sellers, and street musicians who hang out in his neighborhood, el Centro Historico. Some might consider this contamination of the book’s scholarly value, but smart money says that nobody will write a richer history of Mexico City for a very long time indeed.

Ross’ publisher tends to promote his work with a rare blurb of praise from Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937), the fourth member of the American “Silent Generation” I’ve brought up so far. This is telling; Pynchon, Thompson, and Ross’ writing, from what I can tell, all seems driven by eminently conspiracy-fueled worldviews saturated by the idea that everyone and everything with power is deliberately connected, and the resulting evil web intends, secretly or not-so-secretly, to screw us. I may enjoy these guys’ books, but I just don’t see in humanity, at the top of the hierarchy or the bottom, the kind of competence — or even fully formed intention — needed to successfully pull such a screwing off. But I do see, for good or ill, the pragmatically improvisational spirit many writers celebrate about Mexico City, and which Ross himself ends El Monstruo by placing his faith in. This beloved dump of ours has already taken 500 years of screwing, he believes; it ain’t goin’ nowhere.

That said, despite my ever-increasing cultural fascination with Latin American countries like Mexico and Chile, I’ve never really understood all the excitement so many journalists and artists have drawn from Latin American politics. Maybe this comes down to another generational difference, but fascination is fascination. Next time I visit el D.F. — and there will be a next time — I’ll take a special trip on Line 1, get off at Isabel La Católica, and drink a café con leche for John Ross in front of the Hotel Isabel he called home for 25 years. And I don’t know what Tom drank, but when I finally get to Santiago, I’ll have one of those.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *