Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Mexico City and Coronavirus

Ignacio M. Sänchez Prado

Mexico City is no stranger to the Apocalypse. Carlos Monsiváis, one of its famous chroniclers, often used the term to depict the experience of living in this most surreal of world capitals. In the 1990s, Monsiváis coined the term “post-apocalyptic” to account for life in the megalopolis that emerged after decades of booming and chaotic growth, and later modified it to “apocalipstick” to designate the urban landscape located in the strange intersection between climate change and exuberant capitalism that the city occupied in the early 21st century.

Located in reach of the Mexican fault line, and perennially sinking because of its resting over a subterranean lake, Mexico City is a phoenix that often rises from the ashes of major earthquakes, by the sheer strength of a people that finds its solidarity and power in the context of recurring catastrophes. I still remember the massive earthquake that hit the city in 1985, while I was in a car on my way to elementary school. I can sometimes evoke my fuzzy memories of the following months, displaced from our apartment, with no electricity, surrounded by protests in the streets which, I would learn years later, played a fundamental role in eroding Mexico’s one-party regime. The same feelings arose when I visited in 2017, as I saw people mobilizing in the aid of their neighbors, surrounded by the many blocks of mighty buildings shattered by yet another earthquake. Mexicans are at their best, as Monsiváis himself shows in his chronicles of 1985, when their civil society is built on the solidarity that only shared apocalypse can bring.

My hometown also has considerable experience in surviving the type of slow apocalypse that unfolds alongside major disease. Various forms of illness have ravaged it, from the smallpox epidemic brought by Spanish conquistadors in 1520 to the quarantine mandated to fight the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak. As social distancing was part of everyday life during the so-called “swine flu” year, and Mexico City’s bustling streets were spectrally empty, my mother managed to move back into the city after more than a decade living elsewhere, a proud representative of the type of Mexican who had yet to find a catastrophe, personal or collective, that could stop her. This resilience is central to the history of Mexico. As writer Gustavo Sáinz recounts, during the 1810s, amidst Mexico’s long war of independence, the city suffered a succession of diseases affecting half the population, floods, the proliferation of street dogs and crime, and other trials, and even as the last throes of the colonial administration failed to contain these catastrophes, the armies of Independence marched to the city and founded an independent nation in the aftermath of chaos.

This historical dance with various versions of the end of the world somehow gives me hope and even certainty of the survival of Mexico City. But I cannot deny that for Mexico City, hope always marches holding hands with pain. The unfolding apocalypse will meet not only those who perform the jobs we are now calling “essential,” but also the millions of people in the informal economy that is both a part of its soul and character and a brutal dimension of its endemic economic inequality. Essential and informal workers are the bravest and most resilient among us, but also the ones who always withstand and suffer the brunt of pain and suffering in our calamities. Writing about these tribulations dates back at least to the 16th century, when a Spanish friar, Motolinia, used the figure of the Biblical plagues to describe the fate of indigenous people and their Spanish conquerors during the fall of Tenochtitlan and the first edification of post-conquest Mexico City. Any hopeful future for the city will be bound, as it has always been, to the unequally allotted labor of loss and struggle in this unforeseen present, another instance the long succession of trying times.

There is no Mexico City without those who joyfully and resiliently manage twenty-four-hour taco stands and eateries, without those who commute for hours across the geography of the city, without those who face hardships with unwavering humor and strength, without those who constantly build rich cultures and histories every day, against the grain of the country’s tragedies and absurdities. There are future chronicles to be written about the city that will rise thanks to the grit of my people, chilangos, who brave every single day through the wonders and perils of a city like no other, who have traversed many improbable modernities and built what we can proudly and truthfully will continue to call the most complex city in the world.

A History of Mexican Literature By Ignacio M. Sänchez Prado, Anna M. Nogar and José Ramón Ruisánchez Serra
A History of Mexican Literature By Ignacio M. Sänchez Prado, Anna M. Nogar and José Ramón Ruisánchez Serra

About The Author

Ignacio M. Sänchez Prado

Ignacio M. Sänchez Prado is Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Washington University, Saint Louis. His research focuses on the relationship between aesth...

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