No one understands Mexico City, or what will happen next, since it’s sinking and leaning—it was built over a bog—and overrun with complex commercial mafias and hollowed out by inattention. It is said that eighty percent of the historical buildings in the historic center are unoccupied. That is to say, the first floor (U.S. second floor) and on up are empty, except for questionable storage and a few of us.
But how can this be, you ask, when the sidewalks and subways in the same area are teeming with Two-legs. Well, it is partly because of the rent freeze decreed in in 1948 and lifted in 1992, that scared off investors and ceded the walls to us. Earthquakes were always a possibility, but less so than owner indolence, the philosophy of doing just enough, and no more, which is to say, taking the earnings from ground floor stores and shops but not fixing everything above it.
How long can this go on? it is reasonable to ask. The buildings will collapse and we will be back on the streets. The Government should do what it does best. Threaten. Say they’ll give you the pesos, but then you have to bring things up to standards, preserve the heritage—wipe us out. You have five years, and if you don’t do it, we take your property and that will be that. Fortunate for us, the thin-tailed Fates smile and political indolence stands in the way. There’s money but no ideas. Or, more likely, no money and no ideas.
But there are community efforts to buy up individual buildings and restore them, so that there will be apartments, with the hope of bringing middle class families back into the historic center. Here again, the government could control rents, so tariffs rise slowly. Otherwise, young families will not be able to stay and those who can stay won’t want to share the streets with the teeming masses—which would include us.
What you have now is a strange, sprawling museum of architectural ruins that the poor stroll past and admire as theirs, passing fine restaurants they cannot afford and museums for which they have no cultural affinity. Unlike us who visit them all regularly. Hence the name rattus norvegicus intellectualis.
There are exceptions to everything, including to non-investment. Governments like to immortalize themselves and have taken ruins and changed them into breathtaking constructs. The Biblioteca de México “José Vasconcelos” used to be Spain’s royal tobacco factory, finished in 1807, became a prison in 1816, an armory 1825, a base for anti-Madero forces in 1913, a library in 1946—in short, a story of swords into books, with an ingenious over-arching, floating roof, the personal library of Carlos Monsiváis, among others, and a vast reading room for 2,000 readers—in a city and nation that are largely non-reading, and know little of oral history—a tradition sacred to us who embrace all kinds of tails.
Still, be hopeful, there are other kinds of occupations. Two and four-legged Mafias that regulate space, the flow of goods and payoffs. You can see this in places like the Avenida Donceles in the Cuauhtémoc district, just north of the Zócalo, where trucks clog the streets unloading contraband, stuffed teddy bears and pandas—for some reason no rattus norvegicus—oversized trucks for spoiled little boys, red and yellow plastic for Three Kings. Or the western end of the Alameda park, the permanent camp in front of the Hilton Hotel, the last holdout of the ambulantes, the street merchants who used to occupy the whole park. And in the short street on its northern border, mafia types in short zippered leather jackets park their cars in the middle of the street, stand like wrestlers and discuss the various kinds of rents and protections that are due.
This kind of occupation is tolerated, while another kind is not—that vast space called the Zócalo, controlled by the Government in order to preserve the appearance of control and sovereignty. A street or two back, storm-blue police buses squat like turtles sunning. They have screens over the windows to keep rocks out and prisoners in—with, I can testify to this—generous deposits of dried blood on their metal floors. No rat, Norwegian or otherwise, would be caught dead lingering in one of those traps. Men in half riot gear lounge on the benches, fighting off, confronting boredom. They are always present, the buses, because of the threat of occupation is always present. Like the huge November 20, 2014 demonstration against the unexplained murder of the 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa. As in chess, always control the center or, in this case, the Zócalo. To that end, a page out of The Brothers Karamazov, the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor,” who tells a returned Christ that the people need nothing more than authority, miracle and entertainment. Hence, in front of the Presidencia (authority), the humble wait for hours in long lines to experience skating and sledding (entertainment), on the miracle of ice and artificial snow—a Disney fairytale of sparkle and wonder that keeps the square safe from citizens unhappy with their government.
As I have said, there are different kinds of occupation. Like what occupies my mind. Images of the market San Juan, the sprawling indoor complex that offers everything, in the poorest taste, crocodiles skinned right up to their jowls, their white meat flaky like that of dead snake. But worst of all, and the most foreboding, also white piglet bodies in two or three sizes, bereft, naked, dead. Murdered. A reminder of what can happen to us if the Two-legs decide we should appear clear-wrapped in the counters of Costco. Rattus barbecue-kebabus.
There is one final occupation I feel I should mention. A certain restaurant in this historic center. Where the fine people gather with their happy, safe families, amid courtyard trees and hanging, flickering candle chandeliers. The husbands, the proud controllers of things—it is the happiness of their wives I am concerned about, women threatened by traditional foods that only fatten them and who, without a rodent’s energy, grow soft and plump and depressed, because everything is rigged against them—food, lack of a profession, fashion, religion—so they can not remain the frisky foals that originally caught their husbands’ eyes. If they could listen to me, I would tell them to get out of their cars, take a restored apartment, occupy the historic center, and themselves, invite family and husbands to visit if they really wanted to, but otherwise plunge into the chaos that I the species Rattus norvegicus, superbus, intellectualis find so tail-quivering alive. I would say, Come join us in fat Diego Rivera’s “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Come join Frida and—us. Because we are there too, behind the ragged newspaper boy, proudly included and carefully drawn, but only in such a way that a rat can see it.
4 thoughts on “The Chronicles of a Rat in Mexico City”
Best rat story of all, for central Mexico City, were the rumors of giant rats crawling out of the metro after the 1985 earthquake. Apparently, someone in Merced’s pet lion was killed in the quake, and the guy skinned it, leaving the carcass in the ruins. I guess if you squint (and use a lot of imagination) a skinned lion sorta, kinda looks like a rat. That said, a lot of empty building in the Centro have been rehabbed… a sort of win-win, getting the ambulantes off the streets and putting abandoned buildings on the tax rolls by turning them into low-cost emporia for the various merchants who were selling on the streets. There’s even a three story building of nothin’ but porn.
I have never, to my knowledge, eaten rat. Maybe it’s available in Mexico City.
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