Seeking a City's Future in Its Past

LA CAPITAL: THE BIOGRAPHY OF MEXICO CITY by Jonathan Kandell, New York: Random House 640 pp. $24.95

AS the most populous urban center in the world, Mexico City (pop. 20 million) could become the leader of the third world. Unfortunately, it is held back by massive internal corruption and the potential for cataclysmic ecological disaster. In ``La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City,'' Jonathan Kandell sets out to demythologize its larger-than-life history and to explain the present in terms of the past.

Kandell traces three themes from Aztec civilization to present-day Mexico: the deliberate distortion of history to serve those in power or those seeking power; the widespread use of bribes for personal enrichment; and the ecological difficulties associated with living in the Valley of Mexico.

Kandell is perhaps the ideal historian for Mexico City. A son of American expatriates, he grew up in Mexico City in the 1950s. His undisguised fascination with the city shines through the book, yet it is tempered with a strong helping of objectivity and a reporter's desire to unearth the facts. The result is a compelling history, rich in detail, factual as well as anecdotal. It is as if he sought to fill the gaps in Mexican history as he learned it when he was growing up in Mexico.

In school, he was taught the history of Mexico according to the ruling party. But that is not necessarily what he experienced in Mexico City's streets and in its neighborhoods. ``I always heard the poor referred to as `indio' ... almost inevitably a term of derision.... And yet at school and at home, we - the foreigners, the descendants of Europeans, or the lighter-skinned mestizos - were taught that this was their city and they were the great protagonists of its history,'' Kandell recalls.

In considering the pre-Conquest Aztec era to the close of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, Kandell cites documents as varied as Aztec annals, chronicles of Hern'an Cort'es's expeditions, and diaries and letters from diplomats, visitors, and citizens.

Perhaps the most glaring example he offers of the way history was distorted is the record of Tlacaelel, the Aztec kingmaker for six decades. Tlacaelel deliberately distorted history to condemn his tribe's commoners to endless servility. Later Mexicans claimed to be pure Spanish-born whites, Mexican-born whites, or Indians according to the needs of the day, despite centuries of miscegenation.

Diego Rivera, the preeminent artist of post-revolutionary Mexico, likewise reworked history. ``The fables spun out on his murals became orthodox history, the raw material of textbooks and classroom lectures,...'' writes Kandell.

The bribery and corruption prevalent in Mexico today are carryovers from the Aztec empire's demand for tribute from vassal tribes. This system of collecting tribute was perpetuated by the Spaniards after the Conquest. ``Officials of the Spanish Crown stole Indian tribute.... In the nineteenth century, Santa Anna and his associates plundered the public treasury and even ceded national territory for personal gain.'' Today, corruption is still the norm in Mexico City.

The third theme Kandell pursues is that of a city perpetually on the brink of ecological disaster. ``The Valley of Mexico was in fact not a true valley with natural drainage, but rather a sealed basin in which waters from rains and springs collected.'' It has been prone to periodic flooding; fresh water must be pumped in and sewage out; and today air pollution remains trapped in the basin. The valley has not been able to feed its burgeoning population for centuries. A strong earthquake could again devastate parts of the city, as one did in 1985.

The final three chapters covering post-Revolutionary Mexico are a bit disappointing, even anticlimactic. After an excellent overview of Mexico City's distant history, which takes care to place Mexican events in the context of world history, Kandell seems to have worn himself out. These final chapters are more anecdotal than historical or analytical.

``La Capital'' makes almost no mention of the turmoil surrounding World Wars I and II. Nor does it cover the recent leadership role played by Mexico City's politicians and intellectuals in the Latin American and general third-world arenas. Instead, page upon page is devoted to descriptions of a neighborhood trash king, a presidential mistress, and a corrupt Mexico City police chief.

This may make for interesting reading, but it is an unsatisfying ending for an otherwise enlightening book. It undercuts Kandell's thesis that, above all, Mexico City will be a survivor.

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