Academic journal article Hispanic Review

"Of the Smog": José Emilio Pacheco's Concussive Poetics of Mexico City

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

"Of the Smog": José Emilio Pacheco's Concussive Poetics of Mexico City

Article excerpt

That Mexico City has a pollution problem is undeniable. This assessment, however, tends toward synecdoche in the US, where the Mexican capital's smog and contaminated water obscure the perception of nearly everything else. In this construction of Mexico City, smog serves as a figure in which the part - "the pollution" - substitutes for the whole, that complex set of economic, political, cultural, geological, and ecological forces that produce the megacity of twenty million.

In a representative, if sardonic, example of this construction by a leading US Latino poet, Victor Hernández Cruz's "If You See Me in L.A. It's Because I'm Looking for the Airport" summons the specter of a "perfectly" polluted Mexico City as a means to understanding the comparatively less-polluted Los Angeles: "What would the Mexicans want / L.A. back for? / They got Mexico City / And can give lessons / On how to perfect / The pollution" (82-87). The pointed superficiality of Cruz's rhetorical question and playful response implicitly critiques the fractional viewpoint of Mexico City held widely in the US. These lines thus foreground external misperceptions of the city while insisting upon its abiding pollution problem, thereby functioning as a suggestive departure point for what I call losé Emilio Pacheco's concussive poetics that account for the complex, conflicting factors that comprise contemporary Mexico City.

First and most obviously, Cruz's lines invoke the city's pollution, which Pacheco configures as a violent collision between the built environment - with its constitutive processes of capital accumulation and market penetration - and the processes of the natural world. Second, Cruz shows that LA is a product of Anglo-American conquest; the attendant historical fact goes unmentioned, but resonates nonetheless, that Mexico City, too, is a product of conquests: by the Aztecs, Spanish, US, French, and by global capital. I argue that Pacheco conceptualizes Mexico City as an ongoing symbolic and material conquest of geographical space constituted by attempts to vanquish the mountains that surround it. Third, Cruz's lines allude to who controls the shape and direction of the city. His assertion that "the Mexicans" "got Mexico City" is ambiguous, indicating either that they inherited the city or that they possess it. Whereas Cruz's lines could imply that Mexico City is a consolation prize for losing LA, they suggest more acutely how the city has been constructed historically through various processes of displacement. Pacheco's concussive poetics examine what forces have "got [ten]" Mexico City and to what extent "they [Mexicans] got" it.

This third point underscores the previous two in that environmental degradation and the conquest of space are both products of, and processes intertwined with, Mexico City's uneven geographical development of capitalism, which can be traced to the 1880s through the 1910s. "Uneven geographical development" refers to capitalism's structural logic and attendant patterns of unevenness, which are, Neil Smith argues, neither random nor accidental but "determinate" and "unique to capitalism": "The pattern that results in the landscape is well known: development at one pole and underdevelopment at the other. This takes place at a number of spatial scales" (Uneven Development xiii, xv), including, for present purposes, between the US and Mexico and within Mexico City.

During the Porfiriato, Michael Johns shows, Mexico City "had acquired the principal geographic feature that defines it to this day - a division into a rich west and a poor east" (4-5). This division was reinforced by the intense penetration of European cultural capital in the form of luxury goods, urban design, architecture, and public sculpture and European and US investment capital to build the city's infrastructure. Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, moreover, demonstrates how the Paseo de la Reforma and new colonias in the west "were developed on the model of the Champs Elysées," Haussmann's Paris broadly, and British and North American "garden cities" (83). …

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