I just finished with Daniel Hernandez’s Down and Delirious in Mexico City, his recently published account of life and times in Mexico’s capital city. Hernandez, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly, divides his focus between hanging out with some of the characters in that great megalopolis and ruminating on his own adventures navigating identity and aesthetics between the California to the north he knows and the sprawling urban behemoth to the south. While working as a free-lance journalist in Mexico City, Hernandez introduces us to a variety of experiences, with an emphasis on the city’s younger denizens: an emerging fashion designer who is part of a new wave of creative expression in Mexico City (or D.F., distrito federal, as it’s known to most Mexicans); religious devotees of a triumvirate of different saints, Santa Muerte, Virgin of Guadalupe, and St. Judas; visits to tough barrios to hear punk music; cautious observations of the buying and selling of animals at Mercado Sonora, which is known as a witches’ market; and a survey of the scene of musical tribes at the El Chopo street market (among other forays to less-traveled parts of the city, at least to most Americans).
My favorite moment is when Hernandez rhapsodizes about the screw-or-be screwed ethos that pervades life in the megacity. After a cabdriver fobs a fake 10 centavo coin on him, Hernandez has to decide whether or not to contribute to the continuation of this cycle of deceit, ultimately deciding not to fleece a corner newspaper seller. But while living in this city makes for a tough existence, Hernandez tries to illuminate the beauty and friendliness engendered by millions of people on the make, fashioning new lives for themselves. However, not all of Hernandez’s observations are able to transcend reportage into something more compelling or meditative. His experiences in the cultish, quasi-Native American steam bath scene founder, as do a great many of his stories revolving around cocaine-fueled fashions shows. Had to have been there, I think.
Hernandez is at his best when he digs a little bit deeper and adds context to the people and places he witnesses. For example, in a chapter about his peregrinations through the massive El Chopo market, home to dozens of the fiercely tribal Mexico City subcultures, he gives background about what it means to be “banda,” or part of a scene or crew, as well as the historic precedent for some of these subcultures now. He describes the late-1960s, early-1970s La Onda, literally a wave of counterculture and music, that reached its acme with the 1971 Avandaro music festival. More than 200,000 people attended the Mexican equivalent to Woodstock, and the line-up featured the cream of the nascent Mexican rock scene, including personal faves Los Dug Dugs. However, after the landmark festival, the burgeoning subculture was repressed by both the state and leftist intellectuals, who saw the display of American flags and rock music as cultural imperialism. Rock music and similar bohemian artistic inspiration was driven underground, into hoyos fonquis, aka, “funky holes.” These events took place mostly in abandoned urban spaces or neglected barrios and spurred furious police crackdowns. Apparently, the secretive nature of these events and corresponding lifestyle drew adherents of these bandas into close-knit groups that survive today. A more tolerant Mexican government allows the different groups to thrive at El Chopo today, though of course the older rockers grouse that the newer bandas—screamos, rastas, hip hoppers, and emos—haven’t paid their dues in the same way. Speaking of Mexican subcultures, I would have liked Hernandez to touch on the tribal guarachero scene, which Rupture described for a piece in The Fader last year. Certainly, the ferment of pre-Colombian and post-modern musical styles married together is a potent combination for sociologists and bass-driven musical explorers alike.
At a point of two, I was reminded of Maximum City, the gold standard for these sorts of travelogues that combine reporting and historical perspective with a good dose of gonzo journalism. Hernandez’s collection isn’t the first to trade on the tropes of an ultra-hip Mexico City. I enjoyed David Lida’s more collected book on D.F., First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, and have plans at some point to tackle John Ross’s El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City, which a couple people have claimed as the best consideration yet of the famed city.
The recent travails of the Los Angeles Dodgers have led to frenzied reporting by members of the local media, with many column inches dedicated to recounting the hubris of Frank McCourt. Most seem to invoke nostalgia for a time when the Dodgers were perched atop the National League and Los Angeles’s sporting scene. However, none is as penetrating as D.J. Waldie’s take on the McCourt saga and the implications for Los Angeles. Growing up in Lakewood, Waldie and his brother “listened to Vin as a boyhood gift, but his voice was (and is) just another opportunity for branding a commodity,” he writes. “From the beginning, the Dodgers’ arrival in L.A. wasn’t an embrace. It was a deal.”
After dismissing Vin Scully (!), Waldie indicts McCourt for his avariciousness but also includes Major League Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig and Sam Zell, who purchased the Los Angeles Times in 2007 and has overseen its diminishment from Chicago (though the once-venerable daily is now apparently an asset moving its way through bankruptcy court in Delaware). But Waldie doesn’t stop at sports and newspapers: the city’s transit organization, the school district, and the good, ole L.A.P.D. have all experienced oversight or takeover in recent history.
Too many deals have soured; too much of the city has been taken into receivership. Even our citizenship – already problematic – has been foreclosed. Deals under duress have taken too many of our civic institutions from local control and put them in the hands of monitors and special masters, raising another question we would prefer to duck: Do we have the capacity to govern ourselves?
Pretty damning, when you play it out like Waldie does. There’s no better illustration for his conclusion than the fractured state of planning across the city and especially in downtown, where corporate entities seems to dictate the terms and even physical space of the city. I like even better his conclusion:
Truthfully, we never needed a shared moral imagination until now, when so many desertions from the common good have shown us how little loyalty the once powerful had for this place. And no deal, no special master, no court-ordered monitor can supply what we lack.
Los Angeles, for all its wonders, is still an exercise in balkanization, despite the fact that its strengths may lie in its multiplicity of experiences. But what we might need is more of “shared imagination,” some form of common identity or experience. But when almost half the city of L.A. is flushed out every ten years (according to the anecdotal comments of a local sociologist, as relayed by Doug Saunders, author of the intriguing Arrival City: Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World), it’s hard to create a sustainable sort of shared imagination. Waldie invokes the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, as well as other contemporaries (Matt Weinstock, Jack Smith, Art Seidenbaum, and Charles Champlin). Who has stepped up to fill this space, to invoke a real sense of Los Angeles now, just as Murray spoke to sports fans of his day? Who will bear the burden of understanding the history and nuance of the city?
For one, I look to someone like Ry Cooder. With an impressive resume (Captain Beefheart, Rolling Stones, Buena Vista Social Club, etc), Cooder has frequently impressed me with his craft, choice of projects, and insight. In the Times rather bland overview of the Dodgers’s relationship with Los Angeles, he impresses with his sense of place and unsentimental recollection, a rare thing indeed for these parts.
“I think McCourt is a junior G-man compared to the O’Malleys,” said musician Ry Cooder, an L.A. native whose 2005 concept album “Chavez Ravine” evoked the rich Mexican American culture that was swept aside when the neighborhood was razed, creating an open space that came to house Dodger Stadium. “Professional sports is not a holy institution,” Cooder said. “It’s a money thing and always has been.”