- I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo
Nominally this is a book about Mexico City between the 1880s and 1930s, when Mexico's capital emerged as one of the world's great modern metropolises. In fact it is a bold and welcome attempt to change how we read and write urban history.
Studies of Mexico City are legion, owing in part to its long prominent place in regional and, indeed, global history. Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo addresses an especially well-trod period, covering the consolidation of the Mexican nation-state during Porfirio Dı´az's dictatorship (1876–1911), his ouster amid the 1910 revolution, an ensuing decade of bloody conflict, and the rise of a political system that ruled for seventy years. It is a time of special interest to wide ranging scholarship because, as Tenorio notes, while "[Mexico City] was not the only pre-Hispanic capital, it was the only one that was carried on to the modern era as a capital" (309). It is therefore a hinge between eras, revealing how Mexico developed distinct forms of modernity in politics, popular culture, architecture, language, and more.
Tenorio captures the essence of this city in flux in two novel ways. First he discards conventional chronology as ill suited to narrate urban history: "The life of a city, any city, is simultaneity" (94), not linear structure. Then he experiments with different narrative styles, all rooted in extensive archival research. The result is imaginative, standalone essays with one common thread: turn of the century Mexico City was "a laboratory city, an experiment, an ephemeral metaphor of change and progress" (310) where elites and popular classes, joined by legions of foreigners, projected often conflicting visions of modernity. Essays, then, function as form and argument, narrative analogues to the many attempts — literally, ensayos — to craft a modern city.
From the outset, Tenorio's attempts yield insight. On a walking tour of downtown Mexico City in 1910, as Porfirio D´ıaz's dictatorship neared its end, Tenorio shows a capital transformed not by the outbreak of revolution — standard academic fare — but by extravagant parades and monuments celebrating the centennial of Mexico's independence. It was "the first powerful modern articulation of what Mexico meant" (6). As such and paradoxically, D´ıaz's "celebratory city" became both foil and model for subsequent iterations of the capital: in 1921 celebrations over the end of Mexico's Independence Wars so much evoked the 1910 centennial that they "inaugurated the revolutionary city as the appropriation of the Porfirian city — its symbolic styles, its speculative nature, its urban plan, its tackiness, and its power" (38). [End Page 392]
In appropriating the pre-revolutionary city, the post-revolutionary city revealed how as they searched for a unifying, modern identity, Mexico City inhabitants often resorted to mimicry and parody. In part this meant kitsch. Using period photos and illustrations, Tenorio takes readers into elite homes where gaudy stagings of conspicuous consumption reflected "the imitative nature of bourgeois style." But servants did the staging, ensuring that the trend reached "even working class cheap styles" (79). Imitation in search of modernity also explained "odalisque mania" — elite and popular fascination with India and Japan. Each held related but different appeals: India offered a vision of modernity cum spiritualism (252); Japan one that coupled rather than chose between tradition and modernity (215). In a city steeped in history and religiosity and seeking ways to retain both while becoming more Western, their influence suffused the capital, from haikus to erotica to social science.
Ironically, while Mexico City cast about for models of modernity, foreign intellectuals — especially after Mexico's revolution — flocked to Mexico in search of the opposite: the primitive, "unspoiled other" (181). Thus arose what Tenorio — wading through the ideas, politics, and romances of expatriates — calls Brown Atlantis: Mexico "as a modern metaphor of atemporal race, endless community, and redemptory violence" (147). But Mexico City stood closer...