I'm about two thirds of the way through "El Monstruo," the new book on Mexico City by John Ross, right at the part where he describes the aftermath of the great 1985 earthquake. It's an important personal date for Ross. That was when the author and former Beat poet moved into the Hotel Isabel in the historic center of D.F. -- where he's lived ever since, as he so vividly tells it in his opening chapter.
So far, it's an enormously entertaining read.
Ross, an unapologetic "activist journalist" well into his senior years, offers a spirited people's history sort of take on the city he calls 'The Monster,' starting all the way back with visions of the first land animals and later humans who wandered the Valley of Mexico.
Every year, tens of thousands of young men, brainwashed into believing the sacrifice of their blood would keep the sun up in the sky, were herded up to Tenochtitlán, lined up at the foot of the great twin temples to Huitzilopotchtli and Tláloc, and led one by one up the 114 steps to their doom.
At the apex of the altar, four priests would spread-eagle the prospective victim upon the blood-caked killing slab while a fifth would plunge the obsidian tecpatl deep into his belly, burrow upwards through the soft flesh, and yank out his still steaming heart, holding it aloft for a fleeting moment for the sun to feast upon the bloody, palpitating organ and then stuffing it through the Hummingbird god's gore-encrusted mouth hole. Then the body was released, rolling down the stone steps to the base of the pyramid, where the butcher boys hacked off its choice parts and tossed the torsos into the canoes to be distributed in other temples to feed other gods. The leftovers were thrown into the wild animals in the Emperor's menagerie.
While Ross writes with refreshing passion and verve, his excitement sometimes leads to some light fact-fudging.
He says early on, for instance, that the Torre Mayor is 85 stories tall, although it is actually only 55 stories. Later, he pegs the assassination of guerrilla rebel Ruben Jaramillo to 1963, then just a few pages later, says it happened in 1962 (when it actually occurred, as I double-checked in Laura Castellanos's "Mexico Armado," the definitive history of guerrilla movements in Mexico during the PRI era).
These are just a couple easy examples of accuracy issues in Ross's book, and from what I hear, other journalists in Mexico have noted factual quibbles in some of his other work. Thankfully, the bibliography at the end of "El Monstruo" is extensive, and Ross is clearly well read.
In the end, it is clear that Ross knows Mexico City -- particular the story of the Centro Histórico, and the people who populate his favorite hang-out, the historic Cafe La Blanca -- as well as someone knows their own home. His "El Monstruo" is an active urban history, written with true love.
* I'll be posting more excerpts from "El Monstruo" later. Here is a strong review in the San Antonio Express-News, and an interview with Ross during recent stop in Berkeley. The author is currently touring with his title in El Norte.