Review Of "The City Of Mexico In The Age Of Diaz"

The Great Divide

University of California-Berkley geographer and author Michael Johns argues in his novel, The City of Mexico in the Age of Diaz, that the central Zocalo of Mexico City does more than geographically segregate the East from the West, but Mexico’s national mentality as well. During the years of Diaz’s democratic façade, the upper classes thrived upon plantation exports, feudalist economics and the iron fist of Diaz’s rurales while struggling to maintain European social likeness. East of the Zocalo, shantytowns housed thousands of poor pelados that served as societal blemishes of a suburbanite’s experience. In Johns’s work, the penniless and indigenous serve as the scapegoats for the priviledged and their obsession with grooming Mexico City to be a little Europe.
A growing affluent class called upon the Diaz regime and imported architects to construct buildings in the Zocalo to reflect a “proper” image that drew on influences from Europe and the United States. Johns recognizes the architectural dependence of the influential Mexicans constructing Mexico City when he states, “Mexican architecture, on the other hand, was an expression of a city run by a people who were looking to create their own culture while entirely dependent on the industry and ideas of Europe and America” (22). The same construction that the elite felt was a celebration of a newfound dignity in the Mexican people was criticized, by visitors and locals alike, as grandiose and a futile effort to shield the native roots of a circle of imposters. Johns’s argues that the “Mexicans knew little of their adopted European tradition, had acquired even less of its taste, and enjoyed none of its tranquility” (23). While the influence on the Westside led to development, the squalor and lack of authority of the peasants on the Eastside created mesones, or as Johns described them, “…a little more than ‘a bare spot to lie down in, a grass mat, company with (the) vermin that squalor breeds…’” (48). Politics on the Westside of the Zocalo were concerned little with the living conditions of the majority. No one would undertake the unglamorous task of assisting the poor, but rather they attempted to veil the masses in the shadow of their refined buildings and recent assumption of culture.
Another shield of the upper classes was the dichotomy of violence and pacification that the father of Mexico, Poriforio Diaz, bestowed upon the pelados. Robbery and social crimes, such as drunkenness, lead to the imprisonment and shipment of lower class rateros (thieves) to work as hacienda slaves. Johns writes, “It also provided workers for hacienda owners … thousands of these mostly peasant migrants were sent back to the countryside as slave laborers on henequen estates in the Yucatan …” (70). Rurales left the countryside’s radicals dead, working, or subdued. However, city police, without all the gaucho flamboyance of the rurales, served as little more than a city joke: “The government and the police captains were as concerned with watching their own lawmen as they were with catching criminals” (72). This lack of discipline and respect further ripped apart the division in the classes. When little could be done to control the lower classes’ actions, Mexico City did not turn to the social programs installed by the very countries they tried to mirror. Instead, Diaz lead a strategy beginning in 1866 to pacify the masses with the allowance of social activities like the burning of the Judas’s bull fights or parades through West Mexico City. “Revenge on the act of betrayal,” Johns hypothesizes, “ answered a need deep in Mexican history” (84). These outlets for frustrations held by all pelados relieved tensions that would normally be satisfied in the form of rebellion or greater social deviance. Thus the upper crust of Mexico City continued prospering under Diaz, while avoiding direct confrontation from the masses and protecting the social gap that formed between the two.
Though Johns shares many stark contrasts in his work, the common threads that endure and cross fiscal lines are the innate personalities of Mexicans. The mestizo population of Mexico constantly sought the acceptance of their “superiors.” Mexicans had long been the victims of conquerors and wished to demonstrate “Valor in the face of defeat: