Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, Mexico’s most famous poet and essayist, Octavio Paz, was asked by The Paris Review why he lived in Mexico City. “Living in the heart of Mexico is neither an inspiration nor an obstacle. It’s a challenge,” answered Paz, adding, “if you live in Mexico, you’ve got to live in Mexico City.”
What can I say about Mexico City? It is densely populated. The traffic is perpetual. The smog is legendary. Parts of the city are infamous for gang and drug violence. The entire city is in a basin, with the centre surrounded by what used to be a lake. Many of the buildings are sinking into the ground.
Mexico City is also a hot spot for seismic activity: an earthquake in 1985 killed over 5,000, and a more recent one caused structural damage to many buildings a few months before my visit earlier this year. And did I mention volcanoes? The city is in proximity to Popocatépetl, Mexico’s largest active volcano. It is hard not to smile at the audacity of it all.
Walking around Centro Histórico, the chaotic historic centre of Mexico City on a Friday night is to understand the meaning of unrestrained exuberance. Bright lime and hot pink buildings scream next to stately government offices and staid colonial buildings. Roadside taquerias offer free aromas of al pastor that are cooking on rotating spits, and suit-clad officegoers stand and devour tacos con todo. Couples sit in cafés and talk over coffee for hours. Organ grinders in uniforms play melancholic old-world tunes on sidewalks. Touts accost passersby and offer store discount-cards; mendicants beg for loose change. All the senses are cajoled at once, and to me, an outsider who has lived in North America for nearly two decades, it is the most vibrant city in the Western Hemisphere.
Mexico City is also the most populous Spanish-speaking city in the world, and for every Mexican, it is the fulcrum of art, history, and culture. Octavio Paz was born here in 1914 during the height of the Mexican Revolution, at a time when the population of the city was 1 million. The next year, his grandfather took his family to the town of Mixcoac, where he spent his formative years in a house with a garden and a library. Paz enjoyed these years, writing fondly of them, but by the time he was an adult, his childhood home had literally fallen apart. Today, Mixcoac is a part of Mexico City, which, with 25 million inhabitants, continues to expand outward.
Paz lived in many countries including the United States, Spain, France, Japan and India. During this time, he wrote The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), the book for which he is best known. In it, he reflected critically on the Mexican psyche and the position of Mexico in the world. In 1957, he wrote his most famous poem, Sunstone, which has the same name as the famous Aztec monolith in Mexico City. Critic and translator JM Cohen called Sunstone “one of the last important poems to be published in the Western world.”
“The past is not past, it is still passing by / flowing silently into the next vanishing moment,” wrote Paz in Sunstone (translated by Eliot Weinberger). Mexico City, like Delhi, Istanbul, and Rome is a juxtaposition of a modern city over a preexisting, ancient one. Over 700 years ago, a Nahautl-speaking group, the Mexica or the Aztecs left their fabled home in the north to travel to a spot roughly corresponding to the historical centre of Mexico City, which at the time was an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. According to legend, it was at this spot that an eagle was observed on a cactus devouring a rattlesnake. Taking this to be an omen, the Aztecs built Tenochtitlán.
A cataclysm occurred in 1519, when the Spanish conqueror, Hernán Cortés, and 2,000 soldiers and conspirators were allowed to enter Tenochtitlán, then a city of 200,000. A combination of treachery, horses, cannonball, and smallpox tilted the scales in favour of the Spanish, and the Aztecs were decimated. Paz reflected extensively on the fall of the Aztecs in The Labyrinth of Solitude. “Their final struggle was a form of suicide, as we can gather from all the existing accounts… The gods had abandoned Moctezuma.”
The conquerors razed Tenochtitlán to build Mexico City, but they could not extinguish it entirely. In his Nobel Prize Speech, Paz noted, “The temples and gods of pre-Columbian Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that breathed life into that world has not disappeared; it speaks to us in the hermetic language of myth, legend, forms of social coexistence, popular art, customs. Being a Mexican writer means listening to the voice of that present, that presence.” Paradoxically, Tenochtitlán defied all attempts to destroy it. Today, Mexico is a vibrant culture because of centuries of the synthesis of the indigenous and the colonial. Aztec customs, food, faces, voices and names remain alive and well.
In Centro Histórico, I saw the remains of Templo Mayor, the Great Temple of the Aztecs. For centuries, it was thought to have been completely destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. Then in 1978, workers for an electric company found a massive round monolithic stone in mint condition, representing one of the goddesses of the Aztecs. With great fanfare, the temple was excavated. In the temple, now converted to a museum, I observing artefacts dating to before the Spanish Conquest.
I also visited Museo Nacional de Antropología, one of the great anthropological museums of the world. At the Mexica Hall I saw the great Sun Stone — a basaltic monolith depicting the five creations of the sun in Aztec mythology. Paz had astutely observed how Aztec artefacts such as the Sun Stone had been neglected and buried by the Spanish, but had since become icons of Mexican identity.
Throughout his life, even while living abroad, Paz understood the burden and the peculiar complexity of being a Mexican writer. In 1968, he resigned as Mexico’s ambassador to India to protest the killing of students by the army in Mexico City. He returned to Mexico City to live out the remainder of his life.
Sadly, in 1996, the apartment where Paz and his wife Marie-José had lived since 1970 caught fire and burned down their cats, priceless works of art, and rare books. They moved to a house, provided by the government of Mexico that once belonged to one of Cortés’s soldiers responsible for the massacre of Aztecs in the Templo Mayor nearly 600 years earlier.
In his essays, Paz often spoke of the Mexican tendency to hide behind masks. In 1997, as he was dying of cancer, he muttered, “Mexico is a solar country… But it is also a black country, a dark country. This duality of Mexico has troubled me ever since I was a child.”
On my last day in Mexico City, I stood in the Zócalo, the main plaza of Mexico City built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán. I watched a smartly dressed military unit lower a giant flag of Mexico. The Aztec prophecy fluttered in the centre of the flag. The sun was setting again beyond the city.
(Anirban Mahapatra, trained as a scientist, but now splits his time between a desk job and travel)