El Monstruo

Dread and Redemption in Mexico City


By John Ross

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John Ross has been living in the old colonial quarter of Mexico City for the last three decades, a rebel journalist covering Mexico and the region from the bottom up. He is filled with a gnawing sense that his beloved Mexico City’s days as the most gargantuan, chaotic, crime-ridden, toxically contaminated urban stain in the western world are doomed, and the monster he has grown to know and love through a quarter century of reporting on its foibles and tragedies and blight will be globalized into one more McCity.

El Monstruo is a defense of place and the history of that place. No one has told the gritty, vibrant histories of this city of 23 million faceless souls from the ground up, listened to the stories of those who have not been crushed, deconstructed the Monstruo’s very monstrousness, and lived to tell its secrets. In El Monstruo, Ross now does.


Rebellion from the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas (1995)
In Focus Mexico: A Guide to People, Politics, and Culture (1996)
We Came to Play: Writings on Basketball (editor, with Q.R. Hand Jr.) (1996)
The Annexation of Mexico: From the Aztecs to the IMF (1998)
Tonatiuh's People: A Novel of the Mexican Cataclysm (1999)
The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles (2002)
Murdered By Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the American Left (2005)
Zapatistas! Making Another World Possible: Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 (2006)
Iraqigirl: Diary of an Iraqi Teenager (conceived and edited with Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, 2009)
Nuclear California (1984) Fire in the Hearth (1990) Third World Ha Ha Ha (1995) The Zapatista Reader (2002) Puro Border (2003) Shock & Awe (2003) Voices of the U.S. Latino Experience (2008)
Jam (1974) 12 Songs of Love & Ecocide (1977) The Psoriasis of Heartbreak (1979) The Daily Planet (1981) Running Out of Coastlines (1983) Heading South (1986) Whose Bones (1990) JazzMexico (1996) Against Amnesia (2002) Bomba! (2007)

To the denizens of the Centro Histórico past and present whose iron-willed tenacity and inextinguishable resilience have kept this island afloat in the face of the most monstrous odds for parts of three millennia now.

"The city received me with all the indifference of a great animal—without a caress or even showing me its teeth."
"The city is not just a geographical or spatial place. It is an essential process of our lives and our history. The city is us and where we come from. To take back the space of the city is to recover for all of us a territory that transcribes our lives."

El Monstruo
The 16 Delegations of El Monstruo
El Centro Historico
El Metro (Subway Map of El Monstruo)
Mexico City Metro map used with the permission of the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo de la Ciudad de Mexico.



It is a comfortable room, but drafty throughout the winter months in this mile-high city. I have considered buying an electric heater, but given the state of the wiring, even a small appliance could short- circuit this old hotel, so I make do with sweaters and long johns until the sun grows stronger and spring is upon us again.
Room 102 has grown considerably smaller since I moved in here a quarter of a century ago. True, the 16-foot ceiling has not noticeably dropped, but 102 is now so cluttered with piles of paper that it is difficult to navigate the floor space these days.
One whole wall is lined with five-foot-tall stacks of newspaper clippings. The clippings are largely useless—to get at the files near the bottom of the stacks, I have to deconstruct this jumble of yellowing newsprint. Actually, the last big earthquake (6.2) did the job for me, spilling the contents of these moribund archives a foot deep all over the fraying carpet.
Books, another hurdle, occupy the northwest corner of my cave, but in no particular order. I can never find the titles I am looking for, so I am always scouring the used bookstores down on Donceles Street for titles that I know I have already bought, and the volumes have taken over one of the twin beds where my lovers once slept. There is no room for new lovers now.
When curious visitors wonder why I have stayed in this creepy hotel with all my useless detritus for so many years, I patiently explain that I have become accustomed to the antique furniture that has grown old with me. Despite their great age, the twin beds are still quite firm. The generous cedarwood ropero or closet cabinet is positively Porfirian, dating back to the turn of the last century when this old casona (mansion) on the corner of Isabel la Católica and República de El Salvador was first converted into a hotel by its French owners. But the ropero, which is elegantly stamped with the Isabel's initials fashioned in brass letters, is so stuffed with drafts of old manuscripts that I can't open a door or a drawer without inviting an avalanche.
In addition to the ropero, I share the space with a bureau of equal antiquity, a pair of writing desks strewn with the tools of my trade, and a dressing table where Irma Guadarrama used to sit to prepare for the day. I still see her lovely face in the large circular mirror.
Also living here are four tattered armchairs upholstered in brocade with carved, sturdy armrests that groan with age when one sits back on their arthritic springs, their legs as tottery as my own. Indeed, over the years, I have become another piece of hotel furniture.
I do not know who lived in this room before me. When I checked in a week after the great earthquake of 1985, the hotel was deserted and there were no clues, a business card or a forgotten article of clothing or an empty pill bottle, to inform me who the last tenant had been.
One reason Room 102 is so drafty is the large French windows that open onto a cracked balcony. In the winters, the cold air whooshes under the threshold or over the transoms of the splintered wooden doors (the panes are embossed with exquisite floral designs), and in the rainy season, the water pours in both above and below. I don't visit the balcony as much as I once did, ever since a foot-wide chunk of it cracked off the cornice to which it was attached and crashed to the sidewalk. Eliseo, the waiter in the restaurant one floor below, who has been here as long as I have, came running to dust off the startled pedestrians, but no one was seriously crushed.
When I first came here, I could sit for hours staring down the gargoyles and cherubim on the façade of the former National Library across the narrow street or conversing with that intrepid traveler Baron Alexander Von Humboldt, who stands tall in his stone greatcoat in the ex-library's scrubby little garden. But as the old neighborhood began to heal itself from the earthquake, the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Isabel la Católica Street became insufferable and I closed up the French windows and rarely visited the balcony.
Then one day, a young reporter from Guillotine Magazine dropped by and told me all about poor Wilfred Ewert, a onetime guest at this hotel, and what happened to him when he stepped out on his balcony on New Year's Eve 1922-1923.
It was a lively period in the life of this neighborhood, here in the heart of the old city and the country that bears its name. The Mexican revolution had finally petered out with the murder of the Great Zapata in 1919 and the streets of the inner city percolated with postrevolutionary insouciance. Cafés and cantinas and a casa de citas (whorehouse) or two lined both sides of Isabel la Católica Street.
Two blocks east on the northern corner of the enormous Zócalo plaza, adjacent to the National Palace, President Obregón had commissioned Diego Rivera to daub his first mural on the walls of the National Preparatory School. The Mexican Communist Party had set up shop one block south around the corner, on Mesones Street's flop-house row.
The shooting had died down and adventurous tourists took up residence in the cheap, elegant hotels on the surrounding blocks. D. H. Lawrence and his Frieda took rooms at the Monte Carlo on Uruguay, a stone's throw from the Isabel, and sucked up the postrevolutionary ferment that would soon inform The Plumed Serpent, a title that first brought me to Mexico at the end of my teens. While in residence at the Monte Carlo, Lawrence is said to have complained much about the plumbing.
The Centro attracted other young British writers. Stephen Graham lived at the Iturbide on Madero Street and Wilfred Ewert here at the Isabel. The three Englishmen knew each other and sometimes drank in the cramped Bar Isabel downstairs, although Lawrence, who depended largely on Frieda's income to survive, was more of a nodding acquaintance.
Ewert, a dashing lad who had soldiered in the Great War, had just published the hot London novel of 1922, The Way of Revelation, which wove the tales of a clutch of "bright young men" through the hell of the battlefield. Although London critics had been kind to the book, the New York Times limited its comments to describing The Way of Revelation as being "500 oddly printed pages." Just turning 30, Ewert, like Lawrence, was keen to set his new novel in this exotic, explosive land.
Stephen Graham was Wilfred's senior and would outlive him by many years. He had found limited success with several travel books on prerevolutionary Russia. Some critics suggest that he was a spy for the British Intelligence Service. One source, the Spanish writer Javier Marías, speculates that Graham had known young Ewert in London, was wildly jealous of his growing literary reputation, and followed him to Mexico. Another Internet entry infers that Graham was gay, citing an article of his published in 1933, "Dancing Sailors," in which the writer describes gavotting with "nancy men" in a North Woolwich, London, dance hall.
Although the gunfire had quieted in the aftermath of the revolution, Mexicans still owned many guns, which they traditionally fired into the air to bring in the New Year, a tradition that Ewert's friends would soon lament.
Soon after midnight on that fateful evening, Ewert is said to have stepped out on the balcony of Room 53 of the Hotel Isabel, which under the old enumeration of the rooms, if my calculations are on the mark, lay two stories above what the management now numbers as 102, and was struck full in the right eye by a bullet of indistinguishable caliber fired by an unknown hand. He was killed instantly. Stephen Graham, who visited his corpse in the Mexico City morgue, testified that his colleague wore a "puzzled, dismayed look" on his handsome young face.
The dead writer was quickly interred in the British cemetery which, years later, would be dislodged by the construction of the Interior Circuit, the city's first raised roadway. The precise details of the writer's demise are described in a volume that has long since disappeared from public circulation, The Life & Last Words of Wilfred Ewert, written soon after his death by, as the reader may have already surmised, the aforementioned Stephen Graham.
Wilfred Ewert was not the only Englishman to have encountered a bala loca (crazy bullet) in this neighborhood during the New Year's festivities that year. On January 2, George Stebbins, a Boer war veteran described as being in "the meat business" appears to have been trapped in a riña (ruckus) between soldiers outside the Salón Palermo, two streets north on 16th of September Avenue, in which he too caught a fatal slug—the soldiers were said to be arguing about the merits of local bullfighters.
One further coincidence in this sinister skein: On New Year's Day, Carlos Duermas, a reporter for the daily Excelsior, who occupied an adjoining room on the third floor of the Isabel where Ewert was encamped, was struck by a speeding car near the Balderas Street newspaper row and left to die in the street.
We know about these remarkable acts of unexplained violence thanks to a dazzling feat of literary fiction, Negra Espalda del Tiempo (The Dark Shoulder of Time), authored by the Spanish experimentalist Javier Marías, whose deeply researched version of Ewert's death serves as both digression and a reference point to sustain the Spaniard's argument about literary and real time. Marías envisions literary time as being "the kind of time that hasn't existed yet, the time that awaits us, and also the time that does not await us, the time that does not happen or only happens in a sphere that isn't exactly temporal, a sphere that may only be found in writing and perhaps only in fiction."
While police reports attributed Ewert's unfortunate end to a loose bullet (bala suelta) or bala ciega (blind bullet) or bala loca, Marías is suspicious that this too may be a literary fiction. Bullets fired into the air from the ground, as the police speculated to be the origin of the shot, lose speed as they travel upward, eventually reaching terminal velocity and falling back to earth. In this trajectory, the bala suelta etc. has diminished capacity to inflict damage on any target it may encounter by caprice, and injuries so received are rarely fatal ones.
Shooters consulted consider that for the bullet that plugged Wilfred Ewert in the right eye to have hit him at lethal speed, the missile must have been fired at eye level, perhaps from a nearby rooftop—the nearest rooftop position would have been from behind the bowling ball-shaped finials on the roofline of the ex-National Library—or from inside the Hotel Isabel itself, a conclusion that Maestro Marías shares. One more thing: In 2008, there are no balconies to step out onto on the third floor of this hotel.
In short, the author of The Dark Shoulder of Time fingers the author of The Life & Last Words of Wilfred Ewert for this crime, conjecturing that Stephen Graham, driven by literary jealousy, had snuck into the Isabel under the cover of the tumultuous New Year's Eve commotion, entered Ewert's room on the pretext of having a celebratory draught, and fired the fatal shot into his right eye. There is absolutely no evidence other than the Spaniard's conjectural fiction to support this conclusion.
The death of Wilfred Ewert spawned anxieties among the remaining English writers in the neighborhood. When the Canadian poet Witter Bynner checked into the Isabel several months later, he was assigned the dead writer's room, #53. Lawrence was horrified and convinced Bynner to move around the corner to the Monte Carlo.
Despite Wilfred Ewert's uncommon checkout, in the quarter of a century that I have lived at the Isabel, not many guests have given up the ghost on the premises. Lucas Alamán, a historian and Antonio López de Santa Anna's foreign minister, gasped his last here (pneumonia) June 2, 1853, a plaque affixed to the hotel affirms, but that was before my time when the Isabel was still a private residence.
One morning soon after I moved in, Celia Cruz, the stooped camarista who made my bed for 23 years before retiring to become a vidente or clairvoyant, found Don Alonso, a Spanish traveling salesman who sold pens and pencils in the provinces, dead in his bed across the glass brick patio from 102. Don Luis, a Gachupín like Alonso (although the hotel is owned by a French family, the Spanish have always operated the Isabel), paid for a lonely Mass around the corner at the chapel of San Agustín. Celia and Don Luis and I were the only mourners.
Those who take rooms at the Isabel are a mixed bag: busloads of Costa Ricans on a Mexico City shopping spree and Tabasco farmers in town for an Alcoholics Anonymous jamboree and a few Mennonites in overalls from Chihuahua who have come to the big city to sell their cheese, but most are low-rent European backpackers. During political seasons—a presidential election or a visit from the Zapatistas—North American radicals take up transient residencies. I have run into Naomi Klein in the lobby, and Norman Mailer's son.
Death does not seem to register at the Isabel. So far as I know, no guests (the camaristas call them pasajeros or passengers) have ever hurled themselves from the third floor of the atrium to the glass brick floor below, a death made for the movies (commercial shoots and pornographic videos are the only movies made here).
No pasajero has slipped on the slick marble spiral staircase and plummeted to his or her finale or overdosed on heroin or swallowed a whole bottle of sleeping pills and never woken up. The truth is that I've never seen a body rolled out of the Hotel Isabel, but maybe I'm naïve and the dead get quietly carted down the back stairs through the catacombs of the boiler room to be collected in the street.
This is not to say that ominous things do not take place, but when they do they happen behind locked doors on the upper floors. There are no keyholes through which snoops can pry. Guests mingle in the restaurant and the bar and the lobby, which has recently been redecorated in a style that blends a vaguely Moroccan motif with Don Quijote de la Mancha. Upstairs, the secrets are under lock and key. When I stand across Isabel la Católica Street and look up at the windows staring out on the city, the curtains are always drawn.
Nonetheless, odd unexplained sounds pique one's curiosity: a sharp bump in the middle of the night, a steady tapping on the walls, the rhythmic gasps of disembodied lovers having sex in an empty room three rooms away. Every spring, small birds nestle in the airshaft that separates the bathrooms, cooing mellifluously when I sit down to take a shit. Celia once told me that she had heard an animal thumping in pain in the abandoned elevator shaft and she claimed to have seen ghosts drifting through the back rooms on the fourth floor, which are rarely rented. I don't discount these spirits.
Everywhere in the nooks and crannies of this old hotel, from the roof garden where backpackers form instant communities of lost souls (a marijuana plant was recently found growing in a planter box up there) to the lurid warren of spooky rooms on the third and fourth floors, those who have lived here before still circulate amongst us. Wilfred Ewert drags his suitcase from one haunted room to the next as Stephen Graham stalks him through the darkened hallways. And I never stand out on my balcony anymore, just in case the lost bullet that is looking for us all finally finds me.


The high heat of the Mexican Revolution attracted Anglo writers like moths to a dangerous flame. Some burnt up upon arrival. In 1913, Ambrose Bierce, the author of The Devil's Dictionary, came to cover the war in the north and never got farther than the border, winding up in a common grave in Ojinaga, Chihuahua. American muckraker John Kenneth Turner exposed the underbelly of the Díaz dictatorship in México Bárbaro (1914) and lived to tell the tale. The revolutionary writer and activist John Reed traveled with Villa; his account, Insurgent Mexico, rivals his masterpiece Ten Days That Shook the World.
Katherine Anne Porter arrived in 1920 on the invitation of Diego Rivera and stayed on for a decade, growing progressively disillusioned with Mexico. The poet Hart Crane committed suicide by jumping into the Gulf of Mexico from the steamship Orizaba on his way home to Manhattan after a failed homosexual encounter in Veracruz. The postrevolution brought political writers like Frank Tannenbaum (The Wind That Swept Mexico) and Carleton Beals. Anita Brenner's Idols Behind Altars reflected the postrevolutionary art buzz. Wilfred Ewert's contemporary, Graham Greene, traipsed The Lawless Roads, a piquant travel memoir, and penned a biting attack on priest-baiting in Tabasco, The Power and the Glory.
Bruno Traven, said to have been birthed in Chicago but who grew up in Germany and took on the persona of the anarchist Ret Marut, had an office under the name of Hal Croft at Isabel la Católica #43—his 40-odd titles are still treasured here. Paul Bowles, whose writings delve the darknesses of the human soul, was a frequent visitor to Mexico before moving on to Morocco. The Beats were not far behind.
Mexico City's lure as a Mecca for expatriate writers is intergenerational. When I first escaped the New York jazz scene and got on the road with a copy of Kerouac's book of the same name in my backpack, Downbeat Magazine carried this revealing note: "John Ross has gone to Mexico to write a novel."
Before they moved on to Tangiers to hang with Bowles, Mexico City was the Beats' first foreign destination. "El Monstruo," as Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos has affectionately named this city, was cheap and close by, drugs and booze were plentiful, and the cocktail of Aztec blood and urban grit was good for poetry.
Although he was a veteran of another war (the drug war), William Burroughs, the scion of the St. Louis adding machine fortune and a committed heroin addict, first arrived here with the wave of adventurous young gringos who used their G.I. Bill stipends to enroll at Mexico City College (now the University of the Americas), cruise the pyramids and the cantinas, flirt up the señoritas, and aspire to write the Great American Novel.
By 1951, Burroughs was installed at 210 Orizaba Street, a decaying apartment building in the increasingly seedy Colonia Roma Norte, where he had the notorious misfortune to blow his dear wife Joan Vollmer's brains out during a purported game of William Tell in which a bottle of mezcal had been substituted for the apple.
The Mexico City cops were hardly fools enough to buy Burroughs's preposterous story that the shooting of his dipso wife was purely accidental. He was dragged off to the Lecumberri Black Palace and housed amongst serious criminals before the eternal mordida (or "bite") greased the skids and the author of Junkie and Naked Lunch was out on bail. Within months, William Burroughs skipped back to El Norte never to return to Mexico.
Orizaba #210 was torn down and rebuilt as condominiums several years ago, but its twin, 212, still stands and has taken on the aura of a Beat shrine. My friend Rocío, who was crashing in the rooftop servant's room, was surprised one morning by a photographer scouting a shoot on the lair of the Beats.
While Burroughs was out on bail, his old Times Square disciple Jack Kerouac came to visit, liked what he saw, got back on the road but returned four times in the next five years to the apartment on Orizaba Street which Burroughs had deeded to a fellow expat junkie Bill Garver.
Jack rented a tiny adobe room up on the roof, the azotea, where he assembled the poems that became Mexico City Blues (few are actually about Mexico City), dedicated to Allen Ginsberg, and wrote two novels, one in French and unpublished. The other, Tristessa, is a highly romanticized version of the life of a 23-year-old Mexico City junkie puta goddess he met through Garver and of whom he was hopelessly enamored.
In 1956, the year before the publication of On the Road sealed his fate, Jack Kerouac was joined in El Monstruo by Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Orlovsky's autistic brother Lafcadio. Gregory Corso, my West Village homeboy, came along for the ride. The Beats caroused Garibaldi Plaza where the Mariachis and the prostitutes and the pick-pockets mingle, and regularly got bombed at the old Club Bombay on the Eje Central near Tlatelolco. Just a few years ago, Beat Padrino Lawrence Ferlinghetti read from his La Noche Mexicana (The Mexican Night), a hallucinatory account of a 1963 bus trip through the countryside, at the Bombay. Lawrence invited me to read with him. The Beat goes on.
On my first trip to Mexico in 1957, I kept running into Beats and Near Beats with whom I had rubbed shoulders back in the Village. Alex Trocchi, Scotland's resident literary junkie long before Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) claimed the title, was hiding out in Ajijic as was Beat sociologist Ned Polsky. I bumped into the late Steve Schneck (The Night Clerk) with whom I had read at the Half Note on Hudson Street, at Pancho Lepe's Beat pension in Puerto Vallarta. The legendary hipster drug smuggler Bryce Wilson ran a Beat hotel in Yelapa.
In the '60s, when we were settled into the Meseta Purépecha Indian territory of Michoacán, Timothy Leary would send us acid once a month from San Miguel de Allende and ask us to record our trips. Margaret Randall arrived in El Monstruo in 1962 and began publishing El Corno Emplumado (The Feathered Horn), the first international Beat literary magazine. The Corno was shut down and Randall run off in 1969 by the Díaz Ordaz government following the student massacre at Tlatelolco. Nineteen sixty-nine was, in fact, the year the Beat Generation died alongside the railroad tracks in San Miguel de Allende when Neal Cassady, the driver who put the Beats On The Road, woozy from tequila and barbiturates, lay down on the frozen ground in the middle of February and never woke up.



On Sale
Nov 24, 2009
Page Count
512 pages
Bold Type Books

John Ross

About the Author

John Ross is a poet, freelance journalist, and activist currently residing in Mexico City. His articles have appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Nation, CounterPunch, Texas Observer, the Progressive, and La Jornada. His book Rebellion from the Roots won the American Book Award and his somewhat autobiographical memoir Murdered by Capitalism won the Upton Sinclair Award and was a San Francisco Chronicle Book of the Year.

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