(Photo courtesy C.I.F Collection, Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico)

(Photo courtesy C.I.F Collection, Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico)

Adrift in the city

On walks across Mexico City, a historian finds a path to the past.

Mauricio Tenorio Trillo got to know his hometown, Mexico City, by walking. As a teenager he’d set off from his middle-class neighborhood in Colonia Periodista, past the elegant mansions of Polanco toward centuries-old plazas and leafy downtown parks. Sometimes he’d disappear all day on a five- or six-mile ramble, ending up in a café on the city’s south side and taking a taxi home. When he told his surprised family where he’d gone, “I was advised that it was too long or dangerous or whatever. But I just loved to see the buildings, to see the cracks in the walls, to see the people in the streets, in the stores, in the shops,” says Tenorio. “I just wanted to walk.” 

Now a professor of history and director of the University’s Center for Latin American Studies, Tenorio became a historian of cities because “my way of making sense of things I read and things I study was walking. … I thought it was a personal vice that I learned young.” Studying sociology as an undergraduate in Mexico and earning a PhD in history at Stanford, though, he discovered that urban walks had absorbed writers from Charles Dickens to Walter Benjamin. “Unconsciously, I started to smuggle my urban experience and the essayist tradition into my academic work,” he explains.

Like his teenage walks, Tenorio’s new book, I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2012) extends the tradition of “essaying the city” in unexpected directions. The book focuses on 1880 to 1930, “the decisive decades in which Mexico City started upon the route toward what it is today, namely, a megalopolis, an ecological disaster, and the enchanting monstrous capital of a modern nation,” Tenorio writes in the introduction. During that time, he argues, Mexico City was neither peripheral nor passive but a center of debates about modernity and experiments in politics, culture, and ideas. Academic theories and a straight linear narrative can’t explain why the city became what it did. Instead, blending historical research with provocative and sometimes poetic writing, Tenorio gives readers a chance to experience what it might have been like to see, hear, smell, and live in Mexico City.

Before coming to UChicago in 2006, Tenorio taught at the University of Texas at Austin and the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City, where he remains an affiliated faculty member. When he began working on I Speak of the City, urban walks provided sources and inspiration. Gazing at monuments to the Aztec past and independence heroes on Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s wide, Parisian-style avenue, Tenorio realized he was reading a “history textbook in stone.” That led him to the archives to investigate early 20th-century architecture, urban planning, and ideas about the nation.

The book’s opening chapter takes three imaginary tours of the capital around 1910, just before the Mexican Revolution swept authoritarian president Porfirio Diaz from power. Planners tried to present an ideal city—comfortable, stylish, and patriotic—as Mexico celebrated the centennial of its independence from Spain. Diplomats proposed that Indians be banned from the city center or dressed “properly” in “real trousers” and shoes instead of sandals. Architects and artists from Mexico and abroad were commissioned to create an “avalanche” of public buildings and monuments.


Around 1910, planners drew the outline of an ideal city—comfortable, stylish, and patriotic—as Mexico marked its independence centennial. (Illustration courtesy University of Chicago Press)

A subsequent essay jumps to the 1920s and ’30s and the radicals, artists, and intellectuals from around the globe who took up residency in the capital. By 1919, Mexico City had 600,000 inhabitants and the turmoil of the revolution had largely subsided. Cosmopolitan and increasingly modern, the city offered a political refuge and an agreeable climate—literally and figuratively—to create. Yet it was doomed to disappoint foreigners who sought to lose themselves in an “authentic” Mexico that did not actually exist—a “Brown Atlantis,” in Tenorio’s words, that was rural, revolutionary, and indigenous.

Both locals and foreigners failed to embrace the city and its complexity fully, which Tenorio believes “led to a relatively fixed and lasting idea of ‘Mexico’ in the world: fiesta, siesta, sombrero, pistola, and Frida Kahlo.” Those tenacious clichés hide a sophisticated urban cultural history that I Speak of the City delights in unveiling. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, the city’s intelligentsia shared a worldwide fascination with India and Japan. The poet José Juan Tablada wrote exquisite haikus in Spanish; Mexican socialites dressed as geishas; amid revolutionary chaos, President Francisco Madero published his annotated version of the Bhagavad Gita.

Mexico City was also a laboratory for science and language—a global center for research in archaeology, natural history, and epidemic disease and a local incubator for the chilango Spanish spoken by residents of the capital. Circling between topics and time periods, Tenorio presents what he uncovered in the archives and noticed in the streets. The eclectic approach reflects his ambition to write a history both of the city and of his walks: “What did I find on the walks? Well, I found dogs, I found buildings, I found monuments. I found people lying in the streets, drunk.”

For all its wandering, the book—Tenorio’s eighth and his second in English—has a clear destination. “His work is really a continued effort to rethink what is distinctive about Mexico,” says Emilio Kouri, a professor of history and director of the Katz Center for Mexican Studies, who helped bring Tenorio to Chicago from Texas. “So far he seems to be coming up with an answer that is quite different in many ways from what you typically hear in other places.” Tenorio believes Mexico City was not only a place of reception but also an equal contributor to global conversations about ideas and culture. That stance makes his scholarship original, adds Kouri, and makes Tenorio, who is a well-known public intellectual in Mexico, “a singular character among historians of Mexico in the United States.”


Walking in Chicago, Tenorio has been attacked. In 2012 he wrote an eloquent, chilling short essay for the Mexican magazine Nexos about relinquishing his iPhone to a Hyde Park mugger, an episode that broke the reverie of a perfect autumn day and reminded him that cities can be both lovely and violent.

Ghettos and frigid winters make it hard to crisscross Chicago on marathon, daylong walks, and Tenorio finds Berlin and Barcelona more conducive to rambling. To spend time with his teenage daughter, he visits Barcelona every year. The city contains “layers over layers of history,” but he complains, “After months in Barcelona, you realize how lonely you are. People don’t look at you. People look through you; you go into cafés, nobody talks to you.”

Youthful at 50 and small in stature, Tenorio has dark straight hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He speaks the confident Spanish of a Mexico City native and a lively, accented English that is professorial but peppered by stray conjugations. Because of the way he looks and speaks and because Chicago, crime aside, is a friendly city full of Mexicans, Tenorio says, “I can live as a Mexican here. I can live as an American professor. I can live as a walker of cities”—in short, a globalized 21st-century flâneur.


To reach a wider audience, Tenorio sought to publish his book about Mexico City in English. But early reviewers said, “There is no Mexico there.” (Photography by Jason Smith)

Shifting identities are a major theme in I Speak of the City, which shows how Mexico City was at once cosmopolitan and quintessentially Mexican. One essay compares the planning and construction of public spaces in Washington, DC, and Mexico City around 1910. Both capitals created memorials to heroes—Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez, respectively—to project an idealized version of national history; both were modernized from the top down and divided by class and race. But there were contrasts too. Because Washington, and later Canberra, Australia, and Brasília, Brazil, were built “over nature and not over old cities,” they had ample green space. Washington’s parks and gardens inspired environmentalist Miguel Ángel de Quevedo to draw up a similar plan for the Mexican capital in 1904, but Tenorio writes, “The project never materialized. Pavement ruled and continues to rule in Mexico City.”

Around 1919, the Red scare sent American socialists and communists to Mexico City to escape persecution; they joined “slackers” (as pacifists were called) and European refugees. Many lived comfortably while they plotted world revolution. M. N. Roy, the Bengali cofounder of both the Mexican and Indian Communist Parties, spent several years in the Mexican capital with Evelyn Trent, his Stanford-educated wife. “They lived austerely as good socialists or even as Hindu ascetics, despite their wealth, but they boasted Louis XIV furniture, a Mexican servant named María, and a muchacho (boy) who performed odd jobs around the house,” writes Tenorio. “The city’s inequality had conquered them.”

Back then, both national and foreign writers perpetuated idées fixes about Mexico that persist to the present day—including the notion that the urban capital was not truly Mexican. Tenorio and his colleagues examined 150 books about Mexico published by travelers, naturalists, amateur archaeologists, and anthropologists between 1870 and 1913, and found almost none that focused specifically on Mexico City. Among hundreds of pictures in the books, they encountered “only variations of the same fifteen or twenty images: cargadores [porters], burros, ruins, specific colonial buildings, pyramids, Indian faces, street peddlers, dirty semi-naked children.” In sum, Tenorio argues, “a typical rendition of Mexico as a utopia of racial specificity.”

I Speak of the City strives to upend clichés about Mexico, but Tenorio also wrote it to tell a few good stories. The tale of the race to find a cause and cure for typhus, which in 1909 brought foreign scientists to the capital to compete for a 50,000-peso prize awarded by the Mexican government, has the drama and intrigue of a novel. A University of Chicago pathologist, Howard T. Ricketts, led one of the competing scientific teams. He died of the disease, known locally as tabardillo, less than six months after arriving in Mexico City; meanwhile, Mexican researchers who had developed immunity to typhus survived.

The episode reveals the complicated, often fraught relationship between elites in Mexico and the United States. American scientists saw their host city as a convenient laboratory and their Mexican counterparts as second-string researchers whose findings could be ignored or simply seized as raw data because they had never been published in English. Hoping to avoid a similar fate and to exchange ideas with a wider audience, Tenorio resolved to publish his essays about Mexico City in English, a language he calls “our contemporary Latin.” When he completed the manuscript for I Speak of the City in 2007, he sent it to academic presses in the United States and, while waiting, published a book in Spanish about Mexican historical celebrations.

By Tenorio’s account, two publishers rejected the manuscript because the historians of Mexico who were asked to review it said, “There is no Mexico there.” Familiar characters and themes—fiesta, siesta—were missing; apparently a Mexican author was expected to write a more predictably Mexican book. One reviewer accused Tenorio of pretentiousness for writing about French novelist Gustave Flaubert. “I’m not joking,” he fumes. “I was asked, ‘Where is Frida Kahlo?’” (The Mexican painter does appear in the book, but Tenorio focuses on her penchant for colorful swearwords rather than her colorful artwork or love life.)

Tenorio finally sent the manuscript to the University of Chicago Press, which embraced the book as an imaginative addition to its urban history collection. Cultural historian Thomas Bender—a professor at New York University who had worked with Tenorio on a project to reframe American history in a transnational context—reviewed the book and deemed it unusual but brilliant. Rather than presenting the city as self-contained, Tenorio “absorbs cultures and ideas from all points of the globe, making not a synthesis but a kind of vital mélange, or a bricolage,” Bender says. “He’s really opening up the city, pulling it apart, and refusing to put it wholly back together.”


When he visits Mexico City, Tenorio sometimes retraces his teenage footsteps. He is happy to discover new buildings and routes, to stop at a neighborhood café for the daily lunch special, or eavesdrop to pick up the latest argot. But walking has become tougher as the megacity grows and its residents, including history professors, age.

Mexico City walkers must be physically fit and “genetically adapted,” he says. To dodge speeding buses, “you have to be like a good baseball player, be able to run in seconds without injuring yourself, without warming up.” Vast freeways belch pollution and divide neighborhoods, and “that river of cars, you have to cross it.” Since pedestrian bridges are scarce and require a climb up and down steep staircases, walkers often try their luck on the ground. To prevail against the traffic, he admits, “you have to be younger than 50.”


Tenements or vecindades housed a quarter of the capital’s residents in 1920. (Courtesy Instituto de Bellas Artes, Mexico)

For Tenorio, belligerent dogs are another urban nemesis. “I can’t tell you how many times I had to jump on to the roofs of cars so they wouldn’t bite me,” he says. Researching monuments in the Archivo del Ayuntamiento, he stumbled upon an entire branch of documents called perros. Following the detour, he found that roving packs of canines had plagued the capital since the 17th century.

When heavy rains flooded the city during colonial times, dogs ran for the hills and descended days later, hungry and aggressive. Stray dogs carried rabies and other diseases, so later governments tested strategies from poisoning to bounties to end the problem. Dogs served as mascots to revolutionary platoons, as companions and protectors to homeless people, and as devourers of leftover food in markets and taquerías. After studying their role in Mexican history, Tenorio is still afraid of dogs. But doing painstaking research on a personally fascinating topic “changes your routine; it changes your eyes,” he says. “When you get out of the archive, you see things differently.”

In his academic career, Tenorio has taken an independent path. His first book, Mexico at the World’s Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation (University of California Press, 1996), based on his Stanford dissertation, proved “enormously influential” among US and Mexican scholars, says John Lear, a historian of Mexico at the University of Puget Sound: “It was one of the first serious studies that took Porfirian intellectuals seriously and helped revive intellectual and cultural history.” Tenorio frequently contributes articles, essays, and reviews to English-language journals and to Letras Libres, Nexos, and Istor, prestigious publications in Mexican intellectual circles.

In the tradition of UChicago historians Friedrich Katz (1927–2010) and John Coatsworth (who left Chicago for Harvard in 1992 and is now provost at Columbia), Tenorio “has always insisted on putting Mexico and Mexican history in a larger context,” says Kouri. “He’s fought all along against a kind of exoticism about Mexico … by showing aspects of Mexican culture, of Mexican history, that really speak to a larger human experience.” Tenorio will openly confront scholars whom he finds parochial or prone to stereotyping, a practice that hasn’t always earned him friends. “He has a reputation for marching to his own tune, but I think that intellectual quirkiness is what makes him so interesting,” says Kouri.

When asked about his inspirations for I Speak of the City, Tenorio cites fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges and literary critic Beatriz Sarlo, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, and three books—Danube by Claudio Magris, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and Fin-de-siècle Vienna by Carl Schorske—as well as academic works by Marshall Berman, Richard Morse, and Thomas Bender. Tenorio’s essays draw from a rich array of archival materials: government documents, personal correspondence, novels and poetry, song lyrics, scientific proceedings, paintings, photos of home interiors, etiquette manuals, travelers’ accounts, and more.


Foreigners’ photos fed the stereotype of secluded señoritas and macho men. (Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin)

Sources matter a great deal to Tenorio, who wryly defended the traditional historian’s craft in a 2011 book review in Letras Libres. “Dull academics are like cod liver oil—disgusting but extremely nutritious,” he wrote. Indeed, historical essays exist “thanks to the fact that boring people like me found the facts in obscure archives and libraries” (my translation). Yet while he exults in amassing facts and evidence, Tenorio refuses to tie up his conclusions neatly or stick to a strict chronological account. Neither cities nor their histories are tidy, a fact that warrants a postmodern and literary approach. Bender compares Tenorio to historian Hayden White, who, Bender says, believed that “if novelists have gone into a more fractured narrative form, maybe historians should do this too.”

Tenorio’s passion for language is a hallmark of his work. “I treasure words and the human realms they encompass,” he writes in I Speak of the City. The book’s final chapter focuses on the evolution of urban language and the origins of the slang or caló spoken by Mexico City residents of every social class. From 1880 to 1930, the capital experienced profound linguistic changes and the distinctive chilango strain of Spanish emerged, blending indigenous Nahuatl with lowbrow and highbrow Spanish and other influences. Historians can’t go back in time and listen to people talk, but popular songs, early dictionaries, and studies by a German philologist helped Tenorio document the first usage of uniquely Mexican words such as cuate (buddy), chido (cool), gacho (uncool), mota (marijuana), and güey (dude).

From crowded tenements to ornate interiors of wealthy homes, I Speak of the City explores disparate urban social spaces to make new connections between them. The book takes its title from a poem by the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, who defined the city as “that daily reality composed of two words: the others … and in every one of them there is an I clipped from a we, an I adrift.” It’s easy to imagine the poem bumping around in Tenorio’s head as he walks the streets of Mexico City, hearing and seeing his surroundings but also ensimismado—lost in thought.