As Mexico went from Third to First World and back throughout the 1990s, signs of the puffed-up success and subsequent failure of the latest wave of modernization sweeping the country (and the capital in particular) dotted the built landscape.
Early in that manic-depressive decade, the promises of neoliberalism were materialized in blue-hued mirrored glass and pink limestone. After remaining empty for years, The Hotel de México — a desarrollismo era icon-to-be turned massive structural carcass — was scheduled to reopen as a new WTC, complete with a Hilton and a J.C. Penny’s. Mini-skyscrapers and chain restaurants sprung up on lots left empty in the aftermath of the '85 earthquake, inner-city factories turned into Costcos, and the decadent movie theaters of my childhood, with their sticky floors and rat infestations and mid-movie intermissions, became proper multi-screen cineplexes with soda machine refills and self-service candy buffets stuffed with the once-exotic treats imported from the States (Nerds, Bubblegum Tape, Jelly Belly jelly beans... Stuff that in the old days you could only buy from black market peddlers squatting outside elementary schools). We were becoming modern, global, North American, gringos, and it was glorious.
Soon enough, the new life modernization injected turned Frankenstein on us.
In 1994, just as the signing of Nafta was supposed to crown the Mexican Neo-miracle, the irruption of the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army, in case you didn’t know), growing political violence (including the slaying of the 70-year-rule official party’s presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio) and the peso crash of December all contributed to the country’s downgrade from neoliberal poster child to paradigm of distorted development.
As a consequence of the financial breakdown, prices soared, jobs were lost, construction halted and violence erupted like we had never seen: fingers, ears and other body fragments arrived by mail to families as proof that a loved one’s kidnappers weren’t kidding, drivers were randomly gunned down on traffic-jammed highways in broad daylight, taxis became deathtraps, glue-sniffing kids would knife you for a Casio. Everyone had an intimate quotidian violence tale to tell.
In the dreadful vertigo of those years, a wave of superstition and bogus spirituality arose in the city, eventually morphing into a millenarian, pseudo-religious revival (with its corresponding architecture).
Major TV networks were covering a series of bizarre attacks on livestock in different parts of the country and attributed them to the chupacabras, a demonic creature with tiger fangs and wolf fur and a rat’s face (and in a couple of eyewitness accounts, bat wings), making the most ridiculous of folktale monsters seem biologically plausible in comparison.
Top government intelligence agencies hired Francisca Zetina aka "La Paca", a fortune-teller and cult leader, to solve a string of political murders. The charade included a televised manhunt led by her visions. La Paca was arrested when it was discovered she had actually stolen and then planted the human remains that had supposedly "contacted" her and that the whole investigation was tainted.
Popular taste for the occult, nevertheless, kept being exploited. Morning shows had their own spook sections with ghostbuster expert panels and live reports from cemeteries and haunted houses. Saints that where believed to offer protection from being snatched or having your S.U.V stolen became especially popular among the well-to-do crowd. Soon enough, captors and carjackers found their own spiritual patrons.
The fact that social instability encourages deviant spiritualities and mystical upsurges that feed off turmoil is well-established. In Mexico City, during la crisis of the 1990s, these virulent impulses — triggered by fear, moral and material disruptions, and a sectarian mood set off by the crumbling political regime and the dissolution of corporate and traditionalist social bonds — started seeping into everyday life.
Our dubious spiritual reawakening became more visible in a series of small and ephemeral urban events. One of most noted occurrences was the miraculous apparition of the Virgen del Metro, the Subway Virgin. The Hidalgo metro station became an instant pilgrimage destination in 1997 after a water leak drew a familiar shape on the floor in one of its corridors. The stain was taken for the Virgin of Gualupe. People flocked around the stain and lit candles and kissed the floor, undisturbed by rush hour crowds squeezing into and out of trains. The floor tile had to be removed and encased in a glass altar. This led to a chain of replications across the city. There were reports of la Virgen showing up on tree-trunks and tortillas. I remember that in the same week, only a few blocks away from my parents’ house, a two-day roadblock was installed because La Virgen had appeared in the middle a narrow street, its dark silhouette etched onto the asphalt. Camera crews kept rolling in until a couple of teenagers that lived on the same block confessed to having drawn the Virgin themselves with motor oil.
Eventually, the shams gave way to more systematic and permanent imprints on the urban fabric.
One day, out of the blue, a handful of the city’s grand movie theaters of yore traded their crumbling marquees for billboards boasting a Valentine’s day blood-red heart with a white dove hovering over it, and a killer motto stamped in bold, blue lettering: Pare de sufrir, "stop suffering".
The billboards cried out to the battered and bruised inhabitants of the capital. At first no one knew what the hell they were. A stupid add campaign for low fat mayonnaise or sunglasses? A new telenovela or political party? The first Pare de sufrir sign I saw was draped over the entrance of the Teatro Silvia Pinal (see pop note below) an old government-owned theater I held dear ever since I saw my first-ever Broadway-style musical there: an adaptation of Cats. I first thought "Stop Suffering" might be a sequel to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I wasn’t that far-off.
It turned out that the theaters were bought and readapted by a South American
corporate sect that was still pretty obscure back then: the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). The UCKG doesn’t only select theaters and large entertainment venues for their seating capacity: they are the perfect architectural choice — physically and symbolically — for mounting Christian consumerist extravaganzas with inspirational music powerful like a Menudo ballad, dead of night infomercials, golden Styrofoam thresholds, salvation cash deposits, Monday Godly Entrepreneurial Meetings and Saturday Hopeless Case and Love Therapies, and sales on selected items (holy water from the River Jordan, holy cloth from Jerusalem, middle-eastern Sharon roses, stones from the grave of Jesus Christ, miraculous oils from the olive trees of Gethsemane, etc).
Historically, the relationship between religion and modernity has been complicated and contradictory. At times religious beliefs have been fuel for change, at times the target of its assaults. Mexican Modernism (Modern Mexico in general) played this pull and push game repeatedly: it’s had a little bit of everything, from the Jacobin church demolitions of the Reforma wars to the soul-searching structural calculations of Felix Candela’s 1950s suburban chapels.
The curious thing about the more recent run-ins between modernizing and ritual tendencies in Mexico is that, at least as far as spatial phenomena go, these tendencies seem to be going in a direction opposite to what theory would dictate. The painful processes of becoming Modern — particularly painful when they go awry — have spurred a confusion of roles, strategies and spatial patterns. ¿Where are the Modern and the Traditional in a decrepit secular temple (movie theater) readapted as Church that has embraced the coarsest, most predatory features of consumer culture? Or when deaf-ear superstition actively colonizes the purest and most rational products of Modernity (mass transit)? More than a result of the eternal fight between Progress and the Primitive, these anomalous religious urban outbursts are symptoms of modernization looking for a way out of its own snares.
*photo by Flickr user manu
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The theater was named after Silvia Pinal: Buñuel muse. Former wife and onstage partner of Enrique Guzmán (1960s teddybear hunk singer). Grandmother of naughty minor rockstar Stephanie Salas (who bore the firstborn child of the ultimate pop idol of the late twentieth century in Mexico; a blong Pedro Infante of sorts: Luis Miguel) and mother of naughty major popstar Alejandra Guzmán (the “Mexican Madonna"). Host and matriarch of the hit daytime television show, Mujer, casos de la vida real. The show
has been running since ran from the mid-eighties to 2007, and but Pinal’s charm and face are as tight as ever. Mujer is an arresting staged-reality show with actors replaying the confidences sent via standard courier ( maybe it’s e-mail now, not sure. I haven’t been able to watch in ages and apparently e-mail towards the end) by female (or, occasionally, transgender) viewers. Delivering one hour of none-stop tear-jerking bliss, the show deserves a post of its own. Maybe.