Lisa Gulesserian on "First Stop in the New World"
First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century
Reviewed by Lisa Gulesserian
Walter Benjamin meticulously chronicled nineteenth-century Paris in his seminal work The Arcades Project (1999). By collecting aphorisms, quotes, and anecdotes about this historically and geographically unique space, Benjamin hoped to show how Paris truly was “The Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Following in Benjamin’s footsteps, David Lida’s First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century is an attempt to chronicle the special significance of Mexico City for our present century.
At the level of format, the comparison between The Arcades Project and First Stop in the New World can be extended, as Lida makes use of the Benjaminian aphorism in his book. Lida’s chapters are often short and topical, with a range as wide as Benjamin’s. While Benjamin discussed fashion and prostitution in Paris, Lida analyzes luchadores and cantina culture in Mexico City. Benjamin’s panorama of a bursting metropolis benefitted from a sweeping scope that covered many diverse topics; Lida’s description benefits as well. In a place with over twenty million residents such as Mexico City, vignettes that allow for a peek into the lives of others run the risk of superficial description. Yet Lida’s careful use of various sources to inform his narrative of Mexico City keeps that risk at bay.
Much like Benjamin’s famous use of literary works and advertisements to inform his study of Paris, Lida uses a medley of documentation to write about Mexico City. Part journalistic tract, part travel guide, part memoir, part literature, Lida’s work shines in its ability to cull from diverse material ranging from newspapers, United Nations statistics, historical archives, sociological research, interviews, literary works, and personal anecdotes to fashion a rich and complex description of a capital city. His ability to move through these dense fields of data is not hindered in any way by his immigration to Mexico City from New York City in 1990. In fact, it seems that with Lida’s outsider perspective and previous global experience, he is better equipped to make such quips as “Globalization is making prosperous cities more alike and less idiosyncratic” and “at least in the short term, globalization makes Mexico City a more appealing place to live.” Despite this stereotypical “globalization rhetoric,” Lida surprises with his empathetic and careful rendering of the residents that he shares space with on the streets of Mexico City.
For him, these resourceful residents help maintain the city’s “idiosyncratic identity,” allowing it to remain “an emphatically Mexican city.” Like Benjamin, who populated his Paris of The Arcades Project with the characters of the Gambler, the Prostitute, and the Flâneur, Lida fills his narrative of Mexico City with characters from all walks of life. The figures that loom large in Lida’s First Stop in the New World are the Maid, the Foreign Immigrant, the Aztec, the Street Kid, and the Bureaucrat.
Through nuanced discussions of these characters, Lida crafts a wonderfully complex vision of Mexico City at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The character of the Maid is one example of “those without, the great majority of whom are brown” in Mexico City, where Lida claims “people with money perceive the poor as abstractions.” Through the figure of the Maid, we see that although Lida enjoys living in vibrant Mexico City, he is not so naive as to ignore the vast numbers of poverty-stricken Mexicans doing their best to get by. He is also aware of the ethnic divide between the few haves and the many have-nots. This topic is brought up again in the figure of the Foreign Immigrant, a character who makes use of the “relative ease with which a foreigner finds his place [in Mexico City], and how privileged that place most frequently is.” While presenting the Foreign Immigrant, Lida analyzes malinchismo, what he defines as the actions of “Mexicans who favor other [Western or Westernized] cultures over their own.” This explanation allows Lida to segue into discussing the historical legacy of the Aztec.
In his discussion of the Aztec, perhaps as a nod to Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Lida blasts the past out of the continuum of time. He does so by tracing the etymology of “malinchismo” with the story of La Malinche. Lida informs us that, as Hernán Cortés’s concubine, La Malinche has been revered and reviled in the years since the Spanish conquest of Mexico. For Lida, La Malinche is an example of how the same historical concept can be used for differing political ends. At other points in the book, Lida points out the supposed “timelessness” of the capital city. At moments like this, he is quick to note moments of striking similarity between the Mexico City of today and the Tenochtitlán of the Aztecs. In one central discussion of food in the capital city, he observes that diners “eat the same dishes that their ancestors have devoured for hundreds of years.” But instead of leaving the issue without comment, Lida realizes that Mexico City’s “timelessness” can also be viewed through different lenses dependent on socioeconomic status. In a moment of clarity, Lida muses that “‘Old Mexico’ is a charming conceit for those who are sturdily anchored in the twenty-first century. For an impoverished Mexican, ‘old Mexico’ is not quaint or nostalgic—it represents misery and servitude. If your struggle to survive is not much improved from that of your ancestors of a hundred years ago, you probably despise ‘old Mexico’ and dream of supermarkets.” Again, although Lida is content living in Mexico City, he does not ignore the harsh realities of the majority of the capital’s residents.
In fact, Lida is extremely considerate in his portrayal of people he meets in the boulevards, such as the Street Kid and the Bureaucrat. He mostly allows these residents to speak for themselves while documenting the city. More importantly, in using direct quotations from Mexico City residents, Lida offers a voice to those who are often silenced in stereotypical travel narratives which gloss over the harsh realities of a city where “Inequality is evident in endless manifestations.”
First Stop in the New World deserves a space next to The Arcades Project on the bookshelf of any scholar of urban spaces. Of course, this shelf space should be shared with many other books concerning Mexico City if that is your topic of research. David Lida’s book is a great primer for the capital city, but as Lida himself admits, “each chapter could have been the basis for an entire book.” For this reason, First Stop in the New World should be read alongside many of the books Lida lists for further reference. With this most engaging book as your entry into the complex world of Mexico City, your tour has just begun.