Having just gotten divorced after more than two decades of marriage my future is open-ended. I can do anything I want now, like fly to a city I know next to nothing about to meet a woman I know next to nothing about to see if my future lies in that direction.
I live in Mexico City but with Facebook there’s nothing easier than flirting with a woman in Tampico (about 300 miles away) and having instant access to a whole range of information about her (her age, education, what she looks like, her social circles, etc). Like stalking women on Facebook, the Internet also offers similar access to cities everywhere around the world. Tampico, a city far off the beaten track, a city that never figures prominently in tourist maps or guidebooks and to which not many people who are not from there have reason to go to, looks like just my kind of city.
I rent a cheap hotel room and buy my plane ticket online with a few clicks on the computer and, in just a matter of days, I am sitting in the lobby of Hotel Regis in el centro histórico of Tampico waiting to meet my new FB friend. A car pulls up and I watch as a woman inside kisses a man on the lips, exits the car that slowly pulls away and then enters the lobby with a big smile. It turns out that my FB woman friend has a real-life boyfriend, which she neglected to mention. We nonetheless spend a very nice day eating shrimp and drinking beer in a restaurant on the other side of Río Pánuco in the state of Veracruz with a wonderful view of a gas refinery on the Tampico side, and then having furtive sex on the dunes overlooking the Gulf of Mexico before saying adios forever.
Cities live longer than human beings and often people’s relationships with cities are longer, more intense and more rewarding than with other human beings. Although I often make the mistake of being attracted to attractive, sexy, flirtatious young women, my taste for cities is quite the opposite. I’m a sucker for old, dilapidated cities, cities that were once thriving and modern but are now depressed and neglected and afflicted with all forms of urban blight.
Most people consider the future as technological advancement and progress but this is not the case with all cities, as many cities of the future will be anything but futuristic. In Mexico, people have been living in the same place in much the same way for thousands of years and thus the past often dominates the present and limits the future. Even Mexican cities with no trace of an indigenous past can still be weighed down by a certain period of urban expansion and construction, as is the case of Tampico.
Tampico was founded in 1823 as one of Mexico’s first ports, rerouting African slaves to New Orleans and shipping out silver to Spain, but the port and the city were built to serve black gold. In 1886, the first refinery was built in Tampico to distill US oil and by the start of the 20th century several US oil companies had refineries lining the Pánuco River. In 1904, the first commercial oil well in Mexico (owned by gringos) was drilled in Tampico, and soon after Standard, Royal Dutch Shell and other foreign companies invaded the city and began extracting oil from Mexican soil. By WWI, Tampico had become the second most important port in the world for oil exports.
In 1923, Mexico’s largest oil deposit dried up and two years later the Mexican government passed a law that restricted foreign ownership of the land to 50 years (instead of in perpetuity as it had been). Without the assurance of an infinite future, the foreign oil companies began a massive migration from Mexico to Venezuela and, as a result, the oil production in Mexico plummeted by 75%, the local economy collapsed and thousands of fired workers fled the city.
Mexican oil was nationalized in 1938. Although this didn’t restore the golden years of oil extraction it did offer great jobs to the more than one hundred thousand union members working in the government-controlled oil industry, many in Tampico where the union boss was from. Seen from the inside, working for the government-owned oil industry was a socialist paradise, with job security, excellent health and education benefits and decent pensions, living proof that socialism was the most humane system. Seen from the outside, it was a corrupt union that offered privileges to its employees that almost no one else in the country enjoyed, a criminal organization run by a Mafioso who was known as the King of the Poor yet with a personal net worth estimated somewhere around three billion dollars, living proof that socialism was a lie.
In 1988, in an effort to grease the wheels of the North American Free Trade Agreement, then-President Salinas privatized the banks and most other government-owned businesses and put the oil industry’s union boss in jail, thus ending the autonomous reign of Mexico’s most powerful union and, as an unintended byproduct, further driving the local economy in Tampico into the dirt. The city’s port finally closed in 2007.
The Historic Center of Tampico, built during the Europeanized reign of Mexico’s great dictator Porfírio Díaz and paid for by the oil boom, had been the pride of the country, often compared to New Orleans for its French-style buildings with ornate steel balconies and arte nouveau details, its rich musical tradition, its whore houses and its draw as a tourist destination. These days, however, after several waves of mass exodus from the city over the last few decades, due to economic or physical violence, Tampico resembles post-Katrina New Orleans, empty, abandoned, economically devastated, a ghost town.
For decades, the oil and gas shipped to the US from Tampico fueled the local economy, while today, cocaine, marihuana and meta-amphetamines smuggled in to the US represent the city’s largest source of income. Narcos began operating in Tampico in 2004, and since then they have penetrated all aspects of society. Most of the local law enforcement officers were on the narco payroll until the army recently decommissioned the police (only traffic cops are to be seen on the streets of the city these days). Narcos control the newspapers, publishing warnings to rival cartels or announcements for people to stay in their homes to avoid being shot, and often kill reporters and editors who disrespect them (the state has the highest kill rate of journalists). Narcos control the taxis, city buses and the armored trucks that deliver cash, they have bank executives hand over information about clients with accounts of more than half a million dollars and make notaries sign away properties at gunpoint.
At the beginning of 2010, twelve kilos of cocaine were confiscated in Tampico. The bosses in Reyonsa, on the US border, told the narcos in Tampico that they had to cover the losses, and this led to a wave of kidnappings. In September 2010, with the kidnapping of Fernando Azcarraga, former mayor and cousin of the owner of the Televisa media empire, the wealthy citizens fled the city. When the wealthy left town the narcos began targeting doctors and other middleclass professionals for kidnappings. Since then over 200 hotels, restaurants and cafes, including over half of all businesses in the centro historico, have closed down.
As I walk around the neighborhood at night, there are no tourists or groups of alcohol-drenched partiers staggering around the neighborhood, the few bars still open have closed early, only a few skanky prostitutes can be seen sitting bored on the curb in front of low-rent hotels. To make the neighborhood seem even more eerie and otherworldly, dozens of buildings, including some of the largest and most impressive, lie sabandoned. Mostly built between the boom years of 1900 and 1950, these buildings’ structures and facades are in perfect shape and could easily stand for another century yet now are mere empty shells. Looking closer, however, I realize that these buildings are in fact not empty, for huge trees have burst through the roofs and out the windows, as if the trees were now the dominant life form on the planet.
I take a collective taxi to the Miramar beach, a twenty-minute ride from my hotel. Having seen photographs of this beach during Spring Break and heard it described as “a four-mile cantina” I am a little hesitant to go there, but my desire for a swim and some sun wins out. The beach, however, turns out to be little more than a long stretch of dirty gray sand covered with driftwood and oceanic debris, and shallow gray-green water with ankle-high, ceaseless waves. To make matters worse, a giant gas refinery squats right on the edge of the beach, huge flames and black smoke belching out of the top of several towers and a sweet-sickly smell filling the air. Even though it is a sunny Friday afternoon, the few restaurants and bars that aren’t boarded up are without clients, the few condos facing the beach have been left unfinished, decaying palm-thatched palapas stretch for a hundred yards, and except for one family playing soccer and a few stray dogs barking at each other the beach is empty.
Across the street from the gas refinery I come across a large-headed, bald, green-skinned creature. The existence of an alien life form on this beach doesn’t really seem all that out of place, and I stop and take the time to read the dedication plaque which states that this life-sized concrete bust was inaugurated just couple of days before (henceforth the Day of the Martian will be celebrated in Tampico the last Tuesday of every month). More than just a quirky tourist draw (which doesn’t seem to be working very well yet) the bust is dedicated to the aliens believed to be living in an underwater base a few miles off the coast of the beach. Photos have been taken of flying objects on the horizon, small discs of lights over the water have been captured on videos (available on Youtube), and locals say that they have seen UFO’s fly in from their base to refuel their ships from the oil towers.
Since the arrival decades ago of these superior life forms from outer space (said to be either very tall and skinny or very short), the city has been miraculously spared from the devastating effects of hurricanes that sweep in from the Caribbean every year (Hilda was the last hurricane to actually hit the city full-on and that was in 1955). Residents of Tampico have watched as dozens of mighty hurricanes predicted to do major damage to the city mysteriously and magically shifted direction at the last minute, thus saving the city from destruction (instead wreaking serious damage in the USA, much to the delight of the locals).
One psychologist quoted in a Tampico newspaper believes that the idea that “superior beings protect our city” is a result of “magic-fantasy-animation type thinking deposited in the right hemisphere of our brain” and activated during crises when people “have lost the power of control.” According to this expert this mass fantasy can occur when hurricanes are about to hit, although it can also be attributed to economic crises and narco violence, both of which Tampico now suffers from. Another, less psychological explanation for alien sightings could very well be the constant, invisible yet overwhelming presence of gas fumes in the air from the refinery across the street from the beach, as gas fumes have long been associated with hallucinations, often of a religious nature. Another plausible explanation is that the spacecraft actually come from a secret US military base and are probably just drones or spy planes monitoring the activity of narcos within the city.
After returning from the beach I attend a lecture by Eugene Gogol from Oregon, who speaks about Marxism and revolution. Gogol’s fame, if he has any, is that he was the private secretary of a private secretary of Trotsky. In 1936, Trotsky first arrived in Mexico by ship, landing in the port of Tampico, where Frida Kahlo was there to meet him and to take him to Mexico City. Trotsky and Frida, who was married to the great art Mafioso Diego Rivera, would later have an affair together and it is rumored that this, more than his split from Stalin, is what got him killed. Sensing that his future was going to be brief (there had already been assassination attempts), Trotsky wrote a testament days before his male secretary (Gogol had worked for one of Trotsky’s female secretaries) jammed an ice pick into his head in his house in Mexico City: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”
After a long-winded explanation of Marxist theory delivered in very broken Spanish in a cramped room with no air conditioner, Eugene Gogol speaks about the relevance of revolutionary movements, such as the Zapatistas in a jungle in a corner of the poorest part of Mexico, which he believes will spread and lead to the creation of socialist societies in the future. Sitting here in Tampico, a city in which no indigenous people have lived for centuries and where the most brutal form of capitalism reigns supreme, the future of socialism that Gogol evokes seems like fantasy.
Fantasy, however, has always been a very important aspect of revolutionary theory and socialism, not to mention science fiction. Looking Backward: 2000-1887, one of the earliest modern science fiction novels, written by Edward Bellamy in 1887 (just a few years after the death of Karl Marx), was a bestseller that inspired hippy communes, politically progressive book clubs and was often cited by Marxist scholars as proof of the inevitability of socialism. The novel tells the story of a young man at the end of the 19th century who is hypnotized and falls asleep for one hundred and thirteen years, waking up to find that the United States has been transformed into a socialist utopia where everyone happily shares the benefits of an industrialized economy.
Although in Bellamy’s future scenario the government, which controls every aspect of the economy and culture, is portrayed as benign and enlightened, in science fiction future socialist states are usually cast as evil empires. Communism and socialism’s public image within the United States was surreptitiously and insidiously shaped during the Cold War by Hollywood sci-fi films that cast aliens in the role of commies attempting to spread their individual-less way of life to unsuspecting and hardworking Americans.
Regardless of whether the future is red, white and blue or just red, whether it’s utopic or dystopic, the radical shifts societies take in these imagined futures are usually brought about by revolution or alien invasion, which for Hollywood is often the same thing. Mexicans have never been such rapid anti-communists nor so anti-aliens as gringos (perhaps because they have always been labeled as illegal aliens when they cross the border in search of work) and instead have usually been open to the positive aspects of both.
In Tampico, the most extreme forms of capitalism and socialism have alternated. After the pillage of Mexican oil by foreigners, the nationalization of the oil industry brought thousands and thousands of workers into the strongest union in the country for decades, but recently the Mexican government broke the power of the oil union and is now about to sell the oil industry back to European and American companies. When Mexican oil, like the food, cars, entertainment, alcohol and most everything else consumed within the country’s formal economy today, is once again foreign-owned, one of the very few Mexican-owned multi-billion dollars businesses left will be the cultivation and/or distribution of marijuana, meth-amphetamines, cocaine and heroin.
Narco activity (which includes prostitution, pirated goods, kidnapping, drugs, etc) generates more profits and employment in Mexico than the country’s oil industry and thus wields real power within the society. Mexico’s future will be the alternation of power and pillage between foreign corporations and local mafias, which despite certain differences are both ruthlessly anti-socialist, anti-union and anti-worker. That is, unless an alien invasion from outer space or from the jungles of Chiapas topple the present system.
When I was married I dreamt about being single and having affairs in exotic places, but now that I’m single and have affairs in exotic places I flirt with the idea of hooking up with one special woman. Most sci-fi novels and films, radical Marxist theory and helpless romantics envision a future that will usher in an alternative lifestyle that will provide what we most lack and bring with it a solution to our unhappiness. The future, like the past, is thus always cyclical.
Back in my hotel room I chat on FB with a friend who he tells me that a woman who works for him is from Tampico and is here now and that I should give her a buzz. Within minutes I’ve befriend her on FB, chat with her a bit and set up a date for the evening. We meet in the city cemetery, just a couple of blocks from her home and where her grandparents are buried, and take photos of each other in front of graves as the sun goes down. She’s young, intelligent, has a ring through her nose and there’s no boyfriend in sight.
When the cemetery closes we kiss each other goodbye (she’ll be moving to Mexico City soon so we’ll meet again) and I cross the avenue and head into El Porvenir (The Future, or literally, What’s Coming), Tampico’s most famous cantina. The cantina has a motto: “We’re doing better than those in front.” Looking out of the window, I see on the cemetery wall graffiti that reads: “Here lie those who drank in front.” I take a last slug of my beer and suck out the last meat from my plate of fresh crabs and step out into the warm Tampico night, my last in the city, and walking past the cemetery I’m ready to embrace my future, whichever way it lies.
[published in The Ascender 2013]