The name is Albóndiga. Jaime Albóndiga.

March 16th, 2015


Few would argue that, these days, Mexico has an image problem. The bad news has been building up since 2006, when Felipe Calderón, president at the time, declared war on drugs, a war that has claimed about 100,000 lives and has been sustained by his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Peña Nieto’s problems have not abated since last autumn, when 43 students were kidnapped, tortured and probably murdered in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero — most likely at the behest of the local government. The President’s response to this and other atrocities has been woefully inadequate; it would appear that there is absolutely no one in his cabinet who is capable of showing him how to put a foot right.

Still, the government has its ways of trying to change Mexico’s reputation. The people who hacked into the internal files of Sony recently published reports that officials of the government offered tax incentives of up to $20 million to Sony to make changes in the script and casting of Spectre, the upcoming James Bond film, partially shot here in the Mexican capital.

Mexico wanted the script shaken rather than stirred. Among the alterations solicited were that, instead of the murder of the mayor of Mexico City, an “international leader” would be killed; the principal villain of the film would not be Mexican; and the Mexican police force would be replaced by an “international police force.”

The officials who dealt with Sony also demanded that a Mexican actress get to play a Bond girl, for the first time in the 24-film franchise. Stephanie Sigman, who shined in Miss Bala in 2011, got the gig.

There were also requests by the government that they shoot some flattering travelogue scenes in Mexico City. (Apparently, they stopped short of asking that James Bond’s name be changed to Jaime Albóndiga.) According to reports — published here in Proceso, and also in the Washington Post, the Guardian and other international media — Sony executives Jonathan Glickman and Amy Pascal, happy to save some money, bent over backwards to accommodate Mexico. “We should insist they add whatever travelogue footage we need in Mexico to get the extra money,” wrote Pascal in a hacked email.

Spectre is also being shot in Italy, Austria, England and Morocco. I wonder if those countries’ demands went as far as Mexico’s. Meanwhile, the violence continues here — to name just one incident, earlier this month, a mayoral candidate in a Guerrero town was kidnapped and decapitated. The government may have $20 million to offer to Sony, but half the Mexican people still live in poverty. Perhaps a snuff movie, rather than a James Bond film, would reflect the country more accurately.


Labels: Mexico City



This coming Wednesday at Bellas Artes

February 20th, 2015


Although he grew up in a town in North Carolina of 2,699 people, for many years Joseph Mitchell was one of the most important voices in New York journalism. Because of his inability to pass his math courses, he never finished college, and instead of joining the family business — tobacco growing — he went to the Big Apple, arriving at the age of 21 the day after the stock market crash of 1929. He worked as a newspaper reporter for a decade, and in 1938 joined the staff of the New Yorker, where he remained until the day he died (although for the last 30 or so years of his life — he passed away in 1996 — he didn’t publish a word).

As part of a cycle of talks called Autores Secretos (Secret Authors) at el Palacio de Bellas Artes, I will be speaking about Joseph Mitchell on Wednesday, February 25 at 7 pm. While he is a cult figure in the U.S., known among readers who are interested in New York and in journalism, he is unknown in Mexico, even though one of his books, Joe Gould’s Secret, was published by Anagrama under the title El secreto de Joe Gould. Sadly, whenever I do journalism workshops here, no one has ever heard of him.

Mitchell was famous for writing about the underbelly of New York — winos, beggars, a bearded lady, a ticket-taker in a Bowery movie house, a man who rented out racing cockroaches to society parties. Indeed, Joe Gould, the subject of his book, was a homeless man who went from bar to bar in Greenwich Village, claiming to be working on a book called The Oral History of Our Time that would weigh in at over a million words.

Joseph Mitchell once claimed that the most interesting people to interview were “anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists and the occasional bartender,” and that the least interesting were “society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, movie actors and any actress under the age of 35.”

He is probably the author who has been my greatest influence. I will talk about his marvelous work — and the possible reasons for his silence — in Spanish.


Labels: Mexico City



A little decorum, please

January 28th, 2015

A warning to those who were brought up in a barn in the men’s room at cantina La Importadora, Benjamín Franklin 8, Colonia Escandón.

Labels: Mexico City

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Gloria in excelsis

January 11th, 2015


When I arrived in Mexico City in 1990, a performer named Gloria Trevi had recently become a big star. At the time, she seemed like the perfect antidote to the prefabricated pop idols here, who all had the same nose jobs and blonde highlights in their hair, all sang the same treacly love ballads, and were known as pendejos televisos (assholes from Televisa, at the time the only, and still the predominant, Mexican television network).

Unlike her contemporaries, Trevi sang about violence against women, unplanned pregnancy, machismo, religion, and homelessness; her anthem “Pelo suelto” was more or less an ode to liberation. Even to this day I would be hard-pressed to name a Mexican woman in mainstream show business who challenged the social and political hierarchy of this country the way that she did.


The plot thickened in the year 2000, when Trevi, her manager Sergio Andrade and a colleague of theirs known as Mary Boquitas were arrested in Rio de Janeiro on charges of corrupting minors. The prosecution’s side of the story was that Trevi and Andrade corralled teenaged girls with the promise of making them pop stars but in fact sexually enslaved them. Trevi would spend close to five years in jail (in Brazil and then Mexico) before she was cleared of all charges due to lack of evidence. 

Trevi’s version of events was that Andrade was a Svengali figure who had controlled her life — and her money, and her record deals, and everything else about her — since she was sixteen. Of course it was hard to square this story with the star’s public image as a fiercely outspoken, independent and street-savvy young woman. I suppose we will never know the true story.


Nonethless, a 28-year-old Swiss German named Christian Keller directed a movie with a certain interpretation of Trevi’s story, which came out in Mexico at the beginning of January and opens across the U.S. on February 21. It took Keller, 28, ten years to get the film made. Most of the delays were due to opposition by the singer herself, despite the fact that she sold Keller the rights to her story and gave him and screenwriter Sabina Berman 30 hours of interviews from which they crafted their story.


Gloria distills 20 years of the singer’s life into a little over two hours. It’s a funny, lurid and at times disturbing tale with fantastic performances by both Sofía Espinosa in the title role and Marco Pérez as Sergio Andrade. Even if in the end it is a little hard to swallow the portrayal of Trevi as close to a sainted victim, I would recommend the film to anyone who is interested in Mexican pop culture.


Meanwhile, since her release from prison in 2005, Trevi has cut various records and continues to tour in the U.S., all over Latin America and in Spain. Now a señora on the cusp of her 47th birthday, she remains as big a star as ever.

Labels: Mexico City



In the Guardian

December 10th, 2014


In the UK, the newspaper the Guardian asked me to contribute a piece about Mexico City for their “Urbanist’s Guide” series. Click on this sentence to take a look.


Labels: Mexico City