Just as the small fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster serves as a popular model-organism for geneticists, so too is the Ciudad de México the premier field of study for urban researchers. No other metropolis in the world has over the past decades yielded such a treasure of profound knowledge or furnished so many answers to the question of what defines a city and how the city impacts upon the daily lives of its residents. That Mexico’s capital city should command the attention of sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, and architects comes as no surprise when one considers that this sprawling volcano-ringed city in the valley of Mexico has grown into one of the most imposing metropolises in the world. An estimated 9 million people live in the Distrito Federal (DF) and a further 11 million in the neighboring federal states to the north and east; a total of 20 million people. In concert with various phases of globaliza- tion, flows of immigration have decisively shaped Mexico City. Due to the ongoing privatization and economic liberalization, the city is both hyper-modern and impoverished. In response to the spatial and social fragmen- tation, the Chilangos, as the residents call themselves, have created the most diverse forms of political and social self-organization. Mexico City is regarded as a laboratory of urban life. Be it land occupations, the building of informal settlements, the centuries’ old tradition of street trading, or the appropriation of public space by mass demonstrations: nothing is handed to the residents of this city on a plate, but must be negotiated or fought for.
And consequently, no day passes without some form of protest. Students, teachers, peasants from the south, trade unionists, street vendors, and the indigenes march through the city center giving voice to their anger and drawing the attention of the government to their specific issues. In recent years, more and more citizens have joined the protests to demand “greater security” and for the government to adopt a harder line in its fight against drug-related organized crime. All demonstrations end on the Zocalo, a vast concrete square measuring several square kilometers, lying at the heart of the city, with a gigantic flagpole sur- rounded by magnificent old buildings: the seat of the city administration, the Baroque cathedral, and the Palacio Nacional. Despite its imposing colonial architecture, the historic old city has always been a somewhat dilapidated district. A turning point in its history was marked by the great earthquake of September 19, 1985, which claimed the lives of some 10,000 people and laid waste to a substantial section of the city center. However, this devastation became the catalyst for a new social mobilization. During the clearing-up operations and in the struggle for new living space, the urban civic movements came into being—the seeds of the subsequent political opposition. Nowadays, the historic center has become divided into a museum-like up-marketA-zone, replete with renovated plazas, inner-courtyards, and facades, and into a larger, albeit neglected, B-zone.
Since the 1960s, the population and the area of settlement in Mexico City have expanded six-fold, from 3 to 20 million and from 230 to 1,400 square kilometers. That the metropolis emerged from a group of islands amidst a lake-strewn landscape is—in view of the severe scarcity of water—difficult to imagine. Almost 800 years ago, the Aztecs from the north created their island kingdom of Tenochtitlán, which was connected to the mainland via a system of causeways and which possessed a sophisticated water-management system. When the Spaniard Hernán Cortés landed on the east coast of what is today Mexico in 1519, before conquering the Aztec Empire two years later, the population numbered between 200,000 to 300,00 people. In order for the city to be able to expand, the Spaniards filled in the canals and drained the lakes. However, the building development on the drained lakes caused the metropolis to steadily sink. Many of the buildings erected decades ago are now slanting. Similarly, the water supply is still perilous as the drinking water has to be pumped from lower lying regions into the city. A quarter of all residents obtain their water from tankers.
In Mexico City secularization has never been an inevitable consequence of urbanization. Some ninety percent of the Mexican population is officially Catholic. However, in many cases their beliefs are blended with elements of the pre-Columbian religions. The Virgen de Guadalupe, a mestizo variant of the cult of the Virgin Mary, is revered as the Patron Saint of Mexico and her image hangs in the Basílica de la Guadalupe. The agave fibers, on which she “stands,” have endured some 500 years. Annually, 20 million pilgrims visit the image, making Guadalupe still the world’s most frequented Catholic place of pilgrimage. However, this should not conceal the fact that even in a highly religious country such as Mexico the official church is hemorrhaging members. In return, the country’s religious popular culture is continually producing new national saints; including some condemned by the Vatican, such as Santa Muerte—a robed female skeleton, holding a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. Her popularity grew during the Mexican drugs wars which, over the past decade, have claimed some 10,000 victims. Originating in the slums of Tepito where the first Santa Muerte altar was erected, her cult has now spread to the Mexican ex-pat communities in the United States. And her veneration unites highly diverse groups and value systems, ranging from the urban poor to gang members and drug bosses.
Yet the role of the church in society has always been characterized by a certain ambivalence in Mexico. On the one hand, it has helped to reinforce an authoritarian, anti-democratic societalorder, whilst, on the other hand, giving rise to a phenomenon such as liberation theology, in which many of Mexico’s social movements have their origins. Thus Jesuits, Dominicans, and other holy orders helped to pave the way for the Zapatistic rebellion with their pastoral and educational activities, informing the indigenous population of their rights and exhorting them to fight for them. During the conflicts in the informal settlements, the local priests supported the residents in their struggle to obtain an infrastruc- ture and legalization. Liberation theology eventually lost significance during the 1990s. Now “Evangelicals” and other adherents to a theology of Prosperity are in the ascendancy in Mexico.