I just finished reading El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (New York: Nation Books; 512 pp. 2009. $28.95) which may be the last book we’ll ever get from John Ross (Mar. 11, 1938 – Jan. 17, 2011). Little known outside left-wing political circles, Ross grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village aspiring to be the last of the Beat poets. In 1959, Ross burned his draft card and went to live in the historical district of Mexico City. From that base he traveled throughout Latin America and reported events as a freelance journalist for the remainder of his life. In addition to newspaper, magazine, and wire-service reportage, he wrote something like 10 books about the people and the politics of Latin America.
El Monstruo (The Monster) will pass for a wild man’s history of the capital of Mexico and Mexican politics. Starting with the Aztecs’ founding of Mexico City and perpetual rape of their neighbors, Ross’s account takes us forward to the looting of Mexico under corrupt, present-day leaders such as Vincente Fox and Felipe Calderón. Across 452 pages of street-smart narration, readers learn many interesting things: Aztec cannibalism; Mexico’s love-hate relationship with the Roman Catholic Church; Pancho Villa’s boys turned nunneries into whorehouses; origins of the term gringo; tactics employed by striking Mexican workers, to name just a few. Some of those things are even useful: Mexico recruits police officers from its prison population, which explains the absolute police corruption that characterizes Mexican law enforcement and does much to shape Mexican society. Mexican police officers deal drugs, do robberies, kidnappings and extortion, and terrorize debtor families when they act as repo agents for corrupt Mexican banks. There is much, much more. Anybody who wants the dirt and the jokes on Mexico will find loads of such provender in El Monstruo. For certain, reading Ross gives one an appreciation for the extraordinary courage, humor, and resilience of the Mexican people, assets without which nobody could bear up under the burdens imposed by such rampant mal gobierno.
Author Ross, of course, was an old beatnik. His style delights those who like hepcat jive, taberna gossip, and a mean eye for the nut of any situation. The tone calls to mind a hardcase American expatriate being debriefed by a journalist. Think Fred C. Dobbs and Hunter S. Thompson knockin’ down mezcal shooters while they beef Mexican history and current events. That’s the kind of juice that stains the pages of El Monstruo.
Though it is informal history (no footnotes), the bulk of El Monstruo is undeniably factual. Insignificant bits of it may not be so, but it isn’t hard to sort them out. “Pancho Villa sodomized nuns” (p. 155) for instance, is one of the “facts” about Villa that may be moot. Ross may have thrown it in for added color, though I think it unlikely that he did so because the last thing El Monstruo (or Pancho Villa) needs is more color. Besides — given the content and the heft of Ross’s works-consulted list (p. 471) — I’m neither brave enough nor inclined to assert that anything in this book is either a lie or a mistake.
For this writer, the only downside is that the pace of Ross’s narration seems to flag in a couple of places. How much that has to do with the fact that Mr. Ross was struggling with terminal cancer while he finished this book is a thing I do not know as I write. What I do know is that signs of stress I believe I saw in a couple of passages do not in any way detract from the readability of the book.
Solomon sez: All in all, El Monstruo is an informative read, a spicy-hot bowl of journalistic menudo, and a helluva lot of fun. Don’t miss this one, folks!