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.