Swimming in the ruins

On my last couple of trips to Mexico, one of my first orders of business has been to find a swimming pool. In New York I am spoiled by the availability of free outdoor pools during the summer, and almost free indoor pools for the rest of the year. In Mexico, the best I have been able to do (without presenting three original birth certificates and fifteen certificates of health) is joining a gym with a pool.

In Cuernavaca, I found a pool inside a gym inside a mall. In the early afternoon, with the lanes virtually to myself, I turned laps in the cloudy water, gasping for breath in the humid, high-altitude air. The empty pool was refreshing, but the mostly empty gym and mall felt a little off. I thought perhaps that they were newly constructed and opened, but one of the trainers told me that the gym had been open for about five years – and the mall for longer than that. It wasn’t that the mall felt new, then, but rather that it felt not-quite-finished. Most of the indoor shop fronts were unused. Most of the outdoor cafes had only one table of customers at a time.

When I got out of the pool and on with my research, I kept hearing about the devastation of public space in Cuernavaca. The historic city center is choking on traffic. The shady ravines that divide up the town are filling with garbage. Time and again, people traced this devastation back to the demolition of the Casino de la Selva.

The casino was built in the 30s, but for most of its history was a casino in name only. It is mentioned in the novel that first drew me to Cuernavaca. The locals that spoke of the site remembered it as a sprawling complex of hotel facilities, murals, gardens, and swimming pools. Locals could pay for access to many of the facilities, and the swimming pools and other parts of the complex were central gathering and socializing spots, a kind of public space on private ground.

The facilities began to fall into disrepair, as they changed hands and were eventually seized by the government. Then in 2001, the complex was sold to Costco and a local supermarket chain. Protests against the planned demolition of the site were aggressively put down, with some protestors sent to prison. The site was leveled, although some of the murals were removed and preserved.

It didn’t take much investigation for me to realize that I had been swimming in the ruins of the Casino de la Selva. The demolition of the complex provided enough space for an oversized Costco, and an oversized Mega supermarket, and a never-quite-finished mall. The demolition also deprived the city of a place rich in history and memory, replacing these with utterly generic, utterly anonymous consumer space. A few rusted relics of the casino stand behind a gate on the side of the highway that plows between the supermarkets and the mall.

I came to Cuernavaca to investigate the impact of crime and insecurity on public life, but the sense of loss of public life – not just of loss, but of the life of the city being sold off by the government – predates the surge in violence associated with organized crime in the city.

And in my swimming trips, I found myself in a place that was completely at odds with getting to know the city and its people. Where once families had mingled and splashed in outdoor pools, now solitary figures turned laps, one swimmer to a lane, in a cloudy indoor pool in a gym in a mall.

Returning to Cuernavaca

Since moving back to Mexico to conduct research, I realise again and again just how much my dissertation research is grounded in earlier, pre-academia memories of this place. My years living in Guadalajara first put the questions in my head that years later I finally have the tools and means to examine.

I have spent most of this return trip in Mexico City. The capital provides access to government (very limited access as it turns out), journalists and the media, activists and NGOS, academics, and endless events (I finally met Oswaldo Zavala, a professor at my home institution in NY, at his book launch here). As is regularly affirmed by the people that I talk to here, however, Mexico City is very different to the rest of the country. To get a full picture of the phenomenon that I am studying, I need to get out of the capital.

As I dig into my data, and cast about for cases beyond the capital, I find the city of Cuernavaca often catching my attention. There is good reason for me to notice that name: I visited the city, during my years in Guadalajara, and have friends there. The more I find Cuernavaca in the data, the more I realise how formative that prior visit was.

That first visit to Cuernavaca took place in mid-April, 2011. It was a stop on my spring vacation trip. The driving motivation behind the stopover was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a novel set in Cuernavaca during the Day of the Dead. If I had been reading the news instead of novels about the city, I wonder if I would have visited at all.

Quite by chance, I arrived in Cuernavaca at an important moment. A few weeks earlier, the son of a well-known local poet, Javier Sicilia, had been killed. The son’s body was found in an abandoned car, along with six other bodies, and a message from a criminal group. While such murders were increasingly common (especially in Cuernavaca at that time), Sicilia’s social standing meant that the case could not be ignored or dismissed by the government. Sicilia’s public grief became a rallying point for many others that had known personal tragedy, or were tired of living in fear. When I arrived in Cuernavaca, I found the state government building festooned with banners and placards bearing the phrase Estamos hasta la madre (which politely translates as “we’ve had it up to here”).

In the following weeks, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity was be born. At the beginning of May, Sicilia led a caravan of marchers on foot from Cuernavaca to Mexico City. The protest spread, and the caravan would later visit other parts of the country, linking up with grieving families and victims’ rights movements. Sicilia met with President Calderón, and remains an authoritative, critical voice in the call for more humane security policy.

The coincidence and experience of that first trip to Cuernavaca still informs my understanding of Mexico. I have made three return trips to Cuernavaca, as part of my field research, and plan to make more. I link together the snapshots of memory from that initial trip, get to know the city as a living place with deep memories of that terrible period in 2011. In a small city in a small state, everyone I meet seems to have some connection to the Movement for Peace. Everyone recalls what they were thinking and feeling around the time of my first visit.

If years spent living in Mexico gave me my current research questions, those few days in Cuernavaca gave me a way to start addressing these questions.