Projects of Happiness

Valeria Luiselli writes a short story inspired by the Rockdrigo Gonzalez song, “Estación del Metro Balderas”

Rockdrigo estatua

Taken from the July 2012 issue of Dazed & Confused:

Then there’s that vicious form of freedom that one day leaves us. We were kids, once, speeding through Mexico City at night. Later, everyone took off and found themselves a life. 

But before that, before everyone ditched everyone else for careers, money, kids, respectability, ibuprofen, political correctness, real couples, real panic attacks – before all that – there was just us and the pact we had with the city. Because we had a pact. Not a solemn sort of pact, but a serious one, an honest one. The deal was: you give, we take. 

There was always Rockdrigo, whose music we breathed in and then exhaled like the last whimper before the end of the night, the end of the world

The city opened up like a poisoned flower and we took it in. There was music from Europe and the US on the radio and we took it in diligently, like baby food: Porno for Pyros, Atari Teenage Riot. And the by-then-already classics: Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, The Smiths. There were random people in random parties on random drugs, and we took those in – all three. Then there were newspapers left on tables at 24/7 Chinese restaurants on Avenida Revolución. Newspapers that said things – important things we read after parties at four in the morning. We took the world in, reading it aloud. The USA was bombing another country. We took that in with cold Nescafe and said things like Pinches gringos, and then tongue-kissed someone just because – because we had tongues. Back home, in someone’s apartment, there was music in Spanish waiting for us in our CDs and recorded cassettes – sticky tape covering the anti-pirate holes – which we took in, somewhat relieved by knowing that before us there had been others living and talking like us. There was always Rockdrigo, whose music we breathed in and then exhaled like the last whimper before the end of the night, the end of the world. 

And then there was the almost traceless morning after. The feeling that the world had ended and we had survived, whole, so we could play it out all over again the next day. It was like Sisyphus and the rock – only we were the rock and everyone else was Sisyphus. 

We were post-earthquake kids, concrete ghosts, asphalt flowers that had burst and sprouted among the fallen pieces of our personal Waste Land

If you were born in the eighties in Mexico City, you grew up hearing stories about the big earthquake in 1985, the city tumbling down to rubble in minutes, and buildings exploding for days and days because there had been unforeseen gas-leaks no one had attended to. You grew up knowing it could happen once more in the nineties, any time. The city could fall apart all over again. So you ran for it while you could, you dashed towards any project of happiness, however fleeting. The city was a temporary – passing – ephemeral place – but it was after all a place – our place. 

We were post-earthquake kids, concrete ghosts, asphalt flowers that had burst and sprouted among the fallen pieces of our personal Waste Land. It wasn’t fear that we were shown in a handful of dust, though: it was freedom, or happiness, or something right in the middle. 

There were sad stories sometimes. Stories that people told on long nights when there was nothing left to say. Stories about uncles who had died and parents who had joined citizen rescue squads. I knew my mother had worked among the rubble – unearthing people and parts of people crushed by their own houses. I was two years old when the earthquake hit the city, so I didn’t remember, but I’d say, full of sad pride, “My mom was in the squads.” And someone else would say, “Our building cracked in two.” 

It was Pani’s fault, but even more so, surely, Le Corbusier’s

There was one part of the story which we all feared, respected and listened to over and over – huddled together, heads on laps, in a tribal sort of ritual under the dim orange umbrella of the night sky – always falling silent when we knew it was coming. It was the Tlatelolco part of the story. Not the 1968 Tlatelolco story, when the government had fired against thousands of students – our parents among them. The other Tlatelolco story, the 1985 one, when the ground shook so hard that some of Pani’s functionalist buildings, inspired by Le Corbusier, had collapsed, killing thousands. 

September 19, 1985, 7.20am. People were sleeping, showering, kissing their kids goodbye, seeing them off to school, tuning in radios, making coffee, making love. 

Colonia Juárez, Colonia Roma, Colonia Nápoles, Colonia Condesa, Colonia San Rafael, Colonia Obrera, Colonia Doctores, Colonia Mixcoac, Colonia Santa María la Ribera, Colonia Guerrero. A blow – so slow – so hard – so deep – and it all went down. 

Tlatelolco, which was the emotional epicenter of the whole city, went down hardest. 

It’s hard now not to look back at Mexico City in awe

First one building – thirteen stories high – and then the other – down. The Tlatelolco projects fell. Projects of middle-class happiness fell. 

It was Pani’s fault, but even more so, surely, Le Corbusier’s. That’s what we’d say: Pinches gringos and Pinches franceses, it’s all their fault. Why does Mexico have to go and import foreign music, foreign architecture, foreign everything – we’d be better off on our own – fuck the NAFTA and all that – why not listen to Rockdrigo instead. 

The legend, though probably only half-true, was that he had lived in one of those Tlatelolco buildings that fell. He had recorded Hurbanistorias right there in his living room, the same year most of us were born – 1983. So we’d grown up with “No tengo tiempo,” which we sang with conviction, without really understanding why we felt such fierce conviction. And there was also “Estación del Metro Balderas” – a song about losing someone among the crowds of the subway, which I guess still reverberates in our minds every time we ride underground. All his songs, heard in retrospect, seemed to foreshadow the earthquake and its afterlife: the 1990s purgatory in which we all lived. 

It’s hard now not to look back at Mexico City in awe – hard not to wonder how it is that the city has really not imploded, sunken, plummeted, shifted. 

It hasn’t. It won’t. It was us who shifted, and our savage form of freedom that plummeted. 

Throughout November we will be publishing an anthology of short stories from our favourite authors to celebrate #NaNoWriMo. Follow them all at http://www.dazeddigital.com/nanowrimo and share your stories with us by tweeting @DazedMagazine with the hashtag #NaNoWriMo.

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