Skip to content

Romania Mexicalli

A tale of two clownish presidents
Art for Romania Mexicalli.
C
o
l
u
m
n
s

Diego Rodríguez Landeros was born in Mazatlán, Mexico, in 1988. He is the author of two books of essays, El investigador perverso (2014) and Nadie es tan desvergonzado como desea (2019), as well as a novel, Desagüe (2019). “Romania Mexicalli” is excerpted from a forthcoming collection, Drenajes. Both this book and his novel arise from a fascination with the relationship between Mexico City and its waterways. This piece presents the aquatic infrastructure of this metropolitan area—with a present-day population of around twenty-two million people—as a counterpoint to its social and political transformations from the colonial period onward. With an expansive sense of narrative structure and a keen eye for the absurd, Rodríguez Landeros chronicles the city’s history—all while keeping his ear to the ground and listening for what rushes, or has fallen silent, underneath it.


—Robin Myers 

 

I didn’t know ANYTHING ABOUT BULGARIA
until I decided to write a poem about Mexico.
—Gerardo Arana, Bulgaria Mexicalli

Whirlpools 

It wasn’t the first time that Servando González was filming a whirlpool. Eleven years prior, in 1957, when he shot his first feature film, Yanco, in the village of Míxquic, he had used a water drain for the final sequence. It’s a dramatic scene in which the child protagonist plays the violin amid the secluded chinampas (patches of arable land kept on shallow lakebeds). Suddenly, a current of water tears away the piece of earth he stands on. Still playing his mournful tune, the little boy is swept toward the drain that swallows everything: mud, plants, foam. In the end, he dies, and only the landscape remains: among the last remaining emblems of Mexico City’s rural, semi-lacustrine life.

Míxquic, a village located in the Tláhuac district of Mexico City, was once an island in the middle of Lake Chalco. It was accessible by canoe. For a time, so was Tlatelolco, the sister city to Tenochtitlán, where the Mexica people resisted the Spanish invaders as best they could. Four hundred and forty-seven years later, on this same spot—and on the orders of Secretary of the Interior Luis Echeverría Álvarez—Servando González and eight cameramen filmed through the evening and night of October 2, 1968.

He told himself that he was doing his job and doing it well.

At their location and altitude, the cameras documented almost everything:  the military formations; the crowds flooding the esplanade; the start of the student rally on the third-floor balcony of the Edificio Chihuahua; the appearance, at 6:10 p.m., of a couple of helicopters sending out red and green flares; the shots coming from different points, including the third floor of the Chihuahua building, where officers from the Olimpia Battalion, a government-created paramilitary counterinsurgency group wearing white gloves on their right hands, had blended in with the student leaders; and most impressive of all, the stampede of terrified civilians whose movements, for several miraculous seconds, formed the shape of a whirlpool, or so it appeared  to González, who didn’t freeze in horror at the atrocities occurring down below, much less stop directing the take. In fact, he recalled the whirlpool in Yanco with nostalgia and pride. He told himself that he was doing his job and doing it well. As the head of his team, he couldn’t miss a single detail. That’s what he was thinking when he caught a whiff of something sour, like spoiled milk and gastric juices. A man beside him bent over, hands on his knees.

“Get back to your post, you idiot!” González shouted at the nauseated cameraman, who had vomited after zooming in on a young woman, sprawled out in the square, bleeding to death, impaled by a soldier’s bayonet.

Roman Philology 

Cameramen are filming thousands of people in the square. The rally hasn’t started yet, but people are already shouting slogans that are hard to understand, as if uttered in a language both shared and strange: the language of a crowd. The images seem identifiable, but a closer look reveals certain peculiarities. What should be a liquid mass, a mass of students, is a perfect grid. And the soldiers: their attitude evokes an official occasion more than a sudden attack. Where are we? The year is 1968, but the buildings around the square aren’t the structures of Tlatelolco. The language is Spanish-like, but it also has hints of Italian or Portuguese. It’s Romanian. The familiarity of Romance languages.  

The shoot takes place in Bucharest, on August 21. People have gathered here because Nicolae Ceauşescu, President of the Socialist Republic of Romania, is scheduled to deliver a historic speech condemning the invasion that the Soviet Union, under the pretext of honoring the tenets of the Warsaw Pact, is inflicting on Czechoslovakia. Unlike the events of the same year in France, the United States, Mexico, or Czechoslovakia itself, where the masses protested the authorities in power, the Romanians are demonstrating in support of their president. This is their ’68. Comrade Ceauşescu (also known as Conducător or the Genius of the Carpathians) declares that while Romania is and will remain a socialist nation, faithful to the principles of Marx and Lenin, it will not submit to domination under Moscow; no nation should. The people applaud in what looks like ecstasy.

Ceauşescu’s goal was to put an exemplary image on display. A representative of the socialist world, he was positioning himself as a cordial friend to Western democracies. In the following decades, the self-proclaimed hero of peace traveled the world, from China and North Korea to England and the U.S., receiving all manner of honors and awards. At home, meanwhile, he retained power for over twenty years, administering one of the most scandalous, ridiculous dictatorships of the twentieth century. His government was defined by authoritarianism, economic crisis, and cult of personality. Despite his risible appearance, his image was omnipresent in Romania; there was even a special police force to ensure that people invoked him and his wife Elena Ceauşescu with religious reverence. Possessed with a narcissistic frenzy, the Conducător arranged for a group of cameramen to film him at all times, so that his likeness would endure on celluloid for eternity.

In a storage facility of the House of the People—the outlandish palace that Ceauşescu had commissioned in downtown Bucharest—the rolls of film piled up in towers several meters high. Thousands of hours that the filmmaker Andrei Ujica was patient enough to review and edit, years later, in producing his documentary Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010), which is composed entirely of archival material. It distills the whole of Ceauşescu’s political life into three hours: his travels, his tours, his celebrations; also his free time, his vacations. It’s a documentary, yes, but it occasionally takes on an air of surrealist fiction. A series of massively attended speeches are followed by scenes of men clad in medieval Romanian attire riding on horseback along the skirts of the Carpathian Mountains; and by dances that are meant to look lavish but come off as curiously Soviet; and by parades where thousands of bored youths form Ceauşescu’s face with the placards in their hands; and by scepters and communist flags and visits to foreign kings; and by a showcase of agricultural products that are actually plastic vegetables; and by a tennis match between the clumsy dictator and his wife; and by cities destroyed by earthquakes. 

While Jaws was premiered in many cities of the world, young Romanians had to settle for Yanco.

The Autobiografia begins with images of the summary trial to which the Ceauşescus were submitted following the Romanian Revolution of 1989. In December of that year, after decades of dictatorship, the people rose up in different cities. December of ’89 was the Romanian ’68. The reaction was immediate: the army tore into the crowds. There were 162 deaths and 1,107 injuries between December 16 and 22. Confronted with the abuses of state power, indignation spread; within days, all sectors of the population, including the army, had joined the revolt.

The Ceauşescus, accompanied by a tiny entourage of disciples, fled first by helicopter and then by car, hoping to seek refuge in the small city of Târgoviște. The armed forces captured them on the 23 and tried them that same day. The charges levied against them were genocide, damage to the national economy, embezzlement, and use of the armed forces against civilians—more or less the same charges that Luis Echeverría received in 2006 for the events of October 2, 1968 and June 10, 1971. Except that the Mexican ex-president was exonerated, while the Ceauşescus were executed on Christmas 1989.

The image of their deaths (seated in rustic wooden chairs, they receive the blast from the firing squad; then they’re lying on the ground, blood pooling around them) were broadcast on Romanian television and are now easily accessible online. However, Andre Ujica didn’t include them in his documentary, which I first watched because I was looking for records of Ceauşescu’s visit to Mexico in June 1975, when, at the invitation of then-President Luis Echeverría, the Romanian leader served as godfather at the christening of Mexico City’s Deep Drainage System. Much to my disappointment, Ujica incorporated very few Mexican scenes. Only between minutes 82:45 and 83:07 do we see some panoramic night shots of the Paseo de la Reforma. On the side streets, enormous illuminated effigies of Ceauşescu are on display, strung with thousands of little light bulbs, and beneath each figure is a blinking red sign that says Bienvenido. Welcome. That’s it.

Servando González: His Beginnings as a “Traitor” 

Born in Mexico City in 1923, González entered the film world at the age of twelve. The production company Estudios clasa employed him as an errand boy—or, in his words, as a “traitor,” invoking a pun in Spanish between traidor and the command trae esto, trae aquello (bring this, bring that). By 1945, he was head of the copy department at Estudios Churubusco; in 1953, he was named the director of the whole company.

No one doubts the professional merit behind his swift ascent up the cinematic ladder. It’s clear, however, that González had a very specific skillset: submissiveness to his higher-ups, a knack for flattery, zero scruples when it came to firing subordinates, experience as a scab, and antecedents of institutional loyalty. All fine aptitudes for the “politics of manipulation,” as irradiated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—which González, spurred by his dream of becoming a filmmaker, would join in 1955. It was a good time to do so: ever since the Law of the Film Industry was passed in 1949, all matters associated with cinema had been controlled by the Ministry of the Interior. Positioning himself on the side of power was a letter of safe conduct. 

But González had prior contact with the party. His earliest film work was from 1950, when then-President Miguel Alemán had hired him to film some official tours. In 1951, during the electoral campaign of Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, González served as “Director of the Film Campaign.” That’s where he met Luis Echeverría, who was also working to promote the candidate. When Ruiz Cortines took office, Servando was commissioned to make several official documentaries. The story repeated itself with Adolfo López Mateos, who also named him “Director of Cinema for the Presidency of the Republic.”    

Missing: used to describe a person when we don’t know their whereabouts or if they’re still alive or dead.

Occupying an official post during that administration, González produced his debut feature, Yanco, sponsored by the National Institute for the Protection of Childhood and executed without any support from the highly combative Union of Film Production Workers. Premiered at an opulent gala on November 2, 1961, the film caught the eye of the most conservative critics. Nonetheless, the whole thing—according to an article published by José de la Colina in the newspaper Política on November 16, 1961—was a farce. The article refuted the film’s merits, dismissed them as anachronistic, and condemned the “hypertrophy or excrescence” of its cinematic vocabulary. Moreover, De la Colina insisted that the film hadn’t won any international awards, as its promotional materials had claimed. Even so, Yanco was a turning point for González. After that, he set out to produce a vast filmography in parallel with his bureaucratic duties—which included filming the events of October 2.           

When Echeverría announced his presidential candidacy in 1969, González was in charge of documenting the campaign. Servando shot his inauguration with bombastic flair: unexpected zoom-ins during the speech, low-angle shots during the ovations, ground-level shots throughout. After becoming President, Echeverría named González “Film Director of the Federal Government” and made use of him on many occasions: some official, others not. According to journalist Héctor Rivera of the newspaper Milenio, Echeverría was “a man beset by vanity, determined to perpetuate every moment of his political career on celluloid—and his private life, too.” And so he hired Servando as his personal cameraman. His job was to record, among other things, the parties thrown by the presidential family.

Echeverría also fed González’s narcissism by granting him prizes and international distribution. In 1975, Ceauşescu’s visit to Mexico was accompanied by various cultural exchanges. Echeverría sent a folkloric ballet troupe to Romania, as well as a copy of Yanco. Proclaimed the finest Mexican film of the twentieth century, it ran for a few months at the most important movie theater in Bucharest. The audience consisted of middle school students supervised by teachers and prefects who were monitored, in turn, by agents of the Securitate. That year, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was premiered in many cities of the world. Young Romanians had to settle for Yanco.

Poster for Servando González’s film Yanco (1961) . | IMDB

Islands/Silhouettes

Míxquic, the village where Servando González filmed Yanco, was once an island, located in the middle of Lake Chalco. But in 1894, the Noriega brothers, a pair of Asturian immigrants, requested a license from the Porfirio Díaz administration to drain the lake and use the dry land for intensive agriculture and livestock projects. Their main arguments were that the lake environment was a “hotbed of infection” and that the area was economically unproductive. Never mind that the inhabitants of the region had, since time immemorial, subsisted on fishing, chinampa agriculture, lake foraging, and bird hunting. Predictably, Díaz granted the license. Within two years, the Noriegas had rerouted rivers and springs and built 203 kilometers of canals to drain the lake and irrigate the new sown fields. In exchange, they received most of the uncovered lands as property and appropriated a prosperous network of estates, all complete with company stores.

Of course, local communities opposed the lake’s destruction. It wasn’t just the body of water that was in danger, but also their culture and means of social reproduction. However, when the authorities acquiesced, their resistance was brutally quelled. The Noriega brothers used hitmen and a technical means of suppression: their hydraulic pumps flooded the fields of dissenting villages. 

While Lake Chalco hasn’t completely disappeared, Míxquic did cease to be an island by the mid-twentieth century. By the time Servando González shot Yanco in the early 1960s, the shores of the lake were far from town. Over the past sixty years, the diversion of springs and the urban metastasis, caused by the corruption of local governments swapping land and services for votes, has claimed more and more ground from the lake. The storyline of Yanco—which celebrates the government’s actions—shows no signs of this conflict. But by projecting images of the landscape as it was back then, it serves as visual documentation of a space in

agony.

Unlike dying or moribund, which bears the mark of termination, the noun agony and the more rarified adjective agonal describe someone near death, yet fighting back: for instance, the Aztecs and the besieged students at Tlatelolco, with a 447-year difference between them. On visiting the Chalco area, one can only admire the stubborn resistance of the migratory birds that return again and again to the remaining water; the trust of the farmers who still travel the surviving canals by canoe to plant on desiccated ground. How much longer will they agonize before they’re displaced, as recently befell the last vestiges of water in Texcoco for the construction of Mexico City’s New International Airport? The terrible transition from agónico, in Spanish, to

occiso.

The Spanish word occiso, as a legal determination, means “deceased,” but it doesn’t evoke just any death. In fact, it specifies the cause: murder. The word is a silhouette that indicates the victim. In forensic proceedings, the silhouette of the deceased-by-murder is sketched where the body was found, marking the start of the investigation. Today, in Tlatelolco, people continue to draw the outline of bodies that are no longer there. We inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico should trace the shorelines of lakes long

missing.

Missing: used to describe a person when we don’t know their whereabouts or if they’re still alive or dead. The lakes in the Valley of Mexico, many Mexican activists from 1968, others of the Dirty War, and thousands of victims of the national militarization from 2006 onward—they have all gone missing. The case of the lakes, however, is more precise. Banished, invisible, drained, they are assumed to have died, but they may come back at any moment. All it would take is for the drainage infrastructure to fail, which happens all the time. Note the current status of the Central Outlet of the Deep Drainage System. Designed to expel 210 m3 of water per second (five Olympic pools every minute) from the Basin of Mexico, its capacity dropped to 150 m3 by 2005. Obstructions and cracks in the tunnel were responsible for this drop, caused in turn by the toxic gases emanating from the wastewater. Every year, the System broadens its network and increases the number of interceptors that flow into the Central Outlet: a conduit that, if it ever collapsed, would flood a 650 km2 area in the eastern Valley of Mexico, home to approximately ten million people. In the process, only the parts that were originally islands would be left exposed, and the agonizing, the deceased-by-murder, and the missing would prove that they’d been defeated only in appearance. And that, indeed, they’d never really left. And that they can still throng the public plazas with their multitudinous presence.

Luis Echeverría, Actor 

Before taking office as president, Luis Echeverría followed a nearly religious disciplinary exercise of dramatic interpretation. That is, he worked to create a character so devoid of attributes that he awoke no suspicions—all while working behind the scenes to stage his triumphant, tragicomic appearance. The perfect cover-up, as the saying goes.

When, in a typically arbitrary designation, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz chose Echeverría as his successor in 1969, the now-candidate’s transformation was blatant, as if he’d come out of the closet. The discreet, impenetrable Minister of the Interior became instantly jovial, photogenic. The day he announced his candidacy, he dressed his children in charro uniforms, adorned his house with a vernacular scenography, and welcomed journalists as if they were granting him the Ariel Award for best actor in an as-yet unproduced movie.

From that moment on, and until December 1976, Echeverría and Servando González filmed his entire administration. The new president wanted to portray his government as defined by a Cárdenas-style nationalism, a leftist rhetoric, a simulated democratic openness—especially this, as a way to erase his complicity in the events of October 2. González was instructed to heed these three points in the visual style of the shoot. It didn’t matter how many takes were needed to achieve it. On one paradigmatic occasion, they filmed a rally in Zacatecas, accompanied by the singer Antonio Aguilar (who performed a little number with his dancing horses), and forced the farmers to repeat their ovations ten times before settling on the final version.

Echeverría governed more as an actor than as a statesman. That’s what Daniel Cosío Villegas meant in his brief but incisive book El estilo personal de gobernar (1974), in which he condemned the president’s self-worshipful excesses and histrionic displays. Because it was clear that he conceived his actions in accordance with the smoke screen they’d erect and the impact they’d have on the Mexican people. His break with Díaz, the lavish funds bestowed on farmers, the growing budget for universities, the means of seduction employed on intellectuals, the declarations of solidarity with third-world nations, the condemnation of the coup in Chile, the sanctuary granted to exiles, the strenuous working tours—it was all written out in the script of appearances.

They weren’t two heads of state greeting each other; they were two clowns.

Backstage, however, he was still the same circumspect repressor who had orchestrated, in cahoots with Díaz Ordaz, the massacre of ’68. He was capable of anything if it meant silencing dissent, and he willingly turned to praetorianism as a form of control. Examples include the Corpus Christi Massacre on June 10, 1971, when approximately 120 were killed; the ferocious continuation of the Dirty Wall; and the censorship of the newspaper Excelsior, culminating in the dismissal of its editorial team on July 8, 1976.

Since the start of his presidency, Echeverría’s taste for public exhibition led him to break his promise to curb spending on diplomatic tours. He traveled abroad with a circus committee that included his entire family, various public officials, cameramen, a mariachi group, and a troupe of folkloric dancers. Fueled by his unchecked self-confidence, he tried to found a movement of third-world countries, drafted a Letter of States’ Rights and Duties, demanded that Coca-Cola disclose its secret formula, and aspired, toward the end of his mandate, to the presidency of the United Nations and to the Nobel Peace Prize. Of course, his erratic behavior, not to mention the overall failure of his administration (Mexico’s foreign debt rose by 500 percent during those six years, and the devaluation of the peso became unsustainable), painted a foolish portrait both within and beyond national borders. Memorably, on March 14, 1975, Echeverría was expelled from the UNAM campus by students tossing rocks, hurling tomatoes, and booing, as if he were a comedian being kicked out of the big top.

That’s what made his 1975 meeting with Nicolae Ceauşescu so unique. On the evening of Saturday, June 7, when the Romanian dictator landed at the Mexico City Airport and Luis Echeverría, flanked by bodyguards, gave him a welcome hug, they weren’t two heads of state greeting each other; they were two clowns. That’s what their gestures and expressions conveyed. It was as if they were performing in front of a mirror, or acting in an improv contest. That’s what was documented both by Servando González’s cameras and by the Romanian cameramen responsible for filming their joker-dictator’s every move. Their meeting was also broadcast live on Mexican television, Channel 5, during the scheduled programming for the sitcom El Chavo del 8.  

Still from Andrei Ujica’s film Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010). | Cannes Film Festival

Clowns

In his caustic essay, “Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist,” the Romanian novelist Norman Manea explores the paradoxical reasons why Nicolae Ceauşescu was so insufferably ridiculous, risible, and even pathetic, at the same time as he was ruthless and terrible. “Children,” Manea writes, “laughed at the tyrant, and found it incomprehensible that he should dominate adult life.” And it’s true: even the briefest glance at recordings of Ceauşescu reveals a bumbling, cartoonish figure. Which makes it more unsettling that the Romanian people submitted so utterly to the masquerade of this authoritarian little man.During the dictatorship, Manea believes, pretense and spectacle consumed the nation, inverting reality. Any hint of authentic social dialogue was swiftly drained and replaced with the simulation directed by Ceauşescu the clown. Romanians were captive to an improbable, nightmarish fiction, one that weighed down any attempt at sincerity. This is the very effect of Andrei Ujica’s Autobiografia, where documentary becomes comedy.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, the fiction of institutionalized revolution reached the apex of its spectacularity under Echeverría, but also its collapse. After him, no president ever trusted so vehemently in this discourse. Three presidencies later, neoliberalism arrived, and another script was used to bolster power. At the time, though, Echeverría exploited it hyperbolically. Crowned with a false revolutionary halo, he reached out to Ceauşescu as a legitimizing character in his own performance. If fear of a communist invasion prompted Díaz Ordaz to orchestrate the massacre at Tlatelolco, Echeverría, obsessed with distancing himself from these crimes, planned to welcome a famous representative of socialism. Moreover, he would make Ceauşescu godfather to the Deep Drainage System, which he intended to inaugurate around the same time—and which, in his words, “revealed the constructive continuity of the Mexican Revolution.”

And so it was on June 9, 1975, at nine thirty in the morning, that Echeverría and Ceauşescu, surrounded by government officials and cameramen, arrived at kilometer seven of the Great Sewage Canal. The stench of the wastewater was so powerful that both men made jokes about it, but their quips were ruined by the interpreters. The ceremony was to unfold as follows: the two leaders would simultaneously press the yellow button that, by means of an electronic mechanism, would release the flow of water toward the Eastern Drainage Interceptor. On a count of three, they reached for the button, but their fingers collided; exchanging stupid smiles, they had to try again. When they finally pulled it off, the water was suctioned off toward the tunnel. That was the third time Servando González filmed a whirlpool.

The two presidents flailed, ecstatic, among sauces and greasy chickpeas as the farmers bathed in pulque.

At 10:10 a.m. that day, they reached vent zero of the Central Deep Drainage Outlet, in the Gustavo A. Madero district of the city. There, at the foot of an enormous monument dedicated to tunnel workers, a bandstand had been set up for the inaugural ceremony. For over two hours, speeches were delivered and decorations bestowed on engineers and construction workers. There was applause and a tour of the Museum of Hydraulic Works, built on that very site. Following the ceremony, the Romanian dignitary longed for some breakfast, but a frenetic Echeverría informed him that the last part of the tour was yet to come. A monstrous smile spread across his face as he spoke.

Suddenly, in an uproar of propellers and wind, three Mexican Air Force helicopters touched down. (Inexplicably, Andre Ujica excluded these images from his Autobiografia.) Whisking away the presidents, the cameramen, and several officials, the helicopters flew off to Tepeji del Río, location of the Drainage Exit Portal. Amid tarps, tables, and chairs, they were awaited by dozens of farmers from the arid Mezquital Valley, all very pleased that the wastewater expelled from the Basin of Mexico could be used to irrigate their parched fields.

Other, briefer speeches followed, and then, without further ado, came the highlight of the day: courtesy of the Hidalgo farmers, cooks proceeded to serve up dishes of steaming barbacoa and consommé. General rejoicing. A proliferation of soda. Echeverría, radiant, couldn’t stop clapping his socialist counterpart on the back. A gluttonous Servando González had stopped recording and commenced to sprinkle pápalo leaves on his tacos. Ceauşescu studied the food with curiosity and decided to try it. Predictably, it was too spicy for him; he broke into a sweat and everyone laughed. A contagious, irrepressible laugh. The guffaws, first from the politicians and then from the farmers, rose until they jumbled together with the chords of the norteño band serenading the meal. The atmosphere swelled with euphoria. It was then that the Romanian president, with a jester’s calculated mischief, seized a taco full of nopales, dumped it onto his own head, and twisted his face into a ridiculous scowl. Echeverría’s laughter grew even more maniacal at the sight. Tears of joy were flooding his eyes when, out of the blue, a piece of barbacoa meat hit him full in the face. With this first attack, Ceauşescu inaugurated what would become a bona fide food fight. The two presidents flailed, ecstatic, among sauces and greasy chickpeas as the farmers bathed in pulque.

And all the while, just a few meters away, the thunderous Deep Drainage Outlet kept expelling water, like the open veins of a wound bleeding out in the town square.


Interested writers and translators should send proposals for “Found in Translation” to [email protected]. We can offer $500 for each column, to be split between the translator and rights holder.

Baffler Newsletter

New email subscribers receive a free copy of our current issue.

Further Reading