The Shadows of Revolution

With a view to tracing further representations of space in Mexico City my attention has been recently turning to the work of Paco Ignacio Taibo II (or PIT) in his transgressions of story-history, starting with the novel Sombra de la sombra (1986) published in English as The Shadow of the Shadow with Cinco Puntos Press (1991). The book is both an exploration of social criticism as well as a work of historical crime fiction. The story is set in 1922 in Mexico City blurring the realms of fiction and history and is based around the secret Plan de Mata Redonda, a conspiracy of army colonels, U.S. senators, and oil company magnates, with the aim to separate the oil-rich Gulf Coast of Mexico from the rest of the country and turn it into an American protectorate. Where better to explore the spatial practices of Mexico City deciphered through historical fiction and the symbols of this city’s lived representational spaces?

The protagonists in this kaleidoscopic picture of Mexico City are four friends that play dominoes in the bar of the famous Hotel Majestic on the Zócalo in the Centro Histórico opposite the Plaza de la Constitución (as pictured in the set image). They are Fermin Valencia, a sometimes poet and veteran of Pancho Villa’s cavalry; Tómas Wong, a Chinese-Mexican union organiser; Alberto Verdugo, a lawyer; and Pioquinto Manterola, a journalist.

The group’s domino club is like a “shadow’s shadow”, or the shadow of the shadow: it is indistinct, without any clear objective, until the characters become embroiled in defending the Republic against the Plan de Mata Redonda. This revolves around a military document, dated April 1920, which plans to instigate a revolt against the government orchestrated by oil barons, U.S. Senators, and military figures from Mexico and United States. The members of the domino group were themselves forged in the shadow of the revolution, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920, and have become its shadow debating and defending what they perceive to be its outcome and emerging legacy.

The Plan de Mata Retonda that they thwart has the aim of securing through military power the oil across the whole of Mexico, from the U.S. border down to the Tampico refineries and the Huasteca oil fields in the state of Veracruz amounting to some 30 per cent of the entire income of the Mexican treasury, acquired through taxes and drilling rights, from the production of 194 million barrels of crude oil a year. The domino group, in averting the coup and the Plan de Mata Retonda, really are the shadow of the shadows. As a result, the geopolitical economy of oil becomes refracted through their actions and the social spaces and lived representational spaces of Mexico City.

The adventure takes the reader through the streets and symbolism of Mexico City in the 1920s including the famous Hotel Regis that was part of a particular production of space. The hotel was a famous luxury location for foreign visitors and tourists as well as the emerging Mexican bourgeoisie, which was itself consolidated after the Mexican Revolution. Located on Avenida Juárez adjacent to the Parque Alameda, Hotel Regis stood as a project embedded in the spatial context of Mexico’s modernity. Down street would come to stand the Monumento a la Revolución (1936) and up street would later stand the Torre Latinoamericana (1956). However, the Hotel Regis would not survive as it was destroyed by the 1985 earthquake that devastated much of Mexico City, as famously captured in Enrique Metinides’ photograph of the crumpled hotel with the Torre Latinoamericana in the background.

Throughout the novel, Paco Ignacio Taibo II captures the history of space in Mexico in terms set out by Henri Lefebvre by combining an account of both representational spaces (the lived) and representations of space (the conceived) and their links with social practice. How is this achieved? The domino group reflects at length on the outcome of the Mexican Revolution while moving through the geometry of Mexico City’s urban space.

Pioquinto Manterola questions: ‘After all, who were the real losers in this little Revolution of ours? The old Porfirian aristocracy? Hardly. They’re all busy marrying off their daughters to Obregón’s colonels. The outcasts, the pariahs, the real losers, same as always. The campesinos who made the Revolution in the first place’. Postrevolutionary politics in Mexico under General Álvaro Obregón (1920-24) is assessed as an amalgam of the old Porfirian aristocracy with the revolutionary generals and the rising bourgeoisie. Verdugo surmises that the problem with the new society is that ‘it spent so much time trying to be modern that it forgot where it had come from. The only ones they were fooling, however, were themselves’.

Indeed, over a game of dominoes the four characters pursue an interrogation of the Mexican Revolution. The poet Fermín Valencia talks to the others about ‘halfway revolutions’ with Pioquinto Manterola stating that:

Obregón won in the end because, if you don’t count the time he was military governor in Mexico City and had the priests out sweeping the streets, he was always the most adaptable, he was always the one who could find himself a place inside the system . . . The Revolution was lost long before it was over. It was lost as soon as the generals decided it was better to get married to the landlords’ daughters than to rape them.

Fermín Verdugo disagrees, stating: “Obregón and his officers would much rather have them as their whores and mistresses. That’s one of the great moral advances of the Revolution. The aristocracy has taught them how to do business, not how to sit at table. They’ve simply learned how to turn power into money, not into good manners”. “You really believe that the generals won the Revolution?”, asks Manterola. “Well, they didn’t. The licenciados, the professionals, lawyers and the like, were the ones who won it in the end”.

During the discussion, Verdugo then states: “A revolution’s fought with ideas and violence. We had plenty of violence but not too many ideas . . . Maybe it’s just that I didn’t really want to change things, I just wanted them to stay the way they were, only with different people running the show”. “Well, if that’s what you wanted, Verdugo, that’s what you got”, states Manterola. “All we have today is a sort of modernised version of the same things as before, full of words, and graves you’ve got to go visit every Sunday . . . Maybe what all those years of war were about was to just open the door a little bit, so the changes could start to happen. They’ve given land to the campesinos, haven’t they? We’ve got a new constitution, don’t we? They took the power away from the Church, they outlawed the tiendas de raya”.

In sum, my suggestion is that the novel can be read as a great work of historical crime fiction; a critique of what Paco Ignacio Taibo II calls Mexico’s ‘stolen revolution’ in which popular demands are partially fulfilled and displaced, defining the condition of passive revolution; and as a journey through the geopolitical economy and urban spaces of Mexico City by way of architecture, streets, images, and symbols. It will be fascinating to see how these elements play out in further works by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, not least the sequel novel Retornamos como sombras (Returning as Shadows, 2001).

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