Every year for about a decade I would fly from Miami, where I grew up, to visit my family in Mexico City, where I was born. Miami International’s architecture seemed aspirational in the way that medieval cathedrals are aspirational—the height of the windows and the light that filtered through them promised the transcendence of ascension, despite the fact that airports, like churches, are congested houses of tedium. By contrast, Benito Juárez International Airport’s international terminal owes its charm to the unpretentious bleakness of its brutalist-inspired design. The airport’s domestic terminal, meanwhile, shines the dim, fluorescent lighting of a government office or an aging strip mall. It feels fitting for a city whose idea of efficiency evokes the archaic rituals of sixteenth-century colonial bureaucracy. A city that at times can feel like bad ideas built on top of bad ideas. Benito Juárez seems to gesture toward the supposed sophistication required of an urban behemoth like Mexico City, but for those of us paying attention, it whispers a more sincere greeting: welcome to a fucking tragedy.
In November, I flew into Benito Juárez from LAX—the same route that inaugurated this airport as an international one in 1943. That route was operated by Mexicana, Mexico’s oldest airline. Today, its service counters are deserted. The airline ceased operations in 2010 after declaring bankruptcy due unresolved labor disputes and “high operational costs.” (One former CEO has been charged for tax evasion, another for money laundering.) The counters are cordoned off by large banners from the company’s labor union: “BASTA CORRUPCIÓN EXIGIMOS JUSTICIA.” Someone has set up a small altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe and lit candles. A handful of former employees peddle aviation tchotchkes: a stuffed Snoopy with pilot goggles and small plastic airplanes. A few feet away, Juan O’Gorman’s “The Conquest of Air by Men”—a painting in the muralist style narrating the history of flight, from Parisian hot air balloons to the Wright brothers—looms above a swarming security checkpoint. The terminal hosts an inordinate number of Wings, a restaurant chain that I have only ever seen in Mexico City. My dad, who came to pick me up, said there used to be a Wings restaurant built inside of an abandoned airplane a few blocks away. He remembers getting breakfast there before every flight when he was a kid. He doesn’t know where the abandoned airplane came from, or where it went.
As we made our way through the parking garage, I encountered a grizzly bear. The life-sized photograph was framed on a concrete column separating rows of parked cars. Another column depicted a bald eagle. On another, a seal. Every now and then the animals were replaced with an ad for AT&T cell service or luxury sedans. Another column featured an overexposed photograph of a wooded landscape, a waterfall gushing through it. Looking closer, I realized that these pastoral images were, in fact, computerized graphics, simulations of a habitat that is nearly extinct. The airport’s atrophying structure bears witness to the ecocide of a city whose rivers and lakes have been sucked dry: rooms are joined by makeshift ramps, cracks run deep down the walls. The airport, like many buildings in the city, is sinking.
In the airport’s arrival area is an announcement for its proposed replacement: El Nuevo Aeropuerto International de México, or NAIM. Its shape is oddly chromosomal and reminds me of the slogan for an ad campaign promoting foreign investment in the country: “México, where X marks the spot.”
Plans for a new airport had been floating since as early as 2002, when then-President Vicente Fox set his sights on San Salvador Atenco. The“sprawling stretch of communal farmland” east of the city was fiercely, and successfully, defended by local residents (“machete-wielding peasants,” in the words of the New York Times) who refused to relinquish their land rights. Fox called the construction off. Over a decade later, former President Enrique Peña Nieto side-stepped similar protests by proposing the new airport be built on federal lands, on the dry lake bed of what once was Lake Texcoco. The new airport would be Peña Nieto’s crown jewel—his chance at being remembered for anything other than the accusations of shameless corruption and human rights violations—not to mention the outright stupidity—that characterized his presidency.
Visiting the construction’s website, two things become very clear about the proposed airport: it’s very big, and very expensive. If, for Peña Nieto—and for the moneyed investors who footed the airport’s $13-plus billion bill—NAIM was a symbol of Mexico’s economic progress, for its detractors, it was the symbol of excess and corruption. Whether one was for or against the new airport—whether one saw its magnitude as monumental or monstrous—became something of litmus test for overall allegiance to capitalism’s gospel of prosperity and progress. Where one person saw an opportunity for economic development in the city’s otherwise neglected eastern neighborhoods, another saw the severe environmental impact of unchecked greed and the likely displacement of lower-income residents as developers plotted to turn neglected neighborhoods into expensive real estate holdings.
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) won a landslide victory in May’s presidential elections, his act as president-elect was to challenge Peña Nieto’s pet project. Never mind that construction of the new airport had been ongoing for three years. Before his term had even begun, López Obrador called a consulta—a popular referendum—on the future of NAIM: voters would decide whether the construction would continue, or whether NAIM would be scrapped in exchange for the decidedly more modest proposal of repairing Benito Juárez and refurbishing the nearby military airbase in Santa Lucía. Whatever decision the people took, López Obrador said, would be binding.
The problem with AMLO’s brand of direct democracy, as far as the consulta was concerned, is that it was hardly democratic. For one, it outsourced the decision to “the people” as a whole, rather than the communities who would be directly affected by the airport’s construction; meanwhile, only a million ballots were printed for a country with 90 million voters. The referendum itself was not organized or counted by Mexico’s National Electorate Institute. Voting booths were run by members of López Obrador’s political party. There was no way to ensure people didn’t cast multiple votes or that the votes were accurately counted.
I hadn’t heard of the referendum until the day of the vote, when a Mexican journalist I follow retweeted a picture of a shimmering blue lake crowned by an impressive mountain with the hashtag #YoPrefieroElLago. “Sure, I prefer the lake, too” I thought, even if I didn’t know what lake I was looking at or what I preferred it to. I felt confounded as I scrolled through all the tweets that featured the hashtag—how was it that I had never known that there were still lakes like this in Mexico City left to defend? As I soon found out, of course, the tweets didn’t tell the whole truth. While the tweeters might prefer the lake to the airport, the lake in question—Lake Texcoco—no longer existed, at least not as that shimmering body of water. Today, it exists as an absence, an empty pause in the otherwise relentless density of the city. The emptied lake bed was something of a graveyard for all of the life that had been sucked out of that earth. What would it possibly mean, I asked myself, to prefer a ghost?
Underneath the urban graveyard of Mexico City is a lacustrine underworld—a lake system dried or tunneled underground to make way for conquest, then for sprawl. It’s almost impossible to imagine Tenochtitlan as it was described by its invaders—a city navigable by canals, with dams to separate salt water from fresh. After Cortés’ siege in 1521, the dams were destroyed and the city’s lakes became a contaminated pestilence. Yet even as the lakes were drained and built over and the rivers channeled from below, the annual rains persisted. The lakes, as if rising from slumber, would reclaim the land with impressive floods, precipitating in turn even more artificial drainage. By the twentieth century, Lake Texcoco—larger than the Great Salt Lake—was reduced to a desiccated field too alkaline to support most plant and animal life.
Winds from the east kicked up the dried earth of Texcoco’s lake bed and formed dust storms that soiled the city’s air and spread disease. By 1940, Alexander Humboldt’s famous encomium—“Viajero: has llegado a la región más transparente del aire”—had been answered by Alfonso Reyes’ bitter retort: “¿Es ésta la región más transparente del aire? ¿Qué habéis hecho, entonces, de mi alto valle metafísico? ¿Por qué se empaña, por qué se amarillece?” A few weeks ago, I came upon a 1958 photograph of a dust storm by Rodrigo Moya that could have been a film still, had Felini directed the apocalypse—two women, dressed in 1950s coats, heels, and gloves, cover their faces with monogrammed handkerchiefs as a cloud of thick dust veils the buildings behind them. To this day, despite the fact that Mexico City has, on average, more rainy days than London, it’s as drought-prone as Los Angeles. What had once been a lake has turned into a desert.
In the twentieth century, government authorities began to rely heavily on the underground aquifers for the growing population’s water supply. As the water was sucked from the earth, the earth collapsed beneath the weight of the city above it, and the ground began to sink. Add to that the earthquakes common to this basin ringed by volcanoes, and most of the Mexico City’s half-sunken buildings are prone to collapse. Many, like Benito Juárez International, are in perpetual free fall, sinking an average of 15 inches every year. Today, most of the city’s drinking water is pumped 3600 feet over a mountain from the Cutzamala reservoir system—yet over forty percent of that water is lost in its climb from leaks in the pipe system. Rainwater, rather than being collected, treated, and reused, is mixed with sewage water and pumped out of the basin. Meanwhile, many of the city’s residents do not have reliable access to potable water in their homes.
Mexico City runs on paradox: a city prone to flooding and drought, a city that pumps out rainwater only to pump it back in. Perhaps the contradictions spell out a truth too often ignored: here, there is no neat division between the urban and the natural, between man made artifice and ecological reality. Hubris pretends that former can control the latter, but the two are irredeemably—in this case tragically—intertwined.
So what does this all mean for the half-built NAIM? Taking into account the history of Lake Texcoco’s drainage, it’s not to hard to imagine the environmental and structural concerns of building a massive airport over a marshy, flood-prone, sinking, lake bed. I mean, who ever thought this was a good idea? My disbelief aside, the construction has always carried the possibility of further ecological harm. For one, NAIM spells death for any hope of regenerating Lake Texcoco and returning the city to a modest version of its marine past. Many of these designs, including a proposal by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, are more nostalgic than realistic. Even so, according to environmental activists, NAIM would threaten the one existing gesture towards this nostalgic future: the nearby Lake Nabor Carillo, an artificial lake created in the 1980s as part of a series of ecological projects aimed at curbing the city’s dreadful dust storms. The artificial lake is by no means pristine—a friend who filmed there said it was one of the most foul-smelling places he had ever visited. It is, nevertheless, a habitat for some 250 species of migratory birds. Many environmental activists claim that the complete construction of the airport would eventually require draining Nabor Carillo, though Peña Nieto’s representatives had promised this would not be the case.
Regardless when the results of the referendum came in, the birds won, and Lopéz Obrador vowed to stop NAIM’s construction. That was back in late October. As I write, however, construction continues. Turns out it is not so easy to enact “the will of the people” when billions of dollars in investment bonds are at stake. What’s most frustrating is that the clear environmental concerns of the construction, at least for AMLO, are secondary, it seems, to his political caprice. I doubt the end result of this fiasco will be the resurrected lake the people seem to prefer. No one knows what will happen—will AMLO’s government be able to stop the construction while saving face with its investors? Will the cost of buying back investment bonds for a half-built airport come out of taxpayer’s pockets?And what about the parts of the airport that have already been built? Will they be taken down? (How much more will that cost?) Or will they stand over the burying grounds of a lost lake as a sad memorial for this whole mess?
Sometimes I think the airplane affords the only vantage point from which to apprehend Mexico City. On the ground, I might as well be navigating a raft on an open ocean of concrete, no landmarks to distinguish direction. The city lights form waves that lap against the dizzyingly endless terrain. Only from above, from a place of groundlessness, do I feel momentarily situated.
It reminds me of what Valeria Luiselli described as “reverse vertigo” when she lands in Mexico City and begins to cry. “I’ve concluded, she writes, “[the tears] are merely an expression of resistance to the descent to a future, which as it draws closer, becomes once again immeasurable.” From the airplane’s window, in the moments before the vertigo of descent, the monstrosity becomes miniaturized. Looking down, the city’s inexhaustible reach is subsumed by its geography: a boundless city bounded by mountains, an urban ocean nestled inside a basin. The city is a hollow, I remember. Water is drawn to this place. It belongs here.