El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City by John Ross

by John Ross

Review by Felisa Rosa Rogers

The pretty teenage receptionist at the front desk of the Hotel Isabel is miffed that I don’t have a reservation and we spend the next 20 minutes negotiating my room, wake-up call, and tomorrow’s 5 AM taxi to the airport, all of which entails filling out paperwork in triplicate, as per the Mexican custom. “The electricity is out and so is the water,” she mentions blandly as she hands me my room key. “The elevator and television and Internet don’t work either,” she says. “Do you still want to stay?”

When I question her further, she is typically vague about the reason for the outage: “they’re doing something to the street”, and alarmingly definitive about the likelihood of the power and water coming back on anytime soon: “en realidad, no”. In the land of mañana and mas tarde and ahorita, being told a definite” no” is almost startling.

This is a testament to my devotion to the Hotel Isabel, I think as I drag my heavy hard-shell suitcases up the first flight of stairs. I never thought I’d miss the Isabel’s tiny deathtrap of an elevator, but ascending six flights of stairs in complete darkness makes the claustrophobia of the lurching tin box seem positively civilized by comparison. As I peer down the hotel’s spectral Colonial hallways looking for room 306, I question my own sanity. A rational person, I think, would have hailed another taxi instead of paying full price for a parched, pitch-black hotel room. As I squint at the dark numbers at the tops of the 14-foot wooden doorways, I curse the teenage receptionist. She could at least have given me a candle.

But when dropping into The Big Enchilada, a home away from home is indispensable. Besides, there’s just something about the Isabel. When I finally find my room and unlock the door, I’m glad I didn’t get back in the taxi. The familiar pink 1980s bedroom set looks strangely beautiful in the ancient room with its 16-foot ceilings and rickety wardrobe. A narrow window looks out on the roof of the former National Library. Like most of the buildings in Mexico City’s Centro Historico, the stone-scrolled fortress looks like it has provided the backdrop for at least one tragic conspiracy, three or four wars, and a handful of long-forgotten crimes of passion.

Speaking of which, the Hotel Isabel has been in operation as a hotel for over 100 years, and the institution gives new meaning to the term “storied”. I’ve loved the Isabel for more than a decade, and beat poet John Ross has been confirming my sense that the former Colonial mansion is a world unto itself. Ross moved to Mexico in 1957 and spent the last 25 years of his life at the Isabel, during which time he kept his ears to the ground and his fingers tapped on the pulse of the most improbable city on earth. My nonfiction read for this trip is El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City, Ross’s gutsy ode to the city he knew best. Drawing from street gossip, interviews with local characters, dusty news archives, and the writings of some of the city’s finest scholars and troublemakers, Ross has created a masterwork that is at once a colorful leftwing diatribe, a serious work of scholarship, and a hell of a story.

As I breath the familiar smell of diesel exhaust and tacos that wafts up from Isabel la Catolica street along with a cacophony of horns, mufflerless VW bugs, and the vehement whistling of traffic cops, I contemplate a few of Ross’s stories: D.H. Lawrence drinking at the bar Isabel; Lawrence’s acquaintance, the British writer Wilfred Ewert, who was shot on an Isabel balcony on New Year’s Eve 1923; and Ross himself, who entangled himself in the city’s violent political struggles, marched with the Zapatistas, and died here in Mexico on January 17, 2011.

After freshening up as best I can with a bottle of drinking water, I go out for tacos al pastor and a Victoria at La Bota, a local bar that’s like a living work of folk art. It’s Friday night and the neighborhood buzzes with life, but I’ve got a plane to catch in the morning, so I return to the Isabel to settle down for my last night in Mexico. Much to my amazement, the lights are back on. This is a very good thing: Not only is the Isabel way less creepy by lamplight, but El Monstruo awaits.

After reading through the Aztec bloodbaths and the era of the great Zapata and the colorful years when Che and Frida and Trotsky crossed paths, I’ve reached the modern era. Ross was personally involved in the political turmoil of the 80s and 90s, and the latter half of the book is a dissection of modern Mexican politics, marked by a level of detail and nuance that is exceptional, particularly for an English-language publication. Ross’s voice is scathing and deeply opinionated—his sympathies emerge only in his coverage of everyday people: the 70-year-old former boxer who hauls suitcases at the Isabel, a friendly local fence, the activist mother of a student activist who disappeared in ’68, a street musician called “El Vampiro”, and the hundreds of downtown residents who dug their neighbors out of the rubble when the government failed to respond to the great earthquake of ‘85. Ross’s palpable love for Mexico and Mexicans gives life to the book. Like the Hotel Isabel, El Monstruo is a monument to the perverse, splendid, and bad ass spirit of Mexico.

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