History of the Present: Mexico City

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History of the Present: Mexico City

An unpopular president, a myth-making architect, and a multibillionaire tycoon are building an oversize airport in a nature preserve. Can they make Mexico great again?

At the dawn of the Jet Age, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy strode across the red-carpeted tarmac of the Mexico City Central Airport into the arms of President Adolfo López Mateos for a traditional abrazo. It was JFK’s third state visit to Latin America, as he built support for his pan-hemispheric social and economic cooperation plan, the Alliance for Progress. Between all the standard stops — an honorary luncheon at the National Palace, a bilateral meeting at the Mexican presidential residence — his hosts squeezed in a tour of a massive new housing complex, Unidad Independencia, on the southern outskirts of the capital.

“Amigos,” Kennedy declared, in brief remarks at the site, “I want to compliment … the architect[s] and all of you for how beautifully this project has been put together. I have seen in many places housing which has been developed under governmental influences, but I have never seen any [such projects] which have fountains and statues and grass and trees, which are as important to the concept of the home as the roof itself.”

Completed in 1960, Unidad Independencia was indeed impressive — a vast Modernist development that housed 10,000 working-class residents in comfortable units, neatly arranged in angular mid- and high-rise buildings, all integrated with shops, schools, performance venues, and a medical clinic. The architects, Alejandro Prieto Posadas and José María Gutiérrez Trujillo, fused Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City with nods to pre-Columbian megaprojects, including giant stone sculptures of the ancient deity Quetzalcoatl.

The charismatic Kennedy won over the crowd, and the traveling Washington press corps reported (with surprise) no sign of anti-imperialist protest. Whether the Mexican masses truly loved the American president or had been intimidated into silence by the dictatorship of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who can say. Regardless, the visit was a triumph for López Mateos, the eighth in a line of fourteen PRI presidents who held uninterrupted power from 1929 to 2000. Since the Mexican constitution limits leaders to a single six-year term, its presidents invest in massive infrastructure projects that become their legacies. Unidad Independencia was López Mateos’s signature megaproyecto, designed to alleviate poverty, glorify his presidency, and impress international visitors (not necessarily in that order). It all seemed to be working perfectly. […]

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