Descent to the Lower Depths

In the mid-’60s, a new kind of place emerged in centers of foreign tourism: practical interiors decorated with Roman, Mediterranean, or high-tech futurist themes; a dance floor surrounded by tables on platforms of different heights, directed toward the center; ultrasophisticated lighting and sound; plenty of mirrors, which along with the trick of enlarging small spaces reflected the stars of the show: the customers themselves.

A taxonomy

Sergio González Rodríguez (1950–2017) was among the essential Mexican writers of his time. Best known to English-language readers for his cameos in novels by Roberto Bolaño (2666, which drew heavily from González Rodríguez’s reporting on femicides in turn-of-the-century Juárez) and Javier Marías (Dark Back of Time), González Rodríguez studied the violence that accompanied Mexico’s entry into the new millennium in genre-blending crónicas like Bones in the Desert and The Headless Man.

 What follows is an excerpt from his still-to-be-translated first book, The Lower Depths (1988). A study of Mexico City’s historic nightclubs and cafés, the bohemia that emerged there, and their place in literary history, the book provides an alternative history of modern Mexican culture, as seen from the urban demimonde. Quoting liberally from a long bibliography of sources, González Rodríguez puts forward juxtapositions, provocations, and suggestions, building a collage that recalls Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project and looks forward to Lucy Sante’s studies of New York and Parisian popular culture. For the author, the title “refers to a symbolic geography of the reality created by crime and prohibited sexualities, connected to the city but in conflict with it.”

In this excerpt, González Rodríguez offers a taxonomy of “the current-day varieties of nightclub,” exploring their origins, associated customs, and literary accounts of them.

—Will Noah

Cantina. Renato Leduc once described this type of nightclub in terms of custom rather than spatially: “The surly, manly Mexican prefers to meet with his friends to discuss and settle problems in bars, cantinas, piqueras, and pulquerías, where the swill they serve allows his body to feel what it’s getting.” One difference between new and old cantinas is the obligatory acceptance of women since 1983, a development preceded by the now-extinct Ladies’ Bars of the ’40s, which were described as follows by [Salvador] Novo: “Tradition holds that it’s important, before eating, to stimulate the appetite with a sip of alcohol, and the modern, clever restaurateurs have satisfied in a single strategic blow, with the readymade offer of a bar with an eatery next door, the double demand for an aperitif and some nourishment that before—at El Moro, at La Opera, at Salón Bach, at La Fama Italiana—were separate chapters and tended to keep patrons held prisoner, unable to move to neighboring restaurants. Another notorious advantage of bars annexed to restaurants lies in the encouragement of bisexual sociability that they foster by admitting ladies.”

The rural atmosphere of the cantina has been lost bit by bit, and ultimately withdrawn to the provinces and the suburbs, where “palenques” have flourished in recent years, enlivened by show business as well as liquor and beer corporations. Itinerant businesses cover an ample calendar of regional fairs and village festivals. These palenques might bear a resemblance to the 19th-century village equivalents described by Juan Rulfo: “And that was his place, out in front of the drum’s resounding thunder and the shrieks of the oboe, his serene cries emerging hollowed-out from a cardboard megaphone, announcing card games, rodeos, cockfights, and, in passing, all the church festivities for each day of the novena, not to mention tent shows or some cure-all ointment. From far behind in the procession that he headed, the music of wind instruments followed him, stirring the crier’s intervals of rest with the off-key tune of ‘El zopilote mojado.’ The parade ended with a trail of wagons adorned by girls beneath arched reeds and tender cornstalks.”

Pulquería. As the century advanced, the pulque industry languished in Mexico. Once renowned as the “national drink,” pulque fell victim to changes in culture and dietary habits. As imported liquors—brandy, whisky, vodka—beer, and soft drinks grew popular, many people abandoned pulque and the fashions that went with it: the eccentric and clever names of the establishments (“The White Nectar of Black Dreams,” “Memories of the Future,” “My Life Is Someone Else” . . . Armando Jiménez collects various names of pulquerías and cantinas in Nueva Picardía Mexicana), the decoration, the drink pitchers, the glasses, the speech, the double entendres. Elena Poniatowska explains what’s at stake in this decline: “The streets of Mexico are interspersed with pulquerías, but they’re little noticed because the ’thorities don’t allow them to hang up flashy signs. They’re embattled above all because of social prejudice, because pulque is the drink of the poor, the downtrodden, no disrespect intended, and the ’thorities decided all of a sudden that it was more respectable to drink beer and insisted on creating obstacles to the sale and consumption of pulque at the same time that it spurred beer sales with generous promotion, even though beer often contains more alcohol than pulque.” The anthropologist Raúl Guerrero, in his valuable study El Pulque, described the trajectory from the victrola to video, reflecting on the disenchantment that went with this cultural destruction: “In the ’40s, the enormous jukeboxes called ‘rocolas,’ together with radio devices, took the place of the old phonographs that are now treasured by antiques dealers; and in recent years black-and-white and color television sets have ousted everything that came before, showing many commercials and prostituting—yes, I mean prostituting—that former pleasure of good music, even in pulquerías.” In fact, there are still pulquerías in operation, having improved their hygienic services; and they enjoy a loyal clientele devoted to their delicacies, beyond the view of those who petrify living collective practices through aestheticization or nostalgia for an idealized popular culture.

Centro nocturno. This name refers to expensive establishments with pretenses of cosmopolitanism and luxury, sometimes exclusive or “private clubs.” The culinary offerings are usually a pretext for serving wine and liquor and inflating the price of this or that US-style show unfolding onstage: music, dance, songs, local and international stars, magicians, or circus performers. An undeniable achievement of the middle class, the centro nocturno was captured by Vicente Leñero: “Through the narrow passages between tables—most of them far away from the stage, where any moment now Raquel Welch would appear, what a thrill, man!—the waiters crisscross, multiplying. Dinner is served. Nothing spectacular, of course. To start: a little jamón serrano with melon, orange cocktail, and cointreau grapes. Then: a selection of shellfish Newburg, chicken supreme with parmesan, or Prime Rib Roast au Jus—as the menu states and the head waiter demagogically recommends. Naturally, some want a rib from Raquel herself, and say so aloud to show off their wit, such as it is, but they have to make do with the aphrodisiac liquors available at inevitably inflated prices.”

Cabaret. These nightclubs remain the archetypal place for sex trade, dancing, and alcohol, generally governed by the “ficha” system (the prostitutes mingle with the clientele and take home a commission on the alcohol consumed). Cabaret music constitutes a strident paradox: here, the out-of-date remains contemporary, with boleros, cumbias, rumbas, and danzones predominating over more modern genres. There are also cabarets where guests don’t dance but watch “un show,” with pop songs and striptease acts.

The expansion of the commercial districts and the real-estate business brought many areas into closer contact with the city center. At the heart of many once-residential neighborhoods, small and discreet cabarets were established. The division of the city into delegations and the creation of arterial roads known as ejes viales gave rise to a new ordering of space. The ejes relocated streets, slums, neighborhoods via destruction, causing widespread isolation and the rupture of longstanding communitarian feeling. At the same time, other collective experiences were taking shape, wherein emerging localisms translated forms of resistance into the sedimented grievances of dispossession and poverty. The labyrinth of the sex trade bears many of these scars, shaped by the desperate or treacherous means of survival that the city demands. Héctor Agular Camín offered in his novel Morir en el golfo—as in his earlier story “Con el filtro azul”—a snapshot of alcohol-soaked nights and the cabaret’s dense texture: “We set off for the Bar del León, which was then in vogue, around Brasil street, and then to a fichadero around Palma, a hall where something like a thousand women danced and turned tricks, most of them thrown out of other dance halls, mixed in with a few young ones just unpacked from provincial brothels or barely initiated in the passage from peasant emigration to urban prostitution. They served rum as whiskey and aguardiente as rum, beers cut with water, cider in bottles relabeled as French champagne and brandies injected in Tepito. All this mixed on the dark dance floor with the clients, themselves washed up from all the cantinas and bars in the city, which threw out the waste when they closed at dawn.”

Discotecas or Discos. In the mid-’60s, a new kind of place emerged in centers of foreign tourism: practical interiors decorated with Roman, Mediterranean, or high-tech futurist themes; a dance floor surrounded by tables on platforms of different heights, directed toward the center; ultrasophisticated lighting and sound; plenty of mirrors, which along with the trick of enlarging small spaces reflected the stars of the show: the customers themselves. The triumph of video multiplied cameras, monitors, screens to satisfy their avid narcissism and the visceral pleasures of dissected music, almost always tape-recorded and programmed according to the city’s hit charts or the fluctuations of collective euphoria. There are examples that feature live music as well, as in this episode narrated by Juan Villoro: “In a time when musical tastes were more polarized than ever and young people became a stampede of Hamlets in search of choices—‘What do you like, rock or disco?’—Rocío remained indifferent. A friend tried to introduce her to disco music. He brought her to a discoteca that resembled a polyester branch of hell: red carpets, red curtains, red waiters. The music was so irritating that Rocío thought that the only difference between a drummer and an anthropoid banging a tapir with a bone was that the drummer wore a satin shirt. To make things worse, when her friend led her out to dance she watched him twist like a Solomonic column on the floor. And not just him; all the men were twirling in the most effeminate way possible.”

Dancing. The years following the Revolution gave us a permanent form of nightclub: the dance hall, or dancing, with cosmopolitan aspirations, which offered glimpses of an eroticism along the lines of Ernesto García Cabral’s art deco cartoons: rhythmic and stylized, like urban life itself. In 1927, Octavio N. Bustamante wrote in Invitación al dancing: “I know that it’s a mark of intellectual superiority to deny the aesthetic value of ballroom dancing; though I’m not interested in this opinion in itself, I fear it because I’d like intellectually privileged people to attend, and they’re precisely the ones who don’t know how to dance.”

By the mid-’30s there were nearly thirty dance halls in the capital. Novo here observed how customs responded naturally: “If the rich chew the cud and drown their old age in fancy cabarets, why shouldn’t young people enjoy their inalienable wealth in their dancings and their modest neighborhood cabarets?” The dispossessed filled their free time with a taste for acrobatics and flamboyant, aggressive clothes, part of the slow, corrupting task of transforming foreign influences and colonial inheritance—from fashion to music—into something that belonged to them and mixing it with the vernacular. Despite the presence of alcohol and prostitutes, the ultimate purpose of the dancings is dance: art for art’s sake across the diameter of a mosaic, where dance is the inevitable language of seduction. In the ’50s, “teatimes” were the customary student dances, contests, or US-style “marathons,” with huge swing bands. From the mythic Salón México, founded in 1920, the California Dancing Club (1955), Los Angeles (1937), El Pavillon, La Playa, El Chamberí, el Colonia (1922), to El Riviera and El Nader, these nightclubs are all inseparable from the rhythms that have been danced there and whose mere names summon a definitive microhistoric calendar: blues, danzón, swing, mambo, cha-cha-chá, rumba, rock. A contemporary branch of the dancings are the “sonideros” or “tíbiris,” authentic specialists in tropical or Afro-Antillean music with record collections covering the genre’s mythic figures and massive sound systems capable of taking over streets or neighborhood corners; their dances are sometimes scheduled, sometimes more or less improvised. The dancing is a nightclub dressed up with a vital attitude: arousal and dispossession converted into baroque eroticism. Alberto Dallal, who dedicated a book to El dancing mexicano, notes: “The true aesthetic merits of the dancing (authenticity; inventiveness; harmony between meaning, structure, and form; the contribution to choreography; the incorporation of dancing codes; etc.) can’t be evaluated when the usual schema of analysis and research are applied.”

The end of the ’60s saw the appearance of the hoyos fonquis (“funky holes”), where people danced to rock music in empty warehouses or lots, clandestinely or very occasionally with the tolerance of authorities. The hoyos share some traits of the dancing brought in line with the era and the corresponding level of marginalization; they were named by Parménides García Saldaña, who in doing so wanted to evoke what was vulgar, sexual, greasy, dark, proletarian, and vital about those places and their clientele. In this type of rock club, Carlos Monsiváis gathered data on an “aesthetic of naquiza”: “The boys dance with tribal belligerence, they get up and bellow or they hurl their natural conditions and the vertigo of their displacement into the dance’s fulfillment. Dance is a political instrument of the body, a prolongation that demands adequate forms, forms that mustn’t contradict the temperament of their creator. Choreography is guilt and expiation—how’s that for theology?—or crime and punishment or sense and sensibility. It’s a fever that calms, and a weight of sex contained (or frustrated or clashing with the force of the demographic explosion that is poverty’s reward) loses its inhibition and spreads, amid squalls and masses of sweat.”

Brothel. Though it continues to exist as an alternative—much like the public baths—this kind of nightclub now represents traditionalism with all its cloistered symbology, even as those red lights on the facade that used to serve as an advertisement as well as a warning have been done away with. In Perséfone, a “nocturnal poem” in trancelike prose, Homero Aridjis captures a brothel of the ’50s as it is in the ’60s: “The red lights receive our footsteps. A waiter’s burning eyes receive us. We’re watched by owls and bats, glasses and matches. Susi squirms. A man crawls to her and pulls her from one part of the hall to another. Susi lets loose her breasts that spill flabby abundance with a categorical plof.

The brothel’s commerce in erotic-sentimental relations increasingly takes place in hotels, motels, and massage parlors. The first two types of establishment tend to serve as the perfect ending for the itineraries of men who know “how to treat women like queens,” which include, in corresponding persuasive order: drinks, dancing, and mattress. Villoro narrates it like this: “Toño and Carlos told him not to be an idiot, that he should take her to dance at the Califas, with Carlos Campos’s tropical orchestra. ‘Then convince her to go to a hotel near there. The Hotel La Maga’s nice,’ but he told them to fuck off and they said ‘Ooooo, take a chill pill, man.’”

In the face of adversity and intolerance, homosexuals set up their own pleasure-spaces in brothels, streets, parks, cinemas, bathrooms, and cantinas. In the ’70s these spaces diversified, as Luis Zapata documented in El vampiro de la Colonia Roma: “Now if you wanted to go fuck or hook up at night back then you were in luck, because there were thousands of places you could go, besides the places that were clearly part of the scene, I mean exclusively gay nightclubs like the Penthouse, which was wonderful. I’ve got such special memories of the Penthouse or the Mio Mondo or the Villamar or Las Canastas, but besides those and the other ones that opened and then closed the next day there were the Sanborns, which have always been a huge help for people like us.”

Garito. After enjoying much postrevolutionary prosperity, casinos and gambling were banned in the ’30s. Clandestine gambling dens subsequently appeared on the upper floors of buildings around the center; in Chinatown on Dolores street, then still infamous for its back rooms (opium smokers) and lofts full of gangsters; and in secret houses in residential neighborhoods equipped with ad-hoc roulette wheels, dominos, and boards, where the old obsessive style of betting, always gloomy, took refuge. A character in Rodolfo Usigli’s Ensayo de un crimen says: “This isn’t a professional gambling den; here there’s no robbing or lending. Just a group of friends; respectable people, professionals, and the odd stuck-up politician. But sure, there’s betting, with no limits.”

The study of contemporary bohemia in Mexico, its attachment to the lower depths, and its various spaces were touched upon by Jorge Portilla in the early ’60s in his posthumous book Fenomenología del relajo. It was concerned with an analysis more philosophical than cultural, grounded in phenomenology, Sartrean ideas, and Marxist humanism. Portilla tried to define the characteristics of the “national character” through reflections on laughter, comedy, irony, humor, where the comic uproar known as “el relajo” might serve as a liberatory, though ineffective, strategy against the solemnity of establishment values. A sound account of his generational perplexities stands out:

I belong to a generation whose best representatives lived for many years in an atmosphere of the most unbearable and noisiest irresponsibility imaginable, despite which I don’t hesitate to judge them as the best representatives of that generation . . . I almost never witnessed them take anything truly seriously, least of all their own abilities and their own destinies. It was, now I see it clearly, a Nietzchean generation avant la lettre, that lived dangerously amid continuous laughter. Given over, in reality, to a slow self-destruction. It’s not without some discomfort, out of suspicion of the romantic imagery that might be inferred, that I add that many of them have died tragically, or have disappeared, swallowed up by the most extravagant varieties of vice.


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