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On Mexico's Carlos Monsivais: 1938-2010

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He was known as Mexico's finest chronicler, its "last public intellectual," its "conscience," and as the only literary figure around who was said to be recognized by regular folks on the street. With the death on Saturday of Carlos Monsivais, Mexico lost a voice that for nearly 50 years was considered unrivaled in his ability to cut to the core of the issues and personalities of his day.

Mourners, from high-profile politicians to everyday workers, swarmed the writer's casket at two public wakes over the weekend. People waved, cheered and chanted for the man millions knew simply as "Monsi."

Monsivais was a journalist, a critic, a cinephile, a collector of historical and pop ephemera (which led eventually to the founding of a museum) and a tireless activist for minority rights and the political left. In hundreds of articles and columns, more than two dozen books, countless appearances on television and radio, at conferences and demonstrations, Monsivais represented for many Mexicans an enormously erudite man of letters who never lost touch with ordinary people, or with the tragicomic nature of life here.

His work is characterized by its acerbic intellect, humor and wit, as well as the toughened perspective he formed in the San Simon Ticumac neighborhood in the Portales area of Mexico City, a barrio with which he is famously identified (links in Spanish).

Monsivais, born on May 4, 1938, in Mexico City, died just before 2 p.m. Saturday of lung disease. He was 72.

Carlos monsivais terra

The writer was not well-known outside Mexico. Translation of his work is very limited. Unlike contemporaries such as Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, Monsivais did not strive to address great universal themes but instead concerned himself with the politics and peculiarities of life in Mexico. And specifically, in the urban carnival that is modern Mexico City.

His first book "Dias de guardar" ("Days to Remember," 1970) chronicles the tumult and tragedy of the 1968 student movement, which culminated with the massacre at Tlatelolco. In "Amor perdido" ("Love Lost," 1977) Monsivais writes eloquently on the politicians, artists and movie stars of the moment. In "Los rituales de caos" ("Rituals of Chaos," 1995) Monsivais weaves a kaleidoscopic look at a Mexico City brimming with life under the duress of pollution, crime and overcrowding.

"In the visual terrain," the book's opening line says, "Mexico City is, above all, the too-many-people."

He also wrote numerous biographies, including volumes on artist Frida Kahlo, singer Pedro Infante and  Salvador Novo, an eccentric early 20th century bohemian who is considered Monsivais' primary predecessor. He published prolifically even late into his life, producing a new set of essays on Mexico City in 2009, "Apocalipstick."

A dedicated lover of Mexican cinema and popular culture, Monsivais offered to the general public his collection of thousands of photographs, prints and other items with the formation of the Museo del Estanquillo in downtown Mexico City.

As an activist, Monsivais was a central figure in the 1968 movement and in the many social causes that followed, in a period when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, dominated all aspects of Mexican society as an authoritarian one-party regime. He supported the 1994 Zapatista uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. In 2006, he joined the chorus of voices who called the election of President Felipe Calderon a "fraud" that denied the presidency to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an ardent leftist and populist.

For years he was known as one of the sharpest critics of the neoliberal thinking that has characterized Mexican governments since the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

"He told the story of the civil society," said John Ross, an American author who has lived in Mexico City since the 1985 earthquake, which Monsivais also covered extensively. "He was not just the cronista of the city but also the cronista of what changed the city, what gave us all a stake in the city. He was there, he saw it, and he was able to interpret it for a much wider audience."

Monsivais was also active in various gay rights issues and wrote on related topics such as homophobia. His own sexuality, however, was not something he commented on.

"Many of the achievements we have today are thanks to him, the work he did," said Lina Perez Cerqueda, director of a gay rights organization, referring to the legalization of gay marriage in Mexico City and similar measures. "I think Carlos was beyond [labels]. It was nothing he hid, and it was not something he announced. He was Carlos."

At Saturday's wake in the courtyard of the Museum of Mexico City, the first "guardians" of the writer's casket included fellow author and close friend Elena Poniatowska; anthropologist Marta Lamas; Jose Narro, rector of the national university; Elena Cepeda, the city's culture minister; and Ruben Sanchez Monsivais, a relative. Later, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard also stood guard.

While solemn, the mood was at times celebratory. Applause broke out for long intervals, as well as the traditional "Goya" chant of the national university, known as UNAM, where Monsivais studied.

"He practically invented literary genres that did not exist," said Ricardo Hernandez Forcada, a human rights activist. "All social movements are in debt to him, women's rights, workers' rights, gay rights, human rights. He was so generous. He always had time to go support a cause."

On Sunday, Monsivais's casket was moved to the atrium of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico's Palace of Fine Arts. Mourners streamed past for three hours. The casket was covered with three flags: the Mexican national flag, the gay pride rainbow flag and the UNAM coat of arms.

Casket bellas artes monsivais

Outside, people gathered to watch the casket be carried off on its final journey. His remains were cremated and were to be kept at his museum. Chants broke out of "Monsivais, amigo! El pueblo esta contigo!" ("Monsivais, friend! The people are with you!")

"The señor transcended in everything he said, in favor of us the citizens, especially during the toughest times, the earthquake, the changes in the presidency," said Carmen Ramirez, a public worker. "He spoke in our voice. There's a sadness among the citizens."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photos: Top, the all-night wake for Carlos Monsivais at the Museum of Mexico City on Saturday. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times.

Middle, Monsivais. Credit: Notimex.

Bottom, mourners file past the casket at the Bellas Artes on Sunday. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times.

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This marks the bittersweet end of a Mexico City era, and all credit to Hernandez and the LAT for giving Monsivais the recognition that he too rarely received outside Mexico in his lifetime. It wasn't just that he was so prolific and erudite in that appealingly modest off-handed way of his, or that his writing style was so fluid and natural as to be functionally invisible, or that it was just plain entertaining to read him and follow his idiosyncratic thinking and biases and values and observations. It was that for decades one end he was an essential interpreter even for those within it of a political culture that was endlessly bedeviling and enlivening, maddeningly opaque, randomly cruel, overflowing with wit and multiple ironies, profoundly static and ever-changing - all to be translated into coherence for the rest of us in next week's Proceso.

It's "Los rituales del caos," not "Los rituales de caos" as you have written.


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