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A History of Mexico City : LA CAPITAL : The Biography of Mexico City <i> by Jonathan Kandell (Random House: $24.95; 578 pp.; 0-394-54069-7) </i>

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This is an excellent, carefully researched biography of Mexico’s capital. The author, a former New York Times correspondent in that city, approaches his story from the human point of view. He dramatizes representative personalities, problems, passions, foibles and achievements of this fascinating city across the centuries. The least interesting parts of the book are the lengthy treatment of the pre-Columbian period and of the conquest of Mexico, which repeats an often-told story.

Beginning with colonial times, Jonathan Kandell’s narrative takes on new life. He describes graphically the interplay of the heterogeneous elements that make up the capital’s population: Indians, blacks, mulattoes, mestizos, Spaniards, converted Jews, priests, nuns, bishops, viceroys and men of business. All of these play their roles in the expanding and complex pageant of the great capital, the wealthiest, most beautiful and most important political and cultural center of the Spanish New World.

Kandell’s thumbnail sketches of these representative figures are accurate, lively and convincing. He paints an especially touching picture of the colonial feminist, poet and scholar Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695), whose creative genius was stifled by the ecclesiastical authorities. Sister Juana’s passionate love poems, writes Kandell, were in reality addressed to a woman, not to a man. This woman, wife of the Spanish viceroy, who had taken Juana into the viceregal palace as her lady-in-waiting, had become Sister Juana’s closest friend and protector.

The author stresses the importance of the great silver mines of Mexico that pushed that colony into a mining economy to the detriment of agriculture. Unfortunately, little space is given to the flowering of religious architecture, notable in the baroque churches of the 1700s, as silver tycoons vied to see who could construct the most beautiful monument to God. The capital itself has a greater number of monuments of the Baroque period than any other city. The profusion and beauty of this religious architecture make Mexico City unique in the Spanish dominions, perhaps in the world.

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Kandell’s chapters on Mexico City since independence follow the patterns of his pages on the Colonial period. His portraits of Benito Juarez, Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero, Lazaro Cardenas, Lopez Portillo and other presidents are revealing and incisive. He describes with enthusiasm Mexico’s great mural art, but pays scant attention to the city’s flourishing intellectual life. The widely influential Modernist Movement of the Porfirio Diaz period, which brought Mexico into the mainstream of Spanish-American literature and thought, with figures like Gutierrez Najera, Amado Nervo and their contemporaries, does not occupy its proper place in this biography. Later figures who made Mexico City a cultural center of international importance are given little attention, or no mention at all: Justo Sierra, Alfonso Reyes, Octavio Paz, Torres Bodet, Juan Rulfo, Luis Spota and many others.

In his final chapters, Kandell presents a graphic expose of political, financial and moral corruption in the capital. Frequently, the president himself is the worst offender, yet presidents are not called to account because each outgoing chief executive invariably chooses his successor. The author relates with gusto the seamy love affair of President Diaz Ordaz with Irma Serrano, who became the owner of two clothing plants in Puebla, a brick-making factory, and several plots of choice real estate. Equally scandalous, writes Kandell, was the openly acknowledged affair of Lopez Portillo with Rosa Luz Alegria, who was given a $2-million mansion and appointed to the choice cabinet post of minister of tourism.

Also, under Lopez Portillo the capital’s police force was indistinguishable from a well-organized crime syndicate. Its chief, Arturo (El Negro) Durazo, had previously been chauffeur and bodyguard to the city’s most notorious gangster, and at the time of his appointment as chief of police he was under indictment for drug trafficking. But in his youth, Durazo had been a school chum of the president, so he weathered all opposition and became a multimillionaire before finally being brought to trial.

Today la capital , with more than 20 million inhabitants, is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. Festering shantytowns and luxurious mansions share the same noxious air. It is a megalopolis of precarious imbalance, a powder keg awaiting the inevitable explosion.

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