The Snake on the Lake Was Not a Mistake: The Rise of Modern Mexico City

18 May 2017 The Snake on the Lake Was Not a Mistake: The Rise of Modern Mexico City

Photo credit: Ari W. Epstein

In this personal exploration with radio-drama elements, Terrascopers try to understand how such an enormous city, with such a large population and so many unresolved issues, still manages to work so well. The answers lie both in the city’s ancient roots and in the ingenuity of its modern-day population.

First aired: May 17th, 2017 ·


[ominous music]

Narrator 1: You seem to be hundreds of years in the past, standing upon a lake. The fresh water sparkles and ripples gently under the bright midday sun. 

[low note drop]

You look around and see beautiful mountain ridges. Their gray-brown slopes capped with white snow. Some people approach. They gaze at you. No, through you. And point.

[rock music]

Suddenly, they drop some rocks where they were pointing, and build a city. Then, the stone structures around you quickly fade into clusters of modern buildings. Now you, with 20 million of your closest friends, live in a massive metropolis placed neatly upon the lake—except the lake… doesn’t… exactly exist anymore. So you’re now in a desert where water coming out of a faucet feels like coins coming out of a slot machine. And the mountains that surround you, they happen to be active volcanoes. Also, earthquakes like to drop by every once in a while—just to shake things up a little.

So it turns out that you’re trapped in this part of the city, and you need to get to the other side of it. What do you do? Walk? No, it’s way too far. Drive? Nah, traffic is at a standstill. Bike? It’s too dangerous. Subway? It could be worth a shot. You get on the subway. It’s packed like a sardine can. The doors close, slicing the people who are just a bit too slow. Then, the train rushes to your destination. Jerking hard enough to form a few human-shaped dents in the wall of each stop. You get off the subway, and somehow your phone is no longer in your pocket.

[music stops]

In fact, you don’t have a pocket anymore. Somebody stole your pocket.

[rock music]

[irritated tone]

That’s it. You’ve had enough of this city. The daily temperature fluctuations. The ongoing water crisis. The danger of death by volcano. The slow transportation. The wall of mountains. The lurking…

[indistinguishable overlapping problem descriptions]

[alarm clock]


Narrator 2: Ugh. You feel a bit shaky. 

[sounds of transit and birds]

It’s been 5 weeks since you moved to Mexico City, and you’re still having those nightmares. 

[soft guitar music]

Your initial fears of what the city would be persist. 


Alright. Rise and shine. It’s time for work. 

You roll out of bed and stifle a groan.

Your long hair is a frizzy mess, an absolute monster to comb. And your skin is soaked in sweat.

You hastily get dressed for work as your casual clothes lay temptingly across your dresser.

[cup being set down]

Your breakfast is only a speedy cup of coffee before you sprint off to the street, where you try to catch a minibus.

[car honks and drives away]

After a long ride, you arrive at the subway where you join the throngs of people, surging towards the doors. Fifty minutes pass on the train, standing practically in a stranger’s arms. Until at last, your transfer comes. 

[subway stop bell rings]

[adventurous music]

Two left turns and a flight of stairs later, you’re back on another train. Navigating through the intersections of blue and green and pink and red lines used to baffle you, but after following the flow of thousands of people in the station for the past few weeks, you’re starting to get the hang of it too. Your stop comes, and soon you emerge into the free air. You only have a few minutes more before you’ll be trapped in an office again. 

[car drives off]

You savor them.

[cups clank, muffled voices]

Your shift is long. Afterwards, you grab drinks with your coworkers, as you often do. But tonight, you decide to duck out early. All you want is your bed, but you have to make your way back through the city again before getting there. 

You take one subway, transfer onto another, and eventually end your journey back on a minibus, headed towards the edge of the city. 

[thunder and rain falling]

The summer rains begin to fall. They’ve come late today. Your favorite scent. That peculiar way that concrete smells when it’s wet floats in through the window. You smile. Finally, you’re back. 

[curious music]

It feels strange how this place and the city are starting to feel more and more like home. Mexico City can hardly be called perfect, but something about it is beginning to capture your love. It has a beauty in its haphazard ways and in its people.


A shower helps get the tension out of your shoulders, and the rain falling on your roof helps lull you to sleep.

[more rain and curious music]

Narrator 3: Vibrant.

Narrator 4: Surprising.

Narrator 3: Diverse.

Mexico City is thriving with chaos and confusion. I’m Jacob Miske.

Jennifer (Narrator 4): And I’m Jennifer Lu.

We visited Mexico City as part of a group of students studying urban resilience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And, we had done some research on the city beforehand.

Jacob (Narrator 3): We learned about some of its problems: the water crisis, the sprawl, and the transit system. But we were amazed that it functioned pretty smoothly and we were taken aback by the beauty of the city.

Jennifer: We talked to a lot of people, and asked them why this city manages to work. Professor Roberto Rodriguez teaches Architecture at Tecnológico de Monterrey. He said that the answers are rooted in Mexico City’s history and he told us a legend about the city’s beginnings.

[drums beating to a tune]

It was a divine message that guided the Mexica tribe to their new home. 

Roberto Rodriguez: The gods told one of the leaders, “when you find an eagle eating a snake in a small island, you make the foundation of the city there.” 

Jennifer: This just so happened to be on a tiny island in the middle of a giant lake. So that’s where the leaders of the Mexica tribe decided to settle. Surrounded by water and snow-capped volcanoes, their civilization grew into the Aztec empire, and their city into Tenochtitlan, their royal capital. 

Jacob: Usually, cities use the surrounding land for agriculture to support their population, but Tenochtitlan was in the middle of a lake. How does one go about building a farm on water?

Jennifer: For the Aztecs? Willow trees, bundles of reeds, some mud, and a lot of ingenuity. They combined mud with branches over the shallow lake bed, forming floating islands rooted by trees and posts. 

Jacob: But then, the conquistadors arrived. They overturned Aztec society, their language, and their culture.

[slow melody of low notes]

Jacob: The two groups of people blended, and from there, modern Mexico City was born.

[bells ringing, cars honking]

Jacob: Walking through the zócalo, the historic center of town, you can see a live timeline of the transformation. There are modern stores next to colonial-style government buildings next to a huge gothic-inspired cathedral.

Jennifer: But what about the Aztecs? Their city lies underneath the plaza. The excavation of the templo mayor, one of the main temples, is right outside the square.

Jacob: The Spaniards completely changed the city, building over the pyramids and draining the lakes. In fact, most of the canals are now paved streets. But some of the Aztecs’ original canals and floating islands remain. Although the atmosphere of the waterways is a bit different now.

[street music and cheers]

Jacob: Colorful, gondola-like boats called trajineras, with names like Laura and Gabriela, crowded the water with partiers and locals.

[trumpet mariachi solo]

Jacob: Mariachi played along the banks, hoping to get picked up.

Jennifer: Vendors in their own little boats definitely capitalized on this odd mix of partiers and families all taking a trip down the waterways. They had soft drinks, beer, corn on the cob, mini stoves with fresh tacos, and they appeared out of nowhere.

Jacob: But it was our eighth day there, so we weren’t super surprised. People managed to find creative places to sell their goods. From vendors on boats to ones on subway trains, selling pens, to men walking through the highways selling pistachios. There’s always some form of a market, and it’s been that way since the Aztecs.

Jennifer: In the National Museum of Anthropology, professor Rúben Gutierrez, who teaches Architecture at Tec de Monterrey, showed us a diorama of an Aztec market.

Rúben Gutierrez: You can witness that their street life and selling things in the outdoors was a historical factor that continues through our days.

[street music in Spanish]

Jacob: Informal stands of magazines and candy, large outdoor markets under tents filled with loud music and noisy chatter—markets were everywhere.

[market sounds—music and movement]

Jennifer: Commercial chain supermarkets have come to Mexico City, but the culture of outdoor markets persists, despite competition from these larger, big brand options.

Jacob: We made a special trip to the Mercado de San Juan, a well-established indoor public market. It’s located in a warehouse-like building that lets air circulate, and where light casts a natural glow onto the towers of fresh produce.

Jennifer: There, we met Olivita. A small woman with large glasses who says that she’s the oldest vendor in the market. Like many of the vendors, she let us taste some of her food, including her homemade mole, a savory Mexican salsa made with chili powder and chocolate.

Jacob: The amazing thing is, she’s been there since she was nine. Following the footsteps of the last six generations of her family.

Olivita: …seis generaciones, abuelo, abuela, y mamá y nosotros…

Jacob: She’s grown up with the market and seen all exchanges.

Jennifer: She told us that the vendors used to display their goods on the ground.

[Olivita speaking in the background]

Jennifer: But since then, the stands in the market have expanded upward, and the city, it’s grown outward.

Olivita: Era muy diferente. La capital de México…

English voiceover: The capital of Mexico was smaller.

Olivita: Eramos pocos…

English voiceover: There were fewer of us

Jennifer: Today, houses blanket the surrounding hills like a bright patchwork quilt. It’s expensive to live near the city center.

Jacob: A lot of people are forced to live on the outskirts. As a result, Mexico City’s area is five times bigger than it was in 1950. It’s now almost twice the size of New York City.

[jazzy music]

Onésimo Flores: I would say this city should be one that allows you the opportunity to have a roof. To have a home. To have a shelter. And it’s a city that gives you access. Access to opportunity. Access to cultural experience. Access to jobs. In Mexico, we’ve been able to deliver both, but never bundles.

Jacob: Onésimo Flores, CEO of cata4, an urban planning and transit consultancy, explained the government’s efforts to keep the city moving.

Onésimo: So, you want access to opportunity, you live close to the central area. You want access to a roof, and I mean, you know, for the vast majority of the people that have a lower income, you have to move 20, 30, 40 kilometers away. And part of the challenge is: how do we rethink that equation, and try to put them together?

Jennifer: That tug of war between job opportunities and affordable housing really comes out in the complex structure of the transit system.

[birds chirping, cars driving]

Jacob: Mexico City’s transit system is a chaotic masterpiece.

[car horn, palettes being stacked, subway squeaking]

Jacob: In the beginning, the city had a government-owned subway system and a privately-owned bus system.

[car driving]

Jennifer: However, an informal bus system arose. And it was winning.

Onésimo: So in the very late 70’s, the government decided to take over all of the buses in the city and to create a government-owned bus company. And it was planning nirvana.

Jennifer: They envisioned wider roads, an expanded subway, and a bus system to complement it. It was supposed to revolutionize transit.

Onésimo: And it was a time where planners and government officials were really ambitious. They thought they could completely reshape the city. So what happens? What happened was complexity. Administering a bus company with over 2000 buses at that time proved a very complex challenge. The buses didn’t get fixed. The schedules weren’t met. So eventually, this bus company started to die. 

Jacob: But a replacement quickly swooped in. An informal system began where taxi drivers would pick up multiple riders and take them where they needed to go.

Jennifer: Eventually, these taxis were replaced with mini buses and routes became more formalized.

Onésimo: At the beginning, there were government raids to stop these big bus— informal operators from cannibalizing transit demand from the bus company. But eventually the government realized that, in essence, these informal operators were the guys that were enabling the city to keep moving. 

[soft, chill music]

Jacob: It is a highly disorganized way of getting people to their destinations, but somehow, it works.

Jennifer: But what’s really interesting is how the structures come about. What works doesn’t necessarily come from piles of blueprints or complicated planning by large organizations. It comes from the people, people who love the city. Here’s Veronica Nehera, she’s a chef, and she’s lived here all her life.

Veronica Nehera: I love Mexico. I love the people. They care about each other. That’s what I love most. 

[alarm clock]

[sounds of standing up and footsteps]

Narrator 2 (Jennifer): Get up. Brush your teeth. Go on your way.

It’s a nice day and you like to see the sunshine. You get on the minibus to work. There’s traffic again. Ugh, no surprise. You watch as the hills crawl past. Mosaics of houses painted more colors than you have names for. Sprawling communities, interweaving transport systems, vendors lining the streets. Twenty-one million people in a living, evolving city, full of culture, full of history, full of life.

[lively music]

A place of chaotic harmony. You lean your head against the window and admire the view. 

Joey: This piece was produced by Terrascope Radio, a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed in collaboration with MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies. Terrascope is a freshman learning community focused on solving complex environmental issues and is a part of the Office of Experiential Learning. 

We would like to thank all the people we spoke with during our time in Mexico City. We also give thanks to Professor David McGee for leading the Terrascope program and fall class; to Emily Martin for planning many of the logistics of our trip; to Laura Bergman, our undergraduate teaching fellow, for keeping us in line; to Libby Hsu and Dr. Luisa Pinto, who skillfully helped us translate throughout the trip; and to Ari Epstein, the instructor of Terrascope Radio, for guiding us through the making of our piece. 

I’m Joey Noszek.

Anthony: I’m Anthony Cheng.

Arón: I’m Arón Ricardo Perez-Lopez.

Janice: I’m Janice Shiu.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Wu.

Eden: I’m Eden Bensaid.

Sherry: I’m Sherry Zhou.

Asia: I’m Asia Chapman.

Rayna: I’m Rayna Higuchi.

Mei: I’m Mei Wu.

Jacob: I’m Jacob Miske.

Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Lu.

Joey: And we are Terrascope Radio 2017.