Disaster frequently confronts residents of Mexico City. Earthquakes threaten the indiscriminate destruction of structures both precolonial and new, flash floods tease a waterlogged future reminiscent of the city’s lacustrine past, ashfall from volcanic eruptions brewing in close proximity carries the potential to cause bodily harm. An inescapable component of the lived experience in the Valley of Mexico, these environmental disturbances are also inscribed in the city’s cultural heritage: natural disasters, for instance, figure prominently in Mexica creation mythologies and tales of ferocious floods permeate the chronicles of Spanish conquistadores.

Not every environmental risk in Mexico City enjoys such high visibility in the historical record or in the literal sense, however. During the last third of the twentieth century, Mexicans became uncomfortably familiar with a newly brewing crisis: a thick air pollution silently unfurling over the sprawling metropolis. To be sure, conceptions of the air as “unhealthy” were not new, as Matthew Vitz’s account of early-twentieth-century tolvaneras, or dust storms, illustrates. Colonial-era grievances about various odors wafting through the air reveal an even broader chronology for the city’s problematic air quality. Yet, the association of dirty air as “disastrous” constituted a break from previous definitions. Rendering this phenomenon a disaster was a complex and political process, further complicated by the fact that, unlike the more conspicuous disasters afflicting the city, air pollution was rather elusive. Even as evidence mounted of its deleterious effects on human health by the 1970s, the government lagged in implementing control measures. Delineating the capital’s air as a public health hazard carried significant implications for the realization of the city’s future as an economic and global powerhouse because it revealed the inherent unsustainability of the processes driving its growth.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, industrialization, population growth, and an automobile revolution collectively transformed the urban landscape, leading to the seemingly sudden onslaught of unclean air in the metropolitan area by mid-century. The deadly fogs, caused by the mass burning of coal, that long plagued some European and North American urban centers were absent in Mexico City due to, as John R. McNeill explains, its reliance on biomass, rather than coal, and its relatively later industrialization. Mexico City began its intense government-backed industrialization in the 1940s, culminating in the concentration of 33,185 industries within city limits by the mid-1970s, according to economist Gustavo Garza Villareal. This period also saw the city’s population swell from 1.5 million to 9 million, and a five-fold increase in the number of cars traversing the city’s roads. Mexico City’s unique geography, particularly its positioning atop a barren lakebed located at the bottom of a valley ringed by mountains that soar to 16,000 feet, proved incompatible with this spatial and demographic explosion, and served only to trap vehicle exhaust and chemical emissions near the surface.

Economic boom overshadowed the myriad environmental ramifications encoded within this aggressive developmentalism. Notably, anxieties surrounding economic productivity became the language through which nascent discourse on the deterioration of the city’s atmosphere first emerged. Early newspaper coverage of Mexico City’s esmog, a word adopted into the common lexicon by 1960, painted the capital’s dirty air as a nuisance rather than a serious health concern. Popular dailies maintained that air saturated with ash, smoke, and dirt could erode metal and damage property, threatening the day-to-day operations that fueled the city.

Indeed, journalists played integral roles in forecasting a city choked by its own air and arrested in development, but they were not the only actors to shape the dialogue. Businessmen involved in the tourism industry also expressed concerns that highlighted the augmented economic burden caused by air pollution when they complained that tourists were bypassing Mexico City for coastal areas like Acapulco and its ostensibly uncontaminated air. Still others, like the leaders of civic groups such as the National Association Against Air and Water Pollution imbued Mexico City’s persistent air pollution problem with more urgency. They routinely held open forums throughout the late 1960s to discuss Mexico City’s situation, from improving Mexico’s gasoline quality to proposing the creation of devices to eliminate motor vehicle exhaust fumes. Such symposiums democratized information about the city’s air, ultimately forcing the heretofore silent government into action via the promulgation of the nation’s, and Latin America’s, first antipollution legislation in 1971.

On paper, the law aimed to make the city’s air a subject of public policy by enforcing regulations on industrial emissions output, supporting scientific research, and educating the public, but when, in 1972, for example, doctors from the General Hospital of Mexico linked dirty air to declining health after studying compromised respiratory tracts and mucosal linings, they lacked an official channel to help broadcast their findings. The overall lukewarm enforcement of this law reflected the political and economic elite’s belief in the rewards of continued industrial development and progress.

While an intangible force, air pollution is not undetectable. Going into the 1990s, Mexico had passed its third clean-air law, but the capital’s air pollution attained an unparalleled visibility on individual and global scales. Ordinary residents were witnesses to shocking sights like pigeons falling dead mid-flight while astronaut photography captured Mexico City’s pollution from space. Only when the government formally recognized these disastrous effects by implementing programs like the no-driving day initiative in 1989, reducing leaded gasoline production in the early 1990s, and closing noncompliant industrial plants did Mexicans finally find some breathing room.

Ela Miljkovic is a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston.

This essay is part of Teach311.org’s “Terms of Disaster” collection with Arcadia and is also published here.

A Killer Air: Delineating Disaster in Mexico City
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