The beats go mad in Mexico
America’s most influential group of writers, The Beats, were themselves heavily influenced by Mexico. South of the border, they lived freely and completed some of their best work
A broken-down Ford blocks the road. Smoke rises from under the car’s hood. A young windscreen washer leaves his position beneath traffic lights to throw a bucket of water over the engine. Steam replaces smoke with a whoosh.
My pink and white taxi finally gets going, and picks its way through Mexico City’s overcrowded roads and around the broken-down Ford. Several more helpers, hands on hips, now peer into the engine.
The taxi driver makes a right turn: protestors block the street. With the palm of his hand, the old man smacks the steering wheel. Threadbare leather squeaks as he shifts around in his seat. He shouts, throws his arms around, and rubs the back of his head vigorously.
Here we go, I think. Travels elsewhere taught me an angry taxi driver normally comes before an increased taxi fare. The old man comes up with a new route and turns the car around. Through the window, in the sky above, a helicopter rumbles past. He watches it fly away, eyes me up in his rear-view mirror, rubs together thumb and forefinger, and says, “Dinero.” He’s singing now. He croons along to the radio, some old Mexican singer. The taxi driver tells me the musician is called Jose something or other, “Un hombre muy sincero.”
Jack Kerouac drove this same route into the city over 60 years ago. The American author described what he saw in On The Road, his defining work of the post-war counterculture generation. “A brief mountain pass took us suddenly to a height from which we saw all Mexico City stretched out in its volcanic crater below and spewing city smokes and early dusk lights.”
Throughout On The Road, a thinly disguised group of authors come and go –Kerouac as Sal Paradise, Neal Cassady as Dean Moriarty, Joan Vollmer as Jane Lee and William S Burroughs as Old Bull Lee – but still recognisable as The Beat Generation.
The Beats are perhaps America’s most influential group of writers. They themselves were heavily influenced by Mexico. They completed some of their best work here. South of the border, they lived freely, maybe a bit too freely. I travelled to Mexico to see where the books were written and the bullets fired.
My taxi arrives in La Roma, a once affluent area of Mexico City that fell on hard times, only to be picked up and dusted off by the arty, bohemian people who now live here. When the Beats visited Mexico City, they made this district their home.
“Kerouac completed two of his best works in Mexico, Tristessa and Mexico City Blues”
Roma looks relatively unchanged since the Beats kicked their heels up and down these streets. Most of the old hangouts have changed hands or closed completely, but the Art Deco and neo-colonial buildings are still standing. Faded old mansions are split up into flash new apartment blocks, cool cafés, independent shops and restaurants belonging to the city’s best cooks. Gentrification arrived a while back. But Roma remains similar enough to picture Kerouac ghosting through these streets, just off an overnight bus, a canvas bag over his shoulder.
The taxi driver helps me unload my bags. I ask him if he’s ever read any books by Kerouac or Burroughs. The old man shakes his head and tells me he doesn’t read American literature. He asks in Spanish, “Your first time in Mexico City?” I tell him yes. “Very good,” the old man says. He gives me a knowing smile and a slap on the shoulder, wishes me luck. The agreed price remains unchanged and he takes my tip very gratefully, almost surprised.
In 1954, the US government, led by president Dwight D Eisenhower, began deporting masses of Mexican immigrants. Many were US citizens, often sent to unfamiliar parts of Mexico before being allowed to prove their citizenship. The government named the campaign “Operation Wetback.” The term “wetback” stuck as a slur.
Kerouac published On The Road in 1957, but made the trip documented in the book seven years earlier. He and Cassady crossed the border at Laredo, Texas. The picture the US government painted of life in Mexico didn’t match up with reality. On the Mexican side, in Nuevo Laredo, they met with “lazy and tender” officials. “Eat good,” one said. “Don’t worry. Everything fine. Is not hard enjoying yourself in Mexico.”
In On The Road, Paradise became ill with dysentery – as Kerouac did in real life. Moriarty left Mexico without him, turned around the beat-up 1937 Ford Sedan and drove all the way back to America, to his “wives and woes”. That also really happened. What the book doesn’t tell us is that Kerouac recovered in the Mexico City apartment belonging to William S Burroughs.
I walked to the apartment on what is now Calle Jose Alvarado. The old white building makes for an underwhelming site. It carries no plaque or statue commemorating the Beats’ time here. But within its walls, Kerouac, back on his feet, made the most of Mexico’s more relaxed drug laws. Each day, he walked the streets and soon saw himself as a kind of angel or saint, sent to Mexico to pay for America’s sins. He sometimes strolled – or, on one occasion, ran in the rain – to Plaza Luis Cabrera. He liked its “old grills and scrolly worly lovely majesties”. During one of these walks, he felt compelled to shout at a crowd of locals, “You’re nuts!” In this state, Kerouac attended a bullfight. He watched the bull fall for the last time and in his journal wrote, “His eyes! Oh, his eyes!” He’d lost the plot. Not for the last time, critics of his work might argue. He was done with Mexico, for now.
Kerouac travelled to country half a dozen times in the fifties and sixties. Burroughs lived here permanently.
The founders of the Beat Generation met a decade before in New York. Burroughs knew the darker side of life in the city. He hung around with dropouts, drug addicts and stick-up kids. He himself would be an addict all his life.
In 1950, with his second wife Joan, Burroughs moved to Mexico to avoid what he saw as draconian US drug laws and to satisfy his many vices. He wrote: “Something falls off you when you cross the border into Mexico.”
Burroughs’ time in Mexico centres on events that took place in an apartment above the Bounty Bar in Mexico City. The bar’s gone now, replaced by a little taco place. But the building, Monterrey 122, witnessed the beginnings of one Beat member and the end of another.
This was 1951. William S Burroughs, 37, unknown as a writer, recently returned from a two-month trip to Ecuador. He planned to seduce his travel companion, but failed. He also wanted to drink a brew called yagé. Indigenous peoples believe this potent hallucinogen, also known as ayahuasca, can help cleanse the soul. Burroughs didn’t get any of that, either.
Vollmer had spent the previous half a decade unhappily married to Burroughs. She knew how to wind her husband up. She mocked his plan for them to run away to a desert island, shoot wild hogs for food and kick their addictions. During a drinking session above the Bounty Bar, Vollmer said in front of Burroughs’ friends, “We’d starve to death. You’d be so shaky if you try to come off it. You’ll shake, you won’t be able to shoot anything.” Burroughs thought himself a good marksman and told his wife he didn’t get the shakes. “Put that glass on your head, Joanie,” he said, “let me show the boys what a great shot old Bill is.” Throughout his life, Burroughs fought problems with drugs and demons, the internal and external, the physical and metaphysical. Earlier that day, on the street below his apartment, he heard a familiar whistle, a little tune the knife sharpener played on his panpipes while he walked the streets looking for business. He went down to see him. He took a clasp knife bought in Quito. As he approached the knife sharpener’s cart, Burroughs began to cry.
In Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary, Burroughs: The Movie, he spoke about the incident – he always felt himself controlled by an “ugly spirit”. That day, he knew the spirit would take over and “something awful would happen”.
“For Jack Kerouac, Mexico was more a symbol than a country, a culture defined not at all by the ideological bent of its citizens or rulers, but by the spirit of its people”W
Burroughs told the story of what happened next differently throughout his life. After the incident, he explained to police that the gun went off accidentally in his hand. Witnesses said otherwise. He eventually said, “I had this piece of .380 junk.
I fired the shot. The glass hadn’t been touched. Joan starts sliding down towards the floor.”
Burroughs’ bullet hit Vollmer in the forehead and she died. Years later, he said, her death trapped him in such a way as to have “no choice except to write my way out”.
Burroughs avoided a prison sentence for Vollmer’s death, but, superstitious his whole life, he failed to escape her ghost. He eventually found success with 1953’s Junkie, a novel he wrote in Mexico. In trying to write his way out, he produced some of the 20th centuries most daring novels. Voller’s headstone, found in Panteon Americano, north Mexico City, lies in part of the cemetery kept for people whose family haven’t kept up payments to maintain their grave. The small square stone stands as the only proper marker to the Beats’ time in Mexico City.
Kerouac completed two of his best works in Mexico, Tristessa and Mexico City Blues. He worked on Doctor Sax in Burroughs’ bathroom – the only peaceful place in the apartment. Kerouac called the novel – a book that’s dreamy and nightmarish in equal measure – “the greatest book I ever wrote, or that I will write”. His friend Neal Cassady died in Mexico in 1968, found alone by some railroad tracks.
Look out from any high point in Mexico City and the place appears endless, 22 million people, bigger and taller with each passing year, where your boss might arrive to work in a helicopter while you spend fives hour crawling through city traffic, a row of trees to separate the richest neighbourhood from the poorest. Down at street level, you hear music everywhere, day and night. Cumbia’s chug-chug beat blasts from a car stereo. Bars play salsa – the thump of the conga, the clink of the clave – a rhythm too tricky for this gringo’s feet. Late in the afternoon, or early in the evening, old couples meet in plazas to dance outdoors. And there’s food on every corner. If you can’t hear it sizzle, you smell it smoke. Not just tacos, burritos and quesadillas, but also tlayudas – pronounced clayudas – a pizza-size tortilla, best served with beef, melted cheese, cabbage and refried beans, folded in half and toasted over a barbecue. Tortas – crusty white bread, black-bean spread, meat and salty white cheese, lettuce, tomato, avocado – get my vote for the best sandwich in the world. In Mexico City, they dip the bread in chilli sauce and call it a pambazo.
But Mexico is more than Mexico City. It’s more continent than country, one with all kinds of landscapes, climates and people. Burroughs, interested in Aztec and Mayan peoples, enrolled in the department of anthropology and archaeology at the Mexico City College.
Some of the country’s best Mayan ruins stand in Chiapas. One of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico lives in this state, 12 different ethnicities and as many overlapping kinds of food, culture, faces, clothes. I visited San Cristóbal de las Casas – a mountain city 7,000 feet up in the Central Highlands – during Semana Santa (Holy Week). Here I saw and heard in exaggerated form all things I like about Mexico: the singsong Spanish, the vowels that stretch and yawn like cats; the countless old VW Beetles that crawl the streets; the fiestas celebrated with lots of colour and noise; the whiz-pop of fireworks day and night; parties that go on and on and on…
Kerouac tried to see a bit of the country too. Once, on his way to visit Burroughs, Kerouac stopped in Mazatlán. He sat on a sea wall and watched the sun set into the Pacific Ocean. He wrote to Ginsberg and described the scene: “Hot and flat right on the surf… the wonder spot of the Mexicos.”
What Kerouac saw and wrote were often two very different things. But throughout my trip, I saw similar little scenes unfold. Some countries are just like that. Mexico is photogenic. The streets often look like film sets.
At the opposite end of the coast to Mazatlán, a place called Puerto Escondido, I watched the sun set into the Pacific Ocean. An old man in a cowboy hat rode past on a horse, three more horses trailing behind. The man, weather-beaten skin, a couple of gold teeth, tipped his hat and winked. If Mexico is a movie set, he was the extra who stole the scene, a proper Kerouacian character in a proper Kerouacian wonder spot.
Jorge García-Robles, a Mexican scholar of the Beats and author of End Of The Road: Jack Kerouac In Mexico, wrote: “For Jack Kerouac, Mexico was more a symbol than a country, a culture defined not at all by the ideological bent of its citizens or rulers, but by the spirit of its people.”
Today, US President Donald Trump says far worse things Eisenhower ever did. Mexico could reasonably claim to be the world’s most misunderstood country, certainly the most misrepresented. The country’s problems are widely reported. Disproportionately so, I think. But now, as in Kerouac’s day, the impression Mexico makes on visitors comes not from any ideological bent, but from the spirit, the warm, welcoming, and boundless passion of its people.
“And they knew this when we passed,” Kerouac wrote, “ostensibly self-important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment.” I heard some one say the same thing, but with far more concision.
A short walk from Monterrey stands Parque Mexico. The park – duck pond, palms trees, Art Deco clock tower – is circled by Avenida Amsterdam. Trees that line this street cover the area’s many cafés with dappled light.
Two friends sat at a table outside a café on Avenida Amsterdam one weekday morning. Over coffee and cigarettes, one told the other about a recent trip to New York City, how good it was, how much she loved the place. Her friend asked if she’d like to live there. “Nooo,” she said. “No, no, no.” Her friend asked why not and she simply replied: “Soy Mexicana.” I am Mexican.
Don’t miss a beat
The best place to eat, drink and stay in Mexico City
In La Roma – the Beats’ favourite neighbourhood – La Valise Hotel (lavalise.com.mx) mixes the best of old and new Mexico City. Acclaimed architect Emmanuel Picault took a 1920s townhouse and brought it into the 21st century, a modern luxury, design filled with many of the country’s favourite exports – everything from a Frida Kahlo painting to hammocks from the Yucatan. It’s quirky too. One of the suites, La Terraza, comes with a bed that rolls out on to the terrace, and a projector to play films on the wall.
Mercado Roma (mercadoroma.com) is modern take on Mexico City’s famous markets – a food hall that’s home to more than 50 vendors, the city’s best young cooks and coolest rooftop bar. You can order everything from cactus tacos and margaritas to oysters and champagne.
Not far away, Limantour (limantour.tv), a regular on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. Baltra (baltra.bar), in neighbouring district Condesa, is a smaller, more laidback bar, good for food and cocktails, with DJs playing on weekends. Raíz Cocina de Estaciones (restauranteraiz.com) – ran by up-and-coming chefs Israel Montero and Alfredo Chávez – shows why Mexico City has earned a reputation as the best foodie town in Latin American. They serve modern Mexican food, which changes weekly, such as crispy-fried corn tortillas, topped with smoked trout, fresh fava beans and edible flowers.