Tragicomedy in Ixtapalapa

The marquee of the venerable Blanquita Theater here in the old quarter of this unruly megalopolis spotlights the city’s current clown prince, “Juanito”, in the musical review “Don’t Give Up!” (“No Te Rajes!”.)

Clowns occupy a special niche in Mexican popular culture. No kids’ party is complete without a “payaso” to enliven the festivities. Mexican payasos have their own union and their own clown schools and each year mount a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe wearing red noses. Street clowns work in Mexico City’s clotted traffic and down in the Metro, usually kids from the misery belt with garishly painted faces, perhaps the world’s saddest clowns.

When “Bozo”, the dean of Mexican payasos succumbed to emphysema a few years ago, he was succeeded by “Brozo, El Payaso Tenebroso” or “The Scary Clown.” Outfitted with a shocking green freight wig and a braying delivery, “Brozo” now works as a primetime political analyst for Televisa, the TV conglomerate.

Mexican clowns come in all shapes and sizes with or without greasepaint. Baggy pantsed comics were the staple of Mexican vaudeville, which survives at the Blanquita. Stage comedians like “Resortes” (“Rubberlegs”) and “Palillo” (“Toothpick”) and Viruta & Capulina, Mexico’s Laurel & Hardy, stir the dust of nostalgia. Tintan, the classic “Pachuco” wiseguy, and the midget Tuntun mixed it up on the Blanquita stage.

The most celebrated of all these popular funnymen was Mario Moreno AKA Cantinflas, a double-talking “pelado” (have-not) who lived by his wits, ridiculed the pompous, exposed the bad guys, and always got the girl. The star of nearly a hundred black and white movies, Cantinflas was so beloved that he became a perpetual write-in candidate for president to protest the charlatans posted year after year by the once and future ruling PRI party (71 years.)

Mexico’s clowns and comedians flourished in the “carpas”, street tents in working class neighborhoods where they worked their schtick alongside threadbare mariachis and bored dancers in sequined g-strings. The carpas went inside in the 1950s and theaters like the Blanquita became obligatory venues.

Up until last week, the big name up on the Blanquita marquee, “Juanito” ne Rafael Ponfilio Acosta Angeles, was the “Delegado” or Borough President in Mexico City’s most conflictive and populous delegation, Ixtapalapa. Instantly recognizable by the tri-colored headband that cinches his bushy hair Rambo-style (boxing champ Julio Cesar Chavez’s entourage, which included many notable narcos, wore identical headbands), Juanito’s meteoric rise to popular idol status is the stuff of urban legends – the kind crafted by a well-oiled publicity machine.

Born in a rough and tumble Ixtapalapa colonia in 1958 or 1960 depending on which birth certificate is deemed valid, Rafael Acosta was an eighth grade drop-out who scuffled on the hardscrabble streets of the city, working as a “vagonero” (hawker in the Metro) and selling used clothes in the neighborhood “tianguis” (street bazaar.) Nicknamed “Juanito” by barrio soccer teams, he curried small favors as a go-for for minor league politicos, ultimately attaching himself to the tiny PT (Party of Labor), a corruptible clique that has struck it rich as an ally of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the once-wildly popular mayor of Mexico City and probable winner of the 2006 presidential election that was awarded to the right-wing PAN party’s Felipe Calderon.

AMLO’s left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) – from which he is estranged – has controlled Ixtapalapa for nearly a decade and when the PT rewarded Juanito with a slot on the July 2009 ballot as its candidate to run the borough, Rafael Acosta was not given a hoot-in-hell chance to win office.

Juanito’s abbreviated reign was indeed the baleful fall-out of the bitter split in the PRD between Lopez Obrador who is building what he describes as a social movement both inside and outside the party, and the Chuchus faction, so named because many of its stalwarts like PRD party president Jesus Ortega bear the name of the Christian Savior – the Jesuses are more oriented to negotiating with AMLO’s arch-enemy Calderon for their quota of power.

Operating through Rene Arce, a former guerilla fighter and now a PRD senator, and his family, the Chuchus’ control of Ixtapalapa has never been challenged so when AMLO fingered long-time local activist Clara Brugada as his choice for the left party’s nomination for “delegada”, the Chuchus’ antennas went up and Rene Arce’s wife, Silvia Oliva, was chosen to run against Lopez Obrador’s “gallo” in the PRD primaries, victory in which guaranteed election.

Given to extravagant gowns and killer coifs, Brugada, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Miss Piggy, came to left politics as a teenager in the urban popular movement which sprung up after the 1985 8.1 killer earthquake that took up to 30,000 lives here and ravaged the capital. But although she campaigned with AMLO up on the podium, the election was a tight one and Clara won the nomination by a scant 300 votes.

The Chuchus promptly went into court and had dozens of polling places in which Brugada ran up big numbers thrown out because election officials had not established that they were card-carrying members of the PRD.

Even though Oliva was declared the eventual winner by an electoral tribunal stacked with Calderon appointees, the decision came down too late and Brugada’s name appeared on the ballot with the caveat that every vote cast for Clara would be counted as a vote for Silvia.

AMLO went ballistic at the Chuchus’ flimflam. At a meeting of Brugada’s seething faithful in the heart of Iztapalapa just two weeks before the election, Lopez Obrador rolled out a desperate strategy. Instead of voting for Brugada, Clara’s people should vote for Rafael Acosta, the PT candidate. Andres Manuel threw his am around the startled Juanito and had him swear a public pledge to quit the post if he won and hand it over to Brugada. Veteran observers of Mexico City political imbroglios, including this writer, reasoned that AMLO’s end-run around the Chuchus was doomed.

But, in a surprising surge of popular mobilization, Lopez Obrador’s “brigadistas” poured into Iztapalapa and banged on doors day and night and two weeks later on July 2nd, Juanito came up ten points ahead of his closest competitor, Oliva.

The unexpected victory was a heartwarming one for AMLO who has been so abused by right-wing media, most notably Televisa and its junior partner in crime TV Azteca that he has retreated from the political spotlight to the periphery and spent much of 2009 visiting 418 tiny indigenous municipalities in the backwaters of Oaxaca. Juanito’s election proved that AMLO still packed a punch and could whip the Chuchus on their own turf.

Moreover, winning Ixtapalapa boosted Lopez Obrador’s credibility in the face-off with his successor as mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, to be the Left’s presidential candidate in 2012.

Political power in Mexico City comes through Ixtapalapa. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas became the first elected mayor of this monster metropolis in 1997 when he swept the delegation by building a coalition of urban militants such as the Francisco Villa Popular Front (“Los Panchos”) and the Emiliano Zapata Popular Revolutionary Union or UPREZ of which Brugada became a leader.

But Lopez Obrador was not the only winner in Ixtapalapa last July. The PT had never won control of so large and powerful an entity – with 1.8 million residents Ixtapalapa would be Mexico’s 20th largest city if it seceded from the capital. The Party of Labor was instigated by the now-reviled Carlos Salinas to siphon left votes from Cardenas’s 1994 presidential bid. PT boss Alberto Anaya’s talent for opportunism knows no limits.

AMLO’s jubilation was short-lived. He had proclaimed Ixtapalapa “a laboratory for democracy” and now a Frankenstein had been concocted in that laboratory. Rafael Acosta had won the election and was the new “delegado”, not Clara Brugada and not Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who Juanito denounced to the eager anti-AMLO press as having used him for his own political ends. He, Juanito, had won the votes and Lopez Obrador was not even on the ballot.

In the three months between Juanito’s election and his October 1st swearing in, the surrogate candidate pulled away from his very public pledge to turn over the delegation to Brugada. Acosta marketed himself to Lopez Obrador’s myriad rivals, principally the Chuchus and the Arces but also the PRI and the Verdes, the so-called Mexican Ecology Party whose only concern for green is the color of the money. He was approached by Calderon’s PAN. Juanito’s son, Carlos Acosta, a marketing major at the National University, took charge of the sale of his father’s conscience to the highest bidder.

Suddenly, Juanito was walking around in Armani suits (he did not relinquish the trademark headband) and driving a Durango SUV, one step down from a Hummer. He moved into a six room suite at a posh five star hotel on Paseo de la Reforma, the capital’s most elegant boulevard, and his “naco” (a racist upper class term for “ignorant, poor”) mug appeared on the cover of the glossy Chilango magazine and the highbrow Nexus upon whose pages he was celebrated as an Everyman. As the Anti-AMLO, he was relentlessly interviewed by the two-tongued TV demon. Juanito’s head was inflated by the flattery and the headband grew tighter. Alex Lora, the raspy-voiced founder of the Tri, Mexico’s most long-lived rock ‘n roll band, even wrote a “Rolla for Juanito”, the lyrics of which read in part: “Before you were just another mortal/ Now even your farts smell like perfume.”

With the October 1st swearing in just around the corner, Juanito dug in his heels. He was internationally famous, his name was renowned in “France, Italy, Spain, Russia, China, England, Canada, the U.S., and Costa Rica” he bragged to El Universal. He was not going to step aside.

Confrontation loomed. Clara’s brigades threatened to block the doors to the Mexico City Legislative Assembly where the swearing in of the capital’s 16 newly elected delegates was to be mounted. On the eve of the impending debacle, Mayor Marcelo, who had been loath to get his hands dirty in the Ixtapalapa “mitote” (brawl), summoned Juanito to City Hall and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, the nature of which has yet to be revealed. That night, a nervous, sweating Juanito told a breathless press conference that he was taking a 59-day leave of absence because of a previously undisclosed heart condition. Clara Brugada would run Iztapalapa in his absence.

Because he had to be sworn in to negotiate his leave of absence, Rafael Acosta took the oath the next day in a legislative assembly ringed by a thousand police and under siege from multitudes cursing him out as a traitor. Inside, Juanito tore off all clothing that was branded in PRD and PT colors (yellow and red) and screamed that the Left should die! He was escorted from the chambers by a bevy of beefy bodyguards to protect him from the inflamed mob.

Despite his heart condition, Juanito maintained a feverish pace during his 59 days on leave from his duties as delegado. He reportedly lunched with Emilio Azcarraga Jean, the Televisa kingpin, and the scuttlebutt had Juanito taking over for “Brozo” or anchoring his own reality show. A biopic, “We Are All Juanito”, was rumored – in a series of Twitters to his fan base; Juanito rejected the casting of heartthrob Gael Garcia and insisted upon playing himself. “There is only one Juanito.” He bared his chest for the cameras and flexed his flabby muscles. The star of the Ixtapalapa Tae Kwan Do Club, he contemplated a career change as Mexico’s Bruce Lee. Juanito signed a contract for the Blanquita show and went into rehearsal.

In his off hours, Rafael Acosta connived with the PANistas, most publicly with Alexandra Nunez, a confidante of Mariana Gomez, the PAN leader in the legislative assembly and cousin of first lady Margarita Zavala.

After midnight on the eve of the fated 59th day – November 28th – Rafael Acosta propped a ladder up against the back of the Ixtapalapa delegation headquarters and climbed in through a second story window. He brought a locksmith with him and changed all the locks and declared himself in control of the building. He boasted that he had caught Clara Brugada with her pants down “just like the Tiger of Santa Julia”, a picaresque bandido who was captured while responding to a sudden urge to defecate.

Juanito moved in his creature comforts and slept in the Delegation building. It became his bunker. He fired all the Brugada loyalists and forced others to enroll in the PAN. Meanwhile, Clara’s people occupied the esplanade, growing shriller day by day. When Brugada accused Juanito of having “damaged mental faculties”, the Mexico City human rights ombudsman warned her about casting slurs on the disabled.

Iztapalapa was paralyzed by the standoff. Garbage festered in the streets. 250,000 residents were without water last weekend (Dec. 5th-6th) – in bone-dry Iztapalapa, water is always the point of combustion. 5000 underclass families in the delegation did not get their food credit cards and even the annual lighting of the new fire, an ancient indigenous rite, has been postponed.

To add to Ixtapalapans’ bad humor, electricity generation has been spotty ever since Calderon fired 42,000 electricity workers in a undisguised move to privatize the industry and the lights flicker on and off. Street venders – the informal economy is the delegation’s overwhelming source of commerce – are nose to nose over space in which to push their goods in a holiday season much diminished by the economic squeeze.
Locals have taken to barricading streets to protest the deteriorating conditions.

“Iztapalapa is a powder keg,” warns former Mexico City prosecutor Bernardo Batiz. The delegation would be a likely venue if the 1910 Mexican revolution, which celebrates its 100-year anniversary next year, were to come alive again.

The PRD needed 44 votes in the Assembly to strip Juanito of his office and only had 39. But Brugada’s allegations that Juanito falsified his birth certificate when he registered as the PT candidate carried weight in this debate since it is a jail-able offense and votes changed. Acosta Angeles purportedly altered the document so that he could claim Felipe Angeles, a revered revolutionary general, as his grandfather.

The writing was on the wall. Finally, on December 11th, the night before “Juanito, No Te Rajes!” was to debut at the Blanquita and much prodded by Marcelo, the star of the show abandoned the Iztapalapa delegation building by the same route he arrived – hustled through the back door into a waiting car which in its haste to escape crashed into two city vehicles.

But despite Juanito’s retreat from the Iztapalapa delegation (Clara Brugada was sworn in December 11th), the show must go on.

The next night, his public awaited the star of “Juanito, No Te Rajes” outside the Blanquita with rotten eggs and spoiled tomatoes and hand-made signs that denounced him as a “culero” (“asshole”) but he eluded them, sneaking through the stage door. Even so, a handful paid $12 Americano to infiltrate the second show and shout insults from the audience. The house, they reported, was about ten percent full, including the detractors. Mexico City’s former political clown prince, appeared on stage for ten minutes garbed as an Aztec warrior, not what the management had contracted for. The Blanquita is threatening to sue

“Juanito is us all,” considers Julio Hernandez, La Jornada’s lead political columnist, “we are all contaminated by the opportunism, cynicism, and social indifference that infests our political culture.”

JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to

JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to