Theme : Urban Identity : Text : "Collected Poems, 1957-87" Octavio Paz : Films : "Beijing Bicycle" : "City of God " : "Salaam Bombay " :

I Speak of The City, Octavio Paz

…The enormous city that fits in a room three yards square, and endless as a galaxy,
The city that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream,
The city we all dream, that restlessy changes while we dream it,
The city that wakes every hundred years and looks at itself in the mirror of a word
and doesn’t recognize itself and goes back to sleep…

... We are in the city, we cannot leave except to fall into another city, different yet identical,
I speak of the immense city, that daily reality composed of two words : the others
And in every one of them there is an I slipped from a we, an I adrift
I speak of the city built by the dead, inhabited by the stern ghosts, ruled by their despotic memory…

(excerpt) Return, Octavio Paz
Paralytic architecture
Stranded districts
Rotting municipal gardens
Mound of saltpeter
Deserted lots
Camps of urban nomads
Ants’ nests worm-farms
Cities of the city
Thoroughfares of scars
Alleys of living flesh
Funeral parlor
By a window display of coffins
Pillars of vain night
At dawn
In the drifting bar
The enormous mirror thaws
The dolitary drinkers
Contemplate the dissolution of their faces
The sun rises from its bed of bones
The air is not air
It strangles without arms or hands
Dawn rips the curtains


Upon reading the magnetic prose of Octavio Paz, one concept became immediately clear: in discussing “culture,” one must address the “sites” where culture transpires; also, in considering identity, one must regard it not in stasis, but in the crux of transformation. For the purposes of this cultural identity narrative, I explore a very “typical” story in the developing world: the migration of identity from the “rural” to the “urban,” as depicted in the poetry of Octavio Paz (excerpts from “Hablo de Ciudad/ I Speak of The City,” “Vuelta/ Return” and “Petrificada Petrificante/ The Petrifying Petrified”) along with the films “Beijing Bicycle” by Xiaoshuai Wang, “Cidade de Deus/ City of God,” by Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles and “Salaam Bombay!” by Mira Nair. In each of these texts, the City is its own, living protagonist.


According to Paz, “We are in the City, we cannot leave expect to fall into another city, different yet identical (Hablo De Ciudad).” From Mexico City to Beijing, Bombay to Rio de Janeiro, the themes of rural-urban migration are both common enough to assume the universality of human struggle and distinct enough to derive stories of triumph. Paz affectionately refers to the City as both a dystopic “dungheap” and a “mother that gives birth to us and devours us.” In his poem, “Petrificada Petrificante,” he refers to the City as “nursing violence with dogmatic milk,” a theme immediately identifiable in the drug-linked turf wars of “City of God.” However, as in this movie, the City that breeds death also gives birth to hope, as signified by the meteoric career rise of “City of God’s” protagonist, Rocket (link to “City of God” review).


Upon migrating to the City, the identities of the rural protagonists evolve according to the laws and conditions of survival set by the City and its denizens. In “Beijing Bicycle,” bikes are both life and livelihood¸ inscribing upon its owner the status, privileges and very means of survival that sets the owner apart from the rural past. In the slums of “City of God” and “Salaam Bombay,” identity is defined by the struggle for survival at its most base human term: staying alive to see the next morning. However, what is most interesting by “Salaam Bombay” is that identity is defined both by the hardship of the City and the yearning to escape, whether by drugs, delusion or death (link to “Salaam Bombay” review and “Beijing Bicycle” review).


While an immediate glance at the texts would color Urban Identity as one mired in struggle and debauchery as a means of escapism, these same texts also reveal that there is also hope and strength within the slums. In migrating to the City to build new lives (whether by their own volition or driven by circumstances beyond their control), the protagonists from the village poor give up their innocence for a world view that make them more resilient. Strength in struggle… one common theme that, in no small part, has the power to uplift the spirit.


(a special movie presentation will be shown during class on Monday, October 4th).