8 Nov. 2019 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Ela Miljkovic (University of Houston)

“Ways of Knowing, Ways of Coping: Intersections of Power, Science, and Politics in the Making of Mexico City’s Air Pollution Disaster”

In 1986, the head of Mexico’s Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology made headlines when he announced, exasperated, that the Valley of Mexico will never be free of air pollution. For exactly fifteen years the Mexican government claimed to have waged war on its congested skies, promulgating laws and little else, thus making his statement both untimely and ironic. Whether our candid interlocutor considered or concerned himself with this connection remains uncertain, but his speech underscored a fundamental tension in the history of the governing of Mexico City’s air pollution problem. He described a rift between citizens who thought their government was not doing anything substantial to curb air pollution and a government that believed its citizens were not doing enough to learn about or support antipollution initiatives. Either rationalization could be, and indeed was, mobilized by different parties to explain the lack of progress in Mexico City’s fight to clean its air, but neither lends much insight into the historical experience of living with this daily hazard. Refocusing the lens, as this talk does, on the ways of knowing (sensing) and the ways of coping with (making sense of) an air supply deemed so noxious that it caused birds to fall dead from the sky, allows us to complicate a tired narrative. Proposing a new way of approaching Mexico City’s historical struggle with air pollution, this presentation argues that technical knowledge of and corporeal interactions with the air were equally vital components in the creation of knowledge about air pollution and its effects on the body.


Ela Miljkovic is a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at the University of Houston. She studies the environmental consequences of urbanizing and industrializing twentieth-century Mexico City.