A capital idea

Hosted by

Zocalo Public Square commentator is feeling nostalgic for Mexico City, pining for the days when the mile-high city was the capital of California. And while Mathews isn’t advocating for a return to Mexican control, he says that Mexico City is a true global capitol, with a culture, politics and social perspective that suits California better than our own capital on the east coast. Mexico City is also closer to California, and the weather and food are much better.

Read Joe Mathew's Connecting California column below:

A capital idea

For one quarter of the 19th century, Mexico City was California’s national capital.

I wish it could be again.

I’ve been visiting Mexico City to plan a direct democracy conference there next year. And I’ve been struck by how well the Mexican capital’s sprawling greatness fits California. I also wonder if Mexico City’s recent advances in democratic sovereignty might inspire Californians as we defend ourselves against the U.S. government.

Mexico City, with nine million people within the city proper and 21 million in the metro region, is a giant global capital, worthy of the giant global state of California. Set in a large elevated valley, its landscape and weather feel more Californian than that swamp alongside the Potomac ever could.

Mexico City would also be a practical improvement as California’s national capital. It’s hundreds of miles closer to California, and its major cities, than D.C.; a flight from LAX to Benito Juárez International Airport is more than an hour shorter than a flight to Dulles.

But what really connects California to Mexico City is a shared interest in local sovereignty. In these areas, recent advances  in Mexico City are a story that should inspire California improvement.

Until the 2010s, Mexico City and Washington were both federal districts—the “Distrito Federal” and the District of Columbia—with limited local power. That’s still true in DC, which hasn’t achieved statehood. But in recent years, Mexico City established itself as its own Mexican state.

This new state needed a new constitution, or “Carta Magna.” So Mexico City embraced an unusually participatory constitutional processes, with an assembly of citizens and an online method that used Change.org, the San Francisco-based company, to allow citizens to propose constitutional provisions.

Proposals receiving 10,000 signatures earned their sponsors a meeting with the drafting committee. In the end, online proposals on parks, gay rights, and disabled rights were included in the constitution.

This Carta Magna created openings for forms of participatory and direct democracy, like the ones we use in California. But the document went even further, giving mayors and city halls of  to Mexico City’s 16 alcadías, or boroughs, and giving neighborhoods more control over public resources. This structure is already producing more small public spaces, and greater attention to neighborhood concerns. Imagine how transformational this model might be in California, where local communities suffer under a governing system that centralizes power in Sacramento.

Mexico City’s constitution is innovative in other ways. One article establishes the “right to the city”—guaranteeing that Mexico City’s services are available to everyone. Another constitutional article, “Global City,” commits Mexico City to “peace, solidarity, hospital and asylum” and to cooperation with other cities and countries on international initiatives. If only California had a national capital with that welcoming policy, instead of a Washington committed to nativism and protectionism.

This Mexico City constitution has produced leadership of the sort that would fit the Golden State. Mexico City’s elected head of government is Claudia Sheinbaum, a climate scientist who did her doctoral research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Sheinbaum has visited California to urge closer ties. We should take her advice; Mexico is rising economically and educationally, and producing more of the engineers and skilled workers that California lacks. And we’d be wise to cooperate with Mexico in rebuilding infrastructure, with an eye towards promoting sustainability and boosting trade.

But closer ties can’t be all about economics. We should also shift our attention and cultural exchanges from D.C. to Mexico City. California schools could start by replacing the traditional class trip to Washington with journeys to Mexico City. California universities with programs in D.C. might consider relocating scholars and students to the Mexican capital. (Disclosure: this column is produced by L.A. nonprofit Zócalo Public Square, whose name references Mexico City’s central square)

As D.C. has abandoned soft power and embraced strong-arm tactics and digital surveillance,  Mexico City has embraced world engagement—and shown what’s possible by expanding people’s rights, rather than taking them away.

Mexico City may be a capital out of California’s past. But it now feels like a capital of the future.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews