Fuel Cuts, Part 4: Gas Lines

June 4, 2019

Nancy Lee Roane

Written by: Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo

This essay is the third to a four-part series on the social dimensions of energy use. Here is the introduction, written by series editor Nancy Lee Roane, Part 2 by Cory Knudson, and Part 3 by Sarah Ann Wells.


I don’t remember the first time I heard the word crisis. But I do remember seeing the first notice hanging in a gas station: No hay gasolina [we are out of gas]. My father and I were driving through the city early in the morning. It must have been around 5am and there were barely any cars in the streets. Then I saw the sign as we were driving through the gas station. The next morning, newspapers, radio shows, TV programs, and social media were talking about the new crisis. As a result of the new president’s strategy to fight huachicoleo (stealing fuel from the government pipelines), the distribution of gas to cities had been slowed down to allow for a greater degree of government control over the fuel. The president explained the situation and was categorical in his declarations: there was enough fuel for the whole country, there was no reason to panic. But as soon as people heard about a potential crisis, the city rapidly dried up in panic-induced scarcity. The streets were taken by long lines of cars waiting to fill their tanks, meticulously preparing for the crisis that unfolded around them.

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View of a gas station closed due to lack of fuel in Mexico City, on January 9, 2019. Photo by Pedro Pardo. Courtesy of Getty Images

In the days that followed, the crisis only intensified. Cars waiting in line turned into people lining up for hours, abandoning their parked cars around the city as their tanks began to run on empty. People stopped lining up early in the morning and instead decided to sleep in their cars overnight for a chance to fill their tanks. Driving through the city at night, I saw people waiting in line next to the gas stations with blankets, coffee, and music to make the long waiting more bearable. The crisis began to play out through everyday activities: gasoline-inspired playlists emerged on Spotify; in the corner shop, women would gather to discuss where to best find gas. And even with the now-prophetic sound of Gasolina, Fuel, and La Gasolina playing in the background of the city, the crisis was becoming more and more serious with every day that passed. People were starting to seriously worry about it. No one knew how long this was going to last. And in every conversation the topic would come up: Have you filled up your tank yet? Where? The government kept trying to convince people not to panic, but the general atmosphere suggested a different story – the situation kept getting worse.

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Cars line up for gas at a Pemex petrol station in Huehuetoca, Mexico. Photo by Pedro Pardo. Courtesy of Getty Images

Exactly when things were getting especially difficult, something seemed to change. The lines of people and cars turned into new patterns of movement in the city. Live maps showing the availability of gas across the city popped up on the internet. The new maps showing gas availability were quickly adopted across the city. The long waiting lines suddenly turned into different kinds of lines. These maps drew new trajectories for all those parked cars waiting to fill their tanks. The waiting lines turned into imagined trajectories from one part of the city to another, from scarcity to abundance of gas. Obviously, the amount of available fuel in the city remained the same, but the availability of gas in the city had dramatically changed with the new imaginaries of space. Mobility and space were re-configured, completely re-ordered by the lines of the emerging gas maps.

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People wait in line for gasoline at a gas station in Morelia, Mexico. Photo by Enrique Castro. Courtesy of Getty Images

Regarding the re-ordering of space by maps, J. B. Harley reminds us that a map is “a set of rules for the abstraction of the landscape, [...] the effects of abstraction, uniformity, repeatability, and visuality in shaping mental structures, and in imparting a sense of the places of the world” (p. 13). Those days, when the new maps emerged, the city was reimagined in the minds of people. Perhaps the maps allowed chilangos (Mexico City natives) to see the city with a different set of eyes. Maybe we were suddenly allowed to conceive of space under new terms, under a new set of possibilities of mobility and access. The amount of fuel in the city was the same, but the fear of scarcity largely went away. The maps allowed people to rethink the city and its possibilities, not only for finding gas, but also for moving across the city in an entirely new way.

Eventually the distribution of gas was normalized, and things came back to how they were before the gas crisis. One would hear people joking about the almost periodical crises of the city. One day it’s an earthquake, the other is water, the next is gas. “Mexico City drives on crisis,” said a man next to me. “In a way, the city was born out of a crisis,” said a woman. When I talked to my father about the gas crisis, he concluded the conversation in a jovial tone: “This city has seen it all by now. Whatever happens we will figure it out in one way or another.” In the end, it is hard to know the exact role that the maps played in the gas crisis in Mexico. I believe they were crucial in allowing people to re-think their city and their own possibilities for movement. After all, I saw how rapidly they were picked up by people on the streets and by the media. That being said, in a city of millions of people, uncertainty and partialness is always the rule. What exactly was re-imagined with the help of maps remains an elusive question. All I can say is that maybe the maps allowed chilangos to re-imagine our city under new terms. And in these complicated times for the planet, perhaps re-imagining new spaces of possibility in the world is already important enough. It could be that maps are more critical than we think.

Bio: Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo is a PhD student in cultural anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the energy transition in Mexico and the planning and construction of renewable energy projects in the Yucatan Peninsula.