The Knives of Mexico

He comes up behind us, taking the steps two at a time. No one does that here. There are some 350 steps to the top of the canyon. 203 to our house. You take your time. You are climbing a mountain. As he leaps past, I said, “Mucha energía!” Something like, Boy do you have energy. He said nothing.

I like to make comments to the youths in our callejones, our alleys. If he had stopped and turned toward me, I would have thought of offering him my hand–to make it personal and cordial and, from my side, respectful. Because there would be so much to overcome: my fifty more years than his; my white skin, his brown; my social class, it is unlikely his parents drive a seven-year old Honda CVR’s, or any car at all; my income–a fairly guaranteed pension and social security–and his Mexican minimum wage, at maybe three dollars an hour. I don’t even think it through that far. He is clearly not from here, because here no one climbs the stairs that way.

Our neighbor Manuel is just ahead of us, on the second flight of steep stairs. He carries two tall, narrow cardboard boxes with breathing holes. Each box holds two gallos de pelea, fighting cocks–one in the upper chamber, one below. He is eighty year old, his wife is dead, the gallos de pelea give his life meaning. He believes in fighting generally. He carries a kitchen knife in his pocket. It has a crude wooden handle and a rusty six-inch blade. He shows it to us a week later.

The young man with all the energy turns right at the head of the stairs, goes a spell, then stops and yells down to someone on the road below us–an opening between two tunnels. We chats for a moment longer with Manuel. The cocks have won two fights, and lost two fights. I know what losing means. The tied on, long, razor-like spurs inevitably kill one bird or the other. I have seen this happen, and it does not take long. Maybe thirty seconds. I am a smart ass, and say he could always eat the ones that lost. He does not understand my dubious humor and instead says something like, well, that’s the way it is with fighting cocks.

Maybe it is then that someone yells down to the road below us.

We say good night and turn left, trudging up a slant, turn right, and begin the last hundred steps. We have eaten with friends in the plaza Baratillo. I am in the grips of a cold, and wanted to leave Miguel’s restaurant early. Our friends walk slowly. I said I needed to go on ahead and get home and into bed. I am dragging up the stairs, half way up the last hundred, my wife a few steps ahead of me.

He comes up behind us, taking the steps two at a time. No one does that here. As he passes, for the second time I say, “Mucha energía,” boy do you have a lot of energy! And this time, as if to be more sociable, he turns a few steps above us and presents a knife, close in against his belly so others will not see it. Pointed at us.

My wife Elizabeth is a social creature and prepares to greet him, to engage with local youth, perhaps from our very own barrio–young people we try to warn away from sniffing glue, paint thinner, and magic marker.

As she chats with him amicably, I say–referring to his knife, “Eso no es una buena idea,” I don’t think that’s a very good idea.

And then, to Elizabeth, I say, “He has a knife.”

I have since tried to remember the young man’s first instructions. Now I realize, he may never have given any. My wife follows Buddhist principles and is already telling the young man to calm down.

“Here! Here’s some money,” she says.

She fishes a two-hundred peso note out of the Michoacán cloth purse that hangs around her neck. He stabs the air in front of him and says, “Más!” More!

“Take it easy, take it easy,” she says, and, like an efficient, compliant mother, plucks out a final twenty-peso note. Roughly another 1.67 dollars.

He gestures with the knife toward me, but addresses her. Clearly, with white skin, I do not understand Spanish, maybe not even the situation.

“Ahorita él!” Now him!

I have lived in Mexico for thirteen years. I have spent a lot of time hiding my money from people who might want to see what’s in my little, dirty, woven purse with two Aztec cats on each side. We are a few steps from our friend and housekeeper Lilia’s door, a crude adobe structure that butts up against our lower garden wall. That wall robs her of winter sun. The flat stones that hold down her buckled, laminated tin roof probably come from our property. We are her sole income. We would trust Lilia with our lives. It never occurs to us to call out to her.

A kind of tunnel thinking has set in. I am not aware of my surroundings. Not even of Lilia’s low, black, steel door, which once belonged to a structure we torn down on our property. I am focused on what is in my purse. I have been to the bank. I am about to hand over the 4,000 pesos or, roughly, $300.

Elizabeth, who tends to dominate social encounters sometimes, is ordering me to stop being a fool and hand over my money. My world has shrunk in on me. Elizabeth is speaking on behalf of young man with the knife.

“Give him your money!” she says, in with a tone, as if I’m holding up the fellow, or considering something stupid.

I am used to various kinds of social pressure from Elizabeth, and I have my methods of coping. But now, in the dim light of the alley stairs, I am using my seconds to separate my two credit cards, my Mexican driver’s licence, and my INSEN card (which gives me half-price tickets for ETN’s first class buses, the University Cine Club, and The Symphony) from my paper money. I am even trying to separate out my ATM receipts–an old habit, so people don’t know how much money I handle.

I extract my folded wad of money. He takes the 4,000 pesos–a windfall for him–with his left hand. With his right hand–the knife hand–he grabs for my four dirty Aztec cats. I pull the cats back out of his grip.

“Esto, no!” Not this! I say.

He is already moving down the steps. His knife sweeps by me but does not touch me. Elizabeth, guided by her Buddhist principles, wants to help and calls after him “Córrale, córrale!” Run, run! To help him with his escape.

I start after him, but realize at the same time how idiotic my going after him is. I do not leap up stairs two at a time. I am not a Samurai at the peak of my career. When I get to the base of our last hundred stairs, there is no sign of him. And the post-traumatic syndrome sets in.

I am numb. In the hot period, April and May, when we begin these last hundred stairs, we meet a stream of cool air coming down from the mountain. The alley is quiet and narrow. We know our neighbors on either side. We are always glad to be close to our house. Now, it is a place which is no longer safe.

Elizabeth climbs the few steps remaining to Lilia’s door. The whole event has taken something like thirty seconds. More, if you include my unwise pursuit and Elizabeth’s knocking. Lilia opens her black, hand-me-down steel door, steps forward, and listens to my wife’s report. She wants all the details. She shows no fear. At times, she is our cross-cultural mother, who explains Mexico to us. She is also a sort of block captain of our barrio, possibly still a PRIista, Partido Revolutionario Institucional, the party that ruled Mexico for seventy-one years, some say as a mixture of mafia and dictatorship.

Elizabeth tells her what had happened. She listens, reassures us, is calm. I tell her I won’t report the incident to the police, because everyone knows they won’t do anything. She agrees. That’s the way Mexico is. On the other hand, if someone breaks into your house, terrorizes you with a gun, and robs you, they will come and investigate.

But not a mugging–where the mugger has slipped away into the population, untraceable, except by recognition. Elizabeth claims she studied his face, but also that he looked like any number of young Mexicans. I think we wore a white baseball cap. I know the precise dimensions of his knife. A three-inch blade, two and a half inches wide. The kind used to skin deer–except that there are almost no deer left in hungry Mexico.

Elizabeth discounts the knife as small. I tell her, it was big enough to gut one or both of us.

We are afraid. We wonder whether he will return, thinking we are rich, because I was carrying 4,000 pesos, and that there must be more money in our house. That night, we lock ourselves in our bedroom. It is not like the U.S. where you can call the police and they will be there in five or ten minutes.

We spread the word among friends–ex-patriots and Mexicans. The city is a walking city. A day later, we run into Manuel of the gallos de pelea, the fighting cocks neighbor. He shows us his kitchen knife, tucked in his pants. He says he will use it if any one assaults him. No one will assault him, because he clearly doesn’t have a lot of money. Maybe a young Mexican can take one look at him and know the old guy will have a kitchen knife, and it isn’t worth tangling with him.

I find my old pepper spray. It’s expiration date is four years ago. I carry it anyway. Elizabeth disapproves. We both know that you’re not supposed to use it when the assailant has a knife or a gun. We talk with everyone–neighbors, strangers in our barrio, friends. We are compulsive. We can’t stop telling people. After a while, I no longer know whom I’ve told.

We begin the victims’ re-appraisal. I have been trained all my life to meet violence with violence. Sometimes, while driving, the impulse to return aggression starts to come out, and Elizabeth scolds me. Still, I wonder whether I should have stuck out my foot when he passed me, racing down the steps. If he had fallen hard, I could have jumped on his head with both feet and my full weight.

But then the scenario gets complicated. He fights back or I’ve injured him, or not injured him enough, and I have to do something violent all over again. It is hard to imagine these scenes, with Elizabeth’s Buddhist principles hanging in the air. We must have empathy, she says, but I know she is traumatized, too. Uncharacteristically, she snaps at a male friend who tells her glibly, “You folded.”

The next day, I go, anyway, to the Administrativo Publico, Police Headquarters. I sit patiently until it’s my turn. I take a chair in front of a woman at a steel desk, who sits in front of a computer. She brings up a form letter and begins filling specifics: my name, age, address, description of the assailant, and whether I knew him. She asks about the weapon, the details of what happened. I sign my name in a few places. I get up, put on my small backpack, and–knowing this has concluded the Police’s role–ask how I can defend myself.

She says I can apply to carry a weapon.

“You mean a pistol?” I ask.

She nods.

I thank her.

Of course, everyone knows only the military and the police can carry weapons in Mexico. I have lived in the country long enough to accept contradictions and wrong information. I wonder how much energy to invest in the possibility that what she has told me is true. As someone huffed later, applying for a weapons permit doesn’t mean the application will be accepted. So, yes, it is true you can apply.

I go on-line to Amazon and look up self-defense weapons. I remember there are telescopic truncheons made of steel, which can be flip out into a two-foot club. I try to imagine myself getting past the deer skinning knife and delivering potentially lethal blows against the young man’s head.

I tell Elizabeth about my internet investigations. She mentions the young man may have been desperate to buy more drugs, or medicine for a sick relative. He was very nervous, she reminds me, looking around, gesturing with his gutting knife, speeding up the transfer of money, leaving quickly, to ensure his safe retreat. I also realize the authorities would not be happy with me, if I killed or gravely injured a young Mexican who had simply needed money. Ninety-five percent of Mexicans need money.

Besides, I am not a Samurai at the peak of his career.

We return home one afternoon. There is a narrow ledge on the graffitied, orange, steel door that leads to our garden– thirty steps up from Lilia’s black, hand-me-down steel door. I see a large scorpion on the ledge, facing us. It’s always an exciting discovery, and a happy one, to see the scorpion first, before you put your hand on it.

I play a game. I say, “Look,” without being more specific.

Elizabeth sees it immediately. She says wow. I take my longest key and touch its left claw. There is no reaction. I flick it off the door. It falls to the pavement. There is no movement. It also has no stinger, in fact, no tail at all. It didn’t get up on the ledge by itself. Someone put it there, so that it faced us, as if it were a totem or message.

I think immediately of the young man. Dianne mentions that Lilia has said that the neighbor just below her believes in and practices witchcraft. Whoever did it, I find it menacing. It has never happened before. Ever, in thirteen years. I do not know what it is supposed to mean that the scorpion has had it stinger cut off, along with the rest of it tail.

I have flashbacks. I imagine myself grabbing a good-sized rock–they were lying close by–and throwing it after him as he runs down the steps. It either hurts him, or he comes back. The hit would have to crush his skull–a bad outcome for me, as well as for him. Also un-Buddhist.

I delete the scenario. I have heard you can buy pepper spray in town. I go to the Punk store that sells them. They are back ordered. Maybe. I see I can buy a knife very much like the one the young man used. It is too easy to lose a knife fight. With a twenty-five year old who moves quicker than I do. A slash across the eye or the jugular, I calculate, is not worth it–for $300.

I talk to my closest Mexican friend. We examine the reasons for muggings. The fathers have disappeared in the North (to the U.S.), looking for work. Or, with bottle in hand, just disappeared. The assailants live with their mothers. They are embarrassed to have their mothers buying their clothes. They have failed at school, for various reasons. They have no future in Mexico. Their country suffers from a lack of social responsibility, among its political and religious leaders. The problem is systemic. There are no easy answers.

What about the police? I ask.

They are poorly trained and underpaid, says my friend. The city has few roads and countless alleys through which people move. It is impossible to guard all the allies. Foot patrols would help, but there are not enough police. There is not enough money to hire and train them. There is a lack of vision, as well, as to what trained would look like. The problem is a local one, because the town to the east of us has a highly trained police force. Many wealthy foreigners live there. They may have insisted on training.

I have hopes for the lad that attacked us. He seems like an enterprising alpha type of male, who might lead a different life under other circumstances. Perhaps a banker, or a hedge fund manager. Eventually, he will meet someone who will pay him a great deal of money to deliver drugs, collect debts, or hurt someone badly in the trade. And if that happens, eventually someone will decide to tie his hands behind him, have him lie down, and put a bullet in the back of his head. And so, in fact, I do not see a lot of hope.

For the time being, it seems like everyone in Mexico has a knife–the young man, Manuel, even the gallos de pelea. But not the scorpion on our garden door.

I learn that a French friend and two of her companions were mugged by three teenagers. At least one of them had a knife, too. Though she thought it was made of plastic. He supposedly jabbed at their eyes with it. The French women resisted. The boys beat them, took their money and cell phones. She was disgusted. They went to the police. The police said, “You came to the police because you lost 300 pesos?”

I try to create perspective, like, who are all the muggers in the equation? Which of us foreigners, in the past, has mugged Mexico, and indirectly the young men who are mugging us? There are the usual suspects. Like Hernan Cortéz, the French, English, Spanish, and Americans. Bank-backed American and Canadian mining operations, which take the subterranean wealth, which, according to the Mexican Constitution supposedly belongs to all the people.

There are internal colonialists, as well. The monopolists, powerful lazy bureaucrats, and politicians who give themselves pensions for life, flourish a general lack of social responsibility and an attitude of chingar your others before they would unto you.

I include the International Monetary Fund (the IMF), as well. Their words: we will bail you out, make further loans for the moneys your elite have already stolen, if you take out your economist knives, cut social services, and let our corporations in to feed on the wealth. I include the Government’s use of public savings (FOBAPROA) to pay off the national debt incurred by white collar robbers at the highest levels.

Then there is NAFTA, designed to defeat Mexican protectionism, offer no safety to union organizers–and bring in Monsanto corn, against which Mexican campesinos can not compete. They abandon their milpas, corn plots, and retreat to the cities, where there is no work. The campesinos were the guardians of the fields and the land, which have been the well-spring of and inspiration for Mexican art, food, and culture.

This is the pattern of colonial extraction, both internal and foreign–a constant mugging which weakens youth’s chance of getting an education and finding a job. 60% of the population lives in poverty. There are no jobs. Education for the masses is poor. The strong and bright flee north. The border gets tighter and tighter. There is nowhere to go. So why not pick off a few foreigners, and extract the cash they get with their debit cards? Except that they also rob Mexicans–students, merchants. Tourists from South America. All this, while the wealthy, beautiful Mexicans send their children to Harvard.

Where does it stand now? I still carry the pepper spray which went out of date in 2008. I leave my credit and debit card at home, hidden. I carry only enough cash for my errands. I still look for predators, hawks watching, their glance lingering too long, showing too much interest. I still look at each young man I pass to see if it’s him.

The Pope is coming, and I am shifting my attention to him. He may be coming to support the Christian Right here, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), maybe to stir up the old Cristero War of 1926, low intensity, with the wink “Viva Cristo Rey!” Long live King Christ! Offering religion as youth’s opiate–mugging for God.

Huge crowds are expected. I suppose my young man is preparing. He waits for night, in the alleys, with his scorpion knife, and nervous eyes. Maybe with two buddies. And the last thing there are thinking about is how their society has long since had its knives out for them–and has long since cut off their stingers.

One thought on “The Knives of Mexico

Leave a Reply