The Barrio Organizes

Yesterday at 6 PM, we had our first barrio (neighborhood) meeting to discuss how we could keep our glue-sniffing (now mota-gulping) local teenagers from slipping over into the hands of narco subgroups. Mota is marihuana. Its new availability already means the kids are branching out, bringing in the pesos. Making wider connections. The more surface agenda for the meeting was neighborhood security in general. That included keeping the Army out—because the Army is a force unto itself and is credited with ham-handed tactics which include shooting people or, in some cases, it is said, disappearing them—all under the umbrella of pursuing the struggle against the cartels.

D and C had prepared intensively. They produced printouts: announcements, contact numbers and the names of agencies for help with alcohol and drug addiction, for how to communicate with your teenager, even an announcement of a meeting taking place in an adjoining barrio in a few days, so that those interested could attend—also, so that people could see that our off efforts to take matters into our own hands was not unique.

On the half–sheet of plywood I carried out, D and C taped the following agenda–on red poster paper:

Ventajas (advantages, things were like about our barrio).
Expectativas (our dreams, hopes, wishes for the barrio).
Problemas y Recursos (existing problems and already existing resources for dealing with them).
Acuerdos (agreements we reach for action)
Fecha de la próxima reunión (date of the next meeting)

D made popcorn. There was a bottle of hot salsa, the way some people like their popcorn. We carried everything out. It was a little after 6 PM. I had no idea what might happen. Two women approached from above, coming down the steps on the callejón, the alley. I had images of whacked out teenage thugs breaking up the meeting. To be honest, I even had a brief image of gunfire. There have been deadly narco attacks on drug rehabilitation clinics up nearer the border. I wasn’t sure we knew what we were dealing with by organizing against, for the most part, unchecked small-scale crime and addiction to inhalants and alcohol. I wasn’t sure whether D and C were misjudging the situation. I wasn’t sure to what extent there would be resistance. Or threats. I knew enough about culture to know I didn’t understand what I was happening around me.

Two more people should up. On of them Manuelito, D’s reading student, the boy no one washes. He has read almost every one of the thirty or so books D has accumulated. The last one was a book on how to play chess. I told him I would play with him sometime in the future. In the meantime, I pump up the younger boys’ ragged soccer balls. That is my work with the next generation as they prepare to run the drug gauntlet only a few years from now.

Manuelito stayed for the whole meeting. He was the only child who was actually participating. D had brought crayons and extra paper for children to draw or write their dreams (expectativas). He lay down on the sidewalk right away and began to draw.

In the end, there were something like thirty-five people. Under the category Existing Positive Things about the Barrio, people mentioned the beauty of the city, the presence of so many concerned neighbors, and the many children who played quite peacefully in our midst.

For Dreams, people wanted more religious holidays, the graffiti painted away, the nuisance vacant lot sealed off, more places for children to play, more police vigilance, more security in general, waste paper baskets for the waste created by snacks and soft drinks people consumed—in general, an end to the ugliness created by people who didn’t care.

The Problems, of course, had to do with the drug consumption, sniffing inhalants, the resulting violent and disrespectful behavior and the growing lack of security for everyone after sunset. Two of the mothers of problem kids were present. I took them small paper plates of popcorn. I notice one of them put hers aside. I had not consciously realized it before, but she had long since lost the teeth to eat it with. They had come, I suppose, to monitor our actions, to be on the lookout for any infringement on their sons’ right to sell mota–marijuana, or inhalants.

More people came–many I had never really seen before. They complained about trash being dumped in other nearby vacant lots. About mugger types ambling past their homes, keeping them from going out at night. What to do about the problems? Go to the Presidencia and get them to seal off the vacant lots. D and C emphasized that no one wanted to blame the juveniles or have them go to jail; that they should finish get an education and find jobs and do well earning a living. That it made no sense to call the police when you saw a drugged out kid who was being disrespectful, even threatening. That the concerned citizens should call the mothers instead.

In the end, we agreed to go to the Presidencia. We agreed to bring in experts on community education. We agreed to get the vacant lot owner to pay attention to the lot and seal it off so the kids couldn’t sell drugs there or get zonked on paint thinner, thereby destroying their brains at the same time.

The woman who had earlier told D and C she had been instructed not to reveal the name and information of the lot owner—the aunt or mother of one of the most problematic adolescents—volunteered to find out who owned the lot. C said she would write a solicitud (formal letter of request for information regarding the ownership of the lot. I had been to the Presidencia three times asking for help with the abandoned lot. With complete disinterest, the authorities told me I had to write a formal solicitud. That would be a written request for the information I had just asked for. Since I can’t write the tortured Byzantine language of Mexican bureaucracy, C wrote the letter. I’m not even sure I could write such a letter in English. I do not expect the aunt or mother of the problem kid to follow through. I do not expect the city to enjoin anyone to do anything about the lot. I am not even really sure the lot rightfully belongs to anyone, since the lot “owner” was squatting on it in the first place and has reportedly since died. (There is a legal path to ownership by which you build a fence around the land you’re claiming, post your name, and hang on to it for ten years.) In the meantime, the man’s widow may or may not have been “hanging onto the lot” in a way acceptable to the disinterested city bureaucracy. Hence, a property in limbo.

At one point, a couple of the local pre-hooligan lads crossed through the meeting, averting their gaze with studied non-interest—while everyone’s eyes followed them through. Younger children came and bought candy at the tiny store fifteen steps from out door. Some sat on the steps with the relatives. An hour and a half had passed. The participants agreed to meet again in two weeks. Some stayed behind to chat. The whole thing had come off as a kind of morality play with everyone playing a role. C and D were the organizers, G was the note taker at the paper on the sheet of plywood. The drug dealers’ mothers and aunts played the role of concerned good citizens looking out for their children’s rights. Most everyone else was an indignant citizen who, without any help from the city government, was trying to figure out how to gain control over the gone-to-hell neighborhood. I had played the role of popcorn server and alien gringo, with little noticeable social credit, in spite of all my afternoons of re-inflating the younger boys’ cheap, beat-up, half-dead, soccer balls. Manuelito, the boy no one washes—on the paper laid out for children to write their expectativas, their dreams—had written “No drogas,” no drugs! then a picture of a bottle of beer that said “Corona” and finally “…hay que vivir guntos (he meant juntos),” we have to live together (in peace). Mother Teresa allegedly wrote: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Mother Teresa and Manuelito.

A much larger crowed showed up at the community meeting the in the nearby Plaza Mexiamora. A city official attended but–we were told–looked away and chatted with someone else whenever a citizen addressed him during the meeting. At one point, three of the local trouble–makers strutted through. The crowd, angry and hostile, surrounded them. One of the punks, it is said, began to cry. Two policemen who stood nearby did not engage with either the citizens or the punks—who are also citizens but just don’t know it; and with luck will someday become leaders in their barrio.

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