Bright Land, Dark Land

The Mexico I write about focuses “…on a Mexico where cataclysmic events erupt, where war, mob hysteria, sudden dark preoccupations, collapsing structures, and anarchy lie just below generosity, intelligence, humor, and stubborn patience” (from “About My Stories,” www.sterlingbennett.com).

Leaving town or city and walking through Mexico’s countryside leads you quickly into what Bonfil Batalla calls México profundo, Deep Mexico. It is like stepping back into the early nineteen hundreds, perhaps further back. The paths are narrow–the width of a horse or cow’s tread. You pass a man on foot, carrying a machete, the symbol of campesino work and manhood—also of poverty. You can tell the timetable of the traveler in front or in back of you by the freshness of the burro droppings. Sometimes a man on horseback overtakes you. There are no fences—at least not until you approach the banks of a stream, where the land is flat and the top soil deeper. Even these fences are mainly to keep livestock out of the milpas—the small-farmer corn plantings. Once in a while, on the hillsides around you, you hear a dog bark or a goat bleat. Then you look for the goatherd, who is there somewhere in shade and has probably spotted you long since and is watching you pass through his life and time.

There is one such a path, and I will not name it exactly. It leads from a mountain village to a busy road perhaps four miles away, dropping down, then flattening out beside the creek. The path is wild, and the dimensions you enter are very old and different from the world of cell phones and communication chatter. No roads cross your path. There are no telephone poles. No national park path signs telling where you’re going, how far it is, the name of your destination. You are on Deep Mexican time, and you are walking in Deep Mexican space. You are safe from muggers, garbage, narcos, and the pressures of high-density living. Your urban soul breathes a sigh of relief. The land is luminescent and ancient. Still, you remain alert. You know you are also passing through a world of matter-of-fact cruelty toward animals and intolerance of women’s independence—and something behind all the luminescence that is dark and that you don’t understand.

There is a village at the lower end of the trail and, just before this village, a hollow surrounded by pirules – pepper trees – and old stone foundations from an earlier time. This is the area where several members of the local symphony orchestra bought land, with the intention of building modest houses some time in the future.

My friend built a shelter right away, an essentially one-room house made of hewn stone and heavy mesquite beams. The purchase occurred according to real-estate law and was entered into the escrituras–the public record. But as he built, on a shoe string, men would appear—up to thirty of them at a time—and sit on the old walls and stare at him.

I am not sure how many times this happened. They were from the village at the other end of the four-mile trail. They were ejidatarios—communal owners of a section of land – ejido – given to landless farmer by the Lázaro Cárdenes government in 1934—in this case the piece of magical land that extended from the village four miles away, at the upper end of the trail, right up to my friend’s modest dwelling. The staring men came in their pickup trucks and cars over modern roads. In their minds, the ejido extended up to and over my friend’s small lot as well.

My friend continued to build—stone by stone. The musicians went to court, with a lawyer, to clear up once and for all the question of who owned what. The judge—even the governor of the state—agreed that the ejido did not include their property, and there were old maps to prove it.

There had been other developments to reassure my friend and the rest of the musicians. In 1991, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari managed to have his minions rewrite Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, breaking the ejidatarios’ communal hold on their lands. NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement—which the U.S. Congress passed largely without reading it), the World Bank and the U.S. Government required assurances that Mexican ejidatarios would not be able to invoke old claims and pull the rug out from under corporate privatizing. With this stroke of the pen, the ideals of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and peasant and indigenous land rights took a step backward, and ejidatarios became vulnerable to internal and external manipulation.

Time passed, and my friend began to sleep in his dwelling. He kept his musical instruments, books, and bicycles there. We gave him a bed so he could sleep up off the floor. He had metal doors he could lock. He lived at the edge of a modest settlement between him and the highway. His neighbors kept their eyes out for him and looked after his stone cabin.

Another man owned a large section of land close by; at least, he said he owned it, but may not have. He sold off many small parcels; the new lot owners put up shacks—maybe twenty of them—to stake their claim upon the land. The ejidatarios in the distant village did not like the new shacks. One Thursday, they came in their cars and trucks again. Five police trucks arrived with them, plus a large backhoe. The ejidatarios had documents; they showed them to the police. The police stood by while the backhoe smashed the shacks on the nearby parcel of land. The ejidatarios’ families were also present. They cooked food and ate and drank. They were camped near my friend’s modest dwelling. When the police left, the picnickers broke open the metal doors and, exchanging blows, fought over my friend’s possession—three trumpets, bikes, clothes, his serving camp stove, dishes, everything. Including the small metal bed we had given him, including the piece of 3/8 plywood I had shaped for the top of the little bed.

The big backhoe—I am quite sure I saw it working alongside the busy highway the next day—backed into position between the old foundation walls and pepper trees—pirules. It was a magnificent machine with a hydraulic front end loader and a hydraulic backhoe behind. Mexican workers on an adobe project next door—men who most likely do not read—entered my friend’s house and saved his books and music, but then felt threatened and left. Then the backhoe operator reached out with the backhoe arm and pulled my friend’s house apart—leaving a rubble of loose stone, two twisted metal doors and two mesquite beams too heavy for the looters to carry away.

A little later, my friend received a call on his cell phone. He was on his way home. One of the other musicians warned him not to go out to his house, they had bulldozed it, his life might be in danger. In Mexico, you listen to warnings like that. My friend drove out anyway, parked some distance away, put on a black shirt and crept through the dark, close enough in the darkness to see that his home and everything he owned had been destroyed.

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