Two of the neighbors, both women, were afraid. They wanted the police to be invited to our neighborhood Iluminación festival for the Virgin of Guanajuato, an event that was to occur just outside our front door. They were not the only ones who thought our local pre-cartel paint thinner sniffers might disrupt the gathering—I was another one. But the barrio steering committee persuaded the two women that police presence would destroy the whole purpose of neighbors coming together to honor The Virgin of Guanajuato, eat together, and build Solidarity. Plus, the event would occur between 4 and 6 pm, before it got dark, and the usual suspects did not start winding up their anti-social engines (on vapors) until darkness gave them cover.
Still, proceeding with the event took some courage on everyone’s part. No one could tell to what extent community organizing might draw a response from people at a somewhat higher pre-cartel level. We knew from previous experience that our locals could, and had before, called in other gangbangers from outside our barrio to signal their control over our public space.
D. and I had come up behind two of the principal local gangbangers that morning. They were climbing the stairs in front of us toward the upper ring road. They said, yes, yes, they would come to the celebration. As they walked ahead of us they kept looking back. I asked D. why they kept looking back; what was the psychological explanation? It is hard to know anymore when the glue and paint thinner sniffing has done its damage. Already, their motor coordination was disturbed; already they staggered and had trouble lifting their legs for each new step. Their looking back was the automatic behavior of disturbed, deeply frightened animals.
At the same time, community organizing had been under way for the last six weeks, with D. and C. talking to all the mothers and some of the men in the neighborhood, for hours at a time. D. read books on Conflict Resolution in Spanish, drew graphs, and condensed her reading into summarizing handouts. The principal graph took the form of a triangle. The lower levels described the foundation for the tip of the triangle: action. That is to say, the community could not correct matters regarding trash, graffiti, drinking and drugs in the alleys, social respect, and safety if action was not first based in conflict resolution and trust building—and simple agreements like not calling the police before talking to one’s neighbor or to the steering committee.
At first, we weren’t sure if anyone would come. A couple from the organizing committee hung a sheet over an ugly graffitied wall, then hung a framed picture of the Virgin of Guanajuato from a nail. They placed two plastic pails with flowers just below her. People stretched strings of small triangular yellow flags across the intersection of two alleys. Then, the neighborhood’s families began to trickle in. In the end, there were more than fifty people—including two of the drug-dealing families (i.e. mothers or aunts), but not the drug dealers themselves.
In what appears to Mexican style, family groups sat with their own; the most alienated—the drinking and drug dealing families—sat at the fringes but were still present and observing. K., a very experienced young friend, conducted a drawing workshop for the children at a table a little uphill from the food tables. She asked the kids to draw their own house, then people the picture with anyone they wanted. I stretched a clothesline between two concrete nails hammered into the front of our house, over the little table with the CD player and speakers—a spot I thought would attract the most attention, and we hung the kids’ drawings on the clothesline as–I like to think–an indication of what was most important to all of us: guiding the next generation of youth in a different kind of direction.
Some eight women spread food out on the tables where they filled chalupas, sopes and other kinds of baked or deep-fried formed tortillas with bits of ham and rice. Women who have feuded for years stood next to each other, smiling, serving the food. The president of the steering committee handed out plates of food. I brought cups of hot ponche – non-alcohol punch made from cinnamon, guava, tamarindo and carmelized sugar – to the outliers, the shy, the most alienated, to emphasize that they too were included.
Most of these people—the most alienated—sat around a corner from the main scene but were still able to see the CD player and the art wall. Three of these men had come to drink beer—one of the few ways for them to be present in a social setting. One of them was very drunk already. I brought him a chair; I brought him punch; others brought him food. He was shy and inarticulate; still, he wanted to be near the party.
One of the other two drinkers – a cargador – a man who carries heavy things (bricks, sand, bags of cement) up and down the canyon’s sides – approached R., a small woman, who was seated on the front steps of the entrance to her tienda – store – situated twelve strides from our front door. Just above her and to one side of the door she had opened the hinged glass window to her niche, in which was enclosed another Virgin of Guanajuato, illuminated by two votive candles and framed by flowers. R. was ladling out her own version of the Iluminación ponche. I was sitting right in front of her, so I heard what happened.
The beer drinker cargador, a man of essentially no education whatsoever, huge, rough and unwashed, asked R. to sell him a caguama – a liter bottle of beer. And R. said, very sweetly, “Ah no, Sir, I am not able to sell you one because we want it to be tranquilo here.”
He repeated the request.
She repeated her gentle refusal. The cargador lost a little face and retreated. Soon after a man came looking for him for a carrying task, and he left the gathering with a flash of recovered pride in his eyes.
R. the other beer drinker–a former glue sniffer who has somehow escaped from that circle of hell–held a caguama in his hands for at least a half an hour, but I never saw him drink from it. Perhaps he realized he didn’t have to drink to have a good time and probably because I and others had fussed over him, trying to show him we considered him one of us.
At one point, the very drunk man ghosted through the crowd, pushed open the door to the walled off vacant lot behind the food women and went in to pee. It took him a long time to reemerge and shuffle back around the corner to the margins of the festival.
People ate chapulas and drank ponche and looked at each other, even at other family groups, and smiled. I played CD’s of Cuban music and rustic music from Veracruz that included a harp. The first plucked notes of harp in the first song brought a small hoop from the abstaining beer drinker R; and I was delighted that there was still a place inside him that resonated with this simple, exuberant folk music.
People continuously passed through the crossroads of the two intersecting allies, on their way up from or down to the city. A few semi–recovered glue–sniffing adolescents bounced through, glad, I thought, to be making an appearance. I tried to detain two of them–boys I had known for years, beckoning them to come drink a ponche, eat a sope or chalupa. They smiled broadly but did not stay. But almost.
The steering committee stood on a high spot and thanked everyone for coming. D. announced that each child that had drawn a picture was to receive a bag of candies (there were twenty-five bags in all, supplied by a woman who could not attend); then the requirement was just being a child; or the mother of a child. The cooks protested that they too were deserving. I lobbied for R., the non-drinking beer drinker, but he was beaten out by another baby and her mother. He took it well, I thought.
Then it was getting dark, and we began to pack up. There had been no disruption from enraged gangbangers, no bouncing hand grenades, no attacks, no violence—no reason for fear. Just by being there, I thought we had shown that we cared about our barrio and were united in making it better—better for the young artists whose drawings hung on the clothesline, and for everyone one else—even for those not present. Word gets around. The report will be that something good happened. And in Mexico, that is always wonderful news.