The Cockroach Effect

I can remember my most significant cockroach experiences. One was in Greece, on the Peloponnesus—in a bathroom. In desperation, we had knocked on the door of a fine stone house in a coastal town to ask for information about local lodging. An ancient, educated-looking woman opened the door. She said yes she herself rented rooms but none were available at the moment. I remember lingering, on the cultural theory that people often say no at first then change their minds when they begin to feel more confident about you. Finally, we went back down the stone steps that had led up to her door.

“Wait!” she said. “I will give you my room. Come back in a quarter of an hour, I can sleep on a couch.”

We were very tired, still we protested, looking up at her. But she insisted and, still apologizing, we returned about twenty minutes and brought in our bags.

She showed us the bathroom, to be reached by going outside, crossing a short open breezeway to a small separate room—which I visited soon enough. While seated inside, contemplating a Greek generosity that may have been older than Homer, I looked down at the floor and saw the largest cockroach I have every seen in my life, with ancestors, I have read since, from the tribe of βλάττη (bláttē), going back 295–354 million years.

I don’t remember whether this prehistorica hexapod was dead or alive. Many cultures now use a brew of disinfectant and insecticide to clean around toilets, and so it is very likely this particular descendant would have his or her genetic line cut short.

The second time was in Guanajuato, Mexico, in the same type of location—in all respects—a bug the length of my middle finger, which would be three and three-quarters inches. Since I tend to exaggerate size of fish and other things, let us cut that length in half, and still have a cucaracha that exceeds anything listed by Wiki-whatever. In my own defense, I should add that just the sight of one of these creatures physically increases its size, and so I shall revise upward to two inches, as my final figure. Maybe two and a half.

I believe this chestnut-colored blattoid was also fairly dead. Vital statistics are not critical in these matters. When you see one of these creepy-crawler forward scouts, the reaction is visceral and must have been hard-wired into our sensibilities when we first stood up on our hind legs to gain some perspective. Time and place are of little importance, a cockroach can appear anywhere, dead or alive, but when it does, we fear (or welcome) that the abnormal (indifference, cruelty and violence) can become the normal, and we suffer from what Jeffrey Alan Lockwood refers to as the “infested mind.”

People refer to the cockroach effect during the current crisis of governability in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where now citizen self-defense group carry forbidden AK47’s and AR-15’s, military grade assault rifles. These are citizens that are no longer willing to put up with the years of extortion, kidnapping, rape, disappearance and murder.

Police use cucaracha efecto to describe the relocation of criminals when the authorities put pressure on them—when the criminals slip away and take up their activities in other areas and out of sight of the pickup-mounted machineguns of the Federal Police and the truckloads of Army soldiers.

In a second way, the Mexican government uses the term to confuse the public by equating the self-defense groups with the armed drug cartels, thereby de-glorifying the former and continuing to ignore the latter. There is evidence that the self-defense idea is spreading. A large portion of the citizenry is willing to turn to vigilantism if the government, at all levels, is too weak, incompetent, indolent and corrupt to defend them from devastating criminal activity.

I would add a third meaning—the irruption of something abhorrent, predatory and relatively indestructible (cockroaches can live several days after having their heads cut off; instead of starving, they eat each other), that lacks all conscience or empathy—something like a man, worst of all an adolescent, with an AK47 assault rifle, a weapon capable of shooting through the walls of two houses and still kill you—with indifference.

I shall add a fourth meaning: Cockroaches don’t like to be seen, they come out at night, they live right under our noses but flee when we turn on a light. In fact, they can serve as a two-edged metaphor for 1) corruption, breath-taking graft—but also 2) at the same time, in Mexican folklore, for opposition to colonialism.

Think of colonialism as the extraction practiced by drug cartel rule (extortion, kidnapping, taking women and girls) and State rule (skimming the people’s resources, funneling profits toward the rich).

Think of the cucaracha as 2) citizen opposition to the political structures and attitudes that permit that extraction, that extortion, that skimming.

There is a difference, though, and that is that the self-defense cucarachas do not hide when you turn on the light.

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