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An Interview with the Filmmaker Ludwig Carnival

Guanajuato, Mexico, Oct.5, 2017

George Bunyan Interviews the filmmaker Ludwig Carnival on the health of Mexican film.*

GB: From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of very good films everywhere that don’t make it to the big screen. Is there anything we citizens can do about that?

LC: Yes. Stop watching mindless television. Demand art and thoughtful content.

GB: Isn’t that the argument of the artistic elite?

LC: It certainly isn’t the argument of the commercial elite. For them money, not art, is what is important.

GB: But without money, your films won’t reach the public.

LC: It depends on what you mean by public. People huddled in the flickering, blue light of their televisions, alone, hypnotized, without any questions forming in their brains as to what things mean. It’s a kind of self-selected numbing, distraction, excitement without insight, where you don’t remember what you’ve seen.

I recently went to a small movie house in Dahlem, an area in Berlin. I wanted to see whether it was still there fifty years after I had been a student there. My wife and I were the only people sitting in the theater. The movie was about raising salmon in desert in a Middle East country. That was the gimmick. That’s why it got picked up and distributed.

The movie house had endured because a series of owners loved film. There was nothing elite about the place or its activities. The billboard indicated that thoughtful films were the large part of the offering. In particular: The Thirty-Nine Steps, directed by Hitchcock. The Grande Illusion, with Erik von Stroheim. The Bicycle Thief. And the Mexican film Heli, by Amat Escalante. Criticized in some places for its violence.

GB: Violence sells, so does sex, so does white.

LC: That’s the sad part. The whiteness. So many films without cultural diversity, but revealing the racial assumptions that give cohesion to the dominant ethnicity. That is what characterizes blockbusters. Violence as the manifestation of strength and, usually, of male dominance, as in constant war and sex, as in the enticing postures of women that show thighs and breast, as if that were mainly what they are about.

I grew up in a whiteness, just south of Boston. My adolescent friends and I heard about the film Bitter Rice being played in a nearby seaport. We didn’t tell our parents what we were about to do, the three of us stealing away like plotting murderers , and hitchhiked to the town, praying the ticket booth would let us in, although we were years under-age. The crime we got to commit? We got to see nineteen-year old movie actress Silvana Mangano’s thighs and breasts. And violence. I remember thinking there must be something dirty about the whole thing because it was also Italian, and Italians, I knew, ate innocent people alive in East Boston. So many prejudices already growing like permanent cultural fungus in my young soul. At least it was international. But it had made it to the big American screen because of breasts and thighs. And probably also because of its dirtiness. Some critics called it Marxist because it dealt with labor issues.

GB: What about violence in Mexican films? Take the film Heli that you mentioned.

LC: I’ve seen the film. There is violence. But it’s not gratuitous violence. It shows unspeakable cruelty and torture, but it’s there for a reason. That is what goes on in a country with a long history of the absence of the rule of law; where educational and job-training opportunities tend to be out of the range of humble people; where the elite gather wealth and power, in their own way stealing from the rest of us with their monopolies. Anyone can join the drug cartels and become the cannon fodder for the incredibly bloody wars to control shipping and markets. The violence shows the depravity of a part of a desperate society where the only protection is neighbors looking our for neighbors.  Escalante rubs your face in it. Not to titillate and entertain, but to make you incensed that the powers at the top have allowed such a society to evolve. A society that we all in some ways help perpetuate every day. And in that way it is about Everyman and Every Country.

GB: What are you working on now?

LC: I’m writing a screen play about a corrupt federal policeman in Tampico in 1938, who looks for his angry, missing son in a city wracked by petroleum workers’ strikes. Where brutal counter measures produce limbless bodies floating in the Pánuco River, chewed on by oversized crocodiles and bumped against at night by submerged German U-boats, inching upstream. Where everything points to the coming slaughters of the Second World War, some of which is already beginning in that oil port.

GB: So the same old problems continue?

LC: The same problems exist. What sells is youth, young sexuality, young thighs and breasts, bulging muscles, guns, killing bad guys, winning the usually white beauties as if they were circus prizes.

What’s missing are the small joys, the small courtesies, I want to say, sweetness that strangers share, the fragility of unusual love. What sells is war, weapons, feats of unreal courage, blowing up things, car chases, high-tech crime fighting. A hip hollowness. Heroes wrapped in invincibility. The abundance of clichés.

Heli, the film by Amat Escalante, is slow, unrelenting. At one point, if I remember correctly, an Army pickup drives right up to the door of an innocent protagonist’s modest house, with its mounted, manned, heavy machine gun pointed right at the protagonist, what seems like centimeters away. It is a scene about menace. About the power of the State to threaten or run amok with impunity. A metaphor for what good people are up against in this country of ours. It is but one of countless brilliant scenes. Escalante’s films should be supported by patrons of the arts everywhere. As should those of countless other young filmmakers in this old and noble country.

GB: Thank you for your time.

LC: You’re very welcome.

*A reminder that this was a fictitious interview.

 

 

The Orphan Line

I don’t know anything about orphan lines, except for what I can intuit. To be passed over by a friendly-looking, warm couple must be devastating. And hardening. Why wouldn’t they choose me? I am a good person. Only abandoned. Nothing more. I began using this comparison at the Writers Digest 2017 Conference in New York. For the last hour of four pitch slam sessions about 150 hopefuls poured into a large conference room where some seventy, or was it fifty? literary agents sat at little tables with their backs to the wall. The carefully announced and mapped numbers on the tables did not exist. I approached my number one choice, waited six minutes, as two other orphans talked to her in three-minute intervals, and then sat down. I gave her my spiel, carefully rewritten and rehearsed. She was uninterested. I said thank you and moved on. The next person rejected me as well. I grew more frantic. I abandoned the script. It didn’t seem to be working, aside from not really describing my novel. “Send me five pages.” Okay, that was better than nothing. I used broader, longer strokes. These were interesting times. The nationalization of Mexico oil. Eyes glaze over. But Frida did go to Tampico to welcome Trotsky and Natalia to Mexico. Eyes focus more. The Checka, or Stalinist secret police, did follow dissidents to Paris, Madrid and Mexico City to silence or punish or simply liquidate—to protect Stalin’s concept of the Soviet State as embodied by him. An example for things to come right here? I didn’t say that. “Send me a query.” “Send me ten pages.” No one adopted me, but at least they were offering to look at my teeth, see if my ears were clean, whether my feet pointed straight forward. My right veers a little off to my right. In search of rectitude, I suppose. I stand with it a little behind. The Fearful First Position? To disguise my flaws in general. Maybe you won’t notice. I certainly don’t. A little shattered, but not too much, I straighten myself for the next visit from those who may or may not choose me to be their publishing child.

Final Pitch Slam Pitch

 

Front (top) and Back (bottom image).

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The pitch I gave in New York to a group of editors and literary agents changed constantly. As they warned it might. You had 90 seconds to explain the novel and entice interest.

This was the first final version:

“On the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil, the darkness of the Spanish Civil War— as in Stalin’s secret police liquidating anarchists and Trotskyists—spills over into a 1938 Mexican oil port…( space for a pause, while you try to think how it goes from here)…

…a place where federal anti-corruption officer Tomas Ortiz is looking for his estranged son and hoping to regain his wife’s love.

Tomas slips into deeper water, when he learns that his son is living with a young refugee, that they have two little girls and that she—an anarchist and defender of petroleum workers’ rights—is the object of a suspicious search by a man who has followed her from Madrid and claims to be her father.

In all this, Tomas is guided by a highly developed moral compass, which comes with a few flaws; namely, that he’s been unfaithful to his wife, he hallucinates and he’s a kleptomaniac.”

When that pitch didn’t seem to be working, I changed gears. I started to talk about the period, the convergence of big events, the stinking oil port teeming with agents of all sorts. Socialists, anarchists, communists that were Trotskyists or Stalinists, insurrectionists (plotting to overthrow President Lázaro Cárdenas), Mexican and German Nazis, Mexican and Spanish Falangists (the fascist party that backed Franco in the Spanish Civil War), English, Dutch and American enforcers from the multinational oil companies, red unions (socialist) and white (Stalinist and anti-union unions), and even Stalinist agents (NKVD and Checka) following some 20,000 Spanish Civil War refugees fleeing Spain, and accepted by Mexico. And in the midst of this, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, American supporters of the Fourth International, various Mexican generals, the Church, anti-Cárdenas banks and foreign (especially American) ambassadors.

For a moment, I wondered whether there was some kind of wall that agents and others couldn’t look over, or see through, into Deep Mexico, complex Mexico. When I began to talk about the historical context, I began to get results: Send me pages, send me a query. I suppose I also began to show my enthusiasm for my subject, which was hard to do with the prescribed bare bones pitch that had been advocated. Since it really wasn’t the same thing as my novel and, memorized, hard be enthusiastic about.

And so, I ended up writing the pitch I wanted to write, and the one I will use in my queries. The capital letters show italics.

THE QUEEN OF THE PÁNUCO, historical fiction, 80,000 words.

The story of Fiona—a Spanish Civil War refugee—told in confidence, but with small inconsistencies, small problems of logic.

Told to Tomas Ortiz, a skeptic and Mexico City policeman, Special Branch, once close to President Lázaro Cárdenas but now disgraced for stealing a pair of earrings from Frida Kahlo in 1937 on the armored train that took Trotsky and his wife to the capital and asylum, but not to safety.

An oversized crocodile in the Pánuco River who defends her eggs, sees through the Fiona story and patrols the hot, stinking oil port of Tampico along with 300-pound tarpons, German submarines that never surface, and the heavy cruiser Graf Spee, which ghosts offshore in KRIEGSMARINE gray, ready to deliver the end of Tomas Ortiz’s world before he can regain his wife’s touch and find his angry, missing son.

Or stop the teller of the Fiona story, a pink-cheeked steward of Stalinist orthodoxy, from liquidating the daughter he says he has come from Madrid to save, and who, it turns out, is living with Tomas’s son—she, an anarchist, both advocates for oil workers’ rights.

A historical novel along the lines of E.L. Doctorow’s RAGTIME, but in the tradition of Juan Rulfo’s THE BURNING PLAIN, about deep Mexico, México profundo, a space unfamiliar to the giant to the north, also unseen by the shakers and movers to the south, the internal colonialists, who find the poor CAMPESINO picturesque but not striking socialist petroleum workers.

For the latter and their advocates, so think the overlords, on the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil in 1938, no killing field or ship’s hold slaughterhouse is too radical or too mechanical. No federal policeman’s investigation will be tolerated.”

My stories have appeared in:

The Albany Review, “Sleep” 1987

Third prize in the 1994 Writer’s Digest short fiction contest for “The Curve of the Earth.”

The Press Democrat, (a large regional newspaper in northern California), “An Otter for a Hat” 1997, Easter edition.

In 2011, my short story collection THE PÁTZCUARO INCISION was a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.

My story “The Hair and the Heart” appeared in the Winter 2015 magazine Saddlebag Dispatches, associated with Western Writers of America.

My Novels:

PLAYING FOR PANCHO VILLA, Editorial Mazatlán, Mazatlán, Mexico, 2013. Editor: David Bodwell. Reviews: Amazon and sterlingbennett.com

COMANDANTE IBARRA, Montezuma Books, Mexico City, 2015. Editor: Peter Gelfan. Reviews: Amazon and sterlingbennett.com

Biography:

I have lived fifteen years in Guanajuato, a university town in the mountains of Central Mexico; Harvard 1960; U. of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literature, 1970; Professor of German and Global Studies at Sonoma State University in California 1967 – 1999. I also taught Latin and Homeric Greek there. Have done two full days of one-on-one guided walks over selected Spanish Civil War battle sites, as well as extensive research in modern Spanish and Mexican history. I see my writing as influenced greatly by 19th Century German short stories.

Historical Context for THE QUEEN OF THE PÁNUCO:

In January, 1937, Frida Kahlo goes to Tampico, to welcome Leon Trotsky and his wife into Mexican asylum on behalf of President Lázaro Cárdenas.

It’s the eve of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas’s March 1938 nationalization of Mexican oil.

In 1938, Hitler annexes Austria.

In the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Army, Church and the State (fascist General Franco) slowly crush Spanish democracy, sowing fields and ridges with discarded Mauser ammunition clips. Ammunition supplied by Germany and Italy for the fascists; by Mexico and the Soviet Union for democratic Republican Spain. Pitiless executions of prisoners occur on both sides, but far more on the fascist side, which then continue until 1975.

Some 20,000 Spanish Republican refugees flee to Mexico.

In 1940, a Stalinist agent, in very deep cover, infiltrates Trotsky’s inner circle in Coyoacán, Mexico City and mortally wounds him with a mountain climber’s ice ax.

In the years 1937-1938, Soviet security forces, including the NKVD, execute between 900,000 and 1,750,000 “enemies of the State,” that is, victims of Stalin’s paranoia—numbers that include assassinations outside the Soviet Union.

 

The Devastating Power of the Bow Tie in the Time of Guanajuato Swing

Dressing up for a Lindy Hop “social,” I thought I’d bring out my only bow-tie, which had been slumbering, inverted, in my wardrobe for years. And I mean years. Maybe thirty or forty. And, of course, I found out I had forgotten the motor memory in my hands and had no idea anymore how to tie it. My love of many years figured it out in seconds, and so we cast off for the social with me flying my “moño,” which is what my fellow dancers called it in Spanish. Although I thought, from quick research, that that meant “bun,” as in a woman’s hair. Waitresses in the famous restaurant Cafe de Tacuba in Mexico City wear large white moños, and those are bows. My dictionary calls it a “pajarito.” A little bird. I think of it as a bat that has come out, taken on color and reformed. You can see the effect it has on women fifty years younger than me. The lesson was taken, and at the next social, in the space of a day, two young men showed up to Guanajuato Swing wearing moños or pajaritos or murciélagos, the latter being my favorite word in all of Spanish. That made the three of us leaders in Mexico’s newest, most important revolution, one that brings hope to partners everywhere.

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The Perils of Writing

What are the perils of writings? For a storyteller, it’s when reality is more frightening and bizarre than anything you could ever invent. Or is it that historical violence has become no longer historical in that it is just around the corner, down one block, behind the garden gate, driving slowly by the building on whose roof you do yoga and wish all mankind peace of mind? Once, it was interesting living in a country where the rule of law was not something you could take for granted, was not a concept widely understood. You had to rely on your fellow citizen to protect you, to offer you cordiality, advice and warnings regarding where it was not safe to go at night, or even during the day.

Violence and lawlessness are less interesting now. It is just a matter of time before it touches you. Or hits you, as the case may be. It will come again after a long period of civic calm. It will be a policeman, or three, with dark glasses. A troubled young man, or three, twisted with resentment at those who have an education, a job, and, most important of all, respect. It will be Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil—no longer just limited to this beautiful old land of forgotten mines and ancient trails, of hidden springs and clumps of shade-giving trees, of great painters and gifted musicians. It will not come from a hungry man walking a distant trail, carrying a frayed knapsack, moving over a non-Sierra Club trail between two small towns whose streets are dirt and whose pickups are old. Evil will come in a brand new pickup that has never had a shovel thrown in its bed, or in a black limousine followed by black SUV chase cars.

Or it will come at the end of an instructive index finger, ordering you to step out of the line at Customs, because the computer has shown you to be man critical of two, maybe several, governments. You know what it’s like to be singled out. You have already had a passport application “lost” in the time of Reagan, or what it Bush? Your privileged education and therefore your expectation of just treatment as a citizen allowed you raise a hue and cry with your Senator and Congresspersons. Through its obedient Kafka-esq Intermediaries, the State claimed that someone with your exact name and paper trail owed the Foreign Office, the State Department or some other governmental Auslandsamt, a sum of money. Your elective representatives intervened, raised questions and parted curtains. Grudgingly, the anonymous they’s gave you a passport, not for ten years, but for eight months. But what would have happened to you if the Representatives could not part curtains, since they themselves languished on lists?

But now the they’s have gotten a lot smarter. Their machines hear more, pluck it out of the ether, record it and compile it for future reference. The people in power are renewing the old game of looking for political enemies. This was always the case in most of the countries in the world. East Germany comes to mind. There, one chose one’s friends carefully, you laughed together over food, but quietly. Important information was exchanged in lowered voices in a modest greenhouse, while you admired the host’s crop of English cucumbers, a luxury in his gray country. And yet, it did not matter. There were always ways to coerce one friend against another. Inform, they would murmur, or your daughter cannot attend the university. A harmless bargain, citizen.

And yet writers kept writing, books were banned, and the few contraband copies, hidden from the censors, traveled from hand to hand, until they grew stiff from Scotch Tape and were held together by rubber bands.

You write a letter on behalf of a writer held in solitary confinement in Azerbaijan. He was critical of his government, and so they arrested him and gave him nine years. He is not allowed to see his wife and children. He has tuberculosis. You hope your letter will help stone-faced men decide to let him go. You argue that a government wins more respect by not imprisoning writers. But governments have trouble hearing this. That is because its ministers are also afraid. You wonder whether this writer, if he survives, will one day have to write a letter for you. To a camp in Cuba or a salt flat in Utah.

And so the question is can a writer write when he is afraid, when he knows they’re listening? Can a storyteller tell stories? Stories that warm the heart, or give hope, or speak of love? How brave they must have been, the writers in the time of dictatorship, who have written at the peril of ending up in a cold, small cell without light, cut off from those they love and who love them.

I know this is dark. I am sorry, but the banality of evil seems to be on the upswing, and storytellers must write about it.

In Latin America, Mexico Ranks Among Most Dangerous Countries for Journalists

The 2017 World Press Freedom Index warns that in Latin America, journalists are persecuted and murdered for investigating issues that affect political leaders.

Mexico City: Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Brito covered drug trafficking issues in a region of the southern state of Guerrero where criminal groups are extremely powerful.

In September 2015 he survived an attempt on his life and because he was deemed at “very high risk” he became a beneficiary of the federal mechanism for protection for human right defenders and journalists created in December 2012.

The protection measures he was assigned consisted basically of police patrols. They offered him a place in a shelter in Mexico City, but he refused.

In October 2016, the protection measures were cancelled; five months later, Pineda Brito became the first journalist murdered in 2017 in the most dangerous country for reporters in Latin America.

Pineda Brito’s March 2 murder was followed by six weeks of terror in which three more journalists were killed and two others survived after being shot, in different parts of this country of 127 million people.

The highest-profile murder was that of Miroslava Breach, on March 26, a veteran journalist who covered political news for the La Jornada newspaper in the northern state of Chihuahua along the US border.

But Pineda Brito’s killing reflected the inefficacy of institutional mechanisms for protecting journalists in the region.

“Last year it became clear that the state’s protection model exported from Colombia to Mexico and recently to Honduras had failed,” said Ricardo González, security and protection officer of the London-based international organisation Article 19, which defends freedom of expression.

“The cases of journalists murdered in Mexico, who were under the protection of different state mechanisms, as well as the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s refusal to take part in the assessment of cases under the Colombian mechanism are things that should be of concern,” he told IPS.

For González, the lack of a functioning justice system and redress makes the model “ineffective, apart from financially unsustainable.”

The numbers in Mexico prove him right: according to Article 19’s latest report, of the 427 assaults on the media and journalists registered in 2016, 99.7% went unpunished.

Meanwhile, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression has only managed to secure a conviction in three cases.

Most of the attacks were against journalists who work for small media outlets outside the country’s capital and at least half of them were committed by state agents.

The federal protection mechanism currently protects 509 people – 244 journalists and 265 human right defenders.

But even though the dangers are growing rather than decreasing, the government and the legislature cancelled the funds available for protection and since January the mechanism has been operating with the remnants of a trust fund whose 9.5 million dollars in reserves will run out in September.

According to Article 19, violence against the press is still one of the main challenges faced in Latin America and something to be reflected on when World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3.

“In addition to Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, the situation in Paraguay and Venezuela, in particular, reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in the region,” said González.

In the same vein, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday, April 26, warns about the political and economic instability seen in several countries of Latin America, where journalists who investigate questions that affect the interests of political leaders or organised crime are attacked, persecuted and murdered.

“RWB regrets the pernicious and continuous deterioration of the situation of freedom of expression in Latin America,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the RWB Latin America desk, presenting the index.

“In the face of a multifaceted threat, journalists often have to practice self-censorship and even go into exile, to survive. This is absolutely unacceptable in democratic countries,” he added.

The RWB report underscores the case of Nicaragua, the country that experienced the largest drop in the index because since the controversial re-election of President Daniel Ortega, the independent and opposition press has suffered numerous cases of censorship, intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests. The country fell 17 spots, to 92nd among the 180 countries studied.

The report also describes Mexico as another worrisome case: in 15 years it dropped from 75th to 147th on the index, putting it next to Syria and Afghanistan. Mexico is still torn apart by corruption and the violence of organised crime, says RWB.

In fact, it is the second worst ranked Latin American country, after Cuba, which is 173rd, after dropping two spots.

At a regional level, the countries best-positioned in the ranking are Uruguay (25th, after falling five), Chile (33rd, after dropping two) and Argentina (50th, after going up four).

Increasingly sophisticated means of control

Despite the threats and risks, independent journalism is making progress in the region. In 2016, the organisation Sembramedia created the first directory of native digital media in Latin America which has listed more than 500 independent platforms.

But at the same time, the means of control of the independent press are getting more sophisticated, said González.

Legal, labour and online harassment, as well as indirect censorship through the control of state advertising are tools that governments and political and economic groups use ever more frequently around the region.

In Mexico, the most emblematic case is that of journalist Carmen Aristegui, who was fired together with her investigative journalism team from the MVS radio station after publishing an investigation about corruption implicating President Enrique Peña Nieto.

But there are even more unbelievable cases, such as a judge’s order for psychological tests for political scientist Sergio Aguayo, after he published well-substantiated information about massacres in the Mexican state of Coahuila, connected to former governor Humberto Moreira.

The organisation FUNDAR Centre for Analysis and Research has documented that this country’s central government and 32 state governments spend an average of 800 million dollars a year on official advertising and announcements in the media.

Another Mexican organisation committed to the defence of digital rights, R3D, reported that various regional governments have bought programmes from Hacking Team, an Italian cybersecurity firm that sells intrusion and surveillance capabilities to governments and companies on websites, social networks and email services.

According to R3D, online intimidation and monitoring have increased in Mexico during the Peña Nieto administration.

This pattern repeats itself in other Latin American countries, where attacks are increasing and presenting new challenges.

“In the last year, we have seen how the risks of violence which in the past were limited to questions such as drug trafficking are now faced by those who cover issues related to migration and human trafficking, the environment or community defense of lands against the extractive industries,” said González.

Another flashpoint is the coverage of border issues. “Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States has had quite a negative effect in terms of freedom of the press, both domestically and internationally, in the entire region,” he said.

(IPS)

Black Dog Enters the Café

I’m sitting in my favorite café in my colonial Mexican city. I think of it as a very small Paris. I am going over the Spanish translation of my first novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I must have started this project a year or more ago. My wonderful translators, a Mexican poet and a French professor of French, have long since finished the translation—an enormous job. And then I have to come after them, checking each word for its fullest correct equivalent. I am on my last two chapters out of thirty-two. I am hoping the huge Spanish speaking world will read this novel more than English readers have. Its plot and general flavor may seem less foreign to them.

The dog, a bitch, tail wagging and delighted to see us all, a sort of Labrador mutt—I have since learned her name is Chia—comes through the always open door. She goes to everyone in the big room, mostly university students working at things and drinking tea. Several young women are hanging an exhibition of photographs and calling out adjustments across the room. A small film crew comes in and sets up in the middle of the gentle chaos. A young woman sits across from me, brushing on makeup. What? To make her more pale, remove any blemishes? Perhaps they are making a one-day movie. It is the end of the annual Guanajuato International Film Festival, and little groups of young filmmakers are competing to win in that category.

Everyone—including myself—reaches down to Chia, who I now realize is attached to a familiar young painter family and their two children, several months and two-or-so years old. Chia obits around this attractive young family. What strikes me is how each of us in the room wants the same thing: contact with this happy, tail-wagging ambassador. And then, after a half an hour or so, everyone except for the one-day filmmakers leaves, including Chia and her family. And I am left to listening to “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit D’amour,” Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and to continue with the translation Playing for Pancho Villa. When I finish, we will sit down together, the three of us, the translators and me, and we will decide on the final changes and adjustments in another quieter café.

My Friend, the Escaped Prisoner

IMG_2108.jpgMy friend has escaped from the local prison where we had visited him nine or ten times. He was there for eleven months, and then he could no longer bear the thought of a capricious ten-year sentence. What he loved most, beside his family, was his horse and riding in the mountains with his companion horsemen. They went on cabalgadas, seeing themselves as cavalry battalions in the war against Lucifer, led by the Saints San Miguel, Cristo Rey, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Virgin of Guanajuato. Sometimes, on such rides, as many as 1,500 men will participate. This afternoon, as an exuberant church band played and the afternoon sun beat down, we watched as a graveyard mason sealed my warrior-friend into a crypt at the Panteón (Cemetery) of the Pueblito de Rocha. My friend died of a broken heart. A heart that broke.

For more context, please scroll down to the post titled “Returning to Mexico and its Forgotten Prisoners,” published here on April 15, 2016.

Returning to Mexico and Its Forgotten Prisoners

It occurred to me, while walking along through my little colonial city again, that Mexico could be described with a few words: impunity, the absence of just law, corruption, the gracefulness of its people, kindness, cordiality, and the seamless connection with history. My friend is still in prison. There were several dates that he was supposed to have committed his crime. After eight months of captivity, he finally had a hearing. The prosecution dropped all but one of the dates, because of the lack of credible evidence. The one date, for which he could serve ten years, he was off on a cabalgada. That’s when sometimes hundreds of men mount their horses and head off into the mountains on pilgrimages. They camp, talk together, tend their horses, worship at this or that shrine, enjoy each others’ company. These rides can be as large as 1,500 men. It is one reason an invader should think twice about undertaking an infantry incursion into Mexico. One of the meanings of cabalgada is cavalry raid. There are thousands of Pancho Villas and Emiliano Zapatas living in Mexico. My friend is one of them. There is nothing he loves more than to mount his horse (kept in a stall near where our car is parked) and head off with a few of his friends into the mountains that begin five minutes from our house.

The point is that there are a great many witnesses who can testify that he was with other horsemen, many of them his friends, at the time he was supposed to have committed his crime. And yet the State prosecution is reluctant to admit the testimony of these riders and friends. To save face? To keep the prisons full, their jobs necessary? Out of spite? Because they can? Because they are lazy? Because someone has gotten to the judge? The way things work, it could be another eight months before he has another hearing. Mexican judicial procedures were supposed to have been modernized by a law passed in 2008. Cases would be handled by open oral argument, and there would be the presumption of innocence. But things have not changed very much. The State prosecutor collects statements, the hands of the clock turn every so slowly, months go by, there is no speedy resolution with burden of proof on the prosecutor. In fact, over time, and because the prisoners sit in prison, the burden is perceived to have settled on him. After all, he would not be in prison if he weren’t guilty of something.

 

And so my friend is desperate, anxious, feeling trapped, forgotten and feels doomed. His daughters and grandson visit him daily, bringing him food and encouragement and love. They have become his most reliable and, in my opinion, capable lawyers.

He is one of Mexico’s many victims of corrupt law, uncaring law—law without justice.

Death Expressions

It seems it’s easier to talk about death if we make light of it, speak indirectly or make metaphor.
Hence: Some examples

He’s no longer on board (fishermen)
shipped his oars
feeding crabs
gone adrift
gone to Davey Jones
sleeping with fishes
assumed room temperature
cashed in his chips
counting worms
croaked
freed his horse
hopped the twig
pegged out
popped his clogs
riding the pale horse
taking a dirt nap
turned up his toes
wearing the pine overcoat
gone up the flume.
bit off the twig
gone out with the tide
paws up
won’t be down for breakfast
flown the coop
fallen off the burro (landed on his head)
smacked the liver
lost his shadow
stopped blinking
holding his breath a lot
visiting the worms
feeding the worms
Relaxing underground
Given in to the crows
Dedicated his eyes to the crows
Gone to avoid the sun
Caught the last train
Clothed in sea
Making the carrots jump
Pushing up daisys
Snuffed out
Got no wax left
Renting earth
On the last train to Memphis
Singing to the worms
In permanent meditation
Singing the Dirt Mass
Resting a lot
Kicked the bucket
On a pebble diet
Spitting out roots
On a dirt diet
In Donald Trumps case: a case of asses to ashes
Doing the long shuteye
Using the long hyphen
Has mud in both eyes
Be-earthed
Buried in thought
Clodding along
Clod-driven
A man clodified
Growing his hair long
Said the great good-bye
Enjoying the long silence
Kissing the Angels
Knocking at Heaven’s/Hell’s gate
Tanning below
Lying with the dogs he loved
Skidded to oblivion
Met his Maker
Suspended his creation
Supporting corn from below
Donating to worms
Given up the ghost
Dancing with worms
Having Thanksgiving with worms
Texting from below
Become the ring on his tub
Slipped on Death
King of Moles
Resting his bones
Played dead, couldn’t stop
Resigned his vertical position
Lingered among us too long
Got off at the wrong stop
At the very end, married below himself
Was breathless too long, got used to it
Sold his soul, then the rest
His clock has run out.
His sand ran out.
He’s no longer flapping.
He smells like pine.
Fluting through the last hole.
He’s thrown away his spoon.
Wearing a wooden skirt.
Wearing the green jacket.
Watching the radishes grow from underneath.
Crow food.
Gone to meet the Head of Light Entertainment in the sky. John Cheeves on the occasion of Graham Chapman’s (author of the Dead Parrot Skit) Memorial Service.
Withdrew as the final act
Still paused to gather his thoughts
Il mange les pissenlits par la racine. He’s eating the dandelions from below—Jean Pierre Buono

Left the glittering runway of life. Richard Grabman

Dissolute underground behaviorCame as carbon, lived as carbon, returned to carbon.
Had a molecule change.
Went from comma to period.
Disappeared in the final edit.
No longer takes messages.
Is on silent hold.
Rubbed out what he had painted.
Composting nicely.
On his last pair of shoes.
Staying in shavasana.
Joined the great majority.
Accepted into the big club.
Staying in the Horizontal Hilton.
Out of print.
Returned to sender.

 

The Beginning and the End of the World

It’s as if a whole army of Canadians and Americans had been parachuted into this once sleepy town. I suppose it’s the nature of occupation that the invaders bring their culture with them. At the same time, the invaded culture has struck back with its own forces, in that Mexican vacationers—largely the class with money—could well outnumber the foreigners. I am an equal opportunity snob, so it doesn’t matter to me. I can get into a snit over all of them—overlooking the fact that I am one of them.

The larger crime is that all of us have landed on this strip of coast and are putting enormous pressure on it. So many pleasure seekers, sun worshippers, escapees from grinding nine to five jobs, from car payments, mortgages and insurance, from the ongoing search for love and meaning. All of it dependent on oil for the suntan lotion, delivery trucks, aviation fuel and the surfboards themselves. Still, apart from the half-treated sewage water pouring into the ocean not far from the right-hand break, the bay seems to be holding its own. Pelicans dive twenty feet from the edge of the sand, meaning the sea is still rich in food. Farther out, the oceans boils with waves from distant Pacific storms, changing the beach every night, casting up—for this beach—rare black sand, and more than capable of drowning those who are not confident swimmers.

I find myself sitting on the beach, watching all this, calculating my surfing skills and strength against the turbulence of the sea, observing the deployment of the tourist armies and Pelicans—the former, not entirely comfortable in their exposed skin, as they stroll the beach. And I am thinking about the greater threat. All of this is part of a planet that will probably become uninhabitable, because we will not be able to keep the oil in the ground, not sufficiently understand what we have to do in order to avoid disaster for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

And so, later and farther to the northeast, my friends and I sit on the beach and watch the light soften and the orange fade from the ribbed cloud formation suspended above us. We sit looking out at something that will not be as it was, nor support life the way it always has.

We see a gathering of people a quarter of a mile up the beach in the opposite direction. It is a sizable group, and it moves out toward the water. I say it must be religious in some way, some sort of organized superstition. Or maybe something like twelve steppers, born-agains, or boosters. In a way, I am right on all accounts. Our Mexican companion, now a resident of Madrid, formerly of Paris, before that, Guanajuato, hits on it.

“Turtles,” she says.

We explain this to her two and a half-year old, who is half French, half Mexican.

Tortues,” says her mother, in French. “Tortugas,” in Spanish. And since she is attending an English-speaking immersion school in Madrid, we throw in “Turtles.”

We gather up our things and head down the beach. People have placed stakes and the equivalent of police ribbons to demarcate a corridor with an opening at the end where the incoming tide has left the sand wet and gleaming. The light is dimming, the evening chosen, I suppose, to make it harder for predators—gulls and humans—to interfere and poach. We squint at the sand inside the corridor. It has been raked in order to smooth the way. There are little things, perhaps the size of a soup spoon sitting immobile. But, no, here and there, their little legs begin paddling at the sand. Each one leaves an un-straight track in the sand. (See attached video clip.) A tongue of wave and foam, a tidal impulse, sweeps up and over the most advance ones. The children and adults behind the police tape utter a collective, wondrous “Ouuuu!” And when the wave recedes, twenty or more of the tortuguitas have disappeared into the vastness of their new home. It is an uncertain future. A young volunteer from the Czech Republic says five percent of them are eaten by fish in the first day. She places more within the sea’s reach. Another tongue of foam sweeps up and across, and then those too are gone. One or two get turned around or try to cross the ribbon. Onlookers reach down and get the strays oriented again.

Finally, they are all gone. The sea knocks down the stakes holding the ribbons. Nearly everyone leaves. Except those like me who are still stunned. I see a young man, sitting cross-legged, facing the opening where the turtles left us for the sea. It occurs to me he might be praying—something that would normally touch my cynic button. Instead, though I am not religious, I feel a similar impulse. And that is to pray for their safety, that they won’t be eaten or be too lonely. Pray not to some god but to something older and more important. Perhaps pray for the earth’s wanting to continue in all her ways. If only we would make it so.