As a man, and regarding rape and Dr Ford, I know one tiny fraction of what it’s like. I am 81 now. I was in my early forties or younger when it happened. I was a strong man and agile. I was canoeing down the Petaluma River in California with two or three of my students. They were older, thirties maybe. At least one was a woman. We had eaten a snack on shore. Out of the blue one or more held me down and the others tried to pull my swim shorts down and off. I fought back and threw them off. But the point is I felt the most horrified and panicked violation while it was happening, and I know it was a small event compared to what so many women have experienced. I have never spoken publicly about this. Why would I? There’s some sort of shame attached to it that I don’t understand. But this is a good occasion to bring it up. If I could sit in front of the old white (all) men senators, I would say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no idea what this is about and are unqualified to make any decision to seat this man for a lifetime appointment. You are criminally uninformed. And we will vote you out.”
“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.
We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.
So, why don’t we love Mexico?
We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get passed-out drunk and sunburned on spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.
In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in L.A., burned out neighborhoods in Detroit—it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead in Mexico, just in the past few years—mostly innocent victims. Eighty thousand families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.
Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over tortilla chips. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply “bro food” at halftime. It is in fact, old—older even than the great cuisines of Europe, and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet, if we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation—many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe—have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling heights.
It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, and was there—and on the case—when the cooks like me, with backgrounds like mine, ran away to go skiing or surfing or simply flaked. I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand from their hands to mine.
In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather around a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious salsas, drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, and listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.
The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of “Parts Unknown,” we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.
This show is for them.”
While in Toledo, Spain, I rushed to the Museo del Ejercito, the Museum of the Army. I had barely a half hour. As I went, I asked attendants where I could find things having to do with the period 1936 – 1939. The Spanish Civil War. “There’s very little,” said one woman. I watched carefully to see whether she was also expressing an opinion one way or another as to whether that was a good or bad thing. Eight or ten years ago, I went through the Catalonia Museum in Barcelona., again looking for the civil war. There was one small room with a few photos on two walls. People in that museum’s book store told me they had very little written on the war; and that it depended on who was in power when it came to choosing a version of history. If any at all.
In Toledo, it appeared to still be something of a stalemate. I found a few rooms. I also intended to look for photographs that would speak to the war and to events made up (from research) in my third novel, The Queen of the Pánuco. I did run across a photo and took out my camera. I was alone, but a group of visitors, led by a guide, was approaching. I could hear them just around the corner. I clicked and put my camera away, turned and left.
I knew I had a good photo of a photo taken more than eighty years ago—thinking it was going to speak to the Republican (non-fascist) narrative that occurs in my novel. But I’m afraid that’s not the case. Since being in Toledo, I’ve learned the museum itself was the site of a heroic nationalist/fascist defense of the Alcázar, a stone fortress at Toledo’s highest point. (Earlier, the site of a Roman palace; then residence of Spanish monarchs after the reconquest from the Moors; and a place where Charles I received Hernán Cortés, after his conquest of the Aztecs. Heinrich Himmler visited General Moscardó in the ruins of the Alcázar in October 1940) The fortress suffered shelling and bombing and Republican ground attacks from July 21 – September 27, 1936. The latter were ultimately unsuccessful.
The people in the photo have to be nationalist defenders (the 500 women and 50 children were not allowed to participate in the defense) The Republican militias were never able to breach the defense and get close enough to eat things in calm with women amid the rubble.
At one point, the Republican officer in charge of the siege, Commissar of the Workers’ Militia, Candido Cabello, telephoned the defending officer Colonel Moscardó and said he would execute Luis, the Colonel’s captured sixteen-year old son, if Moscardó didn’t immediately surrender. At least, that is what www.wikipedia.org claims as history. According to this history, Moscardó told his son “that he should die like a patriot, while he shouted ‘Viva Christo Rey!’ and ‘Viva España’ and ‘The Alcázar does not surrender.'” “That I can do,” he is said to have replied.Supposedly, he was shot immediately; or “maybe a month later.”
It has the ring of legend. Definitely of slant. The ww.wikipedia text also suggests the Republican militias shot nationalist/fascist prisoners. According to much historical research since the war, both sides executed prisoners. The fascist more so, right up until Franco’s death in 1975. It is probably fair to say that www.wikipedia, at least, has added a pro-nationalist/heroic fascist slant. The article also suggests that the defense of the Alcázar (then relieved by fascist General Franco’s Army of Africa) was an important propaganda victory for the nationalists, and disheartening for the Republican attackers, who didn’t have enough forces left to stop Franco’s race toward Madrid, which he held under siege for three years, before the final fascist victory.
My friend likes to meet once a week to discuss important things. Like the trips I am planning to take. He has all kinds of questions. First of all, why am I going? Especially when I could stay home. I say we’re going to Madrid for a month. Maybe to Dubrovnik, too. He wants to know how to spell Dubrovnik. I tell him. D-u-b-r-o-v-n-i-k.
My friend is a very good writer, as well as a tireless reader. And highly literate. But he can not get beyond the –D-. I think it is because it is a city that is somewhere else. Where you have to travel to get there.
I do not press him. I had a father once who was also hodophobic. “Hodo,” Ancient Greek for “road.” Someone who is afraid of travel. Which doesn’t quite fit my father, who loved to drive the back roads of our New England stomping grounds. I use that word for lack of a better word. Though now I’m beginning to have my doubts. Like who did the stomping? The Original Peoples who lived there, as part of religious or cultural celebrations? Or the original dirt farmers who stomped their floors into harden earth in place of wooden floors. Or was it a more powerful group that came along afterward and stamped out the people I mentioned?
In any case, it was a limited area, circumscribed by my school, the bank, the factory where my father presided over the braiding of nylon filaments to make saltwater fishing line. A sand pit where we shot at each other with .22 rifles aimed wide. Jacob’s Pond. And my Uncle Ed’s house—which reminds me of fruit cake at Christmas, it’s dollops of hard sauce, and the unsettled brandy flame that flickered on top like St. Elmo’s Fire. My Uncle Ed had bad circulation in his legs and fell dead while mowing his lawn in 1955.
At the other end of the Known Area—the opposite boundary—were bright beaches where you had to have a membership and not be a minority. Then the salt tidal river accessed through the home of one of my father’s classmates, Harvard 1923. Then over to the yacht club in a neighboring town, where I heard something about Jews being discouraged. My best friend lived across the street from me. My mother explained pleasantly that he couldn’t go to the river with us because my father’s Harvard 1923 classmate’s wife didn’t feel comfortable having my friend there. Same for the yacht club, I knew, although no one ever said as much. My friend was black. And he was my stomping ground.
In New England, it seemed, there was a stark difference between the Known and the Unknown. My father delighted in the Unknown, the back top roads that led outside of Our Area. Together, he and I, in his old station wagon, we would drive through the mottled light, under over-arching Pine, Beach, Maple, and Birch, and my father would point out small farms he wouldn’t mind living on. Past fields that were surrounded by ancient stonewalls, where he could see his Black Angus cattle grazing, if he had them, and dream of the other women he had known but not married. Something I made up later, when I decided to call myself a writer. That’s how strong the unknown was in my mind, even when it was partially true, I think. And there was usually a porch where they could sit and just look out over Known New England while he smoked his pipe. The one my mother said never left his lips. The one whose stem, levered against his upper teeth, pressed down on his lower lip and gave him a look of comfortable authority. And innocence. And finally killed him with a series of heart attacks punctuated by final stroke. That made him act indecently in his final bed. So that my mother had to cover him with his sheet and blanket.
“Why go to Dubrov….?” my friend asked, “when you could go to Norway?”
I replied that I could go to Norway later.
“It’s very cold there,” he said.
“I could buy a coat.”
“That would weigh you down.”
“I could buy it there.”
“But you would have to bring it home.”
“I would give it to a Laplander,” I said.
“That would be cultural appropriation,” he said.
“Then maybe ask him for one.”
He was silent, considering my reply.
“Plus, I’m not even going to Norway,” I said.
“You could give it to a poor person in Oslo,” he said.
“I think I’m going to Dubrovnik.”
“Do you know anyone there? In Du…?”
“…brovnik. No, I don’t.”
“Then why are you going?”
I was beginning to lose my urge to travel, to have adventures. To see something different. Plus, Dubrovnik would be overwhelmed by aggressive tourists bent on having too much to eat, talking too loud,
and on taking a hundred and forty perfect photos. It would be hard to get away from them.
“Why not take me along?” he asked.
“You don’t like to travel.”
“I don’t know, I’m kind of interested in Du….”
He was quiet. Happy, I would say, at the prospect of seeing something I wanted to see.
“You know,” I said, “the Croations were allies of Hitler in the Second World War. They did terrible things to people. Ustaše fascists murdered outsiders. People who were different. Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Genocide. Of the 22 concentration camps, two of them were for children.”
“Yes…and they speak a different language. And you have to wear special trousers. There are pickpockets everywhere. And they haven’t removed the land mines from the last two wars.”
My friend was smiling at me. “You’re trying to talk me out of traveling with you to Dubrov…nik.”
Something had gone wrong in the course of the conversation, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“There’s a good chance we’ll go to Norway,” I said. “My wife and I.”
“Because of the coat?” my friend asked, nodding wisely.
“Yes,” I said. “Because of the coat.”
Yesterday, I put on my old German Expressionism 1930s leather jacket and, full of questions and expectations, rushed to the recital being held in the diminutive upstairs Foro Cultural 81 concert hall at calle Positos 81, Guanajuato, Mexico—wondering whether I would find a seat, be able to see, feel ensconced, anchored, tethered to the mast in such a way that I could, if I had to, resist both high c’s and the overall complex seduction of opera. The occasion was a master class given by James Demster, an esteemed voice coach from Mexico City with a very long list of distinctions, among which—the one that caught my eye—is having been piano accompanist for Plácido Domingo. I suspect the event was arranged by city treasure Kate Burt of Ópera Guanajuato. Maestro Demster was a slim, refined looking man who clearly loves the human voice and, as far as I could note, guided each participant with equal gentleness and respect as he accompanied them on the grand piano. I have had the great privilege of having had teachers like him but in Latin, Greek, German and French—not in music, about which I know very little. Except that when I write my fiction, I listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Mozart’s Mass in C Minor or, best of all, to famous opera duets.
I sat in the front row. Which placed me about eight feet from each singer. A station that carries with it certain restrictions. I hesitated to wriggle or move, uncross and re-cross my legs while the young divas were singing, or clear my throat during a pause. I didn’t know whether to look at them, or look away. Because before each one began, she had to gather herself together, looking down at the floor—wrapped in a private moment of composure—then up again when she was ready for the maestro to begin the accompaniment. There were fourteen or fifteen singers, all sopranos with one or two mezzo-sopranos sprinkled among them. They came forward in an arranged order. The less experienced first; the more advanced, afterward. So no one had to follow a devastatingly stronger performance. I have been around long enough to know that it takes enormous courage to stand in front of an audience and try to perform to the highest possible standard. To render the music so that the notes are strong and gentle, absolutely in tune and rich in tone variations. I heard high notes that were strained, lower ones that were more beautiful. Each singer warmed up and did better and better as the moments passed. And I, eight feet away, was more and more conscious that something special was happening. The presentations became more and more powerful, more sure-footed. With me, they have the effect of calling forth figures from my past whom I had not expected at the recital. I thought lovingly of my father who was my extended family’s best singer, once someone gave him a beginning note. And my mother, who, in contradiction to all my fault-finding, would open her mouth and transcend her Puritan constraints in a voice that was clear and passionate and foreign to me. In that moment, she was someone who was not my mother, perhaps someone else’s mother, or not even a mother at all but an independent and unknown person, who led a secret life apart from my father, my brother and me. A life that was magical and beautiful. And unassailable.
Other visitors appear, from much further back. As much as thirty years back, I sat in the middle pews of in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, just after the fall of the Wall. It was late morning on a week day. A voice from above and behind me, in the choir loft. A woman’s voice, a mezzo-soprano, as exquisite as anything I had ever heard began singing “Agnus Dei” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In the very church where Bach had been the Cantor for many years. It was a chance moment and as spiritual a one as I have ever felt. As if the Past were the Present, and as if I were inside the music Bach had written back in the first half of the Eighteen Century. Or it was inside me.
You ask, how can I compare that experience to the recital of the fourteen young singers at Foro 81? Easy. I sat right in front of the recitalists, and it was as if my ears were laid back by the passion coming at me from each one of them. That is what is grand about young actors and singers. And I suspect that is something Maestro James Demster may have taught them. That it is not possible to sing opera with complete sincerity without giving it everything you’ve got. Or, put another way, truly good opera will not be good opera if it does not come largely from the heart. The effect on me is transformative and I am back in a Thomaskirche and part of something so much greater than my own little struggles. Part of all the composers, singers and musician that ever risked trying to create beauty. I feel immensely lucky, privileged. And, for a man who is not religious, I find myself resorting to religious vocabulary. Feeling blessed. In a state of wonder. Being as close as I could imagine to that which is spiritual. Standing outside of myself, as in the Greek ecstatic. In a state of rapture and delight. Along with others in the audience, daring to softly cry “Brava!” over and over. Praise that surely registered with no one other than myself. But sincerely meant from someone who knows so little about music.
Living here, I have learned to be alert. Each lesson where I have not done that has been costly. We were held up at knife point a couple of years ago, maybe more. You can read about it in The Knives of Mexico in this blog. In that case, a young man ran up the stairs past us—203 to our house from the old city center—twice, and the last time planted himself in front of us, brandishing his knife, a few yard from our garden gate. The missed clue? The lack of awareness? No one runs up the stairs in this city. Unless they’re high on something and/or have robbery on their mind.
At the beach a year ago, staying in a converted trailer, I followed the landlord’s advice and did not turn on the air conditioning. Instead, I kept a window opened (with screen) and turned on the fan. At 07:45 the next morning, I was aware that a man was standing a foot from where I slept. He darted out with my iPhone, a book, my one pair of trousers and other items that came to a tidy sum. I ran after him, without success. I had my money and credit cards in plain sight, tucked into a small Indian-woven purse. He missed it for some reason, or I’d have really been jodido. The lesson: keep windows locked and the air conditioner on, regardless of what any landlord says. He had taken off the screen and come in the window under the cover of the noise from the fan.
Yesterday, a Saturday, I started home wearing my expensive Ridge Runner’s 25 LLBean day pack. Nothing wrong with that, except that it signals you have enough money for that and for what’s probably inside it. I fell in behind a woman in her thirties. She was wearing medium-length high heels and very short black shorts barely covered by a black skirt, with black straps crisscrossing her mostly bare back. Every once in a while, she would reach back and adjust her shorts to a more modest length. Mexican women dress carefully and rarely, if ever, adjust as they walk along. There was something not ordinary about her and her progress through my neighborhood. Plus, I had never seen her before.
At the first alley, a good-sized man came up behind her. He was leering at her, which was also out of the ordinary. How do I know that? Because one notices those thing. We got to the stairs where I have to begin climbing. She turned into the darkness there—there was plenty of daylight left. The stairs are always in shadow. Something I have never done before: I sat down on a low wall on the other side of the road and waited, to spare her me climbing up behind her, if she was so worried about her modesty.
The man had not followed her. She had distracted me from thinking about him. I only knew this in retrospect. After a while, I started up the stairs. At the top, at the level of the higher road, there was no sign of her. Which seemed a little odd. So I started up the next flights of stairs. Half way up, I decided not to rest. The same man was coming up behind me, and I had already decided there was something making me uncomfortable with that. After all, where had he been before? Why was he still around? Why hadn’t he climbed up behind her, or continued on the road below?
At the very top, I sat down on a low wall, as if taking in the extraordinary view of the various church towers, the university and the rich cluster of old colonial buildings in the city center. And I watched the approaching man. Ten feet away, he glanced at me three times, and looked away. Out of the ordinary. Ordinary would have been holding my gaze long enough after the second glance to add a greeting. That is how it works here. But he looked away each time, his face in neutral. Then he sat down on the opposite low wall and looked at his phone.
But my wife and I had been stalked before by a couple of thugs in Guadalajara, and that was what they did: keep referring to their phones. To show their disinterest. Plus, what was keeping him there? There is ordinary behavior, which includes sitting for some reason. You’re old, your children are tired, you’re tired from lugging a heavy bag of groceries up to your house, you’re making a call, or you’re visiting with someone. But no one sits without one of these reasons. I could also tell he wasn’t delighting in the view and wasn’t reading anything on his phone. He and his face were blank, empty of activity. And I wasn’t going to let him get me isolated from that public spot, where five narrow alleys came together, six, if you include the stairs. So, I got up and went back down the stairs, as if, as a tourist, I had taken in the sight and was now retracing my steps. Which I did, all the way down to the center of the city, where I hailed a taxi and went up the side of the canyon and home that way.
I looked back a few times to see if he was following me. But he wasn’t. And today I climbed home, taking a different path, just to throw off anyone bothering to be watching for me.
These things happen here every once in a while. A social predator or two roll in to town and try their luck. That was what the knife holdup was. A chance spotting by someone passing through in a car, who got out and ran up after us. In this case, this series of little things out of the ordinary, is probably a one-off occasion. But I am still curious to know whether the man in this story was working together with the woman so concerned by the length of her shorts and so successful in distracting me from the man who was tracking me.
Taken from the CPJ:
Mexican journalist found dead with bullet wounds in San Luis Potosí
October 6, 2017 5:29 PM ET
Mexico City, October 6, 2017–Authorities in Mexico must undertake a swift and credible investigation into the murder of photographer Edgar Daniel Esqueda Castro, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
A spokesperson from the state attorney general’s office today told CPJ that state authorities found Esqueda Castro’s body this morning, near the airport in the city of San Luis Potosí. His body had three gunshot wounds, the office said.
The journalist’s wife, who CPJ has not named for safety reasons, told CPJ that armed men in police uniform who identified themselves as local police yesterday abducted Esqueda Castro from their home in San Luis Potosí.
She said the group of men, armed with pistols and at least one automatic rifle, broke the window of the front door of the couple’s home and stormed into the room where she and her husband were asleep. The attackers then collected the couple’s cellphones, and took Esqueda Castro away at gunpoint, Esqueda Castro’s wife said.
“Mexican authorities must swiftly investigate the abduction and murder of Edgar Daniel Esqueda Castro, and bring all of those responsible to justice,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, CPJ’s program coordinator for North America, from New York. “Criminals, sometimes connected with state actors, know that they can get away with killing journalists in Mexico because of chronic impunity for these crimes. Until that changes, the violence will continue.”
The state’s general prosecutor said yesterday in a statement made on social media that the prosecutor’s office is investigating, and denied that state police were involved in the abduction. The prosecutor also said there was no arrest warrant against Esqueda Castro.
Ricardo Sánchez Pérez del Pozo, the Federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression, told CPJ yesterday that his agency had opened a separate investigation.
Esqueda Castro worked as a freelance photographer for the local news websites Metropoli San Luis and Vox Populi, and edited a personal website, Infórmate San Luis. According to Esqueda Castro’s editor at Vox Populi, Gerardo Guillermo Almendariz, Esqueda mostly covered society events, but would sometimes work on crime stories.
Over the past few months, local police had threatened Esqueda Castro while he was reporting, according to both the journalist’s wife and Guillermo Almendariz. On July 13, policemen threatened Esqueda Castro verbally, took pictures of his identification card, which included his address, and told him they were watching his home. Separately, several policemen on July 4 beat Esqueda Castro and threatened to take his camera while the journalist was photographing a shootout scene.
Esqueda Castro reported both incidents to the state authorities, and filed a complaint with the State Human Rights Commission, according to Guillermo Almendariz.
In a statement released this afternoon, the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, a government body that provides protective measures to reporters under threat of violence, confirmed the threats, and stated that it had offered protective measures to Esqueda Castro. According to the protective group, Esqueda Castro refused protection, and said that he received no other threats after the two July incidents.
The journalist’s wife and Guillermo Almendariz confirmed to CPJ on Thursday that Esqueda had not been enrolled in a protection scheme.
Mexico is one the deadliest countries in the Western hemisphere for journalists. In 2017, at least four journalists have been murdered in direct retaliation for their work, according to CPJ research, and CPJ is investigating the circumstances of another killing. CPJ has documented the disappearances of 14 journalists in Mexico, excluding Esqueda Castro. In May, journalist Salvador Adame Pardo was abducted from his home in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
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.
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.
Front (top) and Back (bottom image).
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.
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
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.