Tag: history

Utah Beach, or the Absence of History

It was low tide—perhaps not the lowest—when I walked way out away from the dunes, easily as much as a quarter of a mile. I suppose I was looking for some sort of connection and that the solution was to walk in the direction they had come from, the frightened men, boys and men, by the thousands, over time as many as 850,000 of them.image

In places the sands were hard, in others soft. I vaguely remembered a scene, perhaps out of French literature, of a man sinking into quicksand. A two-wheel racing buggy raced back up the beach to the east, with its French jockey whipping away at the high-stepping horse for more speed—or, it seemed, to establish his mastery over the horse, both for himself and for the benefit of the few tourists on the beach that were watching him.

There was very little wind, the sun was out, it was a beautiful day, no one was out that far except for me. There was no trace of what happened; and so I puzzled, once again, what it meant to be standing there at that historic place. The connection, I have found, is easier to past atrocity. Thirty, forty or fifty Yahi people—mostly children and women—trapped and shot down by white men at Kingsley Cave, northeast of Chico, California. Buchenwald, in the hills above Weimar, home at times to both Goethe and Schiller. But what was the atrocity here? A war that is celebrated as my country’s greatest? A history of heroism and triumph—that story—that obscures the atrocity of killing and maiming—the unbearable loss?

I was so far out from the dunes that I enjoyed a near complete privacy. I do not mean to offend. I unzipped and peed on the sand, just at the edge where the tide was beginning to return and therewith I suppose at least established my own presence in history. Then I wondered how many others had done the same thing. Back then. Out of fear, or just because they had to go and there were no bathrooms—only raking machine gun fire and the aircraft cannons depressed to fire down into those who were landing.

On the way back, I stooped to pick up a shell. A lovely thing, dark, scolloped and blue-gray, the progeny of those that had lain there then when no one felt like a hero. Rather, only felt fear. And possibly hope. That the next bullet or exploding shell would not find them and disappear them prematurely into history.


Looking for San Marcos

IMG_0491IMG_0481With some trepidation, I left the main highway at Magdalena, part way between Tepic and Guadalajara—in search of the railhead that a hundred years ago was the site of Mexico’s own little Auschwitz.

I tend to think of Mexican cuotas—toll roads—as an additional layer of security for a driver. But I drove south over narrow country roads in bad repair and away from the cuota. Everything said agriculture, and nothing said narco. By that I mean that everything I saw had to do with farming, work, and time moving in sync with the growing seasons. No big pickups that had shiny chrome bumpers and were over-all too clean. No big guys with bellies, dressed casually and wearing gold necklaces. I had my map book Guía Roji, and I had gas. I had money, and I had a cell phone. And I had a goal.

I was looking for San Marcos and a certain building just before it. I had no idea whether I would actually be able to approach the building, or whether it would even still be there. I had looked down on it from Google Earth, but I had no idea how old the satellite photo was. I could tell it was the building, because I could still see traces of the railroad that had run past it. I had also seen the great eucalyptus grove that stood beside it and is said to have grown over mass graves of Yaqui Indians (and others: Mayos, political dissidents) who 1906-1910 were captured—as many as 15,000 of them—in the state of Sonora, brought by train (boxcars) from Hermosillo to Guaymas, put on ships, disembarked in San Blas, then force-marched with little food and water roughly 300 kilometers for 15 to 20 days over the mountains from San Blas at the coast to San Marcos, the closest rail head at that time, 80 kilometers west of Guadalajara.

Many of the prisoners were women and children. Men of fighting age were either still in the mountains east of Guaymas, the Bacatete, killed in battle, or executed as enemies of the state. For hundreds of years they had been defending their rich tribal lands and water against first the Spanish, then against Mexican hacendados with enormous, ever-increasing land holdings—while American money owned the mines, built the railroad right into the Yaqui lands, and needed cheap labor in the henequen fields of the Yucatan—where many of the Yaquis were sent to work and perish quickly as forced labor.

Already in the 1870s, henequen growers in the Yucatan were in debt to North American rope manufacturers who needed the henequen fiber called sisal and whose backers (Hearst, Guggenheim Rockefeller, I have read) provided the finances to keep the farms operating. (http://www.saudicaves.com/mx/yaquis/). The cheap labor that they got included Mayans from the Yucatan, Korean indentured workers, Chinese, Mexican political dissidents, Yaqui deportees, and many other groups. By the 1870s, Mexico was supplying 90% of the world’s sisal, mainly for rope and burlap—the time of capitalism and empire, when the dominant nations had to have massive hawsers for their merchant- and warship fleets.

Everyone got a cut from the sale of Yaquis—the Governor of the State, the “labor agents,” anyone with immediate control over the prisoners. I have read conflicting figures: 2.50 pesos at San Marcos, per head; or, 25 centavos, per head. Families were split up and sold (women and girls sold separately) in different directions at San Marcos.

There is a long history of Indian children being given to white families around Hermosillo and Guaymas (before deporting their parents) so that they could grow up to be “civilized,” as opposed to “barbarian,” terms used freely in the times.

There are few if any records. There is some recorded oral history: I highly recommend Raquel Padilla Ramos’s “Los partes fragmentados narrativos de la guerra y la deportación Yaquis” and John Kenneth Turner’s book “Barbarous Mexico” (1910), which exposed the genocide against the Yaquis. You can download it from Amazon.

I could see the eucalyptus grove first. It towered over the rest of landscape. Then I saw the building. I wondered about access. I passed up the first left, barely a track. Then I saw a well-used second left, a dirt road leading into the north end of the station. I was able to drive right up to the station on my left and the grove on my right.

As soon as I stepped out of my car, a small black dog began to hector me, begging to be fed and cared for—a more contemporary example of abandonment. I entered the building, with the dog on my heels. It was exactly the way I had seen it in photos: dirt floor, fairly intact corrugated roof and, everywhere, graffiti. There was no plaque, no sign, no reference anywhere to state or local protection, nothing of the history of the place. I wondered why it was still standing, still there. A hundred years had passed. Who owned the land, the building, and the grove? Why wasn’t the old station either torn down or used for something else?

I walked into a few side rooms. Living in a country with so many buildings still carrying signs of history, I looked for clues. On the outside wall, where the trains would have stood, there are bullet holes in the wall. I found about fifty of them, some very low, meaning that the shots had been directed at people sitting or lying. At Buchenwald, out side of Weimar, there are bullet holes in the floor of a fairly small room with a drain in the middle. A sign said that Russian prisoners of war were executed in that room. They had been sitting or lying when they were shot. Two hundred feet to the west, there was a ruin of a few standing walls. The back wall had a great many bullet holes in it at various heights. That place seemed as if it was a more intentional execution site. For a while I had thought the impact patterns were also evidence of automatic fire that pointed to a later time; but now I am not so sure.

Some of the train rails are still embedded in concrete near the station. There is a ramp up to the train level. The roof overhangs the platform on both sides of the station. There had been another two people taking dirt from a pile near the grove. They departed. That left me and the little black dog, that continued to whimper—placing me in the curious and ironic dilemma of offering my empathy to those who had suffered in this place a hundred years ago, while denying it to a creature who needed immediate help and might or might not ever receive it.

Why did I seek this place out, and why am I writing about it now? Because I think it is important not to forget what we are capable of—murdering each other, enslaving each other for whatever purpose. That is why the Germans and Poles have preserved the concentration camps in those countries.

Somebody appears to be protecting the San Marcos site, but also not wanting to advertise that fact—perhaps because the State or the Republic will not permit it. It is some kind of informal arrangement—and a mystery I cannot explain. I am not sure what percentage of its visitors have any idea what happened there. They come as picnickers or graffiti artists. But I suspect that some of them are also the descendants of the people who perished there or farther down the line—and I suspect some of them are Yaquis.

M. Evades a Future

Awake at 2 AM, listening to whoops in the callejones, the alleys that cross in front of our house. Someone had taken one of the usual inhalants and was acting out in the usual way, roaring at the neighbors, as if they were responsible for all his pains. I watched on the camera monitor for a while. Unfortunately, by mistake, we had hit the wrong buttons somewhere along the line, and the picture keeps changing from camera 1 to camera 2 to 3 to 4, so you can’t studying the situation or track someone’s movement. Delinquent behavior was occurring, but I could only catch snatches of it.

Only that morning, I had reprimanded young M, whom no one washes, for not being at the art workshop being offered at S’s tienda–store–two blocks up the stairs. I yelled up at his sister, whose head I could see above the half-wall on their roof.

“Where’s M?” I called up. “He not at the workshop.”

She looked down with a kind of shrug-of-the-shoulders expression.

“Where’s M?” I asked again, not letting myself be put off.

M appeared at an open window one story lower. His face was as blank as his sister’s.

“Why aren’t you at the workshop?” I ask. His eyes shifted around, as he looked for an answer. Everything about his face told me that, for whatever reason, he wasn’t going.

“It’s just that I have to hold tools for someone,” he said.

“No, you don’t,” I replied. “A lot of people have worked really hard to set this up for you. Why aren’t you going?”

He disappeared, then appeared around the corner, on my level, in the callejón.

M is a practiced con-artist, best at trying to get money out of you with the most outlandish stories of why he has to have it. D has told him there will be no more money until she has talked with his teacher and his parent figures (the father is not interested in him) present a financial report of money-in and money-out. They seem to have a record of complicity in M’s stories and reasons. The children come saying there is no food to eat. It is hard to say no. We have given food, but we no longer give money.

He was beginning up the steps with me. He looked back, as if he was worried about pressure coming from somewhere else: his mother. I suspected she had told him he didn’t have to go.

“You have a commitment,” I told him, as we climbed toward S’s tienda and the workshop. I used the word commitment because M always seems to be sliding in the other direction—no commitment toward anyone including himself and any kind of future.

“You know, I’m disappointed in you, M. A lot of people are coming together to offer you something worthwhile—the history of Mexican art—and you can’t be bothered to get your ass off your chair and up the hill.”

He brought up his duty to hand someone tools. I told him he didn’t have that duty. He had a duty to attend what M and others had worked hard to organize.

“Do you want to become a pandillero–a thug?” I asked him. I knew there was a constant suck on him in that direction.

He looked at me, shocked that I could think such a thing. I thought of my own father’s gruff guidance as I marched M toward something worthwhile. Are you going to do the right thing, or not?

We entered S’s tienda. S was at the front, selling tacos with fresh goat meat. I had met the animal earlier. Various parts of him had been stewing since the night before. M was delaying. He said he had to throw his plastic cup away. I took it out of his hand. I would throw it a way. S was watching me. I rolled my eyes. S gave a little nod. He knew the story. M had to buy a candy bar. A, S’s wife, sold it to him. He opened it and casually took a bite. In that moment, he was a tough guy that had important things to do in his life—besides attending workshops.

I mounted the stairs behind him. I got him a chair and planted him across from A, the young volunteer teacher—a theater major from the university, coming from the young citizen’s group called 473, which is our area code in Mexico. I drew up a chair and sat behind M—like a sprawled goatherd dog keeping tabs on one of his goats—a goat boy that possibly still had a future if he felt that anybody at all gave a damn about him.

Between 1 and 2 AM, the local losers—D disapproves of dehumanizing terms—had a rock fight with another gang a few houses down from us, broke the streetlight in front of our house, smashed open the steel door to the vacant lot and knocked out one of the adjoining metal panels, and terrified the neighborhood with their bellowing. Various young women fluttered around one of them (I caught glimpses of this on the always changing cameras), trying to return him to the privada–the side alley–before the police arrived in their knee guards, plastic shields, and metal clubs. Apparently, each neighbor thought the other would call the police—and no one did. The police did not arrive, and the boys-without-futures had one more spell of violence and chaos.

This is My Land

Interview with Alfredo Figueroa (Caborca, State of Sonora, Mexico), November 12, 2001:

~ When I was a small kid in 3rd grade we were starting geography. The teacher pointed to a map on the wall and said, “Now this is the United States that we all love so much.” I got up like an Indian and raised my hand and said, “Well I don’t love it too much.” She asked, “What do you mean? You don’t know what you’re talking about!” I said, “My father says they stole this land from us.” I wouldn’t change my mind, so they sent me home and told my mother I was unpatriotic. They kept me away for two weeks. They took me to the principal’s office, where he had a big old paddle they used to call the board of education. And they paddled and whipped me. They made a play named after Philip Nolan’s book, Man Without a Country, and showed it at school, just to intimidate the Mexicans. They named it Boy Without a Country. I was just telling them, “This is my land.” I was just a little kid. Can you imagine, 9 years old? Man! But that’s why they had the Americanization schools, to brainwash all those young Mexicans and Chimahuevos living in Blythe.
My mother always used to say that we were Chimahuevos and my father was Yaqui. We never did classify ourselves as American. Never! It was a battle everyday, and we knew who we were. My mother negotiated with the principal, and I had to write on the blackboard, “I love the United States” in front of all the kids a hundred times. And then I was accepted back as a student at Blythe grammar school. ~

What Happened to the Spanish Civil War?

When you walk through the Catalun Musë–the Catalonia Museum near the harbor in Gaudy’s Barcelona and get to the end of all the exhibits, it occurs to you that something is missing—like the Spanish Civil War.

And you wonder why.

The rest of the exhibits are comprehensive. The building is lovely, and you look can look out over the Mediterranean. We took an elevator to the top floor and began walking through endless display rooms. This was not as hard as you might think because the floor is always slightly sloped and, like the steps of a circular stairway, the rooms spiral down to the bottom of the museum—a brilliant idea for the museum-weary.

We learn about the earliest peoples who lived in the Barcelona area, spread across the two river systems Besòs and Llobregat. We re-lived the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, hunting, cultivation, Greek colonies, Roman rule, Roman vineyards, and the Goths. Somewhere along the way, Hannibal rides elephants toward Rome, and then there is the 700-year Arab and Moorish presence. Which made me wonder briefly about the likely longevity of the Anglo-etc. presence in the great Native American continent.
I found it fascinating that the idea of irrigation came from the Muslims. Or that they introduced (to what is now Spain) lettuce, cabbage, radishes, eggplant, carrots, pomegranates, melons, watermelons, red figs, grapes, oranges, lemons, cucumbers, garlic, rice, sugar cane, wheat, cotton, paper, the idea of universal education, libraries, lit streets, religious tolerance, banking, medicine, astrology, astronomy, pharmacology, psychology, physics, physiology, zoology, biology, botany, mineralogy, optics, chemistry, mathematics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, music, meteorology, geography, mechanics, navigation, and history.

There were universities. We got the Arabic number system and the concept of zero from them. They gave us harmony, the keyboard, the guitar, and the flute (although I thought the Greek god Pan invented that.) Their concept of optics led to the application of idea of perspective in painting. Modern Spanish still uses many Arabic words. The new invaders–the Christians–translated all of this over time, and we got the Enlightenment.

All of this impressed me immensely. It is not quite the image we get of Muslims in my former place of residence, just north of the Mexican border.

Back in Spain, the Christians turned on the Muslims and Jews and either killed them or drove them into exile. There was no mention of the Inquisition. The monarchies send ship west and discovered peoples who had already discovered themselves, in the New World. Grammarians try to establish a “high” Spanish. The Catalonians (Barcelona) refined their own language. The monarchies eventually conquered the Catalonians, but not their language.

There were many different subcultures in Catalonia. They were people who dwelt in the nooks and crannies got tired of war, and drifted toward what is now Barcelona, joined in its commerce, trading, and shipping. A portion of the population gradually began to oppose the social, economic, and political structure presumed by the monarchists. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century are a bit of a blur: wars, wigs, and kings. An anarchist tradition appeared: worker organizations, socialism, communism, agitation to defend workers’ rights against abuse by the big industrialists, big landowners, and the Church. And the counter-reaction by the latter.

I see reference to First World War, the Weimar Republic, Picasso. We are almost on the ground floor of the museum. I know there was a Republican Democracy in Spain, but then also the rebellion by certain generals against the same democratic republic, followed by a brutal Civil War July 17, 1936 to April 1, 1939. But I’ve seen no mention of it.

The year I was born, German Stukas (Stuka from Sturzkampfflugzeug, dive bomber) dive bombed Guernica, and Picasso does his famous painting of it.

I wonder whether I should sneer a little at Hemingway for romanticizing of the Spanish Civil War, but then I read that the Franco-ists took him very seriously and tried to block the U.S. publication of his books and the filming of movies based on them.

Blood flows, executions abound on both sides. The generals are the victors, the losers– 465,000 of them, thirty-five percent of them from the Catalan provinces alone, including a mass exodus from Barcelona (we are walking through a Barcelona museum) flee through three or four gaps in the Pyrenees to France, to be un-welcomed by French economic hard times, xenophobia, and a fascist government. Those who didn’t make it across the border and were political leaders were in trouble.

But we are on the ground floor by now. I ask the front desk, in Mexican Spanish, with my apparently Guatemalan accent, “Isn’t there anything about the Civil War?”

We are directed to a very small room on that floor, where there are some photographs on a wall–perhaps ten of them. A video is running. We sit down to watch. We see men, women, and children, on foot, in trucks, on horses and mules. We see armored cars, regular and irregular soldiers with their shoulders slouched or thrown back trying to look proud, as they pass, as if in review, the lines of French gendarmes. As they pass, the Spanish fighters throw their weapons onto piles of other weapons. There is a place for ammunition and grenades alone, another just for pistols–and a last one for machine guns.

It is cold. Everyone is tightly wrapped, if they are lucky. It is gray and bleak. The faces show hope and relief. I knew from elsewhere they were then marched to camps in open fields with barbed wire and no shelter–with soldiers separated from their families. They suffered from malnutrition, bad water, dysentery, cholera and starvation. The film doesn’t show that.

France doesn’t want them. Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Dominican Republic are the only countries that will accept them–but in small numbers. Plus, there is little money for transportation and settlement. In the end, only something like 30,000 make it to Americas.

Conditions are so bad in the camp, some 268,000 people return to Franco’s Spain. By the end of 1944, 162,000 are still in France. 47,000 appear to be unaccounted for–perhaps the victims of starvation and disease.

The men who stayed were offered no good choices. They could serve in various work, support, and fighting brigades–or be returned to Spain. Those who refused were treated like prisoners. Activists were treated like prisoners anyway. Later, after the fall of France at the beginning of WWII, some join the Marquis, the French underground, to fight the Germans in Vichy France. Spanish Civil War fighters and leaders captured by the Germans were sent directly to German death camps.

If you were a high school or college student and had no background, and watched the ten-minute video in the small room at the museum, you would not understand why these people were fleeing their country.

And so, the question arises: Why, at this museum, was so much left out? Is it a matter of whose history shall be the official history?

I walked into the gift shop. I approached an intelligent looking young man. I asked him the question. I asked him what it meant–this invisible portion of their history. He asked me whether I had seen the exhibit. He pointed to the little room. I said I had. I asked the question in different ways. A young woman, also a store employee, joined us and listened in. I ask them whether it meant there were conditions that discouraged a larger treatment of one of the most painful events in Spain’s past.

I could tell by the way they were looking at me that my status had changed from tourist to somebody knocking on the door of their history.

The young man gave me an ironic smile. And as if it all just happened, he said, “You know the victors write the history.”

I said I knew that. But wasn’t there something not from their side? They brought out books. The victors’ intellectuals had recently written a history from a conservative point of view. The losers’ intellectuals had recently answered with their own thick volume. I wanted to buy the latter, but it was too heavy and I didn’t want any more weight.

He handed me a paperback. “This a novel about a Franco-ist (victors, fascist, dictator) intellectual who escaped a Republican (losers, democratic, left) firing squad during the last days of the war. A soldier from a Republican search party finds the escapee half-hidden in mud and leaves, but instead of shooting him, turns and walks away.”

I said I didn’t want to read something from the fascist point of view. He said, “This is not from a this or a that point of view. It is the book you want to read.”

From the way he said it–with intelligence and focus, and something in his voice–and because it was light, I bought it.

It is the book I recommend you read before you walk into the little room on the ground floor at the magnificent Catalonia Museum–in Gaudy’s Barcelona. Soldiers of Salamis, by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean, Bloombury Press, 2004.

In a review, Susan Sontag writes, “With irresistible directness and delicacy, Javier Cercas engages in a quick-witted, tender quest for truth and the possibility of reconciliation in history, in our everyday lives—which happens to be the theme of most great European fiction. He has a fascinating tale to tell, which happens (mostly) to be true. He has written a marvelous novel.”

In all fairness, there is another museum which treats this period of Spain’s history. I did not have time to visit it. The Museu Memorial de L’Exili is located near the border with France, at La Jonquera. It is very modern structure, well laid out and, I think, comprehensive–with unrestrained concern for examining and remembering the catastrophic exodus of 1939. I do not know whether its texts are only in Catalan, but if you know Spanish you will be able to figure it out.

One further point: there were deadly struggles within the Republican (democratic) ranks. Stalin sent GPU (secret police) and other forces to support the anti-fascists but at the same to murder non-Stalinists who were thought to be too revolutionary in the sense of pro-worker and for land reform. Also targets were internationals who associated with these activists, among whom was one George Orwell. To appease Hitler, Stalin secretly ordered the International Brigade out of Spain, thus sealing the fate of the Republic and its supporters, resulting in the fascist victory and the mass exodus. For more I recommend http://www.critiquejournal.net/spain32.pdf

I recommend William Herrick’s autobiography “Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical,” University of Wisconsin Press, for an understanding of the destructive role of Stalinist Communists in the Spanish Civil War. Very good reading

I Am Supporting My Wife Candelaria

A few days ago, I wrote the following: “There is a little man, who was surely a much bigger man when he was young, who stands in an alley in the center of Guanajuato, selling little bags of delicious calabacitas, small round squash, that taste, in my opinion, like corn on the cob. Only after years have I begun buying the squash from him. I suppose because of the way he looks. I would say he is about three feet tall, and that is because he is bent over, his torso parallel to the ground. He is dressed as the very poor are dressed: clean, worn, more than modest. I am not even sure he can see, because he never looks up, or out from under his straw hat. Nor does he move around; it is always the same posture. Bent over, announcing his wares over and over, in a kind of singing croak, whenever he senses someone passing. I do not know his name. I do not know his history. I think he is too old to cultivate and harvest what he sells. So, someone must supply him with his produce: squash and, I think, sometimes, garlic. And then set him up at his spot, where he stands, I think, for most of the day. He has a history, and a story, perhaps grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He has surely loved and been loved. And I know nothing about it.”

Today, I stopped a bought five small round zucchini squash from him. I asked him his name. He mumbled something. I asked him two or three times more. My writing partner, who is Mexican, stood beside me, also trying to understand. I asked the man his age. “Ninety-five,” he said. “I’m supporting my wife Candelaria.” We finally understood his name. “Apolinar Mesa,” he said, patiently, repeating each time more clearly the information I was asking for. And each time, he would add, “I’m supporting my wife Candelaria.”

I was bent over, as I talked to him. His seemed to have different colored stones in his eyes. It wasn’t clear to me that he could see, although he appeared to be looking right into my eyes. I walked through the alley (callejón) again a few hours later. The shadow where he had been standing had disappeared, and he was also no longer there.

Barbara Davoli, a friend and Facebook friend commented as follows:

“What a great story about Apolinar. My neighbor and I were just talking about him a few days ago. I was thinking of trying to sell the buckets of limones that fall from my tree daily, and he came to mind. According to my neighbor, he really does support his wife and himself by selling these veggies. He has several children here in Guanajuato — a few are professors at the university — who want him to move in with them. But he refuses — he prefers to stay in his home with his wife and continue to support her as he has done his whole life.”