“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. Continue reading “Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory”
My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.
I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.
The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.
“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.
I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.
“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.
I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.
Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.
I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.
We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.
“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.
I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.
My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.
“Do you want me to call them?”
My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.
My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.
Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.
My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.
The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.
After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.
At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.
There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.
I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.
I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.
My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.
It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.
At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.
Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.
I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.
I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.
I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.
Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.
An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”
A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.
Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently, I had my first Uber taxi experience, as well as my first experience of police corruption in Mexico city.
We had to get to the Mexico City airport. Our AirBnB host sang Uber’s praises. He would pay the taxi through his account. I would reimburse him in pesos. We would only need to call about six minutes before an Uber came. The driver would be dressed in jacket and tie, we would know all about him before he arrived since he had been thoroughly screened by the company, we would see his photo and know the license number of his car. We would each get a free bottle of water.
We waited at the corner of Motolinía and Avenida Francisco Madero. Various taxis slowed, offering rides. We waved them on. That may have been the tip off. Finally, Luis came, in a little red car, clean, new, and with the right license number. We loaded our luggage. Luis asked what terminal. We didn’t know. I got out the piece of paper with the flight information. There was no mention of the terminal. Our host looked it up in a flash with his smart phone. Terminal 1. A good minute had gone by. We got in the car. A Transit Police pulled in in front of us with his motorcycle, boxing us in. He came to the driver’s window. We had, he said, committed an infraction and weren’t going anywhere. Our host, a rational man, began to protest. What did he mean, we had just stopped to load baggage, that’s what you do when you’re going to the airport. The policeman said we would have to wait until his commanding officer got there. Out of thin air, a Transit Police pickup pulled up next to us. A female officer got out of the passenger seat and turned to the pickup’s bed. There she had a whole tangle of wheel boots, linked by cables, to incapacitate the Uber taxi. I got out. I told her we were on our way to the airport, we had a flight to catch, clearly we were tourists. She ignored me. Our host ran down to the middle of the next block, up-traffic, to consult with other police who had gathered there with their squad cars. I could see about three different flashing police lights. I assumed their activity had to do with ours, and it looked menacing. Our host ran back. He opened the truck of the Uber.
“There, look at the bags,” he said to the woman. “See, they’re going to the airport.”
The female officer ignored him and began to fumble with her nest of cables and wheel boots.
Our host looked at me. “Get in the car!”
I opened the door. Our driver—quiet the whole time—had been saying something to the motorcycle officer. He turned back toward me and commanded, “Get in!”
He started the car and began to back away from the motorcycle that blocked us. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He pulled out and gunned it. D. turned around to wave good-bye to our host. I turned too and could see he was still arguing with the police.
“What happened?” I asked our driver.
“I told him he would have to pay for the flights if you missed them.”
After a pause, I asked, “Did they know you were going to pick us up?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So the police are with the taxi drivers and anti-Uber?”
He nodded, yes, that’s what was happening.
He held up a small bottle of water. Would I like one? I said I would. D. thanked him and said no.
While I drank my free water, I contemplated what seemed like a dark alliance between the police and the spread of normal taxis. I didn’t understand it, especially since, according to Luis our driver, Uber paid the same amount of taxes as the regular taxis: 2%! and that, like everything else, it had to do with mafias of control and was, of course, a kind of anarchic harassment. It turns out, however, that the matter is much more complicated and that Uber actually casts a long shadow, and that our host was wrong and the Transit police, right. For an intelligent discussion, scroll down to the Laura Flanders interview with a representative of non-Uber taxi drivers in an American city. I find her remarks very persuasive: http://www.telesurtv.net/…/Mexico-City-Set-to-Regulate…
I am sorry. I steal this as well, because the world needs to know.
Reforma: Guadalupe Loaeza*
Translated by Danielle M. Antonetti
As I do every year, last Sunday I took my grandchildren to see “The Nutcracker” at the National Theater. Once seated, I gave myself a task: to watch all the people filled with holiday cheer as they entered the theater to admire the last performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, the music of which is so familiar to us that even the most ignorant can recall a fragment. Most of the attendees were children and adolescents, bundled up and accompanied by their families. The atmosphere inside the enormous auditorium, with space for 10,000 people, was festive and Christmassy.
Suddenly, the lights went down and at the stage’s illuminated center appeared a group of young people holding two banners, one with the hashtag #Yamecansé [Enough, I’m tired]** written on it and on the other could be read the words, “Stop impunity.” Daniel Castillo, in evening wear, spoke on behalf of his fellow members of the National Dance Company:
“Mexico is mourning the unsustainable and heartbreaking impunity that has become a daily story and that violates our citizenry.”
A profound silence fell over us. No one moved in their seats, not the children and especially not the adults. The power of Castillo’s words and the audience’s silence united all of us. Castillo, whose image was projected in color on two enormous screens placed on either side of the stage, continued,
“Mexico, we are no longer just mourning the disappeared teacher college students, but those of Aguas Blancas, San Fernando and the children at the ABC nursery***,”
“I want to read a poem written by one of our company members, the ballerina Sonia Jiménez.”
At that moment, and despite my wearing a red sweater, I felt dressed in black from head to toe.
We are mourning,
We are the cry of our dead,
We are the blood shed on fertile land,
We are the silence on the verge of exploding.
Today we do not recognize the ground on which we stand,
The falling rain does not erase the mistakes,
Our eyes don’t wipe away the truth,
We live blindfolded, we have sold-out,
We speak with the breath of our bodies.
Turn off the lights. Mexico is mourning.
I envisioned backstage: 170 dancers of the National Dance Company and the students of the National School of Classical and Contemporary Dance, elegantly dressed as the characters of the ballet’s epoch, applauding. I was imagining the company’s five principal dancers—Agustina Galizzi, Ana Elisa Mena, Mayuko Nihei, Blanca Ríos and Erick Rodríguez—mourning. Those who appeared particularly sad were José Luis González, Mariana Garce and Sofía Villarreal, who that night were saying goodbye to the company, which was celebrating 50 years of putting on the Christmas ballet. Also, I imagined “Clara,” the protagonist of Hoffmann’s tale, the little rodents, the tin soldiers, and the Nutcracker himself mourning, applauding in honor of the 43 disappeared.
“Why did you get so sad all of a sudden, Mamá Lú?, one of my granddaughters asked me.
“Because Mexico continues to mourn,” I replied.
*María Guadalupe Loaeza Tovar is a contemporary Mexican writer and author of many books, including Las Niñas Bien [The Good Girls], Las Reinas de Polanco [The Queens of Polanco (wealthy Mexico City neighborhood], Debo, Luego Sufro [I Owe, Therefore, I Suffer] and Compro, Luego Existo [I Shop, Therefore, I Exist], in which she writes ironically about the Mexican upper class. Twitter: @
First, let me tell you I am a cautious person. The boy stood at a corner, where a side street cut into the main road. Kitty-corner from the Iglesia de La Santa Muerte, the Church of Saint Death. He had been standing there since 1997, long before the church appeared. He was six or seven then. He stood facing the road. He did not register the passing cars. He was dirty, dressed in rags, and barefoot. He was a ghost, and still is. Time went by in five- or six-month intervals. I never thought about him until I was about a half mile from the corner. Then I would start to think about him, and I’d say, “I wonder if the kid is standing there.” Near an unfinished structure, cement blocks, maybe a little house or store. With never enough funds to finish it. Sprayed with a faded graffiti, in black paint that said, “Vale verga mal gobierno.” Roughly, the government isn’t worth shit.
It was November, when I passed. He was wearing a plaid jacket, buttoned askew – Good Will stuff, trucked down from the border, by the ton, illegally. He wore oversized black sneakers, without laces. No socks. For the first time in thirteen years, someone had begun to take care of him. I suspected the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte, right there in front of him.
I was returning from a trip to the big town, where the houses are adobe and whitewashed, except for the first four feet, which are painted a dark cold red. I had walked the square, eaten watery over-sugared ice cream under the portales, the arched covered walkways, and had even had a drink. Whisky. I never drink whisky. I never drink anything hard. But with all the cold red paint and the whitewash, and it being November, one small shot warmed my chest and raised my sense of brotherhood. And that is why I stopped the car and got out. And walked over to the boy. For the first time in thirteen years.
He took a step back. I respected his fear and veered away. I looked for someone I could talk to. I walked up the side street. A man approached. He was a shorter than me, trim and white-haired. His face was a little red. I suspected his chest is warmer than mine. I greeted him. He was curious about me. A gringo out of his car. What could it mean?
“Para servirle,” he said, as if I were a customer. May I help you?
I said I’d been driving past the boy for thirteen years, and I’d stopped for the first time. “He has a new coat and shoes,” I said, waving behind me, at the ghost. It was a question, poorly disguised as a statement.
“Sí, eso sí es,” he said – but that was it. A non-committal agreement.
I wanted to ask things. But a follow-up question would have crossed a boundary. Like, who bought the jacket and shoes for him, why now, why hadn’t he been taken care of before? Who did he belong to? He could have been the man’s child. The man could have been connected to the church across the road. Similar churches were springing up all over Mexico. There was a word associated with them. My wife had told me not to throw it around. You never knew who you were talking to.
He asked where I was from, and was I visiting? I said I was from the capital of the next state north. I was visiting friends, I said. And that was all I said. I didn’t want him to know who my friends were or where they lived. He didn’t pursue it.
“I’ve worried about him over the years,” I said, realizing immediately what I was saying. I was a man who worried, but not enough to stop in thirteen years. A man who recognized a metaphor – the boy as the vast neglected population of Mexico – and left it at that.
The whisky was losing its heating power. I decided it had placed myself in a weak position. The man sighed. He looked at the boy. He looked back at me. Both of us looked for clues. The man’s shoes were modest, the soles good. Mine were fancy nylon sandals, with thick treads for wading in clean rivers and getting in out of first world kayaks.
“His name is Jorge,” the man said. “He’s always been that way.”
“I’m glad someone’s helping him,” I said. “I’ve never tried to help him.”
“Yo tampoco,” says the man. Me either. He raised his considerable eye brows, as if he were telling me something of great significance I probably couldn’t understand. “Even God has not helped him.”
This was a mouthful. I looked kitty-corner to the church.
“Someone over there helped him,” he said. And then he put his palms over his eyes, spread his fingers, and peeked through. As if to say, let’s not go any farther in that direction. He was also grinning, and the humor seemed like it could be at my expense.
“Ven,” he said, using the intimate imperative. Come! And we walked back toward Jorge. The man brought out a paper-wrapped shape, folded back the paper, and lifted out a taco. Chunks of meat in a red sauce. Jorge took it, at about solar plexus level, and dropped his face to it, like a dog. His hands were more than dirty. He farted as took the first bite.
The man wrapped the empty paper together so the juices were on the inside. He took a few steps and threw it against the wall of the unfinished structure, where it dropped among other similar wrappings, just below the graffiti “Vale verga mal gobierno”. He walked back to me.
“I can show you the church,” he said. He saw my doubt. “It’s alright, no one is going to shoot you,” he caught my eye, “if you come in peace.” He had raised his eyebrows again, to emphasize seriousness. If you come in peace sounded like some kind of authority. I was also not sure how we had made the jump: Jorge, then going in the church.
I considered saying I had to get along. I took out my car keys. He glanced at them. “You care about Jorge. We are not always ready to help those we don’t know.” I decided we meant him and me. And that he was building brotherhood.
“No one is going to kidnap you,” he said, with I thought a priest-like smile. “I know you’re curious. They hide nothing. Over half of this village has left the Catholic Church to worship there.” He pointed across the street. I took in the preferred church’s double door, the gothic half-arch windows, the bumpy frosted bronzed plastic panes. The oversized brass door handles – low-end Southern California crematorium style, without the smokestack.
“People are beginning to help Jorge. You’re not the only one.” He opened one side of the double doors. He switched on the lights.
“It’s just us,” he said, turning back.
I pointed my keys at my car, to make sure it was locked. Its parking lights winked.
“Do you have a key for yourself?” he snorted. He was very agreeable. But his joke showed too much intelligence. His Spanish was too clear. I remained standing in the doorway.
“What’s your connection to the church?” I asked, needing reassurance. I used su, the formal possessive adjective. I wanted to keep my distance.
“It’s complicated,” he said. I backed up a few steps, beckoning to him to come back out and discuss it with me.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“Well, I’m not sure what I can ask,” I said, thinking of my wife’s warning.
“Where are you staying?” he asked. And then: “Never mind, that just feeds your suspicion. I assure you, we help more people than we kill,” he said, lifting his considerable eyebrows – straight-faced. Pulling my leg, I thought, to show me I was being paranoid.
“My name is Luís,” he said. I shook his hand. It was cold. I did not say my name.
Inside, there were ten or more rows of simple benches. There was space in front for kneeling before the Santa Muerte. She was a plastic Katrina, a skeleton, with three-dimensional bones, wrapped in see through pastel chiffon. She rose up life-size out of a sea of devotional candle that flickered red, white, Virgin Mary blue, and ecclesiastical purple. She was missing one arm. A few shriveled and forgotten Purépecha women knelt before her, fingering their rosaries and praying for what? Food? That someone would touch them? See the nineteen-year old inside?
A car crunched to a stop. The door opened. A Policía Federal stepped through, his jacket too tight for more than one button. He held a small package wrapped in white paper. He glanced at the Indian women. He looked me up and down. He said something to my host. Something quick. A question, ending with ternero. Something like: Is this the missing calf?
Luís’s answer was also quick, and equally coded. “Aún no ha pastado.” Too young to graze, still at the mother’s tit.
“This is Nacho,” said Luis, with his palm out. No one was interested in my name. Luís brought three folding chairs over from the wall, and set them up facing each other. He placed a fourth one in the middle. Nacho unfolded his package on the fourth chair. “Chivo,” he said. Goat meat. I could smell it. So could the Purépecha women. Their rebozos shadowed their faces. Their head had turned, and they were staring. They did not look away.
With a little homophobic posturing – hip cocked, hand on his elbow, finger on his lips – Luís chose a bottle, from the feet of the Saint. Jim Beam.
Nacho gestured toward the goat meat. “Tómale, güero!” He handed me a napkin. I plucked out a hunk of mutton. The meat was still warm, not too fatty. He handed me an envelope of salt. We drank out of votive glasses. Mine was Virgin blue. Nacho wore gold chain under his gun-blue shirt. He needed a shave. His eyes were brighter than I liked. My hand trembled as I lifted my glass. I steadied it with my other hand.
“Qué tal los ataques contra el gobierno?” he asked. How do you like those attacks against the government?
His eyes were bloodshot. I was expected to give an answer. My chest was warm. My heart fluttered. I saw burning buses, trailer truck infernos, their drivers lying in the street. Tiro de gracia. A bullet in the back of the head. Someone like Nacho, shaved, two buttons buttoned, dark suit, standing in front of a huge Mexican flag, the presidential sash across his chest. Three years down the line.
I started to speak.
“Thirty-three municipalities,” he smacked, his mouth full of goat “They got money for sewage treatment plants, not a single one built, casas muy chillón instead, glitzy houses, built by the mayors. Feeder springs covered over. The silted lake. The water level drops. No fish. Horses and oxen for plowing. This is the pinche twenty-first century.” Nacho licked a thumb and hairy forefinger. He glared at me as if I were the cause of it all.
I felt safe. The chatty circle. Three chairs. The Jim Beam. The Indian women had turned away, too hungry to keep their bodies twisted. Like street dogs that knew they weren’t going to be fed.
“I could make a call on my radio, and 40 armed men would be here in three-quarters of an hour. Cut off the roads in ten different places. Lanzagranadas, RPG’s, granade launchers. It takes three hours for the army to get anywhere. A hundred years lost. No jobs. Shit for education. Aguacate or mariguana? How hard a choice is that? The North pretends it’s not involved. Maybe we’ll build the goddamn treatment plants. The fish will come back. Fuck the mal gobierno. We’ll kill the people who stand in the way. Send down the drones and we’ll kill your children.” I looked at Luís. Luís raised his eyebrows. At me.
I had stopped eating. I looked back at Nacho. His eyes were bulging, as if he had come to the surface too quickly. I looked at my Virgin blue votive glass. It was empty.
Nacho said pués, he had to go. He stuck out his gun leg and pulled out his black automatic, some kind of Glock. He cocked it and pointed it at my right foot. I pulled my foot back a bit. The Glock was stuck in midair, and didn’t follow. Nacho wiped goat grease off his mouth. He re-holstered the gun. He filled my votive glass with Jim Beam. He said maybe I could write a letter of recommendation for his daughter, so she could study in Chicago. He showed me a photo. A charming young woman. I imagined myself married to her, visiting Nacho on the weekends. Her name was Maricruz. The old question floated in the air. You know, like how do you get her across?
“Tunnels,” he winked. “And friends.”
I nodded. We stood and shook hands. I bowed slightly, the way my mother taught me. To show I respected him. “Mucho gusto,” I said.
“I know where to find you,” he said. I looked at Luis. He raised his eyebrows – another warning. Or jest. I couldn’t tell which. There were a few chunks of meat left. Nacho wrapped them. He glanced over at the Indian women, decided against it, and put the meat in his pocket, for later.
He stopped at the door. “I also know how to tell others where you live.” A comment I didn’t think went well with the recommendation for Maricruz. And then he was out the door. We heard the car pull away, heading back to the town.
It was very likely he had seen my license plate. He had a radio, probably a black thing, with blinking lights. The curse of Mexico is that there’s a sophisticated microwave repeater tower on every mountain top. I calculated the ease of cross checking information. It was still late afternoon. Transito could still be open. Maybe he already knew my name and address.
Luís led me out the back door, into the sweet smell of cow. A farmyard, carpeted with shredded dried manure from various animals. In a small corral of their own, two fine oxen, for plowing. A large corral, partly covered, with a dozen grey, flop-eared, hump-backed Brahman, happy to back from their lakeside grazing. A clutch of gleaming brown hens scattered before us, heads down, making lateral escapes. Slim Ameraucanas – my favorites. Pigs I could smell and hear, but not see. Probably the same for them.
“Where are we going?” I asked. He looked at me but did not answer. A bent campesino approached us from a path that led in from the marsh. A substantial haystack walked along behind him. A burro loaded with rastrojo de maíz, dried corn stalks, to the extent that the animal was completely hidden. Even its legs. We arrived at a shed at the same time.
“This is Don Venus,” said Luis.
I nodded. Don Venus looked just past me, at one of my ears. He moved his lips. No sound came out. Luis asked him to wait a moment before unloading the rastrojo. The shed was a lean-to, open on three sides. There were still some stalks leaning up against the rear wall. Luís pulled these aside and revealed an old green plastic tarp. And out from under this, he pulled what most of us recognize as the global insurgent weapon, the Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47. It was painted a marine gray, chipped and dinged. God knows how old, or from what military. He fumbled around some more and brought a cuerno de chivo, the curved thirty-round magazine, and clicked it into place, thus completing the icon. In some parts of Asia and Africa, the whole thing for twenty dollars.
“How many have you got?” I asked, before I could stop myself.
He ignored me and told Don Venus – who had seen everything – to go ahead and unload his corn stalks. “Ven,” he said, and we started off on the path into the marsh. Right away, he pulled a pint bottle out of his back pocket. More Jim Beam. I took a swig. Then he took one. Then he dropped the bottle on a tuft of soft dry grass that the Brahmans appeared to be saving for later. “We´ll pick it up on the way back,” he said. He gave me a challenging smirk, in anticipation of a discovered deficiency – in me. “Have you ever shot one of these things?” he asked. I hadn´t. And the little warrior in me thrilled.
The path was a raised dike, formed by the dredged channel to our left. We passed a drawn up dugout – a canoa, the modern version, plywood and fiberglass – that waited for its fisherman to return. The dike widened a little. We stopped where a square – maybe six feet by six feet – had been cut out of the bog.
“Do you see it?” he asked.
I saw something in the brown water, a foot down. I stepped closer. A body splayed out, with small fish, too ravenous to flee, eating away at a vague white mass. Then I realized I was looking at a hoof, and that the victim was a calf that had been split open and staked down at each hoof. And then I thought I saw a human hand floating deeper down, below it all.
I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw that Luís had the Kalashnikov pointed at me.
“You could donate your arm to the Saint,” he said. And then, with his brows raised, “For Jorge’s sake.” A smile formed. He thought it was funny.
He swung the gun away. “Let’s shoot it,” he said, and I jumped when he fired a single round at some grebes that were dunking and squeaking, in open water a hundred feet away. The birds fluttered across the water, turning this way and that. Some went airborne, others submerged. I felt pee cooling on my inner thigh.
“You try it,” he said. He moved a lever. “Automatic,” he said. He presented the gun with both hands, like an award. I held it at waist level and fired off a burst. At the grebes, farther away now. They panicked. One fluttered, then floated limp. My ears rang. I fired another burst. This one longer, and cut a path back back into the junco, a not too distant line of reeds. And then I fired until the cuerno de chivo was empty. On purpose. He understood what I’d done. His eyebrows were raised.
“Pasto para los chivos, cuernos para los cuervos.” He smirked, again as if he had discovered a small hypocrisy. Grass for the goats, horns for the crows. Or was the last phrase bullets for the cuernos de chivo -for the corpses the crows will pick at?
I didn’t understand. My mind was on the shredded calf, picked at by fish. I wondered it they were the same white fish that the tourists ate deep fried and cold. Plus, there was something else I couldn’t quite focus on.
On the way back, we stopped for the bottle. The whisky helped. I looked to see if you could see pee wetting through on my pants. You couldn’t. Don Venus sat on a three-legged stool. His burro dozed tied to the shed. Don Venus held a machete across his thighs. Luís handed him the Kalashnikov. Don Venus walked into the shed, to put it away. He carried the machete in his left hand, by its plastic black handle, and the AK-47 balanced in the right so the muzzle wouldn’t drag on the ground – as if it too were a campesino’s everyday tool.
We went back into the church. There were more women inside. One of them very pretty, with expensive shoes, an alligator handbag, and a thin-striped blue and black rebozo, to make her look Indian. I heard her smooth voice address the Santa Muerte: “Preciosa” –precious. Then she looked at me, curious, lingering. I recognized a woman of open complexity. At another time I might have joined the church, to be near her. Outside, I said she was muy guapa, very attractive. Luís raised his eyebrows and tickled the air with his forefinger – Mexican for yes. He said her husband was killed in a shoot out with Federal Police. I suspected Nacho immediately, but didn’t say anything. She had parked her new VW Jetta so close to the front door that we were barely able to squeeze out.
“A stunning woman,” he said. I thought I could hear suggestion in his voice. Like, you could have her, if you were with us. I wondered why her husband was in a shoot out. That brought up the word my wife didn’t want me to use. So I didn’t say it.
We shook hands. I wanted to ask things. The hand under the calf, for instance. Was he supposed to build a sewage treatment plant? Did he offer crystal meth to teenagers, then fuck them? And what’s the stuff with the calves?
Luís raised his eyebrows. “We’ll find her an arm from some other carbrón.” Perhaps because of the whisky and brotherhood, I shook his hand again. Maybe just to celebrate the arm I appeared to be getting away with. Maybe all they had was the hand and not the whole arm. I ignored the word cabrón as a license permitted between warm-chested friends.
“Don’t come back,” he said. “And don’t use the word narco. It just brings trouble.
“I understand,” I said. Although I didn’t.
“Don’t stop again,” he said. I wasn’t sure why he was emphasizing the point. As he squeezed past the Jetta to go back in, he looked at me and wagged his forefinger, Mexican for no.
Under the windshield wiper, on the driver’s side, I found the wrapping from Jorge’s taco. I was pretty sure he had put it there. Some of its juice had dripped down out of sight below the wiper. I took the paper out from under the wiper. I didn’t know where to put it. Jorge was standing across the road still. He was holding his hand out. I walk across the road. He stood firm. His hand moved a little toward me. He didn’t look at me. I put the wrapper in his hand. His head bobbed a little. He lowered his arm, still holding the paper. He continued looking at the road, and beyond to the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte. With the barest trip in my voice, I said, “Que te vaya bien, Jorge,” take care, and I returned to my car. I held my arm up and pointed with the key. The parking lights winked. And then I got in and locked the doors.