Tag: Mexico

Jorge and the Santa Muerte

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.

Chaos in Michoacán—but why?

A Mexican friend of mine argues that there will be nothing but social chaos if the self-defense groups of the Mexican state of Michoacán are allowed to retain their weapons—now symbolized by the plentiful and much photographed AK-47s. In many regards, he is right. After all, how would the U.S. government react if armed citizen militias began to form and openly patrol towns and neighborhoods they considered insecure?

I asked him why the State was not equally as worried before, when the drug mafias ruled freely in Michoacán, and in many other parts of the country, with their extortions, kidnappings and killings—certainly definitions of social chaos.

He returned to his point. The self-defense groups have to be disarmed.

I replied, “Won’t the cartels just sweep in a kill every single one of them, in revenge and to reestablish their reign of terror, and their control?”

“They are breaking the law, the self-defense groups. There have to be laws to prevent social chaos.”

I replied that Mexico has very good laws, exemplary laws—but that the State has failed to enforce them, failed to protect the citizens of Michoacán.

I drew diagrams, I brought in my thin knowledge of Hobbes and Locke, I asked whom the laws were for and where laws came from. I said there was another category, in addition to la ley, the law. There was also el derecho, a person’s rights.

My friend said you had to have laws and they had to be followed in order to have a stable society. I said, in the case where the State does not enforce the laws, then rights had to supersede laws—as in the case of the right to self-defense, not to mention the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

My friend said the laws were there to prevent social violence and, again, chaos.

I argued that chaos already reigned, the moment the State failed in its responsibility to enforce the laws, especially those conceived for the protection of the citizens.

My friend had calmed down. He asked how I would solve the problem. I said I had no solution. The problem, I said, had to do with cultura, the culture of considering the law as something that applies to the other fellow, but not to oneself. Culture, I said, could only change through education. And that that was my position.

In the meantime, if Mexico is to prosper, so investment comes and there are jobs and education, the government must decide who is the enemy in Michoacán: the drug cartels or the self-defense groups? And apply the law equally. And if it can’t do that, then it needs to examine itself and see why it is not enforcing existing law equally.

Some things seem to have changed. It is likely the federal government wants to change the topic away from admission of past failed policies. And so, they say, the mafias are not the real problem; the self-defense groups are.  At the same time, to its credit, the government has begun to make arrests of some mayors and some politicians who in fact appear to have been aiding the criminal cartels. It is too early to tell whether this is show or not.

They have also arrested a few self-defense leaders and some of their self-defense foot soldiers, accusing them of murder and putting them in jail. There are complaints that some of the latter have been mistreated and abused by federal police: for example (Proceso): “…evidence of injury around the neck, air pipes,  and the inner ear…” of a leader of the self-defense forces in Yurécuaro. Defense lawyers claim the men are being framed, as a way of removing self-defense leadership.

It is also not entirely clear to what extent government is thinking about and making distinctions between the three elements in the triad: the law, individual rights and the underlying culture of impunity. What is needed, of course, is years of education on the merits of social responsibility.

In the midst of all this, ninety percent of the self-defense groups say they have no intention of disarming or being disarmed. At a recent meeting of CAM, the General Council for Self-Defense of Michoacán, self-defense leaders have given the federal government the same deadline the government had given them. Federal Commission Alfredo Castillo had given them May 10 to respond to disarmament demands. CAM has now given him May 10 to respond to their counter-proposals: 1) Legalization of the self-defense groups; 2) Release of self-defense forces imprisoned by the government; and 3) Putting an end to the entire Knights Templar structure in Michoacán.

Putting Down Me and the Dog

When my dog died—how many stories start that way?—I put off trying to discover new ways to market my novel. I cried in waves, as I dug the hole, a place where an old orange tree had lived for as many years as my sons are old. I wrapped the old fellow in my favorite Harris Tweed and eased him into his grave.

I thought I would have learned something about dying from him, but it is very hard when you’re not the dog that’s dying. I stroked his head and spoke to him, telling him how much I was going to miss him. I held his head when the vet approached from behind, touching him gently on his upward shoulder, looking for the spot for the needle. My friend’s eyes were warm and full of confidence, even as the needle entered, and for a few seconds afterward.

His gaze stayed on me, even though he had already left.

The man I sit across from, my writing partner, is experimenting with the various sounds his cell phone can make when calls and messages come in. My late friend doesn’t call me. Neither do my mother or father. Age, not the needle, put them down. But I can see the advantage of the pointy thing. Your love caresses you your forehead with a hand that is no longer young, but still as warm and smooth as when you met her when she was thirty-four.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“No,” I say, with a spoiled, irritated whine, at the idea of being extinguished forever.

Her eyes are wet. I have increased my breathing, tightened my stomach for the exertion that is coming.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” she asks.

“No,” I say, in the same snotty tone. “It’s an impossible decision.”

I sob once, then try to smile. I love her and life equally. I am too smart to not know what’s about to happen.

“Then stay,” she says.

“How long?” I ask.

“As long as you want.”

Her smile is warm, her eyes, brown. As deep as my old dog’s.

“A few days, a week at the most. The point comes eventually,” I say.

She looks at me.

“Both points,” I say.

We have always had our little jokes. A doctor friend has brought the needle and the treacle. He will approach from behind, the upper shoulder. All I have to do is give the signal.

We have reached the point two times already. And each time I have taken the reprieve, unable to leave everything and step into obliteration.

My old friend wagged his tail and trusted me. Perhaps knowing what was happening—perhaps not. He could not tell me how to do it. If acceptance is a kind of intelligence, then I do not have it. I think it was Karl Gustav Jung that said the unconscious cannot imagine its own extinction. He may have been right concerning my dog. Perhaps that is a good reason for waiting until the unconscious—the sea from which we came—has crept closer. Or we have ebbed back toward it.

In writing this, at about where I wrote Perhaps that is a good reason for waiting, the brown-eyed love I have referred to came up the stairs to the second floor of this wreck of a café, where we write—something she has never done in the ten years I’ve been meeting with my writing partner—to whom I will soon read this free write, as per custom.

I am someone that believes—to a certain extent—in synchronicity, the theory that things happen in coordination with each other, i.e. not entirely by chance.

“I need money,” she said.

I reached for my wallet.

“I don’t have a lot,” I said, noting matter-of-factly that neither of us might have enough.

“I need just enough for D,” she said. D is our personal trainer. We say those words with irony each time—aware of their pretentious ring. Instead of shrinking and withering away, my love and I have decided to buff up and work on balance.

“And for the gym,” she said. “Thirty pesos each.”

I hand over my money. My writing partner holds out his hand. He wants in on the dispensation. The mood has changed; the ocean, receded. I don’t have to mourn for my imaginary dog any longer, at least not right now. He has trotted out ahead, through my field of autumn thoughts. And I am glad enough if he does not come back right away. My love is walking toward the gym, a place as rickety as the café I am writing in. I am still here, on my own.

Still not ready.

Re-entering Mexico and Measurements of Madness

I got myself to yoga at eight o’clock in the morning and limped through a series of sun salutations, having torn something in my right shoulder doing too many chaturanga-swoop-into-cobras on my own roof. Ten days in Belize eating black bean soup and thick, grilled “mackerel” had not cured my shoulder. Now I sat in my favorite plaza Baratillo eating a gordita, a thick opened tortilla with eggs and rajas—strips of roasted jalapeño chile—inside, and feeling more connected with my breathing and body than usual. Probably more because of the rajas than the yoga.

I noticed, not too far away, The Artist, a madman I’d bought a rather good scribble from—of a local church—several years ago. He had only one shoe on, unlaced and without socks, and favored his left leg, stepping gingerly. Both pant legs were rolled up. A worn jacket, deerskin color, hung over his right shoulder, and that hand held a cup of coffee someone had given him. The left leg, and especially the foot, was dark and swollen—I supposed from a life of drinking Coke and other sugary poisons, now rotting from diabetes. He had come down a lot. In the past, he managed to be completely dressed and spent most of his time mute and wild-eyed, giving us all what some might call the Evil Eye, which was probably really nothing more than a mild paranoia mixed with a dash of anger.

Minutes before I saw The Artist, my neighbor passed close by me for the second time, again without seeing me. When he’s function, he weeds alleys for people, or carries trash to a dumpster. I also don’t know his name. Often he sits on the callejón—alley—steps below our garden gate, maybe fifty steps below, paralyzed by depression. Now he stepped along smartly with a manic bounce. His brother may have been the miner that was beaten to death in front of our house. Word circulated that we had lured the victim into our garden and bashed him. It is not true.

On day two, in my favorite square Baratillo, I saw Kaliman (I refer you to my story “Kaliman and the Madness of Writers”), leaning against a wall, drinking in the morning sun. He wore his hair in a new style, that is to say, except for on the back of his head, his grungy dreadlocks were gone—an alteration I hope was voluntarily. In line with Kaliman, I saw the The Artist again. He is not doing well. I asked the waiter at the little restaurant El Chahuistle whether he knew his name. He did not. I asked a woman at the taco stand across the alley if she knew him. She didn’t. So I walked up to a better source, The Artist himself, greeted him and asked him his name. He leaned in at me, reeking of old alcohol and neglect, mentally adrift—insane seems like too judgmental a term, dehumanizes and shows no degrees of disorientation. At the same time, he came too close, so that I found myself blocking him qigong-style, with the heel of my palm against his chest.

He said he was from Aquascalientes and some other things—that made no sense.

I asked his name again, since I thought he might not have heard me the first time.

“Qué the importa?” he said— what’s it to you?

He was quite right there, I was invading his privacy.

“You’re suffering,” I said.

I did not understand his reply. He looks away and up, as if he were talking to others hovering just a little higher than us.

“You’re an artist,” I told him at one point, to show I knew about his interest in drawing.

“So are you,” he said.

I’m not quite sure he said that—because it is too bizarre—but I think he did, and it threw me for a moment. I wondered how could he know I painted—I don’t just write—and whether his madness had equipped him with a seer’s powers like Sophocles’ Tiresias in Oedipus Rex?

His eyes, in fact, were discolored, and I didn’t know to what extent he could see. It seemed his eyes were clear when he looked at me but clouded when he looked away, as hovering beings. He came in too close again. I put up my hand. I offered him two ten peso pieces, enough for two gorditas from the señoras who slap them into shape, roast them on the big comal, then fill and sell them just part way up one of the side alleys.

He said he wasn’t hungry. I decided to break off the conversation. I didn’t know to what extent his wild look signaled an incipient violence in reaction to my interference. I said I had to go and turned away, even though he was still talking to me and coming toward me. I went into the nearby café where I write. I asked the young barista whether she knew his name. She didn’t. I told her he had refused money. She said other people tried to give him money. That was news to me. I went back to the Chahuistle café and my writing partner, who was scribbling away himself, in prose. I considered the authenticity of my inquiry. I would never have asked him his name if I hadn’t been writing about him. On the other hand, because I was writing about him, I had realized I should know who he was—a person with a name. Later, I asked the flower lady—who has been sitting among her flowers forever—whether she knew his name.

“We’ve all always just called him El Chino,” she said, The Chinese Man, because of his curly hair.

No one knows why Mexicans say “Chino” for curly hair and wrinkled glass. It has nothing to do with China.

I am not sure why I write about these people, except that we all seem to appear mornings in the same small plaza, as if called by a common voice. There was me; then Kaliman, whom one should call The Writer, because of his illegible scribbles; Mateo of the missing front teeth (who has disappeared and is very likely dead); Josefina, who still sits in confusion and begs from the devoted who climb the steps of the cathedral called La Compañia; and finally Roberto, hunch-backed, the most dirt-encrusted of us all, his pants in rags, drinking Coke or smoking, who sometimes stands with one hand to his ear and sings softly to all of us like a shy Irish schoolgirl; and The Artist, “Chino,” (who a friend has since informed me is called Raúl).

Earlier, we had not been back from Belize a whole day when we packed up again and drove to San Miguel de Allende, an hour and twenty minutes to the east, to the ninth annual San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference, where we heard a wonderful talk by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a poet and writer that lives in El Paso, Texas. As a boy and adolescent there, he gradually realized he was neither an American nor a Mexican, but something in between. He spoke with passion about Ciudad Juárz, which he can look over at from his university office and which represents everything that is horrible about Mexico (absence of the rule of law and violence) and at the same time everything that is wonderful. In the last ten years or so, depending on who you talk to, there have been between 350 and 700 killings of young women. Because of indolence, corruption and lack of training, 95% of these crimes remain unresolved, with complex and dangerous criminal connections to both sides of the border. At the same time, there is the on-going normal, wonderful part: the weddings, the parties for quinceañeras—the coming out parties for fifteen-year old girls; family gatherings; children playing in the streets, watched over by the community; music and dancing; people eating together, love-making and laughter—all the activities that bind people together and endure in the face of ubiquitous disruptions—one of which has been NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which—among other things—has led to the loss of 700,000 jobs in the U.S. so that we Americans can buy goods cheaply and with them, the Good Life; and the corporations, Fatter Profits. Under NAFTA, the corporations were allowed to set up assembly plants, maquiladoras, across the border in Mexico, where cheap labor—often largely young women with education and skillful hands—was available, or soon would be, as women migrated to to Juárez, giving up the protections of the “village” and working for very low wages.

For writer Sáenz (sa-enz), Juárez is a metaphor. It is the border through which mountains of automatic weapons and cheap corn flow south, undermining still further the rule of law and displacing Mexican small farmers; while the cartels’ drugs flow north to sate Americans’ appetite for narcotic escape. Sáenz says we are all Juárez City, all of us co-responsible for what happens there—all of us suspended between Mexico and the U.S., between consumerism and exploitation, all of us participating in a dark and dysfunctional system, concocted by the an obsessive, hoarding corporate elite, their lawyers, lobbyists and the politicians they buy—on both sides of the border.

Mexico is now the third largest importer of food. That is to say, for greater profits for the few, it has given away its ability to feed itself. During the last twenty years of NAFTA, 4.9 million farm workers lost their jobs and migrated into the cities, where they do not do well. The youngest and strongest of them, at terrible risk, try to cross into the U.S. in hope of a better life. Powerful agricultural transnationals have filled the vacuum. Only ten percent of the remaining farmers are successful. Still, it is hard to crush small farmer culture which the 1% is so proud of, and that is because there is no bottom to Mexican rural poverty. In the twenty years of NAFTA, in order to increase production of the broccoli we eat in the north, the transnationals sprayed Mexico with 949,000 tons of pesticides (La Jornada, Feb. 20, 2014). Nevertheless, Presidents Peña Nieta, Barack Obama and Prime Minister Harper, meeting presently in Toluca, Mexico, sang NAFTA’s praises— Peña Nieto, in a familiar, empty political-speak about a system that does not work for the vast majority of Mexicans. One could argue these men—in their own magnificent madness—are themselves talking to hovering beings that only they can see: the ghosts of wealthy investors that remain invisible to the rest of us. In Mexico’s case, La Jornada published an editorial translated by Lindsey de Haan, saying that “According to  data from the National Banking and Securities Commission (CNVB), 42% of the value of the Mexican economy is concentrated among less than 200,000 investors and that .18 percent of the population possesses almost half the national wealth. From an inverse point of view, 99.82% of Mexicans are excluded from this portion of the economy.”

——-

I live in my own Juárez City, a barrio in Guanajuato that suffers a learned incapacity, assumed after centuries of the neglect and disinterest of today’s rulers of Mexico, our internal colonialists. As an example of this assumed incapacity, city workers worked on the sewage line in front of our house. When they were through, they filled sacks with the broken stone and concrete they had extracted (new concrete covers the repair) and then—instead of carrying the rubble away—they threw the filled sacks into the vacant lot in front us, the one still registered to a dead man (See my story “The Tenuous Connection”). All of which played into the hands of M, my young neighbor and one of the Usual Suspects. One of the nation’s discarded youth.

Last night, he arrived at the alley crossroads in front of our house drunk and perhaps drugged. By his behavior, I would have said paint thinner, but it could also have been something in the weed he was smoking—in any case, some chemical that destroys judgement and calls up rage. Roaring and whooping, he staggered around, behaving supremely antisocial. He began by kicking in the steel door in the wall that surrounds the lot; and that’s when he found the rubble—throwing material—left there by the city workers. I went up on our roof where I could observe him and his co-delinquent Q, who was strangely non-involved, other than acting as a lookout. M brought out rocks, large ones, and threw them first at the lot’s walls—his anger seeking targets. Then he threw them up the alley steps at nothing, then at R’s little store located ten paces kitty-corner from us, then at the camera on her wall, then at our house wall, then at our camera. Then at me.

I had called down to him.

“Hey! Qué passa?” Something like, What’s up with this?

He looked up at me. And threw. I ducked out of the opening. The rock smashed somewhere outside it. Then I went downstairs and called 066, the equivalent of 911.

I’m not sure they ever came—the police. There are too many angry and abandoned youth to cover all of them. Q and M left the scene. M’s aunt was up at R’s little store in a flash to smooth things out, covering for her nephew. I hate the phrase “damage control.”

“He threw a rock at me,” I called down to her.

“I’m taking care of it,” she said, the concerned aunt, turning away too quickly, too busy to talk to me. She had to deal with R and her daughter who were explaining they weren’t happy about M’s behavior. From past experience, I can be fairly confident that M’s aunt was pointing out that the two cameras—the one on R’s store and the one on ours—had provoked the behavior. And that we, my love and I, after community discussions, had mounted the cameras. Which is true.

I feel I should add M to the Local Hall of Disfunctionality, along with my mad friends in my favorite square in the whole world, Baratillo. As well as all the “leaders” of Mexico. They are all my Juárez, and we are all of us suspended between NAFTA (all NAFTAS) and the Mexico we could have if we all weren’t just as mad as Kaliman, Chino the Artist, Roberto the Shy Singer, Josefina the Beggar and Mateo Who is Probably Dead. M was abandoned by his father, just the way Mexico has been abandoned by the people who have been elected, legitimately or not, to lead it.

I can not add J to the list. He is Q’s (the recent lookout’s) next younger brother. A few nights ago, he appeared at the door along with my love’s only book borrower, the other younger M Who Avoids his Future. J has shunned me gang-style for a year or two, refusing to talk to me and looking away. But this time he was friendly, clear-eyed, cordial, hanging out with Book Borrower M in front of our door. He talked about his favorite courses in school, in response to my love’s questions. This is a kid that, along with his brothers, had also shunned school for years.

After we said goodnight to them and closed the door, I turned to my love and asked, “Do you think the DIF has gotten to him?” DIF is the acronym for Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, Integrated Development of the Family, an agency that intervenes under a variety of circumstances to help “incapacitated” youth that are “at risk.” If that is in fact who reached J, that is a very good thing. One could only hope they might reach the rest of us who have given up on Mexico. Or are sometimes tempted to.

The Cockroach Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independence Movement or Just More Disorder?

In which I try to make sense of what’s happening in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

~ Today I met with my writing partner, a kind, intelligent Mexican businessman and writer, who is concerned about the self-defense groups that have taken up arms in the state of Michoacán—one state away. They are called Autodefensas comunitarias—citizen defense groups.

“Where do you think the weapons are coming from?” I ask.

We’re talking about a lot of AK47’s—in civilian hands, presumably non-narco hands—people that have grown tired of losing their children to rape, kidnapping and murder.

“And who is paying for them?” he asks. And then we talk about it for at least an hour, trying to figure it out, excluding no one, not even the CIA or other external forces.

I mention that the narcos have had no trouble getting weapons—assault rifles, grenades, and even RPG’s—rocket propelled grenades. Weapons smugglers, I say, are probably indifferent to who is buying, as long as there are sales—all of which are supplied by some 1,200 U.S. gun shops and fairs along the U.S. border. The other part of the equation is the insatiable appetite for narcotics in the U.S.—which drives the whole mess.

~ From La Jornada, Jan. 27, 2014. Journalist Salvador Díaz Sánchez asks questions as well.

He thinks it’s about independence from the State, and not a civil war. The State considers either possibility as unacceptable—except, ironically, when it applies to the criminal networks and their long de-facto rule of Michoacán.

Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde is spokesperson for el Consejo General de Autodefensas y Comunitarios de Michoacán—the General Council of Community Defenders. They call him Papá Pitufo, and the authorities, or some other group, say he has a criminal record. (When I listened to an interview with him, I thought he made a lot of sense.)

For years, small businesses, taxi companies, grocery stores, furniture shops, restaurants, artisans, cattlemen, growers, miners, businessmen, for years they have been victims of robbery, extortion, kidnapping, rapes, killings, extortion, and land use fees (to use their’s own land). It therefore seems logical that the money to finance AK47’s and other assault rifles comes from these businessmen in this area—which is called the Tierra Caliente, the Hot Country, south and west of Morelia.

As if it were a military campaign, the movement of self-defense has been spreading across the state to Nueva Italia, La Huacana, Tomatlán, Carrillo Puerto, Aquila, Aguililla, Antúnez, Parácuaro, Tancítaro, Acahuato, Buenavista, La Ruana and Churumuco. This is the cucaracha efecto, the cockroach effect, that alarms the federal government.

The formation of auto defense groups is, to some extent, imitative of older groups, like those in Cherán, Nahuátzen Cherato, Cheratillo, Urapicho, Zicuicho, Oruscato, and Ocumitzo, where for years the authorities have done little to protect the citizens, in fact were often in collusion with the criminal forces also armed with assault weapons.

Now, the more recent citizen forces have decided to move on to Apatzingán, a center of commerce and important crossroads. This was the deciding moment for the federal government. To them it smelled of insurrection, and the present, incapacitated and ailing governor of Michoacán, referred to as La Momia—The Mummy—appealed to the president of Mexico for help.

And so the federal Army entered Atúnez and on the governor’s instructions ended up shooting down four citizens, one an eleven-year old boy, in a confrontation with people shouting they would not disarm—according to their leader Estanislao Beltrán—until all the leaders of organized crime were arrested, in this case the organization called Caballeros Templarios.

The self-defense groups actually started earlier in another part of Michoacán, in a town called Cherán, where villages took up arms to defend their forests from illegal, narco-connected loggers.

But in the present case, the newspapers quickly filled with speculation. What would happen if the base—those citizens with the weapons—began to ignore the instruction from their financial backers and began to say no to Mexico’s political parties and instead proposed  independence? As in earlier Cherán.

Others said the federal and state government, at all levels, would prefer dealing with the Caballeros Templarios, the reigning, in-place cartel, to a democratic group with middle class supporters, and that the government feared a metamorphosis from self-defense groups to community assemblies. And so, what was the government to do? As if the question of control had not come up all the time the Templarios held free reign.

At first, it appeared that the federal government supported the self-defense movement, having been lobbied by the middle class backers of these groups who wanted to protect their economic interests. But now there was the cockroach effect, and the cry went up that the self-defense groups must adhere strictly to the law, that no citizen might own an assault weapon—as if that was not what the Templarios had in spades for years and years.

In one of the poorest states in Mexico, Guerrero, another similar model has been in place for 18 years. There are no leaders, the structure is horizontal, sustainable development is the goal—including citizen protection, since the government has not care to do it.

To date, in Guerrero, there are twenty-four community police groups that belong to the Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias, CRAC, the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities. CRAC tries avoid any connection with the government(s). Other groups are closer to the government(s), like the the UPOEG, la Unión de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero—the Union of Peoples and Organization of the State of Guerro—who have also formed to combat cartel and non-cartel robbery, kidnapping, killings and the highest incidence of poverty in Mexico.

The CRAC rejects names like “self-defense groups.” Their system embraces wider, community-based projects. Local “law” recognizes the legitimacy of their police. They call themselves institutions and decisions are made in community assemblies, not in meetings with the government(s). (This is what the government(s), federal and state, fear in Michoacán.)

The State (Michoacán/Mexico) tolerated, somewhat, the new self-defense groups, as long as they didn’t invade what the government perceives as its areas of power. Local, effective self-governance alarms the ineffective, uninterested, probably cartel-compromised state and federal government. The latter says it will not try to disarm the self-defense groups, as long as they stay in their “boxes,” in their municipalities and towns.

What appears to be true is that the Attorney General of Mexico Jesús Murillo Karam is concerned about the cucaracha effect, and little else. Journalists feel this man really has no ideas about how to bring law and justice to the region (to all of Mexico?)—since he and his political class appear to have tolerated cartel-controlled mayhem in Michoacán at a time when there was no such governmental insistence that the Templarios with AK47’s adhere to the rule of law and turn in their weapons or follow other restrictions.

Restrictions, it would seem, are reserved for the “good” citizens.

~ Summarized from the weekly Mexican magazine Proceso comes the following:

The first victim of a war is the truth. What we are left with is often confusion, speculation and disinformation.

What appears to be known is:

1. Michoacán is swamped with narcos from Morelia to Lázaro Cárdenas and from Zitácuaro to La Piedad—(a town about an hour from us.)

2. The federal government admits there are as many as 15,000 auto defense participants.

3. One is justified using the word “paramilitary” when referring to the self-defense groups.

4. Although self-defense groups are in at least 11 towns, they don’t necessarily control that area and they do not control their own funding or political alliances.

5. No one controls Michoacán. If anyone, it’s still the narcos that are in control.

6. There is a lot of money in the Tierra Caliente—narco and commercial. Self-defense leaders are middle class, with connections to the U.S. and financial backing there—possibly.

7. The armed citizens are locals, not outsiders.

8. This is an old problem brought about by the narcos and the indolence and stupidity of government at all levels.

9. Michoacán was always a social pressure cooker. One can assume that a lot of hotheads will join the self-defense movement. That is what the practical, if ineffective, federal government fears. (This same dynamic existed in the Mexican Revolution and the Christero War).

10. For the last ten years, locals have been giving the government intelligence on the identity and location of the narcos. But the government has not arrested them. Nor has government resolved 95% of the 990 murders committed in Michoacán in 2013. Not to mention those committed in 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and before. Impunity fuels the conflict.

11. Citizens have pointed out and reported the involvement of government functionaries and their families with the cartels—with little results. Response to their complaints is essential to solving the problem.

12. With no action taken by the government, everything just goes on as before.

13. There is no indication that the special federally appointed commissioner, who is to solved everything—Alfredo Castillo, has either the knowledge or the capacity to resolve any of it. His job appears to be as spinner who is charged with lessening the damage done by the conflict to President Peña Nieto’s image—and it is important to view his pronouncements with skepticism.

14. The government at the state and federal level are in conflict. President of the Republic Enrique Peña Nieto and his Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong support the self-defense groups—or at least say they do. They want to make them into police. The ailing governor of the state opposes that.

What is not clear:

1. Whether the self-defense numbers will reach 45,000 members as predicted by the bishop of the cathedral in Apatzingán, Gregorio López.

2. No one knows what roll former governors Lázaro Cárdenas Batel and Leonel Godoy and their people had in empowering the narcos in the state of Michoacán. There is, for example, still no resolution of the grenade attack on the night of the Grito—the Cry of Independence—in 2008, in the historical center of Morelia.

3. A huge amount of debt was taken on in Leonel Godoy’s state governorship. It is naive to think that the narco economy was not involved in the disappearance of that enormous sum of money.

4. Unclear is the involvement of the neighboring cartel called the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)—Jalisco New Generation—which is allied with the Cártel de Sinaloa and is at war with Los Templarios. It’s important to mention that the CJNG in Guerrero allied itself there with local auto defense groups that were fighting Los Templarios. One can assume the CJNG is not just standing by doing nothing, i.e. El Chapo Guzmán is probably involved, except one doesn’t know how, nor to what extent he holds the puppet strings. (One has to suspect that the narcos—highly skilled—are involved with any group.)

5. One of the most opaque aspects is the origin of the weapons. The self-defense people say they are hunting guns, supplied by concerned U.S. Mexicans, or taken from enemy casualties, of which there have been no more than 100. The 10,000 assault rifles estimated to be in the hands of the auto-defense groups must have cost something like 50,000,000 pesos—roughly four million dollars.

6. The big mysteries: a) The connection with Michoacán businessmen exiled to the U.S. (driven out by narcos or fear of them) that are presumably paying for the weapons, and B) the type of relationship they have with Peña Nieto’s administration.
Every government wants a group that can do its dirty work for them and in order to avoid direct responsibility while they inflict a mortal wound on the narcos.

7. It’s not clear who Dr. José Manuel Mireles is, the spokesman of the auto-defense groups. He seems to have a criminal record, although that may be nothing more than disinformation.

8. The ex-governor of the state Jesús Reyna has not explained why he attended a funeral of the father of a former chief of La Familia Michoacana.

~ Recent Developments, from the newspaper La Jornada, 28. January 2014: by Arturo Cano, summarized:

The government(s) suddenly jumps to life and holds a meeting in Tepalcatepec, where a few self-defense leaders signed an accord with the federal government (without consensus of the base), whereby the self-defense groups are to be converted into “defense rurales,” echoing the name given to the National Rural Police under Juárez and Porfirio Díaz.

The community defense groups are to be directed by the Mexican Army and are to register themselves and their weapons. They are to be temporary. In return, they get communication equipment from the Army. (Which seems like a bargain with the Devil. Did the Army ever make the same demands of the narcos with all their weapons?)

While various government officials speak official-speak, members of the audience shout out comments:

“You’ve come to sign an agreement? For what, if there are no doctors, no medicine, no education. Cowards! White-collared criminals! Investigate the murders of our young people!”

A woman bureaucrat speaks for the government.

“You have to trust in the government again,” she counsels.

The audience boos, and shouts “Get out!”

She perseveres, with her “Colgate smile.” She says if the Government doesn’t follow through, she will join the self-defense groups.

A man shouts, “We’re where we are right now because of people like this woman!”

One of the leaders, Martín Barragán, takes the floor and says, “We should give the Government a vote of confidence.” Having dispensed with this courtesy, he continues, “They (the government) proposed a treaty that we don’t advance until we have registered and become legal. We don’t want to just clean up the townships where we are already. We want to clean up the whole state of Michoacán.”

The state and federal authorities don’t move a muscle. This is precisely what they don’t want to hear.

He continues, “Don’t give us any more fictitious reports of narcos shot down.” He is referring to Nazario Moreno, whom Felipe Calderón, the former President of the Republic, said they had killed and who later has turned up alive.

More government-speak continues. The president’s special commissioner charged with bringing the rule of law—that was missing for a very long time before—says the self-defense groups can show even more courage by doing the brave thing by registering themselves and their weapons with the Army. (Again, a bargain with the Devil, who himself is known to be compromised by narco connections.)

He talks about their common purpose and how together they should repair the “social fabric” and Mexico’s “institutions.”

Another auto-defense leader says the government should recompense the families of slain auto defense fighters.

Another leader reproaches the government because the narco leaders go their merry way through the countryside and townships. The crowd shouts in agreement and call out, “We want heads!”

The Commissioner of the Federal Police takes a moment to announce the—miraculous and coincidental—capture of a narco leader (who shall remain unnamed) and the apprehension of 182 others.

This important narco leader had already been declared dead once before.

“Where is the El Muerto—the Dead Man?” someone cries out, as if that were his nickname.

Only the special commissioner and a general quartered in Apatzingán have escaped booing. But an old man gets up and slowly explains, “They delivered some sicarios—killers—to this general and the next day he let them go.”

Finally, another leader explains, “Sooner or later we’ll take the whole state.”

~ In Conclusion, I have to say that if the self-defense groups are anything like my barrio, there will be all kinds of internal conflicts, irrational behavior and potential violence—while the rest of us stand by and try to decide which way to jump.

The Youngest Parisian

V. had been visiting us, along with her mother and father. Her mother is Mexican, her father French. V. is a baby of six months. We last saw her three months ago—half her life time ago. She lives in Paris, and that is where we visit her and her parents. It is better that way, because then we are not tourists. We are unofficial visiting grandparents and, not being tourists, our activities are more satisfying. V. lives near the Bibliothèque Mitterand, not far from the Seine. Three important places, side by side—V. and the other two.

We are all in love with V. As she throws things on the floor, we all hop to pick them up and set them on her highchair table again. All of us, her lovers, we swoon looking at her, focusing on her eyes, each of us making faces that we hope will make her smile. The house is in chaos—in more chaos than usual. Her things are everywhere: toys, commercial and improvised—she prefers the latter—parts of her bottles, her powdered organic French lait, plastic spoons the width of a baby’s mouth in red and green, jars of Blédina—sans additif—without additives—baby food unopened, opened, emptied, unwashed, washed, gooey remnants hardening from exposure to high desert Mexican air. Little baby jars carried all the way from Paris.

There are blankets on the kitchen floor for her to wriggle around on. Nearby dishes and food containers have been relocated. We pick up her chupón—pacifier—for the thirtieth time, and wonder each time whether we should rinse it off with filtered water. Her father, the French banker, rubs it against his shirt, then pops it back in her mouth. I pour whatever I’m drinking over it, over my glass, hand the chupón back to her, then drink from my glass.

She spits the chupón back out, or keeps it, depending on her mood, of which there are three main ones. First, buoyant, flirting—after waking up from a good nap, being washed, changed and dressed, the fewer clothes the better for her preferred sense of freedom. Second, fussing, writhing in the arms that happen to be holding her. This means she’s hungry, not hungry, tired, unchanged or teething, which is happening right now. She already has two lower front teeth. They are as sharp as razors. Do not put your finger in her mouth. All kinds of French teething potions stand on the kitchen counter, to lessen the discomfort. And three, not getting what she wants, which usually is the right to stand up or, failing that, being carried around in a place where there are interesting things to see, like human faces and cats. We have two of them, cats, and when V. arrives, being plopped down on our bed, they slink away, insulted by and wary of anything that looks like a child that might chase or replace them.

This afternoon, V’s mother’s friends gathered for a last visit at the local French restaurant in Guanajuato. In attendance around a table were a French artist-sculptor, a Belgian jewelry maker, a French film maker, a Texas book keeper, my love who is a community organizer, French student, architect and writer—myself, also a student of French, and the writer of this deathless prose, and V—all women, except for myself and a young man whose connection at first I couldn’t quite ascertain. Because of his light skin and red hair, I didn’t know whether he was French, American or something else. He appeared to be speaking a native Spanish, but I suspect one of his parents was French. Conversation occurred in Spanish, French, some English and V’s exclamations—upper register grunts that are designed to make her admirers jump in feigned surprise.

V’s mother was leaving in the morning for Aguascalientes on Primera Plus—a bus line—taking V. from us, abducting her as far as we were concerned. V’s father had flown back to Charles De Gaulle the night before—in-people don’t have to mention the name of the city, Paris. This was the last chance to see V’s mother, a former model of mine (painting), and—of course most important of all—V.

I don’t know how to describe it. It was as if we had all come to see and be in attendance to the baby Jesus—except, in this case, it was the baby V—and, for some reason, no less worshiped. Not in the religious sense, but more in the spiritual—as if we were celebrating the crown princess of our futures, an heir apparent, a child as innocent and sweet as her mother was funny, ironic, irreverent, smart and good-natured. It is hard to explain what V. means to us that we coo so much over her. While there are natural reservations and boundaries between friends—and even more between friends of friends—there are none around V. And we fall all over each other trying to make her respond to us, to make her smile or, better yet, laugh—to gain her recognition. And perhaps acceptance and trust. All of us united in this one purpose, to make her happy and protect her.

And to make us happy.

I have since done some research and found there is a part of the human brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex. We react quickly to visual information with that part of the brain. Apparently, when looking at a baby, the reaction is accelerated and the cooing impulse starts in one seventh of a second. In addition, even the smell of a baby, even at a distance, can activate brain waves associated with good feelings of the kind we have around food we want to eat. Fortunately, the reward-pleasure impulse overrides the impulse to eat—thus sparing the child from being a meal.

While we were waiting with V and her mother for their bus to Aguascalientes at the central—bus station, three young middle class Mexican women sat across from us in the waiting room. They made faces, bobbed their heads and played hid and seek in various ways, all directed toward V. She was tired and a little squirmy, but she indulged them and brought out their smiles and delight with her proportionally large eyes, fat cheeks and Rubens-like mouth, granting them the connection they sought. Unknown to them, with the youngest Parisian in Guanajuato.

The Victim of Words

I don’t know how many of you can say this, but I spent a week in a famous psychiatric ward in Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital called Bulfinch Seven, a restricted area that was also sometimes reserved for the victims of words.

I had parked my rental car on a hill while visiting from Mexico, and I had neglected to turn my front wheels left and then roll back, anchoring the back of the wheels against the curb. A policeman had pulled up beside my car, a Toyota Prius, and asked me my name as he wrote out the ticket. I thought it a good moment to make a point about his more than likely monoligualism and I said to him, “You mean, Cómo te llamas, come lagañas! don’t you?”—What’s your name, go eat eye boogers!”

The policeman said, ” You can tell me in English, or I can increase the fine—for civic insolence.”

I doubted that there was a law having to do with “civic insolence,” and so I said. “Qué te importa, Mr. Policeman, tu hermana, la gordota!”—What’s it to you, Mr. Policeman, your sister, the great big fat one?

What started out as irritation on his face changed and became a detached, even scientific look. And so I thought it wise to inquire, “Qué te pasa, naranjada?”—What’s up, orangeade?

I had noticed—I admit, too slowly—the man’s complexion, and thought he might be Sicilian from the North End, or a Sikh from the South. And as my fortunes would have it, he answered me in—of all things—Spanish.

“Nada, nada, limonada.—Nothing, nothing, lemonade!” he said, with a perfect accent.

He was smiling, but still looked detached—a fact that gave me pause.

“I’m going to ask you to get into my pinche patrulla,” he said—in a reasonable tone—get into the goddamn patrol car.

Hard to explain, but I gave him one more blast. Plus, I didn’t intend to get into his pinche patrulla. After all, I was on my way to a reading—therefore, by implication, a writer of possibly some note. And so I gave him my cleverest shot.

“Güero, güerumbo, de un pedo te tumbo, de dos te levanto y de tres te retumbo!”—Pale face güerumbo (gware-rumbo, a nonsense word that gives sound and cadence), I can drop you with one fart, pick you up with the second and put you on the ground again with the third.

Not exactly the most delicate school boy taunt, but I was, I suppose, much worked up about reading from my novel and about the fawning looks I hoped to elicit from exciting young women half my age.

Before I knew it, he had cuffed my hands behind me and had me—the real güero güerumbo—in the back seat of his patrol car. And that is how I landed in Bulfinch Seven.

But it so happened that my agent—that’s literary agent—had driven up behind us and then followed us to the Bulfinch looney bin where they gave me a small pink pill. With a few calls on his iPhone my agent, one Henry Salisbury, arranged to have my waiting audience of twelve people shifted to the hospital, where I—now a calmer self—read to them and to the rest of the patients from my novel about a modern detective sent north into the United States to try to retrieve territories stolen by that country. Though their applause was not as strong as I would have liked, and everyone in my original audience was at least sixty, one unofficial attendee sitting in the back of the ward clapped with some enthusiasm—who was none other than my arresting officer, who later told me he was a distant relative of Santa Ana, the president-general that lost one leg to the French in the Pastry War of 1838, called himself His Most Serene Highness, blocked American invaders at Saltillo in 1847, delayed obese General Winfield Scott’s advance on Mexico City from Veracruz and, in the end, essentially lost half of Mexico to the Americans with the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848—for fifteen million dollars.

Kaliman and the Madness of Writers

Kaliman is a walking wreck, with hair like a bush, swarthy from complexion, some of it dirt, and of this I’m sure, he has identified me as a writer—since he is one, too—and is trying to infect me with all his insanity. His eyes are squinty from too much thinking. My mother would have faulted him for his dirty ankles, more for his lack of socks. “Were you brought up in a barn?” she would have said with her gentle scold. I’ve known him for thirteen years. He was brought up on the street, and apart from cows.

Today he spoke to me for the first time. I was sitting in a local wreck of a café, sipping moras y yoghurt, blueberries and yogurt, a berry-like tea for Mexican yuppies. The window was open to the street, and I sat behind an iron railing, thank god, a little below the slanted callejón where he was standing. He brandished some writing at me and said some unwritten words. I ignored him, like a dessert we’re wise to decline. So little separates us from Kaliman and, as much as I would like to have broken our thirteen-year silence, I did not. There are traditions to uphold. Plus, dementia often waits for us down the line. A little preview baked by Kaliman might have been ahead-of-time contagious. One bite of him could have been enough. One glance at his scribbling bereft of words as we know them could have destroyed my own—all part of his plan to induct me into the Hall of Insane.

Clearly, someone had told him I was a writer like him. And now he wanted to change that as well, infect it, so that my words collapsed into kuneiformed rubble like his own? But, hold on. I could be just as devious and put an end to harassment of this sort. I stood up, collected my Apple things and beckoned with my index digit to coax him into a cyber café, where I plopped him down in front of a computer—not that I cared one way or another whether he knew what one was. I showed him how to touch the keys, my account, meaboutme@gmail.comto an old and unresponsive friend, and only inserted a few words of my own. Camel, Allah, NSA-Great Satan. The rest of it looked like rat droppings fonted in pungent rows.

Some time passed while the words flitted through Our Coaxial Who Art in Heaven, and then the FBI visited me—its Mexican cell. The snoop cartel.

“Did you write this?” they asked, at my mesquite door, showing me a stamped and dated official copy of the time-sensitive drivel.

“No, my friend Kaliman did,” I replied—as truthfully as truth allowed.

“Who is Kaliman?” they asked—taking notes.

I described Taliban—I mean Kaliman—and where to find him, near the Museo de Leyendas, description enough—little visited repository of legends. An institution I thought would list him eventually, once things had passed.

They returned.

“He’s not sane,” they said.

“Who is these days?” I answered, palms outstretched.

“He doesn’t understand the words camel, Allah, USA or Great Satan.”

They looked at me with suspicion, looking for guilt.

“That should be ‘NSA-Great Satan.’ Not ‘USA-Great Satan.’ And written together,” I said, precise from my training as unionized teacher-citizen, California.

“Whatever,” said the less amused of the two.

The seat of his pants was shiny. I could see he is on his way to being Kalimanized. I wondered whether I should tell him, or what.

“You need to be careful,” I say. “He can infect your thinking.”

“Perhaps you’ve infected his,” says Agent Less Amused. “Adding words to his.”

“I have never spoken with him,” I said.

At that moment, Kaliman showed up. Not surprisingly, he had found out where I lived. He brandished a scribble. We were all in danger.

“He’s a writer like me,” I said. “And doesn’t wear socks.”

They tried to examine the page, but Kaliman clutched it, like a raccoon with an egg, and looked at me for help. I smiled at him and told him—breaking my vow of silence—he could trust me and that I would read it for him, without cracking the egg. His eyes brightened, one of them wept a cleansing line down his cheek. I had won his confidence. That much was clear.

I struggle with the first word. “Ben—gha—zi,” I read. “Benghazi,” I said. translating from Kalimandarin to English. “Al…al….al…,” I read.

“Al Qaida?” barked Agent Grouch, with a professional tone and ready to pounce.

“Al—lah,” I completed, nodding and pleased at my code breaker talents.

“It’s clearer now,” I continued. “Allah…be praised…my camel…Benghazi…knows more…about…Libya…than…Obama’s whole Stasi.”

I looked up at them, their darkened Homeric brows.

“That’s what it says, the rest is gibberish,” I said. And then, “I appreciate your trouble….”

“What does it mean?” they asked.

“Who knows?” I said. “The man is mad, as mad as a hatter—without doubt it’s a thing of no substance—of little matter.”

I often rhyme when it’s least appropriate.

Just then, Kaliman did me a favor, plucked the page out of my hands and stuffed it into his gob and, with shark-like pressure of grinding enamel, re-encrypted the code beyond all reach. He picked at his tooth where a phrase had got suck, spit out a glob of something penciled and strutted away, I supposed to re-establish the silence that he had broken between us.

“His brain is limited,” I said, “unlike our own. He must read the paper, AM or Correo or Corazón—all reliable rags. He’s like a parrot and repeats whatever he’s told. Nothing to worry about. Thank god there’s surveillance. I’ll keep you informed if I learn any more. Things that begin with ‘al…’—and words of like clout.”

The FBI said I would be hearing from them, but I never did. It’s possible they read my blog and tap my everything Google or Apple—looking for things like “NSA-Great Satan” and equivalent babble.

As for Kaliman, he avoids me with care, I suspect smelling treachery. And all has returned to its former quiet. I am still un-demented, my writing as well, don’t you think? Everything is good, everything swell. And so, Happy New Year everywhere, there’s nothing more to this, as there wasn’t before. But should more come up, you’ll be able to tell.

The Alpha and Omega of Yoga

The day before Christmas, I got up early, put on at least three layers and went off through the cold city to attend my yoga class on the exposed roof of an old colonial building. I say old, since you might think that colonial was the name of a modern style. At first, it was just me and the teacher, T., a young woman of thirty-something. T. is a modern dancer, as in modern dance, and the strongest woman I have ever met. Plus, an accomplished yoga and Pilates teacher. She is also a beauty, smart and kind. My only lament is that I am not a better student. Younger, stronger, more flexible and better at yoga. More Cirque du Soleil.

At first, I thought T. would justifiably beg off teaching just one person. But then another young woman came, with her son A.—a five year old. I wondered what the boy was going to do the whole time after the teacher decided two was enough to justify giving a class. But the boy settled down on one of the woven reed mats, and T. brought him a yoga matt to lay on top of it.

When we began, A. began as well, throwing himself into each posture. His mother is very good at yoga, so he must have seen her do the asanas before. He stuck with it for nearly an hour, never seeming to lose interest. Once his mother took him off to go to the bathroom, a small journey that took precedence over yoga class protocol, where adults simply do not get up and go looking for a bathroom.

A’s little body was supple, willing and contained. Mine, stiff, willing but sometimes a little too ponderous to lever and bend. Still, I found A. an inspiration. After all, as T. says over and over, it is the intent that matters, and the boy was my refreshing guide in that.

All in all, I would say on the spiritual level, A. was also further along than me. He did not worry about keeping up, doing it right—or doing it at, since at times he simply stopped, turned around and looked at his mother or—with curiosity—over at me. T. made frequent visits to his mat and, with the skill and delight of a kind mother, adjusted his leg forward or back, and said, “This hand” or “Other leg! And: “Eso es!” “That’s it!” That in itself was worth the price of admission.

A. could do the bridge—a kind of back bend—with the top of his head on the mat. I think it should be called the crab pose. I could just barely do it. His mother, like T., can do it with her head far above the mat, forearms extended—a full wonderful upward bow.

Still, I admired A’s attitude, his participation, his interest in doing what his mother did. I knew very little about him, and so afterwards, in that lingering moment of camaraderie, I approached his mother to ask about him.

She asked me where I came from. I said I lived there in the city.

She said, “But before, where did you live?”

“California,” I said.

She took that in. I asked about her child. She is Mexican, the boy’s father, English. I asked the boy’s age and mentioned that I wasn’t sure whether he was a boy or a girl.

“A lot of people have that trouble,” she said.

“He’s a handsome lad,” I said. And a joy to be in a yoga class with, though I did not say that.

A. and I—I realized—might be to some extent exceptional, in the sense that, well, we might be exceptions. How many five-year old’s do yoga? How many seventy-five year old’s? Oh, all right, in the spirit of yoga’s purity, I confess to being seventy-six.

Actually, seventy-six and a half.

His skin is smooth and baby-like, mine more like that of a baby elephant—or rhinoceros. I had been hanging out with a five-year old—he beginning his life, me delaying the end with every trick I can think of. He was mildly curious about me. I delighted in his naturally yogic frame of mind: playful, determined, persistent, unafraid.

What other class have I been in with such an age difference? Alston Chase, at that prep school on a hill, near tears over Ruskin’s descriptions of classical Italian or Greek landscapes, Wendell Clausen, Professor of Latin and Comparative Literature, teaching Catullus’ poems at that college along the Charles. Andrew Jaszi teaching 19th Century German short stories in his Hungarian-accented German. Egon Schwartz doing the same, at the same place, but in German with an Austrian accent. It was shock enough when women from the neighboring famous women’s college joined our classes. But they were roughly my age. Once I heard about a twelve-year old genius studying at the college. But a five-year old? Unheard of.

But this yoga is a different matter. You don’t have to know German or Latin. You just have to have a somewhat in tact spine and a few willing muscles, and joints that haven’t been too neglected over the years. With Latin and German, about poetry and story, the teaching came from the professor. One’s own insights came later, little by little. But with yoga the information comes from one’s body, from inside. It’s as if the teacher says, open this book, read inside it. Loosen this joint, stretch this tendon—incrementally—tighten the stomach and the thighs. Look at the end of your nose—no straining allowed. This is what I can do now, your body says, and if you think about your breathing, it makes it easier for me.

“Be mindful of your intention,” T. says over and over.

A. ponders none of this. He just does it—with varying degrees attention, as is true for all of us.

Regretfully, just do it sounds something like a corporate slogan, by definition devoid of spirituality, subtlety or any real substance—nonsense, like that devilishly good brew that is called “the real thing.”

Except that A. is really the real thing, and me, too. All of us in the class are really the real thing. Our bending and twisting and breathing—most of all the breathing—and I suppose the constant awareness of age. A’s age and my age. He the alpha, me the omega. Contrasts exist, and the trick is—little by little—to accept them and therewith loosen the grip of their significance.