Here in Mexico, you can pretty much tell who’s who just by looking at them. There are those who would scoff at such a claim. But I will tell you why I take this position and how it helps me survive.
There is still less cultural homogenization here than in the North, I would say; and the economic and class distinctions are clearer. For example, I can pretty much tell by looking who is an abañil (mason), who is a working ayudante (mason’s helper), an active estudiante (student), a shopkeeper and a shopkeeper’s helper, a citizen performing a tramite (a bureaucratic chore), or a tourist. In short, I believe I can make a pretty good calculation as to who someone is by evidence of the activity they are performing, whether they are carrying a tool, a backpack or some other object; and this narrows things down considerably–to the people who require more scrutiny. Alas, this works in reverse as well, when people look at me.
There is the anomaly, as well. For example, when the Pope visited recently, several tall athletic-looking Clark Kents–too neatly dressed, but not like businessmen or officials, and light skinned (which does not disqualify them as Mexicans)–strolled around in the main plaza, as if they were simply a few more tourists, with clean triangularly shaped backpacks just the right for a Koch submachine gun. They were the type that senses when you’re looking at them with a little too much curiosity, even at a distance–in which case their eyes meet yours.
I supopse they were either the Swiss Guards (Vatican) here to protect the Pope, or the Mexican Secret Service (the Estado Mayor Presidencial) here to protect President of Mexico, who was going to be in town to meet with the Pope and, like him, would be driving through the narrow streets that lend themselves so well to ambush.
There are other people who stand out because they do not look like locals. I am talking about burly rough looking men who do too much watching, who don’t seem to know where to stand, and who study people as they go by–including me–and whom no one ever greets. They also notice if your eyes are on them. They are rare, but in this age of organized crime (drug cartels and their killers) and disorganized crime (extortionists and muggers) one pays attention and one asks oneself: What are these fellows doing here in my peaceful little plaza where I buy fresh fruit juice and gorditas (thick tortillas filled with delicious things) and where I slip into my favorite student café–where everyone knows me–to write.
I weave through the callejones (alleys) of my little colonial city. I climb the 203 stairs to my house. I descend again to the old city center five minutes below. I take different routes, different callejones and stairs, depending what I decide is probably the most secure route for that day. It is a sad but very real thing and probably the way the majority live in this world of increasing scarcity. All the while I watch for young men around fifteen or sixteen (the range is more like from twelve to thirty) who may recognize me as prey, as target of opportunity.
A short while ago, we drove the hour and twenty minutes to San Miguel de Allende to pick up mail and do some shopping. After washing down one and one half brownies at Via Orgánica with a cappuccino descafeinado, I walked over to the Artesanias lane running along the creek east from calle Hildago. I bought a couple of simple colored glass bead bracelets, one for my granddaughter, and one for her mother. Then I bought black bead rings for my two daughters-in-law for an upcoming family reunion in Wisconsin.
When I had concluded this last transaction, I noticed three young men, fifteen to sixteen, walking toward me, coming from the direction I had come, moving with the familiar gangbanger strut, throwing one shoulder forward, then the other. They did not meet my gaze as they passed, though I was studying them.
I went to another booth to peruse more bead rings. Turning my head and looking right, I could see that the three boys had stopped and sat down on either side of the alley, just where the shops ended. Their attention was on me in a poorly disguised manner. They fit the mugger category even more obviously than the young man who assaulted my love and me close to our garden gate some months back.
I smelled trouble. I asked the shop lady whether the boys were known to be dangerous. She gave me a hostile, disinterested look. She did not bother to lean her head out to see whom I was talking about. Why, I don’t know. There could be several explanations, none of them too encouraging–for example, all three of them were her sons.
I placed my hand on my pepper spray. I picked out the young man sitting on the ground on the left. I had already identified him as leader. He was looking up at me as I approached. I held my pepper spray in my right hand, the palm pointing backwards, the front of my hand hiding the weapon. I switched the safety position to the spray position.
I have tried to think how to describe the look on his face–a mixture of defiance, disdain and rage. Young sniffers of glue, paint thinner and Magic Marker™ are not subtle. He more than gave himself away. His glowering intensified as I approached. He made no move to get up. I glowered back at him and held his gaze. Why I continued between their Scylla and Charybdis, I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps because there is little clear thinking going on while being male and running on a mixture of adrenalin, testosterone, and fear. I had no plan.
When you’re stalked, there really is no direction that seems safer than another. I continued into the empty part of the alley. It extended about eighty feet and then became stairs. I had no idea what was at the top of the stairs nor whether there would be people and safety at the top. There was only one shop in that otherwise remote section of the alley. I made for the shop. I could see in my peripheral vision they were not right behind me. Nothing in the shop interested me, and I came back out. They had started my way. I think they had expected me to continue toward the stairs. I walked back toward them instead. I still had the pepper spray in the spray (fire) position, so all I would have to do was point and depress the lever.
I think they had timed their move to catch me on the stairs, which was the very same maneuver the mugger used some time ago when we were assaulted at knife point (the incident is described in “The Knives of Mexico” at www.sterlingbennett.com) close to our own garden gate. On stairs, I think they know, it is harder for the prey to defend or run.
They passed about eight feet away–all three looking straight ahead as if I had somehow disappeared. I swung my head to see if they were turning around. I decided they were not going to reach me before I got back to the shops. I kept on, looking back obliquely. I did not see them.
When you are being hunted, you consider all possible variations of the original danger, and I wondered whether they were running through a side passage so they could appear in front of me at some point along my retreat. I reached the end of the alley and climbed a short flight of stairs and was now beside a busy intersection. I turned frequently to see if they were following. They were not. Perhaps they had decided to seek an easier mark. A friend asked, did I not feel some measure of guilt that the boys had given up on me and gone to look for some other more unwary prey.
It is not pleasant being stalked. It is my second time while living in Mexico. The first stalkers were two low level thugs in Guadalajara–the dominant one with a scar across one eye–who followed us into a Starbucks. Our joint undiscussed reaction had been to walk right up to Scarface, put our noses about a foot from his and stare him in his bad eye with an unspoken, angry and defiant look of “We’re on to you.”
In that moment, my love had said, “There’s a bus outside” and in classic Guy Noir style we shot through Starbuck’s entrance door and ran down the steps and up to the bus—at least thirty years old, if not fifty—which was waiting at a red light. We banged on the dilapidated door, the driver opened it, and the blessed rattletrap hurled us ten blocks down into the center of the city and close to our hotel. To safety.
I imagine the percentage of muggers in my small city is very small. It is not as if I am the only potential target. Most of those mugged are Mexicans, and most of these, students. But this is the world I live in. Poor, disaffected youth self-medicate themselves—because of dysfunctional families and the lack of opportunities. The glue, paint thinner, and Magic Marker™ make them aggressive and crazy. Under the right circumstances, I will be an occasional victim—unless I can tell who’s who and take the appropriate evasive action. It is nothing personal. As my beloved older brother would say, “It is what it is.”