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.