Tag: Porfirio Díaz

From a Novel in Progress

35 ~ Iron ~

The man in the worsted suit nodded over to me in a perfunctory greeting. He looked at the oncoming procession and asked one of the men next to him, “What’s this?” in English. The man he addressed hunched his shoulders.

I gave a little knee pressure and moved my mare closer. My head was now only a little bit higher theirs since they were still on the office porch. I said good-morning. The man in the dark suit focused on me. A gold watch chain ran from one vest pocket to the other, and what looked like a gold fox as long as the first joint on my little finger hung from the middle of it.

“Do you know where your night shift is?” I asked.

He didn’t seem to understand. He looked left and right to his two officers. The procession of riders had stopped in front of the security office. Rin Andersen was talking to a few of the security men, gesturing once toward Flor, who was now watching them.

“What is your name?” I asked the man with the gold fox.

“Maxwell,” he said. I could tell from the brevity of his reply that his rank at the mine didn’t require him to give any further identification.

“Miguel Angel Ibarra,” I said. “First Corporal, National Rural Police.” I decided to leave off the at your service part. “Do you happen to know where your night shift is?” I repeated.

A frown formed on his brow. “Resting, I hope.” His American accent was strong, his r’s strange.

I nodded, waiting. His frown deepened. He was waiting for me.

“Were you here when they left?” I asked.

He looked over to the security men. “Héctor!” The man with the bull neck stepped toward him, his face alert.

I addressed Maxwell. “Do you know the penalty for false imprisonment? It’s the same as for piracy.”

The irony of my question was also not lost on me. A Yaqui working in a mine was, I supposed, already halfway to false imprisonment. The concept was weak because it more than likely only applied to victims with money and standing.

Héctor had now reached Maxwell.

“Héctor!” I spoke down to him before his boss could begin. “If you touch any one of these young people, especially the oldest one, I will execute you up against the wall of you own security building. Do you understand me?”

The six original security men, plus Rin Andersen, had retaken their porch. Héctor looked over at them, as if reassuring himself that they were watching us.

Héctor turned to his boss. “The miners are unhappy, Mr. Maxwell.”

“Why is that, Héctor?” Maxwell asked. “Aren’t they always unhappy.”

“Maybe they feel squeezed,” I said, not being very original and using the bank director’s word.

Neither Héctor nor Maxwell were giving me happy looks—Maxwell frowning. I could imagine being his employee and feeling intimidated. He didn’t like being told how to conduct his affairs.

“If you don’t mind me asking, how much do you pay your workers?”

“A lot—not that you need to know.”

He could have walked away, but he didn’t.

“Specialized workers, six pesos a day. Average workers, four. Unskilled, three. Eleven hours.”

I nodded agreeably. “Doesn’t seem like a lot pay for so many hours. I’m surprised they haven’t gone on strike.”

At that moment, there was a sound of steam released in bursts, like a locomotive starting to move forward, and the great shaft head pulley began to turn. Its tower rose up out of the pitched metal roof of a long shed, just to the right of the mining office. There had been the pulsing sound of escaping steam all along as we spoke, but now someone had given the engine throttle, and you could hear the pistons begin to work. Gray smoke, with accents of black, chuffed up out of the smoke stack. The pulley turned, and the cable played out downward. Church bells were clanging somewhere out of sight. An iceman’s wagon rumbled past, going downhill, drawn by one mule. I could smell the bite of coal smoke from the blacksmith’s forge—or from the lift engine.

Men were pushing an ore car across Hidalgo from left to right, between the mining office and the blacksmith’s shop—close to us. Something jammed its forward movement, perhaps a rock or a faulty brake. The smell of cooking chiles, onions, garlic and pork drifted over from the closest taco stand and mingled with the faint odor of pig shit coming from across the creek.

The other half of the new security men, at a sign from Héctor, dismounted and tied off their mounts at the hitching rail in front of the security building. I watched them draw their rifles out of their scabbards and cradle them in the crook of their arms. The militia was pressing the young merchants closer in on each other. Flor was watching first me, then the security men, but mostly me, as if her next move depended on what I did.

Other than my instructions to Mateo, Ricardo and Fabián, I had no idea what to do next. The shaft engine fell back into a slumber, as the lift car stopped at a level somewhere below the surface.

“You have a dynamic operation here,” I said. “And yet you underpay the workers that make it all work.”

I had heard the price of silver was going to drop. I supposed that was a reason to reduce wages, but what if they were already too low for survival?

I slumped in my saddle to show I was only musing on the accidental structure of the world, not really interfering. My impression was that they—Héctor and Maxwell—were happy to let me talk, as long as I wasn’t asking direct questions. That my earlier mention of the law had made them cautious.

“During the last strike, some of your men took the leaders to a cliff a few miles from here.” I pointed roughly eastward, without even looking up. “And shot them. Hanged a few.”

I paused for a moment. Mexican school children, boys in clean trousers and girls cotton dresses turned the corner, coming from the mine officers’ housing, and headed for the school house three doors down Hidalgo. They stared at the young merchants and talked quietly among themselves, I suppose about what it might mean that children the same age as them had their hands tied behind their backs. Mexican women were gathering near the office with round lunch pails for their supervisor husbands’ almuerzo. These men had emerged from various points in the sprawling complex. There were no Indian children moving about. No Indian women arrived with food. No Yaqui miners had come to the surface to eat.

Foot traffic now included onlookers who had heard that something was about to happen. They stopped in places at a slight distance so they could retreat quickly if they had to. I was glad for all the extra people since it would, I hoped, force everyone to act a little more responsibly than they might otherwise.

Maxwell was looking at me as if about to say something. Rather than worry about what it was, I continued. “Murder with premeditation receives the death penalty. But I suppose you knew that.”

At that moment, the big blacksmith came out of his shop carrying in his tongs the hot piece of metal he’d been working on and walked toward the militia major’s horse—a slightly scruffy brindle gelding. The same Major Martinez from whom I had re-stolen Fernando and Lilia. I thought he was going to go right on by, but he turned on his heel and, as if he were a vaquero and the occasion was a routine branding, he pressed the hot iron against the horse’s chest.

The gelding reared up and almost went over backward and dumped the major on the ground, mostly on his head, which bounced. The horse came back to earth and bolted forward, except that he was still tied to all the children’s ponies. He yanked Flor’s pony forward. Flor, anticipating, hung on without any trouble.

The smith touched the taut lead rope with his hot iron and—like a match to a thread—the rope smoked and parted. The crazed gelding, now released, shot forward and crashed into the empty ore car, went down and couldn’t get up again. A gleaming white bone poked out of its upper leg front leg, just above the hock.

With a coughing spasm, the engine started up again, the cable reversed direction, and soon the elevator car was at the surface again. Its gate lifted, and more supervisors, their carbide lamps still lit, and a few armed guards stepped out onto the surface. But no Yaqui miners.

The blacksmith—not quite finished—gave his tongs a swing and sent the piece of hot iron end over end through the air and, with a thud or two, onto the wooden porch of the security building. The men there stepped gingerly to one side to avoid the missile. Smoke rose from the wooden boards where it landed. One of the security men worked it off the porch with quick kicks from his boot.

The smith leaned down, propping himself with his tongs, picked up the lead rope and led Flor and the young merchants into the blacksmith’s shop without bothering to glance up at any of the armed men around him. At a command from Fabián, who is always thinking, my Rurales fell in beside them, as if they were the new guards that had been assigned to the prisoners.

Maxwell had his hand raised, palm flat. No one was to do anything.

I looked down at Héctor. “Shame on you.”

And to Maxwell, “The Mexican Constitution forbids both slavery and obstruction of free travel. Your security men may have murdered two men in taking these children. I’ll include that in my report to the Inspector General. Perhaps we can make an arrangement. You call off your security men and instruct them to send off the militia. Then you and I can have a talk about the payroll robbery and about the Yaqui workers you’re holding below ground at this very moment. Illegally.”

The shaft head engine snorted to life again, and I did not try to speak over its noise. Héctor was looking at Maxwell with raised eyebrows, maybe to say, perhaps this Rural needs a bullet in his head. I glanced over at Rin Andersen to see if he might be thinking the same thing. The major was whining where he lay. I had half a thought to put a bullet in his brain. Rin Andersen wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at the blacksmith’s shop and at the tall blacksmith’s Yaqui helper, who had propped a shotgun on the shop’s shoulder-high wall and, without sighting over it, had it pointed at Rin Andersen.

From my new manuscript: Stealing for Porfirio Díaz, Chapter 1

(The Loading of the Porfirio Díaz—early draft)


Te conozco, mosco,
por tu zumbidito.

I know you, fly, by the way you buzz.
(common Mexican saying)


Yori ~ Yaqui word for Mexican non-Indians;
those who do not give respect;
conqueror, whip, killer of people

Yoreme ~ Yaqui word for themselves;
those who win and give respect;
those who respect tradition; humanity;
those who give life.

torocoyori ~ Yaqui word for
those who do not respect their own tradition;
those who emulate or go over to the yoris.


The Report

For: His Excellency the Inspector General
Francisco M. Ramírez

Ministry of the Interior
Palacio Nacional
Mexico City


Miguel Angel Ibarra

Does one take life in order to stop torture,
banishment, executions, and slavery?
That is my question.

I am fifty-two. A few years ago, I suffered a small apoplexy. For a while I dragged my left foot a bit and wasn’t as steady on my feet. My wife Lirio—unsympathetic to my self-pity—would kiss me on the cheek and say at least the right limbs were still working fine. Then, off the cuff, she referred to her current reading—Goethe’s Faust—mentioning that Mephistopheles, the Devil, he too dragged one foot, and so I wasn’t so special. With time, my foot swung forward over the ground as it had before and my balance returned. But something troubling remained behind, in that I found it harder to give the usual quick answers to complex matters, or to accept old explanations.

Still, I am supposed to be writing a report on what to do with the Yaqui Indians. The year is 1900. I am a First Corporal in the National Rural Police, State of Sonora. I am one of the feared rurales who wear charro suits with silver buttons, a cavalry saber at the belt, the broad-rimmed sombrero and supposedly make up their own laws and shoot down their prisoners “while trying to escape.” It is called the ley fuga – the flight law. You tell the prisoner to walk away from you, or even run, then put a bullet in his back—at the lower tip of the left scapula. I have never used it on a Yaqui Indian. Or a Mexican non-Indian. I have never used it at all—though I have thought about it.

I am in charge of seventy-six men. I live in Tórim, about sixty kilometers south of the port of Guaymas, near the Yaqui River, in the middle of what has always been thought of as Yaqui land. Tórim is supposed to be a model community that shows how Yaquis and non-Yaquis can live together and thrive. This is the First Military Zone, and the Twelfth Battalion is stationed there to assure experiment’s success.

Theoretically, I take my orders from the President of the Republic Porfirio Díaz who resides in the Chapultepec castle and from certain government officials in the Palacio Nacional, in Mexico City. But in reality, pressure also comes from the Governor’s office in Hermosillo. I have heard my immediate superior will soon be National Rural Police comandante Colonel Emilio Kosterlitzky—referred to by some as the Kosack of the North, by others as the Mad Russian. I once wrote him about a problematic American mercenary that had nearly killed me twice with his 98 Mauser rifle and his Austrian telescopic lens. The American worked for the Governor and for the management of the American silver mine called La Cándida—the pure and innocent one—that sits like a sore in the middle of the Bacatete—mountains sacred to the Yaquis, a few miles east of Guaymas. I asked Colonel Kosterlitzky for his legal and political advice regarding the mercenary mentioned above. He telegraphed back, “Shoot the bastard as soon as is convenient.”

Porfirio Díaz has said Mexico must modernize. I am in agreement with this idea. Most of the Yaquis—the ones that are still left—do not know how to read and write. The same can be said of the National Rural Police. I have a beautiful wife Lirio and a beautiful daughter Mariana, eighteen. They know how to read and write. I had eight years of schooling with the Franciscans, who taught me how to write. I have been my own university since than, reading everything Lirio puts in my way. I am fairly light-skinned, the color of honey. None of my classmates, all boys, were Yaquis. They were Mexicans, most of them honey-colored like me, but some coffee-colored, like the Yaquis—already mixed with darker bloods. My friends want their children to be educated. The Yaquis want their children to stay alive.

If President Díaz really wanted to modernize Mexico, he should educate everyone. But I think he means something else when he says modernize. I think he means take this land away from the Yaquis. He says there should be no corporate ownership of property. He equates community ownership with corporate ownership, and this position is reflected in the Baldío Law of 1883. It is true he takes property away from the Church, but he does not kill priests. Plus, priests do not work the land in order to survive. When you take land away from the Yaquis, you are attacking their very existence. I can not speak too closely to this issue, since I do not have much to do with the Church. But I live among the Yaquis.

I am suppose to enforce this policy of modernization. At least the part about the Indians. My men and I are to guard the surveyors from the the Ministry of Development – the Scientific Commission of Sonora – who drive the pipes into the ground, dividing up the black soil into sections. The government tells the Yaquis of the Eight Villages that they have to register their land. The latter come to the municipality buildings to sign, to clarify that they already own the land.

That is when the traps begin. The government says the Yaquis have to pay taxes on the land. The Yaquis say they don’t own the land as individuals. They say it is community land and always has been. The municipality says individuals must sign, it doesn’t matter who actually pays the taxes. The Yaqui leaders say they can’t sign. The municipality says that’s all right, someone will sign for you. The authorities make deeds and write “State of Sonora” on them. Later, that is changed to “at the legal disposition of the elected governor.” And still later, they declare these sections “unoccupied” and sell them to outsiders with money, often land speculators.

To stay on their land the state says the Yaquis must pay taxes for the last ten years—an exorbitant sum. The Yaqui leaders say, taxes for what? There are no schools, no roads, no police protection, and no rights of citizenship like those given to the people with honey-colored skin who are descendants of the the Spanish and the Gringos. Who were not born from this river and this soil. In the meantime, the Sonora and Sinaloa Irrigation Company, with 75 percent American interest, begins to divert water from the Río Yaqui away from Yaqui farmers and into land owned by yoris – outsiders. At gun point.

Looking for San Marcos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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