The doorbell rang around six pm. D looked through the wooden door flap. She decided it’s okay to unlock. It was, after all, only the mostly absent president of the neighborhood committee, L the mother of the most dangerous gangbanger, and E the aunt of the next most dangerous one.
I decided to step outside, too. It was one day after the bangers mentioned above ripped down two surveillance cameras that had been attached to two other houses—and I was a little angry.
We stood outside in the callejón, just outside our front door. We had never met L before. D had tried to talk to her many times before but always got the brushoff. I introduced myself. She took my hand—almost no grip—but would not look at me. We got down to business quickly. The president, who had given up trying to get D and C to stop being co-leaders and strong women, had also, it appeared, given up being the local cacique, boss, only interested in his own power. He was now a conflict resolution expert.
“I have a proposal that might calm the situation,” he said.
“You want us to take down the cameras,” I suggested, probably with sarcasm.
D probably interrupted him at that point and continued to address L and E. No, sure, she said, she would be glad to take down the (remaining) cameras when there was no trash in the alleys, when the thick, ugly graffiti all around us was painted over, when everyone could pass through the allies without being threatened, menaced or intimidated, when illegal drinking and drug taking no longer dominated the callejón, when that activity no longer drew in all kinds of people from other barrios (attracted to the same behavior), when the revelers no longer pissed in the alley, kept the neighbors awake and fearful, when their sons and nephews behaved with respect for the Commons, the public space, when they behaved with courtesy and respect for the all the rest of us, when they no longer threatened her personally with kidnapping and rape, and, finally, when their mothers and aunts took responsibility for teaching the boys the above-mentioned civic values.
The president tried to continue with me. I cut him off.
“I’m listening to them,” I said, too forcefully. He, after all, was supposed to have been in charge of security, a role which failed to perform in any fashion. And now he was essentially representing the gang and their mothers.
L had a position. “Me ofende que las cameras están espiando a mis hijos….” Her meaning: It’s offensive that you have these cameras aimed at my innocent sons.
D lets her have it again. I let her have it. I am pissed. What in god’s name are you talking about. There would be no cameras if you had control over your sons, your nephew. E glares at me. I glare back her, too long, too pissed. D does it much better. She is clear and respectful. Still you can hear the trace of scorn in her voice.
This is a tricky situation. We are two Ph.D.’s; E and L have very little education. L lives with her husband and three sons in little more than a shack, probably with no more than two rooms, at the most. There is a class difference. They—including the president—invoke the foreigner rule: You are not from here and do not understand our ways. We are permanent residents, in fact. That doesn’t matter. There is a web of confusion, assumption, non-understanding. There is also a generational factor. Gang culture and activity is often handed down through generations, and carries with it its own assumed ethic. Such as: the public space is not public—not when we claim it. L’s husband was in prison for murder; it is said he lived with a woman who was selling herself. That may or may not have been L. He came home day and found her with another man, whom he killed. It is very possible he learned such solutions from his father, and his father before him. It is possible that L’s husband is involved in things, like our Nemesis in the privada. One could say they belong to what you could call a bandit class. Let me explain.
There is a long history of banditry (el bandido) in Mexico. It is an activity you could characterize as social/political (take from the poor, give to the rich) or professional (straight out bank robber), or shades of both.
The concept overlaps with caciquismo (el cacique), the activity of a local political boss). This type of bandit operates inside or outside of the local governmental structure. But there’s nothing like getting your hands on the people’s money, the public coffers.
Then there is caudillismo (el caudillo), the activity of a political-military leader in an authoritarian context. He (or she: Eva Perón in Argentina) is supposed to control banditry’s impact on society, but he will enlist bandits of all types to further his own political power. Mexican governors and presidents, for example, reach accommodations with the leaders of cartels.
There is a fourth category that has no word for it that I know of, and that fact says something about the challenges for women who are the mothers, aunts, wives and girlfriends of the various kinds of bandits. They are not soldaderas like the women that fought in the Mexican Revolution). It is about the women who navigate to survive in circles of banditry, caciquismo and caudillismo. They do this by being the spies, propagandists, lawyers and lobbyists for their bandit males. There used to be a word for her in the U.S. during the Twenties: the moll. Hollywood depicts her more as the plaything of the gangster, but I suspect she was, at times, also his advisor and partner in crime.
The complement to banditry is the feeling of helplessness in the face of arbitrary (usually) male claims of power and violence. Which is to say, the citizenry, even the molls, find themselves trapped in social dilemma—how to find accommodation with the local cacique and his strongmen, even the latter may be living in one’s own family.
L and E and C, I have decided, are molls. They are part of the bandit group. They had come to our front door to 1) find out what we knew about the attack on the police and the destruction of the two cameras, 2) to argue our otherness and lack of understanding in things Mexican, 3) to deny the facts (everything is fine), 4) to plead the innocence of their sons and nephews, and 5) to point out the dangerous provocations coming from us.
“Outsides can come in here, you know, and some of them are men who rape,” said L to D.
“All the more reason for cameras,” said D, without missing a beat. She had been walking past L’s house one day recently, and Y, L’s youngest son, seven or eight years old (who used to borrow children’s books from D and who D found out could not read) had said, “You know, the cameras really aren’t such a good idea. They’re thinking of kidnapping you.”
L and E and C are women who have to go along with the bandit culture and worldview. They are part of it. Thinking any differently from their men could turn out to be very dangerous for them. We do not know to what extent they have already been abused and brutalized. They are the molls of the neighborhood, and their lives cannot be easy.