Tag: threat

The Beautiful Parisians, or the Nearby Machetes?

It’s hard returning from two months in Paris to a small colonial city in the geographical center of Mexico—Guanajuato. For the first week, you are too jet-lagged, the altitude difference is large (7,000 feet here), there’s the culture shock, and the general stress of traveling (25+ hours without sleep). You also have to climb 203 steps to get home, if you’ve gone down to the Old City. If you’ve suffered the good fortune to have already lived many years, it’s going to take you longer to recover. Now at two weeks, for the first time I am feeling like I can resume my life here. In the midst of the reentry muddle I have tried to understand why the reentry has been so difficult, an experience I’m sure others have also had. But coming back to Mexico, to its poverty and disorder, that is something apart.

I found myself focusing on the physical difference first. The trash, the graffiti—I don’t know how to say it more politely—the drying dog shit in the alleys that lace through the sides of the canyon, the friendly-hostile atmosphere in the barrio we live in, with its long history of mini gangs, juvenile violence, all overseen by the local drug dealer—whom we are on good terms with. (See earlier postings on this subject.) The drizzling rain that went on for days, the inability to sleep, cook, or find connection. For two months, I never felt I had to study a man approaching me to see whether he was a low-level gangster, although that might have been different if I had wandered at night through the banlieue, the outskirts of Paris, where minorities are essentially marginalized from Inner Paris by various kinds of social engineering such as red lining, i.e. not giving house loans or renting apartments to Muslims or any Africans, and by exorbitant rents, or by a combination of the two.

I felt other kinds of threats. A few times we walked away from an abandoned package or backpack in the Metro, although there was really no safe distance to be taken if they had been bombs. A policeman—once a policewoman—always stood in front of the five-story police building one hundred and fifty feet from our apartment, always holding a submachine gun The weapon was designed to be not too heavy but also able to fire twenty or thirty rounds in one blast, without accuracy. The guard’s shots would be the only warning if the station were under attack, and he or she would be the first person to go down—an event that lies within the boundaries of possibility because there will be and already have been all kinds of blowback from the wars raging in the nearby Ukraine, Mideast and Africa. Plus, the city is open, any kind of attack approach is possible anywhere thanks to the wonderful transportation system and well-kept streets.

Inexplicably, the city has placed a huge bottle-recycling container just in front of the police station. To me it seems it would be too easy to drop in empty bottles along with explosives and detonator, enough to blow off the front half of the building. Even though police vans park on both sides of the avenue, with special swat teams sitting in them. They are the GIPN, groupes d’intervention de la Police nationale, six in each van, including the driver, always in the vans, always ready to go. They are parked very close to the bottle-recycling container. Ten minutes away by foot, two police stand across the street from the Mosque, with submachine guns. They are always there. Just the way, until recently, there was a tank that sat guarding the entrance to the Jewish Center in Berlin. This morning, by chance, I read that someone had stolen large amounts of plastic explosives, grenades and detonators from a military base in southern France. Terrorists have struck and will strike again.

I do not fear terrorism in Guanajuato. Maybe a mugging at night. (We use taxis to return home after dark.) But not C4. Plus Guanajuato doesn’t carry the symbolism that Paris does—an old center of immense power, colonial and otherwise. Guanajuato is poor and small. Tourists come for the colonial architecture, the canyon layout, the Symphony, to stroll past the elegant Teatro Juárez. People want to come here to take pictures of their children standing on the university stairs, as if that act might suggest the idea of scholarship, and hence success. An urban legend tells us that the narcos send their sons and daughters here to study, and so it is off-bounds for any kind of retaliatory violence.

I mourn my Paris Navigo card, the chip-carrying plastic card that, for seventy Euros a month, lets you jump on any Metro, tram, bus or RER light rail (within the immediate city), and a year ago there was still a water taxi that would take you up the Seine from Quai d’Austerlitz to the mouth of the Marne. Evenings, we walked down to the Seine, maybe across a bridge and up the other side, or along it. It was light until ten o’clock. When we got tired, we whipped out our Navigo cards, swiped them across the green jellyfish entrance buttons and took city transportation home.

During the day, I went to a modest health club to lift weights or workout in classes led alternatively by one woman and two men who must have trained in the military, perhaps the French Foreign Legion. With them, you were expected to perform the most advanced movements and positions without step-by-step instruction or time to build up the needed muscles. Then I walked to the Café Dose on Mouffetard, where I had a cappuccino “déca” (decaf) and read background for my current novel. The small tables there are very French in that they are separated from each other by about an inch. Often it was too warm inside, and, worse, too much English is spoken by young American students who have discovered the good coffee. Then I walked home through the Jardin des Plantes, a mixture of botanical garden and park—a lovely way to cut through the city.

All this changed when I started attending the ARC conversation sessions, where I got to meet French discussion leaders and young professionals from foreign countries. I wrote about these extensively earlier (below) as “Notes on A Conversation, Paris, 2015.” In that new pattern, at a little before ten in the morning, I walked quickly to the Gare d’Austerlitz, bought Le Monde or Libération (newspapers, center and left), dropped down into the tunnels, swiped my Navigo card and rode the Metro Nr.10, direction Boulogne. On the train, I reviewed my French notes from the previous day. In ten minutes or so, I was in the center of the Left Bank and got out at Marbillon, rode the escalator to the surface and, in two three more minutes, got to sit down for two hours and fifteen minutes of French conversation with people from all over the world, but mostly Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Syria, Iran, the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Vietnam and Turkey.

I suppose what I did in Paris for two months was new and exciting. Anything afterward would be a let down. As I said, Guanajuato seemed dirty, but also stuck in dis-repair, mired in passivity and corruption at all levels, a jewel in a country without employment and education for so many. I discovered some hidden racism, in myself. The people I passed in the alleys seemed short, dark, poor, poisoned by the Coke they consume, not that any of it was a fault of their own. ( I had a short exchange with a friend as a result of the last line, on Facebook. I think she found the words “short” and “dark” and “poor” troubling. Maybe especially the word “dark.” I wrote back: “I made tribal, classist, elitist racist comparisons. The color (dark) is Indian blood, the height (short) is from centuries of malnutrition (maybe), passivity I blame on the patriarchal Church, corruption on colonial political and economic structures (not unique to Mexico), and I do not know what other petulant things I said. We are all racist and tribal. Those qualities surprise us sometimes when they ooze out. It is better to be honest about one’s feelings, the uncharitable beliefs we didn’t even know we had. And get them out where we can work on them.”

I was comparing, I know now, the humble, cordial people in the streets to the privileged, well-heeled, stressed, light-skinned, highly educated, hurrying young professional Parisians who stop in at Starbucks, then chase after success and professional survival amid the concentration of universities around the Metro stops of Cluny La Sorbonne, Odéon and Marbillon.

Unfair. Stupid. Did that mean I wanted to be in Paris?

At this moment, I am reminded of my French friend’s plaintive remark: that it was hard for her to paint in Paris when so many great painters had come before her. I did not have that trouble and wrote a fair amount. But, at the same time, I know that my real productivity (and thinking) is linked with this beautiful, wretched country of so little hope, that is so full of grace, where there is so much beauty, where you are not safe, but where you are also not alone, and where any of those humble people I have maligned would reach out to help me if I were in trouble. The vast majority of them.

Slowly, I have re-discovered young Mexican friends in the places I frequent—cafés, yoga, restaurants. Bright, kind people, there are painters, musicians, writers and teachers here whom I care about, and who care about me. Small things are beginning to happen again. Strangers greet me on the canyon stairs. In contrast, if I happened on someone coming or going from our small Paris apartment, they seemed to choke in their attempt to respond to my Bonjour. Slowly, all the small stories of people I know, from flower lady to beggar to affectionate neighbors are beginning to come back to me. A mixture of social classes, respect and, above all, cordiality. Except for the local little gangsters. K, whom I have written about before, and his brother (maybe two of his brothers) have been breaking into nearby houses with machetes. Taking things, menacing people. That was unwise. While the police may not do anything, men in the neighborhood may reach for their own machetes, literally or figuratively, and take justice into their own hands. Fifteen-year old M, whom I’ve also written about, liked to ride a pretty good bicycle I regularly lent him and said I would give him if he stayed in school. Last night, he knocked at the door, upset. He said men had taken the bike away from him at knife point. In our kitchen, he told us the story three or four times. It happened several miles away. In Valenciana, he said. We said it was not his fault. M spins tales, lies—for many reasons—most of them unclear, except that his parents (especially his father) have pretty well abandoned him and he has to invent the importance he doesn’t feel. He is very smart and could excel under the right circumstances. He has read every single book in our children’s library. He mentioned that K and his brothers would never have dared take the bike from him because they knew we would not stand for it. But now we are beginning to think that that’s what may have happened. With M truth often lies in the possibility he says does not exist. Did he sell it? Did they threaten him and he can’t say who did it? One good neighbor friend said, “In a few days we’ll know more, because people talk and it gets around.”

Oddly, M’s experience snaps me out of my two-week re-entry funk. My petulance, my whining. This is the world I live in, where people are good, where nothing is clear and everything is real—most of all when it is incomprehensible and always pending.

A Fiesta Without Violence

Two of the neighbors, both women, were afraid. They wanted the police to be invited to our neighborhood Iluminación festival for the Virgin of Guanajuato, an event that was to occur just outside our front door. They were not the only ones who thought our local pre-cartel paint thinner sniffers might disrupt the gathering—I was another one. But the barrio steering committee persuaded the two women that police presence would destroy the whole purpose of neighbors coming together to honor The Virgin of Guanajuato, eat together, and build Solidarity. Plus, the event would occur between 4 and 6 pm, before it got dark, and the usual suspects did not start winding up their anti-social engines (on vapors) until darkness gave them cover.

Still, proceeding with the event took some courage on everyone’s part. No one could tell to what extent community organizing might draw a response from people at a somewhat higher pre-cartel level. We knew from previous experience that our locals could, and had before, called in other gangbangers from outside our barrio to signal their control over our public space.

D. and I had come up behind two of the principal local gangbangers that morning. They were climbing the stairs in front of us toward the upper ring road. They said, yes, yes, they would come to the celebration. As they walked ahead of us they kept looking back. I asked D. why they kept looking back; what was the psychological explanation? It is hard to know anymore when the glue and paint thinner sniffing has done its damage. Already, their motor coordination was disturbed; already they staggered and had trouble lifting their legs for each new step. Their looking back was the automatic behavior of disturbed, deeply frightened animals.

At the same time, community organizing had been under way for the last six weeks, with D. and C. talking to all the mothers and some of the men in the neighborhood, for hours at a time. D. read books on Conflict Resolution in Spanish, drew graphs, and condensed her reading into summarizing handouts. The principal graph took the form of a triangle. The lower levels described the foundation for the tip of the triangle: action. That is to say, the community could not correct matters regarding trash, graffiti, drinking and drugs in the alleys, social respect, and safety if action was not first based in conflict resolution and trust building—and simple agreements like not calling the police before talking to one’s neighbor or to the steering committee.

At first, we weren’t sure if anyone would come. A couple from the organizing committee hung a sheet over an ugly graffitied wall, then hung a framed picture of the Virgin of Guanajuato from a nail. They placed two plastic pails with flowers just below her. People stretched strings of small triangular yellow flags across the intersection of two alleys. Then, the neighborhood’s families began to trickle in. In the end, there were more than fifty people—including two of the drug-dealing families (i.e. mothers or aunts), but not the drug dealers themselves.

In what appears to Mexican style, family groups sat with their own; the most alienated—the drinking and drug dealing families—sat at the fringes but were still present and observing. K., a very experienced young friend, conducted a drawing workshop for the children at a table a little uphill from the food tables. She asked the kids to draw their own house, then people the picture with anyone they wanted. I stretched a clothesline between two concrete nails hammered into the front of our house, over the little table with the CD player and speakers—a spot I thought would attract the most attention, and we hung the kids’ drawings on the clothesline as–I like to think–an indication of what was most important to all of us: guiding the next generation of youth in a different kind of direction.

Some eight women spread food out on the tables where they filled chalupas, sopes and other kinds of baked or deep-fried formed tortillas with bits of ham and rice. Women who have feuded for years stood next to each other, smiling, serving the food. The president of the steering committee handed out plates of food. I brought cups of hot ponche – non-alcohol punch made from cinnamon, guava, tamarindo and carmelized sugar – to the outliers, the shy, the most alienated, to emphasize that they too were included.

Most of these people—the most alienated—sat around a corner from the main scene but were still able to see the CD player and the art wall. Three of these men had come to drink beer—one of the few ways for them to be present in a social setting. One of them was very drunk already. I brought him a chair; I brought him punch; others brought him food. He was shy and inarticulate; still, he wanted to be near the party.

One of the other two drinkers – a cargador – a man who carries heavy things (bricks, sand, bags of cement) up and down the canyon’s sides – approached R., a small woman, who was seated on the front steps of the entrance to her tienda – store – situated twelve strides from our front door. Just above her and to one side of the door she had opened the hinged glass window to her niche, in which was enclosed another Virgin of Guanajuato, illuminated by two votive candles and framed by flowers. R. was ladling out her own version of the Iluminación ponche. I was sitting right in front of her, so I heard what happened.

The beer drinker cargador, a man of essentially no education whatsoever, huge, rough and unwashed, asked R. to sell him a caguama – a liter bottle of beer. And R. said, very sweetly, “Ah no, Sir, I am not able to sell you one because we want it to be tranquilo here.”

He repeated the request.

She repeated her gentle refusal. The cargador lost a little face and retreated. Soon after a man came looking for him for a carrying task, and he left the gathering with a flash of recovered pride in his eyes.

R. the other beer drinker–a former glue sniffer who has somehow escaped from that circle of hell–held a caguama in his hands for at least a half an hour, but I never saw him drink from it. Perhaps he realized he didn’t have to drink to have a good time and probably because I and others had fussed over him, trying to show him we considered him one of us.

At one point, the very drunk man ghosted through the crowd, pushed open the door to the walled off vacant lot behind the food women and went in to pee. It took him a long time to reemerge and shuffle back around the corner to the margins of the festival.

People ate chapulas and drank ponche and looked at each other, even at other family groups, and smiled. I played CD’s of Cuban music and rustic music from Veracruz that included a harp. The first plucked notes of harp in the first song brought a small hoop from the abstaining beer drinker R; and I was delighted that there was still a place inside him that resonated with this simple, exuberant folk music.

People continuously passed through the crossroads of the two intersecting allies, on their way up from or down to the city. A few semi–recovered glue–sniffing adolescents bounced through, glad, I thought, to be making an appearance. I tried to detain two of them–boys I had known for years, beckoning them to come drink a ponche, eat a sope or chalupa. They smiled broadly but did not stay. But almost.

The steering committee stood on a high spot and thanked everyone for coming. D. announced that each child that had drawn a picture was to receive a bag of candies (there were twenty-five bags in all, supplied by a woman who could not attend); then the requirement was just being a child; or the mother of a child. The cooks protested that they too were deserving. I lobbied for R., the non-drinking beer drinker, but he was beaten out by another baby and her mother. He took it well, I thought.

Then it was getting dark, and we began to pack up. There had been no disruption from enraged gangbangers, no bouncing hand grenades, no attacks, no violence—no reason for fear. Just by being there, I thought we had shown that we cared about our barrio and were united in making it better—better for the young artists whose drawings hung on the clothesline, and for everyone one else—even for those not present. Word gets around. The report will be that something good happened. And in Mexico, that is always wonderful news.