Sunday, November 14, 2010

Oaxaca Journal Entries

October 27, 2010: RATTLESNAKE VALLEY

“You must be very brave,” the nice lady at the Oaxaca Lending Library told me after I said that I’d just driven down from Michigan. “So many people in the United States are afraid to travel in Mexico these days.”

“Everyone has been so nice, even the cop who pulled us over and shook us down for $60 cash about 30 seconds after we’d entered the country,” I said.

Actually, after reading the accounts of the horrific narco-cartel violence in the news, I had been terrified about making this trip.

“I suppose I could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Well, I assume you weren’t out looking for drugs at 2 o’clock in the morning!”

“No, I’m way beyond all that,” I told her. We both laughed.

This is the second time I’ve driven down from Michigan to Oaxaca in the last twelve months with mi amigo Jon Swanson. We listened to Blues and Gospel from Jon’s
extensive CD collection as we drove south. Bessie Smith’s Gimme A Pigfoot summed up my deepest hopes for the outcome of our adventure:

Check all your razors and your guns.
Do the Shim-Sham Shimmy 'til the rising sun.

However, some lines from Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love? kept coming to mind:

I walked 47 miles of barbed wire
Used a cobra snake for a neck tie
Got a brand new house on the roadside
Made out of rattlesnake hide.
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of human skulls.

I’d been so jacked by the news reports that I wondered if the grotesque images in Bo Diddley’s song might be a more accurate description of what we were heading into than the pictures of Enchanting Mexico touted in the tourist brochures.

We stayed on the toll roads this time. They were beautiful four lane divided highways with good shoulders, no speed bumps, no police speed traps and very little traffic. The landscapes we drove through were spectacular.

Speaking of rattlesnakes, midway between the Laredo border and Mexico City we drove through a windy valley in the mountains.

Maybe 20 feet back from the highway in this place were wooden racks—there were too many to count—with rattle snake skins drying in the sunshine. Some of the snake skins were huge. There were small bottles filled with a yellow liquid tied to the top of each skin.

There were hundreds of snake skins.

Yards back from the road were houses, but they appeared to be empty. And there were no dogs, horses or parked cars.

“What’s this all about? What’s in those small bottles? Maybe we should stop and ask someone.”

Absolutely no one was in sight.

We looked at each other briefly and Jon stepped on the accelerator.

October 30, 2010: SMACKDOWN IN THE PLAZA

At approximately 1:20 yesterday afternoon Jesus Ruben Maldonado Marmolejo, alias ‘el Dragon’ and Jose Maria Gonzalez, aka ‘el Guero’ (the Blond) aka ‘el Chema’, were walking down the steps in front of the Santo Domingo church in the heart of Oaxaca’s Central Historical District when two red and white motorcycles pulled up next to them. Gunmen riding on the back of the bikes opened fire and el Dragon and el Guero went down in a hail of hot lead.

Even though it was midday in one of the most crowded and trafficked areas of the city, the assassins escaped.

The police showed up, removed the two bodies, scoured the crime scene for bullet casings and hosed the blood off the stones. They tracked down el Dragon’s Black Hummer, which was parked a few blocks away, and discovered 3 cases of 9 mm cartridges, 3 cell phones and a portfolio containing suspicious “diverse documents.”

Exactly three hours later Jon and I were standing at the center of the crime scene, unaware of what had taken place earlier. We were watching a group of children gather for a Halloween parade. We first learned about the murders from friends that night just as we sat down for a lecture at the Biblioteca Henestorsa entitled Music and Death in the Oaxaca Valley.

This morning, as is the custom around here, both Imparcial & Noticas, the local daily papers, featured large color photos of the bullet ridden bodies in the plaza.

I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but it was probably a poor decision on the part of Marmolejo to assume a macho nickname like ‘el Dragon.’ Isn’t this just inviting trouble? Wouldn’t it be better to be known as, say, el hombre querido (the beloved man) or el hombre compasivo (the compassionate man)?

But this was the least of their bad life choices. Gonzalez had been arrested in 2007 for fraud and Marmolejo was described in the press as a henchman (un esbirro) and bodyguard of a general secretary in the moribund Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Jorge “el Chucky” Franco Vargas. Vargas is named after the murderous doll in the American slasher movies. Shouldn’t a nickname like that automatically preclude one from a position of public authority?

The papers also reported that both men were porros. A porro is a member of a mercenary gang associated with Mexican universities. They are street thugs for hire who act as an informal paramilitary force inside universities to prevent the rise of student opposition movements. Marmolejo was a porro at the Universidad Autonoma “Benito Juarez” de Oaxaca and he organized death squads (‘las caravanas de la muerte’) against students during the 2006 uprising.

My friends suspect that el Dragon and el Guero may have been taken down by a leftist hit squad. Ulises Ruiz, current lame-duck governor of the State of Oaxaca and member of the PRI, is widely hated. He has been accused of genocide and various acts of repression against indigenous people. There are signs around the zocalo in Oaxaca calling for his prosecution and imprisonment. This summer Gabino Cue Monteagudo was elected governor by a coalition of center left voters. Perhaps el Dragon’s victims decided the moment was ripe for a settling of scores.

Of course, this is just speculation. Undoubtedly, these hombres violentos had many enemies.

* * *

When we first arrived in town we stopped at Amante Books, one of my favorite.
bookshops. The Black Minutes, a first novel by the Mexican writer Martin Solares (Grove/Atlantic) was faced out on the new arrivals table, and I purchased it. It’s a big book, ostensibly a police procedural about the search for a psychopathic killer of young girls, but it wanders into many interesting places. Literary legend B. Traven appears briefly in the novel as does the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock. A detective dreams of being attacked by a half-human jaguar, a UFO investigator mysteriously disappears, a blind man with the assistance of two dwarfs
is able to accurately fire a rifle, an esteemed criminologist discovers an equation that reveals the identity of serial killers. The feverish violence in the novel reminds me of Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. I have no idea how accurate a portrayal this is of the inner workings of Mexican police departments. If it is even partially true, the Mexican system of justice is a nightmare. The Black Minutes isn’t a mystery. It’s a horror novel.

November 4, 2010: DIA DE MUERTOS

Of course, the violence and corruption are only slices of the complex reality here. It would be a terrible misrepresentation to define the country in these terms. There are many Mexicos. All of them exist simultaneously, alongside or on top of or underneath each other.

One morning Jon and I decided to see Oaxaca by riding city buses from the Abastos Market to the end of the line and back. I watched people on the bus. This was another Mexico. The old men in cowboy hats looked perpetually startled and sharp teenage boys, their hair slicked up into a point, flirted with girls in tight jeans. Grandmothers carried small children, who eyeballed us and then looked away when we smiled at them. Husbands and wives herded more children on the bus. These people were decent and hardworking and they valued family. No one looked like they had any disposable income. They were all just trying to get by, like most people everywhere.

Jon, a retired anthropologist and social worker who has lived in Oaxaca on and off for a number of years, told me he thinks the social fabric here is more intact than our own.

And the cosmopolitan cultural life in Oaxaca is still another Mexico. There are an amazing number of excellent museums and libraries here, including a beautiful new children’s library near Jon’s house. Oaxaca has jazz venues and an opera house and it hosts an international film festival. One evening we went to a flute and oboe concert held in a large room in a library. It was packed with people. I think Oaxaca can compete with any city its size in the world in terms of its sophisticated cultural offerings.

* * *

My visit to Oaxaca coincided with the Day of the Dead celebration, which is one of the most important holidays in Mexico, especially in places with indigenous populations. It’s an event connected with pre-contact religious festivals that celebrated Mictecacihuatl, the guardian goddess of the dead. Today people remember their dead by assembling altars to them in their homes and by maintaining an all-night vigil at the gravesites of their deceased relatives. In this way the dead live on here in the people who knew and loved them.

Shortly after nightfall on November 2, the Day of the Dead, Jon and I walked down to the Panteon General, a cemetery near the center of the city.

The streets immediately surrounding the main entrance to the graveyard were shut off from traffic and were packed with people, many of them carrying bouquets of flowers, moving slowly under blazing electric lights. It was a night market with carnival rides and vendors hawking food, and long tables had been set up in the street to serve visitors. The mood was celebratory.

When we entered the high walled cemetery, the transition from the noise and light in
the surrounding streets was a shock. The only light inside the cemetery came from tiny flashlights and candles. The cemetery was very crowded with elaborate mausoleums. If one wanders off the central pathway, it would be very easy to fall here.

It was very quiet. People sat on fold-up chairs next to the graves of their loved ones in the darkness.

As I walked through the graveyard I considered my relationships with my own dead. I thought about my mother, who died early this summer, and my father, my aunt and my grandmother.

My grandmother was particularly important to me. She was a kind and caring person, and I felt she loved me unconditionally. I’ve had a recurring dream about her in my adult life.

In the dream someone tells me that she is still alive. I’m overcome with emotion and I run down the street to her house. My grandmother is sitting quietly in a chair in her living room, just inside the screen door on her front porch. The dream always ends as I open the door and walk in.

* * *

Jon and I walked to the Colonia Reforma area for dinner on the last evening before I returned to Gringoland. North of us it was raining in the Sierra Madre. The nearest mountain was quite dark. I looked up at the peaks receding in the distance. Each appeared to be filled with light in the rain, like the mountains in classical Chinese paintings.


the institute said...

Karl, thanks for a lovely, thoughtful, sensitive and balanced narrative about Oaxaca, and some great photos.

Richard Gull said...

Karl, I like the way you you describe the layers of Mexico, from the violence and corruption to the higher culture. Love your reflections like the lack of wisdom in naming yourself The Dragon or the way your pass the snake skins on the highway (after a Bo Didley intro) and quickly move on without finding out what's going on. And the self-revelations in the cemetery about you own dead. You seems even more adept at describing the culture this time around. Richard