Looking Behind Walls
October 8, 2000
It's easy to think of Mexico, at least southern Mexico where we are, as somehow goofy. Clownish. Every night some small band marches down the street tootling away, followed by bigger-than-life papier maché puppets. Inside the puppet skirts, or pantaloons for guy puppets, sneakers and jeans twirl and bob. The male puppets wear fine black moustaches painted on their pink paper faces. Pink circles adorn the cheeks of the lady puppets. Behind the puppets comes the parade, for a church or a sisterhood or a union, all the same. The women carry flowers on their heads. The men carry flowers in their arms, or banners, or saints. Interchangeable. Behind the marchers a group of miscellaneous participants tote cellophane torches. A man expert in tossing fireworks and rockets tosses them. Bang. Bang. How can one take it seriously?
Fresh foods and world-class concerts cost about one-tenth of what we pay in the USA, a reasonable restaurant dish can be had for $3.50. Today Oskar told me he read that Oaxaca is one of Mexico's most expensive cities. The local newspaper's headline claims Oaxaqueños may consume 70% of their daily requirements for nutrition.
The bride exits the church dressed in a traditional USA white satin gown, with bridesmaids in high heels and a troop of serious flower girls in long dresses. A band plays at the church door.
The bell rings for trash collection. Oh, this week no collection. The truck is broken. A horn blats for gas. Run out and buy a tank of gas. Men roll down the streets hollering Aaaaaagua. Run out and get some water. How can this be serious?
It's the vampire effect. In a horror movie, you know that no matter how silly vampires may be in reality, in one's own reality they're just outside the window. In Mexico, sunny-day vampires, if such exist. By which I mean, some not so wonderful and timeless fate lurking. Stone saints who live on cathedral heights wave off the vampires, the pigeons, the bats. Lots of churches, lots of stone, lots of saints. Benedictions fall like the saints themselves fall in earthquakes. They leave the vampires untended.
In our walled-in patio the odor of rain hitting dust greets me. About five o'clock the cleared sky suddenly clouded over, thunder rumbled. A lizard falls with a sharp plop from a wall to the cement patio. Or maybe it was the brilliant orange flower that plopped off a tree? The startled lizard gathers its wits and heads back to the wall. As it starts to climb, raindrops begin, and here's that odor, that odor of wet dust. It lasts just a few minutes, and then we're awash...
I become more aware of walls, through which small busy men pass buckets of sand. Looking into the area beyond, I see there must have been a structure, now gone. The lot is cleared, but the wall stands; there's no reason tear down a perfectly good wall. No machines, no Cats and back-hoes; construction is done by hand. Also, there are no basements. So why should the wall come down? The construction work resembles bailing the ocean. Somehow ominous, not threatening, but ominous in its reminder of eternity, in wait like a vampire. There's no time pressure when all work is wrested manually: next week, next month, next year. The Oaxaca gentleman who presides at state band concerts and announces every couple of weeks the same history of Oaxaca, its music and culture, to the audience, this fine man breathlessly announced the decision - a big political decision - to fix the clock in the Catedrál tower, broken for decades. That was the fourth such announcement, and only one month ago; the black iron hands haven't moved.
And yet this odd timelessness is belied by change. The sense of change is everywhere. The encampments demanding restitution, action, liberation, dismissal, are lengthy and determined. Campesinos spread cardboard pallets on the sidewalks and sleep. They build fires on stone circles in front of the municipal palace and cook. They separate their camp from the camp of the women demanding release of the Loxicha prisoners of 1996. They block streets and use loudspeakers to make their demands heard.
Intellectuals distinguish Mexico Profundo from Mexico Imaginario. Imaginary Mexico is a first world country, or, like the book title reads, First World Ha Ha Ha. Daily life involves small details - endless trucks with oranges, endless women hauling tortillas door to door, bumblebees as big as your hat and the neighbor's bilingual parrot hollering "asshole!" - the context in which Mexico changes hides behind walls.
I spoke with my young friend Oskar who has begun his first year at University Benito Juarez. He tells me frankly that if he wanted to discuss what is happening in his country nobody at school, no professor, no student, could do so. They give him the information he needs, the courses he must cover for his major in Communications; communications, it seems, empty of content. He explained that young people know about birth control but think pregnancy won't happen; they form rival gangs who snub each other for wearing name brand clothes or not, for being poor or less poor; they’re atheists and disregard the Catholic Church; they begin work young; they fight on their own turf. Rarely do they participate in the protests of their elders. That's not where their heads are at. Not yet.
So I thank Oskar for his insights. A population explosion which the government has little success damping surpasses Mexico's resources. Public political battles flare over abortion rights; public ads on TV and movie theater walls promote the use of condoms. Newspapers denounce the decline in education (have we heard all this before?) and we read scrawled on intact walls slogans denouncing the government's role in the 1968 massacre of student protesters. Yesterday I decoded a graffiti message: "Blessed is Chaos, it shows that something is happening."
The indestructible walls, of banks and tumbled tourist shops, of hotels and crumbled restaurants, get defaced repeatedly, or should we say adorned. It crosses no one's mind that these walls through which men pass buckets of sand by day, by night serve as communication systems easily outstripping everything Oskar learned today in school.
Riding the bus to a town outside the city I spoke to a pleasant-looking woman wearing the common apron and clutching a bag of bread. Is the farmland we pass private or communal? "Communal," she replied. The produce is sold in Oaxaca City. I said, Well, the town must be run by Usos y Costumbres (Uses and Customs). She confirmed that observation, but the surprise her face clearly expressed indicated to me that this fact is unknown to foreigners and tourists, although it's public, government-published knowledge that most of Oaxaca's 547 municipalities use the traditional system of govrning, something akin to town meeting. Corn and beans were growing beneath the backdrop of cloud-strewn mountain.
Communal lands don't mean there aren't caciques, another secret. But those protests, those demands - whereas in days of old someone might have murdered such a fellow, now the men come to the Chamber of Deputies to demand the miscreant be removed from office. Does that work? Depends on the level of political corruption.
Guerrillas in the mountains are a secret, too. Oskar knows about the existence of the EPR. He reads their messages on the walls. He knows the income of many campesinos may be less than thirty pesos per week. Oscar, I asked, why are they fighting? What do they want?
But that he didn't know.