Letter 12 From Mexico 


        With a certain amount of frequency I put my foot in my mouth. We
brought our friend the surfer and poet to a first class bus in Queretaro
(straight to the Mexico City airport, easy and safe), and then we drove
into the center of town (Queretaro) to meet some writer friends from Mexico
City. One is a popular therapist, novelist and poet; the other writes
documentaries for Mexican television and has worked in the past with
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the famous magical realist.
        Both women are gay. I had not spent that much time talking with the
television writer, and so, finding myself walking along beside her on a
typically narrow Mexican sidewalk, I tried to strike up conversation. I
asked her to tell me again more about what she did and what she was doing
now. She explained. Then I mentioned that Dianne had told me she also had a
new and wonderful relationship. A new friend, I said. Nouns in Spanish are
masculine or feminine, and since her friend was a woman, I said "amiga"
instead of "amigo."
        There was a perceptible stunned silence, which told me I had
committed a probably multi-layered cross-cultural communication faux pas.
Some hours later at comida (the late rather large lunch at around 2:30 or
3:00 PM), with Dianne's enthusiastic help, the two women, led and directed
by the therapist, teamed up to give me the third degree on my most intimate
views of my own death, aging, sexuality, and manhood.
        All this was good practice in trying to understand many things at
once, like: the nature of my faux pas, their interpretation of it, the form
of and motivation for teaching me a lesson, the uses of psychotherapeutic
methodology outside the consulting room, women's (international) solidarity
against the North American male oppressor, the best method for defending
myself against dog-piling within the limits available, the best choices in
Spanish grammar for my deflections (no one else was revealing their most
intimate positions on death, aging, sexuality, and sense of themselves as
women), but at the same time doing all this in a balanced way, so that I
didn't worsen the situation too much by appearing to be wriggling out of
their obviously heart-felt indictment and thereby supplying still further
evidence of being the boorish heterosexual gringo male, or (to Dianne) one
more manifestation of the insensitive male partner -- and the whole time
trying various directions to point my mouth and nose for the best air, as
the two women (one the former patient of the other) chain smoked during and
between courses.
        Needless to say, I failed magnificently in most areas, but did
improve my Spanish and got some food into my mouth and a little only
half-polluted air into my lungs. I remembered (and could see) it was not an
easy thing to be a Lesbian in Mexico. The novelist had written a novel
about a therapist giving in to a patient, an egregious (to us) blurring of
the lines between patient and therapist, and having an affair with "him."
That is, in the novel the grammatical description (in Spanish) of the
insistent patient was always masculine .
        I had guessed, and the novelist later told me, the lover was indeed
actually a woman. It was impossible, she said, to publish a novel in Mexico
with openly Lesbian content. Nor can one show any kind of lover's contact
publicly. The relationship must stay deeply underground. The parents of
both of our friends are so closed to the idea of someone being gay (let
alone their own children) that both women live hundreds of miles away (in
Mexico City) and go to painful and very sad lengths to appear "normal" in
their parents' eyes.
        Each year the religious and conservative right (PAN) wins more
elections in Mexico. "And do you know what the PAN (Partido de Accion
Nacional) will do when they take power?" my friend the therapist asked me
with a stricken look. She put two fingers to her temple, with the thumb up,
indicating a gun. "The first thing they'll do is come after us, and it will
not be pretty." She was speaking of gays, but she could just as well have
been talking about psychotherapists.
        In the 1973, US-rigged Chilean military coup, one of the first
groups the Pinochet-led puchistas went after were the therapists, because
they are the ones whose godless words are the most devastatingly effective
in describing the Emperor's Clothes. This was true of Uruguay and Argentina
in their respective Dirty Wars. To me it is therefore by no means
improbable that in a period of economic and political stress (as is
increasingly more the case here) a combination of self-righteous religious
dogma, intolerance, racism, and machismo (and therefore homophobia; in our
village, for example, you are considered gay if you refer to another man as
guapo or handsome) -- backed by the power of the nearly imperial Mexican
presidency -- could lead to an "actitud de lichamiento," a lynching
attitude, a desire to find a scapegoat and bring him down, as in two
fingers to the temple, the thumb up, and a long list of unsolved
assassinations.
        By this time, on the second day of our visit together in Queretaro,
the television writer's charming young friend (maybe 30) had joined us. We
were on a bus tour of the serene (and clean) old colonial city. The bus was
built to look like a San Francisco trolley. It was wide and boxy. We came
to a place where there were cars parked helter-skelter on both sides of the
street, maybe with a truck or two parked in what we would call the "wrong"
place. It was also a one-way street, with traffic backing up behind us and
people honking impatiently, as they do in Mexican cities in such
situations. Men scratched their heads and conferred. In the driver's
judgment (a man), we simply would not fit through the tight spot.
        After a few moments, the television writer's young friend stood up,
got off, walked out in front of the bus and, with the authority of a ground
crew captain on an aircraft carrier deck, beckoning first with one hand,
then the other -- as if it were something she did every day -- guided our
trolley forward until we were clear and the traffic could flow again, and
men could stop scratching their heads and honking their horns.
        Not far from where we live, there is already evidence of social and
political stress, two villages away, maybe three miles -- graffiti on the
outer walls of two different houses alongside the road. One says, "Viva la
guerrilla. Muera al gobierno. Muera al Judicial (sic)." And below that, in
the same handwriting, but added later, I noticed: "Vale berga." All of
which means, more or less: "Long live the guerrillas! Death to the
government! Death to the Judiciales!" And then added later: "Aren't worth
shit!" or "I couldn't give a shit," depending on whether it was the same
hand or another contradictory one. On another building: "Viva la guerrilla.
Queremos ningun partido," meaning "Long live the guerrillas! We don't want
to belong to any political party."
        I am not sure how to assess this graffiti. I saw the same amount of
graffiti per block in San Salvador in 1987, at a time when that city had a
highly developed urban guerrilla force which nearly took the city not too
long afterward. That will not happen here. Something like 22% of Mexico is
desperately marginalized economically, and this village is part of that
marginalization. Open sewer ditches run through it, and there are notices
painted here and there saying something like "Though cleanliness were can
fight cholera."
        People are weak, demoralized, fearful, without profitable work
(untouched by the much touted benefits of NAFTA) and probably completely
unarmed. The graffiti is probably the work of a young hand, one very
isolated voice. But it is also true the villagers here (including the
mayor) have not rushed to remove the writing. It has been there for a month
at least. All of my students have read it and thought about it, it turns
out. The oldest and probably saviest one, a Purepecha indian himself, told
me there was a lot of support for the EZLN in that village. The village
librarian (about 30) scoffed and said the people in the village didn't have
enough education to assess the positions of the EZLN, meaning, I think,
they didn't have enough sense to see through the their propaganda and
should stop brooding about a stupid revolution and washed their children
instead and send them to school and acquire a library -- something like
that.
        Our library in Erongaricuaro, where she is the librarian and where
I teach English Monday and Wednesday nights, is the best of any village in
this cuenca (basin), except for CREFAL's in Patzcuaro (Centro de
Cooperacion Regional para la Educacion de Adultos en America Latina y el
Caribe). It has a computer, printer, and modem, and so there is connection
to the Internet.
        But there is no public money to pay for on-line time, and therefore
access to the outside world of information (educational and medical) is
limited -- a connection the young graffiti writer might benefit from. But
limited access is essentially not non-existent access, if it costs 2.5
pesos a minute ($.29) to be on line, because in 10.8 minutes an Internet
user (our graffiti writer) has exhausted his or her TOTAL average daily
wage of 27 pesos ($3.18). Ideally a government would contribute toward a
fund for such an educational purpose, but that is one of the tragedies of
Mexico: the great absence of disposable public money available for civic
projects at the grass roots level -- because of rampant government
corruption and beccause of the absence of democratic vision and of a sense
of civil responsability in the people who have traditionally governed.
        Tonight we had a my English class over for supper. When their
brains tired from speaking English, we switched over to Spanish. We talked
about the graffiti. We talked about the tradition of controlling
governments keeping information and education from the people who need it
most. Their cynicism runs deep. We agreed that the long-term solution was
more education. I mentioned the idea of starting a local newspaper. One of
my brightest students, an engineering major in Morelia and charming young
woman (roommate of our landlord's oldest daughter, a mathematics whiz),
said that was a way to experience what happened to newspaper editors in
Guadalajara, and then she put one finger to her temple, with the thumb up.
        At the same time that there is Internet connection (without funds),
the old life continues. People go on making dugout canoes (for fishing) in
our village, in the traditional way, hacking away at logs with an adzes,
showering the dry ground with bright chips. They are heavy and, I think,
fairly un-evolved things, straight on the sides, flat on the bottom, with a
raised flat pram-like bow, and square in the stern. The wood is often
green, and so the fishermen store them bottom up on the marsh beside the
lake and spread grass and reeds over them to keep the hot sun from drying
them out and making the wood crack and leak.
        I watched one coming down the straight mile-long channel yesterday.
The boy kneeled in the bow, paddling on one side, then the other. Behind
him, in the cavity of the dugout, he carried a load of long reeds bundled
together tightly in three neat batches, the tips extending out beyond the
stern, harvested from the marsh, to be used in reeding chair seats.
        I greeted him as he slipped by, then walked along bank toward a
maybe two-year old bull that stood in the channel, in water up to his
shoulders, wrapping his tongue around water lily leaves and snaking them,
plus a lot of water, into his mouth. A regular water buffalo, with Viking
horns, I remember thinking -- immensely content with his newly discovered
food source (in this parched land) and probably taking too much of it for
his own good.
        A month or so ago people had rushed by the house and down to the
water, carrying knives. A cow had gotten into the channel and couldn't
manage the high bank and get out again, and drowned. A gang of men pulled
her out and butchered her immediately, sharing the meat. I wondered if my
water buffalo would be able to get out again, bloated on lilies as he was.
        I looped back on my walk a half hour later to see how he was doing.
He greeted me with a low moan that seemed to come from the depths of his
belly, that said, I thought, something like, "I'm glad to see you, I might
need some help." He took a few more lilies for the road, then began lifting
one foot and then the other, in slow motion through the deep, demanding
mud. I thought each step might be his last. But on he came, straight toward
me, each hoof sinking impossibly deep into the mud. Finally he staggered
slow and water lily-heavy up the side of the bank, safe, much darker than
he had been before, and exhausted. I moved toward him to nudge him away
from the place of his excesses, and he started forward, calling out softly
to his lady friends who, with better sense, munched on the stalks of dried
reeds further inland.

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