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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