Letter 9 From Mexico

      
        As I mentioned before, I was planning to return to Zihuatanejo --
on the Pacific coast -- to meet a friend who was visiting from California,
my almost next door neighbor and a member of the men's writing group I
belong to. I drove to Uruapan, stayed in a cheap hotel with parking, walked
through the plaza, impressed again by the bustling nature of Uruapan.
Especially the stores where you can buy every conceivable kind of pistol
holster. The same stores sell everything you might need if your concept of
happiness is being mounted on a horse and looking good. To me it seemed
these were the big items for Mexican men in this area known as the former
avocado and now drug trafficking center of the state of Michoacan.
        The twenty-seater, two engine turbo prop
whined down the runway at 7:30 AM. I had taken a seat in the rear, figuring
that was the part that tended to stay in one piece on impact. Maureen, my
landlady, told me later -- with her usual mixture of teasing glee, laced
with censure that I had flown at all -- that yes of course every one knows
those very planes regularly crash in the mountains between Uruapan and
Lazaro Cardenas. I also chose a place where I could look straight down,
unobstructed by the wing. As we soared out over the Tierra Caliente (the
Hot Country), I once again pressed my nose against the window and re-tested
various theories, like whether I could walk to the coast. And came up with
the same answer: No, I could not.
        At the little Lazaro Cardenas airport building, I had breakfast and
was distracted by a nearby conversation at a little coffee and juice bar
arrangement, where airport employees and officials sat for coffee and to
chat with a pleasant looking woman in her early forties. I knew from my
previous trip she drew quite a following, and I assumed much of the
conversation was one form of flirtation or another, which she tolerated for
the sake of the coffee sales it allowed.
        I perked up my ears. Two clearly working class baggage handlers or
mechanics were exchanging tongue twisters with the hostess, not the kind of
thing you'd expect, say, in the San Francisco airport. I approached them.
They were delighted to explain, spell, and help me write down what they
were saying. Other workers gathered around. "Tres tristes tigres comieron
en un trigal" (three sad tigers ate in a wheat field). Something to say
fast three times. "Pepe pica papas con un pico" (Pepe chops potatoes with a
pick). "Pablito clavo un clavito" (Little Pablo nailed a nail). And then a
nonsense phrase (also perhaps sexist): "Una gordita amigajonadita" (A
little fat girl......and then I checked my biggest dictionary to prevent
myself from repeating something off color, but could find nothing for
"amigahonadita. More knowledgeable people may be snickering right now,
alas).
        When I mentioned that I was living in Erongaricuaro, Michoacan,
they said something like, "Gee, that's a long word," and asked me if knew
of the town called Parangaricutirimicuaro, with an accent over the last
"i". No, I didn't, and we all laughed. They wrote the name for me. It's
more pronounceable broken up into four phrases: Paranga ricu tiri micuaro
-- again, with the one accent over the last "i".
        Someone tapped me on the shoulder. My plane was leaving, and I
could pass through the security check now. I had been in Mexico long enough
to not find it particularly strange that my flight leaving three-quarters
of an hour early, without for a second pondering how it was going to be
tough on someone showing up at the airport at the last minute, hoping to
buy a ticket and take the flight at the scheduled time.
        I said good-bye to my tongue-twisting friends. An American was
saying good-bye to his wife (I assumed) in a voice that was too loud and
with an attitude hard to explain, except that it carried the assumption
with it that everyone spoke American, everyone was a gringo, and everyone
thought it was funny that his wife would hopefully survive a ride in a
small plane in Mexico. I have been thinking about this particular two
engine ten-seater, and I now think the insensitive gringo may have been
partly right about the dependability of the plane.
        I think there is a good chance it was confiscated from narco
traffickers who had used it to transport cocaine from Columbia or El
Salvador toward various jump off points along the US border. It was
well-used, the way a pickup is that carried a lot of loads. Its seats (with
unlockable folding backs) didn't seem to fit it and were bolted down with
non-designer bolts in a solid but clearly jury rigged fashion. I am not
particularly tall, but my head hit the air nozzle above my head. According
to Andres Oppenhemer (whose book on Mexico "Bordering on Chaos" I highly
recommend), small Cessnas like this were used to transship drugs from
Colombia during the 80s. But this one must have been working already in the
seventies. Later the narcotraficantes switched to Boeing 727s and DC-7s,
which were much faster than the Cessnas the Mexican government
anti-narcotic forces used.
        A small company could do worse than to buy a confiscated plane to
use on its route. Our plane may have landed on some fairly rough strips in
its time. Its landing gear no longer retracted, and we flew with them down
all the way to Zihuatanejo. All three of us: the pilot, the gringo's wife,
and me. Fairly low and a good eight miles out to sea, between Lazaro
Cardenas and Zihuatanejo.
        Dianne had asked me to take the bus for that stretch. Her reasoning
was quite correct, of course. As I looked down, I estimated the plane could
glide (without power) for maybe four miles. If I survived the crash, I
would have to swim another four miles -- which I doubted I could do in
waves and God knows what kind of currents. There were no headrests, no life
preservers. No detachable seat cushions. No Coast Guard. No radar tracking
us. There might be sharks -- probably. I comforted myself by reasoning that
both engines were unlikely to quit at the same time and that Mexican
mechanics are no slouches when it comes to keeping things running. While
there was still time, I retracted my still retractable imagination and
decided not to think about contaminated fuel and things like that -- which
could stop both engines -- and instead considered how I would get from the
airport to the town.
        When we landed, I walked past the taxi drivers, left and diagonally
across the parking lot, to the access road. A VW bus colectivo was just
letting airport employees out. I continued until I was out of sight of the
taxi drivers, raised my hand, and the VW did a U-turn, and stopped. I paid
my three pesos (now worth 35 cents, as the peso continues to float lower)
and rode the 30 minutes into town.
        Some men, but mostly young women, some with children, boarded the
colectivo, as we passed through the real countryside and not along the new
tourist Potemkin highway that stretches the seven miles from the airport to
the town ( Field marshal and statesman Potemkin built fake villages to
deceive Catherine the Great about well-being of Russia).
        The women who got on came from extremely modest homes, a room or
two, most with nothing more than a concrete slab for a floor, some surely
only of dirt. The women were clean, well-groomed and attractively dressed.
They wore clothing that was spotless, no small task in circumstances where
there is probably no running water or water that has to be hauled over a
long distance and even then is often not clean. Only their shoes tended to
be soiled, from walking down dirt paths, sometimes through mud, to reach
the paved road and the colectivo.
        Because of the fashion, skirts that young campesino women would put
on to go to town or to a job tend to be cut high, and so when they sit on
the high benches of the colectivo, they have to press their knees together
and hold their hands folded partly between their thighs to protect their
modesty. Men's eyes seemed not to stray toward the bare unshaven but smooth
legs (Indian women tend not to have hair on their legs, mestizo women do),
as if that direction were off bounds. The women were giving the proper
social signals, and that was enough to protect them in the close quarters
of the colectivo.
        The young woman I am thinking about as I write this could not have
been thirty, but she looked as if she had already done a life time's manual
labor -- already far more than her share. Somehow I was struck by this
posture, by the enormous effort that went into being clean, looking as
well-dressed as one could be, and at the same time remaining dignified,
modest, proper, and beyond whispered or unspoken reproach -- by her effort,
even if only for a moment, to be equal in a world where she was not equal.
        I suppose she was on her way to work in someone's house. She had no
shopping bag to indicate she was going shopping; she got off long before
Zihuatanejo. She would be earning the minimum wage, about 27 pesos or
around $3.18 if she worked eight hours. That meant she probably had at
least two jobs: running a family and working -- what the Germans call
Doppelbelastung, the double burden, while her husband would have at least
one and, if he was lucky, one or two more.
        Her eyes were large and too wise and contained too much memory. Her
face was handsome, but looked as if it had been beaten. She was, I thought,
like hundreds of thousands of poor women in Latin America (and just about
everywhere else), who struggle, and often fail, to control their
reproductive rights, grow old before their time from overwork, and who try
to make the best of a relationship with a man who is often the victim of
macho assumptions. He may resent her working outside the house and feel
emasculated, even though her work is necessary for the family's survival,
and so he drinks and becomes abusive, and she has to struggle to retain her
honor and reputation, because all is lost if that is taken from her.
        I do not have a lot of hope for this young Zihuatanejan woman and
others like her, unless the distant direct link between her and the World
Bank (WB) and its sister institution the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
and organizations like GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), now
evolved into the World Trade Organization (WTO), changes .
        This woman does not receive the many benefits of the state
(adequate health care, education, legal protection, job training) because
so much of Mexico's wealth goes to pay the interest on the national debt,
let alone the debt itself.
        And I do not believe the wealth created by NAFTA will trickle down
to her. The IMF lends more money (which probably never leaves New York) to
governments so they can make their debt payments -- on the condition that
they impose Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs). In Mexico's case, this
means cuts in price supports for beans and tortillas, cuts in education,
health care, infra-structure (road construction, sewage treatment, running
clean water, hospital construction, etc.).
        According to one source ("Me LLeva el TLC," El Fisgon (Rafael
Barajas), grijalbo Press, 1993) Latin America's debt was $ 222.5 billion in
1980. In the following ten years it paid $ 366 billion in interest alone.
After the debt re negotiation of 1990, the subcontinent still owed $ 423
billion in debt. In other words, the debt nearly doubled in that time and
appears unpayable.
        And so, I have to ask myself, how can Mexico spend money on
building a domestic industry that can compete with the US and transnational
powers that are descending on it? With NAFTA and the in-the-works Tratado
de Inversiones Multilateral (TIM: The Multilateral Treaty on Investments)?
"the Americans are coming!", and that's all there is to it -- enough to
make any good recovering Leftist turn over mumbling in his ideological
grave.
        As a market for US goods, Mexico is under an intensive, massive
attack. Almost every Mexican is watching the TV, and this young woman in
the colectivo -- I will call her Miriam -- she sees the Hollywood movies,
she knows K-Mart is coming or that it's already here, McDonalds is coming,
Burger King, GAP will be here, Block Buster Video, ITT, Gillette -- all of
them. And with cheap dish antennae that will soon be available here she
will see even more.
                She has seen all the advertising for available US products
on "Mirada de Mujer" (a soap which is now about a woman's right to divorce
a traditionally authoritarian, abusive husband). Soon she will see CNN and
hear different versions of the news. This will make it harder for the
Mexican government to put out intentionally confusing theories about
Chiapas, massive fraud, the Colosio and Ruiz Massieu assassinations and
their ties to the Salinas brothers (Raul and the former president Carlos).
With NAFTA (according to Oppenheimer in "Bordering On Chaos") the US
Congress will be involved to one extent or another, and this may be the
independent authority which will speak to conditions in Mexico and exert
pressure for movement toward a more transparent and accountable democracy.

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