La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, I

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part I

Published in The Noise, Fall 2012

Arizona’s southern border with Mexico has an ubiquitous presence in state politics. Financially, the state benefits from it, receiving an influx of countless hundreds of millions of dollars from federal law enforcement programs, in addition to the sales tax paid by the droves of trans-border shoppers from Mexico. Politically, our lawmakers decry it, using fear tactics and stoking xenophobia to win elections and grab national headlines. 

And yet despite its huge influence, we seldom ask ourselves the questions just under the surface: just who decided the location of the border? When was the familiar rectangle outline of Arizona first drawn? Geographically, just what is the United States anyway? 

The answer is as not as simple as any politician would prefer. The truth is that throughout its 236-year history the United States has been an amorphous presence on the world map, framed by superimposed boundaries which are constantly shifting. 

Before even considering historical examples, we ponder the shape of the United States today. Is it the familiar outline of the continental U.S., framed by dual peninsulas in the east, ragged coastlines in the south, a swooping demarcation on the north and the bulge of the west coast? Sure. But digging only slightly deeper complicates the issue substantially. 

First, what about Hawaii and Alaska, which appear only on the margins of our maps? Surely they are also the U.S. But Puerto Rico? The Minor Outlying Islands? Then there’s the territory controlled by our uncountable hundreds (literally––no one knows how many) of military installations worldwide. Is that ours too? 

All of this is still leaving out the realm of political influence and international commercial-cultural relationships, which would of course further widen what could be considered to be the geographic area controlled by the U.S. 

If this undeniably complex web of geopolitics could be summed up in a single phrase, it would be this: our borders are migratory. Like people, they are in constant movement, following opportunity and responding to necessity. 

To arrive at the drawing of Arizona, we begin with the most well-known period of our country’s border-flux: the explosion of expansion from 1783 to 1848. In just 65 years the U.S. went from holding only the territory encompassed by the original thirteen states to controlling the entire middle section of the North American continent. 

How did it happen? Short answer: rapidly and by any means necessary. Though the details of every acquisition differ slightly, they are all variations on a theme of cunning and military-economic might. Before the how is the why––why move the border every few years during the course of a generation? 

John O’Sullivan, editor of Washington’s Democratic Review, famously addressed the motivation and justification in 1845, framing it as “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

He had coined the term that captured perfectly the national sentiment––soon senators and congressmen were alining themselves with the “doctrine of Manifest Destiny.” In essence, there wasn’t reason to look into it too deeply. The country deserved the continent basically because, well, our God said so. 

However, the roots of the U.S.’s expansionist philosophy do indeed run deep. Among the best examinations is Frederick Turner’s 1993 book Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness. According to Turner, “the true story of Western exploration, and thus of America, is a spiritual one. It has its basis not in technology… but rather in the history of that mythology that tied the West together into a quarrelsome, unloving, but nevertheless recognizable unit.” 

He calls his work a “spiritual history [that is] necessarily tentative,” but asserts that “at last it is founded on that surest of realities: the human spirit and its dark necessity to realize itself through body and place.”

Deep enough for you yet? 

Let’s turn back to the Copper State. After at least ten millennia of indigenous history that included complex cultures such as the Hohokam [see LOA: Natives…], Europeans came to permanently reside in Pimería Alta––as the area was known––in the 1730’s, and even then they were few, mostly all Jesuits recruited from German states.

Distant bloody battles and political machinations culminated in Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821. What is now Arizona was crossed by the borders of the Mexican states of Sonora, Alta California, Nuevo México and a bit of Chihuahua and had a non-indigenous population of perhaps 1,000. Meanwhile, a diverse number of indigenous cultures continued their control of the area outside the Santa Cruz river valley. This, despite centuries of enduring the ravages of viruses that had arrived to the area from Europe even before the Europeans themselves did, thanks to the high communicability of the viruses and the efficiency of the long-standing native trading networks. 

Trade was also what brought the first Anglo-Americans into what is now the Southwest. Restrictions had been relaxed following Mexico’s independence, and by 1824 the first of the great wagon trains was blazing the Santa Fe trail to the Mexican settlements. Far from a national capital that was consumed with a myriad of political problems, the Mexicans welcomed the manufactured goods in exchange for their gold, silver and furs. Thus the U.S. immediately began brokering influence with the area, already looking to push its border past the limits of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. 

By the mid 1840’s, with the idea of Manifest Destiny dancing inside them, politicians in the U.S. set their ambitions firmly on the Pacific––only the coastline could provide the definitive U.S. border. As for the territory in between (read: New Mexico and Arizona), logic said it should come along too. 

Only one thing stood in the way: a half-million square miles of sovereign Mexico. Our story of migratory borders continues next month. 

For further reading:
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2005.
Officer, James E. Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856, 1987.
Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War, 1975.

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, II

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part II (Guadalupe-Hidalgo)

ublished in The Noise, Fall 2012

There’s no getting around it: Arizona was once part of Mexico. Together with the looming water shortages, it is the inconvenient truth that is ever-present in Arizona politics. That which we don’t want to talk about and is yet omnipresent––making us either  uncomfortable or resentful, but always lending just the right amount of irony to the anti-immigration rhetoric spewed by state politicians. 

But that was then, they say, this is now. What’s the big deal? 

The Deal is that the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 did more to shape the destiny of North America than any single incident since the landing of Columbus. Consciously or not, we’re still struggling to come to terms with its consequences. 

The war, and specifically the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that followed it, is the key moment in the U.S.’s rise to superpower status––or an early victory of budding U.S. imperialism, depending on which vocabulary you’d prefer to use. 

Oh, and the majority of what was later to become Arizona was won by the United States during the conflict. The borders of Mexican states and indigenous societies that had crisscrossed the territory were suddenly erased from the map. With the stroke of a pen in a distant capital city, Arizona was on the way to becoming the political entity that we know today. 

Interesting, then, that the war registers as barely a blip on the historical radar of the U.S. populace, and hardly more than that here in Arizona. Meanwhile, in Mexico, it’s a different story. The First American Intervention––as the conflict is also known––factors hugely in national history, patriotic legends, and self-image. That contrast alone is telling, but there’s much more to be learned about ourselves and our state from even a few of the anecdotes from 1847.

Not that there’s room here to fully address the history. Entire books can––and have––been written on the subject. Instead, we’ll look at a few details that are particularly relevant to our story of the malleable, migratory and often blurry borders that outline Arizona. 

Though California and Texas were well-known to citizens of the U.S. in the 1840’s, the term New Mexico barely factored into the national consciousness, and Arizona not at all. The name which we have grown to know and love was then used only to describe a small region southeast of Nogales, and its etymology is a source of debate. Indeed, the winning of Arizona was incidental in the push to own the coast of California, fueled and justified by the spiritual-cum-political doctrine of Manifest Destiny. (See part I of this LOA series)

The inexact nature of borders had everything to do with the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Texas had been a proxy in the U.S.-Mexico conflict since the moment that the latter country gained independence, and its southern limit a matter of dispute. The border was literally in two different places at once, depending on which country you asked. 

The U.S. President Polk moved troops into the area claimed by Mexico in 1845, and soon decried Mexican aggression when shots broke out early the following year. It was an eery foreshadowing of the justifications for later U.S. wars––think Gulf of Tonkin or weapons of mass destruction.

By March 1847 General Winfield Scott was making the first major amphibious assault in U.S. military history on the Mexican port of Veracruz, and from there leading the march to Mexico City. Interestingly, this was nearly the exact route taken a few centuries earlier by the conquistador Hernán Cortés in his invasion of Mexico on behalf of a growing empire. Scott advanced in a bloody campaign marked by widespread disease and mass desertions of soldiers from both sides, but was victorious and officially occupied Mexico City for the U.S. for nearly six months. If a map had been drawn of U.S. territory then, what would it have looked like? 

The terms of Guadalupe-Hidalgo were negotiated while the autocratic Mexican President Santa Anna had a gun to his head (almost literally). Mexico would turn over more than half of its territory to the U.S. in exchange for $15 million dollars. By paying for the territory, the U.S. was able to call the “Mexican Cession” a purchase rather than a conquest and thus assuage its conscience. Not that any money actually exchanged hands, though––the $15 million was simply applied against the enormous debt that Mexico owed to the U.S. at the time. 

Conveniently, the year after California became part of the U.S., giant gold deposits were discovered there. This jumpstarted the first push of U.S. citizens into their new territory, an estimated 300,000 people total. In only first five years of the gold rush, 370 tons of the metal was extracted––that’s roughly $668 million in 1854 dollars or more than $16 billion in 2010 dollars. 

So you could say the U.S. got a good deal. And that’s the crux of Guadalupe-Hidalgo’s relevance today. The enormous natural wealth of western North America is what shot the young United States onto the world stage as a major power. 

It is the same phenomena that had transformed Europe into a globally dominant force centuries before, when the Spanish took the vast gold works of the conquered indigenous empires, melted them down into ingots and shipped them across the Atlantic.

It’s not a stretch to say then that the first world was created thanks to the wealth of las Américas. 

And boom. Manifest Destiny manifested, right? Sea-to-shining-sea? With its appetite for expansionism satiated, the U.S. could relax into its continental crib, no more need for interventions or purchases… right?

Our story of borders-on-the-march continues next month, just south of Arizona’s Gila River. 

 

For further reading:
Officer, James E. Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856, 1987.
Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War, 1975.
Zinn, Howard. “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.” A People’s History of the United States, 1980.

 

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part III

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part III (Gadsden)

Published in The Noise, Fall 2012

We live in a time when most talk of the border between Mexico and the United States revolves around how best to fortify it. A higher wall? A dual-wall system a-la Palestine? A “virtual fence” of cameras and motion detectors? But what about environmental impact? The humanitarian costs? 

Border fortifications are a political chess piece, bandied out at opportune moments by purveyors of fear-motivated politics. John McCain’s last reelection campaign prominently featured a television commercial which depicted the incumbent senator walking near Nogales with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. Filmed in gritty, high-contrast close ups, the ad’s dialog is precious:

McCain: “Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder.”

Babeu: “We’re outmanned. With all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona.” 

McCain: “Have we got the right plan?”

Babeu: “Plan’s perfect. We bring troops, local and county law enforcement together.”

McCain: “And complete the danged fence.”

Babeu: “It’ll work this time. Senator, you’re one of us.”

We’ll set aside for a moment the disingenuous rhetorical connection made between “illegals” and violent crime. We’ll even disregard the fact that now Mr. Babeu is under investigation for allegedly using his positional power to leverage sex and silence from at least one Mexican lover. All these are symptoms of a wider moral corruption and simplification of context when it comes to discussing the border. Let’s dig deeper––even if maybe it might work this time, do we know where to build the danged fence?

Under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Arizona ended at the Gila river, just south of modern Phoenix. (See part II of this LOA series.) It was a convenient natural demarcation, the Gila being one of the most important rivers in the area, second only to the mighty Colorado. And yet when driving down I-10 we roll over the sucked-dry river without so much as noticing––where’s the Border Patrol? 

They’re 100 miles south, of course, patrolling a straight line drawn just north of 31º longitude, a line devoid of any natural barriers. Huh?

Throughout this series we’ve taken the long view and watched the borders as they leap, stumble and fight their way across North America and beyond. Far from being a firm, pseudo-geographical limit, the indecisive “U.S. border” moved nearly once a decade for over sixty years. 

This brings us to 1853. How did the border suddenly migrate south from the Gila to its present position? Short answer: by railroad. 

Just a few years after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Mexico in 1848, it became obvious that the bureaucrats who drew up the “Mexican Cession” had made a mistake. They hadn’t taken enough territory. Sure, Mexico had just “sold” some 55% of its land for a song, but there still wasn’t enough room for the U.S. to build an all-weather transcontinental railroad along its new southern edge from sea-to-shining-sea. 

Sure, there were already two other railroad routes that would span the continent, but they had the Rocky Mountains to deal with. For the mid-nineteenth century businessmen-politicians still high on Manifest Destiny, strapping the land down with iron rails was something of a spiritual quest. After all, gold had just been discovered in California. Lots of it. 

So the U.S. brought Mexican President Santa Anna back to the table in Mexico City, sat him down with James Gadsden and set about “negotiating” another land sale. Context is everything here. By and large the Mexican people were furious with Santa Anna for Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The new treaty had to be discussed in secret in order to avoid a popular uprising against the president. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the calls continued for the young country to just avoid future complications and take all of Mexico.

Gadsden––a railroad man, of course––was sent from Washington by President Franklin Pierce with five different offers. One would acquire almost an additional half of Mexico, putting the border somewhere south of Sonora. Another would push the border south of the pueblo of Tucson, and include all of Baja California as well. In the end, the smallest proposal won the day, and the U.S. paid $10 million for the sliver of land from the Mesilla valley in New Mexico to Yuma in eastern Arizona.

Not that either Gadsden nor Santa Anna knew the land they were talking about. The final version of the agreement provided for a bilateral survey expedition to figure out where exactly the border was. 

The Boundary Commission set out through unknown territory, looking to settle the debates that had been raging among surveyors and politicians since Guadalupe-Hidalgo, all of whom had been imagining the line in various places according to differing measurements. It had been nearly a decade since the beginning of the Mexican-American war when the final location of the border was decided upon in 1856.

The point is to keep all this in mind, especially in an election year. Politicians will mention the border in terms of permanence and threat, proposing that more defense contracts might work this time. 

But when studying the history, we realize that what happens on the border rarely begins there. The problems start with the doctrines held in the hearts of both countries, not the consequences found at their edges. 

It follows then that solutions should begin internally as well. Looking at our border, we can choose to see malleability and possibility, opening ourselves up to new, deeper solutions that surely stand a much better chance of working. 

 

For further reading:
Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War, 1975.
Zinn, Howard. “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.” A People’s History of the United States, 1980.

La Otra Arizona: There Was a Time When Water Ran from Faucets

It’s the proverbial gila monster in the room––that thing that everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about. The uncomfortable fact, in plain view: in our lifetime we will see vast water shortages in Arizona. The water is running out. But when exactly will sand flow from the faucet? Nobody can be sure, and many that study the issue have a vested interest in placing the date as far into the future as possible. Complex issues like the unreliability of desert water supplies aren’t a great selling point for real estate, and in a state whose primary industries are tied to constant population growth, common sense is often chided as alarmism.

The general consensus seems to be that after 2025, things are going to begin to get rough. While that date has a far-off, futuristic ring to it, 2025 is only 13 years away. As a recent report from Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy puts it, “Today there are a host of new challenges on the horizon—particularly the horizon after the mid-2020s.” The report, entitled Watering the Sun Corridor: Managing Choices in Arizona’s Megapolitan Area, continues:

… Climate change may further stress an already stretched water supply. Future variability may outstrip the storage systems built to manage the past. Agriculture may disappear. The return of rapid population growth will likely necessitate dramatic changes in lifestyle, particularly the lifestyle of desert dwellers at the high end of the socioeconomic ladder.

The “Sun Corridor” referred to in the report is the coming amalgamation of the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas, expected to connect through three counties and across over 30,000 square miles, forming a megalopolis of nearly eight million people by 2030 and nine million just ten years later in 2040. That’s an 82.5% increase from the 2005 population of the same area, which was then just about five million––scared yet?

While the numbers may be frightening, it doesn’t make much sense to run and hide, to continue to bliss out in our ignorance. Rather, the numbers implore us to get curious––how did we get here? Does the water use in our neighborhoods really reflect our values? Are we content to continue to drive at full speed toward the impending dry desert cliff?

An immensely important exploration of these questions is found in Marc Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, which is something like the Fast Food Nation of the West’s water crisis. It is one of those books that should be on a required reading list for anyone interested in moving here from back east. They would quickly learn some important context regarding the Colorado River, one of the protagonists in the West’s water story:

One could almost say, then, that the history of the Colorado River contains a metaphor for our time. One could say that the age of great expectations was inaugurated at Hoover Dam––a fifty-year flowering of hopes when all things appeared possible. And one could say that, amid the salt-encrusted sands of the river’s dried-up delta, we began to founder on the Era of Limits.

The arrival of that Era should come as a surprise to no one. On a planet containing a closed global ecosystem, nothing can grow forever. All natural systems are interconnected through their uses of cyclical rhythms: expansion and contraction, inhalation and exhalation. Only humans have built a society based on the tenet that constant expansion is absolutely necessary for our species’ survival, and that any movement in the opposite direction implies crisis.

Therefore Arizona once again presents itself as a laboratory, a testing ground for what will later happen worldwide, when the fifty-year flowering of our linear system collides with a definite and circular reality. The hypothesis of infinite richness will eventually come face to face with the laws of scarcity––and we’ll have front row seats.

It isn’t any surprise that the guardians of the status quo would read all of this as fear-mongering. For anyone with a vested interest in our civilization’s current course, it is easier to press the gas pedal ever-harder, rather than pausing to consider other routes. Indeed, you be the judge: the more you find yourself alarmed at this analysis, the more likely that it is that you’re standing too close to the problem to be able to see a possible solution.

We could be scared, yes. Or we could decide that instead of clutching ever-harder onto The Way Things Are, we’ll spend that energy moving towards another possible scenario, one in which a single generation’s flowering of industry and ephemeral profit gives way to a generations-long birthing of a wider understanding of what it means to be human.

The impending water shortage is just another product of Arizona’s powerful Irony Industry, the sector dedicated to manufacturing potent juxtapositions and striking contrasts. In this case: the fastest-growing state in the nation is the state with the fewest water reserves. Creatures made of over 70% h2O have decided to use drinking water to flush their toilets. In one generation a desert civilization will use up aquifers that took eons to form, drop by drop percolating through the alluvial soil.

So yes, by all means please flush your toilet less and harvest the rainwater that runs off your roof. Tear up your lawn and embrace the strange and ancient native plants of our tierra. Learn any one of a dozen small habits that save thousands of gallons a year, but don’t think that these alone will avoid the “dramatic changes in lifestyle” coming to a city near you in the late 2020’s.

Do all those things, yes, but do more––help imagine La Otra Arizona, comprised of a culture that understands scarcity as natural and doesn’t expect the infinite. Otherwise, we’ll be left to tell our grandchildren stories that begin there once was a time when water flowed with the turn of a knob…

La Otra Arizona: Of Saguaros and Tumbleweeds

Originally published in The Noise, 2012.

In the Sonoran Desert, no calendar is needed to know that May has turned to June, and that we face a long dry stretch before we can count on tasting the delicious monsoon rains. Across central and southern Arizona the season is marked by the blooming of the saguaro cactus, the plants covered with thousands of the white pedals of our state flower. While many other species such as the palo verde tree have already finished flowering and are set on conserving energy during the dry spell, others such as the saguaro and mesquite defy the conditions through intense displays of their libidos. In fact, the mesquite tree is known to bloom even more intensely during years of drought––creating extra seeds in case the adult plants die of thirst.

It is during their bloom that saguaros have the best chance of catching the attention of the jaded urbanites that live in their midst. Despite its willingness to pose for tourist cameras and to be used as the catch-all symbol of Arizona and indeed the entire southwestern United States, carnegiea gigantea is seldom considered by those who live with it everyday in Tucson and Phoenix.

This is the common fate of many plants-turned-symbols of our area. Consider also the tumbleweed, also known as russian thistle. Despite its ubiquitous appearances as an extra in Hollywood Westerns, the origin story and context of salsola tragus itself is rarely told. First a stowaway on ships carrying grain from eurasia, tragus appeared relatively recently on our continent, being first noticed in South Dakota in the 1880’s.

Though linked in our collective imagination, the saguaro and the tumbleweed are fundamentally different plants. Everything about the saguaro speaks to a certain permanence. Fifty-five years passed before the saguaros in the Tucson Mountains bloomed for the first time, and few sprouted arms before the age of 75. The oldest of these cacti are thought to be over 250 years old––though we wouldn’t know, since our number-counting science hasn’t been here that long.

And though there is no example of absolute permanence, the saguaro certainly lives on a timescale that is other than human. It is curious, then, that we so commonly anthropomorphize them, even at the most basic level: we call the stems arms, and the woody inner structure skeletons that are made of ribs. Across Tucson, every December, many cacti are seen wearing Santa Claus hats.

Even our poets frequently examine the saguaro as if it were human. Consider this excerpt from the poem “Saguaro” by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

If it takes you a hundred years to grow your first arm for how long do your feel the sensation of craving something new?

The Tohono O’odham––those humans who have known the saguaro the longest––know the plant as hash’an and also tell a story of its once being human. They hold the plant at the center of their culture, considering a new year to begin with the “Saguaro Harvest Moon” of late June or early July, when they traditionally live in temporary camps in the saguaro forests, gathering the ripened fruit with long poles fashioned from saguaro ribs.

Meanwhile the tumbleweed is a lesson in mobility, impermanence and rootlessness. Often growing two to four feet in a single season, the plants wait until their seeds are fully formed, and then purposely detach from their taproot, allowing the wind to roll their skeletons and distribute their seeds. Thus the plant is known as chamizo volador in Spanish and also as wind witch in English.

As European Americans moved into the Southwest, so did the tumbleweed. The relationship between “development” and the tumbleweed runs deep, since the plant’s seeds require disturbed ground in order to take root. And so they are most commonly seen in agricultural fields and along road shoulders. While the saguaro’s primary enemy today is real estate development, the tumbleweed must rejoice at the rumble of a bulldozer.

The thermometers jump and linger above 105º, the saguaro flowers ripen into fruit, and the tumbleweeds and backhoes roll on––another summer in Arizona. But which Arizona?  The land of tradition and myth symbolized by the saguaro, or the cheap land deals and boom-bust economic cycles where the tumbleweed thrives?

Though often presented side-by-side, these two symbols represent two differing visions for our state’s next 100 years––visions that will continue to be explored in future editions of La Otra Arizona. Until then, watch the blossoms burst and for Salsola Tragus, that

tierra-tragante, disturbante, compadre of dust.
Circle seed-spitter, tumbling thistle.
Salsola, que solo sale, sal sol que le quiere ver.

Stow-away in grain crop seeds.
Unsettling settler, wagon wheel automaton.

Gluttonous globalizer, coat-tailer of developer,
carpetbag colonializer, hugger of highway shoulder.
Plaque of bulldozer teeth, pubes of pavement.

Allergen, argonaut,
continental heir, thorned air,
wind witch, chamizo volador,
terreno violador, conquistador.

Eurasian mar-andante, noxious navigator,
Bering Strait shooter, Russian random thistle,
stock trope exploding across freeway grill.

Wagon trains, steamboats, railroads,
interstates, bus lines, sky harbors.

Telegraph, heliograph, telephone,
radio, broadband, satellite.

Salsola tragus, drifting along,
I know when night has gone
that a new world’s born at dawn.

––excerpted from The Sonoran Strange.

For further reading:

Phillips, Steven J., Wentworth Comus, Patricia, eds. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press: Tucson. University of California Press: Berkeley. 2000.

Turner, Frederick. Of Chiles, Cacti, and Fighting Cocks: Notes on the American West. Fulcrum Publishing: Golden, Colorado. 1990, 2004.

La Otra Arizona: SB1070 and the Chinese Exclusion Act

Part four of La Otra Arizona series.

This month the Supreme Court is expected to take on Arizona’s SB1070, the now-infamous immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in 2010. As with any Supreme Court case, SB1070 has traveled a long road of litigation to get to this point: decisions by lower courts, injunctions, appeals, etc. Now we’re headed toward the final decision––perhaps.

The court’s ruling will be on what is essentially a technicality, a question of states’ rights. Does each state in the Union have the right to set its own immigration policy, or is that the sole purview of the federal government, as the constitution seems to assert? Many across the nation await the Court’s answer to that question, as 1070-style legislation has been enacted in other states such as Alabama and “self deportation” becomes an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign.

However, debating such a complex situation as immigration in such a narrow manner omits some crucial background to the question. What got us to this point, anyway? What has been Arizona’s relationship to immigrants for the 159 years since becoming a US territory in 1853? What groups were considered to be immigrants, and which groups were given a free pass to homestead wherever they liked? While there isn’t space here to fully explore those questions, much can be learned from one example given to us by Arizona history.

The first villains in the tale of Arizona’s “immigration problem” weren’t Mexican, they were Chinese. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived to the western United States in the last half of the nineteenth century, coming mostly from the area near Canton in the coastal region of the Guandong Province. They came across the Pacific because of economics––crushing poverty in their homeland and the lure of seemingly endless jobs in the US, building the transcontinental railroads, working in mines, restaurants and laundries.

By the 1870’s, after the they had finished building the first national transportation system in the US, these workers continued to face the anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping through the young United States. This xenophobia was codified by such laws as the Page Act of 1875, which was an attempt to stop Chinese prostitutes from entering the country. Since most Chinese women were assumed to work as prostitutes, the law effectively barred almost all Chinese women from legal entry to the US. This legislative impulse culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred entry to all except those who worked in a few professions.

However, there existed a loophole: while Chinese were prevented from arriving from China to the US directly, they could still legally arrive via Mexico. Even after the loophole was closed in 1884, the southern US border continued to be a popular point of entry. Indeed, the Chinese were the first group to be denied legal entry to the US based solely on their nationality––they were the country’s first “illegal immigrants.”

Once anything is declared illegal, enforcement can’t be far behind. The modern US Border Patrol has its roots in the “Chinese Inspectors” first appointed in 1891.

The Anti-Chinese movement in Arizona predated the federal legislation, however. An 1869 headline in Prescott read “MORE CHINAMEN––Three more Chinamen arrived here during the week, and have gone to work. There are now four of them which is quite enough.” Nevertheless, their population continued to grow, in 1879 the same paper declared “Prescott has about 75 or 80 Chinamen, which is 75 or 80 too many. Now is a good time to get rid of them.”

Racist editorials in Arizonan newspapers have a long history indeed. In the 1880’s the Tombstone Epitaph, whose editor and former Apache Indian agent John Clum also organized an Anti-Chinese League to “rid the town of evil.” An aspiring politician, Clum was an early example of an attempt to curry xenophobia into support for a political campaign. In 2003 another Tombstone newspaper was carrying anti-immigrant headlines, such as “Enough is Enough! A Public Call to Arms!” but this time the villains were Mexican and the editor was Chris Simcox, founder of a Minuteman-related group.

This Arizonan pattern isn’t hard to pick out. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Governor Jan Brewer and Senator John McCain have all used fear of an immigrant invasion to help them win elections in recent years. Sex sells, but fear wins elections.

Whatever decision the Supreme Court makes on 1070, Arizona will still be forced to address the fact that we live in a border state that belonged to another country just a few generations ago. Framing immigration as a “problem to be solved” is a symptom of historical nearsightedness, and only serves politicians on the campaign trail and businesspeople in the board room.

In the wider context of immigration in Arizona, 1070 is just one thread in a much larger tapestry. If we want to deal with this reality, we’ll work towards understanding immigration as a complex web of issues interwoven with the individual experiences of intelligent and capable human beings. No state or federal law is going to “solve” this––it’s up to us to reimagine what it means to live in a border state entering its second century. It is exciting and unavoidable work.

For further reading:

Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands.

Luckingham, Bradford. Minorities in Phoenix a Profile of Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 1860-1992.

Meeks, Eric V. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans and Anglos in Arizona.

Sheridan, Thomas. Arizona: A History.

La Otra Arizona: Natives, Transplants and Those Who Came Before

Are you a native Arizonan? Were your grandparents natives? As centennial celebrations continue in Arizona, this word keeps coming up––native––but not in the way that one would expect.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that in Arizona, the word native is more frequently used to describe people born here, rather than people who have indigenous roots in the area. After all, the majority of our population has arrived only in the last few decades, attracted by the sunshine and cheap land. These transplants––as they’re frequently called by natives––are simply not from here.

The word history comes to us via Latin from the Greek historia, meaning “finding out, narrative.” History is the story we tell ourselves, and in telling the story, the words we choose do matter. Though technically correct, this use of native in Arizona is laced with irony––even the oldest Anglo families in Arizona haven’t lived here more than 150 years, a mere blink of the eye in the long unfolding of the human story. Celebration of the centennial is by nature an Anglo affair, as it observes the anniversary of the enshrinement their right to this territory. Though ceremonial nods are given to the “diverse people of Arizona,” an honest discussion of race and class is avoided at all cost  by those officiating the celebrations.

And for good reason: once it is contrasted with the indigenous tradition in Arizona, 100 years is suddenly exposed as being an incredibly short amount of time.

We can begin to understand this fact by looking at any of the indigenous groups in Arizona, but the most dramatic example of the longevity of human presence here is given to us by the Hohokam.

Not that they called themselves Hohokam. As with so many other groups––Navajo and Apache among them––the name we use for the Hohokam was put upon them by a people who came later, or were outside their culture. In this case, hohokam comes from an O’odham word frequently translated as “those who came before,” alluding to their long presence here.

How long? Uninterrupted for at least 1,000 years, beginning at the latest in AD 450. The highly-developed culture thrived along the Gila River, especially where it meets the Salt in what is today known as the Phoenix Basin. They are known as desert agriculturalists and master irrigators, distributing water from the river through canals as large as ten feet wide, fifteen feet deep and twenty-two miles long, with a precise slope of eight feet per mile. In total, the Hohokam carved more than four hundred miles of canals using wooden digging sticks and without the aid of animals.

There is also evidence that the Hohokam were expert geneticists, developing plants well-suited to their needs and well-adapted to the harsh desert climate. Populations of a particular species of agave cactus, agave murpheyi, have only been found near sites of ancient indigenous occupation, and are so similar that they are suspected to be a single genetic clone. Along with agave delamateri, this domesticated plant was cultivated from modern Caborca, Sonora all the way to New River, Arizona. The Hohokam pit-roasted the agaves, using them for food, fiber and probably other uses unknown to us.

With more than 70,000 acres of land under cultivation in the Salt River Valley alone, the Hohokam rarely lacked food, and evidence suggests that they rarely hunted or even ate meat. This food security allowed them to pursue other endeavors––like building the first sky scrapers in Arizona, such as at the famous site in Casa Grande. Its ruins still visible today, the Great House was a four-story adobe structure, perhaps used for astronomy and ceremony.

The Hohokam also had close cultural and commercial ties to other mesoamerican civilizations. Like their southern neighbors, the Hohokam placed great importance on the ritual ball game, which was played throughout Las Américas; they constructed courts for the game across the lands that they occupied.

At its peak, the Hohokam population in what is now Arizona reached as high as 400,000 people. The state wouldn’t again reach that many inhabitants until 1928. There are many theories as to why the culture dissolved around AD 1400. Some point to decreased availability of water due to climate change, or perhaps salt buildup due to over-irrigation. Others believe that European diseases such as measles and smallpox may have arrived before the Europeans themselves did, transmitted ahead of the conquistadores by indigenous traders moving along millennial trading routes. The diseases decimated the population here as elsewhere in Las Américas.

The effectiveness of the Hohokam canals in irrigating the rich alluvial soil of the Basin was still obvious more than four hundred years later when Anglo first arrived and began to clean out and restore the waterways for their own farming. Their first crops were used to feed the soldiers stationed at the new Fort McDowell, founded in 1865 to help secure the the territory seized from Mexico after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

The modern city of Phoenix is of course named after the bird of Egyptian mythology who immolates itself at the end of its life, and whose offspring rise from the ashes. Europeans thought the name fitting, since their city was “rising from the ashes” of a failed civilization.

However, where some saw only emptiness and ashes, a legacy exists. The organization that has made modern Phoenix possible, the Salt River Project, was founded on the appropriation of indigenous technology, the Hohokam canals. And the decedents of the Hohokam continue to live in the state to this day.

And so they give us another gift––the chance to put the triumphant centennial celebrations in a context of their millennial civilization, and to rethink just exactly who deserves to call themselves a native Arizonan, and who is merely a transplant, grasping for roots.

For further reading:

Phillips, Steven J., Wentworth Comus, Patricia, eds. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. 2000.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. 1986, 1993.

Sheridan, Thomas E. Arizona: A History, Rev. ed. 2012.

Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War. 1975.

Saguaro Rib & Ocotillo Antenna: Images From Sonora’s El Pinacate

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This is another article in a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques.

The ocotillo are antennas. They bloom from volcanic cinders. Near the horizon, a granite mountain range shimmers, submerged in an old lava flow. Ribcages of saguaros stand on black earth. The cholla were dancing. They’re standing still now. There is no sound. There is a feeling of drowning in the depths of sky.

The name of this place haunts the imagination of any desert lover. El Pinacate is a mirage, once discussed but seldom visited. That is changing now. Declared a national park by the Mexican government in 1993 after over a decade of lobbying by scientists and environmentalists, La Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is together with Saguaro National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument one of the most important protected areas of the expansive Sonoran desert.

El Pinacate is frequently called the heart of the Sonoran desert. The volcanic geology gives it an edge, a rawness that evokes the force of the earth, the push of blood. And as park director Federico Godines Leal points out, seen from a satellite, the area even takes the shape of a heart––not the Valentines’ kind, the muscle kind. “And it looks that way from either the south or the north,” he says, a shine in his eyes. There’s a heaviness about this place that makes a visitor feel like he or she is at the center of something.

One of the first known Europeans to see this place was the Italian Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino at the end of the 17th century. What he saw from atop the Pinacate peak changed the world: the first proof that Baja California was actually a peninsula, not an island as was widely believed by the Europeans. Maps were never to be the same. Maps are portraits of the men who make them. It is healthy to redraw the maps every few generations.

After years of catering only to scientists and renegades, the park is now changing. Late last year a visitor center was opened. Years in the making, the center is touted as the largest public building in Latin America to be operated off the grid, powered completely by renewable energy. This is even more impressive considering the massive amounts of air conditioning required to make the place survivable in summer temperatures that can reach 125º F.

“The idea is to share,” says Godines Leal. “In a way, even the name ‘biological reserve’ is problematic, as if this place were reserved for only a few lucky guys, us. No, on the contrary, this reserve is open.  [The visitor center] brings El Pinacate closer to the public.”

From the top of the sand dunes of the Great Altar Desert, it’s about 50 miles as the crow flies from the mouth of the Colorado River. Govines Leal makes a point of saying that this is the sand that once filled the Grand Canyon, carried down grain by grain over millions of years. This is the remixed hollow of the canyon.

Saguaro rib // foto: logan phillips

Graceful cinder cones, sharp craters, broken black volcano bones. These are the beautiful scars torn across the earth by two million years of volcanic activity. Imagine if Sunset Crater were covered with creosote and saguaros.

The moon escapes from the granite horizon and slowly inhales, filling itself, smeared with the blood of sunset. The ocotillo are antennas, listening to something on the wind that we don’t have ears enough to hear.

The creosote bushes slowly gather sand, building their own altars. It is said that creosote bushes are among the oldest individual living organisms on Earth. Some have been found to be over 12,000 years old.

In the wind of the Rocky Point highway, plastic bags migrate. They can’t seem to remember where they came from. They’re caught up on ironwood trees, trying to ask for directions. Caught up on fences, no tongues, just a plasticine rattling, a friction played by rushing cars. That which was made nowhere has nowhere to return to.

Rainwater collects in slick stone basins, lasting most of the year without evaporating. These are called tinajas, each one a life-giving oasis in El Pinacate. Big horn sheep and mountain lions drink this water. Jets occasionally streak their trails across the water’s surface.

A road grader creeps along the visitor loop road, smoothing the damage done by the recent heavy storms. The average annual rainfall here is four inches. Earlier this year, two inches were recorded in just three days. While causing some inconvenience for park staff and visitors, the rain also means that this year will have one of the best wildflower seasons in recent memory. The river has whet its throat and is pronouncing its name. Río Sonoyta. The ghosts of floods are hanging everywhere.

UFOs glitter like cars that have driven up the sides of cinder cones and out into the sky. They wink in and out, some looking like stationary flares. Some looking like glitter. Some looking like something difficult to name. The coyotes screamlaugh among the black rock, then fall suddenly silent.

The mesquite smear along the edges of the highway like spined ink. Seen from the sand dunes, the Gulf of California makes a bright blur of the horizon. A swiftly moving silence.

“This place incites spirituality,” Godines Leal concludes, smiling. “This landscape imposes itself on you.”

La Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is about 80 miles south of Ajo, AZ just off the highway to Rocky Point, Mexico. The staff is bilingual and very helpful.  February through April is wildflower season and is by far the best time to visit the park. There is camping available, a small usage fee applies to all visits.

Street Art of Bogotá II: The Colombian Capital as Painted by Senil

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The following interview and translation is part of a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques. More on Senil can be found on his Flickr.

Che Guevara is even today a master of disguise. He turns up as a chef. An Argentinian cowboy. A halo-wearing saint. And it turns out glass Coca-Cola bottles make great molotov cocktails. Discontent ripples in warm human waves. A headdress-wearing shaman has moved from the jungles to the capital. He now rents out cellphones to people on the street. Things are changing, remixing themselves.

Welcome again to humming Colombian capital of Bogotá, a city making a serious bid to become one of the major global centers of urban art. Like any city worth its weight in concrete, Bogotá is a study in the arts of juxtaposition, contradiction and oxymoron. Standing among the clean glass and white lights of the financial district, look just a few blocks up hill and check out the adobe houses that have stood there for over a century. Their corners are rounded, the grit in their walls held together by plaster and older, less affluent stories.

Time in Colombia is not a linear system, progressing toward a bright ephemeral utopia. Time here is circular, moving in spirals, doubling back on itself. The glitter does not supersede the adobe. All time exists at once.

While taking a taxi from the airport, zooming along a thoroughfare with cement medians and no shoulders, watch for men in wooden carts pulled by burros. Freelance garbagemen. They do more to keep the city clean than most politicians, who look to make their livelihood illegal.

Some high-rises were built only to stand and scrape the sky, completely unrented and probably uncompleted. Rich kids dance inside clubs. Outside they couldn’t walk two blocks without being shook down.

Quickly scrawled graffiti reads resistir es existir. To resist is to exist. Continuing to read the walls it seems that to remix is to exist––to take on the symbols and archetypes as our own. One of the local experts in existing is Senil, whose rearranged characters inhabit the florid, numbered streets of Bogotá.

¿So who are you? ¿Why “Senil?”
I’m an artist, I like cats. Why Senil? People who know me call me that because I’m an olvidadizo, always forgetting things and unworried about time.

¿What is this place––Bogotá––to you?
My center of operations.

¿Why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?
I’m a visual artist, that’s how I communicate my ideas. I’ve always wanted to be a sculptor, and that was the connection to graffiti: I was trying to make sculpture versions of [the street artist] Tot’s work. Then I started projects with DjLu, which is how I took up stencil and jumped into the streets with a couple small templates. That was the start of this urban artist project.

¿So is it dangerous to be a graffitero in Bogotá? ¿What’s the government’s stance?
In Bogotá it is dangerous to do many things. Clearly the social situation here is really complicated, and questioning the establishment is hardly recommendable. Regardless, there are some neighborhood initiatives that support graffiti work. But they’re not sufficient, so no matter what, one turns to clandestinity to develop projects. If they catch me, there do exist laws [I could be charged with], and with the proliferation of graffiti, we turn into targets of the authorities.

¿What reactions to do you receive to your work?
There are many reactions, and I pay a lot of attention to them. The ones that worry me are from people who feel disrespected by my work, because when you show reality in a raw way you can make enemies of the same people you want to support. For example, there was one stencil of the Che-f [Che as chef], somebody angrily took a chisel to it and wrote: “Nobody messes with Che, idiots!”

Your art seems to hold a lot of social critique. For example, your stencil of the falso positivo, ¿why bring up the subject with this symbol? ¿What impact do you want it to have?
Not all my work has social content, sometimes as an artist I simply express ephemeral or indulgent ideas. The Falso Positivo stencil is a rhetorical piece based on a pharmaceutical symbol associated with health. When I change the text to the word “falso,” I ironically denounce one of the diseases that affects our society today: the phenomenon of forced disappearances. [See Noise #102 –– Ed.] What I’m looking to do with that symbol is to make problem present in the streets, especially in places where the problem isn’t common, and in this way to engage citizens with it, hopefully eradicating it.

You play a lot with the image of Che: the Che-f, the Che-sús, the cowboy Che. ¿How is Che Guevara seen in Colombia today?
He represents revolution, but nevertheless it depends on the context. Some who consume his image are thinking, questioning people; on the other hand, there are others that just associate the image with fashion.

Explain for us a bit about your piece of the indigenous man with the “minuto celular” sign.
It comes from two socio-environmental issues. It’s a critique of the displacement suffered by the indigenous, caused by violence, which leads to the abandonment of the state and the loss of ancestral beginnings. The “minuto celular” sign is an urban icon that [in addition to advertising cellphones for rent] represents the scarcity of employment and the necessity of making money however possible.

¿Does freedom of speech exist in Colombia? ¿How is graffiti a part of that?
Yes, there is freedom of expression, but only when the expression stays inside the parameters dictated by the government itself. When you step across those boundaries and you question the establishment, the situation can turn dangerous. As far as graffiti, it’s a form of free speech since it’s done out of personal initiative. The act of scrawling on a wall is a political act, because it challenges and questions the establishment regardless of the message. Surely there are other examples of free speech, nevertheless a piece in the street can be read by anybody, and that makes it very effective.

¿What is the most important thing for people in the U.S. to understand about Colombia?
That we are tired of war, and that they are welcome here. They’d have a good time.

Street Art of Bogotá: the Colombian Capital as Painted by DjLu

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The following interview and translation is part of a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques. More on DjLu can be found on his MySpace and Flickr.

Grenades grow on stalks of maíz and explode into flowers. A gas pump holds a gun to its head. An umbrella blocks a rain of rifles. A man is lynched on an oil pump. A soldier mounts a machine gun turret on a mule. The guy from the Men’s Bathroom sign loses a leg to a landmine. He walks using a rifle as a cane. Welcome to Bogotá.

This is the city as painted by one of its best street artists: DjLu. His work was omnipresent in all parts of Bogotá I visited, and after following his stencils through alleys and across boulevards, I was lucky enough to run into the artist in the flesh.

¿To begin, what is there to know about DjLu? Who are you?

DjLu is a visual artist from the National University of Colombia, who discovered in 2004 that gallery art is turned into a static art form by being in a private space, destined to a slow death. Then the decision to adopt the urban context as the right place for expression.

¿What is Bogotá to you?

It’s the city where I was born, the playground where many ideas are born and projects come to life.

To get into some context, ¿could you tell us a bit about the history of street art in Bogotá? I was blown away by the quality and quantity, ¿has there always been so much?

Urban art linked to politics has appeared in Bogotá since the 70’s in the form of [what we call] lyrical or poetic graffiti, and also through conceptual and social art projects like those done by Antonio Caro. Nonetheless it’s not possible to speak of a consistent and diverse urban movement until about 2000. That’s when Bogotá adopted––late but with a passion––an art form that was already in vogue in the great world capitals. Recent years have seen Bogotá flower with an infinite number of approaches to street art, from the tag and throw-up, through wild style, blocks, characters, arriving at [wheat pasted] posters, stencils, stickers and complex murals.

¿So why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?

I paint to transmit a political and social stance that puts a rock in the path of apathy. I paint to give proof, to surprise, and through that to invite better ways of inhabiting and coexisting. I also paint to exorcise my fears, to get to know myself.

The stencil is the medium best suited for my project in the urban environment, since it has been used for political and against-the-grain messages for years. It’s also good for its reproducibility, through which an artistic project can usurp advertising and reach wider reception and better effect.

You have painted all over Colombia and the world. ¿How do you see street art in your country in comparison with countries of the so-called “first world”?

From having had the chance to visit Milan, Paris, Barcelona and Buenos Aires, I can say for sure that today Bogotá has no reason to be jealous. The level of technical and conceptual skill in Bogotá is really pretty high.

¿Is it dangerous to be a graffitero in Bogotá? ¿Does the government support or repress graf? ¿What would happen if they caught you?

The legality of painting in the street isn’t very clear, so it’s up to prudence, the artist’s luck, and the attitude of the police who are on shift to determine guilt and give pardons. I’ve never had big problems, apart from a couple opportune moments where I’ve been taken into the police station, without further consequences except a small loss of time and an explanation. But I’ve known of colleagues who have been detained twenty-four hours for the same thing.

What first caught my eye about your work is the heavy dose of social content. Obviously it’s not just “art for art’s sake.” At the same time, I’m interested to know if you have a specific vision you’re looking to transmit, or if you’re just looking to create images that are as provocative as possible.

I definitely have some specific interests and worries that are born not just of the local political situation but also of the worldwide context and world problems. I’m interested in bringing to light the conflicts that we’re involved in at every level, beyond understanding war as the only type of conflict. I’m worried by war as a business, by social displacement and by the changes in the ways that we use the earth: this earth where we plant mines instead of seeds.

The images become provocative in the sense that the immediate reaction of the viewer is to feel assaulted or deeply effected by them. And that their day-to-day apathy is interrupted by a reflection of our errors.

Your images play a lot with symbols of violence, and Colombia continues to be a very violent country. ¿What is the relation between violent images and true violence?

The work is born of my experiences, of a life immersed in a state of violence at every level: from the government, guerrillas, paramilitaries, not forgetting of course street violence and even inside the family. Although it has advanced a lot, Colombia is still bottled up in a war basically motivated by money and totally off-track from its social ideals. I’m interested in highlighting the relationship between fighting wars and playing games, the manner in which a conflict is absurdly driven by hidden interests––a game in which we all lose.

Nevertheless I don’t believe that my images are violent in the sense that they’re not explicit, they’re symbolic and that takes away the aggressive tone. There aren’t any bloody images or bodies in mass graves. There are silhouettes of pistols, rifles and soldiers which are part of a process of hybridization where two or more images are put together to alter their original meaning. This incites the spectator to come to their own conclusions and in the end to involve themselves in the search for solutions. These symbols appear in the streets to draw attention to situations that we are unconscious of, yet complicit in.

¿Does free speech exist in Colombia? ¿Is graffiti part of that?

From my position as an urban artist I’ll say that there is a large dose of free speech in Colombia. My project is still seen for its artistic character, even as it’s heavily loaded with politics. I should say that I haven’t felt any type of pressure, persecution or discrimination for the work I’ve done, including when I have ended up being very direct in my critiques against the government of the moment.

I believe that street art is one of the least manipulated forms of expression that exist today, though we couldn’t say that it’s completely free speech. Factors such as fashion and advertising negatively influence the freedom that street art promises. But the city-space still maintains, with an ever-increasing force, that tendency of being the voice of the voiceless, the pressure valve of the oppressed, the shithouse of the radicals and the canvass of the artists.

In general I believe that that any artistic practice is a way to stay on the fringes of the lifestyle currently imposed upon us, a chance to be more critical of the archetypes that we’re always told to accept as truth.

¿What is the most important thing that people in the U.S. need to understand about Colombia?

The problem of misunderstanding is bilateral. It’s not just that people in the U.S. have a biased view of us, in general the world is imbued with preconceptions that distort the reality of every country. We should form opinions based on specifics not generalizations. By that I mean that not everybody in Colombia is a drug runner and not everybody in the U.S. is an imperialist gringo. In Colombia we not only have a multicultural country filled with riches and natural beauty, but also––more importantly––a population with an incredibly human quality to it.

Thinking of the theme of this interview, I can tell everybody this: if you like street art, don’t hesitate in coming to see what’s happening in Bogotá.

¿Anything else?

Live happy, ¡juega siempre!

DjLu

Bienvenido a Colombia: a Brief Story of Militarization and Rebirth

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The following article marks my return to The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. I wrote for them in 2006 and 2007, and they recently asked me back to their pages, which I am very grateful for. Thanks Chuck and Meredith! Expect new writing on Colombia for the next three months or so, posted on the first day of every month. Send along any comments and critiques.

“Colombia’s back” proclaims the travel guide Lonely Planet in its new introduction to the country. But back from what? The violent abyss of past decades? The cocaine-flavored stereotyping by foreigners? The guerilla forces that choked the highways like cholesterol? Well, yes, that’s what they mean. But how did it happen, and what’s changed?

To answer that question, a good starting point would be Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Colombia’s strong-arm president was first elected in 2002 with the campaign slogan “mano dura y corazón grande,” promising something like compassionate conservatism but with guns. Reelected in 2006 and currently enjoying an approval rating of 70% while contemplating a constitutional referendum allowing himself a third term, Uribe has brought about change in Colombia on a scale that Obama could only dream about––not that their objectives are at all similar.

“Bogotá is safe again,” a man selling cellphones in Bogotá tells me. “And now you see luxury cars cruising the streets, stuff like that. Before, you’d never see that. So I think Uribe has done us alright, the money is flowing.” Right there, seen from the street level, are two of Uribe’s principal gifts to his country: security in the cities and foreign investment.

As if to drill the point home, a taxi driver in Cartagena tells me a few weeks later: “Look, you can say what you will about Uribe. But really, without Uribe, you wouldn’t be here talking to me.” Like Lonely Planet alluded to, visits by foreigners are way up as of late, especially among Europeans.

The increase in security has also kicked off something of a rebirth in the arts as well. An entire generation of middle-class young people in Colombia were raised behind closed doors, their parents fearful of the violence in the streets. Now in their roaring 20’s, they have taken to those same streets, bringing with them an explosion of música, new activism and graffiti (more on the street art in a future edition).

This is the boom that resounds through Colombia today. It can be heard in bands like Bomba Éstereo, Tumbacatre, Choc Quib Town, and La Makina del Karibe. It can be understood by watching a crowd of fifty sitting in a plaza listening to a young street poet, or on the faces of tens of thousands indigenous people marching toward Bogotá in search of recognition. It can be seen in the pops and locks of a lone breakdancer busking in the centro to a soundtrack of “Brass Monkey” on repeat. It can be felt as a collective exhalation.

Not that everything is aerosol and roses. Those dark associations that might jump to mind when the word Colombia comes up––blow, the FARC, Pablo Escobar––have hung in the collective psyche of people in the U.S. since Colombia was big news in the 1980’s and 90’s. They are the same living ghosts that haunt the country today.

Take coke, for example. Colombia is of course still the world’s largest producer, and it is mostly Colombian cocaine sold to party people in the U.S. that fuels the “narco-violencia” slaughterhouse spiraling out of control in Mexico––between 3,500 and 4,000 dead so far this year. (Le Monde Diplomatique México, September) The cocaine is imported to the U.S., guns exported to Mexico and dollars exported to Colombia––dollars from both the illicit drug trade and from the U.S. military aide sent to combat it.

Which brings us to the FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the rebel group formed in the 1960’s as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The consensus today seems to be that by now the FARC has lost any relevant ideological motivation and has become entrenched in a posture of perennial resistance and marred by the use of kidnapping and cocaine as their main income sources, yet the government still estimates their numbers at around 11,000.

It is in this context that the group has suffered many defeats during Uribe’s presidency. While offering other armed groups the chance of peacefully demobilizing, Uribe has embraced the view of the FARC as terrorists and has launched a no-holds-barred offensive on the group. Perhaps his motivation is partly personal––Uribe’s father was killed in a botched kidnap attempt by the FARC in 1983.

But, like all things in Colombia, it’s just not that simple. Violence has been played like bloody tennis for decades, tit-for-tat massacres and tactics that have left all sides tarred. For instance, the genocide waged against the Unión Patriótica political party in the late 1980’s. What began as a hope-filled ceasefire and an opening to a political solution to the left’s grievances ended in a dirty war that has made all government talk of demobilization since very suspect. (Dudley, Steven. “Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia”) And then there’s the more recent example of the “falsos positivos.”

“False positives” is the name given to young men who are kidnapped by the Colombian army, transported hundreds of miles to zones of conflict, dressed as members of the FARC and shot. This is done to increase the body count, helping the army to look as though it is winning the war against the rebels. Though documented cases go back to as early as the 1990’s, a new scandal broke in 2008 when more than a dozen falsos positivos were identified and many more suspected.

Even the infamous Pablo Escobar seems still able to haunt society 16 years after he was gunned down in Medillín. His pet heard of hippos has continued to grow since his death and has begun to escape the confines of the sprawling hacienda that once belonged to the drug king. Ecologists fear disaster, though surrealism is alive and well.

So why does it matter that “Colombia’s back” thanks to Uribe’s militarization? Well, because as you may already expect, they are your tax dollars that are at work in Colombia. The massive U.S. aide package known as Plan Colombia was set into motion in 2000 in the name of the larger U.S. “War on Drugs.” The majority of the $7.5 billion package goes for military equipment and training. Chided as “Plan Nueva Colonia” by critics who see the plan as disguised interventionism and a doorway to a new colonialism, the program does speak to Uribe’s closeness to Washington. The connection was made yet clearer when former President Bush awarded Uribe a Presidential Medal of Honor shortly before Bush left office in January.

Now key parts of Plan Colombia are set to expire, it was leaked in July that the U.S. has been negotiating with Uribe an agreement that would allow up to seven Colombian military bases to be used by U.S. armed forces and private contractors––all of whom would be operating with impunity from persecution for any potential crime committed in Colombian territory. This is worrisome, given the spotty reputation of U.S. forces in Colombia, a reputation tarnished by incidents such as the rape of a 12 year-old girl in Melga by U.S. soldiers participating in Plan Colombia.

It’s important to know what’s going down in Colombia because Colombia is the front line of the U.S.’s current foreign policy in Latin America. And because at the same time the country is producing some of the most interesting music, art and culture of anywhere in the hemisphere. So for the next few months expect more words and sounds from the south, and expect them to come not from the usual talking heads, but from graffiti artists, human rights promoters and musicians. There are many stories to tell.

The Many Names of El D.F.: Art Capital of the Americas

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Written for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (25.4mb).

The Many Names of El D.F.: Art Capital of the Americas Between english indie rock and a naked crowd: the new Mexico City?

A couple weeks ago, on a Sunday just before dawn, 20,000 people were standing in the center square of Mexico City. It wasn’t another political protest, or even a particularly popular Catholic mass. No, they were completely naked. And they were standing at attention, saluting, in the freezing cold. It was art for art’s sake.

Later, the photographer Spencer Tunick spoke about why he picked Mexico City for his latest naked installation / photo shoot. “There’s something happening in Mexico City, it’s cultural, it’s going to explode and it’s going to be great. The greatest and newest things can come from Mexico. In my mind, the heart of Latin America is now Mexico.” The New Yorker was apparently seeing something that goes largely unnoticed to people living in the US borderlands. Mexico City, an art capital? Since when?

Some say since NAFTA. Another New York institution, the venerable Times itself, also recently cast its ears on the exploding english-language indie rock scene in the Mexican capital, and through sources cited NAFTA as being one cause of the explosion.

The theory is one that chicano poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña has been openly dreaming about since the early 1990’s––that along with endless KFC’s, Micky-D’s, and Wal-Marts the size of entire pueblos, we would begin to see a free flow of art and artists crossing borders and expectations. Has that time come? Has the coming of the MySpace messiah changed everything?

The energy of Mexico City has always been obvious and overwhelming. “This city is a universe,” says Pilar Rodríguez Aranda, a video artist and writer currently living in Coyoacán, a neighborhood on the southside. The city is so many things at once, and each can be seen through its many names. It is el DF, el distrito federal, the government center, just as DC sets Washington apart from the rest of the nation. It is also chilangolandia, an ego-centric metropolis, cosmopolitan and hip.

It is also––as Pilar calls it––el DFectuoso, the defective center of a torn country. “It’s a mirror of this country so full of contradiction and injustice, of beauty and the poor masses. She’s right, in all this art-talk there’s no denying the city’s plagues. Violence against women on a horrific scale. Drug cartels––financed by sales in the US––with a boot on the neck of every level of government. El narco even recently helped give Mexico the dubious honor of being labeled the second most dangerous nation for working as a journalist––second only to Iraq.

El DF is also of course locked in a perennial arm-wrestle with Tokyo for the right to call itself the biggest city in the world, which is perhaps how it inspires the obsession and envy of other metropolises like New York and Los Angeles. Of course, we’ll never really know if it is literally the biggest, but does that matter? In 1961 some four million people lived in the city. Now, it’s anywhere between twenty and thirty million––take your best guess.

José Manuel Mendoza, an intellectual of many disciplines and native to the city, puts it this way. “[In the middle of the twentieth century] Mexico City represented for the rural poor what the United States does today. It was the land of guaranteed opportunity.” Which of course sparked massive inward migration from the provinces.

Despite all of the comparisons between NYC an LA, there is one fundamental difference to el DF. While New Yorkers and Angelenos have a clear tendency to think they live in the center of the universe, chilangos have evidence, at least as they see it. Over half of the  population of the entire nation lives in Mexico City, and when people in other states refer to it, they usually just call it México. Even more shocking is the history of that demographic. From the Classic Mesoamerican Era onward––long before the arrival of any conquistadores––city-states like Teotihuacan (100 BC-650 AD) and Tenochtitlán (1325-1521 AD) had always been the cultural and popular focus of the region, often holding more people than the rest of the Mexican land-mass combined. 

The word Mexico itself comes into play here, and its original meaning in náhuatl. Mé, meaning moon. Xi, navel. Co place. The place of the moon’s navel. So you could say Mexico City has its own center-of-the-world complex. Maybe any good city worth its weight in concrete does. One of the original Spanish conquistadores, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote that pre-conquest Mexico City––the Mexica capital known as Tenochtitlán––was the most marvelous city he had ever set eyes on. Four times bigger than Sevilla, the largest city in Spain at the time, Tenochtitlán was a shining city built on a series of platforms and islands in a lake surrounded by 15,000’ volcanoes.

Little by little the Spanish drained and filled in the lakes, and built a Catholic church atop every Mexica temple they could find. Which brings us to the earthquakes. Every great city has its origin myth, and each its dark prophecy. For Manhattan, it’s the bay rising twenty feet. LA has the San Andreas and Hollywood, both tempting fate. But el DF is sinking. Its sandy conquest-era foundations can’t support the mestizo jewels of architecture built atop it. As the city sinks, it shakes, settling back down into the earth. And when the fault lines that run through the Sierra Madre––San Andreas’ southern cousin––sends shakes, it’s always el DF that feels them most.

So this city is a little like everywhere, ephemeral and blissfully doomed. Making art in the meantime and fighting for enough to go around. Abortion has been legalized and American Apparel runs a culture rag called Mexico City Monthly. As Pilar says, “it’s natural that in a city this size there are ‘important’ things happening.” But is it natural for 20,000 people to be standing naked at dawn in front of the national cathedral? Entirely. This is the center of the moon’s bellybutton.

One of the Millions III

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The third of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (30.9mb).

In the first two installments of the interview, Carmen explained how six years ago she and her husband David left their hometown of Cuernavaca, Mexico for New York City. She was almost 30 years old at the time. They hired a coyote who arranged for them to cross through Arizona. In their third attempt, after being separated in the desert north of Sasabe, they made it to a house in Phoenix. From there they took a bus through Flagstaff to Las Vegas, and from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. They took flight across the country to NYC, where, a few months later, they were caught up in the horror of September 11th, 2001. In this final segment of the interview, David adds a few of his own observations.

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from the Arizona Border to NYC

Interview and translation by Logan Phillips

The Return

I was there still a year and a half more after September 11th. David two years and a half. He was painting and I was working in a deli in Harrison. Work got scarce after the Towers. People weren’t interested in making improvements on their houses. And even if you are out of work, you still have to pay rent.

Look, I had plans to only be there two years. In October 2002 I bought my return ticket for February 2003. I bought it five months ahead of time, I had made plans ahead of time to return. It wasn’t spontaneous, as if I said “tomorrow I’m leaving.” No. I thought about it, but David told me to think about it more, to stay and save more money. I told him no, because I couldn’t be away from my daughters any longer. They were small, they needed me. He said, “well, go, but I’m staying.” And he did, a year longer than me.

I came back mainly for my daughters. I had nightmares about them there. Many times late at night I would wake up and David would tell me to calm down, but I would cry. I had horrible, ugly dreams. I’d think about them and cry. I talked to them twice a week on the phone. As much as I could. But I tried to save as much money as I could because it cost five dollars every time I would call them, and five dollars would begin to hurt after awhile. They sent me things, photos, and I sent them photos too.

I came back in a plane. Direct to Mexico City. Super easy.

carmen

Thoughts on Immigration

After everything, it wasn’t worth it. It’d be worth it if you’re going legally to visit, because it’s a beautiful country. To go with work lined up, maybe with papers to be there only seasonally. That’d be better. Because, like David says, going like we did, it’s dangerous. You die out there. There are so many who stay out there. Close to Sasábe there is a place called Altar, it’s on the way to the border. In Altar there is a pile of crosses and posters that say “don’t risk your life, don’t cross the desert, don’t cross the mountains, you can die.” It took us exactly 25 days to cross in total.

David says, “Me, to everyone who tells me ‘well, I’m headed there,’ I say, ‘why are you going? You’re abandoning your country. You can work here. You just need intelligence. You’re going up there looking for money, but you can find it here, and with less problems. There you’re going to go every single day to work, you can do that here too. Don’t be lazy.’

“Also, they want to see new things, because a lot of people come back talking about things that aren’t true. ‘There you earn bills hand over fist,’ and all that. ‘I don’t know what to spend my dollars on,’ but it’s all a lie.” They come back showing off, it’s not reality.

We paid more than $500 a month in rent in New York. You don’t save up a lot. I didn’t save my money while I was there, I sent it back to do a little bit of work on my house. Yeah, I added on a little to my house, I put a entrance on my lot. It’s something that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do here as easily. And David saved a little for his taxi. But almost the same as when we left. What is good there is the clothes. The only good thing we brought back with us was good clothes and shoes.

Oh, it felt so good to come back. Lately, although work has been going a little bad for me thanks to the type of bosses I’ve had, I still don’t feel like going back to NYC. Even though it’s a beautiful city, you feel like an outsider. I felt strange, out of my element. I couldn’t just talk to people, “Hola, ¿qué tal?”

But we did some nice things there. For me the coolest thing we did was go to a Paul McCartney concert in Madison Square Garden. That was definitely the coolest thing.

It will never be possible to stop immigration. There is so much poverty in Mexico. We are poor, but there are people way poorer than us. People who can only eat tortillas, chile and salt. It doesn’t matter to them to risk their life to go looking for what is called “the American Dream.” Look, in the US there are people from little villages in Mexico that you can’t believe are there. People from the mountains, from villages that are at the tops of the mountains. One time I met some people from Michoacan who told me they were from some little tiny village, I asked them how they came. The same way, they found a coyote. There are villages here in Mexico where there are no men. They’re all there [in the US].

You know what messes things up financially to go? The coyote. The crossing costs $3,000. That’s $30,000 pesos, more or less. They have a good thing going. Look, the majority of them have already been deported from the US. The guy who crossed us, he was deported. They will never be able to get papers. Maybe someday David and I will be able to get papers, even though we’ve been caught. Maybe with time, I don’t know, some new law, an amnesty or something. Like that they would pardon your sins.

The coyotes are sure it will go well for them, all the better that it’s an illicit, illegal act. But the worst is then when they just leave you, throw you out into the desert. That’s really bad, and that’s why I’ll never go that way again. Never.

Sure, it would be possible to construct a wall along the entire border. But it’s not worth it to the government. And look, Mexicans are clever, they cross in tunnels and drains also. Would it be possible for them to construct the wall? Yes. But would it stop migration? No. See, everything here is a swindle. Like the saying, “he who doesn’t cheat doesn’t get ahead.”

The immigrant work force is a business. It suits the US government not to stop it, and also the Mexican government. It’s a business for them. They only thing they do is control it, nothing else.

David says, “How many millions have they invested in Iraq now? And they can’t close the border? It’s a business. If immigrants don’t enter, who is going to do the work? Everybody that takes care of the kids, that cleans the houses, they’re latino. If the US didn’t want anyone to come in, they could stop it.”

Los Angeles, California, is the city with the second largest Mexican population in the world. More Mexicans than in Mexican cities. More than Guadalajara, more than Puebla.

Look, this is my opinion. I put myself in the place of the people of the US, those who don’t have anything to do with the economy of Mexico, and I think, it’s not their fault things are this way. But yes, there are immigrants who have committed crimes. And that’s why people have a bad impression of all immigrants.

I would tell people in the US to put themselves in our place. The majority, we want to go to work, not to rob anyone of anything. We go to work. And if people gave us that opportunity, if they allowed us to work legally and efficiently, we would take it. Even while working illegally––and I say this not to to brag or to show off––after only two months Khol’s gave me employee of the month twice, paid vacation, prizes. What does that mean? That we would be really efficient employees if it was worth the trouble to go and work. So to those people who have the wrong opinion of the majority of us, they should realize that all we want is to work and nothing more. And we want to do things right.

Carmen and David continue to live and work in Cuernavaca. David works as a wholesaler and at various jobs. Carmen has gone through a string of jobs since he return, but continues perusing her real passion––singing at events with a band––whenever possible. Her daughters are now in middle school.

Since Carmen’s crossing through Arizona, it is estimated by the International Organization for Migration that over three million other Mexicans have left their country and crossed in a similar way, looking for greater opportunities for themselves and their families. Far more than in the past, 45% of those three million immigrants were women. The number of unaccompanied minors is also growing. 7,000 were caught and deported in 2005.

One of the Millions II

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The second of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (18.7mb).

In the last installment of her interview, Carmen told how six years ago she and her husband David decided to leave their hometown of Cuernavaca, Mexico and try for NYC. She was almost 30 years old at the time and looking to change her destiny. They hired a coyote who arranged for them to cross through Arizona. In their second attempt, they jumped the wall in Nogales and nearly made it to Tucson before being caught. Back in Nogales, the coyote sent them west for the third try, to the small border town of Sasábe. 

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from the Arizona Border to NYC

Interview and translation by Logan Phillips

Sasábe

When finally there was the opportunity to go, the guys in Sasábe put you in a pickup with thirty people, and that’s how you go. “Like little sardines,” David said.

They separated us. They put me in one truck and him in another. When they did that, I began to feel really bad, I was saying to myself “no, no, no,” I didn’t want to be alone because I was so scared. It was really hard for me there, more than it was for David. Well, maybe he felt bad that I was alone.

They bring you up through the hills, in the dark, obviously late at night. They already know the route, but they still have to guess, it’s risky. You’re risking your life because on either side are steep ravines.

That night we went. Him in one truck and me in the other. And the truck that I was in was caught by the migra. We had arrived at the crossroads where we’d get on the freeway, and the coyotes were waiting for the migra shift-change. That moment is when they try to take advantage and get you to the city.

When we got on the freeway, about ten minutes passed and a migration patrol came up beside us, they pulled us over and made us all get out. They brought us back to Nogales because it is the closest station. They again fingerprinted me and scanned my eyes. They asked me how many times they had caught me now. I told them the truth, two. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” they said.

Back in Nogales, Mexico, I wouldn’t let the drivers of that truck get away from me for anything. I didn’t know where everyone had gone, but they knew what truck David had gone in. I grabbed them and told them, “you guys aren’t going to leave me here. I’m going with you wherever you go.”

“No,” they said, “the thing is...”

“I’m going with you.” And they took me back to Sasábe. I arrived crying and giving up hope, because I thought David was already in Phoenix. We got there about six in the morning and at seven o’clock that night, all of a sudden a guy who had been in the truck with David returned on foot. I recognized him. “Hey,” I said, “you went in the same truck as my husband.”

“Yeah, it broke down on us, I came back for a part to fix it.” So the truck had broken down out in the horrible, uninhabited desert. He had just walked for something like eight or ten hours.

When he was ready to go back to the truck, I told him, “I’m going with you.”

“I can’t risk taking you because you’re a woman and you aren’t going to walk fast enough.”

“It doesn’t matter.” I stuck myself to him.

“I can’t take you.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m going with you, I’m not staying here.” I went with him out of necessity, he couldn’t believe it. We walked from eight that night until about two in the morning. We walked and walked. And during all that time we were completely alone. And there are so many women who have had experiences where they were raped by the very coyotes themselves.

Suddenly he stopped me and I asked him why. He told me that there were wolves there. “Shhhh,” he said. Can you imagine the fear I felt in that moment? I told myself that was it, a wolf is going to show up and we’ll never leave here.

I’ll always respect that man. We were so alone in the desert, and moreover I was so scared. But I felt how he was breathing and I realized that he was scared too, despite his experience. I don’t think you ever get over that fear of animals, of the unknown.

We finally arrived where everyone else was hidden. I arrived yelling “David! David!” in the darkness.

He heard me and he asked “what are you doing here?” because he thought I was already in Phoenix. When I saw him, nothing else mattered. I started to cry. Everyone was asleep, hidden, because the helicopters can be sent over any time.

“Why’d you bring her!?” The coyotes were scolding the guy I came back with.

“She didn’t want to stay,” he replied.

Across the United States

There were already so many going, and with me, one more. They fixed the truck at about five in the morning, we left and that same truck brought us all the way to Tucson. Arizona is pretty, beautiful cities.

In Tucson, they ask you “who is sending you?”

“Coyote so-and-so.”

“Ok, those sent by so-and-so over here, those sent by the other coyote over there.” Because for them, it’s all about when payment time comes, they have to keep people organized for that reason. At that moment you don’t pay, you’ve paid your trip from Cuernavaca to the border, but you don’t have the rest of the payment deposited until you’re where you’re going.

We arrived in Phoenix in a van, on the freeway. Now, being inside the state, there’s not very much migra. The migra is on the border. But we were in Phoenix about a week because there was a lot of migra in the Phoenix airport.

We were shut in, watching television, eating, sleeping, always shut in, we didn’t go out for anything. But there we ate in luxury. They sent us stuff to eat, a lot of it, chicken, juice, yogurt. They asked, “who’s gonna cook?” Straight away I said “I will,” and I made food for everybody.

We waited, and went from there to Las Vegas. Yeah, since there was so much migra in Phoenix, in the airport, we said to ourselves “well, we gotta get around them.”

In Las Vegas we arrived at the station and immediately got on the next bus. So, first to Las Vegas, then from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on the bus.

They already described the person that would be there waiting for us, and  there he was, exactly how they had said. Ready for us. How many hours is it from Los Vegas to Los Angeles? It’s a long time. He put us in a hotel, and fed us well. Two days in Los Angeles in that hotel.

In the LA airport we were afraid because we felt like the migra would catch us. But the guy said that here there’s no problem, and the coyotes buy everything for you. You just arrive and get on the plane.

And from LA they threw us in a plane to New York. And that’s that.

NYC & September 11th, 2001

We arrived in New Jersey, because there weren’t direct flights to New York that day. David’s brother’s family came for us. We were feeling bad and disoriented because of the time change. And from there, off to look for work. David already had something. His brother is a resident and has a painting company. He married an American and had two kids, Americans who don’t speak a bit of Spanish. He had left them with their mom. We were in his house, they gave us one room for the both of us, I started looking for work and found it at a clothing store called Kohl’s.

[Six months later] I was at work, in the Portchester store, which is one of the biggest branches. That day I was vacuuming the children’s clothes section. Then a co-worker, a Guatemalan, told me “A plane hit a building and exploded.” I didn’t think of the magnitude of it, just the first thing that came to mind, that a little plane had smashed itself against the building and fallen as if it were nothing, an accident. Suddenly everybody began to get nervous, and I saw that a lot of my co-workers had started to go up to the cafeteria on the second floor.

All of a sudden, somebody said “another plane hit!” and some people started yelling “another! Another!” Things had gotten ugly. I just stood there––I still had the vacuum in my hand––thinking “what is going on?” A friend of mine, a Peruvian woman, said the manager was calling us to the cafeteria because it looked like something was happening at the World Trade Center. We went up and they had a TV ready, and there were the buildings on fire, with all the smoke. I started to cry, saying to myself “what’s happening...” The news came about the Pentagon and that one had gone down in Pennsylvania and I kept crying, just remembering it, I get goose bumps. A friend told me to calm down, but I just said “look what’s happening!” They had already started talking about terrorists and who knows what else.

The manager started talking to us in English, a friend told me what he was saying in Spanish––I hadn’t learned English yet, actually I never learned it well, but it’s OK. He said that we had to stay calm but that we were going to go home because something horrible had happened. We had to leave calmly, they were going close the store. In that moment, one of the towers fell. Somebody screamed. Everybody cried out, loud. The manager was so red from screaming. I cried, it really scared me, I was shaking, not knowing what would happen. The other one fell. People burst out in tears and screams again, hugging each other, saying that it couldn’t be, talking in English, black people, white people, everybody. People hugging each other. With the other tower falling on TV, we started to organize ourselves to leave. I caught a taxi outside of the mall.

The taxi driver already knew. And almost all of the taxi drivers are Hispanic. I remember he was a Peruvian because he asked me in Spanish, “they closed the store?” I told him yes.

“Because of what’s happening to the buildings?”

“Yes, didn’t you see?” 

“No, but the freeway is jammed, lots of accidents.” People had gone crazy, they reacted however they could in the face of such a tragedy. I arrived at my house still crying. I asked one of my neighbors if she could call my mom as a favor, since they had cut the communication lines and you could only call other countries with cellphones.

In Mexico at my house my family was already crying like I had been killed, because they had heard that New York had been attacked by terrorists. They practically thought we were at war. My neighbor called them and asked “does Carmen live there?” And they cried louder because they thought she was calling to say I had been killed. She said “calm down, señora, Carmen is OK, she asked me to call on my cellphone because the regular phones aren’t working.”

And my mom: “tell her to come home so that she’s not there, tell her to come back to Mexico.” Later I said to myself, if it was my decision I’d return, but I was scared to get on an airplane because there could be a bomb there too.

In a few days I went back to work and they told us that we were going to be on red alert. We were going to work, but with a lot of precaution. If anything happened, they’d call us and immediately we’d leave because they didn’t know if it was war, or if they were going to close, or what. They didn’t know what to do either. Actually, people stopped buying. The streets were empty. Many people stayed at home, in their basements. They stayed there because they still didn’t know what to do.

But little by little, everything started to be more normal––if you could call it that, normal. But in the new year, during March and April, they started to check the papers of undocumented workers, and my papers were fake. They fired a lot of people. Now all illegal workers were terrorist suspects. Well, it was a security measure, but if the United States really had wanted to throw out all the illegals, it’d be left without people, without workers. All of the physical manpower is illegal.

I think at least fifty percent of the people killed were illegals. And that number that they use––2,300 deaths––it’s a lie. I could dare to say that more than 50,000 died. Remember how many floors each tower had? A hundred. That’s 200 floors. How many offices were there on each floor? At least ten. Banks, businesses, restaurants. Let’s only put three people per office––which there could have been at that hour, and it isn’t much. That’s thirty people on each floor. Times a hundred floors, that’s 3,000. Do you remember the 1986 earthquake in Mexico City? The government only said that 10,000 died. It’s inconvenient for governments to tell the truth.

Imagine all of the immigrants that worked there with false identification. There was no way to know who they were. They only counted the people that they knew through legal papers. But lots of people work with illegal papers under a different name.

They don’t count those people. 

Carmen concludes her story next month, telling of her return trip to Mexico, and explaining what advice she would give to other Mexicans thinking about crossing illegally.

One of the Millions

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The first of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (25.7mb).

Carmen is a woman in her early 30’s, born in Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City. Six years ago this month she started a journey that took her across Mexico and into Arizona. Her ultimate goal was New York City, where she arrived just in time to experience the events of September 11th, 2001. What follows is her story, as she herself tells it.

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from Cuernavaca to NYC

interview and translation by Logan Phillips

Preparations

We left February 15th, 2001. It was a normal day, just like that song that says, “it wasn’t hot, it wasn’t cold.”

We had decided in October of 2000. I was working in a coffee shop, selling little cakes, chocolates. We decided to go because... well, my husband, David, he wanted to go more because he has a brother that lives in New York and he offered David a good job, as a painter. I wentto try my luck, to try a new way of living my life. Maybe it was curiosity, but more it was the necessity to earn a little bit more money in less time.

But we needed a lot of money just to go. We had $6,500 for the two of us.

We also needed a good coyote. A friend recommended him to us, we didn’t know him. He’s from Puebla, he came here to Cuernavaca to talk to us about it. We crossed through Arizona because the coyote told us to. He’s the one that decides the route you’ll take, you can’t say, “no, I think we’ll go through Tijuana.” No, you make a deal with the coyote and the only thing you’re interested in is making it to the other side. You pay him and he has to figure out how to get you there––all the way to wherever you want to go, to Wisconsin if you want. But you don’t pay him before. You give him the name of the person who will send the money, and you pay him when you arrive.

He gave us advice, like not to bring backpacks, packages, but to dress warm because it’s really cold. No photos in your wallet, and just a little bit of money. He told us not to be scared, that we’d jump the wall and that’d be it.

My oldest daughter was ten years old, and the younger one was seven. I told them that I had to go work, that they needed to wait for me for awhile. Although they didn’t understand it, they had to accept it. They stayed here, with my mother. They cried, and felt like we were abandoning them. It was hard.

My mother and father gave me a lot of advice, that I should be careful what I get myself into and who I make deals with. Since I was young my dad has always taught us to be honest. David’s family told him to behave, and not get drunk all the time. They just told us to be careful, especially when the time comes to jump. Also to be careful of the cholos because they’ll assault you.

carmen

Nogales

We left on a bus from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, to the airport. Then in a plane to Hermosillo [capital of the state of Sonora]. There we hired a suburban, which is like a taxi, but for a lot of people, and it took us to Nogales. I didn’t know anything about northern Mexico. It’s like David says, “I didn’t know any farther than my eyes could see.”

Nogales is ugly. It looks like an abandoned city. The whole border is ugly.

We arrived at a hotel. The coyote had told us where we would meet again, in that hotel. It obviously wasn’t a luxury place, normal rooms, normal beds. He was already there waiting for us, and that same night we tried the first time. That first time is when the cholos showed up, the guys who live on the border and make a living of attacking people. They’ll take your shoes, your watch. But that night they just were making noise, shouting our way. See, they also want to jump, so when you try, they’ll make a big show so that you won’t make it.

We had to jump from really high in Nogales. The wall was fourteen or fifteen feet high. But the jump is the least of it. The important thing is to get to a safe place where you’ll be able to get transport to where you’re going. Sure, you jump in Nogales, but to get to the next populated place, it’s unbelievably hard.

You arrive like a soldier, chest on the ground, dragging yourself. More than half a mile like that, dragging yourself like you were a worm. Like that. But the cold, it gives you all its got. Our jackets weren’t thick enough.

There were six of us crossing. David and me, our cousin, a couple and another guy. Two kids from Puebla guided us. Ah, because see, it’s not the coyote who brings you, the coyote sends the people who will bring you. No, the coyote doesn’t hang around there, he passes you to a helper and says “take them, you know where to go.” And they were young! Not even eighteen years old. From Nogales we hoofed it the whole way.

We made it to a ravine at about eleven that night, and we were there all night and all the next day, without eating, just sleeping. We were hugging one another, trying to get rid of the cold. It was unbearable, to the bones. We couldn’t lick our lips because the spit would freeze. We hadn’t drank any water, hadn’t gone to the bathroom––much less taken a shower––in two days. A lot of animals came while we were there. If you get hurt, you’ll die there. It’s really risky. People don’t realize.

We just huddled in that hole. I didn’t know absolutely anything about Arizona, just some photos and maps on the computer, and the desert, which is the famous thing. And Tucson thanks to that Beatles song that says “Tucson, Arizona,” but that was it. [laughs]

A car came for us the second night. We all piled in, all pressed together, it was horrible. I thought that the car was going to take us to a safe place, but that car didn’t bring us anywhere. They threw us in the desert. They told us that we were going to just walk for half an hour, then we’d meet another car to take us to Tucson. We had to go around the checkpoints, but they keep saying things so that you don’t get scared, but it isn’t true. That night they threw us out of the car at about nine.

That was the most traumatic for me. We had two gallons of water that we got from the car. Our feet sank in the sand, our sneakers filled up with it. We jumped some barbwire. I fell flat on my face. The highway was about a mile away, and they have this red light out there that detects your iris and they’ll know you’re there. All kinds of technology. But it’s stupid because they know that there’s a lot of people passing anyway. We walked all that night.

We hadn’t eaten anything. David started getting really mad at the guides. We got to an underpass on the freeway, before Tucson. The guides kept saying “there’s the car,” lying so that you’ll wait. We were really disillusioned. We went out to the freeway and waited, I said it wouldn’t be long before someone called us in. Half an hour later, the migra arrived. One of the guys with us had lived in Brooklyn before, and he started talking to them in English. “We’re tired, we’re hungry.” They rounded us all up and brought us all the way back to... Nogales!

The migra was really nice. We can’t say anything bad about them. They took us to the station to get our information. Later, in Mexico, we called the coyote because he always has people in the hotels, waiting to send them. We got to the hotel with our clothes in rags, he saw us and said “I thought you two were already in Phoenix!” We started to talk, and he said he was going to send us through Sasábe.

We got to Sasábe [a small bordertown east of Nogales], another horrible place, there isn’t anything there. We were there about a week, not doing anything. We were in this house with tons of people, about fifty. Everybody together, Salvadorians, everybody, waiting their turn. Waiting.

Carmen continues her story next month, telling of how she and David became separated during their second attempt, and how they eventually made it to Los Angeles.

La Virgen As Seen From Both Sides

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The second in a series of Mexican snapshots for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, which is excellent, download the pdf (16.9mb).

La Virgen As Seen From Both Sides
a Cross-Border Look at the Virgin of Guadalupe

The fireworks have been exploding for twenty-four hours without stop. There are mustaches drawn on all the male children under the age of three. Mariachis are playing in nearly every neighborhood. There can only be one explanation for all this colorful chaos, which even here in Mexico is beyond average: this must be the 475th anniversary of the appearance of La Virgen de Guadalupe. This must be December 12th, Día de la Virgen.

On this day shrines pop up on nearly every street corner, each bedecked with noche buena flowers. Thousands of pilgrims stream into Mexico City’s Basilica, carrying portraits of la Virgen on their backs and crawling the final steps on their knees, leaving dark stains of their faith on the stones behind them.

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“This is a very important day for us,” says Antonio Perez, an out-of-work mariachi who is hanging around Cuernavaca’s main square on the night of the 12th. “I have a lot of faith and devotion to her.” He’s an impeccably dressed old man with watery eyes, soft-spoken and sincere. The words he’s saying are written everywhere on the streets around us as he says them.

We’re sitting near el Calvario, one of Cuernavaca’s soaring churches where  reverence for La Virgen is focused. It’s here that the local parents bring their young children dressed as peasants to have their pictures taken in mock rural landscapes. They jam through the wide doors of the church, children on their shoulders, pushing to hear one of the masses being said every two hours. Inside, the church is a sea of dark hair, a sea whose waves sigh in rosaries and undulate onto their knees in prayer.

Along with Día de los Muertos in early November, December 12th is a day that is exclusively Mexican. La Virgen is the patron saint of Mexico and is also called “the Queen of the Americas.” As Octavio Paz wrote in 1974: “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”

But to those of us from the southwest U.S., this all sounds familiar. Even if it’s only seeing her likeness emblazoned on the spare-tire cover of a certain pink VW bus that haunts Aspen between San Francisco and Agassiz Streets in downtown Flagstaff, we’re aware of her presence. It’s evidence that while political boundaries between Mexico and the U.S. were redrawn in 1848, cultural boundaries remain much more fluid.

In Bisbee, Arizona, just a stone’s throw from the international line, one sees old cars pushing through the narrow streets with bumper stickers that read, “IN GUAD WE TRUST.” On a December morning not long after the 12th, Elaine Blake and artist Judy Perry are gardening in front of the Bisbee Episcopal Church. “A lot of us have had experiences with the Virgin,” says Perry. Blake agrees, “she just made herself really known and vivid to me. She talks to me and I talk to her... she is the divine presence that is anchored in this place, in this earth.” Both women recall being attracted to Guadalupe thanks to her being a female religious figure. “I think it’s important to bring the female and male energies together in spiritual life,” says Perry.

Perez, speaking of La Virgen’s appeal to Mexicans, says “we feel proud that she came here to Mexico to appear... the story is that she appeared to somebody who was of the most lowly people, his name was Juan Diego.”

In Bisbee, anthropology and faith seem to occupy the same space at the same time without getting into a fistfight. At the Bisbee event on the 12th, “there was a woman [Maggie McQuaid] who talked about the cultural antecedents, Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess,” according to Blake.

Such talk, though, has no place in the mind of the average Mexican on the night of the 12th. Perez, for one, shirks the suggestion of La Virgen being related to the pre-Hispanic gods. He shakes his head, “no, no, no, no, no, I don’t understand that, I’d say no.”

 Blake seemed to be a bit surprised by the reverence held for Guadalupe in the southwest. “I’ve talked to a couple of people who have said ‘I’m a Guadalupian, not a Christian,’” she said.

Meanwhile, in central Mexico, Perez leans against a park bench, smiling. “Everybody’s walking around content today. Just so happy for this day.” Two peoples, two countries, unified at least once every year by their faith in figure that they see from different perspectives. Sounds like just another story from the border.

Mexico's Dark December

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The beginning of a new series of Mexican snapshots for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. Not all will be this political, but it's a political time.

Ulises ya cayó y sigue Calderón –graffiti, Cuernavaca zócalo

Depending on who you ask, Arizona’s southern neighbor is either in the first stages of a nationwide class war, or just up to business as usual. Either way, December 1st looms large on the 2006 Mexican calendar. This Friday, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa is set to be sworn in as the next president of the United States of Mexico.

As with any issue, this is worth asking the taxistas about. “A grey December awaits us,” said Augustin, a middle aged taxi driver on the day that the PFP (Federal Preventative Police) entered Oaxaca city in an attempt to retake it from the APPO (Popular Assembly of Oaxacan Peoples), a movement that has controlled the city since late summer. “Things have never been this tense.”

The Oaxaca issue is the most visible flashpoint in a struggle that has been part of Mexico’s landscape since time immemorial—the peoples’ friction against a wealthy and corrupt ruling class. Primarily, the movement seeks the removal of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a member of the historically omnipotent PRI party. It is widely accepted that Ruiz is a corrupt and heavy-handed ruler, which has been evident in his dealing with the APPO. Disappearances and murders by plainclothes police officers are now common place. Ruiz is the kind of politician that many hoped would be obsolete by now, a throwback to the 1970’s and 80’s when corrupt politicians acted openly with impunity.

However, coming into 2007, Mexico is a different country. In 2000 Vicente Fox became the first president to come from a party other than the PRI. Both he and incoming Calderón are members of the PAN, a rightist pro-business party. Faced with the situation in Oaxaca, Fox displayed a startling outward indifference for many months. He waited until the situation had escalated incredibly and sent in forces in late October, his other options mostly unexplored and therefore exhausted.

Fox may have been just a little distracted. He unabashedly supported Calderón’s bid for the presidency, to the point of using millions of dollars of public funds in pro-PAN TV advertising. When the vote came back too close to call on July 2, all of Mexico’s political mind became preoccupied with the contested election. The leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has not conceded gracefully. Since lifting his occupation of Mexico City’s center in early September, his movement has lost momentum that it seeks to regain on December 1st by staging a series of massive protests. Obrador declared himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico on November 20th and has announced the creation of a parallel national government. As of yet these moves haven’t had a definite effect, but that may well change in December.

The two movements—the APPO in Oaxaca and the lopezobradoristas in Mexico City—have been quick to declare common cause against what they see as corrupt government. It can be read in the graffiti that seems to be growing from every cement crack all over the country: “Ulises has already fallen and Calderón will follow him.” Faced with a political landscape at least as volatile as that of the 1960’s, what will Calderón do when he takes charge? And what will happen December 1st?

“Nothing’s gonna happen,” says another taxista working near Mexico City. “It’s pure blah blah blah, same as always. The dog who barks loudest doesn’t bite.” He may be right. Several key dates have passed this fall without the predicted outbreak of violence and revolution. September 5th the election was called for Calderón by a national court with PAN sympathies. September 16th, Mexican Independence Day, Obrador backed down and allowed the army to stage its traditional parade. October 27th, the PFP moved into Oaxaca and an expected national outcry wasn’t nearly as strong as it might have been.

On the other hand, all of these events could be seen as stepping stones down a path that leads to more drastic events. “Just think about it,” comments Margarita, an elementary school teacher in her 60’s, “1810, Mexican Independence. 1910, the Mexican Revolution. 2010, who knows? A class war?” The possible signs are obvious: Oaxaca, the election, severe economic disparity triggering mass migration, Fox’s squandering of a magnificent and unique opportunity for change and the ensuing widespread disillusion, and the wave of left-leaning governments winning power across Latin America.

From whichever angle it is considered, December 2006 looks to be a key month in the recent history of Mexico. It’s as if millions of hands are extended to the sky all across the country, holding its reassuring blue mass over their heads. On December 1st we’ll see how many decide to drop their hands and pick up arms, in whatever form they come. And more importantly, we’ll see if without their support, that blue sky falls.

An American Poet in Mexico

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The sixth and last installment of my series of articles for The Noise. Fotos by Bart Pogoda.

Poco a poco se anda lejos. –dicho mexicano

We’re practicing personal pronouns when it pops out of Yared’s mouth. “The fan writes a circle!” he cries, fully aware that in my fourth grade classroom, we raise our hands when we would like to speak. He just can’t help himself, and his little dark fingers fly to cover his mouth as soon as the last word leaves it. “Sorry,” he says, rolling the r’s.

“That’s OK, Yared,” I tell him, and it’s moments like this that “Teacher Logan” remembers that he is actually a poet, not the elementary school teacher he has been pretending to be for the last month. Soon the class is working on illustrating the English sentences they just made up, and my pocket notebook has found its way into my hands. The fan writes a circle above the head of Yared, I write, and its verses blow all across the schoolbooks.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

How did it come to this? School books, personal pronouns and starting the days by singing the super-popular “Good Morning Song”? In the eight months since leaving Flagstaff, I’ve felt myself blown from one continent to the other, waking up in strange cities where the shadows tilt at crooked angles and riding boats and motorcycle sidecars that always seem to take me farther from home. Then, it happened in late summer: the money ran low, the wanderlust overflowed the notebooks, and lonely became more than just an adjective. It was time to settle.

I arrived in central Mexico again after almost two years with a backpack full of slightly trumped-up résumés and the familiar, strong set of ganas to again see this country from the inside out. I didn’t plan on teaching kids. But the kids had my number, and the school had the envelope stuffed with peso bills.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

At this point, I’m just another undocumented American worker supporting the Mexican economy. The school passes me those envelopes every couple of weeks, no one asks questions, and I wade further into the Byzantine, murky and antigonizing world of Mexican papeleo, hoping to one day become legal. At least for me there’s the chance of becoming legal.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

I leave our house at that moment when the night just begins to crack with the lucid expectation of dawn. While walking the fifteen minutes to the freeway, I pass the milpa where the corn has now grown to its full height. Just above it, on clear days, Popocatépetl dwarfs an entire mountain range. Glaciers still somehow cling to its summit and steam wisps from the sleeping lava below.

The bus is usually packed, maybe fifty people steated and another fifteen standing in the aisle. We’re all clinging to our last moments of calm before the long hours of trabajo, and the sleepers’ heads fall and nod like heavy fruit on elastic necks.

Meanwhile, outside of the day-to-day life of most workers and children, the country has wound itself tight into a political crisis the likes of which it hasn’t seen since maybe the Revolution itself. After nearly seventy years of rule by the PRI, (the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party) Goliath finally took one to the forehead with the election of PAN’s Presidente Fox in 2000. Now, just six short years later, PRI came in a distant third in July’s presidential elections.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

The United States seems to be the global trend-setter in more than just movies and music these days: disputed, too-close-to-call elections now seem to be de moda the world over. The leftist PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador lost to right-winger Felipe Calderón of PAN by just 234,000 votes out of some 41,000,000. But as with everything, the Mexicans had to put their touches on the trend to make it their own. In 2000 in the US, Gore fought for his cause with one foot already in the grave, and in 2004 that strange flavor of American political apathy allowed the shifty happenings in Ohio to go by uninvestigated.

By contrast, Obrador and his supporters stormed the streets, occupying the center of Mexico City for over a month. Recently, after the PAN-influenced high court ruled against him, he vowed to establish a “parallel government.” Never mind that the taxista that I rode with today called him “out of his head” and that he continues to alienate many moderate voters with his extra-governmental manuevering, the man knows how to stand his ground. And further south, in the state of Oaxaca, police and government have fled the capital city under pressure from a peoples’ movement led by—who else?—schoolteachers.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

But somewhere in between all of that, la vida ya se ha normalizado un poco—what a miracle of human adaptation that a life like this could begin to seem normal. Walking into my tiny classroom with hardly any experience to teach English to kids born in 1998 felt like a running of the bulls—except that the bulls new the ring better than I did and were somehow capable of throwing spitballs.

But the weeks pass and Mexico swollows us—surrealist Mexico at its best: our neighborhood fills with taxistas and mariposas every afternoon. The taxistas drink Coke and piss in the bushes while they wait for fares and the butterflies look mostly like delicate pieces of fax paper folded in half and given the spark of life. The neighbors across our small valley burn trash while wildflowers laugh and bloom from the rough sides of the cement streets. The woman down the way makes the greatest gorditas de flor de calabaza you’d ever taste, and occasionally some men come by in a big truck to pick up the trash from our house.

It’s like that dicho says: little by little you end up walking far. You put your head to the grind, lay down ink when you can, and the next thing you know the fan over your head is writing circles, bringing everything together. The fourth grade class has a laughing attack, the teacher does a fan-dance, and the poems spill through the bars covering the windows.

We are raising our hands and not looking back.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

Will Presidente Fox Massacre the Teachers?

If he turns the guns on the teachers,the students will again learn the lesson taught by men with guns to students with pencils.

It’s octubre, the Mexican season of massacre. Every year on the night of the second a long shudder rolls up the rocky spine of the continental divide from somewhere in Chiapas near the sea through Oaxaca and Puebla down into the volcano valley of México

from La Plaza de Tres Culturas to Los Pinos --the Mexican White House--where it stops. Walking the streets just after sunset one can see the ghosts of flares lingering in the purgatory sky like homeless smoke.

Soon after, the bone-bass of helicopter blades returns to the air like distant thunder, and looking up, there are machetes spinning above a metallic cloud of sharp angles from which the strong rain of bullets came.

That was almost forty years ago. 1968. Forty years doesn’t seem so long ago in octubre.

In Los Pinos, behind a large desk, a presidente in his final days doesn’t feel as if forty years is so long ago, thinking about the teachers and their strike, the teachers and their graffiti, the teachers and their raised torches, the teachers and their sacking of a capital city, the teachers and their demands, the teachers and their long, long summer.

His long fingers find the metal revolver he keeps in the wide drawer above his long legs. He picks it up. He puts it down. He picks up a heavy telephone.

Blood drips from his right ear from violent conservative cries.

Blood drops from his left ear from the teachers and their chants, and from the parallel government flanking his left.

His long face looks old, he raises white handkerchiefs to both ears, and both come away with a blood portrait of Díaz Ordaz--the presidente from forty years prior. Outside, the press screams through the windows.

Will Presidente Fox massacre the teachers? Even as they march from Oaxaca, across some three hundred miles of cactus and thick politics, a Mexican flag at their front? Or will he leave unfinished business for the next politico from his party?

Here in México they say--among other things--that uno se convierte en aquello que estudia--one becomes that which one studies.

As the long days of octubre wear on, we wonder if Fox studies Díaz Ordaz, if the teachers study Castro, if the sky remembers what bullets feel like as they cut little lines through it...

we wonder what will ever come of it? Will Presidente Fox massacre the teachers?