To the east and west are mangrove forests, between them a few small hillocks, the dirt road we’re speeding down, and a salt-encrusted flatland some five hundred yards wide. There’s no reason to speed; we have nowhere to go, only the afternoon to burn. We’re looking for Real de Salinas, an abandoned salt mining town. Two miles behind us is Celestun, a coastal village on the northwest tip of the Yucatan peninsula. Almost all of this — the mangroves, the salt marsh, the estuary just east of the marsh and invisible behind the mangroves — is part of a large bioreserve and winter home to the largest flock of flamingos in the Americas. We don’t see any flamingos and the salt marsh looks as little like a marsh as a grub resembles the wasp it will one day become. Nonetheless, the land shows its true nature quickly enough when Jeremy, intending to turn us around, veers off the road onto what only appears to be solid earth. A few moments later we climb out of our twenty-year-old Mitsubishi Montero to discover that we’re up to our axle in mud.
What are we looking for? Real de Salinas, a ghost town. Adventure, I suppose. Danger? No, not overtly, though you have to admit that the pleasure of traveling in certain mostly safe countries is, like sex in public spaces, increased in proportion to your belief that you’re taking real risks. And Mexico in 2008 feels less safe than ever, even for the normally sacrosanct tourist. In fact, there is enough violence, and sufficient State Department warnings about that violence, to make the entire country feel dangerous, regardless of the statistics.1 South of Celestun, Jeremy and I stuff brush beneath the Montero’s tires and use our hands to dig mud out from around the axle. There’s no one out here, no reason to believe anyone will pass by, and when our efforts only sink us deeper into the marsh, I insist that Jeremy go for help. He was, after all, the one driving.
It’s late March, the dry season. A thin stream runs down the center of the ciénaga, remnants of the brine which, in July, when the rains return, will cover the entire plain. Then it will be impossible to mistake the marsh for solid earth. Then, only a fool would drive off the road. An egret wades along the water’s edge. The sun sinks lower in the sky and I wait in the truck as vireos in the treetops chirp high-pitched inquiries back and forth.
An hour later Jeremy returns with two brothers he found working in a charco or salt pond. “Mi troca es en la sal,” Jeremy had told the brothers in his pidgin Spanish. The brothers immediately asked if he was alone. This made Jeremy nervous. As soon as you tell people you’re going to Mexico, they warn you of bandidos and narcos and narcobandidos. Though the drug-related violence in the north of the country is real enough, Jeremy and I haven’t worried too much about banditry and certainly haven’t experienced any. And yet somewhere at the bottom of my lungs is fear, waiting for me to cough it up. Is it also hope? Don’t we travel so that we can become heroes of narratives more rewarding than those available in our workaday lives? Heroes need danger. They need challenges greater than language barriers and the tricky business of currency conversion. Best case, the danger is there, just out of sight, around the next bend, and you fly by in your tour bus, happy to have come close but not so close as to test your mettle. Driving back, Jeremy sits between the brothers in the cab of their truck. They ask if he speaks Maya. When he says no they proceed to talk in a language that doesn’t sound a bit like Spanish. This also makes him nervous. The younger brother, Nat, is seventeen, wiry and tall. He wears an oversized t-shirt with a surfing logo on its front. The older brother, Emilio, is shorter and a little fat around the middle. They get out of their truck, take one look at the Montero and shake their heads. “Un poco mas,” Nat says and raises his hand to his eyes: This is how deep in it you nearly were.
And now begins what will become a theme: we need a good rope but don’t have one. Instead, the brothers have discarded electrical wire and clothesline. If they were bandidos this would serve well enough to tie us up, but it’s not likely to yank the Montero from its resting place. Here is another theme: the brothers are not discouraged. They braid together the clothesline and the electrical wire, tie one end to the Montero and the other to their beat-up Ford, and try to pull us out. Nat and I push against the front bumper and then, a moment later, duck as one after another the wires snap and zing across the roof of the Mitsubishi.
A third theme: the Montero does not budge.
I suggest we go into town and call a tow truck before it gets too late in the evening. No, Nat says, that would be expensive. The nearest tow truck is sixty miles away in Merida and even if they were willing to drive out here (unlikely) they’d charge a fortune. Besides, Nat explains, if we leave the truck alone los robos will strip it down to its chassis. I don’t know what desperate robos would stalk their victims in a salt marsh but I acquiesce and turn to see Emilio walking back from the truck with a machete and a hatchet. “Vamos,” he says and walks off toward the mangroves. We follow. Fifty yards in, Emilio turns and says something neither Jeremy nor I understand. He repeats himself and then puts his hands behind his back in pantomime of someone being handcuffed. “Es peliogroso,” he says. “Compredan?”
Danger, we understand. Why we should put our hands behind our backs, we do not.
It would take a book, if not a series of books, to enumerate all of the things we don’t understand out here in the salt marsh, but here’s a taste: The Yucatan’s henequen industry boomed during the first half of the twentieth century, providing the raw material for two world wars worth of rope and agriculture’s seemingly endless demand for twine. Then, in the 1950s, synthetic began replacing natural fibers in rope-making and, on grain farms, the combine supplanted the binder, all but eliminating the need for twine. The henequen industry collapsed and a few decades later it’s hard to find even enough rope in Celestun to pull a truck out of a marsh.
More things we don’t know: After the bottom fell out of the henequen market, the Mexican government drove the unemployed toward the coasts, and by the 1970s Celestun had metastasized from a small town of a thousand people to a somewhat less small town of six thousand people. Most of these immigrants became fishermen, work with which they had little experience. A few decades earlier they might have become salt collectors, the primary occupation in Celestun since long before the Spanish arrived, but all that had ended in the 1940s when the Salt Industry of the Yucatan (ISYSA) built large-scale industrial facilities at Las Coloradas, west of Cancun. Today Las Coloradas produces eighty percent of the salt in the Yucatan, and Celestun residents depend on fishing and tourism for their livelihoods.
A century ago, the neighboring states of Campeche and Yucatan fought over control of the charcos. Today most are abandoned. In 2002, researchers from Unidad Merida conducted interviews in the area and discovered that salt work was considered one of the least respected forms of employment. One young man said he would never work in the charcos. “My father says it’s donkey work,” he told the researchers, who had come to Celestun to explore ways to improve relationships between the locals and the officials in charge of the Celestun Biosphere Reserve, the 146,000 acre wildlife refuge engulfing the community. The locals depend on the land and the water and what they can extract from both. Even those catering to tourists depend on the flamingos and are often reprimanded for bringing their customers too close to the birds. Others want to harvest shrimp from the laguna or collect wood from the forests. Both activities are illegal.
This is what Emilio is trying to tell us when he puts his hands behind his back and pretends to be handcuffed. Eventually we catch his drift or, rather, Emilio sees that we have no idea what he’s saying, goes on with his business, and Jeremy and I realize that we are not about to be tied up. Illegal or not, the brothers cut down a tree the length and width of a basketball goalpost, drag it back to the truck, and the four of us try to lever the Montero out of the mud. For a moment it seems like a brilliant idea, the kind of basic physics we all learned in eighth grade science, applied to a real world predicament. But it doesn’t work. Even if we were strong enough to lift the truck’s dead weight, the mud has created suction around the undercarriage and holds fast. Next we try to stuff the tree under one set of tires to get traction. We’re building a kind of ad hoc bridge and probably we should cut down a tree for both sets of tires. We don’t and the free tires only sink deeper into the mud. Emilio decides to drive off in search of rope.
Nat, Jeremy and I remain behind, share the last cigarette, and Nat asks what we’re doing in Mexico. Jeremy tells him that we’re writers, de libros y peliculas, and that we’re collaborating on a book set mostly in Mexico. This is true enough. In fact, though we have both been writing for over a decade, this is the first time in our lives we can call ourselves writers and have real income to back it up, though to be perfectly accurate we should call ourselves ghostwriters. These paychecks are footing the bill for our Mexican adventures, and since the checks are neither very substantial nor very numerous, we’re doing it on the cheap. So yes, we are writers of libros y peliculas, sorta. Jeremy tries to explain these circumstances to Nat, who really only wants to know what peliculas we have written. I laugh and let Jeremy explain that we have not actually written any movies but only one solitary screenplay, and when it comes to Hollywood our only claim to fame is that a drug-addled friend in L.A. once pitched our script to Burt Reynolds. Apparently Burt Reynolds was intrigued, though our friend proved an unreliable producer. Jeremy doesn’t know enough Spanish to explain any of this and, besides, Nat has never heard of Burt Reynolds.
Later I ask Nat about working in the charcos. His father is some kind of foreman or manager of the saltpans. Nat tells us that he and his brother get up every morning at 5:00 and fish until just before noon. They then return home, eat lunch and go to work in the charcos. When some tourist doesn’t run his truck into the marsh (we’re not the first), the brothers work the saltpans until dark. This is not a sob story, just a narration of the facts of Nat and his brother’s life. That’s a long day, I tell Nat. Yes, he says, already he’s tired, and for the rest of the evening he yawns every half hour or so, shakes his head and says, “Cansado. Es tarde.” It is late; within an hour it will be dark. Already I feel guilty about imposing on the brothers.
Soon Emilio returns. With him are his father, mother, and little sister, but no rope. Instead he has a shovel with which he intends to dig out the axle. As soon as they are out of the truck, Nat tells his family that Jeremy and I write movies. “Qué películas?” the sister wants to know. She’s younger than Nat, pretty and dark, and I try to explain about the script and ghostwriting. She shrugs and walks off to join her parents, who are examining the Montero and shaking their heads. Emilio makes little progress with the shovel, and so we splice back together the electrical wire and clothesline and try again to pull the truck out of the mud. The mother and sister help Nat and me push. The father stands off to the side, watching, shaking his head, maybe at our predicament but probably at his sons’ willingness to waste their entire evening pulling a couple of strangers out of the mud.
The wires pop and zing; mom, sister, Nat, and I duck. A few minutes later, without any mention of the legendary robos, the six of us pile into Emilio’s truck, leaving the Montero exactly where it has been all evening: half-submerged in a salt marsh. The family lives in a small, gabled house between the last salt pan and the southern edge of town. There we leave the parents and sister and drive into Celestun. Nat’s no longer yawning. Instead he’s making catcalls out the window. Qué ondas! he yells at two boys his own age standing outside the fishmonger’s. Dígame, puta! He seems to know everyone. Qué jugosa! he yells at the girls. Though there’s some money in Celestun, mostly it’s confined to a few nice hotels and an eco-resort north of town. Otherwise the streets are dusty, and the buildings’ once-bright paint is chipped and sun-bleached. We’re looking for someone Emilio calls his hermano, someone who seems to own a truck with a winch. I don’t understand why we haven’t gone looking for this person much earlier or why it’s so important that Jeremy and I come along and suddenly so unimportant that we leave someone behind to watch over the truck.
Then we stop in front of a naval base, the brothers become nervous and quiet, and I understand well enough. The hermano is no brother but a soldier Emilio knows. It’s dangerous to approach any military installation in Mexico, especially at night2 and I suspect that Jeremy and I are the brothers’ assurance. Emilio blows the horn and then stands before the gate, his arms limp at his sides. It’s dark now and two soldiers come out and shine a flashlight in Emilio’s face and then the three of them talk. We’re south of town, not two hundred yards from the ocean, and over the voices I can hear the surf crash against the beach. The truck isn’t at this base but at another. We drive to an installation north of town and again Emilio blows the horn and waits nervously by the gate. He speaks to one group of soldiers, then another. Half an hour later a five-ton troop carrier rumbles out onto the road. There’s a winch attached to its front. Three soldiers armed with automatic rifles and sidearms ride in the back, two more up front. We leave Emilio’s vehicle in town, climb up into the five-ton, and Jeremy and I join in Emilio and Nat’s general sense of nervousness.
Mexico is a country occupied by its own military. Some areas are entirely policed by soldiers and there are checkpoints throughout the country, all of them looking for contraband — drugs and guns, but mainly guns. The government and its military are at war with the drug traffickers, which is to say Mexico is suffering through a civil war fought on behalf of two powerful, wealthy classes. My nervousness is mostly due to the soldiers’ weaponry. I grew up with guns but not these kinds of guns, and you’re not likely to see such well-armed forces in the U.S. unless you barricade yourself in a stash house or a bank. The soldiers themselves are young, all but their cabo under the age of twenty. They’re friendly and share their cigarettes with us, and when we’re back out in the marsh they laugh at the Montero listing heavily to port. Finally we have rope but it’s thin and frayed and all but useless. As for the winch, it’s broken, the roller stuck. So we double up the rope, wed it with the clothesline and the electrical wire, connect all of this to the appropriate bumpers and then, once more: pop, zing, duck.
I begin to entertain the possibility that we will not retrieve the truck from the marsh, certainly not tonight and maybe not ever. The soldiers are so friendly, the brothers so steadfast, that I’ve lost any sense of danger and am anxious mostly about the loss of our vehicle. There are worse travel disasters, but it would certainly put the brakes on our adventure. We can’t afford to replace the Montero, would have to deal with the difficult task of proving to the Mexican government that we have not illegally sold the truck in the country, and soon we would have to face the dreary prospect of returning home by bus or airplane. Then there’s the question of a hotel room for the night and transportation back to Merida tomorrow. Neither of us have much money, there’s no ATM in the town, so instead of the frightening but romantic bandidos, we would now face the frustrating and unromantic task of making travel arrangements.
Except that our new friends are not yet ready to give up. It’s embarrassing that we should have felt any anxiety about either the brothers or the troops because they are all generous, friendly, and hell-bent on getting us out of the marsh. Emilio and the soldiers climb back into the five-ton and drive off in search of a better rope. Once again Jeremy and I stay behind with Nat, who recommences yawning and telling us how tired he is. Eventually he falls asleep on the salt-crusted ground. It’s after 10:00 p.m. We have been out here since 4:00. Nat and Emilio have been with us since 5:00. The stars are brilliant and endless and just over the trees is the Gulf of Mexico, beyond that, Cuba and Florida. This is another reason we travel: to feel ourselves adrift in the world, to shake free of our spidery social networks, our daily schedules and routes so habitual we could follow them with our eyes closed, and sometimes do. We flock to beaches because we cannot yet flock to space, and the ocean is the next best thing. As a teenager I used to drive the back roads outside my hometown, trying my best to get lost. We want to be lost, perhaps not very lost and not lost for too long, but sufficiently lost to taste the reckoning power of this surprisingly large world. Jeremy withdraws to the truck, Nat sleeps, and I try to imagine myself as a dot on a globe Wallace Stevens aptly called his “fat girl, terrestrial,” 8,000 miles wide from hip to hip.
At eleven the soldiers return with rope a good inch and a half thick, a big coil of it they drag across the ciénaga and fix to our bumper. There’s enough length to double the rope and they do, make fast the knots, then Jeremy climbs behind the wheel of the Montero, the cabo climbs into the five-ton, and the rest of us make ourselves ready to push. I don’t think it will work. I have all but said my goodbyes to the truck. The five-ton rumbles to life, the soldiers and the brothers and I lean into the hood, and for the first time in seven hours the Montero moves. Thirty minutes later, Jeremy and I are on the highway, racing toward Merida, giggling like schoolgirls. We can’t believe how easily we’ve escaped.
A year later, northern Mexico was a warzone: 9,614 drug-related deaths in 2009, almost a third of those in the single state of Chihuahua. As the corpses piled up, I rushed through the first drafts of this essay, certain I had something important to say about the nature of travel, and maybe even about America’s often awkward relationship with Mexico. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes, but maybe the reverse is also true: we live in order to tell ourselves stories. Surely, one of the reasons we travel is to tell ourselves stories. Foreign territories, if sometimes unresponsive to diplomatic pressures, easily succumb to our fantasies, fears and prejudices. This seems nowhere more true than in Mexico, where good old Moctezuma, once god-king of the country, is now patron saint of toilet emergencies, and where a fugitive drug trafficker made Forbes’ billionaire list and its list of the world’s most powerful people. Mexico is both fantasy and fantastic, and the impossible challenge as a traveler is to see through the smoke to something more real. Edward Said, who spent his career worrying over such issues, claimed such clarity required little more than “understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes.” As I worked on this essay, I thought I could illustrate my failures and successes at this task, and that I could do so in the context of a long evening spent digging out of the mud in Celestun.
And then the bullets kept flying, the bodies kept falling. In Juarez in 2010 the reality was staggering: 227 drug-related murders in January, 147 in February, 240 in March, 205 in April, 262 in May, 313 in June, 286 in July, 336 in August, 298 in September, 359 in October (a historical record), 198 in November, and 221 in December. That’s more than three thousand murders in a city with, at most, 1.3 million inhabitants. I say “at most” because certainly the population has decreased since the most recent census, in 2005. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal estimated that 116,000 homes had been abandoned in Juarez, which would reduce the city’s population by as much as a third. Juarez was now one of the most dangerous cities on earth; living there was slightly more hazardous than being an American soldier in Iraq in 2010 and slightly less dangerous than being one in Afghanistan.3 What did it mean to talk about the pratfalls of tourism in the face of such bloodshed? Did I intend to salvage the country’s devolving reputation by noting the good hearts and strong backs of some of its citizens? Did I, like the Mexican government and tourist boards, want to make the point that the country at large wasn’t nearly as dangerous as the news made you believe? Maybe I could narrow my scope so that such issues did not come into play, so that the story was mostly about me, but even that seemed morally questionable.
Though, to be fair, we often see other countries’ plights as being mostly about us. Egypt revolts against its dictator and we wonder what all this means for American interests in the region. We spend a decade blowing Afghanistan and Iraq all to hell and worry, when we worry at all, about American lives and American dollars. We are not much in the habit of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. When Marc Lacey, then the New York Times Mexico bureau chief, bemoaned the violence just beyond our southern border, he mourned the loss of a “naughty playland” where, “over the years, the lure of cheap booze gave way to quickie divorces, dog races, strip shows, slot machines and brothels where fathers sometimes brought their sons when they hit 16.” The year Lacey wrote that article there were over 15,000 drug-related homicides in Mexico. Stores were shuttered, houses emptied, birthday parties became bloodbaths. Lacey responded to this horrorscape by nostalgically quoting the moment in On the Road when Sal and Dean cross the border: “Beyond were music and all-night restaurants with smoke pouring out the door. ‘Whee,’ whispered Dean very softly.”
The first time the Mitsubishi broke down we were eighty miles south of the border and the dials on the dash just gave up and hung limp in their cradles. The engine soon followed. We were heading for San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez and had been in the country less than four hours. Along the road saguaro cactus grew tall as gallows trees, and behind them rose the brown peaks of the Sierra Juarez. Though it was only February it was already spring in Baja and tiny purple flowers grew in tattered carpets along the roadside. Otherwise the desert was brown and desolate and full of rubble. I called the tow service included with our Mexican auto insurance and was told by the operator that a truck would be with us in two or three hours. In the meantime, he said cheerfully, we should try to enjoy ourselves.
I walked back to the truck and thought of the stories of Paul Bowles, which I suppose is a kind of tortuous entertainment when you’re stuck in the desert. Bowles’s characters seem to believe that their good intentions are sufficient protection against the world and its dangers. They journey to foreign lands and their naiveté makes them blind to the hostility surrounding them. In one story, a professor travels to Morocco to study Moghrebi dialects. He’s hardly unpacked when a surly taxi driver tells him, “Keep on going south. You’ll find some languages you’ve never heard of before.” Later, the professor unintentionally angers the waiter at a coffee shop. The professor is, of course, oblivious until it’s too late and the waiter leads him into the hands of the Reguibat. “A cloud across the face of the sun,” Bowles calls the band of nomads.
History, Edward Said argued, is written, rewritten and unwritten with “various silences and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.” For me, much of this disfigurement begins with Paul Bowles, who I first read in my early twenties and whose shadow I have never entirely escaped. We all have these tonal influences, angels of sorts who travel with us, imposing their shapes on our world. Like spells cast with goofer dust, they are formed from the dry pages of newspapers and novels, from truths our parents told us and rumors we read on the Internet. Their influence can seem inescapable, all the more so because it is often subtle. “Security is a false god,” Bowles writes, “begin making sacrifices to it and you are lost.” Do I believe this, or do I only want to believe it? Maybe it’s a game I play with myself, like a child standing before a mirror in a dark bathroom, daring himself to whisper the words “Bloody Mary.”
In Mexico the closest I knowingly came to real danger of the bandido sort was in Gonzaga Bay, a small expat community on the Sea of Cortez where, a few days before Jeremy and I passed through, armed men stole a Cessna 206 right off the dirt runway.
“How do you steal an airplane?” I asked one of the “locals,” a retiree from Seattle.
“They had machine guns,” he said. “We just let them take it.”
In a good year, say one that’s not too bloody or too flu-ridden, twenty million Americans will travel to Mexico. It is our most popular international destination and we spend upwards of $11 billion there annually. Much of that money’s spent in the country’s coastal resorts. It’s spent on food and booze, beachside yoga lessons and snorkeling trips. It’s spent on a version of Mexico that does not seem significantly different from parts of Florida or southern California.
Twenty years ago Bob Shacochis went to Acapulco to report on the country’s burgeoning, state-sponsored tourism industry and noted that “North Americans, boarding their planes, take North America with them.” Two decades later the biggest change is that North America — the shopping malls, the Walmarts, the Coca-Cola and KFC, a Hollywood pleasantly available in both dubbed and un-dubbed versions — is already there, waiting for us. There are more and larger and nicer indoor shopping malls in Merida, Mexico than in the capital of Florida. You can TGIF right there on Paseo de Montejo, a tree-lined thoroughfare modeled on the Parisian boulevards, though it’s easier to find burgers and fries than steak frites. Even the margaritas and fish tacos aren’t all that different from what’s readily available in even the smallest American town. Two thousand miles and once you get there, you feel right at home.
Back in Baja, Jeremy and I decided not to take Mex 1 down the relatively populated Pacific coast; instead we drove the sandy washboard that is Mex 5 down the desolate eastern coast. With mountains on one side and an emerald sea on the other, it was easy to believe we had left the world behind, though the truth was we followed in the dusty wake of five college students stuffed into a Ford Escort, and were passed again and again by dirt bikes and Harleys and huge king cab pickup trucks, gringos at the helm of each. In Gonzaga Bay we found American and Canadian retirees hunkered down in a seventy-home enclave right there on the beach. A few days later we rolled into the oasis town of San Ignacio, with its two-hundred-year-old mission and forest of date palms. We had dinner on the zócalo. A hundred invisible birds screamed from the treetops while at the next table ten Germans traded tequila shots. An American woman named Jane ran the tourism office out of her bed-and-breakfast; she insisted we call her Juanita. Three days later we drove into La Paz, the hot and dirty and chaotic capital of Baja Sur. The first night there we ate at a restaurant run by an attractive Frenchwoman who served us onion soup and seafood bouillabaisse. Because she was so pretty, we splurged on a bottle of wine. In Acapulco, much to Jeremy’s dismay, I insisted we eat lunch at the Hard Rock Café. T.S. Eliot4 once said that “the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” Mexico smells like burgers and fries, like coconut-scented sun block lathered on the backs of college students bathing beneath a Caribbean sun. It smells like the smoke of burning roadside trash, like aguas negras, like corpses rotting in the Chihuahuan desert. Some of us are apt to lament the wholesale export of American culture and commerce, but perhaps we can say this about the best of these non-American countries: they have not become us so much as added our odor to their already chaotic bouquet.
In Spanish the same word means “story” and “history,” which is appropriate since fact and fiction are always entangled, no matter which part of the library you happen to be browsing. Here is a story, which is also history:
One day young Raúl and Carlos Salinas forced their maid to her knees, put a .22 rifle to her head and pulled the trigger. “I killed her with one shot,” three-year-old Carlos boasted. “I am a hero.” In 1988, Carlos became the president of Mexico. In 1995, his brother Raul was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison for ordering the murder of his brother-in-law, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Evidence given to the U.S. Department of Justice suggested that the Salinas family were providing protection to high-level druglords and their interests, and that the assassinated brother-in-law, an important official in the ruling political party, had stolen millions of dollars from the cartels. Raul spent ten years in prison before being acquitted. No other Salinas was prosecuted.
During the six years Carlos Salinas was president of Mexico, Americans spent, on average, $78 billion5 annually on illegal drugs, most of them imported through Mexico.
There is a photograph in the El Paso Historical Society, a grainy black-and-white taken in 1911, just two years before Ambrose Bierce crossed the border at El Paso and vanished forever. In the photo an American tourist, a white woman with a high forehead and cheekbones, poses as a Mexican revolutionary. She sits astride a horse. In her arms she cradles a Winchester rifle. A bandolier hangs from her neck, a lasso from the saddle horn. She sits very erect in the saddle, a serious look on her face. She’s beautiful, strong. She looks a lot like the movie heroines of the last three decades, the Linda Hamiltons and Angelina Jolies. The photograph is from the era of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, about whom most of us know next to nothing, though their mustachioed visages hang from the walls of damn near every Mexican restaurant in the United States. The one thing that distinguishes this photograph from the equally cheesy novelty photos we might take today is that the woman has crossed the border in the middle of a revolution, made her way to the rebel Madero camp outside Juarez, and in the photo is flanked by two real-life rebeldes, their dark faces hidden in the shadows of their enormous sombreros. Though the woman was certainly no partisan and probably took only moderate risks for her photograph, it is hard not to believe that something of the revolution clung to her and, like the tourist with his sunburn or the pilgrim with his radiance, she returned home with more than a souvenir.
“Juarez is a depressing place and Juarez makes us feel more alive,” Charles Bowden writes in Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future, referring to an entirely different war with entirely different causalities. “Later over drinks, we can speak of a mission, and we can believe those words because those words are true. But still we know something else also drives us — the rush of life exploding from its hidden and underground rivers and suddenly roaring around us as we make notes and we take photographs and we listen, and, oh my God, do we feel alive amid the screams.” This was the 1990s, when there was relative peace in Juarez. I moved to El Paso in 1998, stumbled upon Bowden’s book a few months later, and, after reading its mantra, “across the river and into the flesh,” decided to move to the other side of the border. I was twenty-two and at the time believed that desire and escape were somehow synonymous. You had to go somewhere. You want and want and somehow the object of that want was over there.
This is also when Jeremy and I first became friends. He was a graduate student in El Paso, I was an ex-graduate student from NYU, and the two us were roommates in a cinderblock Juarez apartment infested with cockroaches so large and numerous I stopped trying to describe them to my friends because they thought I was making it up. At night I could hear the insects in the crevices of the walls scraping their bristly legs against the cinderblock. There was no keeping the place clean. The door and windows didn’t fit their frames and any time the wind blew (often) dirt would whirl inside. We lived in Bellavista, a blue collar neighborhood near the Santa Fe Bridge, just west of Avenida Juarez, the main thoroughfare for tourists. I worked at a restaurant in downtown El Paso and bicycled back and forth. The U.S. border guards would ask what I was doing in Mexico and I’d say I lived there. “You live there?” they’d say. “Why?”
I lived there because, for a while at least, I liked the way my life looked against the city’s sun-baked backdrop. I was unapologetically broke, a wannabe writer living in what seemed like the last wild town in the West, while out in the desert lurked not just a serial killer but an epidemic of serial killing. (Between 1993 and 2005, some 470 bodies were discovered in the desert outside Juarez. Far more went missing and were never found.) A few blocks from my apartment a man had parked a concessions trailer and from it sold hot dogs, hamburgers and tacos. A Faulknerian idiot roamed the neighborhood, talking to himself and anyone else who would listen. Vendors wandered the streets carrying coolers from which they sold homemade burritos and tamales, and if you caught them too late in the afternoon you might well meet the country’s old god-king. I thought that eventually Juarez would become my city in the way my college town had, in the way parts of El Paso had, and in the way New York would a few years later — not completely known, no city ever is, but partially known, familiar.
Instead, it remained adamantly foreign. I never learned more Spanish than was necessary to complete my daily, practical tasks, worked and received my mail north of the border, stood in my back courtyard and picked up a cell signal from a tower in Texas. I did, for a while, date a Mexican woman but she and her family had lived in El Paso for years. I look back at photos from this time and am struck by my youth. I was skinny, shaggy-headed, more child than man. I must have thought that Mexico, like my Mexican girlfriend, would be easy. It would open its arms and sweep me away. This was, more generally, the way I looked upon the world. It was only a matter of time before it gathered me into its arms and swept me away.
In 2001, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, escapes from a maximum security prison hidden in the back of a laundry van and then vows to take control of the entire drug industry in Mexico, estimated to be worth $40 billion a year. In 2002, police assassinate Ramon Arellano Felix, head of the Tijuana Cartel. A year later police arrest the leader of the Gulf Cartel. Soon Shorty Guzman begins deploying his “troops” to one border city after another, attempting to fill the vacuum created by the killing and arrest of his rivals. The violence escalates. In the midst of this, Felipe Calderón is elected president of Mexico and, in 2007, begins sending federal troops to the border. In Juarez the cartels force the police chief to resign and the mayor to flee. Over the next three years the government will arrest or assassinate a half dozen leaders of the Beltrán-Leyva cartel, which has recently splintered from Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel. Ten thousand troops occupy Juarez. The violence does not abate.
Then, in May 2009, a man calling himself Comandante Ramiro walks down out of the mountains of southern Guerrero and holds a press conference. With him are twenty armed guerillas. “The strategy of combating the narco is phony,” he tells reporters. “Here in Guerrero, for example, the narcos participate in meetings that the army and state government hold to strike at one cartel and protect another, but essentially they are the same, because they murder, kidnap and torture. Here the cartel of Chapo Guzman is serving the army, and vice-versa.” Of course, Ramiro is just a guerilla, down from the mountains. A year later, National Public Radio comes to the same conclusion, noting that its reporters “found strong evidence of collusion between elements of the Mexican army and the Sinaloa cartel.”
“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman asked: Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large — I contain multitudes.)
It’s one thing to accept that you yourself are a fount of contradictions and another thing entirely to embrace the incongruous Other. Chapo Guzman should not exist in the same world as my helpful soldiers; the Salinas brothers have nothing in common with Emilio and Nat. Very well, Mexico is large; it contains multitudes. But the page is finite, and we expect the traveler to return with some bit of truth. In this regard, I disappoint even myself.
At the end of May, Jeremy and I pack our belongings back into the Montero and begin the long drive home. We have been living in Merida for the last three months, renting a house in “Gringo Gulch,” the neighborhood surrounding the local English-language library. Though we have made a few excursions (Celestun, Chichen Itza, Progresso), it has been a frugal three months and now we intend to treat ourselves to a taste of the Mexican resort paradise we so assiduously avoided on the drive down. In Tulum, a town at the southern end of what is known as the Mayan Riviera, we rent a thatch-roofed bungalow and recline on the white sand beach with the natives, who, in this case, are mostly tanned, attractive, and European. I often wonder what these kinds of vacations mean to others, what narratives run through their sun-shielded heads. In Tulum, and everywhere I’ve ever visited that is like Tulum, I fall into two kinds of reveries. The first is a fantasy of affluence, which demands I eat good meals, drink nice liquor, fit in. I want to think I fit in in Tulum but when I look back at the photos I see I’m sporting a bad haircut, a shirt that desperately needs laundering, and my face is raw, as if I have just shaved off a thick beard, which I have. None of this bodes well for my second reverie, which mostly involves the topless French women sunbathing on the beach and the communal shower stalls whose privacy depends entirely on flimsy, beaded curtains. Maybe there are other ways to think of the Mayan Riviera, but for the three days we spend there, none of them occur to me.
Fed, tanned, and relaxed, we drive west and don’t even make it out of Yucatan before things start going wrong. First, a hose bursts, nothing we can’t handle. We spend a couple of hours sweating on the roadside between Merida and Campeche and that night we make it as far as Ciudad del Carmen, “Pearl of the Gulf.” But by noon the next day the Montero will no longer shift into high gear and we hobble along as far as the state of Veracruz before the transmission gives out. For a week we’re stranded in Coatzacoalcos, “sanctuary of the snake,” a Gehenna of tangled streets and traffic congestion, the air hot and humid and stinking of exhaust and asphalt, a city ravaged by pollution from the nearby oilfields. It is a truly ugly place, an unfriendly place, and I begin to think of it as the asshole of Mexico and for seven days all but refuse to leave the hotel room.
“There is a limit to how much we can stomach, and that goes for you and that goes for me.” Charles Bowden wrote that after spending days examining photographs of corpses in Juarez. I am only tired — tired of the heat and car trouble and, most of all, tired of struggling to talk about transmissions in a language I barely understand with a mechanic who seems hell-bent on ripping us off. Legend has it that when Hernandez de Cordoba landed near present-day Cancun he asked the natives the name of the land and they responded tectectin, “I don’t understand,” which he transcribed as Yucatan. I tell the mechanic that I don’t understand, talk more slowly, and I grow tired of my own ignorance, of all the things I don’t know and can’t quite say. It is a passing feeling, but also a recurring feeling. It is how I feel for the entire year of 2010, every time I read another news story about the narco-apocalypse along our southern border. I feel that way most of all when I read these anonymous words, some of the most poignant written by a Mexican to be published in the United States:
There is no way to count the dead. We hush them up. We silence the bodies dissolved in acid. We silence the bullets to the head. We don’t know what to call it. We say, Se lo llevaron, they took him, because the truth — they killed him — is too terrible. And too common. And we resist the thought that death and torture live so comfortably among us. We don’t want to look at death. We busy ourselves with the living … In the United States and Europe they spell out “kidnapping” with all its letters when they talk about our cities (our dusty towns, in the New York Times and on the BBC!) and they don’t feel our shame.6
Indeed, we do not. We feel much in the way of fear, indignation, even sympathy and, though not nearly often enough, occasionally we are cognizant of our own varied culpabilities. But none of these are shame. Yes, we apologize often, regularly admitting our guilt to our loved ones and our news cameras, but almost always these are cold and calculating and unrevealing acts. Amateur Whitmans, we embrace our multitudinous natures. Sometimes I think we are a people who have forgotten how to blush, forgotten how to wither beneath the weight of our dissonant selves, our inharmonious world. And if we cannot feel our own shame, how can we possibly feel another’s? Today, as I write these last sentences, a young Mexican woman, Marisol Valles García, is applying for political asylum in El Paso, Texas. Less than five months ago she was described in U.S. papers as one of the bravest women in Mexico after she accepted the job of police chief in her small, troubled town in northern Chihuahua. Valles García was only twenty when she took charge of the local police force. She was pretty and bright-eyed, and only the most coldhearted among us could have read her story and not prayed that she escape the martyr’s fate. Today she is yet another refugee, her eyes downturned, her courage not without limits as she leaves behind a sun-warmed homeland shamelessly under siege.
- Even in 2010, when the violence is much worse, the murder rate for Americans travelling in Mexico is less than half the rate for those living in some large US cities, e.g. New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis and Baltimore. ↩
- In December of 2010, soldiers shot and killed a 32-year-old American tourist near a military checkpoint outside of Acapulco. The events that led to the shooting are unclear. Perhaps the American did not believe this was a legitimate checkpoint and tried to flee, though even that would hardly justify the shooting. What is clear is that the soldiers planted an assault rifle in the hands of the murdered American and then claimed that he had initiated the attack. ↩
- Mexico has lost 60,000 lives in the last five years of its drug war. ↩
- The quote is commonly, and mistakenly, attributed to Rudyard Kipling. ↩
- Adjusted to 2011 dollars. ↩
- Originally published in the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra, republished in n+1 and Harper’s magazine, 2010. ↩