“La Gasolinaza,” January 27, 2017
A group of protestors stood under the statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra, a heroine of the Mexican War of Independence. On this eponymous Pátzcuaro plaza – often called, simply, La Plaza Chica – I asked a campesino who looked to be about 60 what was happening. I hadn’t yet seen the signs on the other side of the statue damning the government’s New Year’s gift: a 20% leap in gas prices as part of deregulation of the energy sector. The man removed his sombrero and shuffled a bit in his ancient black huaraches. “La gasolinaza” he said, shaking a fist. Everyone is furious, especially since the gas tax followed a miniscule rise in the mandatory annual minimum wage increase. Four liters, or about a gallon of gas, is now roughly equal to a daily worker’s wage – about 80 pesos or $4.00. The protest here seemed mild compared to the violence and looting that happened in Veracruz and other states. Still, the air thickened with shouts of rage. I followed the man’s glance up at Bocanegra, executed by the Spanish in 1817 for her role in the rebellion. The bronze figure towers, head thrown back, one hand on her heart, the other extended. Her mouth is half open as though on the verge of a grito – perhaps one of solidarity with my companion’s blast against the pinche government. I nodded my agreement on la gasolinaza – this despite how little I can actually comprehend what it means to him. We didn’t get into Donald Trump and the current political crisis. But the unspoken part of everyone’s rage is the troika of rising gas prices, the falling peso, and the assault on Mexico’s pride and national identity. I wonder now if I’ll soon follow the lead of many Americans in Mexico who open conversations with “I’m sorry.” Our fury is shared and complex, moving back and forth across borders, but the suffering settles southward, like silt in the river whose crossing once offered passage to another life.
“No Son Bienvenidos” February 3, 2017
We’d expected it, after all. How long would Mexicans tolerate the insult of the new American president? It happened on a balmy winter day. My husband, Bob, walked through La Plaza Vasco de Quiroga in central Pátzcuaro, a gorgeous central square dedicated to “Tata” Vasco, the 16th century bishop now remembered as the benevolent grandfather who organized craft production in villages throughout the region – an ongoing legacy. We have strolled the Plaza among the teeming El Día de los Muertos crowds, bought crafts during Semana Santa, and passed countless amorous couples on ordinary Sunday nights over nearly twenty years of living part-time in Mexico. In this country of enormous warmth and unfailing politeness, no one had ever been anything but welcoming. But now the world has changed. “Aquí en Mexico no son bienvenidos” – “Here in Mexico, you’re not welcome,” said the 30-something man. He aimed directly at my husband, his voice low and calm despite the venom of the scorpion’s sting.
“Testimonios” February 9, 2017
The sun hung at the edge of the Pacific, a crimson globe above an azure sea. My hand fingered the stem of a chilled white wine glass and my husband, Bob, nursed his favorite cerveza, Negra Modelo, as we awaited an expensive seafood meal. We’ve been together for 25 years but only married for ten – a last-minute decision one weekend. We never went on an official honeymoon. Maybe this is it, I thought with a mix of chagrin and glee, the reason for honeymoons – to inhabit this mythic romantic picture. But mythologies close out inconvenient knowledge. Here’s what I ignored: that the meal was affordable because the weakest peso in decades is now crippling the Mexican economy. That the waitress, let’s call her María, had an attitude problem I recognized from my 20 years of restaurant work. “You want bread?” she had said with undisguised annoyance when we asked for something to snack on before dinner. But what I could not ignore was her perfect accent when she broke into English. Trying to warm up to her, I asked whether she was from this area of coastal Guerrero. She hesitated, then said, yes, but she had been in the U.S. for many years. She had attended high school in North Carolina. After a moment of hesitation, her voice turned sotto voce, a confessional tone I remembered from my Catholic childhood. Hints of the dark wood confessional, the scent of copal. “They just deported me,” she said. The word delivered an unexpected blow, so discordant that it seemed to hasten the sun’s descent. She’d only recently come back to this beach town where she had family. The previous weekend, she’d missed her niece’s birthday in North Carolina. “It’s a trauma, deportation,” she said, “But this is where I am now.” Later, I learned from a friend who’d eaten at that restaurant the same week that he, too, had heard Maria’s story. And why shouldn’t she tell us her tale? She knows that other confessional tone, the American voice of “let me tell you my story.” She is, after all, one of us, as American as she is Mexican. Mexican testimonios merge with American testimonials, a voice that bears witness to lives on both sides of the border, to cultures that can’t be easily teased apart. When we paid the bill and got ready to leave, she wished us a wonderful stay in Mexico. For a singular moment, we stood together to marvel at the lingering light on the ocean. But we couldn’t forget that just as she is part of us, we are part of “them,” standing for all that she was forced to leave behind.
“La Tristeza” March 7, 2017
Samantha, my Spanish teacher, sat extremely still as she described meeting someone who offered her a model for how to live. She’d been visiting artesanos in the Meseta Purépecha when she encountered woman in her late 80s, embroidering a cloth with her life stories. Call her Amalia. Her designs moved from childhood experiences toward marriage, including scenes of being beaten by her husband, and the deaths of her children. Not events one wants to prepare for. The detailed handwork, Samantha said, was as extraordinary as her story. She was stitching her tristeza – sadness – into the embroidery, getting ready to die. The story cloth would prepare her for this singularly certain event. Amalia’s story and the beauty of her creation haunted Samantha. She reveres the arts, and continually looks for ways to support local artesanos. But Amalia didn’t want to sell her cloth. She made beauty for its own sake, tempering the harshness of this world as she prepared for the next. The following week, Samantha returned to the village to check on Amalia. But she was gone, following her husband and children to the grave. No one knew what had happened to the cloth. Perhaps, Samantha mused, she’d been buried in it.
Samantha grew up dividing her time between Pátzcuaro and a town in the state of Chihuahua, close to the U.S. border. As a child, she regularly visited the U.S. to shop. She doesn’t remember her grandmother ever showing any kind of documents as they crossed. Samantha left Pátzcuaro as a young woman, working for years as a lawyer in Mexico City and Guadalajara. She is now back in Pátzcuaro to raise her daughter, care for her elderly mother, and teach Spanish. She prepared for one kind of life but found herself living another. Her stillness is that of a person who has suffered but who knows how to adapt. Last year, when chemotherapy failed to help her stomach cancer, she stopped the treatments. Then a former student told her about drinking the tea of a guanábana, a fruit with thick green skin and spikey thorns that grows locally. Samantha’s cancer is now in remission. Still, she continues to drink the tea each morning as she gets ready for her classes and tends to her daughter.
Samantha also prepared carefully each time she tried to visit the U.S. The first attempt was to visit family. “You don’t have enough money in the bank,” the man at the U.S. Consulate said in rejecting her application for a visa. “But I’m going to see family,” Samantha said, assuming that anyone would understand that family members always provide. Why would you need more? Her second attempt followed an invitation from an American university to teach Spanish. “Since you have the credentials to stay in the U.S., you won’t want to go back,” said the consul to explain the repeat refusal. Why would anyone return to Mexico? There are some divergences in worldviews that no amount of preparation can overcome.
Since the inauguration, I often wake at 3 a.m. in despair. What will happen next? We are not prepared, any of us, for the daily assaults. But we have models. Since the election, I’ve found inspiration in the country Donald Trump seems to most revile, among people who have faced corrupt governments and searing poverty and conditions far beyond their control. They know the folly of trying to rein in life’s contingencies, especially the final event we can’t evade. But along the way, we can accept the sometimes inevitable stings. We can seek alternative remedies for our pain. We can stitch the stories of our tristeza, creating beauty to buffer the impact of the blows.