Snapshots From the Plaza: Living and Dying in Mexico (Part 1)

Oaxaca

The bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca smelled of urine and dirty socks, and the city itself was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered from 20 years before. Then, even the zocolo seemed smaller and more intimate, quaint even, a few gringos snacking at one of the al fresco cafes, a few lovers holding hands and strolling, kids kicking around  brightly colored soccer balls.

Twenty years ago,  over the course of a few days, I had befriended one of the kids. He called himself Cristino and he appeared to be in his mid-teens. One morning, Cristino sought me out in the zocolo. He had with him two small paintings he wanted to sell me. They were painted in the primitive style, one showing an anthropomorphized sun rising beatifically over a terraced field populated by peasant laborers, Holstein cattle, and a handful of white bunnies, with an azure stream flowing through the center of the field. The colors were bright and surrealistic and the perspective was intentionally two dimensional, like a child’s drawing. Each painting was inscribed “Cristino”.

The companion piece was the exact same scene, except with a rising moon replacing the sun, turning the blue stream platinum. I bought both painting for $20 (U.S.) and still have them both today. Cristino even threw in an official Vera Cruz Mexican soccer league ball, as a bonus.

Estilo primitivo
Estilo primitivo

It’s hard to imagine striking up that kind of connection with a ragamuffin teen artist in today’s Oaxaca. The residential neighborhoods south of the zocolo are now crowded with people and dense with diesel smog. The zocolo itself seems to have been enlarged. Certainly there are more cafes and cantinas surrounding the square, with far more patrons.

But there was another big addition that distorted the entire zocolo out of perspective: a roped off tent city occupying the middle 3/4 of the square. Occupying the tents and under many strung together canopies were teachers, the notorious maestros radicales, and their families.

The radical masters were there, and in fact had been there for several months, ostensibly to protest an educational reform package proposed by President Enrique Pena Nieto (in a feeble attempt to distract the public from his administration’s abject failure to control the barbaric and murderous drug cartels) that would require college degrees for public school teachers. But the protest had turned into something bigger and more captivating: around the perimeter of the tent city hung a dozen large banners picturing the missing normalistas of Iquala, Guerrero, 44 leftist students who had disappeared without a trace in the autumn of 2014.

The disappearance of the normalistas had rocked the country. Huge demonstrations were staged in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and other major cities to protest the disappearance. You have to hand it to the Mexican people just for suffering the indignities of being Mexican. But, despite generations of being pissed on  by an cruel, corrupt, mercenary  government and  a stifling, impenetrable bureaucracy, la gente  was demanding answers. Answers, of course, they knew would never come.

The Mexican authorities usually accommodate these kind of protests. They see it as a safety valve: the peons blowing off steam as opposed to taking up arms.

Election Day Protest
Election Day Protest

The teachers occupying the plaza let it be known that they, at least, weren’t dicking around. They blockaded the government run Pemex gas stations, effectively cutting off fuel to the entire city (and thoroughly pissing off the taxistas) , and they promised to monkey-wrench the up-coming elections, to be held the following Sunday.

Thursday  night, the skies over Oaxaca were bursting with the arrival of military helicopters and transport planes. By Friday morning, the city was in full military occupation mode, swaggering federales along with  Mexican army troops taking up positions throughout the city, residential side streets lined with armored personnel carriers. Adding insult to injury, the Mexican government banned alcohol sales from midnight Friday to midnight Sunday. Thankfully, they gave us plenty of warning.

Sunday, I found myself in Parque Juarez El Llano at the outer edge of El Centro, where a huge protest march was terminating. I started snapping pictures of the crowd until a man who’s face was obscured by a bandana ordered me to stop. I complied. There must have been 5000 or more protesters. Even the communist party was flying the hammer-and-sickle banner. Some loud fireworks exploded near the park. No cops were in sight. The peons were just letting off a little steam. After all, marching is easy, revolution is hard.

By Monday morning the elections in Oaxaca were declared successful and official. The government of Pena Nieto received a  vote of confidence. The normalistas, last seen in the hands of the Guerrero State Police, are still missing a year after their disappearance.

San Miguel de Allende

The central plaza in San Miguel de Allende is known as the Jardin Principal (main garden), not as the Zocolo like in other Mexican towns. Relatively lifeless during the day, it comes alive later in the afternoon as the evening bells of the neo-gothic cathedral, La Parroquia begin to toll. By then, the afternoon rains would have come and gone, cooling the city and leaving steam rising from the cobbled street.

Instituto Allende
Instituto Allende

Each afternoon we would walk north of the Jardin, hike up a busy commercial street to an art school/gallery called  Instituto Allende, a citadel perched on a bluff overlooking the city. There on the mezzanine level, past an elaborate mural by local artist David Leonardo, was a small cantina with  al fresco tables protected by an over-hanging balcony. It opened up into a large, tiled  terraza where  prominent weddings are held. And there in the late afternoon we would drink tart margaritas  and watch the towering thunderheads rise over the city below, the color of the clouds changing from bruised peach to gun metal grey. And soon the skies would open into a downpour and drenching San Miguel, and I never wanted to leave.

Thunderstorm in San Miguel
Thunderstorm in San Miguel
Instituto Allende Margarita
Instituto Allende Margarita

Playas de Rosarito

Twice in my life I have been intentionally poisoned. Once was in a hotel bar late one evening years ago in San Francisco that resulted in cracked ribs, a smashed 2nd floor balustrade, and me blacking out on the floor next to my bed. The other time happened recently in Rosarito Beach.

We had gone to the annual Tequila Festival on Benito Juarez, near the fairgrounds, and ordered a platter of lechon (shredded, barbecued suckling pig) and a margarita. After the meal we had another margarita and mingled with the crowd. Moments later, things began to swing violently out of control. I had not only lost track of my friend, but had lost virtually all muscular control as well. I was in a fast spiral towards oblivion.

I had just enough of my wits about me to know I had to get out of there pronto, and try to manage the 10 blocks back to my condominium. I remember staggering through the venue swinging laterally a good 12 feet back and forth.

I also remember looking into the laughing faces of young Mexicans working the tequila fest, greatly amused by the cliche of the drunken gringo barely able to stand. At one point I remember yelling in Spanish “I am not drunk! I have been poisoned!”, resulting in even more robust laughter from the workers.

From that point on, everything I know about that night I learned second hand over the next few days. I have no memory.

I didn’t make it very far  because a neighbor, a man I call El Gaucho because he owns a small Argentinian restaurant in Rosarito of the same name, found me passed out in the middle of the street barely a block away from the tequila fest. El Gaucho loaded me in his van (he had been a vendor at the festival, perhaps even had seen me stagger by), brought me back to my condo, and put me to bed. I must have insisted that I had to go back to the Tequila Festival to find my friend because El Gaucho gave explicit instructions to the security guard to not allow me to leave the premises.

But somehow I did. I made it about 4 blocks up a dark street called Mar Adriatico, a street paralleling the beach that I would not likely walk alone at night. There I was found again face-down in the street by another samaritan, a total stranger to this day, who must have recognized me from the neighborhood and hauled me back to my condo and again put me to bed.

It’s a little later that some of my memory kicks back in: trying desperately to get to my feet, desperately trying to get back to the festival, only to slump back into my bed, unable to move. It might have been hours or it might have been minutes but, at last, my friend, like an angel, appeared over my bed and I could finally surrender.

The next morning I was in a nearby private hospital losing consciousness again, this time to a medicinal drip while having my badly dislocated right shoulder reset.

It was a year before I could raise my right hand over my head. As it turns out, that shoulder would never be the same, nor would my memories of Rosarito.

Tijuana

I recently had the misfortune of spending a couple nights in Tijuana. A hotel down there, The Valero, was pimping a deal: a month in a “suite” for $600. The pictures showed a postmodern look to the rooms, clean lines, uncluttered spaces, and smooth surfaces. Being, as I am at the moment, between fixed addresses, I thought I would head down and check it out, so I booked a 2-night stay.

Let me get this out of the way: while it’s certainly not a fleabag, I would not recommend the Valero to anyone unless their idea of amenities are  cold showers and a surly staff . At one point there was no water at all for several hours, news that was regarded at the front desk with detached amusement, and then resentment when I tried to force the issue. The only window in my room faced inward toward a walkway that encircled an atrium, but it didn’t matter because the window had been blackened out. Natural light probably hadn’t entered that room since it was constructed. Within the first 15 minutes I had divested myself of the idea of staying there for a month.

I never have spent a lot of time in Tijuana. In the 80’s I would occasional head down with friends for dinner and drinks, or to catch a bullfight at the old arena. I’ve had a Cesar’s Salad at the famous Cesar’s Hotel bar and I know where you can get some pretty good street food, but I’ve never hung around long enough to know, for example, where the really good donkey-on-woman sex clubs are located. For me, Tijuana is a place totally lacking in charm that you have to drive through to get to the border.

And, of course, the place has gotten exponentially worse in recent decades, due to the vicious competition to control the drug plaza after the ill-conceived take down by the U.S. of the Arellano Felix cartel. So despite the presence of the new “gastronomical district” with famous chefs like Javier Plascencia whipping together over-priced “Baja Med” fusion meals, and despite the presence of a handful of decent, gringo-infested high-end condos in the “Zona Rio”, Tijuana remains the quintessential shit-hole.

One thing I failed to mention about the Valero  is the location. Even though it’s located only one block off the main drag, Benito Jaurez, the hotel is located smack dab in the middle of the red light district. Whores of every variety, male, female, and tranny, prowl the street desperately seeking out eye contact with their hollow,  predatory stares. On my second afternoon in Tijuana, I was returning to the hotel after spending a few hours in a cantina when a fat, middle-aged prostitute tried to strike up a conversation. She was pointing to the gold chain that I was wearing around my neck and she said, in decent English, that I’d better take it off and put it away if I was to be walking on that street.

Now, the gold chain in question is thick and  high carat and is attached to a gold Saint Christopher’s medallion the size of a nickel. It was a gift and had not been off my neck for over 20 years. I told the woman that I was only 2 blocks from the hotel and I would remove it there. But in the time that it took me to turn away and walk five steps, the whore apparently had signaled an accomplice. I heard foot steps closing fast from behind me and before I had a chance to react I felt the chain being ripped from my neck. I sprinted after the thief for two crowded city blocks but by then he was out of sight. Of course, nobody stopped him.

I was furious. I returned to the room but left almost immediately, back down to the street. The fat prostitute was nowhere to be found. I grabbed a cop and told him what happened and he responded with a what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it shrug. I approached another prostitute, an attractive blond gringa who I had noticed before. With tears of rage in my eyes I told her I would reward her a thousand bucks in cash if she would help me get the jewelry back.

The blond whore just looked at me pitifully, called me “baby”, and told me it was best to go back to the room and forget about it.

Oaxaca

The day before the huge election day demonstration, Parque Juarez El Llano in Oaxaca was tranquil. Young couples eating ice cream cones strolled leisurely down the walkways, some pushing baby strollers. A Zumba class was taking place near the entrance to the park, near a huge, cooling fountain.

It was there while sitting on a shady park bench that I met an American, a woman probably in her early 70’s, and struck up a conversation. She told me she was a writer with a memoir of her time living in Mexico that was not quite yet available on Amazon. She had lived in Oaxaca for several years and felt at home there with both the locals and the ex-pat community. Her furnished apartment, only a few blocks from the park, only cost her $200 a month.

I ask her if she felt safe, a single woman living alone in a foreign country, and she assured me that she did. “So nothing at all threatening has ever happened to you here?” I asked. She thought about for a minute and then describe one incident to me.

A few months before, the woman had taken a bus to visit friends in Puerto Escondido, on the coast about 6 hours from Oaxaca City. On the bus, a Mexican man had struck up a friendly conversation and eventually offered her a cold drink, which she accepted.

The next thing the woman remembers is crawling out of a black hole and regaining consciousness, sprawled across her seat in the Puerto Escondido bus station. The bus was empty except for her and she had no idea how long she’s been there. Her purse, her luggage, her jewelry, and her latest manuscript were missing.

She believes she was poisoned.