Letter from Oaxaca
Bueno, Good and Hello
By Sara Sutter
People are leaving Mexico because of all the murders and rapes.
My Mexican friends don’t even want to go back to Mexico. My buddy and his family drove down there and the “cops” stopped them— killed the son, raped the mother, stabbed the father in the throat.
You know people are decapitated in broad daylight?
They’re hanging their mayors from the lampposts.
The warnings echo and stand in one’s mind as an idea, a wall. Warnings from mostly American men (who have never been to Mexico) are now replaced by warnings from mostly Mexican women (who rarely leave their homes). Especially cuando está oscuro. Each warning attempts to illuminate that which is obscured, unknown, dark. I tell myself I will trust my gut. I tell the officer at customs Be careful rather than Take care. Cuidado, not Cuidate.
In Mexico City, I learn the word enorme and feel afraid of everything.
The city eats the people.
I have feet for teeth.
I fly to the small coastal city Huatulco, Oaxaca, grab a cab and the driver takes me to his brother’s ex-wife’s house. She has a tienda that sells sodas and sundry sugar products. Behind the tienda, her house, and behind that the extended family compound. Siblings, economies. I’m led to a room above the tienda, a white box with a bed inside and a small window. Three black ants on the sink. Huatulco advertises itself as an ecological preserve. Laws for endangered sea turtles, rainforest-shrouded bays, wind power. The beach is an ivory curve cradled in craggy rock that looks like basalt but is probably not. A woman throws a ball and walks to it, picks it up, throws it and walks to it. Palapas hold a few bodies on their sides. Hotel staff in matching polos stand behind a bar stocked with margarita mix and pineapples, but there is no one, so they slouch and trade mumbly strands. This is a birthday party no one has come to. Paradise’s screenplay. The staff tells me such vacancy looms for two-thirds of the year. The other third the beach booms with North Americans, a surge like an economic tourniquet. I spend the evening with the cabbie’s brother’s ex-wife and her children. We drink calcium-fortified protein shakes, sweat and chat about the single life.
germen - germ, origin - masculine
gentil - gentle, courteous, graceful - masculine
gentío - crowd, throng - masculine
granja – farm – feminine
sazón – maturity, ripeness - feminine
segundo - second - masculine
seguridad - safety - feminine
seguro – 1. secure, safe 2. firm, steady 3. certain, sure – masculine
ast roads that wind through jungle and the skeletons of houses, Salina Cruz comes into view. I had imagined S.C. would be my weekend beach getaway, but it looks more like a Himalayan town, houses stacked up hillsides, an architectural layout that cousins Escher’s steps. And rather than resorts, Salina Cruz houses a massive oil refinery. The city formed around the industry’s growth rather than infrastructure plans, so when it rains, it is not uncommon to wade to the immigration office, the tax office, the hospital. Spills and quakes, also not uncommon. Sand breaks through the concrete. Jagged mouths of broken beer bottles yell color from the tops of fences and gates. Gritos. Caramel and coffee, bilious green, glaucous, clear. How artful, a bit like the glass garden on Philadelphia´s South Street. How artful, shards to the hands and chest of a potential thief.
Salina Cruz marks one’s entrance into the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest and southernmost end of the state of Oaxaca. This strip is bordered by the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, and is known for its indigenous people and languages—think the garb of Frida Kahlo and a Spanish-Mandarin fusion. The climate is malarial, a tropical savanna few degrees shy of inferno. One day proffers swimming and fresco in a Sierra Madre spring as blue as mouthwash—the next I find myself breaths ahead of a panic attack, the heat’s mitts ahold my throat. Mangoes, papayas, avocadoes, coconuts—all of the tropical goodies are here; they bloom and rot just as quickly. Stalls of bounty and heaps of decay. Dogs roam the streets with the rights of the sacred cow in India, yet they look like they’re on crystal meth. Heads buried in their arses, they twitch into whatever infestation. Stilettos find purchase among stones of dirt roads. Mist, heat-lightning, oxen carts, windstorms, steel boxes for buses that can serve as a back-alley chiropractor. With the equator for its fulcrum, the isthmus see-saws from extreme to extreme. Paradise and hell, to split a hair.
Octavio Paz writes about these rhythms of abundance, scarcity, and daily demands in his poem “La Vida Sencilla”:
Llamar al pan y que aparezca
sobre el mantel el pan de cada día;
darle al sudor lo suyo y darle al sueño
y al breve paraíso y al infierno
y al cuerpo y al minuto lo que piden;
reír como el mar ríe, el viento ríe,
sin que la risa suene a vidrios rotos;
Call for the bread, and it appears
upon the table, the bread each day;
give it your sweat and give it your dream
and give the brief paradise and the hell
and the body and the minutes for which it demands;
to laugh as the sea laughs, as the wind laughs,
for without laughter, the sound of broken glass;
aughter, broken glass. Or, Elliot Smith. The perfect pitch of forlornness for the lonely foreign ears. It helps to think frustration indicates a new level of familiarity. Maybe intimacy.
There is a train that runs through most of Central America and throughout Mexico to the U.S.-Mexico border. La Bestia. The Beast. Thousands of people in search of work and better lives, and usually under the cover of darkness, chase La Bestia, ride its grooves, fall from it, wait for it, lose limbs falling from it, get raped riding it, kidnapped riding it, held hostage riding it, killed riding it. La Bestia stops in Ixtepec, the town in the isthmus where I live. In fact, La Bestia divides Ixtepec in half. So when I tell someone where I live, I start by saying cruces las vias, you cross the tracks, or despues las vias, after the tracks. Sometimes passengers bide time in Ixtepec. An El Salvadoran buys a cell phone. Others huddle in lean shade, wait, rest. Rarely does anyone carry a bag. Their one set of clothes lay on their skin like the soft, tattery bark on a Madrona. The residents of Ixtepec have deemed the migrating highly dangerous, though few actual incidents are reported. I get off the bus and walk across the tracks for the first time. One man’s ankles are bitten raw. Another has red webs for eyes. Los llamamos el desaparecido. A passenger sees me and calls Guera. It is clear that I am white. Claro. Blanco. Al norte, a hierarchy of hue.
Ángel de tierra y sueño,
agua remota que se ignora,
oh bestia pura entre las horas del dinero,
entre esas horas que no son nuestras nunca,
por esos pasadizos de tedio devorante
donde el tiempo se para y se desangra.
—Paz, “Entre la piedra y el flor”
Angel of land and sleep,
remote water that is ignored,
oh pure beast among the money hours,
among those hours that are never ours,
those devouring passages of tedium
where the time stops and bleeds.
eople talk to me in the market, tell me they were in Tucson for two years, Dallas for three, Denver for four. Always para trabaja. Never for vacation. They say the United States is very pretty, that the people are very nice, that the streets are very clean. It’s not until I’m drinking Coronas and eating octopus with colleagues, economy professors, that I hear the other truths—how the U.S. tries to spread democracy around the world, but often delivers more destruction than help, that Obama is a liar, or, more performer than agent of change. Los Estados Unidos, that despicable rockstar. Saber contar es no saber cantar. The economists call Mexico’s attitude toward the U.S. schizophrenic and leave it at that.