by Peter Rashkin
Leaving El Tercer Mundo
with a jug of pulque
It was a phone call I got on a Thursday night in mid-January that led to my latest and greatest Mexican adventure.
It was from Steve Edinger. I had helped him with a project some months before, and he had given me a copy of his book, The Road from Mixtepec--a southern Mexican town and the United States economy. I had put the book aside and just picked it up a few days before Steve called and I had already been blown away by this challenging and thoughtful study, which paints a broad historical picture of a small mountain town and fleshes it out with interviews on every aspect of the area's economy. I had been meaning to call him...
"I'm going to Mixtepec. For a wedding. The guy on the cover of my book. I just got an invitation. He says bring your friends. Want to come?"
I said no, too busy, no money, etc., but an hour later I called him back and said sure. Since we are both broke and busy, we agreed it had to be a quick cheap trip. And no flying. Steve doesn't fly. He says it's bad for the ozone layer.
We had to be in Mixtepec, in the mountains of Oaxaca, by Sunday. It was Wednesday night before we could get out of town. We got to the bus station in Tijuana a little after midnight. For about $100 each, we got tickets on a bus to Mexico City, leaving at 5:20. We caught a few winks. For the next few days we would be sleeping on buses and in stations; might as well get used to it.
At dawn we were heading over that beautiful desert mountain pass between Tecate and Mexicali. We practically had the bus to ourselves, as we would for most of the trip to Mexico City. The few other passengers got off in Mexicali. A woman with four children got on.
We hugged the northern frontier through the beautiful Sonora desert, with its stately saguaros and rugged granite mountains with weird lava outcrops. Miles of empty desert with occasional sparse settlements. A fence made of old tires. A junkyard of dead cars.
Sleep. Read. Look. Write. The rhythm of a long bus ride. I've brought a variety of reading material, but what I settle on is John Reed's Insurgent Mexico. He published this in 1914 after covering the second part of the Mexican Revolution (when Zapata, Villa and Carranza were all fighting against Huerta) for a number of magazines. It was a perfect selection for this trip because the bus route would take us through many of the places from which Reed reported.
"Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, really form one big straggling town. The international boundary runs along the middle of the street...The inhabitants of the American town go across the line to get good things to eat, to gamble, to dance, and to feel free; the Mexicans cross to the American side when somebody is after them."--JRStill on Highway 2, we cross into the state of Chihuahua and just south of Juarez we turn onto Highway 45. The dramatic desert gradually gives way to flat dry plains. Here and there an irrigated field of alfalfa or some grazing cattle. Going through a town is more interesting. I see a lot of Cardenas posters. Cardenas is the left-leaning PRD candidate for president in Mexico's July election. The son of Mexico's best-loved president, he is widely thought to have won the fraudulent 1988 election. A few years ago he became the first elected governor of Mexico City (Districto Federal). He could be considered the leading challenger to the grip that the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party) has held on the government of Mexico since the revolution ended in 1920.
I talked to Malvina, the woman with the four kids. After 11 years in LA, where her mother and close family still live, she is returning to Mexico. Not to Mexacali, where she comes from, but to her husband's home town of Zacatecas. She will be meeting her mother-in-law for the first time. Her husband and his brother are working on a big construction project, a rodeo arena. With the money he saves, they hope to open a small store or restaurant in Guadalajara. Malvina is trained as a secretary but has been working in a MadDonalds in Hollywood. One of her kids, a ten-year-old boy, has stayed in LA with his abuela. My sense is that Malvina has reason to hope for a better life, but she is filled with apprehension.
It is dark when we get to Chihuahua City. To me, Chihuahua is the heart of Pancho Villa territory. He was big here in life and he remains so in legend.
I'm committed to nonviolence and normally not drawn to war heroes, but the Mexican Revolution produced two of the most interesting military leaders I've ever encountered, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, peasant leaders who rose against the horrific hacienda system and articulated a vision of what Mexico could and should be. I've visited Zapata's birthplace in Anenecuilco, Morelos and walked from there to nearby Ayala where Zapata drafted a plan that clearly and eloquently expresses this vision. The Plan of Ayala should be revered along with our Declaration of Independence as one of the great statements of human rights. Zapata--handsome, valiant, full of integrity--presided over the government in the State of Morelos during one happy and peaceful year, in which the principles of the Plan were put into practice. He continues to inspire today, and his image and name are seen everywhere in Mexico.
Pancho Villa is a more problematic figure. He was a bandit before the revolution, and he always had more of the wild west outlaw about him. But he was a brilliant and innovative strategist and as leader in Chihuahua he enacted many meaningful reforms, including land distribution, public education and health care.
"Villa was the son of ignorant peons. He had never been to school. He hadn't the slightest conception of the complexity of civilization, and when he finally came back to it, a mature man of extraordinary native shrewdness, he encountered the twentieth century with the naive simplicity of a savage." --JRWe ride on into the Chihuahua night. Sleeping on an empty bus, when you can stretch out into two seats, is not too bad. At 4:30 we pull into Camargo. The driver says we can stop for drinks, and there's a guy selling refrescos right there, but Malvina and I are ready for coffee so we walk around the corner to the station for a cup of Nescafe.
"When the order was given for the army to advance upon Torreon, Villa stopped off at Camargo to be best man at the wedding of one of his old compadres. He danced steadily without stopping, they said, all Monday night, all Tuesday, and all Tuesday night, arriving at the front on Wednesday morning with bloodshot eyes and an air of extreme lassitude." --JRA few old guys get on the bus for the ride to Torreon, where we'll stop for breakfast. Did their fathers fight with Villa, I wonder. What stories did they grow up hearing?
Coffee,,,yes! It's still early, no reading lights on the bus, but I've slept enough and I'm anticipating the long dawn. When do you get to see it? Day breaking, start to finish? Only when you're on the road at dawn.
First blush in the east, or is it the glow of a town? Is that Venus just coming up over the horizon? Going down the road, into the breaking day. The silhouette of a bare tree, an adobe ruin. Isolated crags glowing in the red dawn. The still dawn on the dry plain, where Villa's troops stirred the dust, on their way to take Torreon.
After breakfast we head into the state of Durango through a beautiful dry valley, the sculpted cliffs tight on the road. The kids play happily up and down the aisles, and sometimes sit up front with the drivers. Crappy Hollywood movies dubbed in Spanish play on the monitors.
Then we're in Zacatecas (which I believe Villa took four times), where we say goodbye to Malvina. A bunch of people get on and ride to San Luis Potosi. From there to the DF we are alone.
"It might not be uninteresting to know the passionate dream--the vision which animates this ignorant fighter, 'not educated enough to be President of Mexico.' He told it to me once in these words: 'When the new Republic is established there will never be any more army in Mexico. Armies are the greatest support of tyranny. There can be no dictator without an army.Let me oversimplify: In 1910, Mexico arose with Madera and overthrew the dictator Diaz. Then the evil Huerta usurped the revolution and had Madera killed. Villa, Zapata, Carranza and others rose against Huerta and defeated him in 1914. The Zapatistas and Villistas were fighting for a revolution, not just a change in rulership. Carranza's faction, much more conservative and less imaginative, took federal power but refused to deliver on the promises of the revolution--principally land reform. Villa and Zapata fought against him for the next four or five years. Millions died in fighting and from the dreadful flu epidemic of 1918. Zapata was lured into a trap in 1919 and assassinated. In 1920, Carranza was overthrown and the ruling clique which has become the PRI took power. Villa accepted an amnesty proposal that included a ranch in Durango, but he didn't enjoy his retirement for long. He was gunned down in 1923.
Copyright 2005 Peter Rashkin. All rights reserved.