Category Archives: Latin America

La Jungle Part 2

Chiapas state, in Mexico, can be a pretty dangerous place sometimes.

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Part Two of the Chiapas story, by popular demand!

“You’ll see your children again,” I whispered, “I’m not worried.”
But the men kept talking, louder and louder, throwing their voices and their scorn over the thin plywood wall that separated us so precariously. On one wall a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe, cloaked in blue robes and thin, white outstretched hands, stared mournfully down at us. Fernando listened wide-eyed to the chatter and every now and again peered over at us and mouthed a few noiseless words, trying to convey some sense of what the latest threats could mean for us. M lay in the corner and shuddered from fear and from the pains that wracked her belly. Until eventually the voices slowed, then dimmed, and then with the light on the other side, disappeared altogether.

None of us slept that night.

And in the morning the man returned to wake us. He knocked gently on the door and swept inside.
“They’re waiting for you,” he said.
“Who is waiting?” we asked.
“El pueblo,” he said. The village.

So we stumbled outside into a morning that was gray and wet. The whishing palms were quiet. The grasses smelled fresh. The dogs had been heeled in and wandered along dirt roads, sniffing for the refuse of the night before. The man led us to a field. I stopped short at the sight.

A giant circle of men stood silently waiting. The diameter must have been a hundred meters wide. Every man in the village seemed to be standing there. It was 7:30 in the morning.
Refuse from the night before was scattered across the ground. Bottles, plastic, cardboard and clothes, and a few women and children were slowly making their way through the village starting the cleanup. But the rest of the crowd was focused soberly on us, and it suddenly dawned on me just how disruptive our visit must have been. Whatever wretchedness the night before had produced, in their minds our ours, in their bellies or ours, it was nothing compared to the force, the sense of solidarity that drew them here in the dawn hours to confront the people who had come uninvited and unimpeded into their midst on such a holy night. Because now there they stood in judgment of us, and our trial was about to take place within the circle of their community, ringed by nothing more than the ground and the men who stood upon it, and the machetes those men carried.

A looming maple tree, hundreds of years old, stood at one end. No one was talking. They stared at us, ushered us into the center of the circle, equidistant from one and from another, and for a very long time they said nothing.

Some of the men had machetes at their sides. They did not look friendly at all, even though some of them were speaking quietly among themselves, and a few of them laughed. Off to one side, in the shadows of trees or leaning next to some small shacks were the women, dressed in bright gowns, shoeless, and holding their babies in tightly wrapped cloth sacks strapped to their backs. And they swayed.

A man of medium height with strapping arms and a fierce scowl stepped forward into the circle and addressed our translator.
“Tell us who you are, and what you want here,” he bellowed out, “You have told us you are journalists. What is it you are doing here?”
The crowd nodded its silent assent at this request. The machete blades gleamed like dead fish in their hands, caught in the silver of the morning sun.

“We come as friends,” Fernando told them. “We come in peace.”

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He addressed their fears as he had heard them expressed to him on earlier visits. We were not part of the government, come to take their lands, he told them, nor their water or their wives. This had happened before, we knew, and maybe those hard men of the night before were the ones who had made it happen.

The government had tried to quell these villages in the dark of night. And because of that these villagers had known war. It wasn’t too far from here that the rebel leader, El Sub Commandante Marcos had staged his uprising, and his soldiers were known to live in the nearby forests. But we were not the government, Fernando said in his quiet voice, we were not here scouting for energy. The water was theirs. The land was theirs.

There was a shifting among the crowd and some of them were nodding their heads and smiling. Some laughed. But they wanted to hear it from us. Daniel and Fernando took turns reassuring them of our good intentions. Then it was M’s turn and she apologized and told them she only wanted to take pictures of them “so that the world can understand.”

No one asked me to speak, and I didn’t. I was too foreign, perhaps, too white.
I watched them and bowed my head and felt contrite.

And slowly, the circle began to dissolve and disappear and the women at its edges turned away and began walking back into the wide green palms of the morning, disappearing.
As if the world had opened once more, we were left in that open field with nothing but the sky above our heads, and the massive tree that rooted it to this earth, and all I wanted was to rush to it and lie on the ground beside its great, enduring weight.

Chiapas, Mexico 2003

Alo Presidente

Hugo Chavez is celebrating the Bay of Pigs victory.

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I went to Venezuela in 2005. I didn’t meet Chavez. But I met some other people. Part 1 follows from a piece that originally appeared in Letras Libres, in Spanish:

Iris Fundora, a taut, stout woman with a thick braid of kinky black hair and the faintest hint of a mustache leaned comfortably back in her chair at a makeshift clinic in Caracas, where she works as a doctor. It was a humid day and in the waiting room a few women fanned their babies with their fingers, or with brightly colored educational pamphlets that lay scattered about the floor. From behind a door-less bathroom, a stench of urine and soiled diapers wafted out.

This clinic used to be a police station, a two-room outpost crowning both the road whose end it caps and the hillock it commands. In 2003, the government seized the two rooms and donated them to a program called Barrio Adentro that provides health care to millions of poor Venezuelans. The building is white and simple, and the front is adorned with a delicate likeness of the Virgin Mary made of twigs. Outside, a few men were squatting on their haunches in the shade and smoking cigarettes. From there, they could look out down the long road that winds up through the heart of the barrio, Los Frailes — past rows of apartments piled one on top of another, past stalls selling thimble-sized cups of espresso and giant bottles of Coca-Cola, past the localized smog of a camioneta waiting to hurl out a gaggle of old women — and down to the valley floor where the high rises of Caracas stand like the legs of clouds in the morning sky. In each of the two rooms a Cuban doctor was busy seeing patients. Iris Fundora was one of them, and when I met her, she had been working there for about a year.

Many of the people Fundora sees are children who have fallen ill due to the degraded environmental conditions of Los Frailes. Diarrhea is widespread among children, as are skin diseases. Large amounts of trash have collected in the neighborhood streets, often piling up right in front of the clinic itself. Recently, Fundora has seen a lot of hypertension among her older patients; she said she didn’t know what to attribute that to. At first, Fundora, who is 33 years old, didn’t want to speak to me, and when I asked her why she came to Venezuela, she told me I had no right to pry, that it was the same as if she had asked me about my family, my kids and my personal life. So I asked her about Cuba. She began to smile, and told me about the part of the island called the Alligator’s Head and the town of Granma where she is from. She said it was renowned because Fidel Castro, whom she simply called Fidel, first landed there, on the Playa Colorado, when he returned from Mexico in 1956. Some of the people who come to see Fundora don’t approve of the Venezuelan government having imported over 20,000 Cuban doctors – many of them veterans of wars in Angola and elsewhere — sports trainers and dentists in the last two years. Fundora said that sometimes she has had to deal with “rejection.”

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At the mention of this, a woman named Enayide Lozano, who runs the Comité Medico that oversees the Cubans in Venezuela, inserted herself into the conversation. Lozano is 49 and has lived in this neighborhood her whole life. She is an avid supporter of both the Cuban doctors and the president who brought them to Venezuela. “We were fed up with doctors who didn’t want to touch their patients,” she shouted. “They were horrible. Our own Venezuelan doctors were afraid of touching the poor, as if we were going to give them a disease or something, like we were going to sting them. It got to the point that we had to bring in these foreign doctors.” As Lozano spoke, Fundora sat back in her chair and smiled, almost benevolently. “Look at her,” Lozano said, pointing to Fundora, “She is saying good things about Cuba. We should be saying good things about Venezuela as well. I have to say good things about my country.” When Lozano left, I asked Fundora what she thought about the Venezuelan doctors she had worked with. She said that for the most part they were good, and they wanted to help. But there was one problem. She then told a story about how Venezuelan doctors were all too quick to demand tests of their patients before giving them something to feel better. The tests require money, or insurance, or both — tests she said were impossible for most poor people to afford. “These doctors, they have to erase from their minds the idea that they’re not part of the society.” Before leaving, I asked if this – the erasing of these doctor’s minds — was part of the revolution, styled the Bolivarian revolution by its creator, Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez. Fundora smirked, nodded, and chose her words carefully. “This is going to take time,” she said, “It is part of the work of change that has to be done here.”

Caracas, 2005

Medicina

Violence in Mexico City is complicated, with or without headless bodies.

The medics there have their hands full. Back in 2002:

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A week later I called her and asked if she wanted to go out with the Red Cross. Her children were staying with their father. That night was the celebration of the Virgen de Guadalupe. There would be lots of people, lots of problems. The crew had called and asked if I was coming and I said yes. The medics gave her the white jersey with the insignia of the Red Cross and elastic straps to keep it tight around her waist. We sat side by side on one of the gurneys in the dark and she grabbed my hand and put it on her leg.

The streets were choked with pilgrims. Small children carried likenesses of the Virgin and colored candles that they shielded with the palms of their hands, and their mothers carried baskets of tortillas and blocks of goat cheese and bright woolen blankets. They peered into the tinted windows of the ambulance and moved in one long illuminated procession towards the darkening mountains that rimmed the valley.

There were a few calls, drunks and vagrants; a woman passed out in a market and a crowd gathered around to stare; a man feel down dead on a street corner. We went home early and lay in bed, and watched the sun fill my curtains with a green light.

We began to take these trips several times a week, mostly at night. Edgar stole furtive glances at us now and again. She laughed when I sang along to the English pop songs on the ambulance radio, and teased me that I knew all the words.

One night we visited a poor barrio where a crack addict was in the midst of a miscarriage, another to a slum where a drug-addled man who had gone off his medication was threatening his neighbors with a 9-mm pistol. We saw countless old people suffering from one ailment or another. Each night, cars crashed all over the city, wrapping themselves around poles and guardrails, and we hopped out and poked our cameras into the backs of other ambulances or the faces of the survivors.

Once the medics took us to a congested neighborhood where people had spilled into the street like partygoers after word had gotten out that there was a dead body lying behind a garage. A sickening odor of decomposing flesh permeated the air, but it could have just been dead birds. Nobody knew.

One night, as we drove along Reforma, a small blue car tried to pass the ambulance. It had been stuck behind us for the last several minutes, and the agitated driver had begun to get frustrated, but the Captain, perhaps overcome with fatigue or the late hour, hadn’t wanted to let it pass.

“Come on,” he shouted. “Cabron.”

When the car finally did get alongside us, the driver leaned out his window waving a silver pistol in Edgar’s face and let loose with a string of epithets. The Captain sped up and radioed for police help, as we dove out of sight in the back, clutching one another in the darkness and laughing. I realized I was enjoying the feeling of trying to protect her, which I tried to prolong for as long as possible.

Mexico City, 2002

Banditry

There have been outlaws in Mexico for a considerable long time.

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Pete spent most of his life on the other side of the law. He had smuggled drugs and run planes. He only once gave up his freedom, and not for very long. He lived on the Mexican coast, somewhere, far enough not to be found, far enough to feel safe enough for another day on the run. He was a kind of sheepherder, operating outside the law for the benefit of those who wanted to live comfortably inside of it.

One day, many years earlier, one of Pete’s long lost daughters managed to track him down in Mexico. She walked up the driveway and into his house. He invited her up to his living room and sat her down on the couch.

“You’ve got fifteen minutes,” he told her, “You’ve got fifteen minutes and you can ask me anything you want and I swear to God I won’t lie to you.”

And then it would be over. When, a few years later, another daughter came down, Pete told her the same thing. You’ve got fifteen minutes and you can ask me anything you want and I won’t lie to you.

I wondered what I would have asked a long lost father if I’d had only fifteen minutes. Have you ever killed anyone? What’s the saddest thing that’s ever happened to you? Naturally, Pete’s daughter had asked him why he left her and her mother so many years before. He swayed in the memory of it, as if the recollection was as difficult as the decision itself. His eyes glassed over and a thousand-year old grin swept across his face like a frozen ray of sun.

“He doesn’t have to tell me shit, does he?” I said to Pete, as he rolled a joint. He dropped his hands into his lap, not letting go of the joint, and stared at me with a look of great surprise. His mouth formed a small O. A rill of sea light shone off the lenses of his reading glasses. He shook his head.

“Hell no he doesn’t,” he almost shouted, irritated at my impertinence, “It’s his own goddam business.”

Just harmless old criminals sitting around in Mexico, getting stoned and joking blackly about the man who lived next door.

“They’re not all bad, you know,” Pete said, referring to the lawmen he had clashed with his whole life, “I’ve spent my whole life in criminal enterprise but people are just people, any way you cut it, I swear to God, that’s the truth.’ It was the voice of moderation and restraint, coming from the other side of the law, coming from the dark recesses, pleading for understanding, for forgiveness.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I’m lying I’m dyin,” he said, and took a shot of back alley tequila he had gotten from a friend, forty barrels worth sitting in plastic jugs by his feet. The crow lines at his eyes were long and weary, worn from use and smiles, the creases tanned into life.

“Here,” he said, “Have another shot of this, best damn tequila you ever had, I swear to God, make you cry.”

– Mexico, 2006

emergencia

Mexico City is a violent place, and more and more in the last few years.

I used to go out with the ambulances when I lived there…

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The rear of the ambulance was a jumble of hypodermic needles, respirators and gauze. Above an oxygen tank, Nicholas Cage stared down from a promotional poster for a movie in which he had starred as a disturbed Red Cross medic who sees visions of dead people and angels in New York. “Santissima Nicolas,” the medics whispered.

The driver, whom everybody called Captain, wore 1940’s era aviator sunglasses, left the chin strap of his helmet dangling loose and chain smoked Marlboro Reds. He peeled out of the parking lot blaring three horns at once. I asked him if he had ever been in an accident and he said it was unavoidable; at that moment he changed lanes so that we were heading, deliberately it seemed, the wrong way down Avenida Insurgentes. The Captain’s cigarette had gathered ash and it blew into the rear as he spun the wheel with one hand. Edgar, one of the chief medics, sat in the passenger seat leaning out the window and shouted at people through a bullhorn to get out of the way. A gurney clattered on the wall, the ambulance filled up with a pulsating red light, bottles of oxygen rocked in their plastic hammocks.

It was late afternoon by then, sometime in the autumn, the long summer rains were beginning to end. We entered the courtyard of a halfway house for juvenile delinquents. On a low wall made of stone sat a boy, no more than 15, bleeding from gashes in his shaved head; his eyes had been beaten black. A pair of female orderlies fluttered about until Edgar, donning rubber gloves and murmuring instructions into his radio, put his hands on the boy’s head and began to feel around. A gang had attacked him, said the women, probably over a drug deal gone badly. The boy had two deep gashes on each side of his head, and more scattered across his back and neck. Edgar and the Captain pulled him to his feet and put him on a vinyl bench inside the ambulance. He sat there dazed, staring at me as Edgar wiped the cuts clean and dropped the bloodied bandages into a plastic sack hanging from the rear door. If he knew where he was he didn’t let on, only now and again mumbling or nodding his head to Edgar’s repeated questioning. When we dropped him off at the hospital, Edgar stuck a hose in the back of the ambulance and pink water drained out slowly under fluorescent white lamps.

Later that night, in a rundown neighborhood where the streetlights didn’t work an old woman sat in a wooden chair in her kitchen with her head thrown back, laughing. Her eyes were rolled into white and her nose was broken. Her two sisters dabbed at her face with rags soaked in blood. They stepped aside while Edgar dug into his black bag.

“I fell on the floor,” the old woman said, and the two sisters laughed.

“She fell on the floor,” one repeated, laughing again. All of them were drunk. Edgar laughed as well. The woman turned her head and smiled at me through broken teeth and bleeding gums.
Edgar laid a gurney down and started to move her onto it. Her husband came out, and the sisters went quiet. He wore a white frock that ended just above his knees. The shirt was covered in blood, and he, too, was drunk. They had all been drinking since three o’clock that afternoon and half a dozen empty bottles of Tecate and Johnny Walker were scattered about the kitchen. He had gotten angry and smashed one of the glass bottles on her head, breaking her nose. Now he grinned stupidly.

“She fell down,” he said.

On the night of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the streets were choked with pilgrims. Small children carried likenesses of the Virgin and colored candles that they shielded with the palms of their hands, and their mothers carried baskets of tortillas and blocks of goat cheese and bright woolen blankets. They peered into the tinted windows of the ambulance and moved in one long illuminated procession towards the darkening mountains that rimmed the valley. Mostly it was quiet that night. There were a few calls, drunks and vagrants; a woman passed out in a market and a crowd gathered around to stare; a man fell down dead on a street corner. It made sense, seeking refuge in other sorrows. It was surprisingly easy to fall in love surrounded by the ostracized, the wounded and the dead.

Mexico City, 2003

Spawn and Beast

A Columbian shaman was arrested last month coming into the country with ayahuasca.

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One night in Peru, 2002:

One of the boys had a baby tiger, and he passed it around to the group. A drug dealer got it in a buy, one of them said, in exchange for coke, and not too long ago by the looks of it, because the little beast couldn’t have been older than a couple of months. One by one they cradled it, cooed and stroked it, and listened awestruck to its tiny roar. No one knew where it came from; tigers don’t live here, in Peru, or anywhere in South America. The only big cats are jaguars who haunt their ayahuasca fueled visions, sleek dark cats that speak to them about those things they could never admit to themselves.

You can buy anything in these markets, one of them said.

They all seemed to agree on this. Snakes, exotic birds, even young children could be found, for a price. People disappeared in these jungles all the time. The traffickers came and went with their machetes, their beards. Sometimes people emerged from the jungle with nowhere to go, and no one to claim them. Had they gotten lost? And how long ago? So it was no surprise to find a baby tiger here, in this little human circle, among these wooden shacks lit by kerosene and candle and covered by thick netting

Some of them had just come off the plant that morning. Some were planning for their next session. They sat in a circle and watched one another, and it was understood that only those who had imbibed the plant could see what they saw, the way they wanted to be seen. They lived in this world only halfway, and half the time.

In their visions they saw long chains of mighty elephants bedecked with gold tiaras and brass chest-plates, they saw great battles from their vantage point in the clouds, or swam into the mitochondria of plants that lay along the jungle floor. Each of them saw two animals, always: the black jaguar and the python, and it was decided that these two animals must be among the guides who shepherd the uninitiated into the invisible world. One evening, an entire entranced group saw the very same thing — a short and bald dwarf doing magic tricks in a broad, sunlit plaza.

In the visions, the shamans sometimes did battle, the one against the other, or sometimes more, the good against the bad, the ones who had retained a foot in that other world against the one who remained there alone, all the time, in the world of the jaguar and the snake. The doctor, they said, for that was what they called him, came back once and he looked as if he might not make it. The fight had been long and very difficult, he told them. He needed rest. Spiritual war was a terribly frightening thing. They all believed this, and they all desired it. This was what they searched each other’s eyes for every night, in that circle, with the tiger prowling their corners, taking stock of their progress — had anyone taken that step onto the battlefield yet? Had anyone gone to war?
No one had, not yet. They would have to learn more. The plant would teach them. This is what they said. The icaro will call you, and the plant will teach you what you need to know. — Tarapoto, Peru, 2002