A story from Baja California
Tijuana, Baja California, more than twenty years ago, in a notoriously rough part of the city, a few blocks over from the city’s Red Light district. I was there on a quest for a number of cumbia CDs in the wealth of small music shops concentrated there within a block or two of one another. A Mexican friend had given me a list and a rough map of the shops, and I was on a mission.
I stopped briefly for a lunch of tacos al pastor at a corner taquería. I saw no other gringos there on the street on this mid-week day, late morning. As I ate my tacos and slurped greedily at the large chilis laid out in a bowl on the counter, several local men who were eating at the other corner of the counter watched me and chatted, in voices lowered enough to be discrete but not sufficiently low to escape my detection.
“Look at the gringo eat chile!” one of them said to his friend. They laughed, concealingly the fact beneath their hands. I surprised them by responding, in Spanish, “What makes you think I’m a gringo?” They all guffawed loudly, and the original speaker retorted: “So where are you from then?” My rejoinder of “I was born in Guadalajara!” had them all chortling still more enthusiastically.
We saluted one another, finished our lunch, and made our way off on our individual business of the day. This experience gave me a little twinge of satisfaction at having passed what I took as a test of integration into the foreign world in which I walked, a world in which I desired nothing more than to escape notice and blend into the environment.
It was to be a fleeting satisfaction.
As I made my way down a crowded Calle Benito Juarez toward the first of the CD shops I intended to explore, I spied a small but noisy crowd gathered around a cart full of knick-knacks that a vendor had parked and set up just in front of a bar.
Peering over the heads of the onlookers, I saw what was attracting their attention: the vendor had a small television set at a table, which I presume he usually used to pass the time between sales, but which now was turned around so that the customers could see the screen. The onlookers were chattering busily and heatedly with one another, but I was able to listen in and hear the broadcaster’s voice.
It was a news program, describing an event that had apparently just taken place far away in Mexico City, the Distrito Federal or “DF,” as it is known to Mexicans. The video clip was a loop played earlier, perhaps more than once, beginning with a scene of a procession of protestors, apparently something to do with a local strike, although the details were not considered important enough for the announcer to bother describing them at any length.
As the protestors marched down a street usually crowded with autos in this bustling city of 25 million plus, a single vehicle, a mini-van, emerged and cautiously tried to make its way alongside the marchers. Cautiously for a few seconds, at least. In short order, the driver of the mini-van apparently grew impatient with the slow progress he was making and the fact that the marchers seemed convinced that they had as much right to be on the road as he did and were not giving way.
He suddenly gunned the engine and a number of the protestors, perhaps four or five of them, disappeared beneath the wheels of the automobile.
I am sure my breath caught at this moment, along with a few other onlookers who had not been there long enough to see this looped video previously.
The crowd reacted at first with the instinct of self-preservation, and people began to flee to escape the vehicle’s forward thrust. But there was a sufficiently large critical mass of marchers that the van was forced to slow again as it encountered another cluster of people, and at this instant, the crowd magically transformed. In a flash, a disunited group of people rushing to preserve their own lives and limbs, without a thought for anything else, changed into a single, collective entity with a single, collective goal: stop the vehicle and seize the driver and anyone else inside, and punish them for what they have done.
What was disregard for the motorist and his vehicle becomes first fear, and then fury in a period of time too brief even to measure with a stopwatch, and by a process indescribable by any science. Dozens of marchers surrounded the vehicle and stopped its progress. They began to beat on the doors, and someone threw an object, perhaps a brick, that shattered the driver’s side window.
In seconds, the driver was being dragged from the mini-van, and the television camera, presumably wielded from a helicopter overhead, captured the frenzied vengeance of the marchers on the man who seconds before had plowed into them as though they were a group of squirrels playing on a suburban American side street.
The shot was too distant to reveal intimate details, but it was clear that the driver was simply being dismantled, beaten and torn, and that, absent intervention (which did not come), he would not survive this misadventure.
The announcer periodically reminded us that he was indeed dead and indicated that an effort was underway to try to discern the identities of the people who participated in the ending of his life, as police were delayed responding to the scene by the crowds and the group that stopped the van had dispersed into the larger sea of people.
The gripping, terrifying scene unfolding on the small television screen, however, was but a part of the drama I was witnessing, or more accurately, the drama in which I was myself playing a role. For the crowd gathered there watching the screen, which I had joined, was not simply watching. They were animatedly participating in the drama.
As the video looped over and over again through the same set of images of the window of the van being smashed out and the driver being pulled out by several men, onlookers vigorously expressed their approval of the action on the screen. “¡Mátale!” one loudly barked at the screen at the moment they seized him, as though anticipating that the figures depicted there could hear the cry. “Kill him!” Others verbally expressed their approval of the sentiment. There was palpable emotion in the air.
The death penalty is illegal in Mexico, but, as is true in many other countries around the world where this is so, public support for it is massive. Surveys show about three-quarters of Mexicans support the death penalty for murder, a figure that is higher than that in the US. The critics of the death penalty in the US never tire of reiterating that most of the rest of the civilized world has banned it, but in most of those cases it is in fact the political elites in those countries who have done so, and typically against the will of the population. The power of administering death is vigorously desired at the popular level, whatever its connection or lack thereof to justice or philosophical principle as defined by intellectuals.
As I watched my fellow bystanders react to the images on the screen, one of those cosmic coincidences that could only be a message of profound import occurred. A radio clutched by a passerby blared forth fuzzy but easily discernible snatches of the Mexican national anthem, just audible before he rounded the corner. “Mexicanos, al grito de guerra!...” Mexicans, at the cry of war…. The lyrics absolutely drip with the imagery of the blood of patriots defending the homeland against invaders. The heavens bestow upon Mexico “a soldier in every son.”
These various calls to blood and war emerged in a space saturated in violence. Mexico is far from the poorest country in the world, but there is much material misery and suffering there. The poor there generally live lives most Americans could not even begin to fathom. I use examples of my own travels through the country to give perspective to my students when they express outrage, as they often do, at the conditions of the poor in the US as to how comparatively well off every single American is compared to people in rural southern Mexico who live whole families in homes the size of the tool sheds in the backyards of middle class Americans.
In a border town such as Tijuana, the evidence of this is starker still than in the rural heartland, where there are no gringos dripping affluence to whom to compare the impoverished, who are overwhelmingly indigenous. Waiting in a car at the backed-up border crossing, one is audience to a constant stream of indigenous children selling packets of gum, their mothers frequently hovering nearby with trays full of the product. At night, they sleep on the sidewalks, slumped in the doorways of stores, and they are frequently the prey of local criminals.
As I watched the screen and the reactions of those gathered around me, I was made intensely aware of my difference from them. I did not dare speak about the action on the television, feeling utterly incapable of fathoming what was going on there. This is not to say that I did not feel anything. In fact, my initial sense, after hearing the announcer describe the setting and what the marchers had been doing prior to the accident, was of a visceral identification with them. Here were members of Mexico’s impoverished, apparently making some reasonable requests of those in control of their society, mowed down for the mere audacity of demonstrating their grievances.
It was an easy matter for me, a child of the white American underclass, who grew up in a single-parent home facing constant financial difficulties, whose first clearly defined personal political orientation was in all the essentials Marxist, to see in those people who were swallowed up under the van’s wheels my brothers and sisters.
Yet it was also transparently obvious to me, and to those around me, that I differed from them, and in ways that would be readily translatable, however imperfectly and even irrationally, into existing symbols, meanings, and stories of good and bad and friend and enemy.
My white skin and blue eyes were only the most obvious such evidence. It could have escaped the attention of no one that this evidence visually aligned me with the driver of the van, whom, I had noted with unease, was of distinctly lighter skin than all of the men who had removed him from his vehicle and wreaked vengeance upon him. I could feel skeptical eyes upon me as the loop continued and the scene unfolded yet again on the screen.
Here, as in many other parts of the world, social hierarchy and skin color fairly neatly correlate. The Mexican elite is heavily populated, and has been since colonial times, by those of Spanish phenotypical extraction and mestizos who lean in the direction of that phenotype. The darker skinned descendants of the indigenous peoples of the New World, with their Asiatic eyes and facial features and copper skin, are heavily represented among the poorest of the poor, and the vast majority of those one sees on the streets begging or selling chicle are these people.
I understood, in that moment, better than I could ever have understood it after reading some sociological study of racial hierarchy in Mexico or some historical analysis of American racism against the people of Mexico, that the man in the van was, for all intents and purposes, almost inevitably identified here as my brother, whether I loved or despised him, indeed whether I thought anything about him at all.
History—or the way in which it would almost certainly be understood by the people in that crowd—had placed me in his family, the family of exploitation and repression, and I would be judged there, whatever I might have preferred.
It might matter to some, and it certainly did to me, that I could give an accounting of myself that differed from that placement, and I would certainly have endeavored to do so given the opportunity. A calm, dispassionate examination of my conscience and my personal responsibility for any of the evils to which those people in the street in Mexico City were responding would have distanced me from the family of the man in the van. But in the instants in which I stood there as a member of an emotional crowd watching a terrible morality play on a small black and white television set at a roadside stand, I was for all functional purposes not of that crowd. I represented—against my will, and against objective reason—the world that was mowing those people down on the streets of the DF.
I hate the observation of the fact. It is fact nonetheless.
I was trembling with the fear of that realization as I turned from my quest and hurriedly pointed myself in a direction away from this court in which my complicity with a dreadful crime was an inevitable conclusion, my innocence notwithstanding. And I did it with both fear and love in my heart for the jurors of that court whose decision I found utterly poorly decided and completely comprehensible.
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