I arrived in Mexico City just before the Day of the Dead. For many people it’s a Hallowe’en sort of celebration, but typically with far more original and elaborate costumes than you’d find in the US, at least anywhere outside New Orleans. For others the day is a time to remember the martyrs among the dead, especially the dozens killed in the past few months in Oaxaca. I had been planning the visit to Mexico City for weeks, not knowing that my friend Brad Will would become one of those martyrs two days before I got there.
My visit began at the home a wealthy Mexican businessman, a sort of distant relative, I’ll call him Senor P. I visited him in one of his several homes. One of his security guards let me in past the 10’ gate with electrified fence on top. His chauffeur was standing by the black SUV in front of the house. In the kitchen, his maid/chef was making lunch. Stunning paintings, photographs and sculptures were featured in every room, tastefully.
I found Senor P upstairs watching CNN on a very large TV screen. Hanging on a wall nearby was a captivating, surrealistic underwater landscape. We were attempting to have a civil discourse on safe subjects like somebody’s new baby or do I smell mole sauce coming from kitchen, when I made the mistake of mentioning that the journalist from New York City who was just killed in Oaxaca City was a friend of mine.
Senor P became visibly agitated, and in a tone of voice somewhere between a blurt and a growl, he said “You knew him? He deserved to die! It’s good that he was killed. He was meddling in Mexican affairs. He should have stayed in New York.” He went on to describe the spokesperson for APPO (the umbrella group for the popular movement in Oaxaca) as an Orangetang. He said that some rich woman in the PRI was “inciting” the indigenous people there. The subtext: poor people couldn’t possibly be organizing the social movement that was running Oaxaca City on their own. He said they didn’t know what they were doing, had no idea what they wanted or what they were talking about.
I left there and took a cab to the San Jacinto neighborhood, infamous home of the Saint Patrick Battalion. I was staying there with my friend Fiachra, from Ireland, who is living there, getting his Master’s in Latin American literature. Things are mixed together in Mexico City, and around the corner from Fiachra’s humble apartment is a long, cobblestone street lined with mansions. Just beyond that is a beautiful old stone church with a large, peaceful courtyard in back, full of trees and little stone walking trails. In the front, facing the square in the center of the neighborhood, was a plaque erected in 1959 in memory of the San Patricios, the Irish men who deserted from the US Army and joined the Mexican Army during the 1846 invasion of Mexico. Fiachra pointed out that one of the names on the list was Polish. Neither of us had ever heard of the Polish contingent of the battalion.
Fiachra took me on a lovely walk through colorful neighborhoods, parks full of purple flowers, past museums and into the bowels of Mexico City’s bustling subway system. November 1st is the Day of the Dead for children, November 2nd is for the adults, so there were little kids and their parents dressed up brilliantly, hitting everybody up for money all over the city. We got out in the center of town. Amidst the impressive, ornate government buildings, churches and vast public spaces were thousands of people who had set up camp and were there to stay a while. Many of them had walked there from Oaxaca earlier in the month.
The electric atmosphere was reminiscent of many of the protests against the IMF, World Bank and such around the world. People were busy. Everybody was doing something. Cooking with big pots, making coffee, staffing the media centers set up with computers, printers, fax machines, getting power from somewhere, having meetings, giving lectures from behind booths with audiences intently listening. The difference was that these were mostly poor people from rural Oaxaca, not middle-class college students like at the protests up north.
A cultural event was going on nearby, which happens every evening starting at 5. It was going on right across the street from the foreign ministry building, on a large, very public street. Having such events was clearly both an effort to keep up morale among those in the struggle, and to reach out to the wider population passing by. A quartet of men and women were harmonizing on the stage, energetically playing instruments clearly in the guitar family but smaller. Even as a non-Spanish speaker I could see that there was immediate political content in many of the lyrics -- there is a distinctive kind of collective yell that comes from audiences reacting to lyrics with immediate political content, whether it’s New York or Prague or Mexico City.
Fiachra and I struck up a conversation with a man from the APPO. Like so many of the people there, he was a Zapotec Indian speaking Spanish as a second language. Assuming we didn’t know what everybody was doing there, he patiently explained what APPO was all about. He said the government is corrupt, and the teacher’s union has to strike every year in order for the teachers to get paid anything. He said the people of Oaxaca don’t want corrupt, authoritarian governments, free trade agreements and new highways -- they want an egalitarian allocation of resources, egalitarian distribution of the land and wealth, and socialism. Sounded to me like he was pretty clear on the way forward.
A Mexican woman who has lived in California for the past 30 years sang next. She had a big voice with a wide range. She sang about the struggle of the people being like the struggle of a migrating bird to reach the shore. Very optimistic imagery, I thought, since the birds usually make it. I was talking with her before she went on stage. Like several others there, she had met Brad recently in Oaxaca. He interviewed her just days before he was shot to death by the paramilitaries, camera in his hand.
I sang my song about the San Patricios, receiving the sort of polite but unenthusiastic response I’ve come to expect from audiences who don’t speak the language I’m singing in. I was trying to gracefully exit the stage and let somebody else sing in a more familiar language, but the organizers kept on getting me to sing more songs. Eventually I rejoined the crowd. Now a man was singing and playing the sorts of complex, eloquent guitar riffs of someone who, I guessed, has probably listened to more than a few Silvio Rodriguez albums.
Two other people introduced themselves to Fiachra and I. They were also Zapotec. The man was a striking school teacher, and his wife was a doctor. Talking with this couple, I thought of Senor P, and something Fiachra had said about people like him, how their motto could be “Don’t let the tide in, I like my sand castle.” It occurred to me that Senor P might do well to meet some of these people sometime before the oceans rise. But, sadly, I have no doubt he’ll keep on hiding in his mansion as long as he possibly can.