Crossing Over A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail
By Ruben Martinez
Rebound by Sagebrush Copyright ©2002 Ruben Martinez
All right reserved. ISBN: 0613583582
The six-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Zamora, Michoacán, begins at midnight, at la central del norte, the sprawling depot in the industrial zone on the outskirts of the Monster. It's one scary place, a grim Mexican version of New York's Penn Station. It's always bustling, whether at three in the afternoon or at three in the morning, and vendor anarchy and traveler paranoia reign. As I make my way through the mass of exhausted, exasperated, wary bodies with wild hair, burning eyes, pasty mouths, and crumpled clothes, I'm accosted by an atypical beggar, a middle-aged woman, smartly dressed, looking like she belongs at a tea party in Coyoacán, the capital's old-money district. "Please help me," she says, showing me her purse, sliced open with a blade and emptied.
I will grow accustomed to the Mexico CityZamora route over the next several months. The one luxury afforded working-class travelers these days is the sleek buses. No more tattered rattlers for the Mexicans. Gleaming Mercedes-built cruisers with VCR monitors hanging from the ceiling and enough legroom for Michael Jordan are the norm for both first and secondclass. Upon boarding, you are handed a cheese sandwich and a can of Coke by a bronze beauty in miniskirt and navy-blue company blazer, who, after all the passengers are seated, welcomes you and reassures you that the driver complies with all Mexican traffic laws. She points to a red light at the front of the bus. If it goes on, she tells you, the bus is traveling in excess of ninety kilometers per hour, the maximum speed on any federal highway in Mexico. We have the right to complain to the driver if this occurs.
The red light will be on all the way to Zamora.
No one will complain.
The chassis of my bus is fat enough to devour the whole narrow lane on the periférico, Mexico City's beltway, threatening passenger cars, the concrete center divider, and our lives. We barrel through the nocturnal haze, past apartment buildings crowned with tangled antennas, past a thousand roadside taco stands starkly lit by naked bulbs hanging from frayed wires that pirate juice from the utility poles.
I'm headed out of the city for the provinces, out of the center for the margins. Since moving to Mexico City and experiencing its bizarre mestizo identityan ancient Indian city rendered in European baroqueI've come to believe that the future lies in the provinces, not in the capital, which is exactly the opposite of what the chilangos (as capital dwellers call themselves, adopting a derogatory pre-Columbian name coined by rivals of the Aztecs) think. The elites of Mexico City, their gaze ever fixed on New York and Parisespecially Paris, recalling Mexico's brief tenure under Maximilian and Carlottahave always thought of it as a European island in an Indian sea, the future rising up from the sad muck of history and leaping ahead of the timeless, poor, pastoral provinces. But these days it is Mexico City that feels like the past. Its restaurants are presided over by bow-tied waiters. Its most famous neighborhood, Coyoacán, a quaint Marxist bohemia (erstwhile home to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo), has long since lost its vibrancy. Its "activists," mainly the bored children of stodgy aristocrats, glorify the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, ignoring the millions of Indians living right under their nosesin many cases serving them.
On the city's grand boulevards, its golden-era monuments ape the Arc de Triomphe and other Parisian feats. Dusty, old. Even its attempt to forestall the arrival of McDonald's on its downtown streets is a French affectation. The migrant towns of the provinces saw the future long ago and brilliantly negotiated the terms of their surrender. McDonald's did not conquer them; rather, the Indians made McDonald's their own.
So good-bye, then, to the past!
Good-bye to Popocatépetl volcano grumbling and spewing ash rain, threatening a new Pompeii!
The video monitors are flashing a ninja movie dubbed in Spanish, and the passengers are enthralled by the kicking and twirling. You look out at the moonlit Monster, at its tentacles glistening over the dusty hills twenty-five miles north of downtown. Onward we go, through the plains, past the fair colonial city of Querétaro, its church spires glowing eerily under the highland moon, and on through the dreary industry of Irapuato and into the slaughterhouse city of Pénjamo, where the air smells of pig shit and blood.
I stare out the window and I become my wide-eyed father in the early fifties, a pudgy teenager with slicked-back hair who devoured the nocturnal landscape from the cramped cab of a 1948 Ford double-axle truck. The canvas-covered truck bed was packed with American knickknacks to sell to Mexicansladies' stockings, Lionel train sets, blue jeans, and assorted other merchandise that my grandfather bought in downtown L.A. between Second and Fifth Streets, where he'd haggle with the jobbers, Jewish guys with Old World accents as thick as his. The trips included all-night drives from L.A. to El Paso, Grandfather pulling out his wallet to pay tithe to the corrupt Mexican officials as soon as the truck crossed the Rio Grande.
On through the desert they'd go, saguaro cacti silhouetted against orange sunsets, and then the impenetrable darkness along the two-lane. The old man hunched over the steering wheel, the old lady nodding off, the night road endless. Grandfather, always irascible and impatient, insisted on the all-nighters, despite the risk of encountering bandits. The Mexican night was beautiful in its mystery, and full of terrifying memories. In the 1950s, the atrocities of the Revolution and the Cristero war were recent enough for my father to conjure the image of bodies hanging from telephone poles, the skin drying and curling up like old leather in the sun.
Chihuahua at dawn ... Durango at nightfall ... a forlorn motel where the grizzled proprietor warns my family of spirits haunting the rooms ... unsavory characters at truck stops ... a cow suddenly framed by the headlights, the great impact of fender and bovine belly and a tremendous blast of cow shit over hood and windshield. And one night, in the wee hours, suddenly the blackness broken by a great white flash in a cloudless sky. My father remembers bringing his hand up to cover his eyes. There was no other car on the highway. Was it a meteor, a nuclear test in the American desert, a freak bolt of dry lightning? Scared the wits out of him.
Mexico was a grand adventure for my father. Having grown up in L.A., he was more the American boy than the Mexican, and so the road must have been exhilarating. For my grandparents, the journey must have been much sadder, filled with dying dreams and ambivalent memories of the Old Country they left behind and to which they returned again and again, never letting go of it entirely and yet never staying.
Now the VCR monitors show snow and everyone's asleep as the bus heads south-southwest into the fertile valleys of Michoacán, the lights of Zamora breaking like a star-dawn as we crest the hills ringing town. The vision of my father fades and I'm left with the thought that I'm on the same road he traveled, a road he eventually left for family and mortgage, ninety-hour workweeks, alcoholism and recovery, and now retirement. I remember his telling me what his father had told him, the old Mexican proverb about the dangers of the road: "If you walk through fire, you're going to get burnt."
It is five-thirty in the morning, and I sit in the bus station in Zamora, where I must transfer to get to Cherán. Let me be clear about Zamora, and may the Zamoranos forgive me: it's ugly. True, the town is nestled in a fertile valley of strawberry fields surrounded by gently rising hills of green. But Zamora is one of those towns, like so many provincial Mexican towns today, that are growing too fast for their own good. Once it may have been sleepy pretty. But now it's congested with mufflerless traffic cruising the old narrow streets, and a pale cloud of baby smog hangs over the town, obscuring the stars at night.
Mexico's economic crisis has torn Zamora in half. The poor barrios of crumbling adobe are ruled by bands of forlorn cholos, American-style gang members who while away the endless rural hours searching for the perfect combination of mescal and glue. The rich neighborhoods feature garish two-story stuccos sporting satellite dishes and ringed by tall walls topped by electrified fences. There is no middle, just an ever-widening chasm between these two worlds.
Zamora is a typical Mexican provincial capitalpopulation 100,000, agribusiness the mainstay of the economy. No one in Zamora believes that there's a future here, neither the big-time landowner nor the cholo. There's a past: this is where your folks were born, where the streets smell like childhood and the traditional fiestas are still celebrated more or less the way they were before the Conquest. But a future? The more Zamora is aware of the world beyond the little green valleythrough the satellite dishes, through the music and clothes and tall tales that arrive with every migrant returning from the big cities of Mexico or the United Statesthe more Zamora wants to shed its skin.
And so practically everyone in Zamora, and everyone else in the entire state of Michoacán, for that matter, is getting the hell outor coming back after having gotten the hell out. The movement is circular: you meet the future by moving out, render tribute to the past by coming back home to visit and spend your hard-earned American dollars.
If you want to leave Zamora, you come to the bus station, la central. If you want to arrive in Zamora, you come to la central. Even if you've got your own car or truck or eighteen-wheeler, the highway takes you right past it, for there is only one entrance to Zamora, and only one exitMexico Federal Highway 35, which heads north to Guadalajara and south to the highlands where Cherán is nestled and on through the Paracho Valley to Uruapan. Here gather all kinds of Zamoranos and outsiders. Indian vendors on their way to the city loaded down with overstuffed straw baskets of tamales or sweet breads or salted fish or hand-embroidered tablecloths. An army of young men headed north to the States or on their way back, wearing the uniform of the migrant soldier ready to battle the gringo migra and patrones: baseball cap, polyester shirt, faded jeans, sneakers. And, as at any bus station anywhere in the world, a curious collection of locos and down-and-outers, paupers and nouveau riche, narcos and cholos and putas and putos, innocents taking their first trip away from the family, and those long fallen from grace, perpetually running from fate and the law. Mostly, they're teenagers. They walk with purpose, strutting as if through Times Square, arms swinging wide and high, chins up, got somewhere to go, man. And finally, the Wild One, a type no central de autobuses can do without. His biker jacket crinkles audibly, a pirate hoop dangles from his left ear, and his short, greased hair is spiked up. He smacks his gum loudly as he strides along, ignoring the peasants all around him.
It's a drab ochre mausoleum. There's a cafeteria presided over by an obese teenage chola with heavy mascara and a ton of attitude. A TV set hangs from the ceiling and all the patrons' eyes are glued to a dubbed rerun of Adam-12. There is a farmacia with a sign that says "Abierto 24 horas," but it's closed. There's a colossal digitalized Coke machine painted with icy blue mountains and festooned with colorful little flags and a big banner announcing the 1994 Winter Olympics and proclaiming Coca-Cola the perfect Olympic companion: ¡Refresca tu eypíritu Olímpico con Coca-Cola! There's a magazine kiosk with outdated copies of Vanidades (the Mexican Cosmopolitan) and Time en Español, plenty of fotonovelas featuring grubby villains pawing at the big breasts of fake blondes and Clark Kent types who kill the ruffians before pawing the big breasts themselves.
And there's Dulcería la Zamorana, proffering snacks for the great journeys about to be undertaken: bags of Doritos and Ruffles, a pyramid of Santa María purified water, and behind the counter stacks of burritos and tortas (sandwiches) and tacos and hamburguesas, plastic cups of blue, yellow, or red Jell-O, and a soda fountain with Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Fanta Orange. And there is the attendant: a short, stocky, dark, Asian-eyed, jet-black-haired woman. A pure-blooded Purépecha Indian straight out of Michoacán history, serving you tortas stuffed with pre-Columbian ingredients: aguacate, tomate, cebolla ...
It's five minutes to six. The station suddenly bursts with activity. There's a mad rush to the bathroom. With trembling hands, an abuelita is retying the frayed strings that hold together an overstuffed cardboard box. The Wild One is buying water, more gum, Doritos, and cigarettes. A rockero in black is picking up his guitar case with the B-movie grace of the title character in Robert Rodríguez's El Mariachi. Flush-faced, Buddha-bellied bus drivers rush into the main hall, whistling, shouting: "¡Morelia! ¡Salida a Morelia!" and "¡México!" and "¡Guadalajara!" and "¡Tijuana, vámonos!" Everywhere, people are slinging bags over shoulders, heaving baskets up onto their heads, giving tearful good-bye hugs to sons and daughters and fathers and mothers.
And then I see her. She makes her way through the bustle like a Mafia don. A short, tough Indian woman with the trademark blue-black rebozo of the Purépecha Indians. Age has begun to crease her face, but her hair is dark black still and she's got the don't-fuck-with-me look of our adolescent Wild One. She is followed by about fifteen dirt-poor Indians, all of them carrying small vinyl bags. They look tired and scared, doing everything they can to not draw attention to themselves, but everyone notices them anyway. They are pollos, chickensor mojados, wetbacks. In the States "wetback" is a racist epithet, but the migrants often use the Spanish word to describe themselves with prideafter all, they're braving the river and every other obstacle in their way to cross over to the other side. As for the Indian woman, she is their coyote, a nickname that refers to the wily ways of the smugglers.
She's all business. Another journey north. She barrels through a crowd of customers at one of the counters, makes a quick transaction. Her pollos sit nervously in a few rows of chairs, uttering not a word.
At precisely 6:00 A.M., the roar of buses gunning accelerators and grinding gears and pumping air brakes drowns out the monotone voice of the woman announcing the final call for a dozen buses over the PA system. It's as if a convoy is heading out of Zamora, a battalion or an expedition, a mass of fleeing pilgrims or exiles or evacuees.
The pollos get their own chartered bus. The coyote readjusts her rebozo before she walks up the steps, wrapping it over her head and across her shoulder. She is the last one to board.
Our third-class beast rises into the denuded hills, tapped by the Indians for timber and pine resin. Dirt roads to remote villages veer left and right off the potholed asphalt. We stop in nowhere towns where the Indian women crowd around clucking in their ancient tongues, aggressively hawking salted fish, soft drinks, gum, and mayonnaise sandwiches. We climb ever higher, our aviator-shaded teenage driver blasting narco-corrido anthemsodes to fallen drug lordsand navigating the hairpin curves at hair-raising speed.
Higher still, the cooling air is scented by the remaining trees (all bleeding resin into tin cans), and then I see the volcanoes, cute little pencil-gray baby volcanoes announcing that I'm just a few minutes away from Cherán, which is ringed by a half dozen dormant cones. The volcanic landscape brought the region its share of fame back in the 1940s. About forty miles south of Cherán is Parikutín, a smudge on the horizon from here, the most recent of the volcancitos. Parikutín erupted in 1943just shot up from the ground on some poor tenant farmer's cornfield. It made the cover of National Geographic and served as the spectacular backdrop for Captain from Castile, starring César Romero and Tyrone Power as conquistadors.
After a series of tight S-curves, the bus negotiates a final bend and suddenly the town of Cherán opens up before me.
Cherán lies about two hundred miles almost directly west of Mexico City in the northeastern part of the state of Michoacán, on a highland plateau known as "La meseta Purépecha"named for the Indian tribe that has inhabited the region since long before the Conquestwhich itself is part the great central plateau that encompasses the middle third of Mexico. At an elevation of 2,430 meters, Cherán, whose population is around 30,000, is precariously situated. The town's name, which in the Purépecha language means "a place of fear," is a direct reference to the painful landscape of abrupt, irregular peaks and chasms. One step in the wrong direction and you plunge off a cliff. The only "flat" stretch is the steep grade of the highway, which doubles as Main Street and is known simply as la carretera, the highway. The region is generally tropical, but because of the altitude, the climate is cooler than in the lowlands of the coast and the jungles of the south. The harshness of the landscape and the relative tranquillity of the climate give Cherán a peculiar kind of geographical tension. It's no Eden, but there's a hint of paradise.
I hop off the bus and immediately leap and pirouette to avoid stepping into potholes filled with fetid water and floating fish heads from the market. Not knowing where to goI don't know anyone hereI instinctively cross the highway toward the church, which, as in every other town in Mexico, is the center of the landscape. I take two steps across the scarred asphalt before I am almost run down by a semitrailer hauling timber. And there I stand, for the next few minutes, waiting for a break in the decidedly unfriendly-to-pedestrians trafficmore semis, and buses, and tractors, and Mexmobiles (clattering midseventies Datsuns and smoking Chevys), and a fleet of late-model pickups with license plates from Wisconsin, Kansas, Connecticut, Mississippi, Nebraska, Arkansas, and, of course, California, a few of which are blasting gangsta rap or the latest West Coast house-music mix.
Every semi and bus that rolls by causes an earthquake of about 3.1 on the Richter scale for about half a block east and west of the highway. I stand by the side of the shuddering road and behold the parade.
It is market day in Cherán. Nonagenarian Indian women sit in crumbling adobe doorways and Indian teens cruise the streets in their Chicago Bulls windbreakers and authentic Air Jordans. The walls of the houses are covered with Chicano-style graffiti, in tortured Spanglish (FACK YOU, PUTO!). Along the street next to the church, where the vendors ply their wares, you see heads covered by cowboy hats and by backwards Oakland Raiders caps. There are burros carrying loads to market and there are video arcades where Indian kids become ninja warriors. Steven Seagal scowls from the window of the local videocentro, next to the swarthy Mexican-cowboy face of Vicente Fernández, the venerable ranchero troubadour of the provinces.
I sit on a bench in the plaza. Three buildings dominate the cobblestone square: the church, a modest, eighteenth-century model; the presidencia municipal, guarded by a few hungover blue-suited cops; and the establishment that no migrant town can do withoutthe casa de cambio. It's the first place you stop at when you return from the States. Here, you exchange your dollars like you'd cash in chips at the end of a Sin City binge.
I get up from my bench in the plaza and do a 360. Perched on the hills around me are a few hundred modest adobes and several dozen not-so-modest Michoacán dream homes built by those migrants who've braved the gringo frontier and come back home to play the millionaires. The American dollar, as of this writing, is worth nearly ten pesos, meaning that Mexicans returning with savings of a few thousand dollars are basically wealthy. (The average denizen of Cherán earns about three dollars a day.) The adobe dwellers are generally those who have yet to migrate or who have just begun to do so. Then there are the in-between homes: modest one-stories with iron reinforcing rods jutting up from the roofswith another few years of picking cauliflower, washing dishes, or leaning over a lathe, there might be enough money for that second story. On many of these homes there are wooden crucifixes planted amid the iron rods. May God, Jesus, the Virgin, and the saints bless this endeavor, that the future may be ours, that the third and fourth bedrooms may soon appear, that our satellite dish may be christened and our home blessed with CNN and MTV.
This is not the kind of Indian village that Americans or, for that matter, middle-class non-Indian Mexicans are attracted to or can even easily imagine. There is no tourist trade in Cherán (the gringos and wealthy Mexicans head to Pátzcuaro, a stunning lake in central Michoacán, for the picturesque premodern Day of the Dead celebrations). After all, we like our Indians, well, Indian. Barefoot, in folkloric dress, burning incense in rites to the gods of rain and wind and fire, preserved as in a diorama at the Museo de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City. You want a town where you can take pictures of yourself towering over the beaming natives or of a ski-masked revolutionary brandishing a rifle in the jungles of Chiapas.
But I feel a sense of familiarity. Cherán is, somehow, a more radical version of what I grew up with back in Los Angeles, in between the Old World (Virgin of Guadalupe votives always aglow at my grandparents' house) and the New (the tube flashing with The Brady Bunch at my parents'). That cultural swirl is what I've always thought of as the living definition of "Chicano," although many who claim the moniker prefer a connection to the mystical Indian past, as in Carlos Castañeda's peyote visions, or urge righteous rebellion against the white man. Cherán, in all its rapid transformation, is taking a sledgehammer to the stereotype of the Indian, and Cherán is what most of provincial Mexico is coming to resemble, because it is the Indian who for several decades has done most of Mexico's migrating, and each migrant who goes north and returns adds another layer of Americana. Which is not to say that Cherán isn't an Indian town. All the things we associate with the Indian past (the Purépecha language, the ancient rituals like herbal medicine and sorcery) are here, coexisting with MTV. Cherán is an Indian town with one foot in pre-Columbian times and the other leaping toward the twenty-first century, spanning in its stride the five hundred years in betweenfive hundred years of mestizaje, a term that refers to the mixing of European and Indian blood resulting from the Conquest and to the negotiation of cultural identity that continues to this day.
Here, in the center of Cherán, I think about my own connection to Indian Mexico, if I even have one. My grandfather looked like an Indianwide nose, bronze skin, short stature. But my grandfather also sang opera and drove a Cadillac in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Was my grandfather still an Indian? And meI've got a thin Castilian nose and the hair of a Moor. In Persian restaurants I am often addressed first in Farsi. But perhaps it's in the mix that the connection liesand in the fact that I, too, am on the road. Throughout Mexico the Purépechas are renowned for their tenacity as wetbacks. Local authorities estimate that about one-third of Cherán's population travels north each spring and returns around the time of the fiesta for Saint Francis in October, bringing back not just dollars but the best and worst of U.S. pop culture.
Excerpted from Crossing Over by Ruben Martinez Copyright ©2002 by Ruben Martinez. Excerpted by permission.
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