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In this stark, unsettling novel, set in a Mexican prison, present-day events resonate with the ancient history and wisdom of the Maya. Graham Greene meets Carlos Castaneda.
In the central Yucatan a group of Maya Indian workers revolt against the corrupt oligarchy of government, business, the official union, and the press. Two young men—a traditional Maya leader and a Mexican-American lawyer—are drawn into ever deeper commitment to the struggle. When they are caught in a trap and...
In this stark, unsettling novel, set in a Mexican prison, present-day events resonate with the ancient history and wisdom of the Maya. Graham Greene meets Carlos Castaneda.
In the central Yucatan a group of Maya Indian workers revolt against the corrupt oligarchy of government, business, the official union, and the press. Two young men—a traditional Maya leader and a Mexican-American lawyer—are drawn into ever deeper commitment to the struggle. When they are caught in a trap and thrown into jail, the lawyer declares a hunger strike. The story of the Maya workers, and of their village, is narrated in a series of vivid flashbacks that alternate with the grim deprivations and interrogations in the prison. Day by day, the young lawyer approaches death, and in his discussions with his friend and cell mate, there emerge two different definitions of love, loyalty, and courage, each man's version determined by the culture from which he springs. One of the chief delights of this rich, intense storytelling is the introduction it provides to the Maya understanding of time, medicine, and proper behavior. Although everything that happens in the novel could have appeared in the latest news stories out of Mexico, nothing happens quite as expected, and the startling conclusion could only have taken place in the Yucatan.
The rain came late, and when the rain is late it is always heavy and cruel. All that afternoon, until dark, it rained. There was no wind, the rain fell straight down; it was not a storm. But the drops were heavy and they fell with great force, tearing the flowers in the gardens and weighing down the leaves of the great palms in the plaza. The streets flooded as always when it rains, for there is no drainage in the town, but the porosity of the limestone of Yucatán accepted the rain and the streets soon became passable again. The police waited until the floods were ended before they took the prisoners out and walked them across the Plaza Mayor to the jail.
Night had come. From my place among the trees I saw them as they stumbled over the broken places in the stone walkway. Rainwater still dripped from the palm trees, it fell on them as they passed. Broken fronds touched the ground; they saw the shapes of the leaves, all the long, curved teeth, in the faint light that came from the windows on the far side of the plaza.
The light shone yellow and weak. The moon lay hidden. On the street in front of the plaza a pedicab passed, a bulbous woman turned the pedals while her passengers, a woman and two children, sat before her enclosed in the plastic rainshield. One of the children sang. The bicycle creaked. There was no other sound but the heavy slap of the policemen's boots and the softer tread of the prisoners on the wet stone.
John Mendoza complained that he was hungry. One of the policemen poked him in the side with a baton.
"Sonof a bitch!"
The policeman hit Mendoza in the back where he would feel the pain in his kidney. Although John was a big man, more than six feet tall, and heavy, and the policeman was a mestizo of Mayan height and Spanish stringiness, the blow paralyzed the prisoner's knees. It did not knock him down, but neither could he stand up; he fell slowly, as if his legs melted.
Andrés called out to him, "Nachi." It was our kind of joke. Nachi Cocom, one of the informants of Diego de Landa in the sixteenth century, had changed his name to Juan. "Get yourself up, Nachi."
"I am thinking," Mendoza said. He lay across the walkway, in a shallow pool of rainwater. His head rested on the grass.
A policeman touched his boot to Mendoza's back. "On your feet," he said. Mendoza did not move. The policeman kicked him, not hard; it was a warning. "You are in México now," the policeman said.
"What a picturesque country, México! Do you get many visitors here? I find Yucatán so welcoming."
The policeman laughed. "I like the brave ones," he said.
In the darkness, among puddles and stones, in the thin mud of the peninsula, while the moon hid, as if she could not bear to watch, the policeman beat the big man, the huge man who lay on the ground. He tapped the baton against John's elbows and knees, he conked the long side of the wood against the prisoner's head and shoulders. He beat his ankles and wrists. He whacked the baton against the big man's hands, which covered his nose and then fled to his testicles and back to his nose. The policeman toyed with him. He bruised his flesh and his bones. And all the while that he worked he laughed. He thanked the big man, he called him a gift, he taunted him: "You please me very much," the policeman said.
Mendoza did not speak, he did not cry out. He lay in the puddles and the mud, curled up like an animal of the forest.
No one knew his day sign then; but we thought Mendoza must have been born on the day called Muluc, which is Storm, and is known for pain and fighting. Andrés said it was so. He said Mendoza was a lawyer and all lawyers were born on the sixth day; they were the children of Muluc.
Now John lay in the puddles and the mud, among troubles, among the works of Muluc, and he was curled up like a dog, wrapped around his own belly, with his face tucked down against his chest. He breathed noisily, through blood.
The policeman tapped John lightly with the baton. "Pick yourself up, Mister Mendoza. Or do you have another little gift for me?"
John unrolled his body, he turned over onto his belly and pushed himself up to his hands and knees. He looked up once at the policeman who stood over him with the baton raised. He did not cower, but he was no longer bold. The big man lifted up one knee and put his foot on the muddy ground. He raised himself up slowly. In the faint yellow light that found its way through the trees, the huge man, the man who was larger and heavier than any other on the peninsula, gleamed. He was covered with mud, he appeared to be made of mud, like a creature at the beginning of the world, in the darkness, long before the gift of corn.
Andrés whispered the private name: "Nachi!"
The policeman tapped Mendoza with his baton. "Adelante!"
Mendoza walked slowly forward. He caught up to Andrés. "I'm hungry," he said. "What do they have to eat in the jail?"
"Nothing. If you want to eat, you must buy your food."
"Muy bien," said Mendoza. "We will order from the best restaurant. What would you like? Pavo en relleno negro? A double order!"
"Be careful, Nachi."
"Well, my friend, what can I do? I'm hungry."
"Please, Nachi, follow me."
The big man said nothing. His head touched the rainbent fronds of the palm trees. He shook the water free, he cooled himself with the water. The blood dried in his nostrils, he did not taste it. All the joints of his bones ached; there was swelling everywhere, in his hands and his knees, in his nose and his elbows, in his ears and his ankles. He smiled.
They came to the edge of the street across from the jail. Light shone in streams from the windows, yellow light, weary light, not warm. An old combi waited on the corner near the entrance to the jail. The doors were rusted, the windshield was cracked, the seats were no longer upholstered, the men inside the combi sat on steel springs. They were strikers, men just arrived from the pig farm, jaguars crouched in the combi, still carrying the old guns, the useless guns that had lain so long in the cave at Carolina.
Andrés saw them first. And then he did not look at them again. He spoke to John, he diverted him. "Maybe we will be able to buy something to eat in the jail?" Andrés said.
"What are you talking about?"
"Pray for a little more rain."
"To wash off the mud."
It rained, a sudden fall, a crash of water on the stone streets.
The policemen hurried them across the street into the jail. As they climbed the steps and passed through the ancient cedarwood doors of the building, just then, in a glance, Andrés saw the strikers climbing out of the combi. But it was too late for them; the police had closed the doors. There were no jaguars that night, there were no eagles. Andrés said it was good luck: No one had to walk the black road.
Inside the jail, in the courtyard where the sergeants lounged, a ceiba tree had grown up past the roof. The shadow of the walls had caused it to be naked to the great horizontal spread that gives the ceiba the shape of a cross. Andrés and John were made to wait in the courtyard, where water still fell from the leaves and ran down from the roof. They looked at the ceiba: One saw the World Tree which reaches from the Underworld through all the levels of sky and spreads over all the earth, the other saw the crucifixion of his Lord.
The courtyard smelled only of rain. Fallen flowers lay on the soaked earth; they had been red.
Somewhere in the building the first negotiators were imprisoned; they were the ones who needed their lawyer and the leader of their union. John asked the policeman nearest him where the strikers from our little independent union were held. The policeman smiled. In the light of the interior of the jail his face was revealed. Vertical lines marked the narrowness; they cut into the hollow of his cheeks, the scars of Spain; he was not Maya. Andrés did not speak to him. When Mendoza addressed the policeman again, Andrés raised his head to look at his friend; he showed John the long teardrop eyes of the Itzá Maya. "Ma'," he said, and John nodded, it was a word he knew; he did not attempt to speak to the policeman again.
A jailer appeared out of the shadows of the corridor opposite the entrance to the courtyard. The shoulders of his gray shirt were wet. He wore policeman's trousers and rubber sandals, he carried a baton. Keys jangled as he walked, a dancing sound, a lie of tiny bells. "I will take them," he told the policemen. "Puuch Can gave instructions."
"It will be better if I follow you," the policeman with the Spanish cheeks said.
The jailer stepped around the policeman and John to give Andrés a whack with his baton, sending him forward, propelling him toward the corridor. He turned back to the policeman, and smiled. Then he gave John a whack to make certain that the big man followed the Maya toward the darkness.
In the corridor where they walked, there was no light. They brushed the walls, they learned to navigate by the coolness of the walls, the greater dampness that lay upon the walls. They heard the steps of the jailer, the hiss of rubber on wet stone, as he tracked them. When they slowed at the turn of the corridor, he whacked them with the baton.
In the next corridor they saw the rows of cells. No one occupied the corridor, no one looked out from the cells. They smelled of earth and rotten corn. "Weeping," Andrés said. He lifted his head and sniffed the air. "Weeping and winter."
"Fucking Indians," the jailer said. "Animals, monkeys." He told them to stop in front of the next-to-last cell. The door was not locked; he pulled it open, and motioned for them to go inside. They hesitated.
"I cannot go in; it smells of weeping," Andrés said. "Is there another?"
"Asshole! Get in there!" He beat Andrés on the arms; he looked for his elbows, for the thinly dressed bone. When he found the bone, Andrés howled. "Monkey, monkey," the jailer shouted, laughing, swinging the baton, looking again for the bone.
Andrés leapt into the cell. Now only Mendoza stood in the door. He put his hands on his hips. From elbow to elbow he was as wide as the door. The jailer raised the club, he threatened the huge man, motioning to him to move out of the entrance to the cell.
Mendoza stood between the jailer and the light; he put the man into his shadow. The jailer measured him, he considered him, and then, quicker than a cat, he whirled and whirled again, he took the far end of the door and flung it into Mendoza's face. The big man stumbled backward to avoid the door. It clanged shut. Mendoza was locked in the cell. He and the jailer stared at each other from opposite sides of the cell door. "Well, goddamn you," Mendoza said in English, and then, in Spanish, he asked the jailer when they would eat.
The jailer laughed.
"You won't feed me, you son of a bitch? Then I'll declare a hunger strike. Yes, a hunger strike. You tell those sons of bitches, those fatherless sons of bitches, Cancho Puerto and Puuch Can and Reso de Avila, all those ass-licking sons of bitches, you tell them that John Mendoza won't take a bite of food until every man on our negotiating committee is released from this jail and our union is recognized in place of the SOM. You tell them that John Mendoza, a citizen of the United States of America, is going to fuck them in front of the whole world. Do you understand me? Not one bite until our people are free, not one!"
"Do you swear?" the jailer asked.
"On my mother's soul."
"Well, my pocho friend, when you die here in our jail, you'll be so skinny I'll fold you up and bury you in a shoebox," the jailer said, then he let out a strange sound, not laughter, but like laughter, trilling, the sound of a bird in delight.
That was how it began. In anger and arrogance; it was a lawyer's rage, North American insolence, nothing more. There was no plan, not even a thought; that would all come later. When Andrés tried to talk about the hunger strike, Mendoza said he was interested in using the toilet. He called for the jailer. He shook the cell door. No one answered his shouts; the corridor remained empty, leading into darkness.
Andrés calmed him: "Nachi, you are a lawyer, an educated man, but you are a dzul, a gentleman stranger, and I am an indigenous person, please listen to me, allow me to be your adviser."
"Yes, yes," Mendoza said. It was after midnight. He was impatient, he turned to examining the cell. He saw that he would have to sleep in a narrow hammock, and he did not like narrow hammocks. With the end of the rain, the heat had returned, and he did not like the heat. He saw a white plastic water pitcher in the corner of the cell, and next to it a wooden bucket. There were no other furnishings. He did not know how often they would allow him to leave the cell to use the toilet.
Andrés explained the use of the bucket. "To make pipí," he said.
"And for caca?"
"Peepee and caca?" John said, laughing, strolling through the cell, saying peepee in English and repeating the word as it was said in Yucatán: pipí. He sang in English, "You say pipí and I say peepee, you say caca and I say ..." He walked in rhythm, dancing, laughing; he did turns, stumbling over his feet, laughing. "Andrés, this is all foolishness, madness. We have been here less than an hour and we have begun to talk like our own children," and then in English, "Go potty."
"Tomorrow I will ask for a cloth to cover the bucket or there will be too many flies. But that is not important. We have to talk about this hunger strike. It's not a good idea. No one will know, no one will care. This is not Los Angeles City. You are in México now. You can die here, and no one will know. If you want to help the compañeros in the other cells, use the bucket, eat the food."
"I don't shit where I eat," Mendoza said. "It's one of the rules of civilized men." He stood close to Andrés, leaning down until their faces were close: "Do you know how they can tell when a species is dying out? When the species begins to shit where it eats, the species will soon be extinct.
"I do not intend to become extinct, my friend, therefore I do not shit where I eat."
"A hunger strike is not a good idea," Andrés said.
"It will be like going on a diet. My wife will be pleased."
"We already have one strike. How many strikes do we need?"
Mendoza did not answer. He examined the cell. The light in the ceiling held his attention for a long time. A cut-glass fixture contained a small, weak bulb. The facets of the glass confused the light so that it fell unevenly on the walls and did not illuminate the corners of the cell. He could not imagine why his jailers had chosen to put a cut-glass fixture in the ceiling of a cell. The fixture belonged in a house in Mérida, some late-colonial villa, a house built from the profits of the sisal fiber torn out of the henequen, or perhaps some hacienda, where slow fans turned in the ceiling and servants moved silently on bare feet across the tile floors. But not in a jail! He studied the fixture, it comforted him. He told Andrés that so long as there was such a fixture in the ceiling of the cell they would be safe.
"There are many forms of divination," Andrés replied.
"Son of a bitch, if you were not my client and I was not so hungry, I would punch you in the nose."
Although they were friends, allies, Andrés did not yet know Mendoza well. Was it a joke? Mendoza liked to laugh; he was a man of jokes, a bull, a lion, a man who roared, a man who shook the sticks, the palm thatch, with his laughter. Such a man would not agree to starve. He was a man of appetites, a devourer. But Andrés could not be certain. Mendoza was a stranger, a man with a huge Mexican body; not a Maya, but a black-eyed Mexican, a huache, which is our insulting term for someone from the altiplano, and worse, a Mexican who spoke with a strange accent, a pocho, a Mexican from the United States.
They had met only a few weeks before the strike, when the union was looking for a lawyer and no lawyer would speak to them. An old man who lived in Sac May, don Isabel Pak, had told Andrés about the pocho lawyer, the dark-skinned one, who was not afraid to sue Cancho Puerto, and Andrés had gone to the lawyer's house to ask him to work for the new union. There had been a negotiation; Mendoza had asked for a thousand pesos a day and Andrés Chay had offered twenty-six pesos, which was the amount the union men demanded for a day of work. It was a question of justice, according to Andrés: A lawyer was no more valuable in his human person than a man who worked on a pig farm.
They discussed the question for many hours, through lunch and into the heat of the afternoon, through beer and rum and into the cold anise flavor of many glasses of Xtabentun. They said good night to Mendoza's children and to his wife, and still they argued.
I was with them on that first day, I saw them, I heard everything they said. I too drank Xtabentun and laughed. But I did not speak, I did not participate. I am the chronicler, I am memory, invention; I am also a contestant, but not in my own time.
In the seven months that had passed since the day and night when they met, they had discussed the fee for at least a little while every single day but one, which was the day Dolores María de Jesús had given birth, and even on that day they had managed to set a time to discuss the issue the next morning. And still they had not come to an agreement. John demanded a thousand pesos a day and Andrés offered twenty-six. But there had been progress. Only a few days before they fell into Puuch Can's trap, Andrés had found a new argument: "And what about Sundays? Even if a heathen like you, a disbeliever in two religions, wanted to work on Sunday, who would negotiate with him? On Sundays nothing, not even the twenty-six pesos you deserve for the other days."
"You are right," John said. "Sundays are different. On Sundays I must be paid double time: two thousand pesos on Sundays."
Because it was the ritual of their friendship, Andrés spoke of the fee that first night in the prison. He said that time in the prison would be paid at one-third the twenty-six-peso rate. "Or we could include only eight of the twenty-four hours in your fee, Nachi. It is only a matter of the form."
"You see what has happened to the Maya since the end of the Caste War? You have lost your sense of combat. If this were the nineteenth century when the Maya were still fighting the whole non-Maya world, the dzules as you call them, the ones like me, you would understand the concept of combat pay: twice the ordinary fee. So, my friend, when I send you the bill for this time in prison, the fee is clear in the mind of any man of honor, whether he be Maya or dzul: two thousand pesos a day!"
They argued; their seriousness was their ritual; it comforted them. But there was also time and the place, and they moved in the time which was always and in the time which was now and in the time which would be. Andrés circled the cell, seeking the center, and when he felt he had arrived at the center, he sat down on the floor of the cell, with his legs folded and his eyes closed, and he waited. What he saw when he closed his eyes, what he knew, he did not tell. John did not speak to him during that time, nor did he ask Andrés afterward what he had seen or what he knew; he respected him.
While Andrés sat in the center of the cell, John went to the bucket and let go a flood of urine. In the faint light of the corner of the cell, the light broken by the glass shade, John saw blood in the bucket, and he cursed the policeman who had beaten him.
Andrés remained in the center of the cell. He stayed there for a long time, he did not get up until John tried to prepare the hammock that hung, doubled in a fold, from a hook on the wall. When the hammock would not reach the distance from one hook to the other, no matter how Mendoza tried to stretch it, Andrés took it from him, lifted it off the hook, and carried it across the cell to another pair of hooks that were set in the wall at the proper distance. "Nachi, you must learn the difference between the closet and the bedroom. For a married man this is very important."
John climbed into the hammock, but it was too short. He had to curl his back and his knees. "A race of dwarfs," he said, complaining.
"Who has need of giants? They eat too much."
Andrés went to the wall and took the other hammock from the hook and set it up. He sat in the center, then rolled back and spread himself out. The hammock fit him; it was the way he slept; he had never slept in a bed. "Your pipí smells bad," he said to John. "I think the son of a bitch made you sick. If you are not well in the morning, if your pipí still smells heavy, we will have to find the elemuy and boil it to make a cure for your bloody pipí."
"Elemuy? What is that?"
"It's a tree, with long, thin leaves, very pointed leaves. In Spanish it is called zapote. The leaves are a very good cure for stones and other problems of the kidney and bladder."
"Everyone knows this cure. But Nachi, listen to me, there is no cure for hunger except food. Don't do this strike. Nothing will be won, and you could die."
"It's only a tactic, something the Maya should learn."
"No Maya would ever declare a hunger strike. Hunger is not unusual for us."
They lay in the hammocks, one with hunger, one with fear. The rain ended, the heat returned, the first mosquitoes to rise after the rain entered the cell. Mendoza tried to hide from them, he wrapped himself in the hammock, he sank down into his shirt. The mosquitoes brought yáax-ke'el, which the dzules call dengue; it was the worst fever, a fever in the bones, a five-day fever that came again and again, a never-ending fever. The prisoners curled up in the hammocks; they were like children who close their eyes to become invisible in the darkness. They slept.
The month was Sip, when the gods of the forest protect the deer from hunters, but the day was Etz'nab, Obsidian Knife, the knife of sacrifice. It began.
Posted July 3, 2000
This is a hard and true book about two brave men -- one Mexican and one Mayan -- fighting impossible odds. They are battling every form of power and corruption, and doing it with only their lives and their ideas as weapons. This is not an easy book, but it stayed with me long after reading it, with its powerful imagery and many memorable lines. I recommend this book to people who care about politics, or who just want a good story about brave men told with compassion and honor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.